Reform Jewish officials announced plans this week to raise $50 million over the next decade to build synagogues and community centers throughout Israel as part of an aggressive and ambitious new strategy to boost the movement worldwide.
The announcement by Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of Reform’s Zionist and international arm called ARZA/World Union, comes as North America’s largest Jewish denomination begins its biennial convention in Orlando, Fla.
The news also comes as Israel is reportedly preparing a sweeping plan to try and solve the conversion crisis affecting recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish movements.
The proposal by cabinet minister Rabbi Michael Melchior would require the non-Orthodox movements to temporarily stop conversions and advocates large-scale conversions for youngsters under the age of bar or bat mitzvah, primarily from the former Soviet Union. The plan would also amend Israel’s Law of Return and do away with the requirement that nationality be displayed on Israeli identity cards, thus eliminating the fractious issue of whose converts can be registered as Jews in Israel.
Under the plan by Melchior, whose portfolio focuses on Israel-diaspora relations, prospective converts would be encouraged to study at the joint, tri-denominational conversion institute established last year.
But Hirsch rejected the call to suspend conversions in Israel, asserting that the joint institute is unproven.
"We are a mighty religious movement and we have every intention to continue," he said.
He did welcome the identity card change, however, and said it should be instituted as soon as possible.
Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s rabbinic arm, said "We’re not going to take a position where we have no right to perform rituals or life-cycle events."
Meanwhile, Hirsch said that $4 million of the proposed $50 million has already been raised for the 10-year building project. He said the movement has construction permit approvals to build ten synagogues, community centers and educational facilities across Israel.
"If we can build these centers (nay) when we build these centers: we will transform our own movement, for sure, and begin to impact on the masses of Israeli society in the manner befitting a great movement," told Arza officials Tuesday.
Reform officials said the movement maintains 25 synagogues, community groups and kibbutzim in Israel.
The building project is designed to counter the disproportionate influence of the Orthodox in Israel, Hirsch said.
"We know that in every place where we have built a center, the people have come," he said. "They drink up all that we have to offer as though we are an oasis of sanity in an uncompromising wilderness of rigidity and bareness."
He also announced a $5 million plan to aid Jews living in the former Soviet Union, a reaction, Hirsch said, to the "discriminatory policy against the Reform movement that has been adopted by the Joint Distribution Committee" in allocating money to help Jews in that area of the world.
Hirsch charged that much of the tens of millions of dollars raised by the JDC come from donations by Jews who belong to the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.
"Yet the great majority of the donors’ funds goes to underwrite the activity of Orthodox institutions, which exploit some of the funds in order to fight the Reform movement."
Hirsch cited a case this year claiming that "the ultra-Orthodox self-proclaimed Chief Rabbi of the Ukraine, Rabbi (Yaacov) Bleich," wrote to the Crimean government that it should not restore for the Reform movement a synagogue in Yvpatoria that was seized by the communists.
"The Reform community is the only Jewish group in town," he exclaimed. "And still the ultra-Orthodox apparently prefer no Jewish life over progressive Jewish life."
He said the JDC "has no business supporting…these outrages." But JDC officials strongly disputed Hirsch’s assertions and said they were surprised and disappointed he aired his complaints publicly.
"What he’s saying is patently false," declared executive vice president Michael Schneider. "The JDC does not discriminate against Reform whatsoever. We have undertaken several projects in the former Soviet Union with the Reform movement."
JDC official Rabbi Asher Ostrin said he had been discussing Reform concerns with Hirsch and had scheduled a meeting later this month.
Schneider said the real problem is Reform’s inability to provide young rabbis willing to start congregations in the former Soviet Union.
"It’s an internal problem: How are they going to find people willing to go to the uncomfortable third world to start new congregations and propagate the Reform movement"
"We have one basic rule," Schneider said. "We will not promote any one religious stream at the expense of another," Schneider said.
Hirsch, meanwhile, claimed that Reform Judaism is the only way to attract Jews from the former Soviet Union and Middle Europe.
"Only we can ensure the survival of our brothers and sisters in Eastern Europe and the diaspora. It is not that the Orthodox are not committed. It is that their message is relevant for only the minority of Jews," Hirsch said.
"We do not deny the authenticity or relevance of Orthodoxy. To the contrary – while we are disappointed in many of its practitioners and consider them to have distorted some of our most sacred principles – we see in Orthodox Jews partners in the task of sustaining Jewish life. While there is still a vital role for Orthodoxy, it can no longer play the dominant role. Most modern and free Jews will not choose to be Orthodox. This is not a moral judgment, simply a statement of fact."