Why we need to stop ignoring Reform Jews

The one time I went to a Reform shul for services, I felt hopelessly out of place. I murmured the prayers in Hebrew, shuckling feverishly throughout the service, while the other congregants sang peacefully in English. My long skirt brushed against my ankles, while the woman sitting next to me wore a beautiful pair of trousers that swished as she walked. I didn’t wear a kippah, and I, frankly, didn’t really know how. I prayed at a different pace than they did and said different words than they did.

“And now, friends, we say the prayer for the State of Israel,” the rabbi announced. My ears perked up, and I realized that we had one big thing in common: a love of Israel. Whatever our theological differences were, our hearts were all in the East. We solemnly spoke the words aloud in unison, praying for Divine protection over that which we held most dear: Israel and its freedoms.

My Modern Orthodox persona makes me an unlikely defender of Reform Judaism in Israel. People generally think, upon meeting me, that I reject non-Orthodox forms of Judaism — this is incorrect.

We often forget that our beloved Israel is not our beloved America. While America has Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative Jewry, Israel’s Jews are, for the most part, either secular or orthodox, with about 3% identifying as Reform and 2% as Conservative. America’s Jews, however, have a Reform plurality, with about 30% identifying as such, and more identifying as Reconstructionist and Conservative. Liberal forms of Jewry, for now, have the stronghold on Jewish communal life and identity — and are, generally, in support of Israel. That could, however, change.

There is a tendency to dismiss Reform Judaism as inauthentic among secular Israelis, and there is a tendency to denigrate the movement in public among the Orthodox. Reform Judaism is also regarded as an American religious import, causing many to view it with skepticism and near-disdain. (The movement, however, was actually developed in Israel by Shalom Ben-Chorin, a German immigrant who came to Israel in 1938 — so if anything, Israeli Reform Judaism is a German-Jewish import.) Public statements calling Reform Jews “not real Jews” and stalling the creation of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall do not encourage American Reform support for Israel — and discourage Israeli Reform activity.

Reform Judaism within Israel itself is unequivocally a benefit to society. While the Reform account for only 3% of the Jewish population, the movement provides a more liberal, younger alternative to the Judaism of the far-right. The many immigrants who are not Jewish by Orthodox law take refuge in a Reform Judaism that allows them to reaffirm their commitment to Judaism without undergoing an Orthodox conversion that could take several years. And outside Israel — well, it reassures American Jews that there is a place for them in the one and only Jewish State.

But with a halt to the Western Wall compromise, Reform Jews face a conflict in their loyalties. How can they support a state that stigmatizes their beliefs and provides them with little funding? Admittedly, it’s difficult. While love of Israel may trump all, it cannot disguise disappointment for an Israel that isn’t always so welcoming of Reform Judaism.

The need for inclusion is imminent. As MK Yair Lapid recently said in the Knesset, “The State of Israel is not just a Jewish State; it is also the State of the whole Jewish People… If we continue to stand here and and try to push the Reform and Conservative away, we will end up losing much of the Jewish World. It’s silly, it’s irresponsible, and most of all, it’s really not Jewish.” Israel, as the homeland of the Jewish People, must accept and welcome all Jews, instead of calling them names but afterwards thanking them for their support.

If the fear is that Reform Judaism will lead to assimilation, note that the Israeli Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism itself will not perform interfaith marriage. (Don’t believe me? Check their website.) If the fear is that Reform Judaism will cause Israel to lose its Jewish character, remember that the Reform have far lower birthrates than the Orthodox, and constitute only 3% of Jewish society (as opposed to the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox rate of 22%.) If the fear is that Reform Judaism will discourage aliyah, remember that the official American Reform charter states “we are committed to (Medinat Yisrael), the State of Israel, and rejoice in its accomplishments. We affirm the unique qualities of living in (Eretz Yisrael), the land of Israel, and encourage (aliyah), immigration to Israel.” If, however, the fear is that spurning Reform Judaism will cost Israel its Diaspora support — well, that fear is justified.

The one and only Jewish state has made advances in including Reform Jewry by allowing all converts to immerse in mikvahs and by bringing attention to the lack of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. I have immense faith that Israel will make all of us proud in its continual search to better itself and include all Jews. Make us proud, Israel. I know you will.

About the Author
Leora Eisenberg is a current freshman at Princeton, where she is a CAMERA fellow. She is a passionate Israel activist and lover of Judaism, and writes in the Algemeiner, Israel Hayom, Aish, Kveller, Orthodox Union and other publications.
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