Debates with Israel weigh on Reform movement’s biggest-ever gathering
Reform Judaism'Israel was taken aback by the official position of the URJ'

Debates with Israel weigh on Reform movement’s biggest-ever gathering

Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as capital adds to already-fraught relationship between Orthodox-dominated Jewish state and the US's largest Jewish denomination

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, addressing delegates at its 2017 Biennial in Boston, December 7, 2017. (Courtesy of the Union for Reform Judaism/via JTA)
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, addressing delegates at its 2017 Biennial in Boston, December 7, 2017. (Courtesy of the Union for Reform Judaism/via JTA)

BOSTON (JTA) – President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel became an unexpected agenda item as 6,000 members of the Reform movement from across North America gathered here for their four-day convention.

Addressing the Union for Reform Judaism’s 2017 biennial on Friday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said the announcement two days earlier by Trump may make it more difficult to achieve peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

“Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and diplomacy between Israelis and Palestinians should determine the final status of Jerusalem for all parties,” Warren said to loud applause from the gathering. “I believe a two-state solution remains the best chance for peace for all who remain in the Holy Land. I also believe neither the US nor any other outside power should impose a solution, and that is why I am concerned about Trump’s decision, which I believe makes it more difficult to reach that goal.

“If the president is serious about peace, I urge him to produce a comprehensive strategy to achieve it. That is what American leadership demands. That is what the Israelis and Palestinians deserve,” she said.

Warren’s remarks echoed those of the Reform movement itself, which called Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem and moving the US Embassy to the city “ill-timed.” While Trump’s announcement affirmed the movement’s view that “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” its leaders “could not support the decision” to move the embassy “absent a comprehensive plan for a peace process.”

US President Donald Trump holds up a signed memorandum recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as US Vice President looks on, at the White House, on December 6, 2017. (AFP Photo/Saul Loeb)

In a follow-up statement, URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs said, “We do, however, commend the President for affirming the importance of moving the peace process forward, and clarifying that these decisions are not intended to restrict final status decisions of the Israelis and Palestinians — including the borders of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem and border issues generally.”

URJ’s criticism of the announcement contrasted with the full-throated welcome for the move by most of the largest Jewish groups, something Israeli diplomats noted in a session at the biennial on ways local congregations can work with local Israeli missions.

“We were taken aback by the official position of the URJ. We are a little concerned,” said Akiva Tor, head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Bureau for World Jewish Affairs and World Religions based in Jerusalem.

The debate that followed the comments from Tor and his diplomatic colleagues was interesting and appropriate, according to Mark Pelavin, URJ’s chief program officer and biennial director, who attended part of the workshop and heard this discussion.

Akiva Tor, Director for Special Projects at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs looks on as Col. (Ret.) Adv. Pnina Sharvit Baruch speaks at the annual Conference of Presidents meet-up in Jerusalem, February 15, 2016. (Tamir Hayoun)

In a phone call Friday, Pelavin said he was glad Tor and others felt comfortable raising their concerns.

“I hope they listened carefully to the responses they got from several delegates in the workshop. It doesn’t do any good not to have these conversations,” he told JTA.

Relations were already strained between the Reform movement and the Israeli government before this week’s announcement. The government had angered the non-Orthodox movements by freezing a plan to expand non-Orthodox and egalitarian prayer options at the Western Wall and moving to strengthen the Orthodox monopoly over conversions in Israel.

Tor noted the imperative to move forward regarding religious pluralism.

“I’m concerned this will harm it,” he said of the disagreement over Jerusalem.

David Grossman receives an honorary doctorate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s annual convocation, on June 11, 2017 (Miriam Alster/FLASH 90)

On Thursday night, noted Israeli writer David Grossman said there is a “deep fracture” between non-Orthodox Jews and the Orthodox hierarchy in Israel that questions the Jewish identity of those in the Reform movement.

Grossman, winner of the prestigious 2017 Man Booker Prize for his newest novel, “A Man Walks Into a Bar,” said those who call on Reform Jews to cut their support to Israel are mistaken, however. This is not a time to hold back, he urged the body.

“This is the moment for a historic change, to make your presence known in Israel as never before,” Grossman said.

Jacobs planned on addressing the issue of pluralism in Israel in his Shabbat sermon Saturday morning, he told JTA. In his keynote address Thursday, he announced a series of proactive steps to prevent sexual harassment, and outlined new Reform initiatives to engage college students, young couples in their post-college years, and families with young children.

“The question before us right now is whether we will keep our movement moving, our Jewish life lively — or risk evaporation,” he told the gathering.

Delegates to the URJ 2017 biennial in Boston included Reform Jews from 500 congregations, 51 states and territories, six Canadian provinces and 12 additional countries, according to the URJ. (Courtesy of the Union for Reform Judaism/via JTA)

The record Reform gathering has attracted delegates from 500 congregations, 51 states and territories, six Canadian provinces and 12 additional countries, according to the URJ. Delegates include clergy, educators, lay leaders, youth leaders, and high school and college students.

Among them is Benjamin Cohen, a University of Denver student who joined other students volunteering as guides for convention participants. Directing foot traffic in the huge Hynes Convention Center, Cohen, who has been active in URJ youth programs, said he appreciates the social, cultural and spiritual connection of being involved in the Reform youth movement.

“I like giving back to the movement that gave so much to me,” the St. Louis resident said.

Reflecting the left-leaning politics of the largest denomination, the convention was to take up social issues like racial justice, sexual harassment and assault, and environmental issues.

At its opening plenary session on Wednesday night, the URJ presented an award to the Rev. William Barber, founder of Repairers of the Breach and one-time leader of the North Carolina NAACP. Barber collaborates frequently on social action projects with the movement’s Religious Action Center.

Rev. William Barber speaking on the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 28, 2016 (screen capture: YouTube)

In his speech, Barber said 14 million children living in poverty will suffer more under the tax overhaul bill now being reconciled on Capitol Hill.

“We don’t have a scarcity of money. We have a scarcity of moral will,” he said to loud applause.

On the same night, delegates unanimously adopted resolutions on racial justice, school discipline and redistricting. Other resolutions being considered address climate change, the global refugee crisis and student sexual violence in schools.

The record number of leaders attracted to the convention is no accident, Jacobs told JTA in an interview before its start.

“It has to do with a particular moment we are in, in North America and also the wider world and in Israel,” he said. “People want to be together, they want new tools and new approaches for addressing our people and the world, and we want to address those big questions that hold us together.”

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