A Declining Reform Movement Wants To Reform Israel
A recent Pew survey brought disheartening news to the American leaders of Reform Judaism: despite investing decades and millions of dollars to increase their presence, they are making little to no headway in Israel. A mere 3 percent of Israeli Jews identify with the movement, and even fewer attend one of the only 42 Reform congregations in the country. Even members may have little understanding of the Reform philosophy, only that it is atraditional and advocates for complete personal autonomy.
Reform is not simply a different nusach (prayer service), a different minhag (custom), or merely about men and women praying without a mechitzah (gender separation). In terms of Jewish practice, Israeli hilonim (non-observant) would be surprised to learn that compared to Reform in America, they are practically haredi. Even half of self-described “secular” Israelis claim to light Shabbat candles (at least sometimes), and one-third keep Kosher at home. Among American Reform Jews, only one in ten usually lights Shabbat candles, and only 7% keep a Kosher home. Hebrew Union College Rabbinical students claim the college itself serves non-Kosher meat.
Israel’s current President, Ruby Rivlin, was a freshly-elected Likud MK in 1989 when Reform Rabbi Uri Regev brought him to the United States to learn more about American Jewry. Upon his return, he told the Israeli media that “as a Jew who does not observe 613 commandments and perhaps not even 13 commandments, I was deeply shocked… Any connection between [Reform] and Judaism didn’t approach reality. I felt as if I were in a church.”
From its beginning, the Reform movement rejected essentially all that we have called Judaism for millenia. The Torah is hardly the final authority for its version of Judaism. Its founders dispensed with the entirety of Jewish Law as found in the Talmud and later authorities, and also severed the historic connection between the Nation of Israel and the Land of Israel. The 1843 Reform Declaration of Principles stated that “we know no fatherland except that to which we belong by birth or citizenship.” Or, put more succintly by leaders of that day: “Berlin is our Jerusalem.” Prayers for return to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, and the restoration of a Jewish government, were among the first deleted from their prayer books.
Nearly 100 years later, faced with surging anti-Semitism and the rise of Nazi Germany, the movement reversed course. Its 1937 platform endorsed “the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren” in Palestine, and called upon all Jews to “aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland.”
At no point, however, did the movement make aliyah a priority. Even today, the ReformJudaism.org web page on aliyah says only that the movement encourages Jews to “strengthen their ties with Israel” and to participate in “organized visits” (especially under Reform auspices). Reform encourages congregants to visit Israel as tourists, while the overwhelming majority of American olim are Orthodox.
The movement also seems to be openly at odds with the Israeli consensus regarding Israel’s security needs and the dangers of terrorism. The current head of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), Rabbi Rick Jacobs, served on the Board of Directors of the leftist and pro-Palestinian J Street, and the ultra-left New Israel Fund which donates to organizations supporting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Jacobs strongly advocated for the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations to accept J Street as a member, and even threatened to withdraw the URJ from the Conference after it declined to do so.
These attitudes, to be sure, affect the membership of Reform congregations. A previous head, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, admitted that Reform has produced the most Jewishly ignorant generation in history; in a recent column, Caroline Glick tied this ignorance directly to Jewish leadership in today’s anti-Israel movement.
In addition to all of the above, the Reform movement is also in precipitous decline. Besides having merely 1.7 children per family, 60% of recent marriages have been with non-Jews. Only one of every five intermarried parents raises children as Jewish (more than one in 4 raise them “partly Jewish by religion and partly something else”). Looking at the comparative birth and intermarriage rates, it appears likely that the Orthodox will constitute the Jewish majority within several decades.
While one might expect Reform leaders to focus upon their internal issues, or at most to simply try to expand their Israeli presence, instead they seem bent upon fighting the Orthodox. The movement sponsors the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), an organization described in 2005 as “determined to make life miserable for Torah organizations in any manner possible.” At that time, it was suing to prevent building of a religious center in Rechovot – one which had already won City Council approval in three separate votes, and which was supported by 1000 residents’ letters in favor of its construction vs. 200 opposed. That center finally opened last year, after over a decade of harassment.
More recently, IRAC announced that it would be suing ElAl. The announced reason was that when a male Chassidic Jew requested an accommodation so that he would not be seated next to a woman, the helpful steward asked the woman in the next seat if she would prefer an open seat closer to first class. If that sounds like shaky grounds for a discrimination case, that is only because you are not Anat Hoffman, the current director of IRAC. To her, any accommodation for observant Jews is good reason for a lawsuit.
Hoffman began her career running for the Jerusalem City Council on the radical left Ratz-Shinui ticket. Her campaign distributed an orange map of Jerusalem with black splotches representing Orthodox “encroachment” into various neighborhoods. Even many secular residents were incensed by a depiction that, used against different communities, would have been termed racist or anti-Semitic. She was unapologetic; her own informal poll confirmed that they had captured the anti-Haredi vote in that election.
One thing, though, is certain: a properly-motivated person can do far greater damage to the rights of the religious through Israel’s leftist-dominated court system than on a democratically-elected City Council. What is perhaps surprising is that a movement which in America touts its commitment to tolerance, pluralism and liberal values, hired as Director of the Israel Religious Action Center a woman who built her political career upon anti-religious bias.
Hoffman is also the Director of the Women of the Wall, the ideal platform from which to claim to crusade for women’s rights while trampling the rights of thousands of women to pray undisturbed, in traditional fashion, at the Western Wall – a site which she previously stated she would like to see converted to a (secular) monument, with neither mechitzah nor prayers. Women of the Wall arranges monthly disturbances in the women’s section, singing loudly and shouting in an effort to force change upon other women. The organization dismisses and denigrates as “controlled by ultra-Orthodox rabbis” the much larger group of traditional women who pray regularly at the Western Wall and who oppose WOW’s politically-motivated provocations.
The Reform movement funds Ms. Hoffman’s speaking tours of America, in which she distances her Reform audiences from Israel. In her speeches she claims that women do not have full civil rights in Israel, using Women of the Wall’s own antics as her prime example. To be certain, she also points out that American Reform Judaism – that which rejected the entirety of Jewish tradition – is not accepted by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate as authentic Jewish practice.
Two examples illustrate the extent to which Hoffman and her Reform colleagues will exploit what they consider long-discarded Jewish religious symbols for political gain. First, the Reform movement calls its American synagogues “temples” as a conscious repudiation of the special holiness of the Temple in Jerusalem. As recently as 1999, Israel’s Reform rabbis reaffirmed that to them, the Temple and the Western Wall have no special sanctity. Yet Hoffman and the American Reform movement are demanding that the Israeli government provide a plaza for their use, equivalent to the one provided for those who revere the Temple Mount as the holiest place on earth.
And just this week, the Women of the Wall announced that they plan to hold a “Birkat Kohanot” this Passover, with funding from the estate of the late actor Leonard Nimoy – who used the Kohanim’s parting of the fingers while portraying an alien on the Star Trek TV show – to advertise and bus women to the Kotel from across Israel. Yet the Reform movement proudly “rejected the notion of priestly status,” and states that Birkat Kohanim “is not seen in Reform synagogues.” Why are they twisting a traditional practice which they do not follow, and doing so in the faces of traditional Jews whose practices they denigrate and lampoon – if not because WOW hopes to provoke yet another riot, to exploit for future public relations in America?
This is the “contribution” that Reform is making in Israel: denigrating Jewish tradition, fighting religious organizations and the rights of religious Jews, all while making Israel look bad in the eyes of American Jews and a world already delighted to misportray the Jewish state as bigoted. In America, the movement honors intermarried congregants and their non-Jewish spouses as it presides over what sociologist Steven Cohen termed “a sharply declining non-Orthodox population.” Must we wonder why religious MKs are alarmed by the thought of official recognition of the Reform movement as legitimate “Judaism” in Israel?
This article first appeared on Arutz-7.
Despite this article, the Reform movement has actually come a long way since its inception in its support of Medinat Yisrael and recognition of the importance of Eretz Yisrael.
Meanwhile, one cannot ignore the fact that, for much of the history of modern Zionism, many factions, institutions and rabbis within the Orthodox world were aZionist if not outright anti-Zionist. Much of Orthodoxy has since come around and changed its tune, of course, notwithstanding certain exceptional holdouts within the Haredi and Hasidic worlds. It has actually been Conservative Judaism that has been the most consistently Zionist of all of the movements throughout modern Zionism’ history.
Please, tell us some more nonsense. The religious Zionists pre-dated the Conservative movement and, unlike either of the liberal movements, always chose to vote for a candidate who values Israel’s security rather than a straight Democratic line.
The Orthodox did not, in general, fall for Herzl’s dream — the belief that the creation of a modern, secular state would eliminate anti-Semitism. The fact that they had a far more astute understanding of the world than did Herzl does not render the Orthodox less concerned for the security of Jews. Quite to the contrary. The non-Zionist Orthodox are far more concerned about Israel’s security than supposedly Zionist Conservative Jews, because the Orthodox are the ones with close relatives living there.
You might think that they are wrong, or even delusional, but is it impossible for you to believe that those Zionists voting for Democrats believe that Democrats are better for Israel’s security?
Why would anybody think Hillary, with her history with Arafat’s wife, and certainly Bernie Sanders, with his now infamous Salt Lake City speech, are objectively better for Israel’s security?
OK, so ltaamech (that Likud is better for Israel’s security than Labor/Meretz), Hillary’s speech at AIPAC was solidly pro-Israel. Trump’s famous “neutral” comment, coupled with his “Jews don’t like me because I don’t need their money” make many Zionists wary of his commitment to Israel, not to mention his ability to lead a safe foreign policy. Also, “her history with Arafat’s wife” is not substantive and you know it, so no need to respond to something that you’re using more as a symbol than as an actual policy problem. Honestly, Hillary is a very easy Democrat for a Zionist, even a right wing one, to support. Many of my Republican friends are planning to support her in a Trump-Hillary general.
Not letaamech, many people in Israel and America genuinely believe that pressuring Israel to make peace is better for Israel’s security. Again, you can think they are wrong, naive, delusional, patronizing, that there is no partner, etc., but is it impossible for you to believe that they genuinely believe that they are acting in the best interest of the Jews in Israel?
Many who vote Democratic view it as the 614th Commandment-regardless of a candidate’s stance on Israel’s security.
The Religious Zionists were a relatively small group within Orthodoxy for much of its history. They did not play a particularly significant role relative to the whole.
Simply put, most Orthodox were not advocating for the buildup of a Zionist presence in Palestine (that means being very concerned about the security of Jews, by the way) and certainly did not encourage other Jews to do so. Within the American context, the rabbis and movements that were most vocal about this tended to be Conservative and later even Reform.
That’s not to say, of course, that the Orthodox were not concerned about their fellow Jews. But in the context of the subject of Zionism and its numerous manifestations, while they are certainly in the forefront today they most certainly were not earlier in the 20th century.
The idea that “the buildup of a Zionist presence in Palestine” can somehow be equated with “being very concerned about the security of Jews” is belied by a very uncomfortable concept called reality. “Earlier in the 20th Century,” Zionists were building their country instead of saving the Jews of Europe. Yitzhak Gruenbaum, later to become the first Interior Minister of Israel, famously declared that “one cow in Palestine is worth more than all the Jews in Europe” and “Zionism is above everything. I will not demand that the Jewish Agency allocate a sum of 300,000 or 100,000 pounds sterling to help European Jewry. And I think that whoever demands such things is performing an anti-Zionist act.” Gruenbaum was, at the time, not merely a Jewish Agency executive, but the head of its rescue committee.
David S. Wyman’s “The Abandonment of the Jews” credits only two groups for a sincere focus upon rescue: the Revisionist Zionists, and the Orthodox. The wonderful American Jewish establishment ignored their ideas, and Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise, for his part, advised Roosevelt to not meet with the 400 Orthodox Rabbis (including my wife’s grandfather zt”l) who marched on Washington to urge a greater focus upon saving Jewish lives.
It is unequivocal that were Jews not in the thrall of Zionists like Gruenbaum and Reform Rabbis like Wise, hundreds of thousands of Jews, at a minimum, could have been saved. History is quite clear that the Orthodox were the only group to place rescue of their fellow Jews ahead of any other consideration.
You are conflating saving the Jews from Europe with Zionist activity. The two are related, but certainly not the same. No question that in America, Orthodox Jews were prominent in the first activity from the get-to (as you mention, although there were plenty of others–see Ben Hecht, and certainly Morgenthau’s War Refugee Board was crucial) although less so in the second category.
It is foolhardy to use a single quote from a Jewish Agency official to disparage the efforts of many non-Orthodox Jews, both in (then) Palestine, America and elsewhere, to build both the foundations of a Jewish state as well as to assist it with human and material resources. [Since you bring up your family history, one of my set of grandparents met at a large gathering in Chicago where card games , the proceeds of which were being sent to assist the Jews of Palestine]. And Zionism in America did not happen spontaneously–it was made kosher by many prominent Jews (and others) who thus made it possible to say that being a Zionist was both an American and a Jewish activity. This was done primarily by non-Orthodox Jewish leaders and movements, and helped to galvanize the American population as a whole after World War II when there was doubt as to whether or not Israel would come into existence.
Not at all – you conflated building Zionism with concern for Jewish lives, and I provided evidence that just the opposite was often the case. What I provided was the statement of the chairman of the rescue committee of the Jewish Agency saying he would not spend money on rescue when he could use it to raise cattle in Palestine. Your comment about that statement is akin to saying Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” was a “single quote” from “an American official.”
So you are making the leap that the tearing down of the wall was all a result of Reagan’s skillful use of rhetoric. Or, to put it another way, don’t you think Communism would have collapsed anyways even without Reagan’s statement?
Quoting a Jewish Agency official has nothing to do with discussing the efforts of American Jews and others on behalf of building up Israel in terms of tachlis, what was actually done.
Again, the larger point–which you seem to be missing–is that different movements have changed their approaches towards Israel and Zionism over time. For all of the effort you spend to rationalize why certain Orthodox groups did not get involved with this prior to 1948, the fact is that most Orthodox Jewish groups ARE involved with this today, and heavily so.
Certainly no one tries to brush off Reagan’s statement as irrelevant to actual policy. Again, Gruenbaum had a strong controlling interest in the Jewish Agency’s purse strings especially when it came to rescue. And there’s no question that many thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of lives were lost as a result.
I haven’t missed the “larger point” at all. But you are still trying to whitewash Reform, which moved from anti-Zionist, to pro-Israel, to J Street. The Orthodox retained a consistent agenda — the reason why the Agudah, for example, is involved with the state today is because it exists; prior to 1948 it did not. Not exactly rocket science.
After reading in the news about Anat Hoffman’s divisive doings in Israel for years, I was shocked to learn recently that she was acting in the employ of the reform movement.
While driving home from work last week, I heard an interview on Radio Kol Chai (a charedi station) of a Labor MK who is fighting to allow Reform to perform their rituals in public mikvaot. The host asked her if she was familiar with Reform communities in America. She said yes.
“Do they have mikvaot?”
“Allow me to tell you that Reform communities do not maintain mikvaot abroad.”
“מה? הם עושים גירות ללא מקווה!!!״
(“What! They do conversions without a mikva?”)
This ignorance isn’t limited to Labor MK’s. I’ve seen a traditional taxi driver surprised to learn that American Reform Jews drive on Shabbat and don’t keep kosher. The Reform movement carefully manipulates this ignorance to cultivate support in Israel that they wouldn’t have otherwise.
I would rephrase your assumption that only the orthodox will survive to – the vast majority of descendants of orthodox leaning groups in the US today will still be recognizable as Jews in 3 generations. Will they be orthodox by current standards is more speculative.
In addition to the negative trends you cite, there are also some positive steps the reform movement is making; I think it is a tad too early to write them off completely. (BTW, I recently attended a lecture at HUC in NY where all the food was catered by a reliable hechsher; I assume they were expecting a broad audience. I was hardly the only orthodox attendee and I appreciated their thoughtfulness.)
In Israel the groups least likely to survive without major change may be those chareidim who are becoming an increasing economic drain on the overall society and suffering abject poverty.
At present Israel depends on support from Jews around the world and believes that its self-interest is enhanced by an inclusive definition of Jewish identity. Even Pres. Rivlin has had to modify the position you reference when he went from likud member to president.
Your picture of what I assume is Havdalah is most ironic. Despite being blessed with chareidi coalition partners, it was a comment by Rabbi Ellenson, the former president of HUC about Havdalah that supposedly had significant religious impact on a former PM of Israel. The widely circulated story is worth tracking down; my memory is probably imprecise.
It’s absurd that you would use the Reform movement’s early position on Zionism against it. Compared to whom? The Orthodox had much worse things to say about the idea of a secular state in Israel at the time. And J-street (which has a significant Orthodox contingent), despite your ad-hominem, is quite a bit more Zionist than the Agudah demographic you seem to represent, which takes and takes from that “abomination” of a state, without giving anything in return.
There is a vast chasm between Orthodox anti-Zionism and Reform anti-Zionism. Zionism got their dream of building a state in Israel, rather than Herzl’s Uganda, from the Orthodox. The Orthodox were living in E”Y long before Zionists, and several anti-Zionist Chassidic groups live there today, in Meah Shearim and elsewhere. The Reform, by comparison, said that Berlin was their Jerusalem.
Please look up the definition of “ad hominem,” and then note that the description of J Street was from Rep. Allen West. It’s quite accurate. With friends like J Street, Israel doesn’t need enemies.
I suggest you look more carefully into the various Orthodox groups before lumping them all together. And even anti-Zionists can’t avoid VAT at the Makolet, so please replace your stereotypes with actual knowledge…
The Modern Orthodox community is probably more Zionist on the whole than Reform. However, the more religious you go, the less Zionist you tend to be. It’s the Ultra-Orthodox, not the Reform, who are vastly more anti-Zionist (against the secular state of Israel), a fact which is not debatable.
And the idea to establish the state in Palestine comes from the fact that that’s the only place Jews would accept as home. You make it sound like a vaad harabonim met with Hertzl to convince him.
You’re trying to discredit J-street as a Zionist organization by associating it with Palestinians, rather than by attacking the substance of their positions. I stick by my assertion that that’s an ad hominem.
I grew up Orthodox in Brooklyn. And am still Modern Orthodox. I’m not lumping anything together. I suggest you don’t make baseless assumptions about your interlocutor’s knowledge.
When dealing with R and C in Israel, it must be noted that neither have achieved even a beachhead beyond their institutions in building a community in Israel. Most secular/traditional Israelis view R and C as American imports.Both RJ and CJ have increasingly staked their futures on liberal politics which they describe as “tikun olam”, with CJ having abandoned any pretense to fealty to halacha.
OTOH, merely because HUC-JIR has events that have kosher food, does not mean that one should think that the movement suddenly views Parshiyos Shemini and Reeh as binding on their members. IIRC, there was also a separate seating minyan at JTS-but such was never considered binding on the membership of CJ’s rabbinate and laiety. IIRC, Daniel Gordis has chronicled in detail in Commentary how the graduates of the rabbinical schools of C and R have taken a decidedly LW tilt on Israel related issues.
Charedi publications still show pictures of the Satmar Rav ZL, yet the average Charedi today neither is Zionist nor anti Zionist but rather very grateful and supportive in financial and political terms of the State of Israel, even if they don’t say Tefilah LShalom HaMedinah, a Mi Sheberach for the IDF or Hallel on Yom HaAtzmaut. This was certainly evident in the way that the Charedi media covered the last war in Gaza in 2014.
One can always count on commenters like Reb Yid and Dr. Bill to nitpick on a nuance and somehow paint the Reform movement which has done untold and almost unfathomable damage to the Jewish people, in a positive light.
Sadly, one would be hard-pressed to imagine that this stems from an overflowing sense of ahavas yisroel because there is precious little evidence that they are nearly so generous when it comes to the Haredim, a group that while not flawless, certainly has overwhelmingly positive aspects. Yet, they virtually never fail to highlight every flaw, those that exist and even those that exist only in their minds.
Reb Yid wrote in relevant part:
“So you are making the leap that the tearing down of the wall was all a result of Reagan’s skillful use of rhetoric. Or, to put it another way, don’t you think Communism would have collapsed anyways even without Reagan’s statement”
Any study of politics and history will tell you that historical events don’t happen or evolve on their own-rather the presence of a great and/or charismatic leader has a great influence on the events that transpire. The US fought the growth of Communism both domestically and in the foreign arena, with many victories , a few defeats , and the doctrines of containment and MAD. Communism collapsed when Gorbachev realized that the US, under Reagan’s leadership, was serious about protecting its NATO allies and willing to deploy SDI, which was a huge change from the myopic attitude of Jimmy Carter and his post modern view of Communism, all of which contributed to the political decline and collapse of the USSR, a totalitarian state known most notoriously for the Gulag Archipelago and that failed to provide the basic necessities of life and political liberties for its people.
Among the many inaccuracies in this article (portraying all non-Orthodox as Reform) Women of the Wall is mistakenly equated with Reform Judaism.The idea for women’s tefila at the Kotel came from an Orthodox rabbanit, Rivka Haut, z”l and was carried on by an observant non-Orthodox Jew, who later became a rabbi, Bonna Devora Haberman z”l.
Unfortunately due to Anat Hoffman’s leadership, it has been more and more common to conflate the Reform movement and the Women of the Wall, but it is not true. WOW and Original Women of the Wall, which I am now working with have always been multi-denominational. The agreement signed by WOW and the government endangers the further participation of Orthodox women, which is one of the main reasons OWOW opposes it.
Even without my similar article on the Conservative movement, I’m not sure how Ms. Birkner Mack acquired the impression that I portrayed all non-Orthodox as Reform. That was certainly never my intent. I’m also well aware of the fact that WoW is not merely multi-denominational but also at odds with all denominations of Judaism (perhaps more aware of this than WoW themselves). But be that as it may, without the Reform movement bankrolling Hoffman, it is unlikely that WoW could have afforded the pricey PR consultant who advised them to leave Robinson’s Arch where they were praying peacefully (and leaving everyone else alone), to resume creating a disturbance and getting themselves arrested. The fact that Reform would fund WoW says something more negative about Reform than the other way around; both the WoW splinter group, and OWoW which splintered from WoW, need no external help to offend all who take prayer seriously — as described in my more recent piece.