Rabbi Eric Yoffe, President of the Union of Reform Judaism (Reform Rabbinical Association) in the United States and considered one of the most important rabbis in the Jewish world, arrived in Israel this week to participate in the World Jewish Congress. The Reform community
Rabbi Yoffe and the president have already met a number of times in the past, “and the meetings were always friendly,” according to Yoffe. But Katsav, time after time, avoids addressing Yoffe as “Rabbi.” When addressing him, Katsav chooses to use alternate terms, such as “sir,” “mister,” or simply a light pat on the back. In an interview for Channel 1 on the eve of Rosh Hashana, the president was asked to explain his behavior.
He responded that he was raised to call a rabbi “Rabbi” only when he “observes the lifestyle I observe,” meaning, the Orthodox lifestyle. “As soon as Israel, the Knesset, decides to recognize a reform rabbi as a rabbi, then the president of the state will also have to. But as long as Israel does not recognize him, I won’t be the first to do so.”
The words served as an arrow aimed at Rabbi Yoffe, a great supporter of the State of Israel, and towards the million and a half reform Jews he leads. But in conversation with Ynet, the prominent rabbi said that President Katsav’s conduct only symptomatically reflects the sad state of the relationship between Israel and Reform Judaism. “This is a very difficult thing to understand for a Jew, who joins the community there, who feels a strong tie to both his people and the State of Israel, that his Rabbi – who is a prominent Jewish figure in his life – is not recognized as a rabbi in Israel. It is incomprehensible,” Yoffe said.
Strengthening Reform in Israel
In recent years, Yoffe’s central mission has been to try to strengthen the position of the Reform community in Israel, in the religious, political and legal arenas. “Without a doubt, the systematic discrimination here causes anger and disappointment. We work very hard so that this treatment doesn’t turn into negative feelings for Israel. It is very important that it won’t keep people away from Israel. We make an effort to work politically through the Israel Religious Action Center to influence the Knesset and government, and we hope new laws will be installed that give us full equality.”
This week, the High Court of Justice began deliberations on the matter of the state’s alleged discrimination against Reform rabbis, with the help of Israel Religious Action Center. In the framework of the court petition, the state will be asked to explain why it refuses to fund the appointment of reform rabbis, even in cases when a community demands a reform rabbi. “We want the government to treat our rabbis exactly as it treats Orthodox rabbis,” Rabbi Yoffe said. “We aren’t asking for favors but one principle should be upheld: Either all rabbis are subsidized, or no rabbis are. This whole issue is an injustice screaming to the heavens for a solution.”
The most important issue for Rabbi Yoffe is the training in Israel of Israeli-born rabbinical students to be Reform. “If there is a rabbi who immigrates from North America to Israel – this is a positive thing. But to be a rabbi in Israel with an Anglo-Saxon accent is not as good. Whoever is familiar with culture here,” he explains, “and served in the IDF, will also be a better rabbi for the communities we establish here.” He hangs his hopes chiefly on the rabbinical training program established by the Reform movement five years ago at Hebrew Union College. “Right now, 40 Israeli students are studying there. That means that soon, in ten years, there will be more than 100 Israeli-born rabbis who studied rabbinical studies and were certified in Israel. This is very important.”
‘We support Olmert’s realignment’
Rabbi Yoffe is considered an enthusiastic supporter of Israel, and one for whom many doors are open in Washington. His connection with senior figures in the Israeli government is important to both sides, and his meetings this week will raise, in addition to religious topics, also political matters. He identifies with Olmert’s stance in the diplomatic arena, and declares that the Reform movement as a whole supports him.
“We want to promise him that our movement stands behind him and there is no doubt that the majority in America supports him and he has us to depend on. We are the largest movement and we wouldn’t hesitate to enter a struggle for his views and in support of the realignment plan.”
American Jews assimilating at high rate
After Israel, the United States has the greatest concentration of Jews. The Jewish community there numbers about six million, although according to surveys in recent years, the rate of assimilation of American Jews is rising steadily, and today roughly one-third of those choose to marry non-Jewish partners. In contrast with the Orthodox view, which avoids courting those assimilators, the Reform community in recent years have taken the opposite tactic. Hundreds of Reform activists try to reach those in mixed marriages with what they call “outreach” programs, in which they work to get the families involved in Judaism, with the eventual goal of having the non-Jewish spouse convert.
Yoffe explains, “On the one hand the Jewish community is very strong and there is Jewish renewal in all the sectors. On the other hand there are those that are not involved in community life, and many of them are on the verge of assimilation. The greatest challenge we face is how to bridge the strong and the weak from religiosity point of view. We invited the (non-Jewish) partners to join the community, and accept them with love and encourage them to be active in synagogue and keep Judaism at home, educate them in Judaism. As the head of the community I instructed rabbis not to be afraid to ask and explicitly encourage the non-Jews to consider converting. I think that one shouldn’t say Kadish over the son who married a non-Jewish girl. Because even if it happens, something can be done about it. We must save the Jewish nation. We have no other choice.”
It is important to note that the Reform movement, which practices equality between the sexes, does not accept the halachic definition that only someone with a Jewish mother is considered a Jew. “With us, the equality of the sexes is a basic principle,” he explained. “If either the father or mother is Jewish, and they raise the son as Jewish, we accept him as Jewish too.”