WASHINGTON — Pittsburghers played a prominent role in the just-completed 71st General Assembly of the Union for Reform Judaism.
Temple Sinai sent a 40-member delegation, making it the 12th largest to attend the biennial convention, which attracted more than 5,000 participants from North America, the United Kingdom, Israel and Australia.
One Temple Sinai member, Lynn Magid Lazar, was installed for her second consecutive term as president of the Women of Reform Judaism.
And two Pittsburghers, Lazar and Rabbi James Gibson, were among the few participants who met President Obama Friday following his historic address to the convention.
The convention also marked a milestone transition in the Reform movement. It was the last for Rabbi Eric Yoffie as president of the URJ. He will retire early next year and be succeeded by Rabbi Richard Jacobs, recently the senior rabbi of the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y.
In a meeting with reporters at the biennial, Jacobs pledged to uphold the URJ’s support for Israel, saying the movement has “a robust Zionist commitment at the core.”
But he also pledged to continue fighting for the movement’s social justice values in the Jewish state, even if they converge with the positions of the Israeli government.
“We live our values in the Reform movement; our values are about Israel as a vital pluralistic, democratic state,” Jacobs said. He added that the URJ would work with the government finding common ground while affirming the values of the movement.
In his address, Obama singled out the movement’s history of fighting for social justice, saying the work of Reform Jewish leaders, especially those of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which is celebrating is 50th anniversary, made his own political career possible.
“You helped draft the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act,” the president said. “You helped to liberate Soviet Jews. You have made a difference on so many of the defining issues of the last half-century,” the president said. “And without these efforts, I probably wouldn’t be standing here today. So thank you. Thank you.”
Obama also defended his own record on Israel, noting U.S. support in developing missile defense systems for the Jewish state and its opposition at the United Nations Security Council to admission of the Palestinian Authority.
“As Ehud [Barak] has said, it is hard to remember a time when the United States has given stronger support to Israel on its security,” the president said. “In fact, I am proud to say that no U.S. administration has done more in support of Israel’s security than ours. None. Don’t let anybody else tell you otherwise. It is a fact.”
Indeed, Barak, Israel’s defense minister and most decorated soldier, addressed the convention the previous evening, and said again, as he has numerous times in recent months, that the Obama administration’s support of Israel is strong.
“The unshakable bonds between Israel and America and their respective defense establishments under the guiding hand of President Barack Obama are stronger and deeper than ever, and we are very thankful and appreciative of that,” Barak said.
But House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who also addressed the convention, alluded to controversial statements made by some members of the Obama administration, most recently U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman, for striking differences between traditional anti-Semitism and hatred for Israel among the Arab regimes and streets.
“I say to you, any justification of any form of anti-Semitism must not be tolerated or condoned,” Cantor said.
Domestically, the URJ used the convention to unveil a new movement-wide initiative to bring children, teens and young adults back to Judaism. The Campaign for Youth Engagement, as it’s called, is intended to reverse a dangerous trend in which the movement loses connection with 80 percent of its kids following their b’nai mitzvas.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)