ARZENU In Israel October 2015 – Reform Values in Action

by Larry Englander, November 12, 2015

Rabbi Emeritus Larry Englander

Amidst alarming episodes of random stabbings by terrorists throughout the country, Cheryl and I attended the 37th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, held by the World Zionist Organization. The WZO is often called “the Parliament of the Worldwide Jewish People” and so we joined together with Jewish delegates from dozens of countries representing a wide variety of political and religious ideologies. Imagine a theatre filled with hundreds of Jews all trying to talk at once!

Our Reform Movement was represented by ARZENU, the worldwide Reform/Progressive Zionist organization which I chair. We encountered a State of Israel that faces deep divisions: between Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazim and Sefardim, left and right. Our fellow Israeli Reform Jews welcomed the boost that we from the Diaspora could give to their minority voice in representing the Reform values that we cherish.

Instead of giving an hour-by-hour commentary on the proceedings, I shall mention a few of these Reform values that we brought to the Congress, and how we sought to implement these values into Israeli society. Along the way we became entangled in political maneuvers that made us surprised, disappointed and even angry. Nevertheless, our team fought valiantly and scored some major victories for our movement, as you will read below.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence

Our ARZENU seminar began with a close look at Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Most countries have some kind of foundation document, we knew; but what makes this document unique? What is Jewish about it?

We found our answer in Paragraph 13, which states:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Here we found a seamless blend of traditional Jewish prophetic ideals along with liberal democratic principles. These are values that we proudly champion as Reform Jews!

“Who is truly mighty? — One who turns an enemy into a friend”
– (Avot de-Rabi Natan 23)

A portion of our delegation made a visit to the Abdullah Hussein School for Arab girls in East Jerusalem, arranged by the Israel Religious Action Centre (IRAC). We were ushered into a classroom of Grade 10 kids and tried to overcome the language barrier in order to engage them in conversation. (The students knew rather little English and, although they spoke Hebrew, we were advised by IRAC not to use this language).

When we asked how they enjoyed living in this country, they replied, “Yes, we love Palestine.” When we offered the hope that, some day, Israel and Palestine would be able to coexist side by side, the kids replied, “No, only Palestine.” It became very clear to us that a great deal of work needs to be done in order to overcome the stereotypes and to understand each other’s claim to the same land.

Arab Girls School in East Jerusalem

As a step in this direction, I hope that IRAC will follow up our visit by organizing seminars between Israeli Jewish and Arab teachers.

“Do not stand idly by while your neighbour bleeds”
– (Lev. 19:16)

From East Jerusalem, we travelled to Mount Zion for a visit to the Dormition Church just inside the Old City wall. A few months earlier, this church had been defaced and vandalized by an ultra-Orthodox fanatical group known as Tag Machir (“price tag” — their name is meant as a warning that non-Jews will “pay the price” for continuing to live in the Jewish Homeland). After these incidents, IRAC had organized crews of Jewish volunteers to erase the graffiti and repair the damage.

Dormition Church in Old Jerusalem

Father Nikodemus Claudius Schnabel, a Dominican priest, thanked us for showing compassion and support for his parishioners. He then asked us to join him in prayer as he chanted Psalm 95 – a psalm of praise to God which is part of the Jewish liturgy for Erev Shabbat. As the notes of his Gregorian chant reverberated through the church, I felt enveloped by an oasis of calm amidst the sandstorms of stubborn aggression that seemed to surround us. I offered my own silent prayer that wiser and more empathic sentiments may yet bring us all closer to peace.

“There is more than one way to be a Jew” (Slogan of the Israel Reform Movement)

As hundreds of delegates poured into Binyaney Ha’Uma convention centre in Jerusalem, we waited in anticipation for the Congress plenum to begin. During the next two days, we would debate over 100 resolutions that were proposed by the various factions.

One of ARZENU’s resolutions called for the creation of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, where men and women of all religious and non-religious persuasions could gather as equals. We anticipated a considerable degree of opposition from the right, so we campaigned hard for this resolution among our allies in Labour and Meretz and even among the rightist factions of Likud and Mizrachi (Orthodox). And when it came to a vote — lo and behold, it passed by a significant majority! Our efforts are helping to gain more and more support for religious pluralism in Israel — a value we continue to pursue.

“These are among the Mitzvot that have no limit … Gemilut Chasadim
(deeds of lovingkindness)” (From the Mishnah, quoted in our Prayerbook)

Another resolution presented by ARZENU was to affirm the civil rights of gays, lesbians, bisexual and transsexual people in all facets of Israeli society, and to encourage Israeli schools to teach this principle. Although the Orthodox factions expressed opposition to this resolution, we were able to work out a suitable wording with Mizrachi so that it passed in the plenum. This, too, we consider to be a major victory: not only because it affirms the rights of LGBT people, but also because it shows how Jews can work together across ideological boundaries to arrive at consensus.

Positions in the National Zionist Institutions

In addition to the World Zionist Organization, there are two other National Zionist Institutions in which the various political and religious groups play a role. The second institution is the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael), which not only creates forests and parks but also buys, sells and leases land for development. This latter role generates a considerable annual revenue, some of which is apportioned to our Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) to support its educational projects.

The third institution is the Jewish Agency, comprised of representatives from Federations in the Diaspora, which funds many philanthropic endeavours in Israel.

I mentioned earlier that the WZO functions much like a parliament. To gain seats (called “mandates”) in this parliament, Jewish organizations around the world hold elections. In Canada, our Reform party ARZA received 6 out of 19 mandates. In other countries, combined with a successful election result in the United States, we assembled sufficient mandates to become the third-largest “party” within the WZO. As a result, ARZENU was able to secure some significant professional and volunteer positions within the National Zionist Institutions. The Reform Movement in Israel receives over four million US dollars annually from these institutions, and the ARZENU appointments will ensure that they continue to be well-represented and to receive their fair share of financial allotments.

“It is not incumbent on you to complete the work; but neither can you desist from it” (Pirkey Avot)

Our work continues. As the Diaspora Reform delegates return home, we can be confident that we have done our share to strengthen our Movement and to inculcate our values in Israel and throughout the world. We were heartened by the good news that Reform Judaism is becoming better known in Israel and that we now have 70 synagogues and communities throughout the country. We are proud of the strong team of Israeli professionals and lay leaders, and I look forward to joining hands with them to increase our influence in the years ahead. I welcome you, too, to join this Avodat Kodesh, this holy work!

– Rabbi Emeritus Lawrence Englander – Chair, ARZENU

This article was originally published on the ARZENU website and is reproduced by permission of the author.

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