I have just returned from ten difficult, fascinating and inspiring days in Israel, my first trip since the UAHC Board mission last summer. I would like to share with you a few thoughts and impressions.
I arrived two days after the massive demonstration of 250,000 Haredi (ultra-0rthodox) Jews in Jerusalem, protesting recent decisions of the Israeli Supreme Court. A counter-demonstration was also held, drawing 50,000 secular and progressive Jews.
The Haredi demonstration was a sign not of strength but of weakness, not of confidence but of panic and fear. The ultra-Orthodox monopoly over Israel's religious life is beginning to crumble, and our Movement is proud to be among those who are hastening its demise. It is not an exaggeration to say that the demonstration occurred because of us. A number of law suits brought by our Israel Religious Action Center against ultra-Orthodox religious coercion have resulted in favorable decisions by the Supreme Court, generating the resentment against the Court which led to the demonstration. One Israeli woman commented at the counter-demonstration: "Thank God for the Reform Jews. If they had not made this happen with their law suits, we might never have had the courage to do it on our own."
Sympathy for our cause is at a high point. Virtually all Israelis were horrified by the attacks on the independence of the Supreme Court and the rule of law made by leading Haredi rabbis prior to the demonstration. The rhetoric was reminiscent of the attacks on Yitzhak Rabin in the period leading up to his assassination, and in fact the Chief Justice of Israel's Supreme Court must now travel with four bodyguards. As a response to this vicious incitement against the Court, four of Israel's leading writers--Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, and Yizhar Smilansky--called upon every Israeli to join the Reform or Conservative movement.
Israeli Reform leaders are elated at the public support which has been expressed, but also recognize that our Movement must move quickly to develop a greater grassroots presence. I met for several hours with Rabbi Michael Marmur, the dynamic new dean of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, who is working with Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman and the College leadership to expand its presence and to train more Reform leaders--especially rabbis and educators--for Israel. At this moment there is a demand for Reform rabbis and educators which we are simply unable to meet. I also met with leaders of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and the Israel Religious Action Center, all of whom are hard at work to expand their activities.
On the political front, I met with Ehud Barak, leader of the Labor Party and a candidate for Prime Minister in the upcoming elections. The purpose of the meeting was to thank Mr. Barak for his strong support of religious freedom during the past year; of the three candidates for Prime Minister, Mr. Barak was the only one to vote
against the Religious Councils law, a law recently passed by the Knesset which was intended to exclude Reform and Conservative Jews from the councils which administer religious services in Israel. That a candidate for Prime Minister should cast such a vote so close to a national election, when it is certain to infuriate Orthodox party leaders, is an unusual occurrence in Israeli politics, and I wanted to be certain to express appreciation personally to Mr. Barak. Barak has also called for legislation that would require all yeshiva students to serve in the Israeli army.
I also met with Yossi Sarid, leader of the Meretz Party. Again, my purpose was to thank Mr. Sarid, who has been the Knesset's most outspoken champion of religious pluralism and the rights of Reform and Conservative Jews. He was among the primary organizers of the counter-demonstration in Jerusalem.
I had brief meetings with many other Knesset members of the right, center, and left. I was accompanied at all of these sessions by Philip Meltzer, President of ARZA/World Union, North America.
I was unfortunately unable to meet with Yitzhak Mordechai, leader of the new Centrist Party and a candidate for Prime Minister. A meeting was planned immediately prior to my departure, but was canceled when three Israeli officers were killed in an attack in Lebanon and Mr. Mordechai changed his schedule to visit the families and attend the funerals. He has given a series of speeches suggesting that he is best able to unite Israelis on religious matters, but he has had virtually no contact with Diaspora Jewry and has shown little understanding of the issues. Whether or not he becomes Prime Minister, Mr. Mordechai is almost certain to be an important force in the next government; educating him about our concerns must a high priority for the Israeli Reform Movement. In a phone conversation with one of the candidate's senior aides, I urged that a meeting with Reform leaders be scheduled in the near future.
While in Israel I attended meetings of the Jewish Agency. The major issue on the agenda was the merger now being carried out in North America between the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations. The new national organization that is being created will be the national umbrella body for all local Jewish Federations, and will provide direction and support to local Federation and UJA campaigns. As you know, local Federations have been increasingly concerned with issues of Jewish education and continuity, an important and positive development. Therefore, when merger talks began several years ago, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox representatives suggested that the synagogue and Federation worlds should work together on issues of Jewish renewal, and that as a reflection of this new partnership, the synagogue movements should be given a place in the governance of the newly created communal body. Despite innumerable discussions, the Federation leadership has unfortunately decided to exclude all of the synagogue bodies from any but the most token role in the new structure. (The Reform Movement, which represents more than a million and a quarter North American Jews, is to be given a single seat in a national board of approximately 550 members.) We our currently discussing this issue with our Conservative and Orthodox counterparts, and we will update you at our Toronto board meeting.
A highlight of my visit was praying on Shabbat at Kol Haneshama, the Reform congregation in Jerusalem led by Rabbi Levy Kelman, which has become an exciting center of religious life in the eternal capital of the Jewish people. Another highlight was my meeting with HUC's North American students, all studying in Jerusalem for their first year. The students--in the rabbinic, cantorial, and education programs--were enthusiastic, committed and exceedingly sharp, and almost all are graduates of our UAHC camping program. We had a lively discussion of the education and worship challenges that they will face when they return home and begin their work in our congregations.