Even in the face of terrorist attacks and the likely fallout from a war in Iraq, Israelis refuse to become a "single-issue society."
"We continue to care passionately about religious pluralism and equality," said Rabbi Uri Regev, executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, who visited Los Angeles recently.
As the top professional of one of the largest Jewish religious organization in the world, the Jerusalem-based Regev conducted a global tour of issues facing the liberal wing of Judaism during a wide-ranging interview in Los Angeles. During his visit, he addressed a meeting at Stephen S. Wise Temple.
The World Union is the umbrella organization for 1,500 Reform, Reconstructionist, Liberal and Progressive congregations in 44 countries and, Regev estimated, touches the religious, educational and social lives of approximately 2 million Jews.
In Israel, the astonishing recent electoral success of the Shinui Party, which advocates the separation of religion and state, has heartened Jews opposed to ultra-Orthodox influence and strictures in the Jewish State.
Because of the vagaries of Israeli coalition politics, Regev does not believe that Shinui will be able to realize such goals as civil marriage and army service for yeshiva students through changes in the laws.
However, by heading the Interior and Justice ministries, he said Shinui can effect changes through administrative rulings, such as the legal acceptance of Conservative and Reform converts and the appointment of sympathetic judges.
He added that Israeli society is now in a position to decide whether its wants to exist as a theocracy or a democracy.
The World Union has not taken a stand supporting or opposing the use of U.S. military force in Iraq.
"In recent years, we have not addressed international policy issues, and the Iraq question has not come before us," said Regev, who took up his post in January 2002. "But I plan to upgrade our involvement in international advocacy issues."
As the World Union approaches its 75th anniversary, which will be celebrated July 10 in its birthplace, Berlin, it faces changes and challenges throughout the world.
Much has been written about the Reform movement's perceived shift to the right, but Regev sees this as an oversimplification. Reform ritual and observances have always been more traditional in Israel than in the United States, he said, but it is true that there is a growing interest among U.S. Reform Jews in kashrut (dietary laws), mikvah (ritual bath) use and the wearing of a kippah and tallit.
However, in social and moral issues, including the recent acceptance of a transgender student for rabbinical training at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, "We are committed to moving forward and to stretching the margins," he declared.
In the former Soviet Union, there are now approximately 100 Reform/Progressive synagogues and groups, with strong concentrations in Moscow, Kiev and Minsk. There are shortages of both rabbis and funds, but a two-year program is underway to train congregational paraprofessionals, supported by the Reform rabbinate in Southern California.
In Germany, as in other Central European countries, where religious congregations are supported by public taxes, Regev is fighting for recognition and a share of the government money from the Orthodox-dominated "Einheitsgemeinde." Under this concept of the "unified community," its Central Council is supposed to represent the Jewish community as a whole, but, in practice, discriminates against Reform and Conservative denominations, Regev charged.
As a native-born Israeli, and a lawyer as well as a rabbi, the 51-year-old Regev has a message of both encouragement and disappointment for the U.S. Jewish community.
On the upside, despite the intifada, "we haven't put our lives on hold, and they are imbued with beauty and song," he said. While his son, Jonathan, serves in the army, his 16-year-old daughter, Liron, "is a typical teenager, who hangs out at the mall and takes public buses to her music rehearsals."
As representatives of the U.S. Reform movement, 44 rabbinical and cantorial students and 33 high school students are spending a year in Israel and "having the time of their lives," Regev said.
On the down side, the absence of American tourists induces "a painful sense of abandonment," he said. Not only the hotels, but the World Union's hostel at Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem stands practically empty.
Added to the emotional impact of such isolation is the financial drain, compounded by hard times in the U.S. economy. The drop in financial support "weighs me down," Regev admitted, especially at a time "when there are great new opportunities and an expanded vision for Progressive Judaism throughout the world."