About 900 Reform Jews celebrated their movement’s 150th anniversary by singing and sharing the joy of being together as they contemplated the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, the subsequent war with Gaza and the rise of antisemitism throughout the world.
Gathered at the Marriott Marquis in Washington, D.C., from Dec. 15 to 17, the participants discussed the need “to change, to adapt and experiment, and to figure out actually what is meaningful and relevant,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism.
Throughout the event, attendees applauded loudly in support of Israel as well as women, people of color, members of the LGBQ+ community and the disabled.
As always, the Reform movement must strive “to shape a more just and safer world,” said Jacobs during an interview with the Washington Jewish Week.
Thoughts of Israels killed, wounded or taken hostage play “a huge part of our gathering. Our hearts are so heavy,” Jacobs said.
Two million Jews self-identify with the Reform movement, although not all are affiliated with a synagogue, according to Jacobs. Their membership is climbing as young people are attracted to the social justice aspect as well as the joy, he said.
A session was held for religious leaders on how to answer their questions and include them.
The need now is to stand behind Israel, stand up against antisemitism and push the American government to allocate billions of dollars for Israel and security for synagogues and nonprofits throughout the country, Jacobs said.
It is important to “build solidarity” throughout the interfaith community. However, he said, “We are also saddened by the allies we thought we had, who frankly, are ghosting us, and that is very painful.”
Still others are standing by the side of American Jews. He pointed to a synagogue in Macon, Georgia. This summer, while the rabbi was leading a service, he spotted a group of neo-Nazis outside. The next day, local residents came to the synagogue to let members know they won’t tolerate that, and they stand with the Jewish community.
Through all the hate and killing, “We also look forward with positivity. This is a moment of hope, of building the Jewish community that we need, the world that we need,” Jacobs said.
Doug Emhoff, Vice President Kamala Harris’ husband, addressed an adoring crowd. “I am just a Reform Jew from Matawan, New Jersey, central New Jersey” who loved his synagogue’s guitar playing, celebration and joy.
His rabbi often spoke about what “Israel means to us as a Jewish people. That was just put into my brain from very early on.”
Then when he “began courting” Harris, the Second Gentleman learned, “Her values are the same as my values, fighting for justice, just standing up for other people,” he said adding, “In terms of our faith, that is what we both believe in.”
When President Joe Biden was elected, Emhoff thought he would use his platform to speak out against antisemitism, anti-hate, anti-science.
Then, when he was driving one day, he passed a large banner calling Kanye West’s antisemitic comments right.
“That’s what got the ball rolling,” and led to a White House roundtable on antisemitism, he said. Both Biden and his wife are very supportive, he noted.
Following Hamas’ attack Oct. 7, Emhoff recalled Biden saying, “’Hey kid, are you okay? I said no, I am not okay, and he said, Let’s go out and tell the world how you feel. I am right behind you.’”
When asked his favorite moments as Second Gentleman, Emhoff pointed to meeting Bruce Springsteen, who “not only knows me, but he was psyched to meet me.” He also spoke of his summer camp naming its athletic fields in his honor.
Emhoff questioned the lack of outrage among protestors when children are murdered in schools and women are forced to travel out of state for an abortion and yet those protesters come out so strongly against Israel after it is attacked.
“We cannot let it take our love of being Jewish away from us, let it take our joy away from us. Certainly, do not hide from it.” Wear your Stars of David, “Bring them out. Show the pride.”
In another address during the convention, Jacobs spoke about events in Israel, calling “that excruciating day” when Hamas attacked Israel an event that “fused together” Jews throughout Israel and the Diaspora “to protect our historic homeland.”
Jews who just the day before fought over internal Israeli politics, now stand together, Jacobs said. “It is our Jewish and moral responsibility to hold Hamas responsible for those 1,200 deaths and the deaths of Gazan civilians that they use as human shields, and we can also anguish over the innocent Gazan deaths and suffering. Doing so strengthens both our Jewish solidarity and our moral integrity.”
He reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution, although “it feels like an increasingly remote possibility.”
During Jacobs’ talk on facing the future together, he spoke of the Reform movement’s start with 28 congregational leaders meeting in Cincinnati in 1873.
A highly choreographed Saturday evening featured CNN’s Dana Bash and David Gregory, both who said they were proud Reform Jews.
With cantors and guitar-playing music leaders singing and other members of the Reform movement talking about history and why they were Reform Jews, the last 150 years were analyzed.
The script was written by Rabbi Larry Hoffman, author and National Jewish Book Award two-time winner.
Other sessions featured the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism leaders, antisemitism and college campuses and navigating interfaith coalitions.
Suzanne Pollak is a freelance writer.