The three-day biennial convention of the North American Federation of Temple Youth — an affiliate of the American Reform movement and the worldwide youth movement of progressive Zionists — focused on issues related to Israel and Zionism, and the different ways in which teens growing up in the Reform movement can relate to both.
Donald Cohen-Cutler, a spokesman for the Union for Reform Judaism, argued that this is an especially salient issue for young people active in a movement that has had a sometimes complex relationship with Israel. On the one hand, Reform places identification with Israel at the core of what it means to be a Jew, and has in the recent past championed both the Oslo peace process and the disengagement from Gaza.
But on the other hand, the movement's leaders have often challenged the Israeli government, both on issues of religious pluralism, and its settlement policy and treatment of the Palestinians.
Shortly after the morning prayer service, Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center — the public advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel — addressed the full ballroom and praised the participants for their enthusiasm, something she said that Israelis themselves are currently lacking.
"Israel today is of low morale, to say the least," said Hoffman, an Israeli, whose organization has used the legal system to challenge, sometimes unsuccessfully, the Reform movement's unequal status in Israel, as well as the Orthodox rabbinate's monopoly over Jewish marriage and divorce in the country.
"Give me the reasons to love Israel. You have the reasons more than we, the tired Israelis," Hoffman said to the crowd before asking each student to fill out a form, via mail or e-mail, listing one thing they love about Israel, and also something about it that they would like to fix.
The students then split into a number of breakout sessions that included "Reform Zionism," "Religious Zionism," "Zionism in Action: The Kibbutz Movement" and even "Zionist Hip-Hop."
Another program addressed the conundrum of whether one can be a Zionist and also be critical of Israel — an issue of particular relevance to students a year or two away from heading off to university life, where Israel's cause often has its fair share of detractors.
About 25 teenagers took part in a heated discussion on the subject, and at times raised questions about everything from the origin of the Palestinian refugee crisis to why the Israeli rabbinate won't allow women rabbis to perform marriages.
The moderators issued a number of provocative statements just to get the discussion going, including the idea that a non-Israeli has no business debating Israeli politics and policy. But they then told the students that whether or not they plan to make aliyah, they are part of the Jewish people, and have a right to articulate how they'd like to see Israel progress as a society.
"Say I love Israel, and I wish there was a different approach to the war last summer. I love Israel, and I wish that women rabbis could perform weddings there," said Jerry Kaye, director of the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wis., and the head of the Union for Reform Judaism Youth Department for the Great Lakes Region.
Inserting the "and" rather than a "but" is key, explained Kaye. "If you say 'I love Israel, but … ,' those who don't support Israel's [right to exist] take the criticism as a reinforcement" of how they feel.
Jason Rembrandt, 15, of Cleveland, said that he's planning to study in Israel for a semester next year. Actually, he's thought pretty far ahead; he hopes to one day become a Reform rabbi.
"I'm as much a part of Israel as Israelis," declared Rembrandt. "I don't know if I could handle spending my life in Israel because I love America so much. But it's a big part of my life."
Immediately following the morning prayer services, the convention participants had the chance to actually say hello via video conference to the 88 students taking part in the Eisendrath International Exchange High School in Israel, a program run by the Reform movement. The youth in Israel waved and cheered as they stood on a grassy field in a kibbutz outside of Jerusalem, while hundreds of others in Philly returned the greeting with a wave of high-pitched screams.
Eventually, the folks in the hotel were asked to quiet down as several of their peers in Israel offered some thoughts.
"Only here can you learn Hebrew, walk the trails of your ancestors and meet people from all over North America," said Dara Slipakoff of Allentown as a giant screen displayed her on the kibbutz.
Jill Cogan, of Cherry Hill, N.J., religious and cultural vice president of NFTY's Pennsylvania region, said that members themselves have voted to make Zionism a focus of the convention as a way to better understand events in the news, as well as their own religious and cultural identities.
"The feeling is that we are all united," she added. "And we all feel the same passion for Judaism."