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Reform Movement Is Stepping Up Its Efforts to Encourage Aliyah to Israel

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
July-August 2007

The Reform Jewish movement has embarked upon a campaign to encourage its members to emigrate to Israel — make “aliyah.”  
Rabbi Andrew Davids, executive director of Arza, the Zionist wing of the Reform movement, says that, “The last 60 years have been primarily concerned with building the State of Israel. Now we need to move to the next level of Zionism, which is how to build a state of equality, justice and democracy ... Part of our Zionist agenda is not only to connect Reform Jews and Israel, but to impact Israeli society. Our commitment to religious justice issues, to democracy, pluralism, are tremendously important values that need to be strengthened and supported more in Israeli society. Our aliyah efforts arc designed to put more troops on the ground to strengthen Israel in these ways.”  
The Jerusalem Post (International Edition, June 15-21, 2007) reports that, “A new era has called for new ideology, and part of that has been a rethinking of the nature of aliyah. In 1994 when Ezer Weizman, then Israel’s president, told a group of American Jewish leaders that Israel was no longer a small, needy country and didn’t need American Jewish dollars but rather American Jewish immigrants, the group of leaders was less than pleased. ... The very idea — that Jewry has no future in the Diaspora ... that Weizman and many other Israeli leaders have suggested ... is one that many American Jews have come to regard with scorn. ... Many Israelis, even those most intimately involved with promoting aliyah, have moved toward a broader understanding of the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Nowhere is this more evident than in recent efforts to mobilize the Reform Movement.”  
The need for aliyah from the West, says Jewish Agency emissary Liran Avisar-Gazit, the first full-time shlicha (emissary) to the Reform Movement, is no longer just a matter of demographics and economic insecurity. “Today,” says Avisar-Gazit, “we are talking about social insecurity. Israel is the property of the Jewish world, and what its fate will be is not just a question Israel will have to deal with. Jews have to take part in it in the most meaningful way by living there and taking part in Israeli society.”  
The Post notes that, “Since the Columbus Platform, the guiding principles of Reform Judaism established in 1937, the movement took an official position supporting Israel. But only in 1976 did the word ‘aliyah’ make its way into the movement’s official text, and in 1999 that language was made even stronger.”  
The Forward (July 13, 2007) points out that, “The Reform movement’s growing commitment to Israel is reflected in its new prayerbook, adopted last year, which reinstates the prayer, ‘And bring us back to peace from the four corners of the earth and bring us upright into our land.’ ‘This continues a trend, really, that goes back more than a quarter of a century,’ said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. At the same time, ‘it seems to me very unlikely that aliyah will suddenly jump to the top of the priorities of the Reform movement.”  
According to Arza’s Rabbi Davids, Reform leaders are increasingly focused on making study and travel to Israel a more “normative” experience for young Reform Jews by building on the movement’s programs for high-school students. Three years ago, the movement launched a year-long program for students wishing to take a “gap” year between high school and college, and 2008 will see the launch of a study-abroad program for college students, as well as a post-college program centered on social action projects.  
“And then,” reports The Forward, “there are events like this week’s program, during which a direct, hard-sell approach was used. Israel’s first female rabbi, Kinnerent Shiryon — who herself made aliyah from the U.S. in 1983 — made a barnstorming tour of a half-dozen Reform congregations, in the hope of opening a dialogue and recruiting 10 families to move to her adopted city, Modi’in ... A new program, created by the city of Mod’in, the Reform movement, the Jewish Agency and the State of Israel will offer financial incentives and social supports to ease the transition to life in Israel.”  
In Washington, a meeting promoting aliyah was held at the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center in July. Washington Jewish Week (July 19, 2007) noted that, “Washington was the latest stop on a multicity tour aimed at drumming up support for the aliyah campaign. Members of the caravan said although their message is unorthodox in Reform circles, they have been well received ... Reactions from several local Reform rabbis indicate that the conversation is indeed an important one, although time will tell whether it translates into wide-ranging support for a mass migration of Reform Jews. ‘I don’t necessarily view moving to Israel as the inevitable pinnacle of one’s Jewish identity,’ said program attendee Rabbi Michael Feshbach of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase. ‘But I do view deeply exploring one’s connection with Israel as an imperative part of one’s Jewish identity.’”

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