For the Sake of our Soul

By Rabbi Joshua Wienberg

“A new light will shine upon Zion and we shall all benefit quickly from its light.”
(morning liturgy)

In 1897, Theodor Herzl established the first Zionist Congress, which assembled European Zionists to formally work together towards the establishment of a Jewish State. Some 24 years later, following a decision reached at the 11th World Zionist Congress, the Zionist General
Council was established. Composed of members elected at the World Zionist Congress and representatives of Zionist organizations (e.g., ARZA), the council, known as the Va’ad HaPoel HaTzioni, is the supreme institution of the Zionist movement, responsible for implementing the decisions reached at the World Zionist Congress and the administration of the Zionist movement. Today, nearly a century later, one may ask whether Reform Jews are aware not only that this institution exists, but that it is the source of some of the most heated and tempered debate in the Jewish world.

Fortunately, Herzl’s dream came to fruition and we have a Jewish state; so why is the Va’ad HaPoel HaTzioni still relevant? American Reform Jews may be proud to learn that during the Va’ad HaPoel HaTzioni’s meeting in Jerusalem last week, the Reform movement triumphantly passed key resolutions reflecting our values. And the meetings this week are focused on two main issues: Israeli religious pluralism (or lack of it), and the dwindling involvement of Jewish youth as reported in the recent Pew study.

Why should Reform Jews care? This week in Jerusalem left me with a sense of exhilaration, a sense that change is in the air. Despite the intricacies and annoyances of organizational procedural activity, something important is happening. Key pieces of legislation were passed that will have significant impact on policy regarding:

  • Equal rights at the Western Wall according to the much debated Sharansky Plan
  • An attempt to bring about Civil Unions and marriages in Israel
  • An anti-racism resolution recommending that the government prosecute violators of the law who receive a government salary

The fight over the soul of the Jewish State has taken a bold and progressive turn. As each resolution passed with resounding majorities, the mood in the room was almost euphoric. As several Orthodox reps stormed out in protest, I could feel the tide turning as liberal Judaism began to take hold of the reigns of the Va’ad HaPoel HaTzioni.

At the same time, and equally momentous, four new Israeli Reform rabbis were ordained this week, joining the cadre of more than 100 Israeli Reform rabbis worldwide. As one of the four, I had the distinct pleasure of being among the last class to be ordained by Rabbi David Ellenson, who will retire at the end of this year.

Israeli society needs liberal Judaism and liberal Judaism needs Israel. We must continue to create approaches to Judaism that are serious, authentic, and meaningful in order for us to bridge the gap between spirituality and the material world, fate and destiny, universalistic and particularistic values. Now, nearly 110 years since Herzl’s death, I often found myself wondering what he might say of our Jewish State. After this week, I think Herzl might say that we’re on the right track.

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

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