By Charlotte Axelrod.
I am fortunate to say I have been to Israel many times. With friends, with family, with a program; every trip offers me something new and challenging. This time around, I saw a side of Israel I never thought to explore. And here I share my remarkable experience at the 37th Zionist Congress in Jerusalem.
The first congress convened in Basel, and Theodore Herzl was the chair. At that congress, Herzl believed they had created the Jewish state. Of course, his dream was only realized some 50 years later, but today our Zionist forefathers would be proud to see us continuing their extraordinary work. Now, delegates from recognized Zionist organizations come together every five years to reflect on and improve the status of our state. Resolutions are submitted, dissected, re-worded, debated, insulted, justified, and ultimately, voted on. The national institutions of Israel, that is, the WZO, KKL, and the UIA, effect these resolutions in Israel and the Diaspora. We come to claim our stake in Israel’s future; both as a state and a people.
I was thrilled to represent Arzenu, the movement for progressive Reform Judaism. Our group stood out as cohesive, passionate, and forward-thinking activists. Amidst plenty of confusion and frustration throughout the week, I could look to my colleagues for insight and support. I have never felt more proud to be a Reform Jew. Yes, there were times, many times, where I could not take a sure stance the way my partners did. Israel is a beautiful, complicated, tortured place, and I cannot say I wholly condemn or condone her political actions. However, I am firm in my social values – egalitarianism, religious pluralism, Zionism – and these are always in line with the pillars of Arzenu. I was constantly blown away by our momentum. How amazing it was to be with people so deeply committed.
Over the course of the congress, I was overwhelmed with myriad emotions that cannot be justly conveyed in writing. Confusion dominated. When colossal arguments erupt in rapid-fire Hebrew while the poor translator tries to keep up in your headset; when motions are carried and then revoked and then carried in the same minute; when delegates are storming the stage; when people are speaking when they shouldn’t be; when there is shouting and booing and arms flailing and the only word to describe the room is chaos, then yes, confusion is an apt term. Frustration, too, was closely tied to my confusion. How can things carry on in this manner? It seemed protocol was entirely ignored at times, and proceedings were tinged with corruption.
This is an excerpt of my live-journaling during the beginning of the final meeting: Voting starts. Everyone’s having problems with their clickers. Huge crap show. “This is why a trip that takes two weeks took the Jews forty years.” THIS IS MADNESS. Re-vote, don’t revote, one nation, boo America, everyone’s corrupt, wtf. Now some guy is proposing we vote by hand. Are you kidding. There are five hundred of us. Okay now we are revoting on the close votes. By hand. Except now we’re not. What is going on!!
At the same time, however, I felt moments of intense pride. Exhilaration, really. We passed a vote by 3% for the establishment of an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel. A space to be of equal size and visibility as the existing segregated areas. My heart swelled with joy when the numbers appeared for that one. This is our fight. To be a free nation in our land. To have rights to the holiest space in Judaism, to use it on our terms, as our religious community dictates. I learned that the official Channukiah of the state sits in the men’s section of the Wall. This means that when they invite distinguished citizens to light the candles each night, they are all men. Therein lies more of my frustration from this week. But: our resolution passed. This means we may see Judaism flourish in Israel in ways that aren’t only Orthodox. To be a free nation in our land. Simply exhilarating.
I am charged with the energy of our faction and our leadership these past few days. We heard distinguished speakers who both inspired and disheartened us, among them the Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu, the Leader of the Opposition, Yitzhak Herzog, and the Minister of Defense, Moshe Ya’alon. We met with a Palestinian girls school in East Jerusalem, facilitated by Anat Hoffman, founder of Women of the Wall and IRAC. We prayed together in a display of strength and spirituality at the Kotel. And we fought – hard – for our values. I leave Jerusalem now with a lot learned and a lot left to learn. I have been challenged and I now hope to challenge my Reform community at home. We don’t realize how wonderful we have it as Reform Jews in North America.
To be Reform in Israel is almost to be invisible. Jewish marriage must be performed by an Orthodox Rabbi. In fact, ordination at all is only recognized if it is Orthodox. To claim the right of return, one qualifies as Jewish only by traditional Halachic standards. We made amazing progress at the Zionist Congress, but there is a lot more ahead of us. We have holy work to do. We must invigorate our communities at home to stand up and face the reality in Israel. The resolutions we passed, by narrow votes, were revolutionary – but we what we witnessed along the way was disappointing. We saw that we are a divided nation. Every vote that was not 95+ % majority was decided by a matter of a few percent. One resolution was defeated by a single vote. This creates huge excitement, sure, but the essence of what is happening is upsetting. We are not acting like the united Jewish people who marched out of Egypt.
And so, our challenge now is to get people passionate about the future of Israel. Undoubtedly everyone in our Reform community shares our morals, but do they care? Will they come to all the way to Jerusalem in turbulent times with their teeth bared and fists raised? It is not enough to be behind our movement in ideology only. We must take action. Because, as I witnessed this week, our presence actually makes a huge difference. Israel’s not yet perfect, but together we will get her there. It is our God-intended right and responsibility:
להיות עם חופשי בארצנו.