Reform rabbis adopt platform supporting aliyah, Hebrew study

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NEW YORK — What a difference a century makes.

Reform rabbis are marking the centennial of the first World Zionist Congress with an unprecedented platform dedicated to the link between Reform Judaism and Israel.

The platform, which encourages immigration to the Jewish state, was adopted late Tuesday at the annual Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Miami. About 600 Reform rabbis were present.

The Reform organization's new position on Israel reflects a sharp departure from its Pittsburgh Platform adopted in 1885.

That year, Reform Jews declared: "We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state."

The new platform reflects on the need to "re-examine and re-define the ideological and spiritual bonds that connect" the people of Israel to the land and state of Israel.

The platform, seven years in the making, is being issued at a time when the Reform movement is fighting a bitter battle for legal recognition in Israel.

It emphasizes Israel as central to Jewish life; the importance of the Hebrew language, aliyah [immigration to Israel] and study in Israel; and Israel's obligation to honor civil rights and democracy, and to value people over land.

Rabbi Elliot Stevens, executive secretary of the CCAR, said the platform was prompted, in part, by the growing Reform movement in Israel and its "struggle for pluralistic rights."

The platform reflects a "need to express how we feel about Israel" as well as an effort "to support our community there," he said.

Such support is vital, he added, because generally "it wasn't until just before World War II that the conference began to look with warmth at the Zionist enterprise."

Highlights of the pro-Israel platform include:

*"The eternal covenant established at Sinai ordained a unique religious purpose for am Yisrael [the people of Israel]. Medinat Yisrael, the Jewish state, is therefore unlike all other states. Its obligation is to strive towards the attainment of the Jewish people's highest moral ideals…"

*"To deepen awareness of Israel and strengthen Jewish identity, we call upon all Reform Jews, adults and youths, to study in, and make regular visits to, Israel."

The CCAR also urged study of Hebrew, reflecting the movement's move toward increasing use of Hebrew rather than English in services.

*"Recognizing that knowledge of Hebrew is indispensable both in the study of Judaism and in fostering solidarity between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, we commit ourselves to intensifying Hebrew instruction in all Reform institutions.

*"While affirming the authenticity and necessity of a creative and vibrant Diaspora Jewry, we encourage Reform Jews to make aliyah to Israel in pursuance of the precept of yishuv Eretz Yisrael, (settling the Land of Israel)."

The focus on Israel sparked wide debate. "There has been a lot of discussion about whether there is a hierarchy" of Jewish centers and whether or not Israel and the diaspora are, in fact, "co-equal," Stevens said.

In his CCAR presidential address, Rabbi Simeon Maslin of Philadelphia said: "A Judaism disconnected from Zion is an aberration. But while Israel is a major element of Judaism, it is not its surrogate."

Maslin used his remarks to criticize the Orthodox attacks in the United States and Israel against Reform Judaism. He accused the ultra-religious of trying to subvert Judaism and fragment the Jewish people.

"Aside from devotion to Jewish learning, Orthodoxy offers very little to American Jewry in the 21st century," he said. In contrast, he lauded Reform Judaism as "the way back in" for "multitudes who are today alienated or in quest."