“Here’s what I learned from decades of studying and embracing liberalism: The liberal mindset is one of openness and doubt,” Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a flagship of the Reform Movement, said during a Friday night sermon not long ago. “True liberals are never so sure of themselves. We acknowledge and embrace complexity. It’s why we rely on science and evidence. Every place where people live requires repair. One of the key insights of liberalism is that I could be wrong. And I am open to being convinced.”
On webcasts, the Stephen Wise synagogue’s ark and its curtains are a pleasant, hazy gold; in person, the eye cranes toward the soaring archways high above the bimah and the synagogue’s empty balcony. A few dozen Upper West Siders occupied the floor level on that Friday night in November, keeping a safe distance from the musical ensemble and a safe distance from each other. No one cheated on the mask front—not the cantor, who wore a duck-billed N95 as he finger-picked an amplified acoustic guitar. The only bare face belonged to Hirsch, a slim and vital middle-aged man who sat alone two rows in front of the bimah for much of the service, softly rocking back and forth and tapping his foot in time with the music. His mask only came off when he faced two video cameras and about 50 fanned-out congregants, a group whose size, he told me, was about a third of what the synagogue would get on a typical pre-pandemic Friday night.
A few weeks earlier, The New York Times Magazine had published a long feature article, titled “Inside the Unraveling of American Zionism: How a new generation of Jewish leaders began to rethink their support for Israel,” which explored the fallout from an open letter signed by 93 American rabbinic and cantorial students, 28 of them from the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College, during the May conflict between Israel and Palestinian terror groups based in the Gaza Strip. The letter charged Jewish institutions with being “silent when abuse of power and racist violence erupts in Israel and Palestine,” inveighed against “watered-down prayers for peace,” accused Israel of policies that “constitute an intentional removal of Palestinians,” and omitted reference to both Hamas and the hundreds of rockets the terrorist group was then firing on Israeli cities each day. The statement had been easy enough for Hirsch to ignore, at least until it became an extended news item in the only publication that mattered in the Upper West Side. “Be honest,” Hirsch quipped to the gathered Manhattanites. “The learned staff of The New York Times tells you what constitutes Judaism.”
Reform rabbinic students had, in Hirsch’s mind, shown callousness toward their fellow Jews and flirted with a betrayal of their movement’s core principles. “How is it possible for current and future leaders of the Jewish people to write an open letter to the public in the middle of a war with missiles raining down on Israeli civilians—our people—without ever mentioning Hamas, the instigator of the war?” he asked. “How is it possible to write of ‘tears that flow’ without weeping for our own brothers and sisters, killed, maimed, and scrambling to underground shelters at all hours of the day and night?” Hirsch counted off the offenses on one hand, which according to the rabbi’s deliberate formulation had been committed both by Hamas and by future pulpit leaders of the Reform Movement, who in his strong judgment were insufficiently sensitive to the victimization of other Jews. “Even our closest liberal allies in Israel were shocked and dismayed by this letter,” Hirsch claimed. Perhaps Hebrew Union College had forgotten its purpose and grown overly tolerant of its own students. “We have a right to insist that some values and beliefs held by some American Jews are inconsistent with our values,” Hirsch said. “Our values” included Zionism, a stance the movement has codified in its various platforms and statements of purpose. “We are entitled to accept students to the rabbinic program based on values that we’ve defined for ourselves, and if somebody doesn’t accept those values we’re entitled to say go somewhere else to study rabbinics,” Hirsch had told me in an interview a few weeks before the sermon.
Hirsch’s public speaking style relies on strategic shifts in volume, emphasis, and mood. During sermons the 63-year-old rabbi will hypnotically stretch out the S’s at the end of words. His theatricality coexists with a rabbinic awareness of the tensions within his own ideas—in this case, of wanting some new assertion of communal limits in order to preserve what he sees as a fundamentally liberal project, the survival of Reform Judaism. On the bimah, and in private, a lawyerly sense of inquiry is in harmony with Hirsch’s inner certainties. “He’s able to say complicated and difficult things in a compassionate and impactful way,” said Diana Fersko, senior rabbi at the Village Temple, and both a rabbinic intern and an assistant rabbi under Hirsch at Stephen Wise for over seven years in the 2010s. “I used to say out of all the texts I study—Talmud, Torah—the text I studied most of all was him.”
That Friday night, a student of Reform rabbinics would have seen someone arguing with himself, while also clearly arguing for something. They would have observed an owlish patience, accentuated by a stolelike tallit and a wide pair of glasses. But at crucial moments he allowed his evenness to waver and break. “It isn’t that you are critical of Israel,” he said of the rabbinical students who’d signed the May letter. “Go ahead. We need critics. The issue is that you never seem to speak about Israel’s enemies or its threats against us,” he exclaimed, suddenly shouting on “never,” summoning a flash of almost-anger that subsided as soon as the next line arrived. It was an impressive performance, almost startlingly at odds with the determined banality and rote sloganeering of most non-Orthodox American rabbis—a speech by an actual adult living a passionate, examined, and proudly Jewish life. Less clear, in part because of the masks that hid anyone’s real-time reaction, was whether this 24 minutes of muscular Zionism, institutional criticism, and careful self-qualification, rooted in the once mainstream and now suddenly unfashionable heritage of 20th-century American liberalism, is getting across to anyone, and whether it would make that much of a difference if it did.
Ammiel Hirsch is the most prominent Reform rabbi who is willing to publicly challenge his colleagues’ alleged complacency toward the movement’s commitment to Israel. “The leaders of the movement, they’re passionate Zionists,” Hirsch told me when we met in his office off Central Park West a couple weeks before his sermon. “But it’s not only about what you say. It’s also about what you don’t say and what you let slide.”
Reform became a faith behemoth by capturing an identifiably American middle ground, one where social openness and personal choice can be used to help preserve older values and communal structures. The movement stood for the seemingly contradictory idea that religion doesn’t obligate anyone to do anything, even though it’s also personally and communally indispensable. Reform Judaism promotes a turning away from ethnocentrism, which is itself meant to reimagine a special mission and identity for the Jewish people within the context of what mid-20th-century American sociologists called “the American civic religion”—a phrase that today seems almost quaint in its assumption that Americans are a religious people, or a people at all. The Reform Movement’s compromises produced Shabbat services with grand pianos alongside a near-cultic belief in the principle of tikkun olam, with ethical behavior and social action supplanting Messianic redemption, divine revelation, Talmudic study, and performance of the mitzvot as the essence of Judaism.
Today, Reform is the dominant Jewish denomination in America: Last year’s Pew survey indicates that 37% of American Jews identify with the movement, the largest share in the country by far (with 17% identifying as Conservative, and 9% as Orthodox). The movement has 850 affiliated synagogues in North America and a network of summer camps; some 40% of non-Orthodox rabbinical students in the United States go to Hebrew Union College, according to HUC President Andrew Rehfeld. The movement’s relationship to Jewish peoplehood and the Jewish state goes a long way toward defining how these things are seen and felt by a plurality of American Jews.
One of the defining theorists and leaders of postwar Reform Judaism was Rabbi Richard Hirsch, Ammiel’s father, who died last August at the age of 95. The elder Hirsch, as Ammiel recalled, founded the movement’s Religious Action Center (RAC) in 1962. Martin Luther King Jr. invited him to speak at the Selma March; the RAC made its offices available to out-of-town activist leaders and became one of the civil rights movement’s nerve centers in Washington. “That’s where liberals were,” Hirsch explained—they were doing everything they could to advance their era’s defining fight for justice. In the early ’70s the elder Hirsch became executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and moved his family to Israel, where he oversaw the development of the Reform Movement’s Jerusalem campus and the relocation of its international headquarters to the city. “My father never saw a contradiction between social justice … and Zionism,” said Ammiel.
Jeffrey Salkin, an author and rabbi at Temple Israel of West Palm Beach, who also knew Richard Hirsch, echoed Ammiel: “[Richard Hirsch’s] decision to make aliyah was in some ways an extension of his social justice work here in the United States. He forcefully decided to export his social justice commitment to Israel, thereby building our movement and making it a bulwark of justice within the Israeli system itself.”
Richard Hirsch lived out his belief that American liberal Judaism and Israel could sustain and improve one another—perhaps liberal Judaism even required it. This idea, which brought the Hirsch family to the Middle East of the mid-1970s, would help determine the course of Ammiel’s life. “I only spent seven years in Israel, but you remember in the Bible Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and there are seven lean years followed by seven fat years?” Hirsch recalled. “They were only seven years, but they were seven fat years.” By the age of 15, maybe a year and a half after arriving in Israel, Hirsch’s Hebrew was good enough to fool a panel of judges on a To Tell the Truth-style radio show into thinking that he’d lived in the country his whole life.
Today Hirsch’s English-language accent is impeccably American, and he speaks Hebrew with the sharp, rapid pronunciation of a native Israeli. One gets the sense that no Tel Aviv cabbie has ever cheated him. Instead of going back to America for college after graduating from the Gymnasia Rehavia high school in Jerusalem, Hirsch was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces, where he served for three years as a tank commander. His time in the country conceivably shaped his thinking about worst case scenarios and long-term dangers to Jewish survival, as well as the ways in which prevailing political fashions and inattentive or fearful leadership might seed future nightmares despite everyone’s best and most liberal intentions.
It wasn’t just the letter from Reform rabbinical students, or what he viewed as the movement’s disappointingly muted response, that worried Hirsch. “Nagging suspicions” about the movement’s direction began “about 10 years ago,” around the end of Barack Obama’s first term in office. The urgency accelerated when the Union for Reform Judaism, which is headed by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, opposed the 2017 decision to transfer the American Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a statement that seemed to prioritize party-line opposition to Donald Trump over what had been a longstanding and uncontroversial movement objective for half a century. The movement’s reaction to controversy over alleged antisemitism among leaders of the 2017 Women’s March also troubled Hirsch. “That we were not willing to critique our social justice allies … began to really disturb me,” he explained, “in particular when we refused even to criticize, let alone pull out of those Women’s Marches where the leaders were all anti-Zionists and BDS supporters, and a couple were Farrakhan supporters.”
Other Reform rabbis in other cities voiced similar concern when I contacted them for this article. They claimed that both the URJ and the Religious Action Center, led by Rabbi Jonah Pesner, had turned into milquetoast liberal advocacy groups whose main public function appeared to be showing unqualified support for the Democratic Party. “There are a lot of congregations where it’s problematic to even send out emails and stuff from the RAC because they’re so politically partisan,” said David Kaufman, a Reform rabbi in Ohio and longtime pro-Israel activist. The RAC worked for the passage of President Joe Biden’s divisive election reform bill; its website homepage currently cheers on the House of Representatives’ passage of the Build Back Better act and asks Reform Jews to “Urge your elected officials to cosponsor the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act (S. 1083/H.R. 40).”
“The theater of liberal American Zionism is all there,” as the leader of one large Reform congregation (which is, notably, not located on either U.S. coast) put it. The movement has an impressive campus a hill over from the Tower of David in Jerusalem, where nearly every American rabbinical student is required to study for a year, and which has ordained over 100 rabbis for Israel’s growing Reform movement. While the movement officially remains Zionist, and its leaders aren’t afraid to be seen alongside Israeli politicians, the rabbi wondered what it all really counted for. “I think I have felt that in recent years that sort of Zionist identity has become largely symbolic in ways that I feel nervous and uncomfortable about … Ultimately if we’re a Zionist movement, we should be producing Zionist rabbis.”
Tablet reached out to both Jacobs and Pesner for interviews. The URJ responded with a long statement attesting to its admiration for Hirsch’s work and leadership. “The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) is a Zionist Movement,” the statement read: “Our Zionism is centered on fulfilling the aspirational vision of Israel’s Declaration of Independence and making sure that all Jews have a place in the Jewish State. … With the Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism in Washington DC, we are often on the front lines combatting institutional anti-Zionism, BDS, and attempts to single out and vilify Israel. We use our influence to tirelessly advocate for a strong US-Israel relationship, for US leadership toward a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for foreign aid and security funding for Israel—including the vital Iron Dome—and for foreign aid to the Palestinians, which strengthens regional stability and fosters conditions for peace.”
Across from Hirsch’s desk, in his office a couple floors above the strikingly blank stone facade of the synagogue’s historic sanctuary on 68th Street and Central Park West, is a large aerial photograph of the Eshkol Reservoir in northern Israel. When the rabbi is stumped or blocked, he can look up and contemplate a critical piece of Israel’s national water carrier and the wonders of the modern Jewish state. The photograph is also a reminder of Israel’s thin margins for survival even in times of relative peace. As Hirsch explained, there is a word in Hebrew, miflas, that refers specifically to the water level of the Kinneret. (Because he spent most of his teenage years and his early 20s in Israel, Hirsch’s knowledge of the word miflas—and the hyperspecific yet untranslatable anxieties contained within it—is more than a piece of random trivia.)
Behind Hirsch’s desk, directly opposite the Eshkol and near eye level at the spot where the rabbi places the day’s stack of books, is a portrait of Stephen Wise, the synagogue’s founder. Wise, perhaps the most important Reform Jewish leader of the first half of the 20th century, embodies the uniquely American side of Hirsch’s work and self-image. Wise’s life’s work helps explain why Zionism has a significance beyond politics for Reform Judaism, and why belief in the Jewish national political project was at the heart of American liberal Judaism’s value proposition and even its very purpose. In our conversations, Hirsch also used Wise’s career to elucidate his own theory of the current dangers to the Reform Movement.
Born in Budapest in 1874, educated at City College and Columbia, Rabbi Stephen Wise was a labor activist, an acquaintance of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Albert Einstein, a leader of the American Jewish boycott against Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and a co-founder of both the American Jewish Congress and the NAACP. Wise founded the Free Synagogue in 1907 on the then-revolutionary principle that a synagogue board shouldn’t be allowed to censor a rabbi’s sermons, establishing freedom of the pulpit as one of the eventual pillars of Reform Judaism. Wealthy industrialists, for instance, wouldn’t be able to stop a liberal rabbi from denouncing abusive labor practices from the bimah. At Stephen Wise, and at the numerous Reform institutions modeled after it, rabbis would be the intellectual and moral voice of a congregation, even if it brought them into conflict with the people they led or the movement they worked within.
It was never easy for Wise to be a New Deal-supporting, pro-labor believer in racial equality. But some of the most bitter fights of his career were over Zionism, which the official Reform Movement didn’t endorse and often opposed throughout the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s (the movement had officially been non-Zionist since the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform). Wise had been a delegate to the Second Zionist Congress in Basel in 1898 and helped launch one of the forerunners of the Zionist Organization of America; he lobbied Woodrow Wilson for American recognition of the Balfour Declaration. Wise founded the Jewish Institute of Religion, a Zionist answer to the non- and often anti-Zionist Hebrew Union College, and oversaw the merging of the two institutions after the founding of the State of Israel settled much of the remaining debate among American liberal Jews in favor of the wisdom and necessity of supporting a Jewish state.
As Hirsch explains, Reform opposition to Zionism wasn’t merely tactical, and it wasn’t just a pragmatic or assimilationist response to American social pressures. Rejection of Jewish nationalism was philosophical—theological, even, rooted in the conviction, and perhaps the delusion, that Judaism could only survive if it shed all claims to petty Jewish particularism. “The 19th-century Reform theologians and leaders and rabbis and lay leaders, from what we now call the classical Reform period, believed that humanity had progressed so much since biblical and medieval times that the Enlightenment was the best guarantee to the redemption of humanity and the Jewish people,” said Hirsch. “In other words, German philosophy, Kantian ethics, Kantian categorical imperatives: They were the finest expression of Jewish prophetic values. All of the trappings of what we call Jewish peoplehood, ethnicity and so on, embarrassed them, and they thought we had outgrown that experience.”
The 20th century, a drama of national revival alongside a march of pogroms and genocides and attempted genocides, proved the classical Reform stance to have been disastrously wrong. No one had in fact outgrown anything—not the Jews, and certainly not their persecutors. In a time of the first successful Jewish state-building project in 2,000 years, a period during which perhaps a third of all Jews had been murdered for no reason other than their identity and millions more were banned under communism from living out their culture and beliefs, it was no longer tenable, emotionally, morally, or practically, to treat Klal Yisrael—Jewish peoplehood—as a dispensable abstraction. Jews still reaped all the risks and wonders of being a distinct people, even in a post-Enlightenment world, and maybe especially in a post-Enlightenment world. For the next few generations, peoplehood was placed beyond the limits of what would embarrass even the most reformist parts of the Reform Movement.
And yet, as Hirsch explained, Reform Judaism had grown out of a rejection of the particular. “I think there is a risk in our movement that we will revert to the default position of liberalism, which is the elevation of universalism at the expense of Jewish peoplehood, not as an extension of Jewish peoplehood,” Hirsch said. He now fears that the movement could be in the course of a swing back to its original historical grounding, overlooking both the tragic and near-miraculous aspects of the Jewish experience of the 20th century. “It wasn’t that the anti-Zionist period of classical Reform Judaism was the exception that had been relegated to history,” he theorized to me. “It was the 20th century that was the exception, that forced the Reform Movement back into the embrace of Jewish peoplehood.” Without peoplehood, and without commitment to a shared purpose and destiny, liberal Judaism risked losing its ability to stand for anything recognizably Jewish.
It is counterintuitive, in 2022—after over a decade of Benjamin Netanyahu, frequent wars in Gaza, an ever-retreating horizon for peace with the Palestinians, and the rise of an explicitly Jewish wing of the BDS movement—to claim that Israel is critical to the survival of liberal Judaism in the United States. If anything, it is more common for younger Jews, especially within the Reform Movement, to paint Israel as a threat to those values. But Hirsch believes that liberalism loses its motivation without some organizing purpose. The Zionist idea, as he sees it, is inseparable from Judaism itself.
“The very Amos who said, ‘let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream,’ ended his book with, ‘I will restore my people Israel to their own soil and never more will I uproot them from the soil I will give them,’” the rabbi said. “So Judaism is this blend. It’s a mischaracterization to define prophetic values as having nothing to do with Jewish peoplehood, or not being rooted in Jewish peoplehood.”
The idea that liberal projects must sometimes be built atop seemingly atavistic foundations used to be easy for Americans to accept—until recently liberals never had much trouble connecting a yearning for social improvement to a sense of America’s inherent greatness and larger mission. But the United States is a weak market for even mild cognitive dissonance at the moment, and the Reform Movement, based as it is on the idea that both religion and peoplehood should be sustained through a kind of strategic deemphasis, is perhaps one of the most paradoxical institutions in American Jewish life. Reform was a vision of Judaism that millions of Americans could live with, and it was attractive because it could harmonize its seemingly contradictory claims: You could have the spiritual and communal benefits of Judaism with few big claims or demands, no funny hats, nothing that put Jews too badly at odds with their neighbors. If joining a Reform congregation was a normalizing exercise for many Jews who might attend services once or twice a year, a smaller but still very significant number drew real inspiration from it and identified strongly with the movement’s foundational ideals—and still do.
As Salkin put it, any debate over the future of the Reform Movement will determine the survival of “an ideology that freed women from behind the mechitzot, that encouraged women to become rabbis and cantors and leaders, that knocked down the walls that were keeping LGBTQ people out of the mainstream of Jewish life, and that had the audacity to introduce the idea that Jews can make up their minds about the extent and intensity of their Judaism.”
Many American Jews still want to be able to make up their own minds. But in order to bridge its own contradictions, the Reform Movement always needed to show that there were aspects of Judaism that it really did take seriously—that the whole thing wasn’t an elaborate justification for ditching practices and beliefs that congregants found onerous or embarrassing, but rather a positive program that could help individuals and families lead a fulfilling Jewish life by incorporating liberal values, which could also help shape and strengthen the Jewish state. This intersection between liberal American Judaism and Israel became the focus of the first phase of Hirsch’s career as a rabbi.
After the IDF, Hirsch went to college in the U.K., studying law at the London School of Economics, where he met his future wife, who is now a leading real estate contract lawyer in New York. (The couple have one daughter, who is working toward a Ph.D. in theater in England. Hirsch also has three siblings, all of whom are medical doctors.) By the time he arrived in rabbinical school—a decision prompted by a chance meeting with an HUC dean at Hirsch’s wedding, who told him that he was wasting his time being anything other than a rabbi—Hirsch had lived, worked, and studied on three continents and given up a promising yet unfulfilling first career as a lawyer.
After three years as an assistant rabbi at the Upper East Side’s Temple Shaaray Tefila, he became executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, effectively making him one of Reform’s chief points of contact with Israel and the Israeli government. Few people were more ideally positioned to convince Israelis of the importance of the Reform Movement, or to convince liberal American Jews that their existence depended on their connection to Israel. As ARZA’s leader between 1992 and 2004, Hirsch witnessed the rise and fall of the peace process, alongside an equally vexing development from the Reform Movement’s perspective: The Israeli government’s intermittently serious attempts—none of them successful, many of them deeply divisive—to liberalize state policies on Jewish conversion, practice, and identity.
Hirsch was active on both fronts. He obtained the blessing of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to lead a groundbreaking rabbinic mission to Jordan, at a time before Israel’s former enemy had signed a peace treaty. But the Second Intifada, during which his colleagues in Israel narrowly avoided suicide bombings, undermined Hirsch’s belief in the feasibility of any peace plan that depended on a side for whom “it’s a war aim to kill innocent people wherever you can find them.” Hirsch still vividly remembers meeting an Ethiopian Israeli security guard, newly awakened from a coma, who had stopped a suicide bomber from blowing up a hospital maternity ward.
Things remained just as ambiguous on the pluralism front. In 1997, during Netanyahu’s first term, Hirsch organized an emergency rabbinic delegation to lobby the prime minister against a law that would have stopped the Israeli government from recognizing foreign non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism. The delegation’s flight landed several hours late; in a typically Bibian political flourish, the prime minister met with the group anyway at 1 o’clock in the morning, and then immediately put out word of how positively the meeting had gone—Hirsch remembers listening to an Israeli news bulletin about the sit-down on the early morning bus ride to the hotel. Israel continued recognizing the conversions. But a government commission, launched perhaps with its eventual failure in mind, reached no real compromises on the status of non-Orthodox conversions performed within Israel or a host of other related topics, thus giving the appearance of progress while threatening no one’s hold on religious or political power. “That is Israel,” Hirsch noted. “But the same dynamic fell apart here, too.”
A few years after that trip to Jerusalem, Hirsch would have an even more intimate sense of how difficult it would be to convince conservatively minded Jews that it was in their communities’ best interest, and in Klal Yisrael’s interest, to take progressive Judaism seriously. A literary agent connected Hirsch to Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Reinman, a respected Lakewood-based author of halachic texts that are widely studied in yeshivas. The resulting co-authored book, titled One People, Two Worlds: A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues That Divide Them, was structured as a dialogue between two thinkers at opposite poles of the Jewish religious spectrum, with each of them making the case for their radically different vision of how to live within the same tradition and people. No book like it had ever been written before, and it had the promising yet destabilizing potential of softening both Haredi and Reform views toward the type of Jew each defined themselves against. The backlash came only from the Haredi side.
The pair planned an 18-city tour around the time of the book’s 2003 publication. After a well-received kickoff at the 92nd Street Y and a second event, a group of major Haredi rabbis issued an edict, effectively threatening to ban Reinman’s religious scholarship in their institutions and communities if he didn’t end the tour. The threat worked—Reinman dropped off the bill, though the book sold well online in traditional Orthodox ZIP codes. “We may not treat our perfect Torah on par with others’ casual speculations,” the rabbis’ injunction stated. “Light cannot coexist with darkness nor can falsehood be pedaled along with truth.”
Hirsch laughed as he read from the now 20-year-old document, which he says he never took as a personal insult. It might be harder to have a sense of humor about divisions within one’s own side, though—about the fissures that can emerge even among people who mostly agree with one another.
The student letter incident of May 2021 really does look different to, say, the leadership of HUC than it might to the leader of a flagship Reform congregation a few miles north in Manhattan. The letter “is a sign that our students are not yet formed,” Andrew Rehfeld, the HUC president, explained to me. “It’s a sign that we are looking to transform and reshape the commitments of students. I would hope that students in the pulpit wouldn’t send a letter like that in a moment of crisis and conflict. But it’s also a reflection that our students care deeply and passionately about Israel.” Rehfeld added, “I think it’s dangerous to view the letter as anti-Israel,” though he said it also “shows a grave insensitivity to innocents being targeted.”
Rehfeld says that HUC issued an official reaction to the student letter 10 days after its publication and believes Hirsh “mischaracterized us … to say that the movement didn’t respond is simply factually incorrect. And I think it speaks to a desire to treat the world as black and white, as good guys and bad guys rather than noticing the complexity.”
A more wait-and-see approach carries the assumption that time is on the movement’s side—the unruly children will eventually grow up and take their place in the pulpits, while learning to be more sensitive to their Israeli brethren as well as to Palestinians. Yet there are increasing signs that the pace of change is advancing with alarming speed for the Reform Movement, and not only on the Israel front. “This is hardly the first time that the movement has gone through ideological growing pains or spasms,” says Salkin. “But what drives it home in its intensity is that synagogues are shrinking. Everyone knows that …This has created an anxiety among synagogue leaders and among clergy,” Salkin continued. “It has also spawned a parallel question: Is our current program enough to sustain our members?”
In 2022, Reform congregations that had drawn 1,500 families pre-pandemic might now be down to 500. Reform summer camps have missed one or even two seasons’ worth of revenue. In the months before the pandemic, the website for the World Union for Progressive Judaism claimed that the group served “1,200 congregations with 1.8 million members in more than 50 countries.” Today, the number is down to 1.2 million.
Reinman and Hirsch are still friends. While the Talmudic scholar told me that he has great respect for liberal Judaism as a basis for Jewish identity and ethical action, he wonders how viable it really is. “The problem with the liberal stream is that they’re struggling against apathy and they’re trying not to shrink. On the other hand, the Orthodox world is exploding—high birthrate, strong retention. You know, it’s a study in contrasts.”
Still, Hirsch is the sort of leader who could forge a way forward, Reinman said. “He’s an idealist. And that’s a big thing.”
In the short term, the State of Israel seems more like a source of future division within the Reform Movement than like a source of positive direction. The conditions that produced May’s Gaza flare-up haven’t changed in the Middle East; meanwhile in America, another rocket barrage might widen the cracks opened up by the last war into a gaping, permanent chasm. In a development that would have seemed like the product of paranoia even five years ago, it is now commonplace for Jews within the progressive movement and its preserves in academia and associated industries—including many parts of the press and publishing business, and within some professional associations—to face demands that they forswear allegiance to a Jewish state that is routinely accused of “genocide” and other unforgivable crimes.
So is Israel an issue on which Reform Jews are likely to agree, or even agree to explore in good faith, as the society around them continues to radicalize? Perhaps the grimmest outcome for Hirsch is that the Israel debate within Reform might take on the rigidity of those Haredi denunciations of Rabbi Reinman. This is the nightmare of a certain type of liberal idealist: that the quality of one’s arguments no longer matters or maybe never mattered; that debates are really just cover for brute power dynamics, or are a sideshow to generational and societal trends that no amount of truth or argument can ever overcome.
Hirsch hasn’t succumbed to such cynicism. He still believes that liberal Judaism, like liberalism itself, is broad enough to contain seemingly contradictory ideas that might enrich each other, rather than seek each other’s elimination. Whether his brand of muscular liberalism is politically or religiously viable in today’s America is a question that will be answered by his Reform Movement colleagues, and the shaken and dwindling congregations they serve.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.