My Visit to Israel: Strengthening Ties and Promoting Engagement with Israel

Inside Leadership

My Visit to Israel: Strengthening Ties and Promoting Engagement with Israel

Rabbi Rick Jacobs visits with Heller High students in Israel

Last week, during a brief trip to Israel, I met with Israeli leaders from across a wide spectrum of the political landscape, including some of whom are running for seats in the new Knesset. Joining me in these meetings were Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) vice president for Israel and Progressive Zionism, along with several leaders of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), including Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Anat Hoffman, and Rabbi Noa Sattath.

In recent years, I've met with many of Israel’s leaders before – in an effort to build stronger bonds between the Reform Movement and the Jewish State. More so, it’s critical that they truly understand not only the strength and challenges of the North American Jewish community, but also that we have a tremendous appreciation for the challenges Israel faces.

I was delighted to discuss issues of concern to both our communities with:

  • Tzipi Livni, former head of the Hatnuah party and former Justice and Foreign Minister
  • Yoav Galant of the Likud party and Minister of Aliyah and Integration
  • Tzachi Hanegbi of the Likud party and Minister for Regional Cooperation.
  • Tamar Zandberg, chairwoman of Meretz
  • Yair Lapid, chairman of Yesh Atid and now leading the joint Kachol Lavan party with Benny Gantz
  • Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, chairman of the Telem party and now one of the leaders of the new Kachol Lavan party

There have been many shifts and changes in the veteran parties, as well as formation of some brand new parties. Bogie Ya’alon has held various governmental positions, including most recently defense minister. In May of 2016, he left Prime Minister’s Netanyahu’s cabinet and formed his own political party, which recently joined forces with that of Benny Gantz, who, like Ya’alon, is a former chief of staff of the IDF.

At our meeting, Bogie and I discussed our shared concerns about the ongoing crisis between the Jews of the Diaspora and those in Israel, hopeful that together, we can heal the rifts. I was most encouraged when, at the end of the meeting, Bogie said: “The unity of the Jewish people is more important than the distinction between the political right and left. Together we must strengthen the Jewish and democratic State of Israel that is tolerant of every Jew throughout the world.”

I look forward to continuing the serious conversations with these and other political leaders in the months and years to come as we strive to create a pluralistic Israel in which liberal Judaism – and its adherents – is valued and respected. In the meantime, three couples who presently cannot wed in Israel, will celebrate under the chuppah (wedding canopy) later this month at Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, D.C., in a traditional Jewish ceremony that promises to be welcoming, inclusive, affirming of their multiple identities, and will call on the Israeli government to recognize Reform, Conservative, and civil weddings. Individuals and congregations are invited to attend – in-person or by live stream – to demonstrate support for this important issue in Israel.

Shabbat in Israel, as always, was wonderful! I spent Friday evening with the community at Congregation YOZMA in Modi’in, Israel, where I celebrated with members and colleagues there and with teens and leaders who were visiting from my Westchester Reform Temple (WRT) community back home. Indeed, watching the YOZMA and WRT teens laughing, talking, and engaging with each other was a stellar example of the interconnected Jewish world we’re working to build and sustain.

In another example of serious Israel engagement, I spent an evening with our 76 URJ Heller High (formerly NFTY-EIE) Israel students at Kibbutz Tzuba outside Jerusalem. In Israel to study for the semester, they represent 15 states/provinces and 40 congregations. I was energized by their enthusiasm and the thoughtful way their reflections and questions probed for answers about Israel and contemporary Jewish life. Most of all, I’m proud of them and ever hopeful that they will sustain a long-lasting, meaningful relationship with an Israel that recognizes and appreciates how important their Reform traditions and practices are to them – and to the growing community of Reform Jews in Israel.

While in Israel, I also attended the meeting of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). I am proud that JAFI is to become the first state organization to provide financial assistance to LGBTQ employees seeking child surrogacy services overseas, a step designed to help defray the high costs of the process, something the state does not allow LGBTQ couples to pursue within Israel. Kol hakavod (Job well done) to JAFI Chair Isaac “Bougie” Herzog for his exemplary leadership on this and so many other critical issues, and for demonstrating that no matter where one leads, moral clarity and courage are the true hallmarks of authentic Jewish leadership.

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Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the largest Jewish movement in North America, with almost 850 congregations and nearly 1.5 million members. An innovative thought leader, dynamic visionary, and representative of progressive Judaism, he spent 20 years as the spiritual leader of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY. Deeply dedicated to global social justice issues, he has led disaster response efforts in Haiti and Darfur. Learn more about Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs
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