By Shlomo Shamir
NEW YORK - In the wake of the Re=form movement's first international conference last week at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, one may ask: How much longer will it take until the Orthodox rabbis in Israel understand that it is impossible to continue their wide-scale repudiation of the largest religious stream among American Jewry, which cautious estimates say encompasses more than one-third of North American Jews?
The persistence of the Orthodox establishment in ignoring the size and strength of the Reform movement in the U.S. is anachronistic. Negating the spiritual experience granted by hundreds of Reform synagogues in North America to many tens of thousands of Jews, and especially to the young generation, is a sign of outdated thinking and shows a lack of understanding of the changes over the past few years in American Jewry. Invalidating the authority of the Reform rabbis shows ignorance regarding everything to do with the power and influence that have developed in the past few years in U.S. Jewish communities.
Recent data collected by the Cherrick Center for the Study of Zionism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem reveal that the Reform movement manages, more than the other religious movements, to maintain the loyalty of its members. Some 75 percent of those who were raised as Reform Jews continue to define themselves as such. The study shows that in the balance of those leaving and joining religious movements, the Reform movement is growing both numerically and in terms of the Jewish commitment and identity of its members.
Israelis have underappreciated that in the past few years, the influence on the Jewish-American man in the street has been transferred from the Jewish organizations to the rabbis from all the streams. A Reform or Orthodox rabbi serving in a distant community in one of the outlying U.S. states has direct access and communication with a much larger number of Jews than what the heads of the Jewish organizations want to imagine.
Privately, without fanfare, a change is also taking place regarding the ties between Orthodox and Reform rabbis, especially in the peripheral communities in the United States. Reform and Orthodox rabbis host each other at religious ceremonies, especially on holidays, and cooperate with each other in areas that relate to religious life. Reform rabbis also have helped their Orthodox colleagues raise the resources to establish mikvaot - ritual baths.
Here is a proposal to the Orthodox rabbis in Israel: You don't have to recognize the Reform movement, nor do you have to accept the innovations in the field of halakha (Jewish religious law) being spearheaded by the Council of Reform Rabbis. But stop disavowing them. Those who stubbornly ignore the reality taking shape around them will find that time is not in their favor, and at the end of the day, they will be the big losers. Therefore, Orthodox rabbis, take the initiative and create channels of dialogue, even if they are covert, with the Reform rabbis in the U.S. and Israel. A quiet dialogue on religious issues is far more beneficial than noisy alienation.
In a Reform-Orthodox dialogue, far from the media limelight, lies potential for both sides. The new generation of Reform rabbis is open to proposals and initiatives leading toward rapprochement in the realm of tradition as it is accepted by Orthodox Jewry. They are also showing interest in ceremonies and spiritual content the Orthodox have become tired of promoting. Orthodox rabbis who are not wary of challenges will gain access to to large new audiences among American Jewry.
The conference in Jerusalem was of an academic nature, and those who addressed it came from universities and research institutes in the U.S. and Israel. But make no mistake about it - this is a conference that should serve as a warning to the Orthodox in Israel, because this academic event provided, perhaps for the first time, respectable legitimacy for the activities of the Reform movement in Israel. It is expected to speed up the process of movement recognition, sidestepping the Orthodox establishment.