I have just returned from a one-week visit to Jerusalem. It was just my luck the coldest and rainiest week in Israels history. It was also a hectic time politically, as purely by chance the Sharm El Sheikh summit and the visit by Secretary of State Rice fell during my time there.
The subject on everyones mind, of course, was the Sharm El Sheikh summit and the Prime Ministers disengagement plan. Most Israelis, it is clear, are desperately hoping for progress on the peace front. They are profoundly tired of the death and destruction of the intifada. In polls conducted after the summit, 61 percent said that they were optimistic, and, somewhat surprisingly, 67 percent said they were ready to release Palestinian prisoners, including those who had been involved in killing Israelis, if this would bring quiet with the Palestinians.
At the same time, there was no jubilation or dancing in the streets. Having been down this path many times before, Israelis combined restrained optimism with hardheaded realism. They do not know if Abu Mazen can be trusted, and even assuming his intentions are good, they doubt he can control Hamas and the other terrorist groups if they decide to violate the ceasefire. In short, Israelis proclaim their optimism, favor concessions and say they want to put the intifada behind them, but in their hearts, they are not at all certain that it will happen.
Despite the furious pace of political developments, I managed to get in a full week of meetings with Israels political leaders. My first meeting was with President Katsav, who wanted to discuss his idea for creating Bayit Sheni (Second House), a new body that would provide a forum for Diaspora Jews to advise the State of Israel on matters relating to the Jewish people and Judaism. It is unclear at this stage whether the proposal will be implemented, but the President indicated that if planning were to proceed, he wants the Reform movement represented on the planning committee.
I then sat with representatives of most of Israels political parties and factions. I met with among others, Silvan Shalom, Israels Foreign Minister; Shimon Peres, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Labor Party; Tommy Lapid, leader of the opposition Shinui Party; Yitzhak Herzog, newly appointed Minister of Housing; Ophir Pines-Paz, newly appointed Minister of the Interior; Yossi Beilin, leader of the leftwing Yachad party; Uzi Landau, leader of the Likud faction that opposes the disengagement from Gaza plan; and Omri Sharon, Likud Knesset member and son of the Prime Minister.
I was struck by the fact that virtually all of the politicians, from both the left and the right, expressed uncertainty that Prime Minister Sharon would be able to carry out his disengagement plan. Everyone acknowledges that a clear majority of Israelis favor disengagement; nonetheless, the settlers who oppose it are exceedingly well organized and have tremendous political clout. While the political calculations are complicated, no one could rule out the possibility that the disengagement would be defeated or delayed. If that were to happen, the results could be tragic. Abu Mazen might not survive, and Israel could find herself at odds with the United States and completely isolated in the world. In addition, virtually every day there is speculation in the Israeli press about the possibility that right wing fanatics will make an attempt on the life of Prime Minister Sharon and others who support the withdrawal from Gaza. Under the circumstances, our task as North American Jews is to be publicly supportive of disengagement and to speak out against extremist sentiments now being expressed by settler leaders. It would be unthinkable for a relatively small group of fanatic settlers to determine Israels destiny at this critical juncture in her history. The State of Israel, the precious possession of the entire Jewish people, deserves better from her citizens and better from us. (As some of you know, I wrote an article in last weeks Forward calling for American Jews to oppose settler extremism and speak out for disengagement; see www.urj.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=5888)
The Israeli Movement for Reform Judaism (IMPJ)
Israels Reform movement is small, but under the strong leadership of Iri Kassel, Executive Director, it continues to grow and thrive. In my Knesset meetings, I discussed with several ministers the possibility that the government would provide physical facilities for some Reform congregations. Recent Israeli Supreme Court decisions have stipulated that government funding for religious buildings and services must be granted according to criteria that provide fair and equal access to all groups. It is likely that at some point in the relatively near future, the government will provide buildings for our synagogues as it does for Orthodox synagogues. At the same time, no one really expects this to happen now. The current government exists for the purpose of dealing with the disengagement issue, and it includes Orthodox representatives; everything else is a matter of secondary importance. Still, it is critical that we raise these issues at every opportunity.
A major challenge for the Israel movement will be how it responds to growing interest in spiritual concerns. As in North America, young Israelis are struggling with the issue of spirituality. What this has meant is that a variety of organizations, including secular Jewish groups, are offering Shabbat experiences that are, in effect, Shabbat worship, combined at times with serious Torah study. Even when these events do not have a defined religious character, they come very close to what we would consider to be a liberal religious service. Worship issues have not been a major priority for Israeli Reform Judaism, but the fact is that if our movement hopes to respond in a meaningful way to the spiritual searching that is now taking place in Israel, it will need to develop a more creative approach to worship and prayer.
HUC-JIR, EIE Students
I met, as I always do, with the rabbinical, cantorial, and education students from North America who are studying in Israel for their first year at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. It is always a delight to meet with these students, who are bright, enthusiastic and inquisitive. Thirty of the students are planning once again to travel to the former Soviet Union during Passover in order to teach and conduct Passover seders; this is a major commitment of time and effort, and the students are raising the money needed themselves. (If you are interested in supporting this program, contact Rose Ginosar at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.)
This years HUC-JIR students have a somewhat different demographic profile than they have had in the past. The average age is 26; this is younger than in previous years, and means there are fewer second career students. Also, 55 of the 70 students are female, a much higher percentage than in the past. Nonetheless, it is impossible to draw any conclusions from these numbers, which may be only a one-time variation from normal patterns.
I also met with the students in our EIE high school semester in Israel program, held at Kibbutz Tsuba outside of Jerusalem. There are 99 students in the program this semester, four times the number in the fall semester and 50 percentmore than the spring semester last year. It is by far the largest group we have ever had, and is larger than any comparable program offered by any other movement or group. We are delighted at the tremendous jump in the number of participants. It is a reflection, I believe, on the quality of what we offer; despite its demanding requirements, EIE has obviously become the place to be for the best and brightest of our kids. Since a very high percentage of these kids are graduates of our camps, it also demonstrates that our camps are doing a good job educating about Israel and encouraging involvement in our long-term programs.
Whatever our problems in the Jewish world and we are never lacking for problems and challenges the fact that our young people in EIE and at the Hebrew Union College are outstanding young leaders with such a deep commitment to Reform Jewish life should make us optimistic about the future of our people and our movement.
A reminder: the Union is planning a trip to Israel in March of 2006 for our national and regional boards and congregational leaders. Bob Heller, Lenny Thal, and I will lead the trip. Plan to join us to see Israel, meet her leaders, and spend some time getting to know the Israel Reform movement.