Marshall H Cohen
When we think about Reform Judaism in Israel, many of us tend to focus first on the problem areas, such as the absence of egalitarian prayer at the Kotel (Western Wall). It is important for us to take a stand on this and other issues arising from the failure of Israeli law to recognize religious pluralism. But it is also vital not to let our focus on these issues distract us from celebrating the Reform Movement’s incredible success story on the ground in Israel. Consider, for example:
- Approximately 250,000 Israelis now define themselves as Reform Jews;
- There are 43 Reform congregations and community centers in Israel, 14 of those congregations having being formed in just the past three years;
- Reform congregations operate 57 preschools, five elementary schools, and two high schools, with more on the way;
- 31% of Jews in Israel have experienced a Reform lifecycle event
Even more important is our Movement’s growth potential in Israel. According to a 2009 survey (Guttman Center for Surveys of the Israel Democracy Institute), 85% of Israelis believe bat mitzvah is important to Jewish identity, but only 1% of Israeli young women have a bat mitzvah celebration. This tells me that Israeli Jews hunger for the kind of egalitarian experiences our Israeli Reform congregations provide.
Our successes are the result of strong institutions on the ground. Like the URJ in North America, the IMPJ (Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism) builds and supports Reform congregations in Israel, providing Israelis with access to pluralistic celebrations, traditions, study, and more. The Jerusalem campus of HUC-JIR (Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion) ordains rabbis in Israel—84 to date—who lead communities, congregations, schools, and institutions throughout the country, thereby assuring that those Israeli Jews who want a Reform Jewish experience will have it, led by one of their own. In addition, HUC-JIR in Jerusalem has prepared 48 Israeli educators in a pluralistic Jewish education MA program co-sponsored with Hebrew University, trained 91 mezorim (pastoral counselors) who are pioneering chaplaincy in Israel, and piloted Tnufa, a young leadership development program for 38 next-generation Israeli Reform leaders.
Don’t get me wrong. The challenges to our Movement arising from the Israeli legal system remain. But with the leadership of the IMPJ and the Israel Religious Action Center led by Anat Hoffman—and aided by the voices of North American Jews so forcefully articulated by URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs, we are making progress on these issues.
From what Israeli Reform Jews have done so far, I am absolutely confident that the day will come when the Reform Movement occupies the preeminent role in Israel that it now enjoys in North America.
Stephen M. Sacks, Chairman
Union for Reform Judaism Board of Trustees