Easier to be a Jew in Diaspora than non-Orthodox Jew in Israel: URJ president
June 25, 2012 | Atara Beck - Israel Correspondent
JERUSALEM – It might be “easier to be a Jew in the Diaspora than a non-Orthodox Jew in Israel,” according to Rabbi Richard (Rick) Jacobs, president of the North American Union of Reform Judaism (URJ).
He made the comment while participating in a panel discussion on the challenge of being Jewish in the Diaspora, where he took the opportunity to tout his movement. Referring to the “new reality” among young American Jews who feel disconnected from their heritage, he said, “But we in the American Reform Jewish community are responding creatively,” he said. “The fastest-growing group in Jewish life is what we call the unaffiliated. I call it uninspired. Our job is to help them find their Jewish place in life.”
Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Steve Linde, who moderated the program, challenged the URJ leader’s assertion that his is the “largest group of organized Jewish life” in North America, referring to a recent New York Times report citing the decline in numbers within the Reform and Conservative movements and the “explosive growth of the Chassidic and other Orthodox communities.”
Jacobs advised against relying on such surveys.
He applauded “the Israeli government’s recent decision to pay Reform Rabbi Miri Gold “for her services to the community. It was a victory for all Jews.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chair and CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, declared, “If we’re not rooted in the past, we won’t be able to meet the challenges of the future…. We have to educate our young about not just the tzores (trouble), but also the joys of Judaism….
“We send our children on Birthright at [the age of] 18 and expect Israel to save them. “We don’t start educating early enough. Then they go to college and face antagonism.”
The anti-Zionist rhetoric they face is “not about borders, not about 1967; it’s about 1948, Israel’s existence…. We failed this generation because we let Zionism become a pejorative term and we need to turn it around….
“We are to blame,” he acknowledged. “We are the friends of Israel and we have to stand up. Israel’s strongest weapon is the truth…and young Jews have to be told…. It’s not about borders, about 1967; it’s about 1948, Israel’s existence….
“It’s time we got into the 21st century. Everyone accuses us of controlling the media, so let’s do it.”
According to Hoenlein, on campus, “Christian students are not intimidated; Jewish students are.”
Also participating in the discussion were Rachel Korpus, president of the Zionist Federation of New Zealand; prominent politician (Democratic Party of Italy) and Milan Jewish community leader Emanuele Fiano, and Professor Judit Bokser Liverant of Mexico, whose published works include Jewish Identities in an Era of Globalization and Multiculturalism.
At about 30,000, “the number of Jews in Italy is declining,” noted Fiano, who pointed to the current economic crisis as a potential catalyst for the rise of fascism.
“We have to worry about the future of democracy. People should see that we take an interest in matters beyond our own communities….
“The question is not which kind of future, but how long will be our future…. In the Italian Diaspora, there are many ‘invisible’ Jews. We have to reach out to them. We are more than the numbers we count in our institutions.”
Almost 400,000 Jews live in Latin America today, and almost the same number have moved abroad, including to the US, Liverant said. One could look at it as a diminishing community or as she does, as a “new interconnectedness of Jewish life.”
“We are remote, which makes us creative,” Korpus said. “On a good day we have 15,000 Jews plus Israelis. The Israeli population is growing, but that’s another story….
In New Zealand, “Zionist activity has been alive and kicking for more than 100 years…. But I’m not convinced that the girl in Tel Aviv serving me coffee today cares about the Jews in New Zealand. I don’t know if they care about Zionism. Perhaps a big chuck of population doesn’t really care. That’s a point we have to acknowledge….
“Diaspora Jews see themselves as Jewish first. Israelis see themselves as Israeli first. The starting points are so dramatic.”