At this past weekend’s 150th Anniversary of the Union for Reform Judaism in Washington, DC, the narrator, CNN’s Dana Bash, asked her co-narrator, David Gregory, “Why is Judaism an ellipse, not a circle?” Gregory laughed and replied, “I haven’t any idea.”
The answer is nonetheless fundamental at this time of crisis. An ellipse is a closed curve with two foci. It’s unlike a circle, which has only one central point. So it is with Judaism, as this wonderful Anniversary celebration demonstrated. We have the Israeli focus and the Diaspora focus. Yet, we are bound together in a single symbol.
The 650 Reform Jewish attendees from North America were bound by their devotion to Israel, which was evident and emotional throughout the conference. This result was not a given for Reform Jews. In 1898, our movement disclaimed any interest in Zionism or a Jewish State, proclaiming that America is our home. We changed our stance in response to Nazi demonization of our people. Today, Israel is fundamental to our faith and to our sense of self, as Rick Jacob’s, URJ president, and others emphasized.
Joining us were our counterparts from Israel, including the President and the Chair of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, the head of the Israel Religious Action Center, our movement’s Israeli litigating arm, and the Deputy Chair of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel. There were others, too. They came with trepidation over leaving Israel at this time. But the warmth, hugs, and support they all received from the North American delegates, representing the other focus of the ellipse, proved that their presence was essential, that Am Yisroel Chai means all of us, together.
Clearly, the conference was not a love-in. The challenge of being a liberal Zionist in the face of the Gaza war remains. We can deplore the anti-Semitism and the relentless attacks on Israel for defending itself from an enemy that uses its citizens as human shields and tunnels under hospitals. Nor can we ignore the complete silence about Israel’s 250,000 internal refugees and the constant bombing of its cities. Yet we cannot forget Gazan lives; we are Jews, and we care about other human beings. At some point, we have to deal with the need for an Israeli government not beholden to the likes of Smotrich and Ben Gvir, who would have us kill without mercy while continuing to take funds away from Israelis in need so they can line the pockets of their supporters.
As we grapple with these issues, we nonetheless need to remember the fundamental lesson of this amazing Anniversary celebration. We are one people indissolubly bound, and we need each other.