Israel a hot topic at Reform biennial

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ, speaks at the movement’s biennial conference in Boston on Dec. 7. Photo courtesy of the Union for Reform Judaism.

It’s been a tense year for the relationship between Israel and American Judaism’s largest movement, and the differences remained clear during the Reform movement’s largest biennial conference, which last weekend drew 6,000 people to the event in Boston.

But Washington-area Reform rabbis who attended the Union for Reform Judaism conference, which took place on the heels of President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, were quick to point out the movement’s love for and commitment to the Jewish state — while at the same time they demanded more respect from the Israeli government.

“In recent months there have been a number of statements, particularly from the most extreme parties in Israel, that have been directly hostile to the Reform movement,” said Rabbi Joseph Skloot of Washington Hebrew Congregation. “But the important thing is that the conversations we have are out of a sense of love, care and concern for this special place,” he said, referring to Israel.

In June, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled an agreement to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Then in November, Union of Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs and other Reform leaders were shoved by security guards when they tried to enter the main plaza of the Western Wall with Torah scrolls.

About a week later, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said that American Jews can’t understand the threats Israel faces because they lead “quite comfortable lives” and their children don’t serve in the military.

Jacobs spent a portion of his Shabbat sermon discussing the tension.

“Are we at a breaking point in Diaspora-Israel relations?” he asked, according to The Forward. “We are coming alarmingly close.”

But Rabbi Jeffrey Saxe of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church thinks the issues are borne primarily out of a lack of understanding. He said that some Israeli officials simply don’t know much about the Reform movement and the work it does in the United States.

According to Saxe, Jacobs emphasized the movement’s efforts to better familiarize Israeli politicians with Reform Judaism.

“Rabbi Jacobs was talking about inviting some of the Israeli leaders who really have no idea what the Reform movement is all about to the U.S. to experience to experience Reform Judaism,” Saxe said. “We want them to understand that we’re not a force that’s shrinking the Jewish community. Rather, we’re a force that’s strengthening the Jewish community and love for Israel in the U.S.”

Trump’s announcement last week that the United States was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital put the movement’s leadership in a bind. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was almost gleeful about the announcement, Jacobs expressed concern about its timing and the lack of a more comprehensive peace process.

Much of the Reform movement has been critical of the Trump administration since it came to power, and last week was no different.

“President Trump’s ill-timed, but expected, announcement affirms what the Reform Jewish Movement has long held: that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” according to a movement statement. “Yet while we share the President’s belief that the U.S. Embassy should, at the right time, be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, we cannot support his decision to begin preparing that move now, absent a comprehensive peace process.”

On Saturday, Jacobs repeated those concerns while also condemning violence that has followed Trump’s announcement.

In contrast, most prominent American Jewish organizations lauded the Trump administration’s announcement.

“We were taken aback by the official position of the URJ,” Akiva Tor, of the Israel Foreign Ministry, said in a session about how congregations can work with Israeli missions. “We are a little concerned.”

But while domestic and international politics were front and center, Skloot said the conference also brought Jews together to make an impact on the Jewish community.

“Politics and Israel, of course, play a significant role whenever these programs are covered in the media,” he said. “But I would also say, the questions of the spirit and spirituality for many of us are also very important.”

He added, “the opportunity to worship with 6,000 other Jews in one place isn’t one you get every day.”

JTA News and Features contributed to this article.

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