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December 23, 2011

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, DECEMBER 23, 2011 PAGE 5A At crossroads, Reform Jewry focuses on transformation By Gary Rosenblatt The Jewish Week Lastweek's biennial conven- tion of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), marking the transition to new leadership at the helm, is being hailed as a celebration, and one can see why. An estimated 6,000 delegates gathered in Washington, D.C., making the five-day, sold-out conference the largest North American Jewish gathering of theyear and underscoring the factthatthe Reform movement is the largest of the denomina- tions, with some 900 congre- gations and 330,000 member households. President Barack Obama addressed the conven- tion -- further proof of its clout-- as will House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, headlining scores of speakers. But the emotional high- light may have been when the participants witnessed Rabbi Eric Yoffie, 64, whose 16-year tenure has been marked by an emphasis on Torah study and ritual tradition, preach his last Shabbat sermon in the role of president, and the next morn- ing they heard president-elect By Danny Danon Rabbi Richard (Rick) Jacobs of Westchester Reform Temple outline his vision for the move- ment's future. At a time of critical transi- tion in the movement, there is-a sense of anticipation and excitement among the faithful, fueled in part by Rabbi Jacobs' charismatic optimism. He is expected to call for a"big tent" approach and issue a charge to imagine the Jewish future in bold ways, reaching out to the community and beyond, to "recover the larger sense of 'we,'" as he puts it, while strengthening the movement from within. But under the surface, there are roiling concerns within the movement, from sharp internal disagreements over dues structure, budgets and finance to wider worries over staggering dropout rates-- up to 80 percent for teens, and 50 percent for members within a year after their child's bar or bat mitzvah. "If families are not staying in the synagogue for themselves, there is no hope for the future," confided Rabbi Peter Rubin- stein of Central Synagogue, the venerable, thriving East Side Reform congregation. Complex Equation A major theme of the bien- nial is re-engaging youth, and a special campaign has been launched to retain post-bnai mitzvah teens in synagogues, Hebrew schools and summer camps. An Education Summit at the conference offered work- shops and programs focused on how coordinated efforts within the movement can help inspire young people. In addition, an ongoing core program of the movement for the last three decades h welcoming interfaith families and encouraging their par- ticipation in congregational life--was highlighted. But it's a complex equation that tends to mask, orperhaps even cause, other problems. For example, the fact that the number of Reform Jews in the U.S. is not growing despite the increase in interfaith fami- lies joining Reform temples -- more than 20 percent of member families -- indicates that there are fewer Jewish members of the movement to- day than in decades past. Some rabbis worry about "the lack of knowledge and depth and com- mitment out there," as one put it.Andwith notable exceptions, studies find that intermarried couples in Reform temples are less Jewishly active than other congregants, says Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbi Randy Sheinberg of Temple Tikvah in New Hyde Park, L.I., estimatesthat about one-third of her congregation's 300 families are interfaith, and that there may be fewer in-married families than when she came eight years ago. But the impact, she said, depends on the interfaith families themselves. "Some are very committed," observed the rabbi, and it is not uncommon for the Jewish partner to be strengthened in his or her own commitment as a result of the conscious effort made by the couple to raise Jewish children. "That can be quite wonderful." But for marginally affiliated interfaith families, "it's a harder sell to get them to stay" after a child's bar or bat mitzvah, and "their tenure as members may be shortened." This trend clearly has been exacerbated by the economic recession, she noted. The URJ was hit hard by the 2008 recession and was forced to make major cuts in staff- ing and programming. It also faced another kind of shock in recent years in the form of dissent from some of its most influential rabbis. Central Synagogue's Rabbi Rubinstein led a group of 17 senior rabbis within the move- ment seeking increased coor- dination among the URJ, the Central Conference of Ameri- can Rabbis, the Hebrew Union College and the synagogues, and a greater role for congrega- tions in decision-making. In an interview, he noted that Rabbi Jacobs, the incoming URJ preident-elect who will become presidentofficially next June, was an active member of the group, known as the Rab- binic Vision Initiative, and fully understands the issues. 'All About Transformation' Indeed, Rabbi Jacobs, a tall, ruggedly handsome man of 56, says the future of Reform Jewry is "all about transformation," invoking the mantra of Billy Beane, the baseball executive portrayed in the film "Money- ball": "adapt or die." The rabbi wants to see Reform Jewry seek out "the unaffiliated and the uninspired," beyond the walls of the synagogue. Despite economic woes, he says this is not the time to "scale back" but to reach out more ag- gressively. Congregations can no longer "sit back and wait" for young adults who drifted away from Jewish life come back and join as young parents, as happened in the past. This generation is distrustful of denominations and institu- tions, the rabbi said, and will respond to relationships more than programming. The job of Reform leaders is to reach young people where they are and connect them to the values of the movement, emphasizing ritual and observance, com- munity, social action and mov- ing tradition into modernity, Rabbi Jacobs says, all "rooted in serious Jewish learning at the core." It is Rabbi Yoffie who is credited with bringing the movement closer to Jewish tradition anchored by Torah study, increased observance of Shabbat and more spiritual and spirited Friday evening services, with congregants participating rather than play- ing a passive role. Crossroads on page 19A Israel intended no offense with ad campaign JERUSALEM (JTA) -- The State of Israel has always prided itself on being not only a home to its native citizens but a haven for Jews from across the globe. For years the Ministry of Immigration Absorption has successfully focused on attracting Jews from around the world to make aliyah and reconnect with their homeland. This past year alone, more than 19,000 Jewish people chose to leave their countries of residence to start life anew in the Jewish state. With so much effort spent on welcoming Jews from aboard, the ministry runs the risk of losing sight of another pressing concern: the deflating number of our own citizens. Despite Israel's ever-grow- ing economy, some of our citizens choose to leave Israel in search of a more prosperous future. While they more often than not retain their Israeli identities by living in areas populated by other sabras, these mini-Israel communi- By New Jersey Jewish News If we are to take Newt Gingrich seriously as a presi- dential contender, he will have to demonstrate that he understands why his remark that the Palestinians are an "invented" people was insult- ing and counterproductive. Defenders of Gingrich's re- marks to The Jewish Channel say he was only stating facts, and the Palestinians only emerged as a self-identified people in the wake of the Brit- ish Mandate and in response to Zionism. The obvious re- joinder is that all "peoples" are invented-- Americans in the 18th century, Italians in the 19th century, Bangladeshis in the 20th. As Gingrich's fellow conservative, former deputy national security adviser El- ties abroad can never really live up to the real thing. In an effort to remind our Israeli emigrants of the unique qualities of their homeland, the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption launched a series of television and billboard ads. Though controversial in nature, the ads were meant to remind Israeli expatriates that no matter where they currently reside, there's no place like home. Some American Jews were offended by the ads. Admit- tedly, like any successful cam- paign, the commercials were intended to get people ta!king; however, they certainly were not meant to offend. Israeli and American Jews have shared an extremely tight relationship that is not to be taken for granted. Legions of Zionist supporters abroad have ensured Israel's contin- ued survival, and their tireless support has helped many an Israeli sleep easier. Having spent some time working in the United States as a shaliach, an emissary, for the Jewish Agency in Miami, I have come to know the unique challenges facing American Jewry. Living as an integrated part of American society while fighting the effects of assimilations is arguably the most difficult taskwithwhich Jewish communities outside of Israel must cope. While NorthAmerican Jews have grown accu.,tomed to weathering these challenges and working hard to maintain their unique identities, many Israeli emigrants have never had to cope with these added social pressures. Though I can readily see why some Jews living abroad would be uneasy with ad- vertisements whose subtext may seem to suggest that it is more difficult to maintain a Jewish identity outside of the State of Israel, it is essential to note that the intention of this campaign was not to pass judgment on our American brothers and sisters. Sensitivities aside, the fact is that each year thou- sands of well-trained, highly skilled Israeli professionals are leaving the country to find employment elsewhere. These expatriates represent an invaluable human resource for our country, and the job of the Israeli government is to do whatever possible to direct them back to their home. While the ads caused a huge stir in Jewish communities, the initiative was far from an unprecedented approach. Countless nations have cre- ated government programs aimed at reversing the effects of brain drain. Israel will always be a home- land of the Jewish people. That being said, not every domestic policy pioneered by Israel's government is necessarily aimed at the Jewish Diaspora. With Israeli and Jewish culture being so closely inter- twined, the truth is that the Israeli national character, in- cluding the Hebrew language, civic holidays and remember- ing our fallen heroes, is by no means exclusive to residents. American Jews and Jews from all across the Diaspora are always encouraged to embrace Israeli customs and pass them on to their children. However, there are certain trappings of Israeli culture that cannot be emulated in Facts on the ground liott Abrams, put it: "There was no Jordan or Syria or Iraq, either, so perhaps he would say they are all invented people as well, and also have no right to statehood. Whatever was true then, Palestinian nationalism has grown since 1948, and whether we like it or not, it exists." But there is something more insidious about the notion that the Palestiniahs are somehow inauthentic in their nationalist aspira- tions. By denying Palestinian peoplehood, many would like to deny the Palestiia- ian people -- as if clever historical interpretations would make millions of residents of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Palestinian diaspora disappear at the drop of a footnote. That is not a path toward reconciliation nor peace m denial never is. If you have doubts why it is important for an American presidential contender to recognize the existence and aspirations of the Palestin- ians, consider Israel's own insistence that the Palestin- ians and their supporters ac- knowledge Israel as a "Jewish state." Nothing has soured re- lations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority like the latter's refusal to acknowledge Israel's claims to and history in Eretz Yisrael. Recognizing the Jewish people and their right to a state has become a litmus test for Palestinian seriousness. In a disturbing trend, some supporters of Israel have come to believe that one cannot be too extreme in defense of Israel. Seizing on this, some politicians are engaged in a race for the Right, embracing the rhetoric of Israel's and American Jewry's rejection- ist fringe. But Gingrich is not running for president of Americans for a Safe Israel; he is running for president of the United States. One day he might find himself sitting at a negotiating table, insisting that a Palestinian negotiator recognize Israel's essential peoplehood. What leverage will he have if he has denied the Palestinians that very thing? History is not just facts in a book -- it is facts on the ground. Just as the Palestin- ians must face the fact of Jewish history, Israel's true friends must face the reality of the Middle East. America, such as bustling streets freezing completely in time while pedestrians and drivers commemorate ourwar dead, or sufganiyot and latkes lining the windows of shops rather than gingerbread. These are the charms that our government hopes to portray to woo our talented expatri- ates back home. To ensure that we do not find ourselves in this situation again, my committee has rec- ommended to all the relevant agencies and organizations that a higher level of coordi- nation be implemented. This means that Israeli ministries such as the Prime Minister's Office, the Ministry of Absorp- tion, the Ministry of Informa- tion and Diaspora Affairs and the Foreign Ministry must co- ordinate before setting out on such an ambitious campaign. We as Israelis also must be much more sensitive to our brethren in the Jewish com- munities around the world. A higher level of consultation with them probably would have enabled us to avoid this whole situation. Admittedly, for all the celebrated charms of the Israeli character, subtlety is not among our strongest at- tributes. This is something I am confident that American Jewry can appreciate and rec- ognize the intention and rea- soning behind this campaign. Israelis are a passionate and honest people who say what we feel, and believe in what we say. It is an aspect of our character that has allowed us to survive and thrive. Through mutual respect and admiration I am sure that our two communities will move beyond this incident and continue to focus on the important issues thatare truly important to us all. Danny Danon is the deputy speaker of the Knesset and chairman of its Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs. He also is the chairman of World Likud. Dry Bones t00FOR00 AS(;i M i bA'r00 b AM 00'fil CAM