NEW YORK - Nearly 200 leaders of the North American Reform movement of Judaism will depart Sunday night for a five-day solidarity mission to Israel, where they will meet with Israeli citizens and government officials and with leaders and members of Israel's growing Reform movement.
The trip is intended to demonstrate the American movement's unconditional support of the State of Israel and the Israeli people, its leaders say. It comes at a time among the highest of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
The 162-person mission, including more than 40 rabbis, is designed to demonstrate the commitment of North America's largest Jewish religious movement to Israel and its solidarity with the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism. Although trips for young teenagers were suspended this summer, visits by adults, college students, and older teenagers have continued unabated, including Reform participation in the Birthright program and congregational trips. Sixty-two Reform students arrived in Jerusalem recently to begin a year of study at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
"Reform Jews are committed to the mystery and wonder of the modern State of Israel," says Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), the synagogue arm of the Reform Movement. "We are a religious movement, and our commitment to Israel is not conditional," he said. Rabbi Yoffie also spent two weeks in Israel last month and will return with this mission Sunday.
Among their many scheduled events and tours, the group will meet with Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Knesset Speaker Avrum Burg and Deputy Speaker Naomi Chazan, with Deputy Foreign Minister and the former Minister for Diaspora Affairs Rabbi Michael Mechior and with Knesset member and former New York Counsul General Collette Avital.
The group will receive background briefings on the security situation from Ha'aretz columnist Danny Rubenstein and former Army Chief of Staff and government minister Amonon Lipkin-Shahak and on the peace process by the new U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer and by Rabin Center president Ze'ev Tadmor, MK Dalia Rabin Philosoff and Tel Aviv University president and former Washington ambassador Itamar Rabinovitch.
Participants will travel to the West Bank settlement Efrat, where they will meet with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin; to Neve Shalom and to Gilo, the Jerusalem suburb which has been under attack from nearby Palestinian neighborhoods.
The American Reform leadership group will also study Zionism and the Israel-Diaspora Connection on several occasions and visit Reform Israeli communities in Jerusalem, Modi'in, Mevaseret, Gezer, Ra'anana, and Tel Aviv. In addition to morning prayer sessions, they will lunch with Reform rabbinical students, meet with Reform Israelis in their homes, visit the Western Wall and attend a Russian immigrant festival at the largest Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv.
The Reform Movement has been among the largest organizers of high school student travel to Israel for more than 40 years. Last summer, for example, it sent 1500 students to Israel and estimate that nearly 30,000 young people have been to Israel with NFTY on summer trips. The movement also operates a highly successful high school semester program in Israel. Last year 77 students participated, and it fully expects to run the program again in the fall. Almost 900 Reform college students have visited Israel with Birthright since it began, and they continue to recruit actively for the program.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis, the national Reform Jewish Movement's rabbinic arm, had long scheduled its conference in Israel for this coming year. It is now intensively encouraging a record number of Rabbis to attend. More than 100 Reform congregations each year take thousands of Reform Jews to Israel. Over the last seven years, nearly 1,000 Reform rabbis have participated in Movement programs in Israel. And privately, scores of thousands of Reform Jews have traveled to Israel, with Federations/ United Jewish Communities, or with other organizations.
The Union of American Hebrew Congregations is the central body of Reform Judaism in North America, representing over 1.5 million Reform Jews in over 900 congregations. UAHC services include camps, music and book publishing, outreach to unaffiliated and intermarried Jews, educational programming, and the Religious Action Center in Washington, DC.