Capital confab

With ‘joyful’ gathering, URJ looks to fete 150th anniversary even as divisions over Israel look to spoil the party

More than 1,000 people come to Washington, D.C., conference to mark Reform movement's history and plans for its future; participants say even remained positive despite taking place in the shadow of the Israel-Hamas war, rising antisemitism

As nearly 1,000 members of the Reform movement— the largest Jewish denomination in the U.S.—  gathered over the weekend at the Marriott Marquis in Washington, D.C., to mark the Union for Reform Judaism’s 150th anniversary, the three-day celebration also unintentionally highlighted a rift among liberal Jews about how to respond to Israel’s war with Hamas and what it means to be a Zionist. 

Despite being held in the shadow of the Israel-Hamas war and a global spike in antisemitism, attendees and organizers said that the event’s tagline of “Reconnect. Rejoice. Recommit” still mostly held true.  

“The war was definitely present, but I didn’t feel like that was overarching. There was a lot of joy about celebrating the history of our movement while also looking to the future,” said Sean Blum, 38, a URJ North America executive board member who has been attending URJ conferences since he was a teenager and spent childhood summers at one of the movement’s camps.

Blum said that he didn’t sense a rift during panels or hallway chatter. “There’s a strong sense that Israel needs to defend itself and also to protect innocent life in Gaza,” Blum told eJewishPhilanthropy. “The collective space was very positive,” he continued. “We hadn’t had a chance to gather in person in a really long time. For me at least, nothing [negative] could overpower gathering in person as a movement and celebrating our history and thinking about moving ahead.” 

But while the divisions within the movement over Israel may not have been the focus, they certainly were present. On Saturday, more than 1,000 current and former Reform members, many of whom are active members or were previously leaders of the movement, published a letter calling for an immediate ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war. “The URJ teaches practicing Pikuach Nefesh, ‘saving a life,’ and Tikkun Olam, ‘repairing the world.’ An immediate ceasefire is in line with these Jewish values,” the letter says.

While the Reform movement as an organization is officially and explicitly a Zionist movement, many of its members do not necessarily identify with Israel and the Zionist cause to the same extent. Since Oct. 7, the sense of solidarity with Israel among American Reform Jews has wavered, from 72% immediately following the terrorist attacks to 59% by the third week of the war, according to a joint survey by the Jewish People Policy Institute and the World Zionist Organization. 

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Reform movement, noted that young Americans are particularly grappling with the issue, something he addressed in a d’var Torah on Saturday. “The overwhelming feeling was one of Zionist solidarity and also willingness to think about younger people who had a different experience of Israel,” he told eJP after the conference. “They grew up in a time where they may not have been able to forge the kind of bonds that their parents and grandparents had but we are doubling down on the way Israel will be experienced.” 

Jacobs emphasized that the Reform movement does not call for a ceasefire now “while Hamas has the ability to do another attack.” 

It’s hard to know exactly what every person who signs a letter understands a ceasefire to be,” he added. “The moral impulse to want to have the killing to stop is right but the killing will not stop if Hamas continues to be able to wage terrorist attacks. That is shared by the majority of Israelis and the majority of Jews in America. I understand the value of calling for a ceasefire but this is not that moment.” 

Steven Windmueller, a professor emeritus at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, one of the main seminaries for training rabbis, cantors, educators and communal workers in Reform Judaism, echoed that there is a “challenge among younger American Jews struggling with the conflicts that they have over a different set of values or perspectives in relation to humanitarian aid and a ceasefire, in contrast to older American Jews who have a deep tie to Israel’s security and ability to protect and defend itself.” 

“While I’m sure that was a piece of the conference and very much a live issue among younger Jews and clearly we have some generational and ideological issues, it’s not specifically a denominational question, although it certainly bleeds into being Reform, and maybe even Conservative,” Windmueller, who was not at the conference, told eJP. 

The weekend kicked off on Friday with a fireside chat on Israel and antisemitism with Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff. “It’s tough right now, it’s tough right now for us,” Emhoff said. “The words that keep coming up from many people are, ‘I feel alone and hated.’ And nobody wants to feel alone, and nobody certainly wants to feel hated… This thing we’re all feeling as American Jews reminds us that we cannot let it take our love of being Jewish away from us. We cannot let it take our joy away from us.”

Other sessions included discussion with Knesset Member Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who had served as president and CEO of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism and maintains close ties with the Israeli Reform movement, as well as panels on antisemitism with current college students, diversity and inclusion, interfaith relations, congregational and community engagement and building the next generation of leaders.

The conference concluded on Sunday with a panel of interfaith leaders featuring Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis; who leads Middle Collegiate Church in New York, Dr. Simran Jeet Singh; executive director for the Aspen Institute’s Religion & Society Program and Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber; the founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denver, who in conversation with Jacobs, discussed how they have navigated challenges in their work.