Rabbi Rick Jacobs' Remarks at Knesset on Nov. 12, 2013

It is time for a new conversation between Israelis and the Diaspora; may today be a concrete step in changing the conversation.

The second session of the  Knesset Caucus for Israel-US relations, held by M.K Dr. Nachman Shai in cooperation with the Ruderman Family Foundation, was held on November 12, 2013 at the Knesset in Jerusalem. The session focused on "Jewish Dialogue 2013: What are the boundaries and limitations?" Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Rabbi David Stav were guest speakers. Below are Rabbi Jacobs' remarks:

Jewish Dialogue 2013: What are the Boundaries and Limitations?

It is an honor to be with you today for this important dialogue. Let me begin by thanking MK Dr. Nahman Shai and Jay Ruderman for their invitation, and let me also express what a privilege it is to share this challenging discussion with Rabbi David Stav.

In this week’s parasha, Va’yishlach, brothers are reunited. After spending 20 years dreading the day when he will meet up with his brother Esau, Jacob is ready for the worst. But it turns out surprisingly well for Jacob as his brother embraces him offering gifts and kindness; it was not what he expected. I’ll not suggest who is Ya’akov and who is Esau today, but suffice it to say that when Jacob finally meets up with his brother Esau, he says, "Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God. (Gn 33:10)." That’s another way of saying: It is good for distant brothers and sisters to engage each other with open minds and hearts.

Twenty-two years ago I moved to a new community just outside of New York City to become the rabbi of a large suburban Reform synagogue. One of the very first calls I received was from the rabbi of the local Orthodox congregation, Young Israel of Scarsdale. Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein, their rabbi, invited me to speak at his Orthodox shul on Shabbat morning. I didn’t know him and I wasn’t sure if I was being set up as a korban, as a sacrificial offering. So I asked Rabbi Rubenstein what he had in mind. He said “I want you to talk about what you love about Orthodox Judaism and I’ll speak about what I love about Reform Judaism.” I asked him if he had any positive thoughts to share about Reform Judaism. He said “absolutely,” and sensing my apprehension, he volunteered to speak first. He spoke for 20 minutes about Reform Judaism’s openness, our commitment to tikkun olam, and the spirit of creativity that inspires our innovations. I was stunned by his moving tribute.

I then spoke about my love of Orthodox Judaism, how Judaism came alive when I studied Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University with Professor David Hartman, z’l, an Orthodox rabbi and philosopher. I shared my appreciation of traditional Judaism’s deep commitment to rigorous Jewish practice and serious lifelong study. From that Shabbat on, Rabbi Rubenstein became my close friend and chevruta.

I tell you this because it is an underpinning to my approach to K’lal Yisrael, the deep respect and love I feel for the entire Jewish people. You need to know this before you hear the rest of my talk.

Just so the members of the Knesset have a clear sense of who I represent, the Reform Movement in North America is larger than the Orthodox, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements combined. Ours is the only movement with congregations in all 50 states. We are located in communities where there are no other Jewish organizations.

Overwhelmingly, the members, donors, and leaders of AIPAC and Federations are Reform and Conservative Jews. With Sen. Lieberman’s retirement, every Jewish member of the Senate and House is a Reform or Conservative Jew. The vast number of rabbis, synagogues and synagogue members that the non-Jewish members of Congress know and with whom they are personal friends are Reform and Conservative Jews.

Reform and Conservative Jews are leaders in every part of our society, so the fact that Israel remains the only democracy in the world that legally discriminates against the streams of Judaism representing the majority of Jews in the world and the overwhelming number of Jews in the U.S. alienates Jews and puzzles many Americans, eroding Israel’s image as a home to democracy and religious freedom. That’s why when a woman is arrested for praying openly at the Kotel or when Reform and Conservative rabbis cannot officiate at members’ lifecycle ceremonies with government recognition, there is disbelief and deep concern among American Jews and Americans overall.

It cannot be that the great ingathering of the exiles will, in the end, result in a Jewish state that discriminates against the religious beliefs of so much of world Jewry.

We believe that there is more than one authentic way to be Jewish. Reform Jews practice a Judaism that is intellectually rigorous, egalitarian, inclusive, ever-evolving, relevant, and responsive to today’s world and to the prophets’ imperatives to shape a more just and compassionate world—and more. That’s why we are the largest Jewish movement in North America.

Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Jews believe deeply that the time is long overdue for the State of Israel to support, accept, and validate the authentic Judaism that we practice every day and everywhere in freedom—except here in our beloved Jewish homeland.

Listen to the commitment that we uphold daily: unconditional support for the State of Israel, abiding solidarity with the citizens of Israel, unbending resolve in the battle against Israel’s enemies, and unshakeable determination in the face of all those who wish Israel ill. At the same time, we hold firm to our own vision of what the Jewish state should and can be, and we proclaim our commitment to a two-state solution as essential to Israel’s well-being and security. And willingly, lovingly, joyfully, we engage in the struggle to realize Israel’s most cherished ideals.

But at the Western Wall, in rabbinical courts, at the bridal canopy, at funerals, in the founding and funding of our congregations, we are not equal here in the Jewish people’s homeland. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism is, of course, a legitimate choice for those who chose it, but it must no longer be the default position of the Jewish State. That does neither Judaism nor the State a service; quite the contrary.

In the free marketplace of Diaspora Jewish life, Orthodoxy and liberal Judaism are both flourishing. Why be afraid of affirming the legitimacy of different authentic Jewish paths here? Young Jews worldwide are searching for answers — and how they define their Jewish identities should be a choice of conscience of each Jew, and a source of renewal for the Jewish State. But instead, they come up against a rigid and parochial system.

I fell in love with Israel. It was during my junior year of college, which I spent studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Ever since, working to strengthen Israel's security and well-being—well, that's been at the core of my public life.

During the second Intifada, my wife and I bought an apartment in Jerusalem because we wanted to express our solidarity by spending more time here. Yehuda Halevi best expressed my commitment when he wrote: "My heart is in the East."

The recent study of the American Jewish community by the Pew Center, the most authoritative study in at least a generation, should put to rest the suggestion that Jews today feel increasingly distant from Israel. About seven-in-10 Jews surveyed say they feel either “very attached” (30%) or “somewhat attached” (39%) to Israel. Over 40% of those surveyed have visited Israel, a significant number. There’s no doubt that programs such as Birthright have made a tremendous difference in engaging American Jews with Israel.

But the one-dimensional definitions of “pro-Israel” should also be put to rest. American Jews, just like many Israelis, have a complicated relationship with the State of Israel. For the majority, a peace process that results in a viable Palestinian state next to a secure Israel is of preeminent concern. Just 17% of American Jews think the continued building of settlements in the West Bank is helpful to Israel’s security, while 44% say that settlement construction hurts Israel’s own security interests. And the Pew survey reports that only 38% believe the current Israeli government is making a sincere effort to establish peace with the Palestinians.

Next month at our Biennial convention in San Diego, the largest Jewish convention in North America, we will be honored to have Prime Minister Netanyahu address our Reform Movement. Two years ago at our Biennial in Washington, D.C., President Barak Obama addressed our 5,000 delegates. During our Biennial, we will ramp up our Movement’s programs of Israel engagement so that Israel will be even more deeply bound to the daily life of North American Reform Jews.

And here in Israel there is a renaissance of Jewish life with secular Israelis experiencing Kabbalat Shabbat at the port in Tel Aviv or at Nigun Halev in the Jezreel Valley. Almost 10% of Israelis actively identify with the Reform and Conservative movements here in Israel. Over 40% say they would prefer or would be comfortable with Reform and Conservative rabbis officiating at their lifecycle ceremonies. In spite of the many official obstacles, the Reform and Conservative movements are flowering here in Medinat Yisrael with their own unique Israeli vitality.

Each summer Israeli shlichim help staff our Reform Movement’s 14 summer camps in North America. And just as surely as they share their love of Israel with over 10,000 of our young people, we send many of those Israelis home with their first real experience of engaging prayer and revitalizing Shabbat. The bonds that link Israel and the Diaspora are mutually strengthening, but must grow even deeper.

It is time for a new conversation between Israelis and the Diaspora; may today be a concrete step in changing the conversation.

And in the meantime please know that:

  • We will never back down from our commitment to a secure Israel.
  • We will never stop fighting for an Israel that grants all of its citizens, Arabs and Jews, fundamental human rights.
  • We will never stop working for an Israel that grants equal rights to Jews—no matter their spiritual practice or belief.
  • We will never stop advocating for the U.S. to remain Israel's staunch ally.
  • We will not back away from our commitment to a two-state solution, in which Israelis and Palestinians live side-by-side in peace and security.

As the leader of the largest movement in Jewish life, I will continue to work every single day to build up the ranks of those who share my Zionist passion. I want a movement that loves Israel both wisely and well, a movement that is both particular and universal, a movement that joins the government of Israel in investing in and developing real links between young Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora, a movement with partners in Israel who share not only tears and parades, but also sweat, the sweat of working together on joint projects.

My daily responsibility is not only to be a leader of Reform Jews, but also to be a leader of the Jewish people. I love and draw strength from Jews of all backgrounds and beliefs, those who think, believe, and practice the way I do, and those who do not. There is great strength in our diversity. The Jewish State was created by extraordinary Jewish leaders: believers, atheists, Mizrachim, Ashkenazim, rich, poor, socialists, capitalists, kibbutznikim and urban dwellers. They found strength in their diversity and so must we.

Israel is plainly the most important, the most consequential, the most exciting project of the Jewish people in our time. We in America, and we in the Reform Movement are not satisfied to be an audience to the drama of Israel. We offer more than our applause. We offer, freely and enthusiastically, such help as we can, both in protecting and extending the Israel-America connection and in direct involvement with agencies and institutions here in Israel that work day-in and day-out for a state that reflects the challenges the ancient prophets put before us, that reflects the accrued wisdom of our ancient people, who work, as do we, for security and for justice and for peace.