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Help Wanted

Israel's Reform spokesman calls for more tourism, pressure for religious pluralism

by Tom Tugend

December 7, 2000 | 7:00 pm

American Jews are letting down Israel in the short run by staying away during the current unrest, says a top Progressive rabbi, and in the long run by not fighting harder for religious pluralism in the Jewish state.



"Many of you are showing your solidarity, but many others are canceling trips because they -- or their children -- worry about matters of physical safety," Rabbi Uri Regev said during a recent three-week speaking tour of the United States and Canada.

"What kind of message does this send to us?" he asked. "Are we crazy to live in Israel? And why do devout Christians keep coming?"

Regev, a Tel Aviv-born rabbi and lawyer, is used to confrontational questions as executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the social justice arm of the Movement for Progressive (Reform) Judaism in Israel.

Some 50 speeches in nine American and Canadian cities did not diminish his intensity during an interview or his concern for Diaspora support in his fight against the "unholy alliance of religion and state" in Israel. Where is the Jewish outrage and grass-roots support, he asks, when Israel's Orthodox establishment refuses to recognize Jews by choice, even when they are converted by modern Orthodox rabbis in America? Or when hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants, whose right to leave the Soviet Union was championed by American Jewry, cannot get married in Israel?

However, Regev, a vigorous 49-year old advocate with a salt-and- pepper beard, didn't come to America just to ask rhetorical questions.

One purpose was to recruit American lawyers for his newly formed Attorneys for Religious Freedom in Israel.

He visualizes the group as a kind of brain trust, bringing the rich experience of American civil rights and church-state litigation to bear on IRAC's battles for religious pluralism in Israeli courts.

He cited one past instance, following the opening of the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College campus in Jerusalem. The Religious Affairs Ministry denied HUC the educational subsidies given to yeshivot on the grounds that its student body consisted of both men and women.

IRAC took the case to court, and, drawing largely on the arguments used by American lawyers in their battles against the "separate but equal" doctrine, won its case.

Regev said he was encouraged by his meetings with American lawyers during his tour, including a well-attended session at the Harvard Club in Boston, and the response by attorneys, ranging in their religious outlooks from Reconstructionist to centrist Orthodox.

One of the American lawyers who has signed on is Lawrence Schulner of Camarillo. "Our group, which includes lawyers, legal scholars, jurists and judges, can be a valuable resource, because almost any kind of imaginable discrimination case has been litigated and adjudicated in American courts," Schulner said. "Israel may not be able to completely separate religion and state, but there should at least be equality for all religions, including all streams of Judaism," he added.



Regev is upbeat about the Reform movement's progress in Israel, citing the presence of 25 congregations, 15 nursery schools, two major educational centers, and increasing impact on the curricula of public schools. The flagship synagogue, Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv, receives support from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles under its Los Angeles-Tel Aviv Partnership program.

Regev himself discovered Reform Judaism in Los Angeles, of all places. "I grew up in a secular family in Tel Aviv and never knew that there was any other option than Orthodoxy," he recalled.

"In 1967, when I was 16, I came to southern California as an exchange student for six months. I stayed at the home of Selma Schneider and her late husband Al, and went with them to Temple Solael in Canoga Park. I attended Camp Swig. It was all an eye-opening experience."

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