Torah Mitzyion: Parshat V’era

The Parsha for this week is V’era. It beings with an extraordinary act of revelation. God speaks to Moses declaring, “I am Yod-Hay-Vav-Hay.  I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but my Name, Yod-Hay-Vav-Hay, I did not make known to them (or I did not make known to them that which my Name Yod-Hay-Vav-Hay implies – Samson Raphael Hirsch).” Continue reading

Creating Israel/Diaspora Partnerships: Nurturing All Our Jewish Communities

By Rabbi Josh Weinberg

“The relation of Diaspora Judaism to that of Israel is like the relation of heat to the flame that produces it. Without the flame, there could be no heat. If we wish to enjoy the heat of Jewish creativity in the Diaspora, we must, through our personal participation in the Zionist cause, keep feeding the flame of Jewish life in the State of Israel.” –Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan

The basic Zionist premise on Jewish life is that there are two places in the world: Israel and outside-of-Israel (known in Hebrew as Hutz La’aretz, often abbreviated as Hu”l). This truism came into being when, according to our commonly accepted narrative, the people of Israel were exiled first to Babylon in 586 BCE and subsequently re-exiled after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

For approximately 2,000 years, the term golah (exile) referred to all Jews living outside Israel, including those who had been forcibly removed from their homeland and were living elsewhere. After the State of Israel was established and the Law of Return was enacted, mainstream Jewry came to understand that there were, in fact, a great number of Jews willingly living outside the Land of Israel. This revelation altered the notion that all Jews living outside Israel – whether in Amsterdam, Boston, or Hong Kong – were somehow in exile. Continue reading

Today Matters: Make It Count

“This is the day that the Lord has made – let us exult and rejoice on it.”
-Psalms 118:24

During the years I taught Jewish history on our Movement’s NFTY-EIE high school semester abroad program, at the end of each semester I would ask my students this question: “What are the top five most important moments or dates in Jewish history?” With great consistency they would cite similar moments―the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, the unification of Jerusalem as our fledgling nation’s capital under King David, the destruction of the Second Temple on the 9th of Av 70 CE, and, in a jump to modernity, the outbreak of WWII and the establishment of the State of Israel. Those 10th–12th graders were always eager to “pass the test” and prove that they had a solid grasp on the 4,000 years of history we’d covered in a relatively short period.

While their answers and dates were important and of great significance to our people and our collective narrative, mine was a trick question. The answer is simple: today. Today is the most important day in Jewish history because the important dates in our past are exactly that–in our past. We cannot control or change them. Today is about seeing the unfolding trajectory of our people’s past and using it to impact our future. Today is about taking the triumphs and tribulations, all of our collective suffering, and our remarkable contributions to the world, and making them count.

Today we have a tangible opportunity to make it count. Today, the voting is open for the World Zionist Congress, and today we have a chance to join with every Jew in the United States to make our voices heard. Today, by voting, we as Reform Jews will be able to stand up and be counted and tell the world that we are a strong and vibrant movement, and that we care deeply about shaping the State of Israel to become one that exemplifies our values.

By voting today you are exercising your only democratic opportunity to have a say in what happens in Israel, and you are helping to ensure that our movement is strong and continues to grow. The whole Jewish world is involved in elections this season and that means that the whole world is watching. A tremendous amount is at stake, including political influence, essential funding, and a chance to renew the vision and purpose of our Zionist institutions.

The Talmud cites the following passage: “This is the generation and those who seek its welfare.” (Psalms 24:6). Rabbi Judah the Patriarch and the sages differed in this matter. One opinion was that the character of the generation is determined by its leader. According to the other opinion, the character of the leader is determined by the generation. -Talmud, Arachin 17a

Our generation has tremendous power to affect change. We are responsible for standing up as a community and as a Movement to vote in the leadership of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the World Zionist Organization, and the Jewish National Fund. These national institutions provide the essential funding for our Movement and influence policies in Israel. They fund the initiatives that are most important to Reform Jews, Jewish identity and education, and our work towards gender and religious equality. We desperately need to reinvent and re-imagine what Zionism means in today’s reality. This election is our chance to say that it’s possible to both love Israel and be critical of it; to both live in the U.S. and take an active role in shaping and molding the character of the Jewish State. While we are always concerned for the well-being of Israel’s body, this is a vote for her soul.

What we do, or don’t do, from today on will define the character of the Jewish State and will show the world what it means to stand together as a Movement. That is why each individual vote is so important, and each person we reach out to share this important message will help us impact the future.

Today matters: make us count. Vote –


Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).

This post originally appeared on the blog as part of their Ten Minutes of Torah series.

Torateinu ARZA: Unto Zion Shall Go Torah

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly.
Pirkei Avot 1:1

Dan, the official in customs, told me to have a seat with my Torah and wait. Well accustomed to Israeli bureaucracy, I immediately knew I should have canceled my plans for the rest of the day. When Dan returned, offering me a cup of coffee, I knew I was in for it. Surprisingly, within 10 minutes, having signed the necessary paperwork and paid the required fees, Torateinu ARZA (Our Torah to the Land) and I were cleared to leave.

As I headed into the arrivals hall, cradling the Torah, Dan asked, “So, is that a real Torah?”

“Absolutely,” I responded.

“A great mitzvah…” he called out with a wink. Even the customs official understood the importance of our work to bring the gift of Torah to Kehilat Sha’ar HaNegev, a fledgling Israeli Reform community.

In the back of the hall, near the vending machines, I took the scroll from its box, passing it carefully to Yael Karrie, Kehilat Sha’ar HaNegev’s student rabbi. Amidst swarms of Orthodox Jews, we weren’t sure how a woman holding a sefer Torah would fare, but we needn’t have worried. No sooner did Yael take the scroll than an elderly woman, her head covered in a scarf ran up to us, asking if she could kiss the Torah, exclaiming, “May it bring good things for the people of Israel!”

Traditionally, when we take the Torah from the ark during services we chant these words from the Book of Isaiah: “From out of Zion comes Torah.” With the arrival of this particular sefer Torah, we can modify Isaiah’s words to these: “Unto Zion shall go Torah.”

Generously donated by Congregation Beth Israel of San Diego, Torateinu ARZA, an initiative of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), had traveled throughout North America for nearly six months – from west to east, from San Diego to the Negev – visiting dozens of congregations and events on its way to Israel. Recently, I was honored to walk with Torateinu ARZA on Shabbat morning at the joint URJ-HUC-CCAR board meeting in Cincinnati and to be granted an even greater honor: to receive the Torah upon its arrival home – at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport. It has since arrived at Kehilat Sha’ar HaNegev, the congregation that will be its permanent home in Israel.

As we celebrate the last day of the Festival of Lights, may this Torah be a symbol of much needed light, unity, and good will in Israel. Let it show the world that the Reform Movement is building a strong and growing presence in Israel, that we are committed to making Torah accessible to all Jews, and that our congregations place Torah at the center of their existence.

This spring’s World Zionist Organization elections have the potential to enhance recognition of the Reform Movement in Israel, help our communities to thrive, and demonstrate that there are many ways to be religious in Medinat Yisrael. If you haven’t already done so, please pledge to vote in the upcoming WZO elections.

Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).

This post originally appeared on the blog as part of their Ten Minutes of Torah series.

What’s Jewish About These Laws?

May it be Thy will, my God and the God of my fathers, to protect me against the impudent and against impudence, from bad men and bad companions, from severe sentences and severe plaintiffs, whether a son of the covenant or not.
– The personal prayer of Rabbi Y’hudah HaNasi, BT B’rachot 16

I. Non-Orthodox Weddings in Israel

Last June, I officiated at a wedding in Israel for close friends, who were subsequently married in a civil union abroad in order to have their marriage recognized in Israel. A pending bill now in the Knesset calls for hundreds of rabbis and officiants like me to be jailed for such offenses. Jewish Home Member of Knesset Eli Ben-Dahan, the bill’s original author, rationalizes this unnerving legislation by explaining its purpose as ‘acting to aid those women who have been refused a get (certificate of divorce) by their husbands and for whom the rabbinate is unable to assist’. The stated goal is also to assist victims of other precarious matrimonial predicaments resulting specifically from outside-the-Rabbinate marriage authorities. (Currently, only the Orthodox Israeli Rabbinate can marry Jewish couples.) Many of us believe that this bill is an attempt to level a blow to the growing phenomenon of young Israeli couples who seek their own Jewish religious wedding ceremonies – Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, and the rabbis who accommodate them – threatening the Rabbinate’s control. While this bill is unlikely to pass in the Knesset, it joins a growing list of bills that are of grave concern.

II. The Jewish Nation-State Bill

This much-discussed bill, delayed in the Knesset, seeks to define the identity of the State of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. This is not only superfluous, but seeks to place values of democracy and equality as secondary to those of Jewish nationality. The bill also attempts to establish Jewish law as a source of inspiration for the Knesset-which, in many instances, it already is in the Israeli Supreme Court. As the bill morphs from one version to another, we must watch closely.

III. Rounding up infiltrators or persecuting the strangers in our midst?

The original intent of the 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law was to prevent the entry of Palestinian terrorists. The law was never lifted. The third amendment to this law, passed on January 10, 2012, and implemented in June 2013 expanded the definition of “infiltrator” to include Africans entering Israel through the border with Egypt. According to this amendment, infiltrators could be detained up to three years, and those from any country considered a “hostile enemy state” (including those fleeing genocide or oppressive regimes) could be detained indefinitely. A group of asylum seekers and human rights organizations brought charges against the state to the High Court of Justice in response to this amendment. In September 2013 the High Court of Justice voided Amendment 3, stating that the law “disproportionately limits the constitutional right to liberty determined in Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” (High Court of Justice [Israel], 2013).

The volley between the Parliament and human rights organizations did not stop there. Parliament passed Amendment 4 in December 2013, which determined that “infiltrators” entering Israel after this date could be detained without trial for up to one year. After one year they would be transferred to Holot, an open-detention camp, and held until they could be deported-either as the result of an improvement in the political situation in their country of origin, or until they signed a ‘voluntary’ return agreement. The distinction between full detention and open camps is that those in open camps may leave the premises, but must return three times a day for roll call and must stay overnight in the facility, which is closed from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. In effect, this prevents detainees from working, since the punishment for failing to attend roll call is to be sent back to a full-detention camp. In addition to picking up asylum seekers at the border, the government began to round up asylum seekers who had entered before December 2013, and placing them in Holot, causing panic among the asylum-seeking community.

In September 2014 Amendment 4 was struck down by the High Court of Justice, ordering the closure of Holot and voiding the one-year mandatory detention period for new entrants. In the decision, Justice Fogelman stated:

Every person, by virtue of being a person, has the right to human dignity…and infiltrators are people. And that needs explanation, let’s say it explicitly: infiltrators do not lose one ounce of their right to human dignity just because they reached the country in this way or another.

The 5th Amendment-passed two days ago-reinstates Holot as an open-detention center, reduces confinement to 20 months (with an evening roll call), and prohibits detainees from working. There is evidence that Likud’s Interior Minister Gilad Erdan, and Knesset Interior Committee Chairwoman Miri Regev are working together to push the amendment through the Knesset before its impending dissolution. On October 26, 2014, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted to approve a bill that would allow the Knesset to override rulings by the High Court of Justice. This is seen as a direct response to the High Court of Justice rulings on Amendments to the Prevention of Infiltration Bill. A day later, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice on behalf of 138 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who have been held in Holot for over two years, prior to the High Court’s rejection of the 3rd Amendment, which ordered the release of all detainees.

Earlier this week, outgoing Finance Minister Yair Lapid said, “We have to treat refugees from Darfur as Holocaust survivors.” In that case, let’s not lock them up. The bill, hastily put together before impending Knesset dissolution, passed a key Knesset committee on Monday, paving the way to be voted into law.

While attention will focus on the upcoming Israeli elections of March 17th, we must not ignore what is happening now. These issues touch on the foundation of what it means to have a Jewish State and a Jewish society. Of course we will have our own opportunity to vote and have our voices heard in Israel. This matters, and we must stand up and be counted.


Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).

This post originally appeared on the blog as part of their Ten Minutes of Torah series.

The Real Hannah Senesh

By Josh Weinberg

It was 70 years ago this week, according to the Hebrew calendar, that a young Jewish girl named Hannah Senesh was executed by firing squad by the Hungarian-Nazi police force. She had been captured after parachuting into Europe with a group of Jewish paratroopers of the Haganah who were sent to rescue Jews from the Nazi war machine.

At the age of 23, Hannah Senesh became an epic and heroic figure largely due to the letters, poems, and diary entries she left behind, exposing to the world her deepest thoughts and feelings. Not long after her death, one poem that she had composed during a walk from her kibbutz, Sdot Yam, to the ancient Roman ruins of the port city of Caesarea (1 km to the north) became her most famous. Known to most as Eli, Eli, the poem Halikha LeKesariya (A Walk to Caesarea) was set to music by David Zehavi and proceeded to be prominently featured at virtually every memorial ceremony for the Holocaust and for Israel’s fallen – deliberately linking the two to forge a linear narrative in the young Israeli psyche.

While the classical Zionist narrative claimed Senesh as one of its own – total assimilation only to find redemption in her aliyah to the Land of Israel (Palestine at the time) – we now know that there is much more to her story than previously understood.

Just as the great Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl’s own upbringing (in the same city as Senesh) begs a deeper inquiry into the struggles of living a both Jewish and modern life, and that the Dreyfus trial was for him a tipping point rather than a great awakening, so too must we dig a bit deeper into Senesh’s own spiritual and evolving Jewish identity.

On September 18, 1936, a teenaged Hannah Senesh wrote:

I’m not quite clear just how I stand: synagogue, religion, the question of God. About the last and most difficult question I am the least disturbed. I believe in God – even if I can’t express just how. Actually I’m relatively clear on the subject of religion, too, because Judaism fits in best with my way of thinking. But the trouble with the synagogue is that I don’t find it at all important, and I don’t feel it to be a spiritual necessity; I can pray equally at home.

Later on November 2, 1940, she continued this sentiment by saying:

I was never able to pray in the usual manner, by rote, and even now neither can nor want to. But the dialogue man holds with his Creator…is what I, too, have found. I see the sincere, inner link, even if it comes through struggle within myself and through some doubt.

From reading her diary, we learn that her Jewish identity was much more complicated than often presented. Her struggle with belief, faith, prayer, and observance lead us to appreciate a deeper and more complex outlook on her life, challenging the classic Zionist narrative. Senesh reflected in her life on what many of us may be searching for today. Her worldview and outlook on Israel and Judaism is one that can resonate with those struggling to find the balance between our national, ethnic, and religious identities. For many Israelis, the discovery that she was not definitively secular, and that she struggled deeply with personal religiosity, may come as a shock. But it is also a welcome call to say that it’s okay to question, to have a grey area, and that there are many ways to be religious. Our Reform movement in Israel is ready right now to engage such seekers; to offer meaning to those for whom the polarizing dichotomy between “secular” and “religious” no longer answers their needs. Based on Senesh’s example, this struggle has been occupying the minds of Zionists and young people for many decades.

While many of Senesh’s writings were published and now feature prominently in Israeli and Diaspora ceremonies and liturgy, one amazing discovery came to light only two years ago. Sixty-eight years after it was written, the poem Hora L’Bat Golah (Hora to a Daughter of the Exile) was discovered in a drawer. Senesh wrote the poem in 1943 while she was being trained for her mission to parachute behind enemy lines.

Hora to a Daughter of the Exile (Translation by Elie Leshem)

A hora, roaring, tempestuous, blazes around me With the mystery of rhythm, gladdening and forging, It tugs at my body and heart The foot marches, the back quivers, the song is ignited, a searing chorus Dance and song, a wordless prayer, Hail to the future, hail to creation

But then a figure flutters before my eyes My arm has escaped my friends’ embrace My heart spurns the tempestuous singing, Far and near it consumes me whole

Blue eyes Such a bewildered glance A sad silence and a stubborn mouth The stillness grows in me I remain standing Alone, in a crowd of a hundred, her and I

Click here to listen to the song composed for this poem.

On this 70th anniversary of her death, communities across Israel and throughout our Israeli Reform movement will be marking her life and contributions. I encourage our North American movement’s congregations to do the same. Let’s dedicate time to highlight the person she was and the legacy and challenges she left for all of us. This Shabbat, sing Eli, Eli not in a somber, mournful tenor, but in a celebratory and upbeat tone, since this is a prayer offering thanks and praise for life’s natural wonders that should never cease. On the 70th anniversary of this important hero, let us re-examine her life, her hashkafa (outlook and personal philosophy), and her contribution to Jewish life.


Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).


This post originally appeared on the blog as part of their Ten Minutes of Torah series.

Family Matters

By Rabbi Josh Weinberg, ARZA President

If you need a hammer, I will be a hammer, if you need a nail, I will be the nail… We are as bars of iron, elastic but iron. Metal that can be forged to whatever is needed for the national machine. A wheel? I am the wheel. If a nail, a screw or a flying wheel are needed – take me! Is there a need to dig the earth? I dig. Is there a need to shoot, to be a soldier? I am a soldier…
– Yosef Trumpeldor (translated and paraphrased)

Trumpeldor (1880-1920), soldier, symbol of pioneering and armed defense in Eretz Yisrael, became a symbol to pioneer youth from all parts of the Diaspora. His concept of Zionism was intertwined with the establishment of agricultural communes in Israel, which, if necessary, would be defended by armed force.

For Reform Jews, “obligation” can be a funny thing. Our movement champions individual autonomy and encourages each of us to seek out meaning in personalmitzvot, leaving much to choice and often little to obligation. So what, if anything, are we obligated to do? Are we obligated to: give tzedakah? keep some form of kashrut? observe Shabbat? provide our children with a Jewish education? The topic of many books and dissertations, these questions require a much longer discussion. Specifically now the question arises regarding our obligation to Israel.

Do we have an obligation whatsoever to the State of Israel? Does Israel’s current crisis increase our responsibility towards it? Not surprisingly, few American Reform Jews would identify with Trumpeldor’s sentiment, and some find themselves ambivalent about how to feel or act regarding Israel. During the past month, while our Reform movement in Israel has stepped in to fill an important role in Israeli society – providing support, care, and respite – many American Reform Jews see it as obligatory to go to Israel now to help.

If we are part of the Jewish people, then we unequivocally have an obligation to the largest Jewish community in the world and the only sovereign Jewish political entity. As Shmuel Rosner recently penned in The New York Times,

If all Jews are a family, it would be natural for Israelis to expect the unconditional love of their non-Israeli Jewish kin. If Jews aren’t a family, and their support can be withdrawn, then Israelis have no reason to pay special attention to the complaints of non-Israeli Jews.

Being family does NOT mean that we blindly support each other or hold back criticism – often the contrary. Being family DOES mean that we drop everything and help out. It means that we somehow alter our own lives to come to the aid of our family members in need. Being family means that we participate in the fate and the destiny of our people -whether we like it or not.

It was Rav Joseph Soloveitchik who most clearly articulated the notion that as Jews we all must share a common fate and a common destiny. The Rav enumerated four positive consequences of the awareness of a shared fate. He stated, that as Jews, we share historical circumstances, suffering, responsibility and liability, and activity.

While it is beyond us to change or control our fate, we can and are obligated to alter and influence our destiny. Soloveitchik explains,

Destiny in the life of a people, as in the life of an individual, signifies a deliberate and conscious existence that the people has chosen out of its own free will and in which it finds the full realization of its historical being.

It is our common destiny that we must join together and work hard to change.

Having just returned from a week in Israel, I felt the effects of the current war on the state of Israeli society. I felt the trauma of soldiers, the exhaustion of volunteers, and the deep sigh of those who know that the results of the most recent violence will last for months to come. The message from Israelis was clear – they are fighting a war of ein breirah (no choice), and we as Jews must also see our role as an obligation for which we have no choice.

How do we translate our obligation to support Israel? Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Give money. Financial support is crucial, and through the united Stop the Sirens campaign, we and our partners have been able to raise significant sums that translate to real work on the ground.
  • Go to Israel now. Despite recent trips by the CCAR and ARZA, less than two dozen Reform Jewish groups have made solidarity trips to Israel to show support (excluding individual trips or other organizations). These trips are important and make a difference to those who only see the myriad of cancellations. Despite our immediate and continual news availability, there is no replacement for being in Israel to truly understand the reality on the ground, and to internalize feelings that information, however plentiful, cannot provide.
  • Share knowledge. I recently met someone who explained that she took on an additional mitzvah to read and comment on at least five Israel-related articles daily. I applauded her adopted humra (religious stringency), and now suggest it to others.
  • Create a safe and warm environment to discuss Israel in your congregation. There is no greater issue dividing the contemporary Jewish community right now than Israel. What is needed now is to come together to talk, discuss, and share feelings and thoughts. As Dr. Alex Sinclair wrote, we should aspire for “unity without uniformity.”

While living outside the land of Israel affords us the choice to participate in Israel’s fate, we must now affirm our Jewish peoplehood and recognize our obligation to do what we can for our Israeli brethren. Together, we must work to ensure the sanctity and security of our joint destiny.

Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).

For more on our recent mission and how to travel to Israel now, visit ARZA online.

Torateinu ARZA – in Israel!!!!

By Rabbi Josh Weinberg, ARZA President

“משה קיבל תורה מסיני ומסרה ליהושע, ויהושע לזקנים, וזקנים לנביאים, ונביאים מסרוה לאנשי כנסת הגדולה.” אבות א:א

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly.” Pirkei Avot 1:1


Dan, the customs official at Ben Gurion airport, had just told me to have a seat with my Torah and wait. For those of us accustomed to Israeli bureaucracy, the fateful “wait here a few minutes” might seem like a true test of endurance, and a warning to cancel all plans for that day. When he came back offering me a cup of coffee, I really thought I was in for it. However, 10 minutes later we signed the necessary paperwork, paid our fees and were actually cleared to leave with our Torah.

“So, is that a real Torah anyway?” he asked as we were leaving? “Absolutely,” I said “A great mitzvah…” he called out to us with a wink that showed us that even the customs official felt the importance of bringing the gift of Torah to a fledgling Israeli community and that Israeli bureaucracy is, of course, also Jewish…

Standing in the arrivals hall, back near the vending machines, we took the Torah out and I passed it to Yael Karrie, the student rabbi of Shaar HaNegev. Amidst swarms of Orthodox Jews, I wasn’t sure how a woman would fair holding a Sefer Torah in the airport, and we decided it would be worth the risk. I handed her the Torah, and an elderly head-covered woman came running up to ask if she could kiss the Torah, and ‘may it bring good things for the people of Israel!’

Traditionally, when we take the Torah out of the ark during services we chant the following words from the book of Isaiah: “כי מציון תצא תורה” – From out of Zion comes Torah”. Over the past 6 months we have had the pleasure of changing Isaiah’s words. One specific Sefer Torah has been on a journey from West to East – from San Diego to the Negev. As we bring the Torah to Israel let us now say: “”אל ציון תצא תורה – “UNTO Zion shall go Torah”. “Torateinu ARZA,” or “Our Torah to the Land” is an initiative of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), through which one Torah scroll — generously donated by Congregation Beth Israel of San Diego — is traveling the country, synagogue to synagogue, and will then be donated to Kehilat Sha’ar HaNegev, a Reform community in the Northern Negev desert. Since February, the Torah has been visiting dozens of our communities, events, conventions and ceremonies. I had the great honor of walking with the Torah during Shabbat morning services at the URJ board meeting in Cincinnatti, and now the even greater honor of receiving the Torah as it landed at Ben Gurion airport in Israel.

We had previously planned for our Torah – Torateinu – to join the celebrations at the Kotel and to send the message that until the egalitarian section of the Kotel is completed to our satisfaction, we will keep asserting the right of women to read from the Torah in the women’s section. We then subsequently made the hard decision that this was not the right time to bring the Torah into the Kotel plaza. The Tfila of Rosh Hodesh – both from Women of the Wall and many others – was dedicated and directed towards the three kidnapped teenagers Eyal, Gil-ad and Naftali, who we continue to keep in our thoughts as we move from shiva to Shloshim.

Let this Torah be a symbol of light, unity and good will that is so desperately needed in Israel during these days. Let it show the world that we in the Reform movement hope to make Torah accessible for all Jews and that our communities and congregations place Torah in the center of their existence. As each community held and then passed the Torah, we became aware of the importance to have a strong presence in Israel. To work for recognition for our movement and to show Israeli society that there are many ways to be religious. The more votes we have this coming spring for the World Zionist Congress elections, the more our Reform communities in Israel will thrive, and the more Torah we will be able to give to Israel and to the world.

The Torah has now made Aliyah, and I encourage you all to go visit it (and the community) soon! This could not have happened without the generosity of Rabbi Michael Berk of Temple Beth Israel, San Diego and Rabbi Rebecca Epstein for her meticulous coordination, enduring oversight and of course, passion for Israel, Torah and the Jewish people.

For more stories and pictures of the Torah’s travels and visits:

NFTY at 75 – Think Big

By Rabbi Josh Weinberg

A Jew who participates in the suffering of his nation and its fate, but does not join in its destiny, which is expressed in a life of Torah and mitzvot, destroys the essence of Judaism and injures his own uniqueness. By the same token, a Jew who is observant but does not feel the hurt of the nation, and who attempts to distance himself from Jewish fate, desecrates his Jewishness.
– Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik Kol Dodi Dofek, (based on RaMBaM’s Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:11)

At the first CFTY leadership training institute that I ever attended, I took away a simple and direct meta-message: Think big. Don’t settle for mediocrity, and stop doing the same things over and over again. It was an exciting time, just days after the famous handshake on the White House lawn between Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat, and Bill Clinton as they came together to sign the Declaration of Principles &ndash part of the Oslo accords. CFTY quickly got organized and put together 5,000 signatures on our “Megillat Shalom,” which affirmed our commitment and support for (what we thought would be a lasting) peace in the Middle East. Signatures in hand, we took our scrolls to New York. With the help of then ARZA Director Rabbi Ammi Hirsch, we presented them to both the UN’s Israeli Ambassador and the UN’s official Palestinian Mission.

For a youth movement, ‘think big’ means not accepting the status quo. During my NFTY years, and especially while I was president of the Chicago Area region, we spent a lot of time talking about what it meant to be a Reform Jew. We debated the oft-quoted seemingly cliche catch phrase “choice through knowledge.” We realized that for most of our peers, that phrase symbolized a convenient way to rationalize a do-whatever-you-want approach. In our attempt to ‘think big,’ we wondered what it would mean for members of our movement to take on more ritual observance. Would NFTY make it possible for teens to attend events if they preferred not to drive on Shabbat? Would NFTY accommodate those who kept a different and more stringent policy of kashrut? Would NFTY engage Hebrew speakers or did “inclusion” encourage, if not enforce, a lowest common denominator approach to Jewish life? I knew that the next chapter in my life would be dedicated to answering those questions.

Of course, instead of answers, came more questions. Much has been written about the effects of long-term Israel programs on Jewish identity and involvement. For the past 14 years, the Birthright Israel program (not a long-term experience) has defined the success of a visit to Israel as a force in creating Jewish identity, the core motivating factor behind the existence of the program. My time on EIE and subsequent return visits turned out to be the most meaningful and formative of my identity. I came to feel that we in the Reform movement had missed the boat, and were playing ‘catch up’ to the greatest drama of our people’s collective existence &ndash: one that I wasn’t going to miss. Zionism, for me, became the manifestation of my identity search. Identifying with Gordon, Ahad Ha’am, Ben Gurion, Kook, and Magnes, I found that there is no Judaism without Israel, and that Israel is a deeply Jewish entity.

In Israel, I found a place where the meta-narrative of the Jewish people is common knowledge, and where the Jewish public culture eliminates the age-old Diasporic minority complex. It was NFTY that brought me to Israel, and it would be through NFTY that I would attempt to impart my love of the Land, the importance of peoplehood, and a deep connection to Jewish culture, literacy, and tradition, by leading trips and teaching Jewish history to younger NFTYites.

I was fortunate to have mentors who taught me how to teach, including Baruch Kraus, Rabbis David Forman z”l and Lee Diamond, Uri Feinberg, and Amy Geller. They showed me what it means to care deeply for what Israel is, and even more for what it could be.

Having come on aliyah, I realized that simply living in Israel was not, as some may argue, a substitute for Jewish living, engagement, and mitzvot. It was incumbent on me to figure out where my ‘red lines’ were and what being Jewish would look like in Israel. Would I still go to synagogue? Would I drive on Shabbat? Would I make ritual and observance decisions differently in Israel than I would have stateside? My answer was yes.

Joining the Reform movement in Israel and congregation Kehilat Kol HaNeshama, I assumed a different level of knowledge and background. Welcomed into a community of youth-movement graduates who had come to Israel looking for the same things that I was seeking, I felt at home. I wanted to become part of this movement that had so much to offer, not only to an ex-Patriot Zionist olim like myself, but to Israelis, for whom the old-time polarizing dichotomy between religious and secular no longer answered the needs of the mainstream.

As I sung Jeff Klepper’s “Shalom Rav” while leading Kabbalat Shabbat in a Kiryat Gat boarding school it hit me. I realized that this familiar melody I had grown up with at camp and NFTY, composed by a Reform cantor, was evoking similar feelings in a group of Israeli kids of Ethiopian, North African, and Russian origin – who had never been part of NFTY, gone to camp, or heard of the composer. At that moment I understood that it was time to take my Reform Zionism to another level. Aliyah was one step. Though I was a century too late to drain the swamps and build the kibbutzim, it was the time to join our movement to help build Reform communities in Israel and offer religious alternatives to those who were searching.

Today, as the President of ARZA, I think back to the simple direct message I got as a teenager. We must think big; we must not settle for mediocrity, and we must utilize our strengths – to build community and find the right formula for religious existence. Learning from the magic and strength of Israel we must build a Jewish society, and continue to challenge and further what it means to be Jewish in the Jewish state. Fortunately, we can do this together, since our relationship with our Israeli movement is growing and becoming stronger. My single dream for every Jewish high school student is to receive the same gift that I was given – the gift of time and study in Israel. Let’s use these experiences to build and to be built, and not take “no” for an answer.

Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).

The state of Israel in America (Part 1 of 3)

By Rabbi Josh Weinberg

My heart is in the East
by Yehuda HaLevy (Toledo, Spain 1085 – 1140)
My heart is in the East, and I am at the ends of the West;
How can I taste what I eat and how could it be pleasing to me?
How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet
Zion lies beneath the fetter of Edom, and I am in the chains of Arabia?
It would be easy for me to leave all the bounty of Spain –
As it is precious for me to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.

In 1815, Mordecai Manuel Noah was removed from his position as American Ambassador to Tunis by then Secretary of State James Monroe, citing Noah’s religion as “an obstacle to the exercise of [his] Consular function.” In 1825, with little support from even his fellow Jews, and as a precursor to modern Zionism, Noah tried to found a Jewish “refuge” or sovereign entity at Grand Island in the Niagara River. It was to be called “Ararat,” after Mount Ararat, the Biblical resting place of Noah’s Ark (all narcissism aside). He purchased land for $4.38 per acre to be used as a refuge for Jews of all nations. A cornerstone was placed there, which read, “Ararat, a City of Refuge for the Jews, founded by Mordecai M. Noah in the Month of Tishri, 5586 (September, 1825) and in the Fiftieth Year of American Independence.”

Needless to say, Noah’s radical reactionary vision never took and we are all left to wonder ‘what if…’? Sadly, this precursor to the Territorialist camp of political Zionism never made it onto the short list of other ideas floated for Jewish sovereignty, including Argentina, Madagascar, Birobidzhan, and Uganda. Noah’s pipe dream of founding a Jewish State near Niagara never came to fruition, and the Jews of [North] America pledge allegiance to either her majesty’s branch (in the North) or to any one of the 50 United States of America. Just a century and a quarter after Noah’s failed attempt at Jewish political sovereignty, the family of nations was blessed with a Jewish State.

Fast forward 66 years. The United States houses the second largest Jewish community in the world. Many of its members do not aggressively seek to live in a Jewish society. Even more Jews find their connection to the Jewish State a source of controversy and divisiveness. Some have taken the extreme measure of sidelining and silencing all debate and discussion on Israel in order to stave off any potential uncomfortable confrontation, while others search for new and creative ways to engage, educate, and advocate for Israel.

The fact of the matter is that when living in the United States (or anywhere outside Israel), one is not faced with having to constantly think about and contemplate the issues facing the Jewish State. However, for a loud and present group, one’s stance on Israel and its issues serves as a litmus test for belonging to and remaining an active member of the Jewish community. Let us take, as a case study, the recent vote for J Street’s admission into the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. The secret ballot has now been outed and we know who voted and how. My thoughts on this are that we, as Zionists, need to do all that we can to include those who care about Israel – not alienate them. It occurs to me that we should all worry far less about how others engage with Israel, and confront the more daunting issue of the great masses of American Jewry who simply don’t engage at all.

This is a precious moment and an unparalleled opportunity to step up and be proud that we have diverse opinions (as we always have), and to say that part of being a Reform Jew is to care deeply and passionately about what happens in the Jewish State. Perspective never hurts either, and we must take into consideration that few Israelis have heard of this past fortnight’s vote, and don’t really put all that much stock into what appears to be much ado about nothing.

In terms of Israel activity on our side of the pond, I think that many Israelis are asking the following questions: Do American Jews care about us here in Israel? Are all American Jews going to come on aliyah to Israel or are they at least wrestling with the idea (even though when all is said and done they may not)? Do we [Israelis] have anything to gain by viewing the American Jewish community as more than one large ATM? What would it look like to separate religion from State, and what if our existential threats were slightly diminished, allowing us to worry about other matters?

While some of the answers to these questions are complicated and some are straightforward, Zionism, right now, has to be about getting our two heads (Israel and North America) onto one body and working together. While I look up from Haaretz or YNet sometimes, I gaze dreamily, wishing that Manuel Noah had been successful, saving us all a lot of tsuris (troubles, suffering). Then I hum a few bars of Ehud Manor’s classic “Ein Li Eretz Acheret” (I have no Other Country), and realize that despite what some of the classical Reformers believed, America is not the Promised Land. It is upon us to be thoughtful Zionists, engaged and willing to put in some work so that we can firmly state that the Jewish State is for us and all Jews.

To be continued…

Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).