His Mother Wanted Him to Be a Rabbi, But He Went to Build a Kibbutz

With the World Zionist Congress 2020 elections underway, and a robust slate of Reform candidates on the Reform slate, American Jews have the ability to vote for the Jewish future of Israel and help set policies regarding key institutions that support global Jewish life and which allocate nearly $1 billion annually to support Israel and World Jewry and to invest in a Zionism that sustains an Israel that is Jewish, democratic, and a free society that upholds equality of religion, gender, race, and ethnicity.

Here, we share the thoughts of Matityahu Sperber—one of the many diverse members of the Reform Jewish community in Israel—who shares his desire for liberal Jewish Democratic values to remain at the heart of the Jewish State.

I grew up in and was an active youth member of Temple Israel of Jamaica in Queens, New York.  I was president of the youth group and president of LIFTY, but the most significant experiences of my Jewish/Zionist education were as a camper, staff, and faculty member at Kutz Camp, and the year I spent as a student at the Hebrew University. There, I was profoundly influenced by my studies with a recent new immigrant, Rabbi David Hartman.  It was during that year that I made the decision to make aliyah and to make my contribution to the development of the Jewish Democratic State. I hoped then, and still hope today, that the liberal, progressive Jewish values that were so much a part of my Jewish upbringing would find their place in the developing State of Israel and that I could make a small contribution to that process.

I was privileged to be able to be part of the original settlement group to Kibbutz Yahel: Garin Arava, and arrived there together with my wife Laura in 1977. Together we joined with the Israeli garinim in a bold attempt to create a living and all-encompassing community that would be based on those same Jewish, liberal, democratic, and socialistic values. Add to this the challenges of creating a new, agriculturally-based settlement in the distant Arava desert, and we had clearly signed on for a major challenge.  We are still struggling to grow and to attract people, who share our vision of a modern Reform Jewish Community, but much has been accomplished and we are optimistic regarding Yahel’s future.

Most of my energy has been spent within the Yahel community, developing it both socially, spiritually, and economically. But, I have also found the time and opportunity to make my contribution in the region—the Southern Arava, as well as in JAFI, the JNF, IRAC, and the Israeli Reform Movement. I believe deeply that these organizations represent the best of those same liberal Jewish Democratic values that I want so much to be at the heart of the Jewish State.

In the last year most of my energy in the Reform Movement has been spent leading the Movement’s efforts to create its first permanent summer camp facility with year round programming. I know from experience how much this can contribute to the development of the lay and rabbinic leadership that is needed to strengthen the Israel Reform Movement’s future.

The last five years have found me in the trenches fighting the good fight in the halls and board rooms of the KKL/JNF. From my position as the chair of Himanuta, the company in charge of all land purchasing, the management of $150 million dollars of rental properties, and the development of $1.8 billion dollars of real estate, I have a unique opportunity to bring our Movement’s values to these important activities.

The issues relevant to the Reform Movement that have kept me busy include:

  • Use of properties owned by Himanuta in East Jerusalem and the old city.
  • Properties occupied by Bedouin in the Negev and Galilee.
  • Limiting the purchasing of land to areas that are part of the widest consensus of the Jewish People.
  • Use of Himanuta’s and the KKL’s properties for the benefit of all of Israel’s citizens.

As Israel has continued its movement to the right in the last five years, the battles in the KKL between our center/left coalition, (which has a small majority), and the right wing have become much more intense. Unfortunately, in the last year, rare are the moments when all the representatives function together in the name of all of the Jewish people. I hope and believe that the results of the current election to the World Zionist Congress will leave the Reform Movement in a position to join with the other liberal and progressive political forces to maintain and strengthen Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State that we can all be proud of. 

Matityahu Sperber grew up in the United States and made aliyah more than 40 years ago. He is a founding member of Yahel, the first Reform Kibbutz, in the Arava desert. Learn more about the World Zionist Congress elections, and vote through March 11, 2020.

Books Israel

Fragile Identities in Dialogue: What is Zionism today?

I grew up in an age when the State of Israel was touted as the panacea for the lost American Jew. We celebrated Yom haAtzmaut as fervently as we celebrated Purim. The most exciting skits put on by our day camp counselors all ended up with the characters realizing they could just go to Israel. It was messaged, both subtly and not-so-subtly, that the greatest move we could make as a Jew was Aliyah. The State of Israel was a modern miracle. I do not remember the word Zionism crossing anyone’s lips, but I was certainly raised a Zionist.

When I ventured to Israel for the first time as a senior in highschool, I came back fully bought into the triumphalist Zionist narrative of the State of Israel as the culmination of all Jewish history; the reclamation of Jewish strength; the realization of Jewish sovereignty, and, soon, in vague whispers, the messiah. Then I went to college in Gambier, OH, and I found that there was another side to the story – a reality of oppression inflicted by the State of Israel upon the Palestinians that wasn’t justifiable.

In search of answers, I returned to Israel for my junior year abroad in 2004-2005, and now off the rails of the high school Israel-as-Disneyland experience, I was free to see a much broader spectrum of Israeli life. Busses exploded blocks from my dorm in Beer Sheva; religious extremists refused to leave their settlements in Gaza, threatening to tear apart the country; Bedouin were rounded up and forcibly settled in the Negev against their will, often in abject poverty. I returned from that experience confused and concerned. Why had I been taught this State was the answer to all my questions about Judaism? What even is Zionism, and do I want anything to do with it?

Dr. Joshua Holo, the dean of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, writes in the upcoming release from CCAR Press, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism, that Zionism “seeks to guarantee Israel’s existence and its Jewish and democratic character…(and) merely reflects the fact that Jews and Judaism are tightly bound up with the Land of Israel.”

Regardless of the inner conflict, the crack at the foundation of my relationship to Israel, I still feel bound up with the Land of Israel. After writing a graduate thesis on the development of secular Israeli identity, and spending my first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem, I am no longer surprised by the disappointments the government of Israel consistently bring me. It no longer hurts when my very Jewish identity is denied authenticity by that same government. My anger no longer burns so strongly at the continued and worsening oppression of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli government. It has all become old hat, and as predictable as the rest of the Jewish calendar.

Coming from the perspective of a Jewish educator, in her chapter from The Fragile Dialogue titled, “Educating for Ambiguity,” Rabbi Dr. Lisa Grant, writes, “Just as all would agree that God, Torah, and shabbat are integral to Jewish experience but that different Jews have different beliefs and practices, the same can be said about Israel. There is no one right way to engage with Israel, but engaging is an essential aspect of Jewish experience.”

Words are slippery creatures. Jewish tradition has spilled much ink arguing over the definition of one word or another. Once a word referring specifically to the lofty dream of a new nation State for the Jews, upon the accomplishment of this goal it has now spun into a multitude of different amalgamations: Religious Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, Classical Zionism, Anti-Zionism – and, as these writers discuss, Liberal Zionism.

I’m not sure if I’m a Liberal Zionist, but I am sure that no matter what I do, the State of Israel is as basic to my daily thoughts as Torah and the Jewish calendar. Although I no longer see the State of Israel as a miracle (just as I no longer think that Moses literally parted the Red Sea), I can not cut the ties that bind me to her. So I must join the conversation, and welcome all the voices, from Religious Zionists to Anti-Zionists, but also be willing to stand and put my own relationship with Israel into words.

During Purim we celebrate the story of the victory of the Jews of Persia over their oppressors, and also look critically, even ashamedly, at the end of the book of Esther in which these same Jews massacre 75,000 of their enemies. If we can manage this confusing and confounding tradition each year, we can celebrate the accomplishments within the contemporary State of Israel, as well as protest the moral failings we see in its government.

Andy Kahn is entering his fifth year as a rabbinic student at HUC-JIR. He has served as the CCAR Rabbinic Intern and is currently the Rabbinic Intern at East End Temple in New York City. 


On anti-Semitism

Once, when I was about 22 years old and living in San Francisco, I was at an evening meeting of volunteers who were coming together to build a program to support LGBT youth. As we gathered around the table, chitchatting before the meeting began, a man was speaking animatedly about a sale he had made earlier that day. I wasn’t listening closely, but then heard the words “He better not have Jewed me down.” I had never heard anything like this before, so I wasn’t sure if I’d heard him right. When he was done speaking, I asked, “Excuse me, did you just say ‘Jewed me down’?” “Yeah” he said innocently. I asked: “’Jewed’ as in Jew?” “Um, I guess so. I don’t know,” he answered. “It’s just what you say when a person is trying to pay you less than they should.” Hmmmm. I replied, “I’ve never heard that before, but I think that word comes from a stereotype about Jews.” He was embarrassed, and I didn’t want to make him more embarrassed, so we left it there and moved on to the topic of our meeting.

For those who haven’t heard this phrase before, a quick look at the Urban Dictionary online tells us it means, “The act of a buyer negotiating a lower price for goods or services from a seller. As in ‘The car dealer wanted me to pay sticker price for my new car, but I successfully Jewed him down to a lower price.'” Or alternatively, “In video games, to kill or down someone in a cheap way. As in ‘I am going to Jew him down with an active reload sniper.’”


I can count only a handful of times I’ve personally encountered anti-Semitism like this. While it can be shocking and offensive, I’ve never felt personally threatened by it. Like in the situation I described above, I often feel embarrassed for the person who has exposed their ignorance and bias.

That’s why for many years in my life I had trouble taking fears of rising anti-Semitism in the United States very seriously. In Europe, yes. In the Middle East, yes. But in the United States, there are many people who face bias that has material consequences, that might endanger them walking down the street or limit their life chances, even life expectancy. In the scheme of things, in this country at least, Jews are doing pretty well.

But now I am beginning to feel that it is time to take anti-Semitism seriously in the United States, and that means understanding it a lot better than we do now. Anti-Semitism is confusing precisely because it is not linked to constraints in economic well-being or social status. In fact, the better Jews do in a society, the more we assimilate and the more powerful we become, the more potentially dangerous the anti-Semitism.

You may have heard that a couple of weeks ago at the Chicago Dyke March, women who were waving rainbow flags with a Jewish star were ejected from the march. The reason given was that the Chicago Dyke March is anti-Zionist. This is problematic for so many reasons – that the Chicago Dyke March has a policy against the self-determination of the Jewish people; that a lesbian march celebrating intersectionality would not allow Jewish lesbians to display the two symbols of their intersecting identity (the rainbow flag and the Jewish star); that Jews and Zionists are singled out among all of the peoples as uniquely deserving of opprobrium and exclusion. Incidents like these are not limited to LGBT environments. We see them increasingly on college campuses and in the social justice movements on the Left. Remember the Movement for Black Lives platform of last summer which accused Israel of genocide.

This leaves us with complex questions, such as, what is the relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism? Overall, it requires that we increase our inquiry and investigation into the nature of anti-Semitism. What is it, exactly? Why is it spreading right now? How is it operating in this historical moment?

I met yesterday with Kenneth Stern, who has been studying anti-Semitism for more than 20 years. Ken offered these elements of a working definition: Anti-Semitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity. It tends to employ sinister stereotypes and negative character traits, and it is often used to blame Jews for why things go wrong. It takes three forms: it can be directed toward the Jewish religion, Jews as a people, or the Jewish state.

This last piece is complex, because as a state Israel does harm and does wrong, as do many states in the world. But it is one thing to criticize the actions and policies of the state—criticism that ought to be loud, persistent, and clear— and arguing that because the state does wrong it should not exist, or characterizing the state as uniquely evil (for example, claiming that Israel is the worst human rights abuser when Syria is next door), or employing sinister stereotypes about the character of the state (in the ways that “he Jewed me down” implies that Jews are scheming, exploitative, and taking what does not belong to us, much anti-Zionist rhetoric is based on the same stereotypes). Glaringly, it is anti-Semitism to blame all Jewish people for the actions of the Jewish state. This happens often, such as when women with a rainbow flag with a Jewish star are expelled from a lesbian march in Chicago because they are Zionists.

To be clear, Zionism is the movement for the self-determination of the Jewish people. If one speaks clearly, as I do, for the freedom, safety, and self-determination of the Palestinian people through a Palestinian state, how could one not speak clearly for the freedom, safety, and self-determination of the Jewish people through the state of Israel?

An interesting piece circulated this week by Black, anti-racist strategist, Eric Ward, who has been studying white nationalist militias and movements in the United States for more than 20 years, argues that anti-Semitism is at the heart of white supremacy—it is the theoretical core of white nationalism– and that anyone on the Left who wants to defeat white supremacy in America must understand and take on anti-Semitism in order to succeed. As we see the growth of explicitly white supremacist movements on the Right, Ward shows that white nationalism depends on the idea of a vast Jewish conspiracy to explain why the supposedly inferior black and brown races continue to have successes, such as ending Jim Crow or electing a president of the United States, or the crossover success of hip hop. If white people are truly superior, the only explanation can be some kind of hidden power, some arch-nemesis of the white race that is pulling the strings behind the scenes, and that is how antisemitism becomes indispensable to white supremacy.

And that is why anti-Semitism is so difficult to identify and name. It is confusing. It becomes more and more dangerous precisely as Jews become more and more assimilated and successful in a society. American Jews are in a Golden Age and that is exactly why we have to start paying attention to anti-Semitism. The more Jews are allowed into positions of power and influence, the more white privilege we have, the more tricky and conspiratorial we are seen to be.

Ignoring anti-Semitism in the United States is no longer an option. As it rises on the Left and on the Right, it behooves us to call it out, to learn about its nuance and understand its complexity, to speak about it with our friends, to teach about it where we can. And to lift up voices like Eric Ward’s, who understand the ways in which anti-Semitism is linked to racism and other forms of oppression. It is through such analyses that we can begin to imagine and articulate a shared vision with oppressed communities in this country – a vision of universal human dignity, liberation, and blessing for all people.

This week in Torah, Balak, king of Moab, fears the Israelites. But it is not just he who fears us. The Torah says, “Moab [the whole country] was alarmed because that people was so numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites…saying ‘Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.’” So Balak sends for the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites so that they can be driven out of the land.

But that’s not how the story ends. Balaam, upon seeing the Israelites, opens his mouth to curse, but blessing emerges. According to Torah, God places the words of blessing into Balaam’s mouth. But the rabbis have many other explanations, most of which involve Balaam seeing something beautiful when he beholds the Israelites. He perceives that they are not a dangerous menace to be cursed but a people worthy of blessing. “Like palm groves that stretch out, like gardens beside a tree, like aloes planted by Adonai, like cedars beside the water…”

May it be that the day will come when Jews— our religion, our people, our state— will be seen by the other nations as worthy of blessing, and as sources of blessing for our neighbors and the societies in which we dwell. Until then, may we see ourselves that way, and teach those we know to do the same.

Rabbi Rachel Timoner serves Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY.

Books Israel

Swiftly Flow the Days

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share how the book came together. The book is officially available for pre-order now from CCAR Press. 

When I sat with David Ben Gurion in his Tel Aviv apartment in 1973, there was no doubt in “The Old Man’s” mind as to what Zionism was: To come to the Land.  To build and to be rebuilt.  To create a new Jew and a new Judaism in the Old/New Land.  He was bemused by the fact that there was push back from some quarters in the Diaspora.  All those ‘Zionists’ had come out to cheer BG in London.  But then he boarded his plane to return to Eretz Yisrael, and they returned to the London suburbs.  So what’s a Zionist?

And then there was the struggle with Jacob Blaustein of the American Jewish Committee.  All Israel’s founder had said was that Jews were obligated to settle in Israel. Blaustein strongly protested against this obvious denigration of the Diaspora, so the Blaustein-Ben Gurion Agreement was signed in 1951.  Blaustein would support the Zionist enterprise from afar and BG would not (often) criticize that distancing.  So what’s a Zionist?

In 1967, it seems that everyone was now a Zionist.  Following the victories of the Six-Day War, Jewish volunteers flooded Israel.  Youth programs expanded dramatically.  Israeli flags flourished on synagogue pulpits across the world.  Heschel wrote: Israel, An Echo of Eternity.  Soviet Jewry began to flex its muscles.  American Jewry was marked by parades, marches and other public events in which our Zionist identities were celebrated with pride.

But with the passing years there were increasing doubts and uncertainties and disappointments.  The world was moving away from the fervent nationalisms that described the mid-20th century.  Israel became controversial.  Some deemed its policy of Occupation to be colonialist or worse.  Ethnicity and peoplehood eroded as the individual was increasingly celebrated.  More wars.  Intifadas.  Ethiopian Jews confronted discrimination, as had the Mizrachim before them.  As do Israeli Arabs.  Reform Judaism was far too often treated as an unwelcome, alien presence.  Huge gaps opened up between the very rich and the very poor.  Was the bloom off the rose?

The nations of the world increasingly felt free from their burden of responsibility for having incited anti-Semitism over the centuries.  But now anti-Semitism was being cloaked in anti-Zionism.  And long suppressed arguments burst forth from within world Jewry.  Too easily accommodating to new norms for discussion, shouting replaced words; ad hominem insults replaced reasoned disagreement; rage replaced discomfort.  We refused to hear anything with which we disagreed.  By the second decade of the 21st century, Jews began boycotting Jews over arguments regarding who and what is a ‘good’ Zionist?  And whose views were the most likely to guarantee Israel’s security?  Battered increasingly from without, we turned on each other.

The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism has the self-assumed role of trying to demonstrate that we Jews must and can learn how to speak with one another about core, existential issues.  This book is intended to be a model for Jewish disagreement about the meaning, purposes and goals of Zionism.  No more demonization.  No more exclusion or banning.  Neither Rabbi Englander nor I have any intention of attempting to define right answers, but only to demonstrate that strongly held positions from within the liberal Jewish community both need to be heard and must be heard.

Does anything go?  Frankly, No.  Our scholars and teachers had to meet one standard: they are firmly committed to the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and Democratic State.

Some of our authors favor the possibility of a One State Solution.  Some favor Two States.  Some favor a nuanced imposition of BDS.  Some see Israel as a Divine gift.  Some reject any claim that Israel is “The beginning of our Redemption.”  Some want us to teach Zionism with an embrace of ambiguity; some see the survival of North American Jewry as dependent upon the survival of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State.  They all have a place in this book; and they all have a place in our synagogues, campuses, and Jewish organizations.  Open wide the umbrella!

Enough banning of Zionist voices with which we are uncomfortable!  Hear each other.  See each other.  Greet each other with respect.  Make space so that our children can find their own, unique liberal Zionist voices – without fear of being ostracized.

In recent days, complaints against the Netanyahu Government over the Kotel and over Conversion have made this book even more important.  The language of liberal, religious Zionism can give us the power to state our demands while not encouraging even more distancing or, worse, indifference.

The liberal Zionist dialogue is fragile, but we must preserve it.  Larry and I have worked with that imperative firmly in mind.

Read as if our future depends upon it.  Because it does.

Rabbi Stanley M. Davids serves as rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta, GA. He is also a Co-Editor of CCAR Press’s newest book, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism, now officially available for pre-order from CCAR Press. 

Books Israel

What’s in an Anniversary?

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share how the book came together. The book is officially available for pre-order now from CCAR Press. 

On the occasion of Israel’s 8th anniversary Rav Joseph Soloveitchik gave a series of landmark lectures which were later compiled and called “Kol Dodi Dofek” or “The Voice of my Beloved Hearkens.” This quickly became a seminal document in the canon of Religious Zionism which examines clear manifestations of God’s presence in modern historical events. This visionary rabbi – tasked with the mission to rebuild the Orthodox community in a post-Shoah reality – realized that merely 8 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, we were already seeing a drifting apart between the two largest Jewish communities in the world, Israel and North America.  His hope was that these two communities would operate as if they were a person with one body and two heads.[1] Soloveitchik’s argument boiled down is a basic תוכחה (rebuke) or clever commentary on Israeli and American Jewish life that accuses Israelis of being too focused on peoplehood thereby, being weak on Torah values, and American Jews for being weak on peoplehood and mutual responsibility while being overly focused on Religion.  His is a statement claiming that the early development of these two polarities could set a course of furthering one from the other and creating an insurmountable metaphoric (and physical) distance between the two communities.

This year, a year of fortuitous and fateful anniversaries, would that we could reflect back upon the Rav’s assessment and thankfully extol how wrong he was.  But alas…

This year much of the Israel-oriented and Zionist world is hyper-focused on 5777 being:

120 years since the first World Zionist Congress

100 years since the Balfour Declaration

70 years the UN vote to accept the Partition plan on November 29th

50 years since the Six Day war

40 years since the “מהפך”  (the revolutionary moment when Menachem Begin and the Likud rose to power reversing the establishment rule of the Labor party), and the establishment of ARZA(!)

30 years since the first Intifada…

All leading up to the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel which we will celebrate in 5778.

Anniversaries are important, as they mark milestones and offer opportunities for individual and collective heshbon nefesh. They allow to us pause, zoom out and ask ourselves what has happened in the past 100 or 50 years, and whether we have achieved our goals, strayed dangerously from the path of righteousness and justice, or engineer a necessary cause for celebration and affirmation that we fell on the right side of history.

Of all the anniversaries that we mark this year, the Balfour declaration and the Six Day war have been highlighted as the source of discussion, debate and convenient conferencing and teaching. These are important opportunities for engagement with our students, congregants and fellow Jews but we must not let them be used out of context or glorified for more than they are. Use this moment to teach, to read books and evaluate the current situation.  Is this moment a cause for celebration?  There is no question in my mind that it is.  Is this moment a cause for consternation, concern and recognition and that Israel has reached a point of no return, also true? A century after the British Empire awarded us with favour the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” do we not also recognize that Sir Henry McMahon made a similar promise to Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca who then saw the Balfour Declaration as a violation of previous agreements made in their correspondence?  Do we see the Six Day War only in the light of the miraculous victory that saved the State of Israel from imminent destruction, or do we view this moment as the predicate to the military rule over another people?

The answer, I hope, is “Yes, and…”.

Yes, this is cause for celebration and cause for concern and let us not forget that Zionism is about creating the exemplary society that the pioneers romanticized.  It is about liberation, self-determination and creating a society based on the principles of חסד  (chesed – loving kindness) and צדק (tzedek – justice), ones that we hope will prevail for the next 50, 70 and 100 years.  As our contemporary Zionist leader Anat Hoffman often reminds us, that “love is what remains after we know the truth.”  Seek the truth, teach it and preach it, and instill the love that is at the core of who we are and what we do.

Happy anniversaries.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, and is a contributor to The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism, now available for pre-order from CCAR Press. 


[1] Shared Suffering: A logical, and natural, consequence of the awareness of a shared predicament would be a commonality of anguish; the sharing by all Jews of each other’s suffering. To illustrate this point, the Rav utilizes a midrash based upon the discussion of the legacy to which a man with two heads is entitled (based on a parable in BT Menahot 37a).
The situations begs the question that if he should receive two shares, or just one; does he constitute two separate entities inhabiting the same body, or just a single entity with diverse appearances?
Answer:   The answer is to have boiling water poured on one of the heads. If it alone cries out in pain, then it is truly separate from the other; if both experience the agony, however, then there is but one.




The New Zionism

Suddenly, it all started to make sense as we were enjoying dinner at a tasty Ethiopian restaurant in the center of Tel Aviv with a long-time friend from Westfield and his companion, Rachel. As a teenager, Rachel had made aliyah with her family from Canada to Israel.

A light flicked on in my brain as she announced: “When I made aliyah to Israel 35 years ago, I was a Zionist. Then I lost my Zionism and now…I have found it again.”

“Where did you find it?” I asked.

Her response:  “In the high tech, start-up companies that I work for.”

My wife and I had just completed a week of study, prayer, dialogue, and exploration with 330 Reform rabbis.  The Central Conference of American Rabbis gathers in Israel every seven years to learn, to engage, and to reaffirm our commitment to the Jewish State.

This was perhaps my 35th visit. (My first was three years after the State was established and I’ve long since lost count.)  This time I knew something was different, but I couldn’t put my finger on it until that moment.

A new Zionism has emerged. It is taking many forms, but most dramatically I discovered it in the start up companies that are transforming Israel into a high tech powerhouse and an engine for improving the quality of life for millions of people worldwide.

The most dramatic example we learned about is ReWalk, a commercial bionic walking-assistance system that uses powered leg attachments to enable paraplegics to stand upright, walk and climb stairs.  ReWalk is transforming the lives of those paralyzed by stroke, falls, and spinal cord injuries.

Steak TzarTzar is a start-up that delivers affordable and sustainable grasshopper (yes, grasshopper!) protein. Their goal is to enable populations globally to enjoy high quality, environmentally friendly nutrients that can substitute for animal source protein.

Start-ups become global powerhouses. Consider waste-water reclamation. Israel is today a water and irrigation superpower, No. 1 in the world in recycling waste-water.  Israel partners with Kenya to develop desalination on Kenya’s 500 km. coast along the Indian Ocean, and to support Kenya’s new Water for Schools Program to connect all its public schools to water.  It all began with a start-up from the old Zionism days in the Negev. Netafim, the Israeli-developed drip-system, enables underdeveloped countries worldwide to irrigate fields with a fraction of the water normally used.

Old Zionism was built on an agriculture driven, kibbutz-based model that attracted pioneers who reclaimed the land and supplied Israel’s population with tomatoes, oranges, and cucumbers. Those early settlements provided a refuge for Jews persecuted in other lands and a security buffer against Israel’s regional enemies.

What motivated Rachel’s family and most olim (immigrants) from the West to settle in Israel has disappeared. Israel no longer secures her borders with settlements, no longer absorbs large numbers of olim, and no longer propels its economy with agriculture.

New Zionism is based on a global economy that rewards innovation in technology, especially in health care, environment, security, and communication (software for your voicemail was developed in Israel).  Israeli brainpower and entrepreneurial spirit provide a new foundation for building a prosperous and hopefully secure Israel.

But two clouds hang heavy over this New Zionism and the  Jewish State. One is the continuing occupation of the West Bank. The enduring conflict between Jews and Palestinians, and the failure to progress toward a two-state solution is a threat to the stability  and democratic character of Israel. The other threat is the disproportionate leverage which the ultra-Orthodox exert in the government coalition resulting in relentless attacks on human values, pluralism, and progressive Judaism in Israel.  These are the flaws in Israeli society which lead Israelis like Rachel to wonder if they can still embrace Zionism and which discourage American Jews – especially those under age 45 – from enthusiastic support of the Jewish State.

But here too, there is hope in the form of a New Zionism. Sixty-five percent of Israelis support a two-state solution and a whopping 86% support freedom of religion.  This is reflected in the Israelis we spoke with who are committed to strengthening the state by curtailing settlement expansion and aggressively working for peace. Theirs is a vision which aligns with the democratic, pluralistic values of most American Jews.

In recent years, Reform Judaism has made enormous progress in Israel.  Since 2009, our congregations have doubled to nearly 50. In November, Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem will ordain its one hundredth Israeli Reform rabbi. In a recent survey, 34% of Israeli Jews said that the Progressive movement is the Jewish movement they most identify with. (23% stated that they identify most with Orthodox Judaism).

At our convention, Reform rabbis prayed shacharit at the area of the Kotel which the Israeli government has officially designated to be operated by progressive Jews for egalitarian and pluralistic prayer. The Supreme Court has ruled that every public mikvah must be open to non-Orthodox Jews. A handful of Reform rabbis and synagogues now receive financial support from the government.  These breakthroughs were unimaginable 20 years ago. Even civil marriage is a realistic possibility in the near future.

My friend Rachel is once again a Zionist. She can see that a growing number of Israelis are committed to democratic values, the end of the occupation, and pluralistic Judaism. She recognizes that with courageous, enlightened leadership, Israel can once again be a beacon of hope not only for its citizens, but for people in need throughout the world. She senses that most American Jews share her vision.  She hopes – and so do I — that we will make our voices heard.

Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff is Rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, New Jersey, and past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Israel Reform Judaism

Israel at 67- Thoughts

Approaching Yom HaZikaron and Yom Haatzmaut, I now mark the second cycle of these Iyyar holidays living in New York.  Last year went by with the curiosity of what happens in the Diaspora – events, celebrations, cocktail parties and lectures.  All nice and impressive, but still lacking. There is no comparison to being in Israel on these days as the entire country kneels down in mourning only to then rise up out of the depths in celebration of what many still do not take for granted – that the dream of an independent sovereign Jewish state is indeed a reality.   During this varying 48-hour experience it is impossible to avoid the mood that sets in throughout the country.  It is impossible to not be enveloped into the national discussion of what it is that those many thousands gave their lives and what we wish for Israel’s future on her birthday.

Peering from abroad as we commemorate and celebrate, we are engaged in two existential debates on the future of the Jewish state both testing the strength of Israel as both Jewish and Democratic.  67 years later there are too many in Israel for whom democracy is increasingly interpreted as being antithetical to Judaism.  Let me be clear, this is both wrong and potentially disastrous for the future of Israel.  It is Israel’s democratic nature that allows it to continue as Jewish.  And this will require a certain sense of maturity and willingness to compromise in order to maintain.  The Jewish state can only remain as such if it remains committed to the principles of democracy (those clearly outlined in the Declaration of Independence.)

On December 21, 1947, Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog then Chief Rabbi of the Yishuv (Jewish community living in mandated Palestine, and grandfather of contemporary Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog) wrote to the Zionist leader Shlomo Zalman Shragai “Blessed be He that we have reached this stage, even though it is still only the beginning of the beginning.”  If we perceive the establishment of the State of Israel to be “Reishit Tzmihat Geulateinu – the first flowering of our redemption” it is upon us to be the pruners and harvesters of the early blossoms that were opened on that fateful day in the month of Iyyar 67 years ago.

Often times nurturing a blossom requires food, water and sunlight and other times pruning requires the necessary awareness to remove a side-ward growing branch – doing so in full knowledge that amputation will foster the survival and thriving of the body.  It was this notion of compromise that led one of our greatest sages Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai to plead “Grant me Yavne and its sages,” as he recognized that the only way that both Am Yisrael and Judaism could survive would be to compromise and to focus on the future.

Today our situation is not dissimilar in which we must make a fateful decision to compromise.  The fact is that most of Israeli society has done this already and has chosen the path of a Jewish and Democratic state over that of holding on to land that like the side-ward growing branch of a plant needs to be cut in order for us to survive.

The second challenge facing our Jewish democracy today that of working to determine which Jewish values we want our state to exemplify and which we don’t.  This must be the imperative for the next seven decades and we have a lot to offer.  Many Israelis are waking up to the reality that having a Jewish State does not necessarily mean that they automatically have a Jewish community.  When I came on Aliyah to Israel, I thought that I had fulfilled my own personal Zionist quest.  Shortly thereafter I realized that there was still a tremendous amount of work to be done.  I realized that for so many the values that I learned growing up in the Reform movement, of welcoming the stranger, tolerance and accepting a multiplicity of observance and Jewish practice, ecology and egalitarianism could be perceived as a threat to the Jewishness of the State.  These values are what makes the largest and most diverse Jewish society on the planet Jewish and we must not accept any dissention from that notion.

What I love about Israel is how intrinsically Jewish it is.  How much thought and creativity come out of Israeli society.  What I also love is that it is malleable, impressionable and very much growing.  I love that Israeli Jews are constantly flocking to create new kehilot and that our movement is at the forefront of creating an Israeli nusah, an Israeli style of Judaism that is authentic, inclusive and is evolving what Judaism is when it comes to social justice, how we relate to the other, and what prayer should be just to name a few.

The story of Israel’s first 67 years is one for the movies. It is full of drama, successes, mishaps and experimentation.  What we need now is to foster that flowering, to recognize and be fully aware that we as passionate and involved American Jews can be involved in this process.  We can have a voice that will resonate.  This year on Yom Haatzmaut I urge you to think about Israel not as a far off place, known often for its conflicts, but as an opportunity.    An opportunity to join together in writing history and helping to set the direction for Judaism for the foreseeable future.  As we the blossoms of that first flowering you can join too simply voting in the elections for the World Zionist Congress and ensuring that your voice is heard.  (

חג עצמאות שמח!

Please see this “Al HaNissim” prayer for Yom Haatzmaut and feel free to share with your congregations.

עַל הַנִּסִּים וְעַל הַפֻּרְקָן וְעַל הַגְּבוּרוֹת וְעַל הַתְּשוּעוֹת וְעַל הַנֶּחָמוֹת וְעַל הַמִּלְחָמוֹת שֶׁעָשִׂיתָ לָנוּ בַּזְּמַן הַזֶּה.
ביום ה’ באייר חמשת אלפים תש”ח למניין שאנו מונים לבריאת העולם, בעת ההכרזה על הקמת מדינת ישראל, זכה עם ישראל לריבונות על אדמתם ולשליטה על גורלם. על נס הקמת מדינה יהודית באשר היא ראשית צמיחת גאולתינו. מדינה זו באה מתוך קשר היסטורי ומסורתי זה חתרו היהודים בכל דור לשוב ולהאחז במולדתם העתיקה. ובדורות האחרונים שבו לארצם בהמונים, וחלוצים, מעפילים ומגינים הפריחו נשמות, החיו שפתם העברית, בנו כפרים וערים, והקימו ישוב גדל והולך השליט על משקו ותרבותו, שוחר שלום ומגן על עצמו, מביא ברכת הקידמה לכל תושבי הארץ ונושא נפשו לעצמאות ממלכתית. זה יום עשה יהוה נגילה ונשמחה בו כשנאמר: “וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מִן הַגּוֹיִם וְקִבַּצְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מִכָּל הָאֲרָצוֹת וְהֵבֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם אֶל אַדְמַתְכֶם” (יחזקאל לו, כד( וּלְעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל עָשִׂיתָ תְּשוּעָה גְּדוֹלָה וּפֻרְקָן כְּהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, הִדְבַּרְתָּ עַמִּים תַּחְתֵּנוּ וּלְאֻמִּים תַּחַת רַגְלֵנוּ, וְנָתַתָּ לָנוּ אֶת נַחֲלָתֵנוּ אשר תיקרא “מדינת ישראל”. ולפי כך מדינה זו תהא פתוחה לעליה יהודית ולקיבוץ גלויות; תשקוד על פיתוח הארץ לטובת כל תושביה; תהא מושתתה על יסודות החירות, הצדק והשלום לאור חזונם של נביאי ישראל; תקיים שויון זכויות חברתי ומדיני גמור לכל אזרחיה בלי הבדל דת, גזע ומין;  תבטיח חופש דת, מצפון, לשון, חינוך ותרבות; תשמור על המקומות הקדושים של כל הדתות. יְהִי-שָׁלוֹם בְּחֵילֵךְ שַׁלְוָה בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָיִךְ.