First Reform Rabbi to Receive Honor on Independence Day - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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First Reform Rabbi to Receive Honor on Independence Day

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Thursday, April 8, 2010

By Raphael Ahren, Haaretz, March 26th, 2010

U.S.-born rabbi Richard Hirsch is the first Reform rabbi to receive the honor of lighting a torch during the state's official Independence Day ceremony. A committee under the auspices of the prime minister's office named him this week as one of fourteen Israelis to participate in the upcoming event on Mt. Herzl in April, which hundreds of thousands of Israelis traditionally watch either live in Jerusalem or on their TV screens.

The 83-year-old is being honored for his role in the leadership of the Zionist movement but local Reform officials are celebrating his nomination as a sign of an increasing acceptance and approval of their religious stream by the Israeli public.

"Evidently I was selected because I am chairman of the Zionist General Council, the number two position in the World Zionist Organization," said Hirsch, a venerated Reform leader and author of five books. "I have a certain gratification." A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Hirsch in the 1960s founded the Reform movement's Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., which he directed until he moved to Israel in 1973 to become executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. He was the driving force behind the movement's decision to move its world headquarters to Jerusalem.

"I am very proud of being the one who brought the Reform movement here," Hirsch told Anglo File this week. "After the Six-Day War, I said that the Reform movement has to become part of the action. Most American Jews felt "that the poor Israelis were the recipients of the largess of the 'Babylonian' community," he said. "When I was here on sabbatical in 1969, I said I don't accept that. I said Israel is Broadway and the Diaspora is Off Broadway."

His comments upset American Jews, Hirsch recalls, as they felt he was denigrating Diaspora Jewry. "But I said Israel is where the action is, and we can't be just observers, we have to be part of the process of building up the Jewish state." The press release announcing Hirsch's selection to the Independence Day ceremony states he is a second-term chairman of the Zionist General Council and a "veteran member of the Zionist Executive, Herzl's successor." The blurb then continues: "Hirsch is a Reform rabbi who worked to bring the worldwide Reform movement into the Zionist movement and to strengthen its ties with Israel."

A spokesperson from the Information and Diaspora Ministry, which handles the PR for the event, told Anglo File that Hirsch was selected in light of his achievements within the Zionist movement and not for his role in the Reform movement. It was also a World Zionist Organization member who recommended him for the honor for the role he played in the group, she added.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.