Rabbi Josh Weinberg '13
Vice President, Israel and Reform Zionism for the URJ
Executive Director, ARZA
Please tell me about your Jewish journey and your journey to HUC-JIR.
I am not one who knew that I would be a rabbi. In fact, I actively resisted it. I was a seeker and spent many years both experimenting with levels of observance and spending time back and forth in Israel, the U.S., and around the world (including backpacking in South America and working in the Jewish community in Hong Kong). I got my calling when the phone rang on a fall day in 2003 and Baruch Kraus, my teacher and the then principal of NFTY-EIE High School in Israel (now called URJ Heller High) invited me to come and be a Jewish History teacher on the program. I was working at the Israeli Consulate in Chicago and knew that this was my moment. I folded up life in Chicago in a manner of two weeks and boarded a one-way El-Al flight, fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming an Israeli citizen. The conversations I had with friends and loved ones upon telling them that I was going on aliyah were fascinating, which only further solidified my decision.
When I arrived in Israel to fulfill my dream of becoming an Israeli citizen, I realized that my Zionism was in fact the answer to my quest for Jewish identity. But now, what did Zionism mean? Was it enough to just live in Israel? Filled with romantic and idealistic notions of draining the swamps and working the Land, I knew I was too late, and after a number of experiences, including leading Shabbat services and activities at an Israeli boarding school for youth at risk, I realized that while I was too late to be a pioneer of the early 20th century, and was not going into high tech to be part of the “Start Up Nation,” I could help bring Reform Judaism to Israel and be part of the liberal Jewish renaissance taking place in Israeli society. I entered the Israel Rabbinical Program with the hope of contributing to Israeli society and making Jewish tradition, wisdom, and texts accessible to Israelis for whom the previous polarizing dichotomy between “religious” and “secular” no longer answered their needs.
Please tell me about your role as Vice President, Israel and Reform Zionism for the URJ and as Executive Director of ARZA? What is most challenging and rewarding? How can our community support ARZA’s efforts?
I believe in the basic notion that every Jew should have three central sacred relationships: God, Torah, and Israel – a teaching that originates in the Kabbalistic literature (הוא חד וישראל וקב”ה אורייתא – “Torah, The Holy One Blessed be God, and Israel are as One”), and I would claim that there is no Judaism without Israel and a connection to the People, the Land, and the Torah of Israel.
As Reform religious Zionists we hold the relationship with the State of Israel to be on par with God and Torah, and as an organization it is our mission to help foster and develop that relationship as we embrace our particularist identity in fulfillment of our (URJ) mission to strive for a world of justice, wholeness, and compassion.
As Reform Zionists, we strive for an Israel that is secure, Jewish, democratic, and pluralistic, with a vibrant Reform Movement. We believe that to see such an Israel requires deeply engaged North American Reform Jews as advocates; and in order to be advocates Reform Jews need a strong, informed, and emotional connection to Israel.
First of all, I see my role as part of the URJ’s efforts to re-imagine Jewish life in North America and to educate and mobilize Reform Jews in North America in order to build enduring Reform Zionist commitments, and leverage the power of our Movement to grow and spread Reform Judaism in Israel, advocate for her security, and hold Israel accountable to our Reform Jewish values.
The two things I find to be most rewarding is when congregations in North America build successful partnerships with our Reform kehilot in Israel, and when people read something that I wrote and tell me that it changed their outlook and understanding of Israel, and are then inspired to act.
In today’s world, I see our main goal as working to build a core of our Movement who identify as progressive/liberal Zionists. More and more often we are witnessing a trend in which many, including Jewish professionals and HUC-JIR students who see contradicting values between Zionism and a support for Israel, and our Reform Movement values of social justice and tikkun olam. Ours is a Zionism that is based in social justice, and we are working with our partners in Israel through the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) and the Israel Religious Action Center to strive for equality, pluralism, and justice. This means that as Zionists we work to combat racism in Israel, to change the status quo on religion and state issues – including the official recognition of the liberal streams of Judaism, and advocate for shared society between Israelis and Palestinians.
The more we can encourage our Movement’s leadership and membership to apply our values both in North America and in Israel the stronger we will be. This is our greatest challenge at the moment, and the future depends on us being able to show the next generation that there is inherent value in seeing ourselves as part of the Jewish People and the Nation of Israel and through building bridges with our partners on the ground and supporting their work we are able to make real change.
What is your favorite memory from your time as a student at HUC-JIR’s rabbinic program in Jerusalem?
My favorite memory was spending time as a student cohort at the end of each semester when we would organize two-day seminars looking at different aspects of Israeli society.
Please describe HUC-JIR in one word.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
In my free time, I enjoy playing music (guitar), woodworking, hiking and camping, reading, playing sports, and spending time with my family.