Leading New York Reform rabbi launches push against anti-Zionism in the movement

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue hopes Amplify Israel program will reverse slide against Zionism, views the trend as an existential threat to Reform movement

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

The Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City, May 22, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Illustrative: The Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City, May 22, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — A prominent Reform rabbi in New York City is launching a program that aims to push back against anti-Zionism within the religious movement, as younger US Jews slide away from steadfast support for Israel.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, the senior rabbi of Manhattan’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, said his Amplify Israel initiative aims to “breathe new life into the principles we’ve been committed to for decades” with an array of programs aimed at bolstering support for Israel and aligning Zionism with liberal ideology. He views the struggle as existential for the Reform movement and American Jewry.

“We want to impact first and foremost on the Reform movement and through the Reform movement to the broader American Jewish community, to slow down, eventually stop and reverse the anti-Israel, anti-Zionist encroachment,” he said during a recent interview with The Times of Israel.

“A movement of Jews separated from the root of Jewish peoplehood will eventually be like leaves falling from the tree,” he said. “There won’t be enough substance for them to sustain Judaism.”

Polls have shown that younger American Jews are increasingly estranged from Israel, with many frustrated by its treatment of the Palestinians, right-wing politics and Orthodox religious establishment, among other issues. A firm majority of US Jewry continues to support and connect with the Jewish state, though.

Illustrative: Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activists in New York City, May 15, 2021. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

In a Democratic group’s survey of US Jewish voters last year, 20% of respondents under 40 believed “Israel doesn’t have a right to exist.” For all ages, the figure was nine percent. A third of all younger voters believed Israel was committing genocide against the Palestinians, and over a third believed Israel was an apartheid state.

Another survey conducted in 2020 found a steady decline in support for Israel among younger US Jews, with a slim majority of respondents under 30 saying they were not attached to the Jewish state.

For US Jews as a whole, and the Reform movement, 58% said they were attached to Israel. Eighty-two percent of US Jews and 86% of the Reform movement said caring about Israel was important or essential to being Jewish.

The Reform movement’s governing organizations are staunchly Zionist, and have been for generations, with the Union for Reform Judaism unequivocally stating its support for a Jewish homeland in the State of Israel. Reform Judaism is the largest US denomination, accounting for around 37% of the 5.8 million US Jews.

The data indicating a trend against Zionism backs up Hirsch’s intuition about the Reform movement’s direction, he said.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of New York’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. (Courtesy)

“The movement is drifting in terms of how it speaks, what it speaks about, what it says and avoids saying. It’s drifting from the centrality of the Jewish people and our Zionist principles,” he said. “Were that to happen it would be catastrophic.”

“We want to make sure that we lay down an ideological plank that recharges and restates the commitment to these principles,” he said.

Amplify Israel will include educational programs for young adults and their parents; outreach to school and college administrators to inform them of Jewish concerns; a book club; a fellowship; a podcast; and a convention for Reform leaders that will be held at the end of May.

Rabbi Tracy Kaplowitz, who was ordained in 2004, is working to implement the initiative as its inaugural fellow.

Kaplowitz wrote up a curriculum for teenagers to educate them about Israel’s history and the Zionist movement so they can assess what they hear from other sources. The course, also for the teens’ parents, starts next month and will be open to the public.

“The purpose is to ensure that our teens, long before they head off to college, have the language that they need to understand Israel,” Kaplowitz said. “They can assess what they hear about Israel or even the ability to advocate and to say, ‘The way you’re presenting Israel to me seems inaccurate, it’s maybe bordering the line of antisemitism.'”

Hirsch has also addressed the campus issue during services, including during Rosh Hashanah last month.

Amplify Israel will also offer a program called the Israel Teen Giving Circle to encourage philanthropy and grapple with Israel’s flaws by engaging with Israeli nonprofits that deal with those problems.

The leadership convention, called Re-charging Reform Judaism, will be hosted at the synagogue and focus on Zionism and Jewish peoplehood, Kaplowitz said. She expects at least hundreds of Jewish leaders to attend.

“There’s growing acceptance of separating Reform Judaism from Zionism so the importance of what we’re doing is to ensure that there’s no light between the two,” she said. “It’s ensuring that there’s this bridge between liberal Judaism, Reform Judaism, progressivism and Zionism.”

Hirsch said the response to the convention has been overwhelmingly positive.

“A lot of people have said to us, ‘You’re articulating what I’m feeling.’ That kind of conforms with my own intuition, that the majority of Reform rabbis feel like me,” he said. “We think we need to be much more aggressive in communicating and restoring these values.”

Spectators at the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City, May 22, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Hirsch went to high school in Israel, served as a tank commander in the IDF and was formerly the director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. (He has also written on The Times of Israel’s open blogging platform.)

He avoids discussing his political beliefs but identifies as a liberal. He and Kaplowitz called belief in a Jewish homeland a liberal ideology, at a time when some on the political left in the US view Zionism as contradictory to progressive values. Some progressive activists have tied the Jewish state to the social justice movement in the US, conflating Israel with white supremacy, apartheid and colonization.

Demonstrators in New York City, mostly young people, have decried Zionism as racist and burn Israeli flags during regular street protests and progressive groups have rejected Zionist Jews, citing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Campuses have also become a battleground for the issue, which has alienated some Jewish students, with much of the debate, and legal wrangling, centering on Zionism’s centrality to Jewish identity.

Hirsch said some Reform rabbinical students have had trouble expressing their support for Zionism among classmates, and last year, dozens of non-Orthodox US rabbinical students issued a public letter accusing Israel of apartheid during its war with Gaza terror groups.

Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activists burn an Israeli flag in New York City, May 15, 2021. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The Reform movement is liberal and egalitarian, and around 80% of Reform Jews identify as Democrats.

“Zionism is a liberal movement. It’s about the self-determination of an oppressed people. Liberals support self-determination and freedom and liberty. What is liberal about an anti-Zionist movement that seeks to dismantle and destroy the Jewish State?” Hirsch asked rhetorically, adding he has always supported a two-state solution to the conflict. “We support coexistence. We do not support, when two peoples are in conflict, dismantling one of them. That is not liberal, that’s reactionary.”

Both he and Kaplowitz acknowledged Israel’s flaws and said they supported constructive criticism. “To be not critical is really contrary to the Jewish spirit. We’re a critical people and we believe in rebuke,” Hirsch said.

A one-sided view of the conflict “doesn’t hold water, it doesn’t tell the truth,” Kaplowitz said.

“The reality is that there’s a lot of fault on a lot of sides,” she said.

Hirsch also acknowledged the unwelcoming attitude of Israel’s Orthodox establishment toward Reform Judaism, saying the movement needed to further invest in gaining acceptance in Israel in the face of opposition, rather than withdrawing.

He views the connection to Israel as essential for the movement, both from a religious perspective and because the world’s Jewish population increasingly resides in the Jewish State.

“Israel will prosper with or without the support of progressive American Jews. The element that will suffer is progressive American Jews who will be separated from the root of their own people,” he said. “It will be impossible for a movement that is anti-Zionist and anti-peoplehood to prosper and even survive, antagonistic to the mainstream of the Jewish people.”

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