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Clergy Column by Rabbi Heath Watenmaker

Engaging with Israel Beyond the Headlines




When I was in Israel during my first year of rabbinical school at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Jerusalem, I had a 20-ish minute walk from my little apartment to the HUC campus every day. As I wound my way from the Jerusalem suburb of Rechavia, whose streets are all named for for great Jewish poets and scholars, towards HUC in the city center, I walked past nineteenth century windmills, parks with ancient ruins, and what seemed like endless construction sites. All over the city, massive cranes reached towards the sky, slowly raising up modern, luxury condominiums and new shopping centers all in the middle-stages of construction. Every day, walking by those sites, nestled between the other sites of Jerusalem, both ancient and modern, I couldn’t help but imagine what these new buildings would look like, towering over this ancient city, with shiny, new facades of perfectly white Jerusalem stone. All of those buildings have since reached completion, and when I went back to Israel a few years ago, I was excited to see the beauty (and scale) of the new condos and shopping centers (which weren’t so new anymore).

This is the nature of Israel – the ancient and old constantly intersecting with the modern and new. It is the case not just with architecture, but with religion, values and politics, too. Beyond the headlines of external, existential threats, there is a complexity and nuance in the society and landscape of Israel that can go unnoticed from far away. This is the Israel that I remember most fondly from my year there. It is a place of many tensions: between Israel and her neighbors, between secular and religious Jews, between the left and the right. And right now, there are major decisions to be made that will impact the future of Israel’s handling of issues around gender equality, religious tolerance and pluralism.

From now through March 11, anyone who identifies as Jewish and will be at least 18 years old by June, 2020 can cast a vote in support of Vote Reform: ARZA representing the Reform Movement and Reconstructing Judaism. These elections are our opportunity – as American Reform Jews – to have a direct influence on the decisions and policies that will shape the landscape of some of the major social issues being discussed in Israel. We might feel at times as if Israel is too distant, too complex, for us to have a voice there. But these elections allow us to make an impact on how these decisions will be made.

The World Zionist Congress is the decision-making body for the World Zionist Organization (WZO), which was founded by Theodor Herzl in 1897, as a way to bring the voices (and funds) of world Jewry together as the “Parliament of the Jewish People.” The WZO utilizes the Zionist Congress to establish its policies and internally elect leadership to the bodies which define executive policy, departmental direction and budget decisions – each of which impact life inside Israel. The World Zionist Congress remains the only forum in Jewish life comprised of delegates reflecting a broad spectrum of ideological and political perspectives chosen in democratic elections throughout the world. As such, it commands the attention of Israel’s decision makers and serves as world Jewry’s mouthpiece in Israel. Imagine an Israel in which:

  • Women can pray alongside men at the Kotel – the holiest site in Judaism, with no harassment,
  • All streams of Judaism enjoy equal rights, and
  • Israel lives in peace with her neighbors, without the threat of rocket barrages or terrorist attacks.

These are the core issues that ARZA is advocating in the World Zionist Congress, which distributes vital funds to the many Israeli Progressive Jewish organizations, like the Israel Religious Action Center, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, and the Hebrew Union College. As Reform Jews, we strive to create a world in which gender equality is the rule – where men and women can pray, work and live together as equals deserving of the same respect and honor. We envision and work for a society in which all denominations are treated fairly and with respect – and all of us are seen as Jews, regardless of our level of observance. And we believe that there must be efforts made to achieve lasting peace, security and stability for Israel, the Palestinians and the Middle East region. Due to ARZA’s success in the previous elections, they were able to join with Israeli political parties to influence Israeli society in matters of conversion, marriage and divorce, religious pluralism, gender rights, and combating racism. Because of ARZA, the WZO passed key resolutions furthering equality, transparency and pluralism.

At their core, these elections directly impact key decisions of how funds are distributed, which organizations receive funding, and how much. The allocations the WZO makes to the several Jewish religious streams in Israel are determined by the number of its delegates elected to the World Zionist Congress. Because of the significant representation of Reform Judaism, gained through tremendous support of ARZA in the last WZC elections in 2015, the Reform Movement in Israel earned an annual allocation of $4 million per year for five years (amounting to $20 million, total). That is a significant achievement, but needs are expanding and our movement is growing, so this time, we need even more Reform Jews to vote the ARZA slate, representing Reform Judaism, if we want to continue to impact Israeli society. The World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the Jewish National Fund allocate essential funds to our movement based on the size of our representation. This is why it is so important that we vote, and that we encourage our friends to do so as well.

Voting is simple: as long as you are 18 or older (or will be by June 2020), identify as Jewish and are willing to part with a small administrative fee, you are eligible to vote in this election. Voting is now open online. Opportunities to vote on computers will be provided at many Beth Am events. It only takes a few minutes – vote today for ARZA: Representing Reform Judaism to make your voice heard in Israel. After you vote, please send an email to with the subject “I VOTED REFORM!” Thanks!

For more information, please visit the "Vote Arza" webpage or contact our WZO Elections co-chairs, Ellen Ratner or Alan Warshaw, (415) 205-0179.


Wed, February 19 2020 24 Sh'vat 5780