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Reform Leader Says American Jews “Live in Galut (Exile)” and That “A Fuller Jewish Life” Can Be Lived in Israel

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
January - February 2008

Attending a meeting of several hundred American Jews who are preparing to emigrate to Israel, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in the words of Jerusalem Post reporter Michael Lando, “surprised the crowd of olim (those emigrating to Israel) ... with his outspoken Zionism.”  
Rabbi Yoffie told the group: “Those of us who live here live in galut (exile), and to live in Israel is to live a fuller Jewish life. For an American people that does not understand the importance of the centrality of Zion, you are an important bridge.”  
According to Lando, “Yoffie’s words reflected notable changes in the Reform movement’s approach to aliyah. Traditionally, aliyah has not been a major component of the group’s platform, but increasingly over the last few years, it has been placing greater energy on their Israel-related activities, including hiring a full-time aliyah emissary for the first time.”  
Brett Willner, 22, who made aliyah at the end of August and started his army service, is in many ways, a poster child for the movement. He went to Reform summer camps and religious school and grew up in the Reform youth movement. It was the Reform movement which first brought him to Israel in 2002, during his junior year in high school.  
Announcing to his father that he had decided to make aliyah, Willner told him that he was in part to “blame” for having sent his son through the ranks of the Reform movement — camps, youth movement, religious school. “He didn’t find that as funny as I did,” said Willner.  
Writing in Sh’ma (November 2007), Rabbi Yoffie lamented the results of recent studies which indicate that American Jews’ connection to Israel drops off with each subsequent generation. One report, “Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and their Alienation from Israel,” commissioned by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, found that only 60 percent of American Jews under 35 believed caring about Israel was an important part of being Jewish. Among those over the age of 65, 80 percent believed that caring about Israel was a way to express their Jewish identity.  
In Yoffie’s view, “Commitment to Israel appears to be lagging, and while I offer no magical solution, we are committed to reversing the decline. Reform leadership is united in its conviction that without Israel we are a truncated, incomplete people, and Jewish life will not be sustained without Israel at its core.”  
It was not until 1976 that the word “aliyah” made its way into the Reform movement’s official text, and in 1999 that language was made even stronger. The Forward points out that, “The Reform growing commitment to Israel is reflected in its new prayerbook, adopted in 2006, which reinstates the prayer, ‘And bring us back from the four corners of the earth and bring us upright into our land.’ ‘This continues a trend, really, that goes back more than a quarter of a century,’ said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.”  
These trends represent an almost complete departure from the philosophy of the original leaders of Reform Judaism who sought to eliminate from Judaism those secondary aspects which promoted a separatistic concept of “Jewish peoplehood.” They emphasized the universal ethical and spiritual principles of the Prophetic tradition and sought to end the notion of Jews as “a people apart.”  
The most important advocate and organizer of the American Reform movement was Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900). He believed that, “The idea of the Jews returning to Palestine is no part of our creed. We, rather, believe it God’s will that the habitable world become one holy land, the human family one chosen people.” Judaism, he declared, was a world-wide religion: “The Jew’s nationality is not endemic; it is not conditioned by space, land or water. The Jew’s nationality ... is not in his blood ... It is all intellectual and moral, without any reference to soil, climate, or any other circumstance. The Jewish nationality ... has been made portable.”

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