Skip Navigation
October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776
Judaism is healthier here than in Israel

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations

The Synagogue Arm of the Reform Movement

From an Address by
President, Union of American Hebrew Congregations
December 13, 1996

I humbly suggest that the Jewish future will be determined by the answer to a single question: When a Jew from Baltimore runs into a Jew from Herzliya in the year 2025, what will be the content of their conversation? If they are able to exchange a few words of Torah, and are interested in doing so, then our survival as a people is assured. But if their agenda is comparing the quality of the cheeseburgers at the local McDonald's, then we are surely lost.

There is only one crisis in Jewish life today, and it has nothing whatever to do with the crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations, because that crisis is not real. The only crisis in Jewish life today is the crisis of Jewish meaning.

The crisis is that there is virtually no difference between what is happening in Cleveland and Tel Aviv. The danger of spiritual assimilation lurks everywhere, and even the holiness of the Land of Israel does not afford protection.

Israel is awash in the less attractive elements of American culture: of Coca Cola and video arcades, pop music and Michael Jackson, soccer and soap operas. When you walk past the Tel Aviv McDonald's on Friday night, and observe throngs of Israeli teens, you cannot help but wonder if this is Israel's future.

While we should not begrudge the Israelis those elements of North American society which we enjoy and which they inherited from us, Israel was intended to fuse Judaism with western civic culture, and what we have today is much of the latter and little of the former. Most of Israel seems to be in the grip of a relentless and aggressive secularism.

Of course, there are differences between Israel and the Diaspora. But do not be deluded: Israel has succeeded in defending her borders militarily, but not spiritually; she can guard against tanks of foreign armies but not against the enticements of foreign culture or the infiltration of cable TV. Hebrew language and national sovereignty have bestowed upon Israeli Judaism a little bit of extra protection and a little bit of extra time, but that time is just about up.

Young Israelis are assimilating at a rate comparable to that of Diaspora Jews. Most young Israelis are ignorant of Torah and indifferent to the fate of their people, just like their North American counterparts. In many respects, despite our tsores, Judaism is healthier in the United States and Canada than it is in Haifa and Tel Aviv.

What all this means is that in Boston and in Ashkelon the Jewish problem is precisely the same problem. It is not politics or security: it is the quality of Jewish life and the return of the Jewish people to Judaism. For Jewish people everywhere, what is important is nurturing a vibrant non-fundamentalist Jewish tradition, with spirituality and social justice at its center; what is important is making Torah our touchstone, and Jewish education and Jewish culture our highest priority.

This will only happen through a partnership of the Jewish people everywhere, with the world's two largest Jewish communities - Israel and North America - taking the lead. We need to join together: Reform Jews, and Conservative Jews, and all those open to a liberal interpretation of Torah. We need to do the work of Jewish person-building and Jewish community-building , wherever Jews are found.

I have said very little about the ultra-Orthodox presence in Israel because I do not believe them worthy of much time and attention. These elements are separating themselves from mainstream Israeli society and are becoming a society apart; they are utterly fanatic and becoming more extreme every day.

We need to fight the legislative incursions of the ultra-Orthodox, of course. They already limit the human rights of all Jews in Israel, and have more mischief in mind. But this is a battle we are destined to win.

The ultra-Orthodox have failed miserably in Israel. They enjoy a legal monopoly on religious affairs, and every conceivable Orthodox institution receives government money. Yet despite these advantages and a high birthrate, they still constitute a small proportion of the population. They are hysterically afraid of the tiny Reform Movement and they still find it necessary to impose their will through coercive legislation. In public opinion polls, the ultra-0rthodox are less popular than the Arabs, and fully 20% of the Israeli population refuses to be married by the official rabbinate.

Is there a danger of an ultra-Orthodox take-over? None whatever. Israelis are not meshugga; they know that a free and independent Jewish state was not established to return her citizens to the Jewish ghetto. Sooner rather than later some sort of separation between synagogue and state will be implemented, and already the internal contradictions of the system are beginning to assert themselves.

The greatest tragedy of all is that the ultra-0rthodox have caused an entire generation of Israelis to view Judaism with contempt. They have abused Torah for their own selfish purposes, and brought it into disrepute. Let us be clear: religious coercion distorts the essence of Judaism; it insults our history; it mocks the ideals of freedom and liberty for which a Jewish society must stand. Above all, it sullies the banner of Torah, and compromises Israel's appeal to the idealism of young Jews everywhere.

But our primary task is not to do battle with the fanatics, as important as that battle may be. Our primary task is to work with our allies in presenting an alternative to extremism; it is to teach the young people of Israel to value Torah, and to see Torah not as a burden, but as a sustaining force.

Unfortunately, there is very little possibility that Israel's elected leadership will assist us in this task. Israel's Prime Minister, still new to his position, faces daunting challenges, and his first six months in office give us much cause for concern.

His decisions have been most troubling in the political realm. While the Palestinian national movement is one of the ugliest and stupidest national movements in all of modern history, it has lost its leverage on the diplomatic front. The major threat to the Egyptians, the Jordanians, and the Gulf States is no longer Israel; it is the Iranians and the Iraqis. Therefore, these countries -- and even Syria -- have incentive to make peace with Israel so that they can concentrate on the greater enemy.

There are new and sobering military realities. Within ten years there will be nuclear weapons in the Middle East. With the threat of nuclearization on the horizon, a regional peace becomes essential for Israel. This means that Israel needs to renew and strengthen her peace with Jordan and Egypt, and to extend peaceful relations to an increasing circle of Middle Eastern countries; we will then look to the United States to lead these countries in monitoring the nuclear threat and ultimately dismantling it.

Instead of following this course, Israel's government has given us is inflammatory statements by the Prime Minister and expansion of settlements; it has given us uncertain relations with the United States and growing tension with the most moderate elements in the Arab world, including King Hussein.

In the religious realm as well, we had expectations of the new government which have been disappointed. Mr. Netanyahu is not a religious man, but he is the most American of Israel's prime ministers.He knows the North American Jewish community far better than any of his predecessors and understands the central role played here by Reform and Conservative Judaism, and the vibrancy and depth of our religiously pluralistic community.

Even if his hands are completely tied on legislative matters, we had hoped that he would use his office to educate a largely ignorant Israeli public. We had hoped that this advocate of all things American might advocate on behalf of the American religious system, or at least elements of that system; we had hoped that he would offer some words of affirmation for the American non-Orthodox movements, at a time when his ministers offer only vicious attacks. Even if he could do nothing practical for us, an enlightened voice from Israel's highest ranking elected official would have set the tone for tolerance and the possibility of change.

But Mr. Netanyahu has chosen a different course. In six months in office, he has found time to visit the graves of dead rebbes from Brooklyn, but has not managed to find 5 minutes to meet with Reform or Conservative leadership. In six months in office, he has called for a world-wide campaign against assimilation, without even a passing reference to the role of Reform and Conservative Judaism in this battle, or the need for Israel to work with us in making this campaign a reality. In six months in office, he has championed the economic principle of free markets, without a word on the value of this principle in the religious realm, as our experience demonstrates. Apparently he wants to send a message to the million and a half members of our Movement, and it has been received; but the Jewish people will be poorer for his failure of leadership.

But there is no reason to be filled with despair. Politicians can change course, and we hope that as Mr. Netanyahu gets farther into his term, he will reconsider the role that he might play in strengthening Jewish life.

The task of bringing Torah to the citizens of Israel will challenge us profoundly. Promoting Torah is not easy here, and it is no easier there. An indigenous, progressive Judaism in Israel will need to draw on the best that North American Reform has to offer, while adapting itself to the unique needs of Israeli culture. It will have to be done house by house, street by street, and town by town, and the work has barely begun.

Within the year the leaders of our Movement will put forth an honest statement of where we are and a new vision and a new plan. And we will then ask every Reform Jew and every Reform congregation for assistance. We will join with those in Israel who yearn to retrieve their ties to Torah by transforming a stagnating Judaism. And we will join too with our friends in the Federation world, who have supported us and asked to work with us; and it goes without saying that we will continue our support for their efforts to provide services to the needy of our people, at home, in Israel, and around the world.

The impact of what we intend to do cannot be underestimated.

  • We intend nothing less than to put an end to politicized, monopolistic religion in Israel;

  • We intend nothing less than to bring into being a new Israeli Judaism, which will draw Israelis with irresistible force to a renewal of practice and belief;

  • We intend nothing less than to substitute an atmosphere of religious optimism for the present mood of division and despair which broods over much of the Jewish state.

Ken yihi ratson. May it be God's will.


URJ logo

Donate Now



Multimedia Icon Multimedia:  Photos  |  Videos  |  Podcasts  |  Webinars
Bookmark and Share About Us  |  Careers  |  Privacy Policy
Copyright Union for Reform Judaism 2015.  All Rights Reserved