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Reform Judaism event probes post-Oct. 7 course corrections

“We have a challenge identifying what exactly we did wrong, so that we can identify what we can do right with the future generations,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.

Near the Trump International Hotel & Tower during the March for Our Lives is this sign saying, "Stephen Wise Free Synagogue Fights For Social Justice" on March 24, 2018. Credit: Erin Alexis Randolph/Shutterstock.
Near the Trump International Hotel & Tower during the March for Our Lives is this sign saying, "Stephen Wise Free Synagogue Fights For Social Justice" on March 24, 2018. Credit: Erin Alexis Randolph/Shutterstock.

Reform Judaism may be the epicenter of the ways that Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre and its aftermath have changed the American Jewish landscape.

“We haven’t moved on. It’s still Oct. 7 for us,” Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a Reform congregation in New York, told JNS.

Hirsch was the keynote speaker at the second annual conference Re-charging Reform Judaism, held at the synagogue in Manhattan last week.

Some 300 clergy, educators and lay leaders associated with Reform Judaism—the largest American Jewish denomination—addressed a visible rift in liberal Jewry, including some anti-Zionist Jews siding with antisemites at anti-Israel demonstrations across the country.

Hirsch told JNS that the “tsunami” of Jew-hatred in the country “is conflated in almost every case with anti-Zionism.”

“It’s a challenge for us moving forward, both from without in terms of the liberal institutions that we’ve been part of for decades, as well as from within,” Hirsch told JNS. 

“We have a growing polarization in the American Jewish community, and especially the younger you go generationally, the more challenging it is for those younger generations to identify with Israel,” he said.

It is, Hirsch told JNS, “a new Jewish world.”

“It’s a new phase in Jewish history. It’s a critical phase for us, and we’re only on day one,” he said.

The conference’s speeches, panel discussions and workshops focused on Jew-hatred on campus, interfaith and social justice partnerships and educational models “that guide the next generation in valuing the centrality of Jewish peoplehood and the significance of Israel,” per the event program.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, address attendees, as did Shalom Hartman Institute president Yehuda Kurtzer,  Jewish Council for Public Affairs CEO Amy Spitalnick and Zioness founder and CEO Amanda Berman.

Hirsch said in the keynote address that this “an existential moment, not only for Israel, but for us in North America.”

“We are in the midst of a great ideological struggle, the outcome of which will determine whether liberal Judaism will thrive in the Diaspora, or will fracture and shatter into a thousand pieces,” he said in his remarks.

The message in the face of that doubt is simple, Columbia University student Eden Yadegar, who spoke on a panel at the event, told JNS.

“Be a proud Jew. Be unapologetic for all of your identity, and don’t let anyone define Judaism for you,” Yadegar told JNS. “Even when there are antisemites telling you who to be and who not to be, we’re proud Jews because we’re proud Jews, not because of what anyone else tells us.”

Columbia has seen some of the worst—and most high-profile—pro-Hamas protests in the nation. That has included the participation of what Yadegar called a loud “very small fringe” of an anti-Zionist group of Jews.

“The majority of Jews at Columbia are united, are proud Jews, proud Zionists, and really stand together,” she said. “These are Jews from across religious denominations—Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Jews that have never been to shul before even now—coming together.”

Yadegar told JNS that in the wake of Oct. 7, she’s seen “a resurgence in connection to Judaism.”

“It is unfortunate that it took such a horrific tragedy for a lot of us to kind of wake up and reconnect with our Judaism in ways that we had maybe lost touch with or that we weren’t raised in,” she said.

Hirsch told JNS that there is soul-searching to be done. 

“We have a challenge identifying what exactly we did wrong, so that we can identify what we can do right with the future generations,” he said.

Of the hardest “anti-Zionist Gen Z’s, I think we have lost them, at least for the foreseeable future,” Hirsch said. “I don’t know if 20 years from now, when they have families, whether they’ll rethink their positions, but it’s not too late.”

“It definitely is not too late for the younger generations,” he said. “We have to instill in them the basic Jewish value, which is that all Jews are responsible one for the other.”

Rabbi Melissa Simon, director of Israel education at Hillel International, told JNS that one of the big challenges for the Reform movement is that often, people are trying to figure out how their Judaism has evolved from childhood to adulthood. 

“So many people stopped their Jewish education at 13. After bar mitzvah, they don’t really have an adult understanding of Jewish theology, Jewish belief, Jewish history,” Simon said. “One of the opportunities that the present moment offers us is for people to build more learning communities, build relationships with other Jewish communities and to be inspired by the resiliency of the Jewish people.”

Building relationships, or, more accurately, rebuilding relationships, outside of the Jewish community is now among the toughest asks for the Reform movement.

Having spent decades of time and resources piecing together alliances and coalitions with our minority and religious groups, few of those supposed friends spoke out against the Oct. 7 atrocities, or have stepped up to defend Jewish communities now under assault in the United States.

It is a reckoning that the conference sought to confront head-on.

Hirsch described to JNS his years-long participation in a high-level interfaith group in New York City, during which “we established the closest friendships. We even traveled to Israel together as a group.”

The group insisted on coming to Shabbat services following the Oct. 27, 2018 massacre 

At Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh. It was a “genuine and authentic and sincere” show of support, Hirsch told JNS.

“Oct. 7 happened, which was 100 times worse, and still, to this day, we’ve hardly heard from them,” he said. “They couldn’t bring themselves to even contact us to ask us how we’re doing.”

“It’s hugely disappointing,” he said.

“We’re a small minority in the world, and here in the United States, we need allies,” Hirsch told JNS. “We need to try and repair what can be repaired and establish new relationships with additional groups in coalition around values that we may not agree with entirely.”

“If we overlap on certain values, we can find common ground and work together,” he said.

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