December 15, 2011 / 19 Kislev 5772
Washington DC - In a keynote address last night at the Union of Reform Judaism's Biennial Conference, Natan Sharansky, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency, challenged the more than 4,000 lay leaders, clergy and and educators in attendance to massively increase the number of young adults the movement sends to Israel each year on its three long-term programs.
Sharansky told the Reform leaders that a thriving Jewish future depends on a Diaspora that is engaged with Israel on a personal, cultural and spiritual level and also on an Israel that values Jewish pluralism.
Studies have shown that young Jewish adults who follow up their Birthright Israel trips with longer experiences, such as those offered in partnership with the Jewish Agency's Masa framework, return to North America significantly more committed to being involved in Jewish life. Sixty-four percent say they have recently volunteered with a Jewish organization, 45 percent say they are considering a Jewish career, 79 percent say being Jewish is important to them and 66 percent say they intend to marry someone Jewish.
Currently, the Reform movement sends 100 young adults to Israel each year through Masa. Sharansky called on the movement to increase the number of participants to 2,000 per year and to dramatically increase the number of Jewish Agency emmisaries (Shlichim) posted in their communities, camps and on college campuses. Sharnasky believes it is essential to have Israel’s most dynamic young adults engaging Diaspora Jews of all ages in local programs that deepen their personal connections to the State of Israel and the Jewish people.
"Here is a unique tool (Masa), created by the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government, to build the future leadership of your community; you have to use it," Sharansky said. "This requires the commitment--the determination of the leaders of your communities, including the rabbis and the the heads of your schools--to make sure that [members of the] the young generation will spend essential time in Israel. This will strengthen their Jewish identity."
In addition, Sharansky spoke about the effect that time in the Diaspora has on Israeli shlichim and their own Jewish identities, noting that they return to Israel with a stronger connection to their own Jewish heritage and an appreciation for what it means to be Jewish in a society where one has to make a deliberate effort to be part of the Jewish community. He added that, in the Diaspora, they come understand the responsibility Jews have for one another and that Israel belongs to all Jews.
In reference to certain controversial issues in Israel that concern the reform community, Sharansky pointed out that none of the proposed pieces of legislation have been enacted and cited broad-based debate as an example of Israel’s vibrant democracy.
He said: "Democracy doesn’t mean that certain leaders cannot propose policies we don’t all agree with. It does mean that all branches of the government work, side-by-side, to protect majority rule and, at the same time, protect the rights of all individual citizens to enjoy freedom and equality.”
Finally, in advance of President Obama’s address to the Biennal scheduled for Friday, Sharansky called for the immediate release of Jonathan Pollard.
“Having raised the issue with both the White House and cabinet officials,” he said. “I am aware that this is a complicated matter for the American Jewish community. But today when there is a growing consensus in favor of Pollard’s release amongst former Pentagon and CIA officials, legal authorities, the Israeli government, and American Jewish leaders, the time has come to vigorously and loudly demand his freedom. Twenty six years is more than enough.
“Your great leader, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, visited Pollard regularly and called on the President to release him. He said Pollard had indeed committed a crime, but his punishment was excessive and the time had come for his relase. If this was true 12 years ago, how much moreso is it true today?”
He cited the URJ’s current leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie as having also publicly maintained this position as well.