Reform movement tackling Iraq war

As thousands gathered in Houston for the Union for Reform Judaism biennial, one of the highest-profile topics expected to be discussed at the four-day event was a resolution on the war in Iraq.

Spearheaded by Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J., the initiative was supported by 13 congregations going into the meeting.

“I think it’s a welcome development,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the URJ, said recently.

The Reform movement made its only public statement on the war in September 2002, when its executive committee voiced careful approval of unilateral U.S. military action in Iraq only if all diplomatic means had been exhausted.

Like the Conservative and Orthodox movements, the Reform leadership stated its support for the war’s objectives — removing Saddam Hussein and his alleged weapons of mass destruction — without endorsing the war itself.

“A lot has emerged since then,” Yoffie noted. The Jewish community, and the general American community, is concerned about the war, where it’s taking us, and how to get out of it.”

Surveys last year showed that support for the war is lower among American Jews than non-Jews. Yet no mainstream Jewish organizations have joined the anti-war movement, which has been plagued by a strong anti-Israel undertone that has dismayed even longtime Jewish leftists.

Two small groups, the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center and the San Francisco-based Tikkun Community, have come out against the Iraq war. In addition, the Shalom Center and Rabbis for Human Rights have asked the government to condemn the torture of war prisoners.

The Reform movement’s Social Action Commission recently jumped into the fray and worked on its own draft resolution to take to the biennial convention.

“We knew M’kor Shalom was working on this, and we’ve been working with them on it,” said Emily Grotta, director of communications for the Union for Reform Judaism. “Our goal is to draft a resolution that will reflect the consensus of where the movement is and bring a single resolution to the floor that will be agreed to by the congregations and the Resolutions Committee.”

While no congregations have come out publicly against such a resolution, it was far from certain that it will pass at the biennial. Yoffie notes that the wording is still being finalized. “What will happen to the draft when it gets to the floor — how it will be greeted, whether it will pass, I don’t know,” he said.

The grassroots initiative seems to have been spurred by a Rosh Hashanah sermon by M’kor Shalom Rabbi Barry Schwartz.

“It wasn’t about the war, it was about the need to approach our Judaism with passion, with a concern for social justice,” Schwartz said of his sermon, which was titled “Judaism on Fire.” “But within hours, a small group of people came to me and said, ‘We need to do something about our movement and the war.’ Within a few days, the whole thing materialized.”

Nancy Axelrod, immediate past chair of M’kor Shalom’s Social Action Committee, was part of that group. She was motivated, she said, by her own opposition to the war and her “distress” at the anti-Israel tone taken by the anti-war movement.

“It can be partly attributed to a lack of a Jewish voice speaking out against the war,” she said. “I don’t think they would have gotten away with it if the Reform movement” was part of the anti-war coalition.

Though several people interviewed spoke of their anti-war sentiments, those drafting the resolutions said they’ll be asking the movement to take a stand, rather than stating what that stand should be.

“It certainly is a plea from congregations for the movement to discuss the issue and take a stand,” Schwartz said.

M’kor Shalom’s resolution has been approved by its board, though it was possible the text would change as they worked more closely with the movement’s Social Action Commission to come up with a joint resolution.

The congregation’s resolution initially called on the Bush administration to “level with the American people and provide a clear exit-strategy,” and asked the Reform leadership “to join public statements and coalitions consistent” with its principles.

“We want the movement to end its relative silence,” Schwartz said. “Other than its statement on the eve of the war, there has been no statement, no action and no joining of coalitions with people who share similar principles.”

Yoffie said it was “ridiculous” to claim that the Reform community had ignored the issue. “Of course we’ve been dealing with it,” he said. “The problem is what to say. We’re a very large, diverse movement.”

Noting that “being against the war can mean many things” to many people, he added, “there’s enormous confusion about what is the best way to extricate ourselves.”

Schwartz said he had heard from “about a dozen” congregations in early November, “expressing interest and support for what we’re doing.”

One was Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh.

“Our congregation, along with others, feels that Reform Judaism historically has not shied away from using its voice on matters that are crucial to our movement and our country,” said Temple Sinai’s Rabbi James Gibson.

Gibson emphasized that the resolution his congregation was working on would focus on asking movement leaders to show leadership, rather than dictating to them what stand to take on the war.

“This is something all of us are struggling with, especially those of us with relatives in the military,” he said. “We want to balance their needs with those of our country’s policies.”

The Reform movement appeared to be the only denomination so close to making a formal declaration on the war.

In September, Mark Waldman, director of public policy for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said the Conservative movement “hasn’t had any discussions recently as an organization.”

“The Reform movement appears to be turning a corner,” Schwartz said. “It appears ready to address this at the biennial. That’s a good sign, and precisely what we have been trying to initiate.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].