Interview with Rabbi Ammiel Hirsh: A New Zionist Revolution

By: Gad Nahshon

On June 24, 1997, 2,000 Reform rabbis convened in Miami for their annual "Central Conference of American Rabbis." It was an historical moment - a new breakthrough - inside the world of the Reform movement. These rabbis represented 1,000 Reform communities in North America with 1.5 million members. Some also represented a new "revolutionary" active movement of over 70,000 members in Israel and even two Kibbutsim. Its name is ARZA, or Association of Reform Zionists in North America.

ARZA was established in 1977 and today it achieved its major goal in Miami, the "Zionization" of the entire Reform movement which in the past never did define itself, per se, as a Zionist movement. Some of its rabbis even fought against Zionism. But history has been clearly changed in Miami. ARZA also represents the Reform movement in Israel. It represents the Reform movement in all the aspects of Zionist (Zionist Congresses) Jewish Agency Aliyah and it's managing a domestic war inside the Israeli state and society.

This fact or this new ideological challenge turned the Reform or ARZA into an open enemy of many rabbis and parties in Israel. The battle against the Reform movement recently has become ugly because of the issue of the new bill of conversion. In Miami, ARZA's success was manifested in a new document (see annex) "The Miami Platform" of "Reform Judaism and Zionism: A Centenary Platform".

Behind this unique achievement stands a young rabbi and lawyer, a new active spiritual leader. He speaks Hebrew fluently like a sabra since he lived and was educated in Israel. He is also proud of the fact that he was a fighter in Israel's war as a tank commander, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, the leader, is the executive director of ARZA (838 Fifth Avenue). He was one of its founders and "militant" activists. Hirsch is also an intellectual who has the potential of a great scholar of Jewish philosophy and history has pumped life into the concept of Jewish activism. He has refreshed the positive and useful meaning of this concept. Many relate to his new fame as proof that the Jewish establishment is not always colorless or grey.

The new Miami platform is his personal achievement. There is essential change inside this movement. Symbolically, the new president of the Reform Movement, Rabbi Eric Joffe, who succeeded the famous Rabbi Alexander Shindler, was the executive director of ARZA. So Rabbi Hirsch, his confidant, has the full backing of the president leading ARZA's "Zionist Revolution" inside the Reform movement. "It is a Zionist revolution. It is a Rabbinical platform. It is a rare document. It is the first time in our history that the platform deals with Zionism and Israel. It is the first time that 2,000 rabbis adopted Zionism. It is the first time that we declared our objection to the religious fundamentalism. We stand for liberalism and pluralism in Judaism. But remember - we are not a secular movement. Our ideas are rooted in Judaism and tradition in a way we gave an answer to the post-Zionism movement in Israel," Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch explained to me in his small office on Fifth Avenue, which radiates dynamic activities.

The ARZA spirit is in the air. Rabbi Hirsch is a true believer. He is a zealous fighter for his or ARZA's convictions. "We supply new energy to the entire Reform movement. We are today's pioneers of this movement. We have branches in Britain, France, Hong Kong and South Africa. We promote Zionism in America. We promote Alyiah as well. By the way, a new precedent - we have a "shlichu" (Emissary) from the Jewish Agency, Anna Lederman This is a sign of ARZA's new image. Today only 2,600 olim are coming to Israel yearly from North America; 40% of them are Orthodox. I do not see a change in the near future. Therefore, I think that we are wasting resources in North America. We should not waste money on this target. As tot he new trends inside our movement: move tradition, move going back to roots. We promote Kashrut. We promote the studying of Hebrew. It is a very important element in our new Miami Platform.

Honestly, ARZA today put its focus on the Israeli scene. The fierce battles are taking place over there," said Rabbi Hirsch. Religious pluralism, the status of the Reform movement in Israel, the struggle against Israel's non-separation of state and religion, a struggle against Israel's religious establishment ("the monopoly") and recently the struggle against the new bill of conversion which would exclude non-Orthodox rabbis from the religious scene. All these are the major issues.

What is the status of the Reform movement in Israel?

"We have today 22 Reform congregations in Israel. We have sabras in our rank and file. We are growing. I believe that Israel will develop its authentic version of the Reform movement. A "Sabaric Reform". We are pioneers. And I personally feel like a pioneer of new alternatives, non-Orthodox ways and ceremonies in Israel. I bring to Israel a new concept of Zionism. We developed a new concept of Judaism for the 21st century," said Rabbi Hirsch, a pioneer.

"We in ARZA produced a new formula for the existence of Judaism in the future. In Israel they say that Zionism is dead. We care about Zionism in the year 2000. Now you understand why we fight against the bill of conversion which we view as a terrible disaster. How can you exclude the majority of American Jews who are Reform or Conservative? How can you ignore the Diaspora? Yes, we did react strongly. We declared that each member of the Knesset who supports this bill would not be welcome in our synagogues. And you can tell Moshe Katsav, a great man, that even tourism of Jews will be slowed down as a result of this bill which means a total monopoly to Orthodox rabbis in conversion and personal laws.

"Let me explain. There is in Israel a situation of ignorance. They do not understand that Jewish identity in the Diaspora means the synagogue. When you support this bill you also state a rejection of our synagogues. It causes us a lot of pain. We are out of the picture. It looks like Israel will not recognize us anymore. US, i.e., the majority of the American Jewry," argued Rabbi Hirsch, who protested against the assault on the Reform movement in Israel. "Now they relate to us as traitors. They hate the fact that ARZA is building in Israel an infrastructure of a non-Orthodox movement. They excommunicate us. We are being pictured as the agency of a new 'spiritual Holocaust' in Israel," said Rabbi Hirsch, who is the Reform movement's new 'tankist'.

Rabbi Hirsch fights for equality. He wants Israel to integrate his movement into the mainstream of the Israeli religious establishment. He is looking for official recognition and legitimization of the Reform way of life and ARZA as well. That's all. He is young, courageous and optimistic. He has the hope that in the near future hundreds of non- Orthodox synagogues would mushroom Israel's landscape. The movement also will have an extensive network of educational institutions. "I would like to have the same network and privileges like Shas," Rabbi Hirsch told me.

Is it a dream? He answered, "We create a new Zionism based on the old Zionist heritage. We will shape the character of the Israeli society as well. Those who try to thwart us should expect surprises," Hirsch told the media. Well, he still holds few new missiles in his possession.

In Israel Rabbi Hirsch and his followers have been demonized by the spokesmen of the establishment. From the Orthodox vantage point the Reform movement is a heresy movement which aimed to destroy the rule of Halacha in Israel. The majority of Israel's political establishment does not believe in the need to change Israel's status quo (state and religion). Many Israelis who are secular and do not to the synagogue on a regular basis will hesitate to challenge the religious establishment out of respect of our history, tradition or their "grandpa" who does go to the synagogue, at least, on Saturdays. Many, although, in Israel enjoy peace and economic prosperity (12 1/2 million Israelis travel abroad in 1997s estimate). It is unlikely that they will support a new religious war (Reform - Conservative movement). Indeed, most Israelis are ignorant as tot he issues of Diaspora or simply they do not care. Rarely is the world Jewry being covered by the Israeli media. And who cares about the life of the Jewish Agency or the coming 33rd Congress? One must remember that Judaism and Israel means history. The religious establishment that was founded in 1992 by the British Mandatory Government. The Jews in Palestine were viewed only as a religious group. Period.

History, always, conditions our attitudes to any change. Well can we find the golden mean between old and new in our spiritual life?

Return to News ArchivesBack to Top