Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch and the possible ‘crisis’ facing Reform Judaism

The longtime Reform leader on the rise of anti-Zionism in his movement, the misteaching of tikkun olam and the silver lining in the post-Oct. 7 world 

For decades, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch has been an unequivocally pro-Israel voice within the Reform movement, serving as the executive director of its Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) for more than a decade before moving to a pulpit position in 2004. After authoring several essays, both before and since the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks, about why the Reform movement is more inclined towards criticizing Israel than other branches of Judaism, Hirsch issued something of a cri de coeur, a cry of the heart, in an article last month in the journal SAPIR. 

Hirsch, senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for the past 20 years, responded in the piece to the December letter from over 1,000 Union for Reform Judaism members warning of Israel’s “grave risk of genocide” in Gaza in its response to Hamas’ attacks. The sentiment was at odds with polling showing most Jews are supportive of Israel’s efforts to defeat Hamas in Gaza.

The Reform movement’s frequent divergence from Jewish communal leadership over Israel was on display recently after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) drew criticism from several major Jewish organizations after delivering a speech condemning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pressuring Israel to call new elections. After the leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations released a statement on behalf of members, criticizing Schumer’s remarks for empowering Israel’s enemies, URJ, along with several of its member organizations including ARZA, joined a statement with several other progressive Jewish groups calling the criticism of Schumer’s speech “divisive and unfair,” and not reflective of the diversity of opinions within the conference.

Last month, hundreds of progressive rabbis and cantors also wrote a letter to President Joe Biden, organized by the left-wing Jewish group T’ruah, demanding that he work “to use the full force of America’s leverage and global leadership to end the war,” and urged Biden to prevent Israel from going into Rafah, where the IDF believes Hamas is holding several hostages. Many of the signatories were Reform rabbis.

Hirsch’s connection to the Reform movement — the largest denomination of American Jewry — long precedes his time in the pulpit. His father, Rabbi Richard Hirsch, was also a prominent figure in the movement as the founder of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the movement’s policy arm in Washington, D.C. The elder Hirsch marched in Selma, Ala., with Martin Luther King Jr. 

During a time that Hirsch, fresh off his latest solidarity visit to Israel, calls “a period [that will] be viewed 100 years from now as consequential in Jewish history,” he sat down with eJewishPhilanthropy on Thursday to discuss where the Reform movement is now, where it should be and where it is headed. With efforts underway in the Reform movement to enhance Zionist identity, Hirsch warned, “It’s not too late. But it is late.” 

Haley Cohen: A late October YouGov poll found that more people ages 18-29 sympathized with Palestinians than with Israelis in the current conflict. Is this true in the Reform movement? And what about among rabbinical students currently enrolled in Reform seminaries?

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch: Most of the American Jewish community is still Zionist but the lower age you go the less that is true. This is worrying for the American Jewish community. So when you get to 18-24-year-olds, the numbers are quite concerning and pose a significant challenge. The future leadership of the American Jewish community will emerge from this generation. We are seeing this happen in the Reform rabbinate as well. So the big challenge in our movement is how to decrease that intensity, at least in regard to who we accept for future leadership and how we train them in this historic time for world Jewry. 

This period of time we are living in will be viewed 100 years from now as consequential in Jewish history. That imposes on all of us, especially Jewish leaders, the obligation to understand to the best of our ability what is going on and contend with trends that allow this to continue will be very damaging to the American Jewish community. 

HC: Is the Reform movement heading for a split between Zionist and anti-Zionist camps, much like the state of affairs prior to the founding of the State of Israel?

AH: Liberals tend to value universal concerns over specific concerns when it comes to public morality. That was the original reason for the opposition of Zionism amongst liberal Jews generally, but most specifically in the Reform movement. It was because they believed that the solution to the human problem, and the solution to the Jewish problem, both lay in the promise of Western liberalism and enlightenment. Since antisemitism was fundamentally unreasonable, they were confident that the “Age of Reason” would solve antisemitism. The Zionists believed exactly the opposite. They said that because antisemitism is unreasonable, the “Age of Reason” can’t solve anything with connection to the Jews. So their only solution was to get out of the way and create a state. So historically, liberals more than conservatives put their faith in the promises of Western enlightenment. 

Over the course of the 20th century, the existential threats to the Jewish people eventually inclined even the Reform movement, which was strongly anti-Zionist for the first half of the 20th century. Inclined for sure by the time of the Holocaust and the immediate years thereafter and establishment of the State of Israel. We formally reversed our positions because it didn’t take a scholar to realize how historically wrong they are, that Western enlightenment, despite its good intentions, was ill-equipped to solve the problem of antisemitism. 

What is happening now is that in segments of liberal, Western Judaism — specifically in our movement — we’re going back to the future. I think that the default position for many liberal American Jews is the original Reform position of the late 19th century and a few decades of the 20th century. But these existential threats that kept impacting the Jewish people suppressed that anti-Zionism. Now, two generations of Jews have grown up with no perception of any kind of existential threat to them — notwithstanding the recent rise of antisemitism in our country. They prioritize universal values over particular values; they prioritize tikkun olam [repairing the world] as they understand it, which is a flawed understanding. Nonetheless, as a slogan, they prioritize tikkun olam not as an expression of klal Israel, Jewish peoplehood, but at the expense of Jewish peoplehood and in their eyes Jewish peoplehood is a lower form of social evolution. 

When the past two generations of Jews look to Israel, what they have seen throughout their entire lives, is a right-wing or center-right government that does not conform with their political sensibilities. They perceive Israel not as a small, island oasis of democracy within a sea of hundreds of millions anti-Western, non-democratic societies. From their perspective, they see Israel as exercising power unjustifiably. 

Because of that — and this took me a long time to work out — the default position of liberal American Jewry, in conditions where there is no perception of existential threats against the Jewish people, is a coolness towards Jewish peoplehood, and therefore Zionism and the State of Israel and a prioritization of tikkun olam, universal values, over Jewish peoplehood. Their understanding of Judaism is that Jewish peoplehood is an impediment to human progress. 

HC: What about Reform rabbis and lay leaders today? How many consider themselves “non-Zionist” or “anti-Zionist”?

AH: I hear from colleagues that the numbers are high enough to cause concern and to enact measures in our seminaries to enhance the Zionist identity of future Reform leaders, such as intensifying education around the concept of Jewish peoplehood, Zionism and support of Israel from the earliest possible ages and a rejection of classical Reform Judaism that was anti-Zionist. 

If we’re a Zionist institution we can’t be ordaining non- or anti Zionist rabbis – it doesn’t make sense. 

If in fact we are in crisis, and if in fact the younger you go the less committed American Jews are to Israel, and if our future Jewish professional leadership emerges from that environment, that bestows on the current Jewish leadership to do everything we can to identify why that’s happening and reverse that trend. 

While the anti-Zionists in the Reform community may make disproportionate noise, I do believe they are still a relative minority. So, it’s not too late. But it is late. 

HC: After the recent statement from the Conference of Presidents condemning Schumer’s statement on Israel, URJ put out a statement that it was deeply disturbed by the conference’s statement. Is it a sign of today’s polarization?

AH: I’m not in on the daily meetings of [Conference of Presidents] and I trust the people from our movement who represent us to reach conclusions. But it is definitely much harder now than it was 10 years ago, and certainly 20 years ago, to manage Jewish institutions that are broad-based and seek to embrace a broad spectrum of opinions, beliefs and practices. It is much harder to do now than it was. 

I have the greatest respect for the people running our major Jewish institutions and for the lay leadership, but it is becoming an increasingly intensely difficult task to find consensus because of polarization in the entire Western world, and the U.S. is also polarizing American Judaism with day-to-day ramifications. We tend to be less patient in hearing arguments from the other side. All of that is not consistent with the Jewish spirit and is not good for the American Jewish community. 

It’s more challenging now to keep the community whole and productive; even in synagogues we have broad opinions. 

It goes without saying that most American Jews vote for Democrats and the same goes in New York and for Sen. Schumer. So we consider him an ally, friend and spokesperson. He’s always been supportive and in his speech there were other things he said that were important for the American political leadership and American people to hear.

The issue that took many of us by surprise is not that Sen. Schumer and other representatives, across both parties, have criticism of Israeli political leadership or policies. What took us by surprise was the direct intervention in Israel’s internal affairs and its democracy. He spoke not as an analyst, or even as a rabbi —- I might say, ‘Listen, Netanyahu’s time is up’ — but that’s not [Schumer’s] role to say as Senate majority leader.

More than that, it was distracting to focus exclusively on Netanyahu. This isn’t Bibi’s war. Dismantling Hamas’ ability to wage military operations against Israel, return of the hostages and on the day after the war Hamas is not the governing authority in Gaza; on those three main [goals] there is a very broad consensus in Israel in support. If somebody else was prime minister, they would by and large pursue the same policies. Therefore, to make this an issue of Prime Minister Netanyahu is to strengthen Netanyahu domestically. It allows him to contend to his base that he’s the person who is able to withstand foreign and American pressure; it’s counterproductive. 

I’m voicing criticism but I’m speaking for the majority of American Jews, who vote Democratic and probably will vote for Schumer again [if they live in New York]. So I’m saying this took those people by surprise and there remains a certain level of discomfort. 

Most concerning is that Schumer might have felt compelled to voice these sentiments or that it was politically advantageous, because of the increasingly hostile voices in the progressive part of the Democratic Party. If it causes a person like Sen. Schumer to feel that he has to intervene in domestic Israeli affairs to this extent, that is reason for grave concern about future developments in the Democratic Party. 

HC: Are there any “silver linings” to the crisis of antisemitism and anti-Zionism in the U.S. today? Have you seen more energy and commitment on the part of your congregation?

AH: Yes, we have seen across the board, most notably in younger generations, an increased curiosity about Judaism and about their heritage. We’ve seen increased willingness to interact with the community, attend synagogue and learn about Judaism. 

But there’s one caveat. I don’t know how deep that development is or how long-lasting it is. At the end of the day, our objective in American Judaism is not to increase awareness of Judaism because of antisemitism. We want to diminish, and hopefully one day eliminate, antisemitism. We don’t want increased Jew hatred to be the cause of coming into Jewish life in a more intense way. 

But that is one of the effects of this era of increased antisemitism.