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September 1, 2014 | 6th Elul 5774
Why I am in Israel

Why I am in Israel

by Rabbi Eric Yoffie
President, Union of American Hebrew Congregations
June 22, 2001

See Press Release
See Remarks to Board of Trustees

As printed in the Jerusalem Post Friday, June 22, 2001

(June 22) - Why am I in Israel now? Because I have come to Israel regularly for more than 30 years, in good times and bad. As a 19-year-old college student, I volunteered to come in the dark days of May 1967. In 1991, I arrived just prior to the Gulf War and stayed, sitting with my Israeli friends in sealed rooms during the missile attacks. As Jew, rabbi, and religious leader, I know that we must be lovers of Zion in the old-fashioned way, and that without Israel we are a truncated, incomplete people.

Why then did the Reform movement not send its children this summer? After all, we have sent nearly 30,000 teenagers to Israel on our programs. The reason is that over the last nine months, the parents of our young people responded exactly the same way that Israeli parents have responded to the current wave of unrest and terror. We know that many Israeli parents keep their children off public buses and away from public areas. We know that many schools have excluded Jerusalem, including west Jerusalem and the Western Wall, from their tour itineraries. And we know from recently published reports that 50 percent of Israeli children have not participated in their school field trips this year because of parental concerns about security. As the number of participants in our Israel trips dwindled, the remaining parents demanded ever-stronger promises of safety.

Rather than continue with a handful of teenagers, or offer a pretext for calling off the trips, we decided simply to tell the truth: Our parents were deeply worried about their children and they were asking for security assurances that we felt we could not in good conscience provide. Therefore, we suspended our summer youth trips. At the same time, we pledged our devotion to Israel and immediately began planning a movement-wide, summer pilgrimage for adults.

In some measure, we can understand the anger of Israelis who feel isolated, vulnerable, and under attack. But American Reform Jews, who supported the suspension overwhelmingly, are also bewildered by the intensity and vitriol of the response. Why have those who sat in silence when adult trips were repeatedly suspended by Jewish communal groups reacted with such fury when the Reform movement suspends a program for children? Why are Israeli politicians who said nothing about Israeli children avoiding Jerusalem angry at American parents who worry about their children's stay in Israel's eternal capital? And why is it appropriate to talk about Reform Judaism, North American Jewry's largest religious movement, in a language not terribly different from that used for Israel's Arab enemies?

A more fundamental point is this: As Israeli diplomats have repeatedly told us and as the headlines confirm, Israel faces a real crisis. But if that is so, the sending of children to Israel at this moment should not be the test of identification with the Jewish state. It is adults who should be streaming to Israel, and what we need now is to send adult pilgrimages, study groups, and missions.

And so what will the Reform movement do? We will do what we have been doing all along, because our adult programs were never affected by the suspension of programs for children. We will continue to send synagogue groups from throughout North America. We will continue to send rabbinic groups and we will have our national rabbinic convention in Jerusalem in March. We will continue to send rabbinic, cantorial, and Jewish education students for a year's study at our Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, and we will continue to send large contingents of Reform college students and young adults on the Birthright program. We will continue to lobby for Israel at home, and to support the Israel Reform movement as it builds synagogues, schools, and kindergartens. And I will return in July with leaders of the Reform movement from throughout North America on a pilgrimage of solidarity.

And what difference will it make if Israelis remain angry at us? We will regret this, of course, but it will make no difference whatever. We are a religious movement, and our abiding commitment to Israel is not conditional or dependent in any way on the favors of politicians or the state of public opinion. Nothing whatever will diminish our ties to the State and the Land of Israel. As religious people, we know that our task is to embrace Israel, to hold her near, and, by so doing, to reconnect our future with our most ancient past.

 

 
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