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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776
Address to the World Zionist Congress

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations

The Synagogue Arm of the Reform Movement

"Zionist Institutions Facing New Challenges"

An Address to the 33rd Zionist Congress
by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, UAHC President

Jerusalem, Israel -- December 24, 1997

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the State of Israel, the primary organizational challenge facing the Zionist movement is this: How do we revive our roots in the community?

I am from North America. Prior to 1948, Zionism was a minority movement in North America, but it was also a mass movement with deep roots in the community. Rallies on behalf of the Jewish state brought out tens of thousands of people, and at dinners and banquets those sitting at the dais were intellectuals, politicians, and rabbis, all of whom were vitally concerned and deeply involved in the implications of Jewish nationalism.

Since the establishment of the State, however, the focus has shifted. Leadership on community matters and on Israel affairs has gradually passed to the Federations and the United Jewish Appeal (UJA). Today the fundraising leaders in many cases are firmly in place as the primary spokespersons for Israel concerns.

The first thing that must be said is that the fund raisers have been enormously successful, and we owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude for their achievements. They have provided the financial resources and community backing which have been the mainstay of Israel's support. Furthermore, they are an impressive group of men and women. Successful, wealthy, and intelligent, they stand proudly as Jews and give freely of their time and money to the betterment of Israel and the Jewish people.

However, we have also paid a heavy price for their success. The federations and UJA are elite organizations by definition. While the UJA is no longer the closed aristocracy of money that it once was, by its own admission it can be neither truly democratic nor even a real meritocracy. The search for talent to fill responsible positions goes only so far down the list of donors, and almost always ends before reaching the capable Jew who can afford only a $100 gift.

The point that I am making is a simple and obvious one: to the extent that Jews identify Israel as being the domain of the UJA and Federations, then Israel runs the risk of forfeiting its roots in the community. To the extent that Israel is seen as being the prerogative of a small, wealthy elite, rather than the most precious possession of the entire Jewish people, then its future well-being is endangered. Israel exists for all Jews; we must insist, therefore, on broad-based involvement in the affairs of the Jewish state.

And how is this to be accomplished? The answer is simple enough. It is the synagogue that is the grassroots institution of Jewish life. It is in the synagogue that popular Jewish activity takes place. In North America, the majority of Jews are to be found in Reform and Conservative synagogues; in the rest of the Diaspora, in Orthodox synagogues. But make no mistake: it is the synagogues that have the "troops" of the Jewish community, and the success of the Zionist movement depends on its ability to integrate the synagogue movements into its ranks.

Some might suggest that this has been done, but in fact it has not. For 20 years, the Zionist movement has drawn in the non-Orthodox synagogue movements with one hand, and pushed them away with the other. The veteran Zionist parties, too often seeing the WZO as their monopoly and anxious to preserve their seats and their budgets, have been ambivalent at best about the synagogue world; I suspect too that they have been uncomfortable with what the synagogues represent - a commitment to Zionism rooted in Torah and mitzvah and a religious view of the world. (It should be noted, in passing, that the fundraising world - in North America, at least - has made precisely the same mistake; it has too often seen the synagogue movements more as competitors than as allies, and has pushed them to the margins.) But for the Zionist movement, all of this is history. Democratic elections, for all their flaws, can bring about decisive change, and they have done so. Those elections have made the Zionist arms of the Reform and Conservative movements major partners in the Zionist enterprise, and we all now have a stake-a very large stake-in making that partnership work.

And this is not simply an organizational issue, but also an ideological one, because I suggest to you that the primary mission of the Zionist movement is one that can only be carried out in closest cooperation with the synagogue world.

What is it that ails Zionist at this moment? A weakening sense of Jewish peoplehood throughout the world. And if we are to address this problem, we need to recognize that the concept of the Jews being one people is primarily a religious idea. It is rooted in covenant, in Torah, and in religious commitment and faith. If we are to talk of the totality and interdependence of the Jewish people, we will have to revive the religious ideas on which these notions are based.

Why is it that young Jews are apathetic to Israel? It has nothing to do with the politics of the left or the right, with the policies of Labor or Likud. It has to do with the fact that they are less Jewish. Their estrangement comes not from politics, but from cultural and religious estrangement. And Zionism will only thrive if it sees its primary task as educating these young Jews and deepening, in a profound and serious way, their Jewish commitments.

And again, this can only be done in closest cooperation with the synagogue world, because that is where the masses of our people are to be found, and that also is the major source of Jewish expertise necessary for this task.

I understand the resistance to these ideas among some of my Zionist colleagues. They see them as contrary to traditional Zionist work, as they understand it. "Our job is hagshama," they say. "Don't bother me with religious questions. We will bring young people to Israel, and being here will solve their Jewish problem."

But such a view is short-sighted and wrong.

There was never a single Zionism; there have always been many Zionisms. For the last 50 years, we have appropriately focused on the political Zionism of Herzl. We have mobilized the resources of all parts of the Jewish people for mass aliyah; we have promoted the economy, settlement, and Israel's security. And we have done wonderful work in the area of relief, rescue, and rehabilitation. But these tasks, while crucial, can no longer completely dominate our agenda. Israel is today an economic, political, and military power; she is moving toward peace with her neighbors, and is soon to be the largest, richest, and strongest center of Jewish life in the world. Political Zionism has triumphed, beyond our wildest dreams.

And what does this mean? That we must now turn our attention to those tasks set forth by the other streams of Zionism - by spiritual Zionism and religious Zionism, which are in every sense a legitimate part of our Zionist tradition. This means that we need to be concerned with restoring world Jewry, with strengthening the Jewish people no matter where they may live, and with strengthening Judaism and Jewishness in all of its forms. This means that we must affirm that the State of Israel exists not to replace Judaism but to enrich Judaism, not only for its citizens but for the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora.

Will this diminish Israel's role? Heaven forbid. We know the importance of Israel as spiritual center, and we know too that without Israel, Jewish life cannot be sustained. But we also know that Zionism must commit itself to Judaism - the faith as well as the civilization - and that a Zionism that separates itself from the spiritual welfare of the Jewish people will not survive.

And I stress again: this is not inconsistent in any way with our Zionist traditions. Among the early Zionists, there were angry debates about religion and education. But everyone agreed, including those in revolt against the Jewish past, that its texts needed to be known, its memories had to be cultivated, and the Hebrew language needed to be mastered. Zionists were, at one time, the most active and outspoken proponents of Jewish education in the world. As long as we Jews are not living together in the Land of Israel, our unity and peoplehood will be sustained only through Jewish culture, religious tradition, and shared values. Therefore, Zionists must increase their educational efforts wherever Jews are found.

I will not attempt to outline a comprehensive educational plan for the Zionist movement at this time, but I would like to offer two observations. First, that we need to recognize how modest our efforts have been in recent years, and how limited our success; the Education Authority has not changed this situation in any appreciable way. And second, that we need to recognize our most significant and dramatic failure: that is, our failure in the Diaspora to learn the Hebrew language and to teach it to our children.

I do not have to remind the delegates of this Congress that from the time of Abraham until today there has existed a special connection between the Jewish people and its language. It is a disgrace that Hebrew has not become a second language for Jews throughout the Diaspora. Hebrew is spoken by far more Israeli Arabs than by Diaspora Jews.

The state of Hebrew in North America is exceedingly weak, and my movement is as guilty as any other for this situation. Hebrew as a living language is disappearing even from day schools, and in supplementary schools it barely exists as all. The Hebrew language is not seen by community leaders - neither Federation leaders nor Zionist leaders - as an important instrument for advancing Zionism and for assuring Jewish continuity.

Why is that Jews in the Soviet Union were able to learn Hebrew at a time when teaching the language was illegal, while Jews in the democratic countries of the West do not study Hebrew at all? Without Hebrew there is no serious Jewish education. Without Hebrew there is no Zionism.

Therefore, I have a proposal. Perhaps we need to begin here. Perhaps we need to initiate an international campaign for the teaching of the Hebrew language, jointly sponsored by the religious movements and the World Zionist Organization. In this way we can indicate our intention as Zionists to cultivate our spiritual heritage, and also to renew Judaism for the majority of Jews in the world.

I have one final point to make, or, to be more precise, one final question to ask: Will the religious movements represented in the WZO find it possible to cooperate, at least on some level, in the program that I have outlined to strengthen Torah and Jewish learning throughout the Jewish world and in this way to assure our Jewish future? I honestly do not know.

I need not tell you that divisions in the Jewish world have multiplied, that rancor has replaced civility, and that we all seem somehow more intractable than ever before.

True, the religious movements are all committed to Torah and to Zion, but we read Torah very differently, and the non-Orthodox movements are deeply pained by the systematic exclusion which they experience in Israel, and the vituperative attacks to which they are regularly subjected. Obviously, no matter how deeply felt is our shared sense of peoplehood and common destiny, we cannot remain silent in the face of this injustice.

Nevertheless, and without contradiction, I would like to believe that the Zionist movement can be in the future what it has been in the past - a sustained defiance of history, the one place in the Jewish world where all Jews, and especially all religious Jews, can engage in regular conversation and cooperation on the great educational and spiritual tasks of our day. If they cannot, I suspect that all that I have proposed will fail; and this because there will be too many others, both within the Zionist movement and without, who will oppose this plan, and will be only too happy to turn the religious groups against each other in order to assure that change is avoided.

In summary, then, what am I proposing?

I am suggesting that the Zionist movement recognize its failures and limitations, and engage in serious internal stocktaking. If it does not, it will become nothing more than a channel for selecting Zionist representation in the Jewish Agency.

I am suggesting that the Zionist future depends on the movement's ability to become once again a grassroots movement that builds from the bottom up.

I am suggesting that Jewish secularism, which has an honored place in Zionist history, is no longer a framework for Zionist organization in the Diaspora.

I am suggesting that the revolution brought about by democratic elections provides a long-delayed opportunity to create a full partnership between Zionism and the synagogue world, and that the synagogue is the only vehicle that exists - absolutely the only vehicle - that can reach the Jewish masses and turn them on to the Zionist enterprise.

I am suggesting that religious Zionism and spiritual Zionism need to take their place alongside political Zionism as goals of the Zionist movement, and that in fact, at this moment, spiritual, cultural, and religious goals are primary.

I am suggesting that the major Jewish problem of the modern era is: Why be Jewish? And that Zionism must address this question not only by establishing a Jewish state, but by adapting and renewing Judaism for Jews everywhere, and by promoting expertise in Jewish tradition and sources. Zionists do not give up on any part of the Jewish people.

I am suggesting that Jewish secularists need to adjust their thinking. Zionism is a pluralistic movement, and they surely need not adopt religious values. But if they are to be effective in Zionist work, they need to discard their discomfort with religious symbols and vocabulary, and acquaint themselves with Diaspora realities.

I am suggesting that the Zionist movement will live or die on the strength of its educational work, which has too often been unimpressive in the past, and that this work must be done in conjunction with the synagogue world. And I am suggesting too that we must, as our very first step, reverse our abandonment of the Hebrew language, and revive - in the Diaspora - the sound of Hebrew as a spoken tongue.

And I am suggesting, finally, that all the religious movements need to find a way - if only in a limited sense - to join together in coalition and common cause to meet the challenges of Zionism and modernity.

Can we do these things? I think that we can.

Because we all believe - or so I would suppose - that the Jewish people is indivisible, that we are linked by covenant and history, and implicated in each other's fate.

And because we believe too that the State of Israel is an indispensable part of that common destiny.

And so, if only we will remember - all of us - to keep Israel at the center of our being, and to proclaim our love for Israel in unconditional and unmistakable tones, then I believe that we will be wise enough to do what needs to be done: to renew Judaism and Jewish life while at the same time we revive the dream and the magic of the Zionist enterprise.


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