Toward a More Perfect Israel

Toward a More Perfect Israel

By Michael Jacobs /

The Reform movement is perfectly positioned to fill the gap between organizations that think support of Israel means never criticizing anything the government does and those that think Israel can never do anything right, according to three Reform rabbis who led the NFTY Convention’s Youth Summit of teens and adults through a discussion of Israel and the movement Feb. 15.

“Responsible love” — offering honest criticism from a place of commitment and love when Israel misses on its ideals of freedom, democracy and pluralism — is a particular Reform responsibility in Israel, said Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, the national director of recruitment and admissions for Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

She said the struggle inherent in responsible love comes from the movement’s commitment to Israel. She left unspoken the parallel with Israel’s biblical namesake and the struggle with G-d that earned him the name.

By engaging in the loving struggle, the Union for Reform Judaism has the opportunity to occupy an objective space on Israel in the eyes of youths who don’t know what to think about Israel when they see distorted media images and reports, said Rabbi Aaron Panken, the president of HUC-JIR.

Israeli Reform Rabbi Yehudit Werchow said it is because Israel matters to Reform Jews in the diaspora that it’s important to note the gaps between Israel’s reality and its intentions and to help it close those gaps.

Rabbi Panken emphasized that Israel and the diaspora need each other equally.

“It’s not just about the money,” Rabbi Werchow said, pointing to shared interests, ideas, experiences and education. The Jewish identity of Israel is still evolving, and diaspora Jews have a role in helping mold that identity.

Rabbi Panken acknowledged one Michigan mother’s complaint that her three children, grandchildren of a Holocaust survivor, seem immune to the connection to Israel or engagement with the Jewish community in general. He said experiences in Israel and conversations with Israelis, along with having a trusted confidant such as a rabbi or youth adviser, are crucial to win over such young people.

Rabbi Sabath Beit-Halachmi said it is a failure on the part of professionals who work with Jewish youths when those youths don’t appreciate that a commitment to Israel is based on the recognition of the necessity for the people of Israel to survive.

Rabbi Panken said perhaps 20,000 American Jews and Israelis travel between the countries each year, which is a good start toward personalizing and thus strengthening ties, but rather than spend more money to send more people on such trips, he called for smart, technological ways to connect Americans and Israelis, such as regular meetings on Skype.

The most basic way to make Israel seem essential to youths is to integrate it into all aspects of Jewish education and not hold Israel out as a separate category, Rabbi Sabath Beit-Halachmi said.

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