Lessons Learned on Day One of 37th World Zionist Congress

By Andrew M. Keene

On August 29, 1897, the first Zionist Congress convened in Basel, Switzerland, chaired by its pioneer and visionary leader, Theodor Herzl. One hundred and eighteen years later, the 37th meeting of the so-called “Congress of the Jewish People” was called to order this week in Jerusalem.

The Reform and Progressive presence at the congress was made clear and evident to the world community.

The congress was opened by Zionist Supreme Court Judge Tova Strassberg-Cohen, who reaffirmed the organizations’ commitment and our individual and communal mandate to embrace pluralism, civility, and progress. This set the stage for our voice to be powerful and vitally important. Continue reading

How to Ensure Reform Voices and Values are Heard Throughout the World

By Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Shalom from Jerusalem!

I arrived on Sunday – together with many other Diaspora Jewish leaders – for the 37th Zionist Congress – often referred to as “The Parliament of the Jewish People.”

Especially as our hearts break as our people are viciously attacked throughout this beloved land, taking us further and further from the peace we all seek, I am – as is always true – proud to be here in Medinat Yisrael, not only to participate in the World Zionist Congress, but also to express, unequivocally, the Reform Movement’s values and leadership, which are present – and growing – here and in communities throughout the world. More to the point, however, I am here during this time of tension, hostility, and uncertainty to express our movement’s undeniable love for Israel and our steadfast solidarity with all her people. Continue reading

On the Road to Jerusalem: A Current Affairs Conversation with an Israeli Taxi Driver

by Rabbi John Rosove

Gidi is a handsome, 53-year-old Israeli taxi driver whose grandfather made aliyah from Iraq in the 1920s. Loquacious and charming, Gidi gave me to a 50-minute Hebrew monologue on the situation in Israel in light of the Iran agreement, the recent Palestinian stabbings of innocent Israelis, his views of the American government’s involvement, and his frustration in light of current realities.

Gidi is smart and well informed, a practical, no-nonsense man who believes in a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – but he sees no way to get there because of the Palestinian propensity to blame Israel for all its problems and take no responsibility for themselves or their children.

I didn’t raise the issue of Israelis’ co-responsibility for the logjam because I wanted to hear his views. I just listened – a lot!

While driving up the mountain to Jerusalem, Gidi became so exasperated by the recent stories of Palestinian-on-Israeli violence that he took both hands off the wheel and gesticulated angrily about the immoral character of these terrorists. Thankfully, he grabbed the wheel just before I begged him to watch out for the cars careening alongside us.

But he was right on so many counts.

Read the rest of this post on the ReformJudaism.org blog.

The Troubling and the Promising: Why Being at the World Zionist Congress is So Important

By Rabbi Jack A. Luxemburg

It sounds like the beginning of a potentially provocative joke about Israeli politics: Five members of the Knesset – two from the Left, and one each from the center, the right, and from the joint Arab list – walked into a room full of Liberal Zionists… but it isn’t. Rather, it is a description of an important meeting that took place during the ARZA delegation’s day of preparation prior to the opening of the World Zionist Congress.

On Monday, we heard from leaders of the Reform Movement in Israel and from members of the Knesset. Together, we discussed our potential, our problems, and the possibility of realizing the first and overcoming the second.

That five prominent members of Knesset spent the better part of an afternoon with our delegation, even while the Knesset was in session and votes were being taken, is an indication of their recognition of the increased influence and growing presence of the Reform Movement in Israel and the strength of our delegation to the World Zionist Congress. It was a message not lost on our delegation, and it only underscored the important role we are here to fulfill as representatives of liberal Zionism in the United States and around the world.

It was also a sobering experience. Continue reading

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Our Pre-WZC Meeting with the Knesset

By Lynn Magid Lazar

As Dr. Seuss wrote in one of my favorite books, “Oh, the places you”ll go!” Yesterday, this phrase kept resonating with me. We began the day at Beit Shmuel, the Reform Movement’s terrific guest-house in Jerusalem. In fact, visiting this gorgeous piece of real estate in Jerusalem is absolutely worth a trip! But I digress…

We began the day in a meeting room recently refurbished by a generous grant from WRJ. A beautiful plaque honoring WRJ hangs on the wall and as Reform Jews from around the world gather, I feel very proud. But I digress…

We began the day learning about the basic structures and processes of the World Zionist Organization (WZO). With layers of history, multiple levels of professionals and a labyrinth of lay leaders, the WZO is a complicated organization! The three days of the Congress are equally complex. We will be attending meetings of both small committees and large factions and coalitions. The plenary sessions include everything from resolution debates to an address by Prime Minister Netanyahu. There is so much to absorb. At the end of the week I’ll let you know if I was successful! Continue reading

#WZC2015: Shabbat in Tel Aviv

by Lynn Magid Lazar

Greetings from Tel Aviv! It’s certainly a different city from Jerusalem and yet in so many ways it is utterly and consistently Israel. The differences could not be more dramatic! Take for example, the landscape—or should I say seascape. The beaches in Tel Aviv are gorgeous and we have had spectacular summer-like weather. There is a vibrancy in Jerusalem, but it is nothing like the energy, the construction and the youthful presence here in Tel Aviv.

And yet, in these troubling days, there are similarities between the two cities in the conversations, attitudes and activities. As an example, we made plans with our cousin to spend time in a newly restored area of the city. Those plans had to be cancelled on Thursday as a large section of the city was closed off while police, soldiers and helicopters searched for a “suspicious vehicle.” Although we made alternate plans and had a lovely day, it is emblematic of life in Israel. It is not something that we as North Americans can easily understand. Continue reading

WZC Resolution on Eritrean and Sudanese Asylum Seekers in Israel

by Rabbi John Rosove

When I led a congregational tour of Israel three years ago , our group spent a morning walking around South Tel Aviv near the old bus station to see how 53,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers lived. Mostly male, they had fled on foot from two of the most violent and brutal dictatorships, entering Israel through the open frontier with Egypt. Since then, Israel has built a fence to stop the flow of refugees, and few have come since.

Today, 45,000 of these African asylum seekers remain in Israel without having actually been granted asylum. The Israeli government’s policy has granted asylum to only a handful of people and built a detention center in the Negev. It is called Holot, meaning “sand” in Hebrew, and though it is technically “open,” residents must sign in every evening, cannot work, and, because of its remote location, have nowhere to go.

In other words, Israel has done everything it can to encourage these people to leave the country – and 8,000 of them complied. Those who returned to Sudan were likely arrested, interrogated, and/or killed; none returned to Eritrea, where they faced certain execution. Most fled on rafts to Europe, and their fates are unclear. Continue reading

My First Day in Israel for the WZC: Nostalgic, Fearful, Resolute

by Rabbi Rachel Kaplan Marks

As I rode in the back seat of the taxicab from Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem, I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic as we climbed through the hills entering the city. I waited with bated breath to pass the “Bruchim Habaim” (“Welcome”) sign that marks the entrance to our holy city.

As the taxi drove through first the outskirts of the city, then the city’s center, many memories of the time spent in this place flooded my mind. I remembered being at the stadium where my husband and some of my classmates played intramural football during my first year of rabbinical school. I remembered sitting at my favorite café studying Hebrew. I remembered wandering through the windy streets on long afternoons, taking the long way to savor the smell of the rosemary and capture the feeling in the air that is unique to Jerusalem.

As we approached Beit Shmuel, my home for the next 10 days, I was abruptly taken out of my nostalgic state as police cars with sirens rushed by. It turns out that in the exact same moments as I was falling in love, yet again, with this most awesome city, another terrorist was attempting to stab Jewish civilians by the Damascus gate to the Old City. Furthermore, in the time that I spent settling in my room and taking a shower, another knife attack occurred at Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station. Continue reading

Why I’m an ARZA Delegate in the World Zionist Congress

by Rabbi Danny Burkeman

I should really be sleeping instead of writing this. I’m sitting on an El Al airplane somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, and if I’m going to have any chance of controlling the inevitable jet lag that comes with a 10-hour flight and a seven-hour time difference, then I should be asleep.

But I can’t sleep. I’m exhausted, and I want to sleep, but I’m too excited. I have that feeling of anticipation that a person gets when they’re en route to a place they love, to see people they love – when a person is going home.

Israel has always felt like home. That’s hardly surprising, with an Israeli mother, having grown up through a Zionist youth movement, and having spent two years living there. I feel that connection the moment I step onto the plane and find myself surrounded by the language of our people. I don’t know how to explain it, but Israeli apple juice just tastes different to the varieties I’m used to in England and America. And there’s something about the excitement that I can feel from my fellow passengers; the couple next to me are traveling to Israel for the very first time, and their excitement is palpable. Continue reading

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When It Comes to the Middle East, It Can’t Be All Black and White

by Kendra Gerstein

As a community, we feel deeply the recent acts of violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank. It is painful to see these senseless attacks being repeated day after day. Many of us feel both angry and sad as these events continue to unfold. As fears and tensions rise, the outcry is getting louder and the filters that keep discourse civil are being peeled away.

This week, I am in Israel attending the World Zionist Congress, where I am proud to be an ARZA delegate representing the Reform Movement. The World Zionist Organization is the umbrella group for Zionist organizations of a wide range of political leanings and affiliations.

It is easy to think of your own thoughts and views as center. That is until you meet the people who are either to the right or left of you and you realize how far away you might be from them. When I attended the pre-congress meeting in New York a few weeks ago, I had a chance to meet many of the delegates from other parties. I was surprised to learn that the conservative movement’s party is called “Mercaz” or “center.” How can this be? I thought. The very name of the movement suggests that they must be much further to the right that I am… right? Using my own social media feed as a litmus test, I find myself positioned safely in the middle. Continue reading