It’s impossible to pick up a Jewish newspaper without reading endless stories about the growing distance between Diaspora Jewry and the Jewish state. Yes, policies of the rightwing Israeli government are at odds with the core Jewish identities of a decidedly liberal North American Jewish community.
This is not hyperbolic rhetoric.
Real issues divide the world’s two largest Jewish communities: religious pluralism, preserving Israel’s Jewish democratic core and working toward two states for two peoples.
And yet, two weeks ago, at the Union for Reform Judaism’s North American board meeting, the URJ adopted a resolution approving the Jerusalem Program of the World Zionist Organization, the foundational statement of the Zionist Movement to further strengthen our ties to Israel. This decision by the URJ’s board, reaffirmed the Reform Jewish Movement’s commitment to Zionism and our close bond to the State of Israel; the unity of the Jewish people; our commitment to Israel’s Jewish and democratic foundations; aliya; the importance of Hebrew and Jewish education; Israel’s prophetic moral commitments to justice and peace; our strong responsibility to secure and nurture Jewish peoplehood; and our engagement in the struggle against all forms of antisemitism.
Our historic decision by the largest North American Jewish movement underscored our love for the State of Israel. It was not an acquiescence to the alienating agenda of the current Israeli government regarding conversion, the Western Wall, the lack of freedom in marriage, the constant growth of West Bank settlements, nor support for the Netanyahu government’s weakening commitment to two states for two peoples as the necessary and urgent way to ensure Israeli security and preserve and strengthen Israel’s Jewish democratic core.
Rather, it signaled that our bonds are much deeper than politics. Our relationship is with the people of Israel and the ideals upon which the state is built.
Earlier this week, I proudly joined other board members at Jewish Agency for Israel as we elected Isaac “Bougie” Herzog to lead us. We desperately need his leadership and his deep understanding of Israel and world Jewry to strengthen understanding and mutual responsibility between our communities.
We look forward to partnering with him, as we did with his inspiring predecessor, Natan Sharansky, to promote interdependent, mutually responsible world Jewish communities.
As always while in Israel, I was thrilled to spend time with URJ teens from NFTY: The Reform Jewish Youth Movement who are spending the summer here – many for the first time as they fall in love with Israel. When we spoke, I saw the wonder and excitement in their eyes as they shared their first impressions of Israel, their wrestling with the complicated questions of contemporary Jewish life here, and their desire to be meaningfully engaged with this country we all so love.
I also spent a day in the South along the Gaza border meeting with leaders of our Reform communities there, and visited, too, with the other communities in Sha’ar Hanegev, which have spent decades enduring rocket and mortar attacks – and now the devastating fires kindled by Hamas kites flying over the border. Those fighting the fires shared their struggles to keep Israeli families safe.
Near the Gaza border at Tel Gama, I was inspired to participate in an event with Women Wage Peace, a group that reaches across ideologies and backgrounds not only to bring Jewish and Arab women together, but also to convene those on all sides of our Jewish divide, stressing the urgent need for politicians to make peace. We must protect Israelis in the South and throughout Israel. But, there will be no long-term security for Israel without a solution to the hardships the Palestinian people face in Gaza and the West Bank.
This Shabbat, we read the Torah portion “Balak,” named for the Moabite king who desperately wants to curse our ancestors as they camped in tents on the outskirts of the Promised Land. It’s a familiar narrative of Jewish history: the non-Jewish leader who wishes us harm. Remarkably, however, although Balak’s emissary, Balaam, intended to curse our people, only words of blessing crossed his lips: Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5).
In time, Balak becomes a part of King David’s family.
How? Tractates Sanhedrin 105b and Sotah 47a, tell us that the biblical Ruth, our most inspiring Jew-by-choice, is the granddaughter of Balak and the great-grandmother of King David, from whom the Messiah will descend. A curse becomes a blessing; an enemy becomes family.
This is the Torah portion that Jews will read this week in Sha’ar HaNegev, in Seattle, and in every corner of the Jewish world. In Orthodox, Conservative and Reform congregations alike, we will probe this week’s parasha.
It is imperative that we draw strength from the diversity of the Jewish people and the many ways we love and uphold the State of Israel. At a time when many among our people seek to demonize fellow Jews, may our collective study of Torah empower and embolden us to turn curses into blessings as we embrace the many authentic ways we love Israel and live Jewishly committed lives.
The writer is a Rabbi and the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the largest, most diverse movement in Jewish life, with 900 congregations and 2 million people.