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For many people, summer is a time of new adventures. At the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), it’s a busy and joyful season as thousands of young people fill our camps and travel programs, creating friendships and building and strengthening Jewish identities that last a lifetime.
I recently witnessed some of that magic.
Arriving at the gate for my flight to Tel Aviv, I was delighted to find 45 teen travelers from URJ Camp Coleman – their anticipation palpable – heading to their life-changing NFTY-in-Israel program. In fact, many of our URJ Camps offer this opportunity for teens to enrich their Reform Jewish experiences by traveling together with camp friends to Israel. Could there be any better way to spend part of a summer than weaving Jewish memories together in Israel with peers from summers gone by?
By coincidence, Benny Gantz, the leader of Israel’s new and large Blue and White Party and also the leader of the opposition, was on our flight as well. I shared with him how moved I was when, during his AIPAC speech, he described the way he led the soldiers he commanded in the IDF, “never checking under their helmets to see who was wearing a kippah and who wasn’t, who was from Ashkenazi and who was from Mizrachi backgrounds; they were all my soldiers united for a common purpose.” I told him that future leaders of the Jewish people also were on our flight, referring, of course, to our NFTY-in-Israel travelers, and I implored him to include us and many others when making his important decisions.
As for me, as many times as I’ve been to Israel, each visit is profoundly special. From the moment I land, the country’s many complexities and tremendous beauty amaze me. On this trip, as always, my visit highlighted the varied experiences the Israel Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism (IMPJ) – our Reform Movement in Israel – offers to the growing number of Israelis who are seeking a Jewish way of life other than Orthodoxy.
On Friday, I visited the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, which comprises an elementary, middle, and high school, a community center, and a congregation, all of which give our movement a unique and strong presence. Devoted to creating a shared society in Israel, Leo Baeck is not only one of the finest schools in Israel, but also exemplifies our Jewish values by consistently demonstrating a commitment to openness, acceptance, equality, and democracy. Hosted by Rabbi Ofek Meir, the headmaster and managing director (and the author of this recent blog post about one of his beloved mentors and teachers at Leo Baeck), I met with activists and students who are at the top of their class and advocate beyond the classroom for a better and more just Israel.
That night, I traveled back to Jerusalem, where in Tzur Hadassah, a suburb a few minutes outside the city, I joined Rabbi Stacy Blank and the rapidly growing community of Kehilat Shir Chadash for Kabbalat Shabbat. Founded by four families in 1997, the congregation now numbers hundreds of people who celebrate together there on Shabbat and holidays. The rabbi’s salary is one of the few within the Reform Movement in Israel that is partially funded by the government in a country in which Orthodox rabbis and institutions receive billions in government shekels. In another trailblazing achievement of our growing movement, the congregation’s modest, pre-fab building was provided by the government. What’s more, the IMPJ’s youth group, Telem Naor, has an active branch there as well.
I ended Shabbat in Jerusalem with Havdalah at the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) where I joined clergy and members of two North American congregations who were on missions in Israel: Rabbi Jeremy Barras from Temple Beth Am in greater Miami and Rabbi Carlie Daniels from Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Chicagoland. As we stood together with the magnificent symbols we use to mark the end of Shabbat – the spice box and the light being passed among us – not only did we began to transition from Shabbat, a day of reflection and holiness, to the new week, but we also reaffirmed our movement’s commitment to partner with Israel – especially with the institutions and individuals in our Israeli Reform Movement.
As luck would have it, I met up again with the Camp Coleman teens a few days into their journey. They were at the Kotel (the Western Wall) together with teens from URJ Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI) and we discussed the continuing struggle for religious pluralism in Israel. I told them the Western Wall is 1,600 feet long, which certainly is long enough for all Jews – not only the most traditional – to be able to pray there. During their summer travels, these and other teens will forge deep, lifelong connections to the Jewish state and, as they have already begun to do, develop their own sense of responsibility not only to keep Israel safe, but also to ensure that it continues to exemplify the core values of our Jewish tradition: equality and justice for all its citizens.
Indeed, the role of Reform Judaism in Israel is critical – and only when we work in partnership can our movement there grow and contribute most effectively to building and sustaining a pluralistic and democratic society that reflects our Jewish values.
Soon, you will receive information about the 2020 World Zionist Congress (WZC) elections, the only democratic opportunity for all North American Jews to raise our voices and for them to be heard collectively in Israel. The WZO elections determine the members of the World Zionist Congress (WZC), a representative body of the world’s Jewish people. The WZC allocates financial and other resources to various organizations – including the Reform Movement – in Israel. The elections are slated to be held from January 21 to March 11, 2020 (MLK Day to Purim), and a strong turnout will ensure that resources continue to flow to our Israeli movement. Voting in the elections gives us an opportunity to partner with the Reform Movement in Israel, helping to build a pluralistic, democratic society that truly reflects the Jewish values we hold dear.