When I first attended HUC-JIR in Cincinnati back in 1959, Reform rabbis were still divided in their commitment to the new Jewish state. In the 60s and 70s, we became solidly united in our support of the homeland of the Jewish people. While we are yet to become fully recognized by the state, we have been sparing no effort standing by her side no matter what. As a native of Israel whose parents were among the founders of the state, and as someone who was there at the birth, to me Israel is a gift from God to the martyrized Jewish people. Since 1970, when the CCAR held its first conference in Jerusalem, I’ve been back nearly every year, and even went back to do military service. In recent years, as I did this year, I’ve been going there strictly to visit family.
In late August my wife and I spent ten days at a nice resort hotel in north Tel Aviv, minutes from my two sisters’ homes in Ramat Aviv. My children and grandchildren are very attached to their Israeli nephews and nieces, and my oldest granddaughter was just there with her camp group for a month as part of her CIT experience, and got to spend one evening with the family. My oldest Israeli grandniece just turned eighteen and was proud of her acceptance to the ranks of Israel’s military intelligence.
It is hard for me to believe that in a few short decades Israel went from a community of half a million Jews with a ragtag army to a nation of over six million Jews with a mighty military and a world leader in high tech. But at the same time I find myself bemoaning the fact that what started out in my day as a socialist Utopian dream of an egalitarian society reaching out a hand of peace to its neighbors, has become a materialistic, intolerant and aggressive society with a growing gap between rich and poor and a societal code of conduct which reminds one more of third world countries than a progressive democracy, what with a former prime minister and a former president serving jail terms.
Where do progressive Jewish movements like Reform Judaism fit in this contemporary picture of social decline?
To start with, it is paramount that we become fully recognized Jews in our own right, and not lapsed Jews who need the imprimatur of Orthodoxy to be accepted into the fold. The Orthodox minority in Israel has political power far exceeding its numbers and its contribution to society, making life difficult not only for us but for the majority of Israelis, like my own relatives. This has become an intolerable situation which corrodes the institutions of the state.
Second, we need representation in the Knesset. While in the Diaspora we are not a political movement, unfortunately in Israel all groups, from Orthodox to Russians, have their own political parties, which is the only way to have a voice in Israeli society. We could also become part of an existing liberal party, which would provide us with a voice.
Third, we should rally around the cause of peace. It should be clear to any thinking person that Israel cannot go on forever as a military fortress. The peace with Egypt and Jordan needs to become a productive force, rather than merely a formal relation. There are great benefits here to all parties. But even more important, the two-state solution must become a reality. We did not establish the State of Israel to occupy another people. We Reform rabbis need to work not only with our fellow Jews in Israel but also with the Palestinians, to promote the cause of peaceful coexistence. In the 60s in the United States we took the lead in the struggle for social justice for people of color, and we need to do the same in Israel. Much good work has been done already by our colleagues in Israel, but have only just begun.
Rabbi Mordecai Schreiber, a member of Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, Florida, is celebrating 50 years as a CCAR rabbi.