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Ammiel Hirsch: How To Understand Reform Judaism’s Anti-Zionist Crisis



This series is sponsored by Joel and Lynn Mael in memory of Estelle and Nysen Mael.

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we follow up with Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch to break down the anti-Zionist crisis facing the Reform Movement.

As young Jews feel increasingly disconnected from the Jewish People, America’s non-Orthodox synagogues, summer camps, and day schools are challenged to ensure continuity and unity for the Jewish future. In this episode we discuss:

—Do we need to choose between caring about our fellow Jews and caring about the world?
—Why are younger Jews more antagonistic toward Israel than previous generations?
—Can American Jewry survive without a connection to Israel?

Tune in to hear a conversation about the past, present, and future of American Jewry.

Interview begins at 6:12

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch is a leader of the Reform Movement. He is the senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue and former executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America/World Union for Progressive Judaism, North America. He wrote two books: The Lilac Tree: A Rabbi’s Reflections on Love, Courage, and History (2023) and One People, Two Worlds: A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues That Divide Them (2003), which he co-authored with Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Reinman.


18 Questions, 40 Israeli Thinkers

Leviticus 19:17

Genesis 12:3

Amos 9

The War of Return by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf

Jewish Wisdom by Joseph Telushkin

The Book of Jewish Values by Joseph Telushkin

This episode is sponsored by Twillory. New customers can receive a discount by using the coupon code 18Forty.

Transcripts are lightly edited. Please excuse any imperfections.

David Bashevkin:
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Hi, friends, and welcome to the 18Forty Podcast where each month we explore different topic balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month we’re continuing our exploration of Jewish denominations.

Thank you so much to our series sponsors, Joel and Lynn Mael who have graciously sponsored this entire series in honor of Joel’s parents, Estelle and Nysen Mael, Esther bas Zvi and Nissan ben Yaakov Zvi. I’m so grateful for all of Joel’s and Lynn’s encouragement, friendship, and support over all these years.

This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big juicy Jewish ideas. So be sure to check out That’s, where you can also find videos, articles, recommended readings, and weekly emails.

I know we’ve been doing a lot of announcements recently, but I wanted to make one more announcement for a new series, which has its own separate podcast channel that you can subscribe to. It’s really an exciting project that gets to the heart of what we are trying to do at 18Forty, which is develop new entry points for engagements in Jewish life and Jewish thought, and give people a wider lens for how to think about Jewish life and Jewish thought, where we disagree, where we do agree, and to do it with graciousness and with substance.

And the project is called 18 Questions, 40 Israeli Thinkers. And this is going to be an ongoing project of 18Forty. This is going to be the first iteration where we have 18 questions all related to major issues that are facing the state of Israel, Zionism, the Jewish people in this very moment, post October 7th. And we’re sitting down with an incredible, incredible lineup of Israeli thinkers.

This is all being run by our friend, Sruli Fruchter, who runs all of the operations for 18Forty and he has put together an incredible, incredible lineup of thinkers. And if you want to get a snapshot, where do people disagree? Where do people agree? How do major thinkers in Israel from across the spectrum, historians, Jewish leaders, rabbis, journalists, where do they see this all going? And allow you to kind of compare and contrast different modes of thought to get a richer understanding of the challenges and opportunity that are facing the Jewish people and that are facing Israel.

Be sure to check that out. It’s called 18 Questions, 40 Jewish Leaders. It is an awesome project. Our first episode already dropped with Benny Morris. We have a second episode with Rav Yakov Nagen who is a fascinating thinker, quite different from Benny Morris. They’re all going to be different. They’re all going to be fascinating. Check it all out on and you could subscribe wherever you listen to your podcast.

Today’s episode, which we already released on YouTube. So if it sounds familiar and you already watch on our YouTube channel, that’s okay. You have an exemption for this week or you can review it, go back to the archives.

And it’s probably a good time to remind our listeners to subscribe to our YouTube channel where we have all sorts of fascinating videos that don’t always make it to the main channel. So be sure to subscribe to 18Forty on YouTube. We have all these great videos about Jewish libraries, about Jewish history, interviews. But today, our interview is a follow-up interview with Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch. As some of you may remember, we dropped an interview with him as a part of this series, but that interview was recorded pre-October 7th.

And Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, who is a leader in the Reform movement, who has been an outspoken critic of his own movement, has incredibly important things to say in this very moment. And I hope in this moment when we’re trying to expand our sense of consciousness and responsibility for the wider collective body of the Jewish people that we return to him to really get a better understanding.

We have many reformed listeners, not most of our listeners, but we have many of our reformed listeners. But I think that this is important no matter what your level of affiliation or how you affiliate, I think this is an incredibly important conversation to understand what are other movements grappling with? How are they thinking about it?
And really in this moment, the question we should be asking ourselves is what can we do to ensure the continuity and the unity of the Jewish people in whatever way possible?

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, who you may know from his book, One People, Two Worlds that he wrote with Rav Yaakov Yosef Reinman, a Rav in Lakewood, a dialogue between a Rav in Lakewood, Rav Reinman who writes Books for ArtScroll and Ammiel Hirsch, who is a reform rabbi. And we just thought it was very important to come back post-October 7th, hear his thoughts, hear his reflections, where does he see all of this going?

So without further ado, here is our follow-up conversation with Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch.

I am so grateful to be sitting here in this soundproof but somewhat suffocating office. It’s a little tight quarters, but I am really so grateful to be speaking with you today. We had an earlier conversation, pre-October 7th about Jewish life in America, and I wanted to begin from the outset to talk about the goals of why I wanted to touch base with you again, and I wanted to make it very clear because this has always been my approach.

I’m not trying to almost combat or argue about the reform movement, about the orthodox movement. I’m really trying to think about American Jewry because that’s what we have in front of us. And I was wondering if we could begin because we’re rerecording post-October 7th, what do you see as the primary post-October 7th struggle for American Jewry?

Ammiel Hirsch:
First of all, David, it’s good to have you here in the synagogue in our cramped recording booth. Appreciate it. I’ve been following your career for a long time. You do very important work for the Jewish community.

David Bashevkin:
That means so much to me.

Ammiel Hirsch:
I think the central issue for American Jews is the question of Jewish Peoplehood and the centrality of Jewish Peoplehood, the Ahavat Yisrael to the Jewish psyche.

I think in North America and throughout the diaspora, 90% of American Jewry is not Orthodox. They haven’t been Orthodox, they’re not Orthodox now. They won’t be Orthodox. And so when we speak about what are the central challenges with respect to American Jews, I think we need to take into account that 90% of them define themselves as something other than Orthodox.

To its credit, the Orthodox movements, they may have many other problems, but Jewish continuity is not one of them. For everybody else, the question of Jewish continuity is the central issue and the central threat. And that’s the risk, the danger that has been injected post-October 7th, because Israel is the most eloquent expression of Jewish Peoplehood in our times. And if we lose the connection to Israel, we lose something fundamental about the ability of American Jewry to sustain its integrity and to keep American Jews, Jews.

I’ve always felt that Jewish Peoplehood is the heart of the matter. I’ve always felt that for us, as American Jewish community, Jewish continuity is the central issue. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have a whole host of other issues that are very important to us, but without Jewish continuity, there won’t be other Jewish initiatives 20, 30 years from now.

David Bashevkin:

Ammiel Hirsch:
And most American Jews won’t be Orthodox, and that’s not to denigrate Orthodoxy. That’s simply to say from my perspective and my understanding of the way the world is unfolding, that most diaspora Jews, most Western Jews, will not eventually live a halachic lifestyle.

David Bashevkin:
You have been incredibly reflective and almost self-critical about the issues specifically within the Reform movement. But I’m not coming at it as specific to the Reform movement though. That’s the way that you couched it, where you got up publicly and you asked this incredible question and you said, “How is it that so many people from within our movement, from within our institutions, our communities are now the ones who are the loudest in the anti-Zionist camp in America?”
And first and foremost, I found it very moving to see a religious leader reflect on their own community and reflect on what the issues are. I wish we heard more of that across the board, but I was wondering before we get to your solution, which you’ve already kind of discussed. I’m wondering if you could give a little bit more of a diagnosis about what do you think is propelling that wave of anti-Zionism that has emerged from within the American Jewish community?

I don’t remember growing up and hearing really staunch anti-Zionists. The ones I knew were from our community. I didn’t know ones. I thought always growing up that American Jewry, Israel was at the heart of their Jewish identity.

So it is surprising in this moment that so many are being swayed now to be not just anti-Zionists like in there, but actively protesting arm in arms with so many people who we would consider our enemies. Though I would not describe an anti-Zionist Jew, not all of them that way.

I’m curious, how do you make sense of that? Why do you think it has pulled so many young people?

Ammiel Hirsch:
First of all about internal criticism. I think that’s really one of the measurements and the barometers of leadership, right? I mean, it’s easy to step from the outside and throw potshots at another movement or another religion or another party. The real test of leadership is whether you’re able to see the flaws in your own camp and comment on them.

The Torah states Hocheach tochiach et-amitecha. Right? You shall surely rebuke your fellows. And the rabbis ask why Hocheach tochiach? Why the same word twice? Why rebuke, surely rebuke your fellows?

And they respond because it is desirable for a generation to be able to know how to receive rebuke as well as give rebuke. And so I think that’s fundamental, especially to religious leaders.

Why are we seeing what we’re seeing now? I think in particular about anti-Zionism in the diaspora, unlike in the state of Israel, which is a Jewish state, and we receive Jewish identity almost through the air, through osmosis, everything that we live, the calendar, the language, even the people we associate with, there are two million non-Jewish citizens of Israel. But most Jews spend their lives mostly with other Jews.

And so even if you’re not religious, even if the synagogue doesn’t play a central role in your life, Judaism through the filter of Israeli identity is a central factor of life.

That’s not the case outside of Israel. And what we’ve seen, in particular over the last two generations, is a emphasis in particular in the non-Orthodox community, on Jewish universal values, what we call in modern terminology, tikkun olam, repair of the world, which has become a central value for the Jewish people, but also in particular for the liberal movements which rightly understand Judaism to include concern for all human beings-

David Bashevkin:

Ammiel Hirsch:
… and for universal repair. After all the very first words to the first Jew, Abraham, about why the selection was nivrechu vecha kol mishpechot ha’adamah, all the families of the earth shall bless themselves through you.

In other words, the selection of the Jewish family was not simply for the purposes of self-aggrandizement or conquest. It was to be a blessing to all humanity. And in particular in the diaspora, we who interact with mostly non-Jews. That concept became increasingly important, especially in the Enlightenment and now in the post-Enlightenment period in modernity.
And I think we have lost part of the anchoring of what that concept, tikkun olam, actually means, where it derives from. If it does not reflect the centrality of Jewish peoplehood, if it does not reflect the brit, the covenant, of the Jewish people, then it’s not Jewish universalism that we practice. It’s just universalism.

And that is not Judaism because Judaism’s genius, one of its unique contributions to the world was that it was both universalism and particularism and one of the same. Now at a time during the 20th century where the Jews were, throughout most of the 20th century, consistently under existential threat.

It was not only natural but almost self-evident that we need to be anchored in the centrality of Jewish peoplehood because the Jewish people was under existential threat. And that’s beginning in the 20th century with the pogroms in Eastern Europe, the rise of fascism, the Holocaust, the creation of the state of Israel, the Six-Day War, which was viewed by American Jews as almost an apocalyptic threat, that the relief when Israel won the war was in direct proportion to the concern that there was going to be a second Holocaust.

The ’73 war, to a certain degree, the fight for Soviet Jewry, all of these were perceived by us to be existential threats that affected not only our wellbeing but our very future. And so it was natural that what began in the 19th century as a movement that put emphasis on universal Western values to come back into the Jewish fold because after all, the perpetrator of the worst calamity against the Jews, the Nazis were the most advanced Western civilization in the history of humanity.
And so it was clear that Western liberalism, while we supported that and we benefit from it and we want to be part of Western life, it too wasn’t the solution to the Jewish problem.

And so for most of the 20th century, and especially with greater acceleration after the Six-Day War, Jews including the most universalistic of the Jews turned inwards. And it was self-evident to most of us that we were part of an international people and that Israel was the national home of the Jewish people.

In the last two generations, certainly from the 1980s, there have been two generations of American Jews who have grown up. One, not feeling any kind of existential threat at all. The recent surge in antisemitism notwithstanding.

And two, when they look at the Middle East and they look at Israel, they don’t see a small Jewish state surrounded by 400 million Arabs, most of whom want to destroy the Jewish state. They see a powerful regional superpower that if anything, exercises power unfairly or immorally.

And for the last 20 years, those who have grown up for the last generation have largely looked over to the Israeli political scene and seen, at best, a center right government and-

David Bashevkin:
Correct. But it’s alienated.

Ammiel Hirsch:
It’s even more than that, certainly now, it’s a hard right government and they find it difficult to identify with that kind of government. So if you put all that together, what we have seen is a abandonment, not only an inclination towards universalism over particularism, but in many respects an abandonment of Jewish particularism.

The commandment of love of the Jewish people, Ahavat Yisrael, in favor of this 19th and early 20th century notion that Western liberalism, in fact, is the solution to the Jewish problem. And it is what allows for the advancement of society at large and for a better repaired world.

I think it’s important to emphasize that the anti-Zionist Jews in our midst are still a small part of the American Jewish community. The studies that I’ve seen are something like at most 15%, something like that. But the younger you go, the more serious is the alienation. And if you look at 18 to 24-year-olds, roughly half of them express views that are not ours when it comes to Israel and Zionism.

And so it’s a major concern for all of us, for American Jewry, in general, including our friends in the Orthodox community.

David Bashevkin:
Absolutely. That’s why we’re having this conversation because to me, I mean, the question of the future of Amcha Yisroel, of the Jewish People, of this collective body, and you’re exactly right. There’s always this up swelling when you have an existential threat and the danger, and I’ve been saying this over and over again, not that I know the answer, but that the purpose of Judaism is not to fight antisemitism, we fight antisemitism so we can really focus on the purpose of Judaism.

And the obvious question is, so what’s the purpose? And there are different people and different approaches, but I’m curious from your vantage point, because you know this community, you know the American Jewish community inside and out. It is who you service. It’s the movement that you grew up in.

What is the challenge in this moment of reintroducing particularism? It’s very interesting in the Orthodox community, the challenge very often is how do you introduce a universalism? How do you introduce a wider vision that can encompass more than our own particular community’s wellbeing?

And I’m curious for you, how do you introduce a particularism without the infrastructure that I know of? I know how I could feel particularism because I went to a Jewish school and a Jewish camp, and you feel it in your bones. What’s the vision of how to reintroduce particularism to American Judaism?

Ammiel Hirsch:
I think identity. The acquisition of identity is a combination of reason, intellect and emotions, the heart. And I believe the emotions come first. We are who we are first, and then we rationalize why we are who we are.

And so when I asked, for example, what have we done wrong? What I especially wanted our educators and our rabbis and other lay and professional leaders to focus on was whatever it is we did intend, we did not intend to have our youth emerge as leaders of the BDS movement or as sympathetic to BDS or Palestine free from the river to the sea anti-Zionists that actually want to destroy Israel.

So we did want them to grow up to have liberal values. We wanted them to be concerned about humanity at large. We wanted them to be active in a whole host of causes and organizations in American life that made a difference in the world and that sought to repair the world and to make the world a better place, beginning in your own neighborhood and expanding into the world at large. But we did not intend that half. And I’m not saying it’s half of our graduates, that’s not the case, but that half of 18 to 24-year-olds or so would have problematic views on Israel, if not downright animosity.

And so then we need to ask ourselves, what did we do wrong? Where did we go astray? And that’s an important question because without answering that question, we can’t fix it. So as I say, “I think criticism is good.” We want to create the broadest possible tent. We want to be able to have people disagree with each other, even vociferously and energetically, you agree with this or that policy of the Israeli government, you disagree. It should be received in the same way as if we agree or disagree with an American policy.

But I think where we went wrong fundamentally is implanting of the first most important aspect of Jewish identity. I am a member of the Jewish people. I have responsibility to fellow Jews, Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh. All Jews are responsible one for the other.

If you feel that as part of your being, I’m not worried about the whole range of criticisms that would be manifest in the Jewish world about policies or not only Israeli policies, but American Jewish policies and specific Jewish institutions. And I think that’s where we’ve gone wrong.

Now I’m not a professional educator. I’m a rabbi, which is an educator as well. But we have in our movement and in the Jewish world, trained educators, and how exactly we instill that in particular when their parents are not particularly learned in Judaism either is a big challenge.

I believe in the non-Orthodox world, there are three main institutions that do this. And they are the key institutions of American Jewish life from the perspective of Jewish continuity, because these three institutions are the ones that instill Jewish identity.

David Bashevkin:
What are those?

Ammiel Hirsch:
Jewish day schools, Jewish summer camps and synagogues. And of the three, by far, synagogues are the most important, for two reasons.

David Bashevkin:
That’s so interesting. Okay.

Ammiel Hirsch:
Two reasons. One, because most Jews, I’m an advocate of Jewish day school, but most non-Orthodox Jews won’t go to that.

David Bashevkin:
Yeah. I want to get to that. Yeah.

Ammiel Hirsch:
Won’t get to Jewish day school. Many more will get to summer camps, but still a relative minority, a relatively small minority will get to summer camps. And so from the perspective of who can the Jewish community reach? By far, more young Jews will end up in synagogues than any other institution.

And the second reason that the synagogues are by far more important is because we define our scope as what we call cradle to grave. That is lifelong. It’s not like six years in a day school or four summers in a summer camp. This is from when a child is born to the last moments of life.

And so for those two reasons, synagogues are the most important of the three institutions, but they’re all very important. And if we were to be able, life doesn’t work this way, philanthropy doesn’t work this way in America, but were we theoretically to be able to say, “Okay. Here’s a sum of money, here’s a pile of money, where should we most invest it?”

David Bashevkin:
You would put it in synagogues.

Ammiel Hirsch:
Again, the Jewish community has many, many other interests that go beyond Jewish continuity, but Jewish continuity is the heart of the matter, and we’re not winning that struggle. We’re behind.

David Bashevkin:

Ammiel Hirsch:
We’re losing it. And so where we to have a theoretical conversation of say, “Here’s a billion dollars, where should we invest American Jewish resources?” The preponderance of the money should go into these three institutions, and in order of their potential impact. And that means synagogues first and foremost.

David Bashevkin:
It’s so interesting because I’ve been thinking a lot about the lessons of orthodoxy that could shed light or be helpful or constructive for non-Orthodox Jews because we have this little laboratory called the Orthodox community, which has done a strong job of Jewish continuity. As you said, though, certainly there are plenty of criticisms internally.

And in the Orthodox community, I would guess, and it’s certainly my own opinion. That of those three institutions, it’s so interesting. The synagogue, I would almost say is the least important. And the most important and what really revitalized the community was the day school movement. And the day school movement, there were almost de rigueur being an Orthodox Jew now, aside from let’s say an Orthodox Shabbos observance and maybe family law, kosher, I think right up there, is sending your kids to get a Jewish education.

And do you think that the resignation that you had mentioned, we’re not going to get all the kids into a day school. Is that because we’re too far adrift to make the case for it? Is it an expense issue? Why is it, just from your vantage point, that the non-Orthodox movement, particularly the Reform movement even more than Conservative, never fully embraced the Jewish day school movement?

Ammiel Hirsch:
It’s partially a financial issue, and it’s partially a lifestyle issue. Most of our people still see the ticket to American success through elite schools. Beginning, by the way, in nursery school.

David Bashevkin:

Ammiel Hirsch:
They’re prepared to pay tens of thousands of dollars to get into what they call the right nursery schools. Preschool education is really very, very important. But the nursery school then launches you into the next 12 years of the type of education that then increases the prospect of success in American society. That’s completely legitimate and appropriate.

And for us who are also advocates of Jewish day schools, the challenge is to make those Jewish day schools to be able to accomplish that objective, to get these kids into a pathway that promotes the greatest success for them, while at the same time instilling a strong Jewish identity, which as I said before, it includes emotions, but you also have to know something to identify with a series of values, and that’s what we call Jewish education.

But it’s also, as I mentioned earlier and as you pointed out, it’s a financial issue too, because if we were to be able to make Jewish day school a financial bargain so that there would be a real choice between say a $50,000 a year secular elite education and something 20% of that.

David Bashevkin:

Ammiel Hirsch:
Right? Because that would accomplish the same objective, get the kids on a path that would optimize their potential for success in American society, and at the same time instill in them a strong Jewish identity. I believe that many, many additional families would choose that round. But it’s very expensive and very complicated to launch day schools.

David Bashevkin:
There’s been a lot of talk online now. There was somebody who voiced a sense of disappointment from her own Jewish experience growing up. She said that, I grew up within the Reform movement and everything that you had been mentioning, it felt like it was too aligned with a certain political policy. And the yiddishkeit, the actual practice of Judaism and what it means to be a Jew was something I was never really introduced to.

And we see even in the Pew report, there’s such a pull now to Chabad and the incredible work that they’ve done throughout the United States. I’m curious what lessons, in particular, you have looked at from movements outside of your own to say, “They’re onto something and we need to figure out how to at least introduce this?”

Ammiel Hirsch:
Well, I do it all the time. I think we should all do it. I’m appreciative of Chabad’s efforts, and to the extent that non-Orthodox students go to Chabad when they’re on campus because they prefer it, that’s a good thing. That said, Chabad is Chabad. They believe what they believe. And American Jews are not going to become Chabadniks, certainly not our Jews. The 90% of-

David Bashevkin:
That’s fair.

Ammiel Hirsch:
… American Jews that are not halachic.

And so while there might be a lot to learn in terms of technique, and most importantly it’s this non-judgmental sense of authenticity that Chabad projects. There’s a lot to learn, and there’s a lot even to respect and admire in Chabad’s activities. It’s not the solution for the American Jewish community.

And so the question then is how do we create a intellectual, emotional, religious movement that can not only appeal to the majority of American Jews because between the non-Orthodox movements, half the Jewish community or more is not affiliated at all, right? But between those who are affiliated and even the non-affiliated in terms of their values, who they most resonate with, it’s the non-halachic community.

And so the challenge for us is how to attract more of them and how to instill the deepest possible Jewish identity as well as knowledge. We have a big challenge in our movement because at the end of the day, if you’re not in day school, then what do you have? You have two hours a week, four hours a week with Jewish youngsters for six years, seven years, and many of them stopped after their b’nai mitzvah at precisely the wrong time, at precisely the time when Jewish identity, when any identity-

David Bashevkin:
We need you most. Yeah.

Ammiel Hirsch:
… is becoming, is developing-

David Bashevkin:
Forming. Sure.

Ammiel Hirsch:
… right, and forming. These are the challenges.
Now that said, we have some outstanding, amazing successes. First of all, we’re the largest movement, probably the largest diaspora movement in the history of the Jewish people, the most successful, the most influential in terms of the broader society. It’s a success story.

The Reform movement, along with a Conservative movement, which has its own challenges, has been an American success story. The question is like all religious movements, can we identify how the world is changing and can we adapt? I can say that with respect to some of the developments, the excessive developments in the liberal, intellectual, academic, and political community, we don’t want to gravitate that way.

I think that’s another reason, by the way, why so many American young Jews have gravitated to not even the Palestinian cause, but the Palestinian cause to the extent that it wants to seek, not coexistence, but a state at Israel’s expense.
Part of the reason is that as the liberal community, in general, in the United States has become more polarized and dragged more into the more extreme, the hard left, that’s taken our young Jews with them.

So right now, I think we’re in a process in the movement. We’re recording this a week before our second Re-CHARGING conference, which will bring hundreds of Reform professionals and lay leaders to New York, to our synagogue for a two-day conference to discuss all of this.

I think right now we’re in the very, very preliminary phase of pushing back, which is to identify what are the challenges? What is the problem? What did we do wrong? And then we have to begin to formulate. “Okay. If we identified what the problem is, how do we address it moving forward?”

And I am optimistic that we’ll do that because at the end of the day, there is no future for a Jewish community that separates itself from the mainstream of the Jewish people. And so many of these debates that we have and arguments that we have within American Jewry about Israel, they’re actually less about Israel and more about us.

Israel will survive and prosper with or without anti-Zionist American Jews. It’s the American Jews who need Israel because we cannot separate ourselves from the Jewish community. A community that does that eventually marginalizes itself and then becomes a footnote in the chapters of Jewish history.

David Bashevkin:
You’ve been speaking up about this before October 7th. That’s what so remarkable about our first conversation. It almost sounds like it was recorded after October 7th because you were having this conversation last summer. When did you come to this realization? When did you realize, like, “Oh-oh, I think we’ve got a problem here?” Because it wasn’t October 7th for you.

Ammiel Hirsch:
No. It was-

David Bashevkin:
You predated it.

Ammiel Hirsch:
Of course. Way before that. Let me just say a word about October 7th. I think the events of October 7th are so consequential for contemporary American history, for Jewish history, contemporary Jewish history that even a century from now, we’ll remember these days, we’ll mark these days, we’ll commemorate them ritually. Simchat Torah will never be the same from a Jewish ceremonial perspective, from a worship perspective.

And so therefore, if I’m right about that, or partially right about that, any person, any Jewish leader, any Jewish community, any movement of Jews that doesn’t step back and ask themselves, if this is such a consequential period, how does that impact on me moving forward? They’re actually not living up to their responsibility.

That is what leadership is about. It’s about recognizing the needs of the historical moment and asking ourselves, what do I need to adapt to this new historical circumstance?

David Bashevkin:
How do I meet this moment?

Ammiel Hirsch:
Exactly. And that’s what we’re about, and we’re about that now with acute intensity throughout the entire world Jewish community, including, of course, in Israel too. And I would say that we’re only at the very, very, very beginning. It’s still basically for us, it’s still October 7th.

It’s not even October 8th yet, because we can’t begin to move from this period in terms of the trauma and the national ramifications, the pain without certain things happening. One, the war has to end. Sooner or later the war is going to end, but until the fighting stops, people are still dying there.

And two, there’s still supposedly something like 130 hostages. There’s quite a high degree of pessimism that dozens of them are no longer alive, but one way or the other, whether they come back alive or they come back for burial, this hostage issue needs to be resolved too. And until the hostage issue was resolved, we can’t move on.

And until the political and military investigations of what went wrong occur in a serious way, until national commissions of investigation are established and responsibility is assigned and assumed, political and military, we also can’t move on.
I believe that that process will soon begin in Israel because I believe that, and I hope that within the coming months, the intensity of the fighting will end, although one never knows. And it looks like the border in the north is heating up now, but one hopes that sometime by the end of 2024, the intensity of the fighting will die down.

And during that time, and for sure after that ends, the political reckoning needs to begin. All of that is going to have dramatic impacts on world Jewry as well. And so it’s understandable that all of us are still in the fog of war. We’re still traumatized. I don’t think we’ve moved on. It’s not yet October 8th even for us.

And so we’re only at the very, very beginning of the new historical era for world Jewry. And I’m convinced that historians when they write the annals of Jewish history, they’ll write a chapter about October 7th and its aftermath. It’s that consequential.

David Bashevkin:
You’ve been so outspoken about the importance of this issue balancing particularism and universalism, and particularly this frayed connection that you’ve noticed to the state of Israel. I’m curious almost like on a personal level, when did you first notice this? Do you have a specific memory where you almost had this “oh-oh” moment?

Ammiel Hirsch:
Yes I remember it crystallized. I mean, I had growing discomfort with the approach towards Israel, but it really crystallized when the Trump administration decided on moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem. This was our policy since the Six-Day War. Throughout American Jewry and certainly in the reform movement, we believed that the American Embassy should be in Jerusalem, in particular, since the current administration and our policy all along was West Jerusalem. Who disputes Jewish sovereignty over West Jerusalem?

And that was the decision. And then there was a secondary decision also sometime later about the Golan Heights. And that also was our policy. And when we came out in opposition to moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem, I stepped back and I asked myself, “Is there something I’m missing here?” Because I had increasing levels of discomfort in the years since I left the URJ and I was the executive director of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionist of America, the Zionist arm of the North American Reform Movement for 12 years.

And my intuition was that we were going back to the future, in a sense. The reform movement started out as anti-Zionist, but we were anti-Peoplehood before we were anti-Zionists. We had already established a document called the Pittsburgh Platform in 1885 that we no longer saw ourselves as a nation, but a religious community.

And so when Herzl formed the Zionist movement, say 12 years later, our position already was well established. We no longer consider ourselves a people because Jewish peoplehood was considered to be a vestige of the past. And if anything, an obstacle to the arrival of the messianic era that is being pushed along and ushered in by Kantian universalism.
We rejected that position within half a century.

David Bashevkin:
By 29.

Ammiel Hirsch:
By 1937, already there was a Columbus and that was already after the rise of the Nazi Party and then of course the Holocaust. And so you didn’t need to be a religious genius or a political genius to understand that the idea, the hope, the immense messianic expectations of Western Jews in the period of the enlightenment was an illusion.

It couldn’t even guarantee what it promised the Jews, which is if you accept all of the terms and obligations of citizenship, we’ll see you as an equal. And as I said before, Germany was the example, par excellence of the Western Enlightenment. So that was our position, and we reversed it within half a century, which is a brief period of time historically speaking, but it was the result of all of these traumas that the Jewish people, world Jewry experienced.

I began to suspect that what was happening was with the increasing emphasis on universal values. In fact, the natural default position of liberal Judaism in the diaspora is a preference for universal values over particular values. That’s why liberal Zionists are so important. That’s why our progressive movement in Israel is so important, not only for our movement, but for world Jewry because they’re the only people in the world left now who wear their liberalism, Western liberalism, liberal values, tolerance, respect, the supremacy of secular government, all of those values that we cherish.

The progressive Zionists in Israel are the only ones who wear their liberalism and their Zionism naturally arm in glove. But in the West, it almost has become an oxymoron. That you’re either a Zionist or a liberal. And if you’re a liberal, check your Zionism at the door before you come marching with us on climate activism and on international legal justice and feminist rights, and the myriad of social justice causes that are important to us as Americans and as American Jews.

So the decision about the American embassy really crystallized it for me that there was something very deep going on because why would we abandon the very value that we had insisted on whenever we spoke in public or with American public officials, move the embassy to Jerusalem. And that’s why I think the natural default position of liberal Jews is a preference of universal values over particular values.

And to some degree, in some people, it’s a rejection of particularistic values as some kind of impediment to the achievement of the promise, the almost messianic promises of the Enlightenment. And so our big challenge, in Israel it’s not a challenge because in Israel-

David Bashevkin:
It’s in the-

Ammiel Hirsch:
… it’s all of life is particular and those who are inclined to liberalism and universalism, it goes hand in hand, right? But here, there’s this dichotomy that we need to figure out how to break down. That is to say how to integrate both because that is the essence of Judaism. “Through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Martin Luther King used to quote the passage from Amos all the time. But what we forget is the closing passage of the book of Amos where he writes in the last chapter, the last few verses, “And I shall restore my people Israel, and they shall rebuild ruined cities and inhabit them. They shall plant their vineyards and drink their wine. And I shall set them on their own soil, never more to be uprooted from the soil I have given them.”

If you read Amos only as let justice roll down like waters and righteousness without the anchoring in Jewish particularism, you have distorted Amos, you have mistaught what prophetic values really are, and you are being inconsistent to the age-old Jewish tradition that has brought us to this place of synthesis between what we now call universal and particular values.

David Bashevkin:
I wanted to ask you how you relate to anti-Zionists within your camp and within your circle. Do you have friendships with anti-Zionists? And were you at all taken aback or surprised by how many, not just in the anti-Zionist camp, but in the general liberal world? Did this take you by surprise, this rise of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, or you’ve actually been kind of seeing this coming?

Ammiel Hirsch:
I’ve been talking about this for years, especially on college campuses. Post-October 7th still took my breath away on multiple levels. First of all, on a university leadership level and on the level of political and communal leadership in this country, especially in college campuses, for example, these are educated… And schools, by the way, middle schools and high schools.

This was an easy moral case that required condemnation. Even before Israel began responding and Palestinians began dying, what is an easier moral case than to look at what happened in Israel and condemn it? Why not condemn it? After all university presidents condemn, they speak about everything.

David Bashevkin:

Ammiel Hirsch:
There’s hardly a perceived offense that goes by that they don’t comment on. It wasn’t surprising to me, but it took my breath away in terms of the disappointment.

David Bashevkin:
You’re much more anchored in this world, in those liberal circles. I’m curious how you’ve navigated that from almost a friendship perspective. On a personal level, do you have friends who are anti-Zionists who you spar with? How do you approach this from a personal relationship point of view?

Ammiel Hirsch:
So I would say I distinguish between the following. First of all, on a personal level, personal level is personal level and whatever. I mean, don’t-

David Bashevkin:
I have friends who are anti-Zionists. I’ll come clean.

Ammiel Hirsch:
I don’t think I do, but that’s not necessarily indicative of anything. It could be just simply we don’t get into these discussions. On a communal level and on a leadership level, I distinguish between public platforms and people who want to be part of Jewish life. I don’t give anti-Zionists public platforms because what’s the point?

Jews shouldn’t be forced to defend why they want to be Jews. And the onus is on the other people to either accept us as we see ourselves or not, and then call it for what it is. You’re not accepting the way Jews define themselves as you insist that every other minority should be accepted.

When it comes to my being a rabbi and the rabbi of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, communal rabbi, any Jew who wants to be part of Jewish life is more than welcome. I welcome them with an open heart, open arms, and an open door.

When people want to join our synagogue, we don’t ask them what they believe. And if they don’t believe what I believe and if they’re anti-Zionists, and they very well may be, I know that there are a lot of critics, very severe critics of Israel in our community, which I welcome. But if they receive from this community or talk about any synagogue community or any other entity in the Jewish world, if they receive from it what they’re looking for, or at least part of what they’re looking for, and they are willing to put up with me week after week and they know my views and they still want to be part of our community. Come, be part of the community.

Come into my office, not that I would give, as I said, a public platform to anti-Zionists. But I would absolutely talk to anybody who wants to talk me. In a private setting, come in, tell me all the reasons why you think I’m wrong. Maybe you’ll convince me. Maybe I’ll convince you, at least partially. And if not, I’ll still embrace you as a fellow Jew.

David Bashevkin:
I am so grateful for your time. You truly do embody open arms, open doors, open mind. I want to just conclude with some rapid fire questions if you’ll allow me.

Ammiel Hirsch:
Yeah. You’re the what books have you read? And that’s-

David Bashevkin:
I’m going to change them because you went through them already. So I’m just going to do some very quick ones. Is there a particular Jewish practice that you would love to see more deeply embraced by American Jewry?

Ammiel Hirsch:
Oh, there are a lot of them. First of all, Torah study, something every day. Shabbat, for sure. Hebrew, language is really the most important emotional tool that we have to develop identity.

David Bashevkin:
If there was a book that you could get in the hands of every college-aged American Jew, what’s the book that you would want to get in their hands?

Ammiel Hirsch:
For contemporary post-October 7th?

David Bashevkin:

Ammiel Hirsch:
I would say Einat Wilf’s The War of Return. That explains the Palestinian-Israeli dispute better than anything I’ve read. And it’s especially important post-October 7th.

David Bashevkin:
Let’s say somebody comes to you and says, “I want to know Judaism.” What’s the book on Judaism that you hand to somebody to say, “Start here?”

Ammiel Hirsch:
Right. So if it start here, I would recommend Joseph Telushkin’s books. He wrote two books on Jew thought and Jewish values. Those are terrific books. That’s what I recommend to people.

David Bashevkin:
My last question. I’m curious, since October 7th, is there a particular Jewish prayer that has been on your heart or on your lips the last couple months?

Ammiel Hirsch:
Yes. We recited every Shabbat service prayer for the release of the hostages.

David Bashevkin:
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, thank you so much for your time, for your friendship, and for all of your reflections on the future because we really, in many ways, are in this together.

Ammiel Hirsch:
Thank you and keep up the good work. You’re doing phenomenal stuff.

David Bashevkin:
The conversations that I hear within my community, and I live within the Orthodox community, I definitely journey in non-Orthodox spaces, but predominantly Orthodox institutions. It’s where I was raised. It’s where I affiliate, and very often the frame with which we see the non-Orthodox community is one of blame and a sense that if only other denominations disappear, then we would have more people matriculate into a sense of tradition that would do a stronger and more efficient job of preserving continuity among the Jewish people.

I don’t think that that is a secret, though I oftentimes think that we spend too much time pointing a finger in the other direction and not enough time assuming a sense of shared responsibility from within our community. By our, I’m talking about my own community, the Orthodox community, in formulating a type of observance that can engage and present a sense of Jewish life, that can reach those who were not raised, did not go to yeshiva and seminary, spend a year in Israel and engage in a way that maybe has a less definitive outcome than kiruv.

The kiruv movement’s goal, in many ways, is to bring people within the Orthodox community, and that is a noble goal. I understand that because most of my family was not raised within the Orthodox community and those who were, you can see the sense of continuity in Jewish education is just at a very, very different level. It’s much stronger.

I have the experiment in my own family. It’s not something I need to speculate about, but I also understand that there are real challenges with assuming a vision that the entire Jewish community is somehow going to wake up and become Orthodox.

I don’t know how realistic of a vision that is. It may be something that we can, I don’t know, pray for, sure. I’m not saying you have to let go of that, but in terms of a realistic vision for engaging the totality of the Jewish community, I think there is a great deal of responsibility that those who were raised within the Orthodox community should have, at the very least in the way that they speak about non-Orthodox Jews.

They were not raised in a world where they had the same level of Jewish education and Jewish engagement and Jewish life, and so many of the things that we take for granted and thinking about how we can structure a community, or a part of our community, that can be more welcoming or even present a model of sustainable Jewish life that can reach more than just those within our community that slice.

I think it’s something we need to be thinking about deeply. I keep coming back to the words that I believe both Professor Lawrence Schiffman and Malka Simkovich said in our series so long ago about the origins of Judaism. That the way Second Temple scholars talk about Judaism pre the denominations that we have, was something called common Judaism.

Common Judaism is the basic level of practice that most Jews in the second temple period and the different exiles that happened afterwards, that most Jews practiced, I wouldn’t call it, and scholars don’t call it Orthodox Judaism. I don’t know that it would’ve reached to those standards, but it was a basic level of common Judaism that really far and wide people could participate in.

And I think now more than ever, with all of this upheaval that the Jewish community has undergone over the last couple months, all of the questioning and the searching of what is Judaism? What are we fighting to preserve? Because as we’ve mentioned so many times, the goal of Judaism is not to fight antisemitism, but we fight antisemitism in order to focus on the purpose of Judaism.

And the question is, can we articulate a purpose that reaches beyond ourselves, that reaches beyond just our community, just the Orthodox community, and play a role in articulating a vision of Judaism, of common Judaism that can engage really the entire community, the entire collective body of Knesses Yisroel? To re-articulate what Judaism can mean in the modern world is squarely part of the essential goals of what we’re trying to do on 18Forty, but this is so much bigger than 18Forty.

This is about the future of Yiddishkeit. This is about the future of Knesses Yisroel, the collective body of the Jewish people. And I hope in this series and in our conversations going forward, it is something that we understand and are able to adjust the way we look at other Jews, the way we take responsibility for Yiddishkeit and the future of Yiddishkeit in this ever-changing world.

So thank you so much for listening. This episode, like so many of our episodes, was edited by our incredible friend, Denah Emerson. We are so grateful for her work. If you enjoyed this episode or any of our episodes, please subscribe, rate, review, tell your friends about it. You should all be subscribed. That’s really what helps us reach that audience. Subscribe on Podcasts, subscribe on YouTube, subscribe on social media.

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