The ‘Z’ in ARZA
Numerous news articles have come out in the Forward, New York Times, Jewish Week and Haaretz covering the vote in the UN on upgrading the status of Palestine in the world community. Statements have also been released by URJ and CCAR, with the support of ARZA and ARZA Canada, as well as controversies arising from positions that some groups have taken. At the same time, people have been contacting ARZA to find out what our “position” is. I think this question relates to people wanting to know what ARZA is, what our role is in our American Jewish Community and in our movement’s relationship to Israel. While the simple answer is to say that we are the Zionist arm (heart, soul, voice) of the Reform Movement, I think people are looking for something deeper and more illustrative. Let’s see if the recent crisis in Israel and the controversies arising out of people’s response to it can help us satisfy these questions.
ARZA’s primary mission is to support and grow the Reform movement in Israel, but concomitant to that is the need to grow and nurture a Reform Zionist community here. Many congregations tell me that they are afraid to talk about Israel because it is “controversial.” They have people who support positions held by, for example, AIPAC or J-Street and they feel that if Israel comes up, they will argue over who supports Israel more or what is the right way to be supportive.
It seems to me that fear and arguments are not good approaches to fostering support and not likely to be successful. We can see this is the case when we look at how starved our movement in Israel is for resources. They are in the midst of a Jewish Renaissance. While in the last five years they have grown by 50 percent, there are still hundreds of thousands of people who say they would like to be part of a Reform congregation but that there are none near enough to attend. Currently only 25% of URJ congregations participate in ARZA membership drives, in part because they do not want to court controversy in the community. And yet, ARZA membership dues are a powerful source of fuel for the growth of our movement in Israel, nearly half of the dues dollars that ARZA takes in go to Israel along with other gifts, making us the single largest funder of the movement there. Can you imagine what could happen if we were to double or triple that support?
ARZA’s approach instead is to educate and engage the community as a way to build it up and, at the same time, build up the movement in Israel. So, in the current crisis, instead of issuing statement after statement, we saw our role as more of a nurturing one. We made available to our current and potential members the different sides to the issues surrounding Israel, and fostered a safe place to wrestle with these issues while maintaining and growing that crucial support for Israel in the form of live-streaming Shabbat services and fundraising. We worked with our larger community at the URJ board meeting to make a statement, but worked to make sure with others that it was balanced and educational.
In some ways, I see this view of ARZA’s role as analogous to Jacob and his transformation. How did Jacob become Israel? By grabbing hold, wrestling, trying to know the angel (what is your name?) and not letting go. To me, this is the job of ARZA, to help to transform the identity of the American Reform Jew from Jacob to Israel, from American Reform Jew to Reform Zionist, from a community that shies away from controversy to one that looks at all sides of the issue, wrestles with them in love, and does not let go.
As our larger community debates the right way to support Israel, I encourage our members and the members of the URJ to keep up with all sides of the debate and consider them fully. ARZA will be sharing various views on the UN Resolution on Palestine, settlement building, pluralism and more on the ARZA blog and in other forums. Feel free to wrestle with these views, to share your perspective in a fair and respectful manner. Listen to what others have to say on these pages and in your congregation. Invite ARZA and others in to examine the issues, to study and learn. And everywhere you can, work with this interest, this engagement to build up the membership of ARZA and the support for our movement in Israel. Help us transform this movement from Jacob to Israel, from American Reform Jew to Reform Zionist.