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Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch sees no future for Reform Judaism without Israel ties

With rabbinical students accusing Israel of apartheid, this top New York rabbi fears a split over whether or not Jewish peoplehood is a central priority
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch. For one time use in TIMES OF ISRAEL (August 2021). Not for any  additional use unless a written permission granted by Shahar Azran.
Images are not transferable. (Shahar Azron)
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch (Shahar Azron)

It was, for Israel, a painful awakening, served up by those who are supposed to be its dearest friends. The 100 names at the bottom of the letter published during the latest round of fighting between Israel and Gaza aren’t well known in Israel or the United States, but they are the future leadership of the American Jewish community: Reform and Conservative rabbinical students, those attending seminaries in the hopes of being ordained or becoming a cantor.

“So many of us ignore the day-to-day indignity that the Israeli military and police forces enact on Palestinians, and sit idly by as Israel upholds two separate legal systems for the same region,” the aspiring Jewish leaders wrote in their “Rabbinical and Cantorial Students Appeal to the Heart of the Jewish Community.”

“And, in the same breath, we are shocked by escalations of violence, as though these things are not a part of the same dehumanizing status quo.” The writers went on to accuse Israel of carrying out an apartheid policy and called on the Jewish community to “reflect” and “take action” after ignoring the issue for years.

The second shock came after the letter’s publication. This time it wasn’t about things that were said, it was the thundering silence of these Jewish denominations’ representative bodies. The Conservative Rabbinical Assembly and its college, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), didn’t comment on the letter; neither did the Reform Movement or any of its institutions. Only a handful of rabbis came to Israel’s defense and warned of the dire consequences of the anti-Zionist ideology spreading among American Jewry.

On a typical, humid day I arrive at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York to talk with one of the few community leaders who opted to battle the dangerous current. The synagogue is in an impressive old building in the heart of Manhattan. Two menoras decorate the entrance, along with the verse, in Hebrew, “May he who enters be blessed in the name of G-d…” carved into the stone facade. After the guard questioned me and sent me through the metal detector, I entered the lobby. Photos and illustrations of David Ben-Gurion and Benjamin Zeev Herzl look at me from the walls, which also feature signs with Zionist terminology in English and Hebrew. Opposite me are the doors to the enormous prayer hall, but I turn to the office of Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, the community’s spiritual leader and former head of Arza, the Zionist arm of the Reform Movement.

Ammiel Hirsch is the son of Rabbi Richard Hirsch, who died last week at 95, and who steered Reform Judaism to Zionism, relocating the movement’s offices to Jerusalem in the early Seventies. Unlike most of his colleagues, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch speaks Hebrew extremely well. When I interviewed him two-and-a-half years ago for Makor Rishon, he warned the Reform Movement was sliding down a slippery slope towards an anti-Zionist phase. Now, he says, the situation is much worse. “We are witnessing the fracturing of Liberal Judaism,” Hirsch said in a recent sermon to his congregants – which include many of the ‘who’s who’ scene in Jewish New York.

The fracture, he elaborated in an op-ed, “has been unfolding slowly for decades, but the recent war between Israel and Hamas highlighted and accelerated our crisis.” While the trigger is new, Hirsch posits that the question is actually all too familiar, especially to those familiar with the Reform movement’s historic ambivalence towards Zionism: “We are breaking along the same fissures as a century ago. The fault line is, as it was back then, our sense of Jewish identity. Do we belong to the Jewish people?”

“I speak publicly about Israel, not necessarily to convince people to change their positions but first and foremost to assert to Jews that their Jewish instinct is right. In the media and on social networks they hear only negative things about Israel, so here, in their synagogue, they’ll hear what really happens there,” Hirsch says. “Beyond that, we need to pressure Reform Jews and ask: are you committed to the Jewish Nation, and what does that mean to you? Do you believe the Jewish Nation, like all other nations, has the right to self-determination – or are Jews somehow different? Do we think that what is true for others is not true for us because Jews, to paraphrase those who came before us in the Reform Movement, have a higher calling: spreading the dreams of universal brotherhood?”

It seems like you’ve become the right-most person in your movement, I say with a smile, but he doesn’t find the joke funny. “What I say represents the vast majority of American Jews and the Reform Movement. And yet currently, we see fear among rabbis: fear not only of their colleagues in the progressive wing, but fear of their congregants. They are afraid to talk about Israel because they receive negative pushback from small groups in their communities. But most of the rabbis and members of the Reform Movement agree with me. Either way, in my community you won’t find this kind of fear. I don’t think I might pay a price for my words. On the contrary. I believe people respect my honesty.”

And yet, my impression is that you’re in the minority, almost out of place, as someone who knows Israel and understands what goes on over there.

“I disagree. When there is a war, and there are pictures of killed civilians, and most Jews read the New York Times and the ever-more problematic opinions about Israel, then, yes, there is discomfort and confusion within the Jewish community. But I don’t think my positions are right-wing. What I’m saying is at the core of being Liberal. I’m pretty confident the majority of Reform rabbis think like I do about Israel – but that’s not necessarily the case among the younger generation.”

For the Reform Movement to stop the slide down the slope, Hirsch states, it must engage in deep introspection and decide on a clear policy regarding Israel and Zionism. “We need to fight on this issue, hold an in-depth discussion, publicly declare our policies and obsessively revisit it. The Reform Movement needs to see in itself a Zionist movement supportive of Israel, and the education it provides, along with other policies, must reflect these values. Otherwise – and I don’t want to talk necessarily about a split in the movement – I think those who place supporting Jewish peoplehood in the center of their ideology will support other bodies and organizations.”

Not a split, but supporting other organizations? What do you mean?

“I talk with dozens of rabbi, and we’re working on creating a force that will better represent the values of Reform Judaism,” Hirsch reveals. “The founder of the synagogue we’re sitting in, Rabbi Stephen Wise, was appalled by the anti-Zionism of the Reform Movement, so he opened a competing rabbinical seminary, the Jewish Institute of Religion,” Hirsch takes us down history lane: Wise’s seminary operated from 1922-1950 in parallel to Hebrew Union College, and the two merged after Israel’s War of Independence. “Two generations were raised on his values of Zionism and Jewish peoplehood. So, while I don’t envision a split from HUC, people will find themselves in other seminaries if they feel the Reform Movement’s seminary has abandoned the Jewish State and Jewish peoplehood. The question is, what’s right for the future of our movement?”

Universal values failed

About 30 of the students who signed the letter attend Reform institutions, including 10 who study at HUC. While shocked by the content of the letter, Rabbi Hirsch isn’t bothered by the numbers. “Most students studying for their rabbinic ordination at HUC didn’t sign, so we need to keep things in perspective,” he says. “On the other hand, it’s something we need to address, and we need to work with the young rabbis both at the seminaries and during their study period in Israel. I’ve raised it again and again within the movement.”

Why does this happen? Is it because you prioritize the universal values of ‘Tikkun Olam’ or ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue’?

“There is constant tension among liberal Jews in the Diaspora regarding the centrality of Jewish peoplehood. By the way, I know in Israel you don’t use this term often, and that’s too bad. In the past there was tension within the Reform Movement between the terms ‘universalism’ and ‘peoplehood,’ so it opposed peoplehood. When Herzl came along and proposed Zionism, the Reform Movement objected with all its might, because it viewed this approach as negating its core values of universal Jewish ideals. Also in 1948, when the Jewish State was founded, the leaders of my movement thought it was a mistake. They thought universal values would provide a solution to Jews’ problems, and didn’t understand that the Zionists who lived in Europe, with its western, liberal values, are the ones who learned these values would not prevent the murder of Jews.”

Since then, the Reform Movement has undergone ideological shifts, and in time it became a staunch supporter of the State of Israel. “I thought anti-Zionism within us was part of history,” Hirsch says. “We don’t have a future as Reform Jews in the US if we aren’t anchored in Jewish peoplehood and in Israel. Without that deep connection, we’ll be like leaves falling from a tree. Again, this isn’t a right-wing position, but a Liberal one. At its core, Zionism is the Liberal philosophy of the Jewish People.”

In light of all this, how do you explain the harsh anti-Israel rhetoric used by American Jews during the latest round of fighting?

“What we saw during the fighting was how Israel’s rivals who promote the Palestinian narrative got louder and received more support. Compared to previous rounds, this time there was less support for Israel from members of Congress and the media. The New York Times, for instance, was much more critical towards Israel, and this affects the liberal community. Second, since we are 11,000 kilometers away from Israel – and not 11 meters – we don’t have the tools to assess the need for self-defense when rockets are fired at you. We have greater sensitivity to the proportionality of Israel’s response. I believe every country has the right to defend itself, and when 4,000 rockets are fired at our people, world Jewry must be worried,” he says emphatically.

In Hirsch’s eyes, questioning Israel’s legitimacy is antisemitic. “There is a large wave of antisemitism which is hard to identify because they often hide it behind rhetorics of human rights, apartheid and lack of proportionality.”

Who are ‘they’?

“The anti-Zionists. Israel’s enemies oppose every Israeli move and use the narrative of ‘freeing occupied Palestine.’ In their eyes, Israel needs to be as isolated as possible.”

In the long run, is there a chance the Reform Movement turns into a Zionist force? There is assimilation, the younger generation is more progressive and the birth rate is slower.

“We don’t know what the future holds. During the 20th century, some thought no Orthodox would be left in the US by the end of the century. So the next generation will have fewer liberal Jews, but the Orthodox won’t be the majority of US Jewry. This is why Israel should have a national and political interest in supporting attempts by American Jewry to build a strong, Jewish continuity. If we can’t solidify Jewish continuity for future generations, organizations like AIPAC will be hurt. Orthodox Jews will be a larger percentage than today, and US Jewry will be more conservative – but it will be less strong, and that will be disastrous also for Israel.”

Fear about a disconnect between Israel and the Reform and Conservative movements in the US reached a peak in 2017 when the government of Israel backtracked on its previous commitment and canceled the Western Wall compromise. In an attempt to make things right, then-ambassador to Washington DC Ron Dermer led a delegation of 20 rabbis from all denominations, who came to Israel to meet with its political leadership, including former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Later, the ‘Zionist Rabbis Coalition’ was formed as an informal communication route to bypass the official leaders of the denominations and connect Zionist rabbis with different worldviews. Hirsch is a member of the group, headed by Conservative rabbi Stewart Weinblatt. “We were connected by the feeling our movements don’t represent us enough when it comes to Israel,” he explains.

Will the new force you talk about also be comprised of Zionist Reform rabbis, or will it be based on community members?

“We’re still at the point of formulating the idea. I’m working on it with colleagues, Reform rabbis are afraid of our values disintegrating. After I speak in favor of Israel, as I did during the fighting in Gaza, I get hundreds of messages – not only from liberals but also from Orthodox Jews who tell me I speak in their name, even though I’m not a Halachik rabbi. While I’m not anti-Halacha, I don’t wear a kippah, we have music at our synagogue on Shabbat and don’t separate between men and women at prayer. However, that is exactly the point: we have to unite the forces among American Jewry that believe in the core values I mentioned.”

This interview is part of a Hebrew series published by Makor Rishon on the state of Progressive Judaism and Israel. Published here by permission.

About the Author
Zvika Klein is an award-winning Journalist and commentator on Jewish world affairs for Makor Rishon newspaper. He served as a Jewish Diaspora advisor to Israel's President's Office. Zvika was born in Chicago IL, and lives with his wife and three children in Jerusalem.
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