Zionist project

Stephen Wise Free Synagogue launches Amplify Israel Fellowship to connect future Reform leaders to Israel

The initiative, which is backed by a number of foundations, looks to address growing rift between U.S. Jewry and Israel

Amid concerns of a growing split between American Jewry and Israel, the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue earlier this year announced the launch of the Amplify Israel Fellowship, a yearlong program for 10 early-career Reform rabbis, at this year’s Re-CHARGING Reform Judaism conference.

The fellowship includes a seven-day symposium in Israel, two in-person seminars, five online study sessions and mentorship, with the goal of deepening the connection between future Reform leaders and Israel.

The Manhattan synagogue is a natural home for the fellowship, as its senior rabbi, Ammiel Hirsch, who previously served as the executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, is one of the leading pro-Israel voices within the Reform movement. The institution itself also has deep ties to Zionism and Israel.

The announcement was made by Rabbi Tracy Kaplowitz, the Marilyn G. and Joseph B. Schwartz Israel fellow at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. The fellowship, which is similar to another new initiative for Conservative rabbinical students, is being funded by the Lisa and Michael Leffell Foundation, Maimonides Fund, and The Paul E. Singer Foundation. The first cohort will be announced at the end of this month.

The initiative is a response to broader trends within the American Jewish community as it relates to Israel, which were exemplified by a specific incident: In May 2021, as Israel was in the midst of an 11-day battle with the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip, which also saw major rioting and violence within Israel, nearly 90 rabbinical students, many from the Reform movement, signed a letter comparing Israel’s policies to apartheid. 

“We simply can’t afford [to allow] the rift between American Jewry and Israel to intensify,” Hirsch told eJewishPhilanthropy

Hirsch said he is concerned that if future leaders in the Reform movement don’t have a connection with Israel cultivated, they too will find themselves accepting narratives from those who may not support it.

It’s gotten to the point where many Reform leaders avoid speaking on Israel completely, said Kaplowitz, because it’s “too fraught of a topic.” This means, she said, that those who want to connect to the Jewish community and learn about Israel are turning to outsiders who may not have the sensitivity or understanding about Israel’s complexity. “That’s a very risky prospect,” she said.

Though many of the specifics of the program haven’t been ironed out yet, the program plans to emphasize mentorship, Hirsch said, because they “don’t simply want [fellows] to engage in experiences of lectures and engagement and site visits and so on. We also want to be able to create a process where fellows can debrief and process what they have seen, what they’ve been exposed to, and what they’re thinking.” The program partners fellows with other Reform rabbis who will serve as mentors, who understand the complexity of Israel and know the struggles of speaking out about the country and their connection to it.

Kaplowitz said she understood the complexities – and occasional discomfort – that many American Jews feel regarding Israel, particularly as a peace agreement with the Palestinians does not appear to be in the offing anytime soon. For Kaplowitz, who identifies as “a child of the Oslo Accords,” this fact hits hard. 

During her senior year of high school, she sat at her desk at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union in New Jersey (now Golda Och Academy), watching the TV in awe as Israeli and Palestinian leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn. “I believed for so long, probably even after I should have stopped believing in it, that peace was around the corner,” she told eJP.

Kaplowitz held onto that hope during her time living in Israel during the Second Intifada, but today, she sees that others no longer have faith. “That’s absolutely devastating,” she said. “And it’s terribly problematic for those of us who believe that peace is the only way forward.”

A stronger connection to Israel needs to be cultivated within the Reform movement, or they may find themselves cut off from the heart of Jewish culture, Kaplowitz said. David Passig, a professor at Bar-Ilan University and the author of The Future Code and 2048, predicts that by 2050, two-thirds of Jews will live in Israel. 

“As we continue to distance ourselves from Israel, the center of Judaism moves further and further entrenched in Israel,” Kaplowitz said. “The cultural center, the ideas, the richness of Judaism is going to be coming largely from Israel… If we don’t start grabbing on to our connections to Israel, our connections to Jewish peoplehood, then the Judaism that we’re going to be having here in the United States is going to become thinner and thinner and thinner.”

In general, Israeli Jews and American Jews have been growing apart politically for years. 

“Young American Jews are more liberal than their parents or grandparents, and young Israelis are more right wing than their parents or grandparents,” Eric Alterman, a historian, a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and the author of We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel, told eJP. “So the two Judaisms are diverging more than ever.”

According to a 2021 Pew Research study, 80% of Reform Jews identify as Democrats and 82% percent disagreed with former President Donald Trump’s policies. Meanwhile a 2020 Pew study showed that, unlike every other country surveyed, a majority of Israelis supported Trump’s policies.

To many, the core beliefs of the Reform movement don’t align with Israel’s actions, according to Hasia R. Diner, the Paul and Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History at New York University, who publicly renounced Zionism in 2016. “The Reform movement has dedicated itself and its educational programs to fostering justice in the world,” Diner told eJP. “Young Reform Jews have learned that thoroughly and are then confronted with the political realities of Israeli policies which hardly conform to that deep message. For some, support for Israel cannot coexist with Reform teachings.”

Hirsch insists that not agreeing with all of Israel’s politics isn’t a reason to give up on the country. Jews are “a relentlessly self-critical people,” he said, and they need to recognize Israel’s flaws, while also giving it credit for its greatness. “Everything human is fallible and flawed, and we don’t worship states in Judaism, we seek to improve… That’s the tension in the Jewish world now, how not to abandon the Zionist enterprise but how to repair Zionism, to perfect Zionism, so that we can not only aspire to, but live up to our greatest aspirations for ourselves and for the human family.”

Kaplowitz believes that she and the others in charge of the fellowship are “obligated to present reality as reality,” and that includes all of the messiness of the Israel-Palestinian crisis.

“The issue of the unresolved dispute with the Palestinians is a central issue,” Hirsch said, “and we need to hear from Palestinians themselves,” but he draws the line at allowing anyone who identifies as anti-Zionist to present their view to the fellows.

“There are plenty of anti-Zionist Palestinians everywhere in the world, and that’s not the point of this fellowship,” Hirsch said. “It’s to promote the central values of Judaism, and anti-Zionism is not a central value of Judaism. Resolving disputes and bringing about peace is a central value of Judaism. Anti-Zionists are not looking for how two peoples can live side by side in peace, they’re looking for the dismantling of the Jewish state. Liberalism with all of its openness also has to draw certain parameters. It’s legitimate to debate what those parameters are, but, for me, I draw the line at anti-Zionist.”

The fellowship is also looking to highlight the burgeoning progressive Jewish movement in Israel, which Kaplowitz said is “developing its own unique Israeli culture.” She’s inspired to see both the Reform and Conservative movements ordaining more Israeli-born rabbis. 

The fellowship will feature Israeli speakers who are fighting against socioeconomic disparities and who are battling for the rights of Arab citizens of Israel. “These are individuals who have a dream and a mission,” Kaplowitz said. “Israel can be the state that they need it to be, and we can be inspired and empowered by their vision and stay connected to them and support their work.”