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June 29, 2017 1:35 pm

Amid Turmoil in Relations Between US Jews and Israel, Top Reform Rabbi Urges Greater Engagement

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The Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A prominent American Reform rabbi has called for a quantum leap in US Jewish engagement with Israel as the best way of responding to the current crisis that has pitted non-Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora against Israeli authorities.

“Whatever goes on in Israel, we need more visits there, and deeper, engaged, more passionate commitment to help develop non-Orthodox streams of Judaism there,” Rabbi Richard Block — a former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) — told The Algemeiner on Thursday.

Relations between North American Jewish organizations and Israel have been marked by a near-unprecedented hostility during the last week, following an agreement reached between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ultra-Orthodox parties on Sunday, according to which plans for a new prayer area for Reform and Conservative Jews at the Western Wall have been scrapped, while legislation that grants haredi rabbis full control of conversions to Judaism received cabinet approval.

News of the decision was greeted with anger by many leading Israelis — including Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman — as well as by Diaspora leaders. High-profile delegations from the Jewish Agency and the American Reform movement canceled meetings with Netanyahu in protest, leading to concern that the dispute would precipitate a more fundamental rupture between Israel and non-Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora.

“Those initial reactions are understandable,” said Block, a lifelong Zionist who participated in the discussions with the Israeli government over the now-abandoned egalitarian prayer area project.

But, he continued, “we’re not going to Israel as an act of kindness. We are going there for our own souls and our own sense of Jewishness.”

Block argued that advocates for the equality of different streams of Judaism had to focus even more of their energies upon Israel, rather than moving away from it. “Going to Israel doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t register our fundamental disagreement with this decision, for example by going to the Supreme Court,” he said. “But to disengage from Israel over legitimate issues says to those on the other side of this dispute, ‘It’s your Israel.’ And it’s not — it’s our Israel too, and we don’t walk away from it.”

Block acknowledged that a large number of Israelis are bemused by, or indifferent to, the ongoing controversy. “There’s much more concern in Israel about substantive issues with social and economic equality, whereas the Kotel (Western Wall) has always been principally about symbolism,” he observed.

“This is not an insult to the vast majority of Israelis –it’s a targeted insult to mainly American non-Orthodox Jews,” Block said. However, he added, large numbers of Israelis also resent the central role of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate in major life cycle events, as evidenced by the preference of many couples for cohabitation over marriage. “The end result is that marriage, which is sacred in Judaism, is undermined,” Block said.

Block urged a boost in the investment of community resources in Israel, “so that we’re engaged in developing the Israel we all aspire to.” As well as extending Birthright visits to Israel to the “many adults who should be given a chance to go,” Block also suggested a “reverse Birthright” program that would “bring tens of thousands of Israeli kids to experience the vibrancy of the North American community, and establish relationships here.”

While the current discord is unlikely to be resolved in the immediate future, Jewish leaders around the world have been trying to defuse some of the tension.

“Neither side should exaggerate on the issue,” former UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said on Thursday.

“Each side has a place to pray — and therefore we must not think of victory or defeat,” Sacks stated.

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