by Rabbi Jared H. Saks
Shabbat Va-eira | January 24, 2020 – 28 Tevet 5780
Among my earliest memories of childhood is my parents taking me into the voting booths on Election Day. They’d point to the candidates for whom they were voting, I’d flip the levers, and they’d pull the big handle that would register their vote and open the curtains to the voting booth. My grandmother, in her retirement, volunteered at the polling station, a tradition my father has taken on in his retirement. And one of my favorite stories of my grandfather is of him walking into the voting booth, pulling the lever to close the curtain, and then poking his head back out to yell to my grandmother across the gymnasium, “Who are the Democrats?” Voting, it seems, is in my DNA, which is, in part, why I have cast my ballot in the 2020 World Zionist Congress election.
The World Zionist Congress was established by Theodor Herzl in 1897 as the legislative body of the World Zionist Organization, a non-governmental entity that promotes Zionism. The World Zionist Congress, in a sense, is the Parliament of the Jewish People. It is composed of 500 delegates that meet every five years to exert ideological influence on both Israeli society and the global Jewish community. It also allocates financial and other resources to various organizations, including the Reform Movement, in Israel. Unlike most elections, which happen in a single day, voting in the World Zionist Congress elections began on January 21 and will continue until March 11. Voting in the World Zionist Congress elections is the only way North American Jews can weigh in democratically about issues in Israel and ensure that the Reform Movement’s values and positions are heard in matters of Israeli policy.
In the 2015 election, the United States sent 145 delegates to the World Zionist Congress, 56 of whom, or 39 percent, represented the Reform Movement. This has meant that more than $4 million dollars each year has been directed to the Israeli Reform Movement. The platform for ARZA (the Association of Reform Zionists of America) contains a commitment to a strong and secure Israel, while strengthening the Israel-Diaspora relationship. As a movement, we are committed to the vision outlined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which states, “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture.”
If you know anything about Israel, you know that some of the most influential people in Israel do not ascribe to these ideals, which is why your vote in the World Zionist Congress elections matters so much. A vote for Reform means helping to create and sustain an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic and is a free society that upholds equality of religion, gender, race, and ethnicity. If you believe that the ultra-Orthodox should not control the definition of who is a Jew or how to practice Judaism, then you need to vote Reform. If you believe that a two-state solution and long-term peace between Israelis and Palestinians is important, then you need to vote Reform. If you want to ensure that progressive streams of Judaism should receive equal financial support and resources in the Jewish State, then you need to vote Reform.
Each time I’ve led a congregation trip to Israel, we’ve worshipped with Reform Jews in Israel. Most often, we join Kehilat Shir Chadash in Tzur Hadassah for Shabbat, and we are often hosted by their members for a Shabbat dinner in their homes following services. One thing you may not realize about Reform synagogues in Israel is that they are not safe from terrorism–not terrorists from across Israel’s borders, but terrorists from among our own people. Every Reform synagogue in Israel keeps its Torah scrolls in a safe not unlike the one your bank might have, because some ultra-Orthodox have tried to “rescue” the scrolls from Reform congregations. During my first year in Israel, the front windows of Hebrew Union College, my seminary on King David Street, were smashed in by vandals attempting to steal the seminary’s scrolls. They spray-painted the front walk with the Hebrew word satan, Satan.
At the same time, the Reform Movement in Israel is working to advance social justice causes for all of Israel’s inhabitants. The Israel Religious Action Center has worked for years to desegregate bus lines–not desegregation by race, but rather by gender, where women are forced to sit in the back of the bus or give up their seats for men. They have worked to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, the Western Wall. They have secured state salaries for Reform rabbis in Israel and helped congregations to acquire synagogue buildings from the Israeli government. All of these are fights that the Orthodox don’t need to have. By voting Reform, you can change Israel for the better. Any Jews over the age of 18 can vote and it, literally, takes only 90 seconds. There are flyers in our building and below. There’s information from ARZA here. If you have a smartphone, aim your camera at the QR code and open your browser to register and vote. Remember, vote Reform!