Congregation B'nai Israel

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Check Off ARZA — 36 dollars and worth it.

by Rabbi James Prosnit, September 2017/Elul 5777/Tishrei 5778

At this time of year along with our annual “congregational commitment form”  comes a request to include an additional donation ($36.00) to support ARZA, The Association of Reform Zionists of America.

I hope you check off that box and join an organization that is deeply committed to Israel as an essential part of our Jewish identity and that works to ensure that modern Zionism encompasses the values of democracy, pluralism and equality.

If you followed the news from Israel this summer you know that some of that relationship was severely tested by two attempts to disenfranchise non-orthodox Jews.  One canceled an agreement to create a mixed-prayer space at the kotel, Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and the other sought to give Israel’s Chief Rabbinate a monopoly on the Jewish conversion process.

A 2016 compromise provided an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall and had been endorsed by Prime Minister Netanyahu as “One wall for one people.”   But under pressure from the religious right wing he backed down.  (Although due to enormous pressure from American Jews there is now a six month delay in any final agreement).  The crisis to disrupt the governing coalition was brought about by those who believe our Jewish way of life is illegitimate and has no place in the Jewish State.  Jerusalem was littered with placards calling for the “liberation” of the kotel from the “demonic” machinations of liberal Jews. 

The good news to all this may be that for the first time the Orthodox in Israel are feeling some pressure from the Reform and Conservative movements within Israel.

Rabbi Schultz and I met earlier this summer with the leader of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism — the IMPJ (which receives sizable funding from ARZA).  He talked about the increase in the number of Reform congregations – not just in the major hubs, but throughout the country.  In November the 100th Israeli born Reform rabbi will be ordained.  For the first time native born Israelis are coming to understand that one can be committed religiously without being Orthodox.

To be sure, religious pluralism is not all of a sudden ready to break out in the land of Israel.  The secular majority is still primarily secular and modern Orthodox as well as the Hareidim are unlikely to give up power and position. The Mizrachi community who are now a majority of Israeli Jews are very conservative when it comes to issues related to gender and cultural affinity and are unlikely to run to the nearest reform congregation.

But when it comes to the issues these two bills raise– it is crucial that we support ARZA and the other progressive groups within Israel for their sake and for ours. 

Exponents of Orthodoxy often find it very difficult to concede that you can practice Judaism outside the Orthodox framework out of conviction.  Our Jewish legitimacy is very much at stake.

Daniel Gordis, an American born rabbi now living in Israel writes “American Jews are not citizens of Israel and do not and should not have a vote on most of Israel’s policies… but all Jews have a stake in the kind of country Israel should be, particularly when it comes to its attitude to Jewish peoplehood.   The issue is whether the State of Israel will stand for the notion that there are a variety of ways in which Jews define Jewishness.”

ARZA is a great voice in helping insure that pluralism in the Jewish state remains a reality.