Reform Disengages. Now Who's Left?
The Jerusalem Report, July 16, 2001
by Samuel G. Freedman

Several hours after the suicide bombing at the Dolphinarium, I lugged my carry-on bags into a departure lounge at Newark Airport, awaiting the overnight flight to Tel Aviv. All around me, whispering urgently in Hebrew, Israelis drew toward CNN monitors that showed the bloodied bodies. Then I noticed a cluster of Americans, many of them mothers and children, each one wearing a pin with the slogan "Hearts for Israel."

I'd never before heard of this group. But I was so impressed that American Jews were proceeding to Israel, undeterred, at a time of such tragedy and peril that I broke my personal rule against ever conversing with anyone at an airport lest I wind up seated next to a chatterbox. And a blond woman named something like Gundersen explained: They were all Christians, headed for a Holy Land tour.

That encounter surged to mind three days later when the Reform movement officially canceled its summer program in Israel for American students. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, announced the decision with the singularly inappropriate phrase that "this movement never uses other people's children to make a political or ideological point." Unintentionally and yet indelibly, he seemed to have compared sending an American youngster on a limited, supervised visit to an embattled Israel to rearing a Palestinian child for martyrdom.

Put in narrow, denominational terms, the Reform movement's abdi-cation undermines its own worthy efforts to bring religious pluralism to Israel. More broadly, it attests to the estrangement of younger, non-Orthodox American Jews from Israel. Thirty-four years to the week after the Six-Day War erupted and the attachment of American Jews to the Jewish state reached its zenith, the Reform bail-out served as an emblem of disengagement. The corrosive effects, both for Reform and for American Jewry at large, will extend well beyond the end of the current violence.

From my own recent visit to Israel, I know only too well the trepidation of stepping into potential war. My sister called me just before I left for the airport to plead with me to cancel. My wife and children begged me to cut short my stay. I quickly acquired enough of the national anxiety to listen for any abrupt shifts to somber music on Army Radio and to wonder if anybody had checked the briefcase of the Arab man sitting next to me in the intercity taxi.

So I do not begrudge any person the right to decide Israel was too dangerous this summer. Over the last few months, 1,200 individuals withdrew from the Reform movement's Israel program, and those actions must remain above criticism. Similar fear led American Jews throughout the religious spectrum to cancel summer tours, renounce admission to yeshivot, even withdraw from the Maccabiah games.

But institutions carry different responsibilities than individuals, responsibilities that are often most powerful when they are most symbolic. The Reform movement would have made its most profound case for Jewish solidarity by sending the 300 students who were still willing to visit Israel. It would have demonstrated the concept of klal Yisrael — Jewish unity — had it even sent one. The Birthright Israel program, which I viewed skeptically at the outset, will probably never justify its existence more than it is by dispatching a contingent, however diminished, this summer.

If anything, the Reform movement has a particular self-interest in proving its Zionist mettle. The movement has poured tens of millions of dollars into establishing its presence in Israel. It has built synagogues and developed its rabbinical seminary. It has pressed in the Supreme Court for equality with Orthodoxy in conversion, burial, marriage, and other elements of civic life. And it has been right on every one of those issues. But you don't need to be an opportunist like Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert to sense a certain hypocrisy in the movement's retreat from Israel at a time of crisis. "You can talk the talk," goes a black American phrase, "but can you walk the walk?"

The chasm between talk and walk, in fairness, cannot be laid solely to Reform. It is a phenomenon common to a huge portion of American Jewry. The generations that grew up with a Jewish National Fund collection box on the kitchen table, that listened to the radio broadcast of the partition vote, that rallied and raised money on an unprecedented scale during the 1967 and 1973 wars — those generations are graying or already in the grave. Jews in their 20s and 30s associate Israel with the Lebanon invasion, the first intifada, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, or, worse, associate it with nothing much at all. Not even the spectacle last October of bloody hands in Ramallah brought American Jews en masse into the street.

Among the young in the United States, Israel belongs more and more to the Orthodox alone. They study there. They make aliyah. To say this is not to romanticize Orthodoxy but to state facts, facts that have real consequences for both peacemaking and religious pluralism in Israel. At a time when far too few non-Orthodox Jews visit or study in Israel, the Birthright boomlet notwithstanding, the worst possible message to those who still did care to do so was for Reform Judaism to stay home. Because meanwhile, on the day I went to pray at the Western Wall, the only worshippers I found were several dozen ultra-Orthodox, two Japanese tourists sans skullcaps, and three American blacks, clicking photos and carrying gift bags labeled "The Galilee Experience." Christians, of course.

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