On Israel, Reforming a Sentiment


Back in 1988, the sociologist Steven M. Cohen published a piece in Reform Judaismmagazine under the provocative headline "Are Reform Jews Abandoning Israel?"

Cohen, who now teaches at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York — the Reform seminary — argued that results from a national survey taken a year earlier pointed to a gap between the movement's leadership, which was highly engaged with Israel, and the broad membership, which generally appeared less emotionally attached to the Jewish state.

Now, 22 years later, a segment of the 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia" seems to bare similar findings — leading some to question what a movement that already sponsors a whole host of Israel programs, trips and missions can do to turn the numbers around.

As the celebration of Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day, approaches on April 20, the survey, released in January, still raises questions and concerns about current connections with the Jewish state, particularly among the younger set.

In the Philadelphia survey, 33 percent of Reform Jews interviewed said that that they felt "very" attached to Israel. That's compared to 38 percent for Reconstructionists, 55 percent among Conservatives and 77 percent for Orthodox.

At the same time, 41 percent of Reform Jews reported feeling "somewhat" attached to Israel as compared to 35 percent for Conservative and 23 percent for Orthodox. Taken together, 74 percent of Reform Jews said that that they felt "very" or "somewhat" attached to Israel.

Rabbi Scott Sperling, interim executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, an organization formed in 1978 to boost ties between Reform Jews and Israel, acknowledged that the Philadelphia figures closely hew to other recent studies done around the country.

"It's a serious issue for us, to say the least," Sperling said, speaking on behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism, an umbrella body that includes ARZA. "There is absolutely no question about it — we need to be doing a better and more effective job."

Rabbi Robert S. Leib of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington was less inclined to draw broad conclusions from the study. He said that, in his synagogue at least, the level of identification is surely higher.

"Every self-respecting URJ congregation, such as Old York Road Temple-Beth Am and so many others, proudly and permanently display the flag of Israel on the bimah, sing 'Hatikvah' and Israeli folk songs on many occasions during the year whenever the need should arise, support State of Israel Bonds and organize congregational tours to Israel," he wrote in an e-mail.

The Philadelphia study also showed a glaring age gap in the level of emotional attachment to Israel — one that concerns supporters of the Jewish state across the religious and ideological spectrum.

Among respondents under 40, some 25 percent said that they felt "very" attached to Israel. That's compared to 45 percent for both 40- to 61- year-olds, and for those 62 and over.

At the same time, 39 percent of the 40-and-under group responded that they felt "somewhat" attached to Israel, compared to 35 percent for the 40-61 demographic, and 40 percent for those 62 and over.

These results correspond to a controversial 2007 study by Cohen and Ari Kellman called "Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation From Israel."

While the age gap pertains to Jews under 40 generally, the attitudes of Reform Jews, in particular, matter to the Philadelphia Jewish community at large now more than ever. According to the Philadelphia study, Jews who self-identify as Reform now comprise 41 percent of the area's Jewish population, up from 28 percent in the 1996/97 population study. This now makes Reform the largest denomination here.

Among Jewish adults in the region under the age of 40, more than half identify as Reform, according to the study.

'A Grain of Salt'

So why do only a minority of Reform Jews say they have a strong attachment to Israel? After all, while the American movement opposed the concept of a Jewish state in the late 19th century, by the 1930s, it had reversed course.

One answer could be that Reform synagogues have enjoyed success at reaching out to interfaith families, who in turn tend to be less Israel-oriented.

"The mixed-married score lower than in-married Jews on all measures of Jewish involvement, but score particularly low on measures of Jewish ethnic identity, of which Israel attachment is a key component," said Cohen.

Sperling suggested that basic Judaism classes offered to non-Jewish spouses at Reform synagogues need to do a better job explaining how understanding the contemporary Jewish state is integral to "seeing the world through Jewish eyes."

According to Sperling, another explanation is that Reform Jews have long held the most antipathy toward Orthodox control of religious and certain legal affairs in Israel, and therefore have the hardest time identifying with Israeli society.

"We have struggled to find our place within Israeli society as Reform Jews, and have met with a lot of official opposition," he said, adding that Reform Judaism is now truly starting to take root in a number of Israeli cities, including Haifa.

Then there's the theory that while the baby-boomer generation experienced the critical wars of 1967 and 1973, people under 30 have seen Israel's survival as less of an issue. They have also been subject to the image of Israel as the aggressor.

Still, Margie Peskin, a board member of ARZA who belongs to Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, contends that maybe the survey got it wrong.

She said that an entire generation of Reform youths who have taken part in the group's North American Federation of Temple Youth high school Israel program and/or studied there in college, and then remained committed Zionists as young adults, don't seem to get counted.

"The Reform movement takes it all so seriously and knows how important it is to developing the Israel connection," said Peskin. "I think we have to take" all of the studies "with a grain of salt."

Weighing the Approaches

According to the study, 15 percent of Reform respondents said that they had sent their child on a trip to Israel, compared to 8 percent for Reconstructionists, 48 percent for Conservative and 30 percent for Orthodox.

Rabbi Gary Pokras of Temple Judea of Bucks County in Doylestown estimated that at least half of his congregants strongly identify with the Jewish state, and that the issue is far more generational than denominational in nature.

Young adults, he said, are wrestling with what it means to be pro-Israel, and whether they can consider themselves such and still criticize certain Israeli policies.

"There is no question that nothing compares with travel there — that has got to be our No. 1 approach. Our No. 2 approach is Jewish overnight camp," Pokras said, noting that summer camps focus on Israel programming and often employ Israeli staff.

Julia Carpey, a senior at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School and the outgoing president of NFTY-PAR (Pennsylvania Area Region), said that the Israel summer experience had proven life-changing for her and a number of friends.

The problem, she explained, is convincing peers to go in the first place.

Many, she continued, have the false notion that you have to be "really Jewish or really religious" to be into Israel.

To that end, NFTY has organized events that highlight Israeli culture, including Hebrew hip-hop.

While she's not sure about peers outside the NFTY movement, among her cohorts, she did note that "a lot of the individuals do feel a strong connection."


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