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Marmur: Zionizing the Reform movement

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The ties between the Reform movement and the Jewish state are stronger than ever.

In a recent article in the Jewish Journal titled, “Reform Judaism Doubles Down on Zionism,” McGill University professor and CJN columnist Gil Troy writes about the relationship between Reform Judaism and Zionism, and how it has evolved over time.

With an eye on the many Reform bashers around the Jewish world, Troy comments with biting sarcasm on the recent resolution by the American Reform movement that reaffirmed its commitment to Israel and Zionism: “It’s outrageous. With one move, that darned movement defied three stereotypes distorting the Jewish – and American – conversation about Israel.”

He elaborates: “How dare the Reform movement affirm its loyalty to Israel and Zionism when everyone knows its members are liberal traitors who prove that liberalism and Zionism are incompatible. How dare the Reform movement refute the claim that relations between American Jewry and Israel are deteriorating. And how dare those Reformers resist the universal and anti-Israel drift everyone insists is sweeping American Jewry!”

The fact that most Reform Jews are politically liberal doesn’t make them less Zionist. On the contrary. As Troy writes, “Zionism without liberalism ain’t Zionism.” And he should know, as he recently published The Zionist Ideas, an authoritative anthology of Zionist thought.

READ: MARMUR: REFORM AND CONSERVATIVE JUDAISM UNDER ATTACK

There have been many exponents of Reform Judaism who have brought about the movement’s shift from its tepid religiosity of yesteryear, to the robust expression of authentic Judaism that it espouses today. One of them is Rabbi Richard Hirsch. He has devoted much of his distinguished career to “Zionizing” the Reform movement. In 1973, having been appointed executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), he moved its headquarters, along with himself and his family, to Jerusalem.

Not long thereafter, he made it possible for WUPJ to join the World Zionist Organization (WZO). He also inspired some of us to help create bodies of committed Reform Zionists around the world. I had the honour of chairing the British group when I lived and worked in London, as well as its Canadian counterpart some years after I moved to Toronto. I was also the founding chair of Arzenu, the international body of Reform Zionists that continues to play a significant role in the WZO.

And I’ve espoused Zionism in my sermons, lectures and writings. My book, The Star of Return, which was published in 1991, is dedicated to my granddaughter Miriam, the first member of our family to be born in Israel. The book celebrates the Zionist transformation of Reform Judaism and affirms the new reality of the Jewish state, where faith, people and land are once again brought together.

Israel and the Judaism that’s evolving there have become integral parts of the Reform movement. But can Reform Judaism become an integral part of Israel? Many of the founders of the first Reform congregations in the Jewish state were olim, mostly from the United States and Europe. The first rabbis to lead Reform congregations in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa came from abroad.

But soon, Hebrew Union College, the American Reform rabbinic school, opened a campus in Jerusalem, which, as I wrote in my previous column, has ordained more than 100 Israeli rabbis. Many now serve some 50 congregations in the country, while others work in related fields in Israel and abroad. Five new Reform rabbis will be ordained next week in Jerusalem.

But the movement still has a long way to go. According to a recent survey by the impartial Jewish People Policy Institute, some 800,000 Israelis – more than 12 per cent of the country’s Jewish population – identify as Reform and Conservative Jews, but only a relatively small number of them are dues-paying synagogue members.

Nevertheless, the wholesome presence and impact of Reform Judaism in the Jewish state is an important factor in the movement’s Zionizing process throughout the world.