T.A. Reform rabbi fears for Israel ties within American community
By Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz Jewish World Correspondent
The rabbi of Israel's largest Reform synagogue may dream of plane loads of American Reform and Conservative Jews visting Israel, but fears that the ties between the U.S. communities and the Jewish state are eroding.
"I am worried for the future of the Reform movement and the State of Israel," says Meir Azari, rabbi of the Beit Daniel synagogue in Tel Aviv, in an interview before leaving for the U.S. Reform movement's conference.
The pinnacle event of the U.S. movement begins Wednesday in San Diego and is expected to draw 5,000 participants, both professionals and laymen.
"I'd like to see large groups of Reform and Conservative Jews on El Al flights from the U.S. - not just the many ultra-Orthodox, blocking the aisle with minyanim," Azari says.
The rabbi, a former chairman of the Reform movement in Israel, feels that over the last couple of decades, members of the American Reform community have fallen out of love with the Jewish state. Azari now wants to challenge the American branch to get all its members to visit Israel at least once in the next decade.
"I think every Reform community in the U.S. should send a mission to Israel every two or three years. Right now, the number of people Reform Jewry is sending to Israel via projects like Taglit-birthright israel and MASA is much lower than what they are capable of. Just imagine what a contribution a major influx of Reform visitors could make to the Israeli economy," says Azari.
But it isn't just the future of the local tourism industry that's worrying one of the most successful Reform rabbis in the country.
"Looking at the [Biennial] program, I think that the portion dedicated to Israel is too small, embarrassingly so in my opinion. The central theme they should be talking about there is how they can help build a better Israeli society, how to strengthen the ties between our two communities."
Azari doesn't believe this is simply something the American movement owes its Israeli brothers.
"It's a huge mistake on the part of large communities to ignore the challenges each is facing. I am fully aware of the American challenges, the fight against assimilation, for Jewish education and continuity. There is also poverty there - I certainly don't envy my American colleagues. And yet, we must not ignore the difficulties facing Israeli society, which should be the focus of the agenda. The Reform movement has to announce a real plan for Israeli society - not only for our benefit, but for theirs also. I don't want to sound like an old-fashioned Zionist, but without a real involvement in Israel, American Jewry will also suffer. They will be hit with the ricochets of whatever develops here.
"The lack of peace in the Middle East, a racist and fascist Israeli society, without sufficient rights for women, will affect also them, they can't bury their heads in the sand. The tension between Muslims and Christians will isolate them too. The Reform community in the U.S. is the largest and richest Jewish community on earth and throughout history. There has never been such a sophisticated and intellectually-advanced community, and it has to also shoulder some of the responsibility for what is happening here in Israel. Right now, I can't see that happening."
Azari doesn't believe Americans should be involved in Israeli politics on a daily basis, but he is convinced that there is a lot more they could be doing.
"It's not a question of where to put the separation fence or which settlement to dismantle, but why can't they be involved in the failing school system? Why can't the Reform movement set up an alternative education system or shore up the collapsing welfare net? We are doing things in this field but there is a huge difference between giving several hundred thousand dollars and working with millions."
Azari even agrees with right-wing voices that argue for the Jewish world's say on fundamental issues facing Israel in new negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
"There are questions that transcend the State of Israel, such as Jerusalem and the Jewish nature of our state. Israel defined itself in the past, not as a normal state but as the homeland of the entire Jewish people. It was the destiny of the Jewish people that built the state."
The reasons for the lack of meaningful connection between the U.S. and Israeli Reform communities are clear to Azari. "First of all, it's the day-to-day worries of rabbis and the communities that are pushing aside the real challenges. It's also a lack of leadership. Reform Jewry has to urgently find among itself figures like Abba Hillel Silver, who alongside work for his own community, did everything possible to build the State of Israel in his generation."
The official cold shoulder
But also the Israelis shoulder a large portion of the blame in his eyes. "There is a great amount of discomfort with Israel, that comes from two sources - first, the state's official attitude toward the Reform movement. How I can ask HUC president Stanley Gold to contribute to Israel after he was humiliated by Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski? Not to mention the way former president Moshe Katsav spoke to our leaders, as if they weren't rabbis - he gave more respect to Christian clergymen. Second, the image Israel broadcasts of a state in crisis, with a society based on power and violence, not of enlightened Judaism. So Jews in America, like many Israelis, just close themselves off to the outside world."
Azari is aware that his criticism might be seen simply as a fundraising ploy and he is at pains to stress "it's not my contributions that are important." But he also thinks that more emphasis has to be put also on that field. "I don't think the Reform movement is giving enough guidance to its donors. Habad rabbis tell me they have many Reform donors, as do a number of extreme right-wing yeshivas. The Reform movement has to launch a significant campaign to strengthen its contributions to Israel. Jews who give to the Technion [- Israel Institute of Technology] or Hadassah University Hospital have greatly improved the level of medical treatment and scientific research in Israel. I just want our donors to be aware that they can achieve all this - improvement in the fields of education, social welfare and higher learning - through the Reform movement in Israel."
Rabbi Andrew Davids of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists in America, whose job it is to maintain the U.S. branch's connection with Israel, finds it hard to understand Azari's criticism.
He is convinced that "at the Biennial, Israel will be everywhere. One of the five major forums will be focusing on Israel, as will one day of the plenary session. We'll be showing a film on Reform aliyah to Israel, followed by an address by Israeli Ambassador Sallai Meridor. There are 20 workshops focused on Israel, and Rabbi Eric Yoffe's Shabbat sermon will also focus [on Israel]. Perhaps Rabbi Azari is not aware enough of the major changes in the movement over the last decade regarding our attitude toward Israel. I appreciate Meir's perspective, but the numbers show something different. Sixty-one percent of the regular members of Reform congregations have traveled to Israel and all the top leadership is Zionist and very Israel-oriented."
Even so, Davids also agrees there is still a lot to be done to bolster the identification of the movement's rank-and-file with Israel.
"We have to get out there and make people understand that Israel is not only politics and the conflict, it's also social and cultural issues and it is foremost a product of the entire Jewish people. There is a tremendous misunderstanding between the great centers of the Jewish people, a great lack of knowledge and there are so few people who speak in more than just platitudes and statements.