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Finding the Bright Spots: ReformJudaism.org’s Top 10 Stories of 2017

Finding the Bright Spots: ReformJudaism.org’s Top 10 Stories of 2017

Wooden 2017 numbers on a marble surface with a sparkling gold background

As we prepare to ring in 2018, we look back on the year we leave behind, and… whew, what a year. In a time so often marred by bad news – from natural disasters to political crises to mass shootings to the (re-)rise of neo-Nazis – it’s easy to wonder: What was good about this year, anyway? Anything? We think so, though we’re certainly not dismissing the deep pain and discord we saw in 2017, either – just trying to find the bright spots.

Below are the top 10 Reform Jewish moments of the year, both positive and negative, listed in chronological(ish) order. Do you agree with our choices? What would you add? Leave us a comment and let us know – and may 2018 bring many more positive headlines within the Reform Jewish world and beyond. Happy New Year, friends.

1. Religion and politics took center stage.

In the wake of a contentious 2016 election, conversations began anew about religion, politics, and the relationship between the two – and Reform Jewish leaders had plenty to say. CBS News’ documentary Beyond Politics featured an interview with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the North American Reform Movement, on the topic of countering racism and religious bigotry, and Meet the Press interviewed Rabbi David Saperstein, director emeritus of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and immediate past U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, for a segment titled “Religious Leaders Walk a Careful Line on Politics at the Pulpit.”

2. Reform Jews took action – lots of action.

The Women’s March on Washington coincided with President Trump’s inauguration weekend, drawing an estimated four million participants – with many Reform Jews among them. In April came the People’s Climate March, with heavy Jewish involvement and coinciding events in locations around the world; in August, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism led Reform Jewish clergy in participating in the Minister’s March for Justice, which focused on voting rights, health care, criminal justice reform, and economic justice. Coming together beyond organized marches, Jewish groups widely denounced President Trump’s Muslim travel ban, and clergy and congregants alike took part in pop-up airport protests.                                  

3. Protecting refugees and immigrants became high priority.

In keeping with the Jewish community’s tradition of welcoming the stranger, our Reform community held strong in support of immigrants and refugees; a Reform congregation in California hosted a rally to free a man facing deportation, and Reform temples in Canada, Chicago, and elsewhere have committed to sponsoring refugee families. The Religious Action Center continues to lead the Reform community on this issue, and its Refugee Crisis Response resource page is updated regularly.

4. Reform Judaism’s North American leader met with Pope Francis and other global leaders.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, had the honor of meeting with Pope Francis in Vatican City in late May. Together, JTA reported, they shared their mutual concerns about President Trump’s immigration policies. Rabbi Jacobs said of their conversation, in part, “I was deeply honored to have had the opportunity to tell Pope Francis how appreciative we are of his work on interfaith relations and cooperative endeavors for the common good.” In 2017, Rabbi Jacobs also led a delegation of Reform Jewish leader in separate meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority.

5. ReformJudaism.org launched the weekly podcast “Stories We Tell.”

On the heels of our popular weekly podcast “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah” comes “Stories We Tell,” which launched in May to great fanfare from the Jewish community – and was even recommended by The Guardian. The podcast builds on Judaism’s rich tradition of storytelling and of passing down stories from one generation to the next, sharing a short story each week. Rabbi Leora Kaye, who produces the podcast, told the New York Jewish Week, “Judaism starts with narrative. The way people truly learn about life is through stories.” New episodes are released each Thursday on iTunes and wherever you get your podcast fix.

6. Neo-Nazis marched on Charlottesville – where the local Jewish community stood strong.

On a Shabbat in mid-August, white supremacists marched in a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, under the guise of their opposition to the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a local park. The country – nay, the world – responded with condemnation and disgust, as did Congregation Beth Israel, Charlottesville’s Reform congregation. Synagogue president Alan Zimmerman’s account of the weekend went viral after it was picked up by The Washington Post, Slate.com, and other prominent publications.

7. Jewish celebs won some major awards.

This was a big year for big-name Jewish personalities, including Israeli author David Grossman, whose book Horse Walks into a Bar won him the coveted Man Booker International Prize in literature. One of Israel’s most distinguished writers, Grossman is a member of Israel’s Reform Jewish community and was a keynote speaker at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial Convention in December 2017, where he was also awarded the Reform Movement’s Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award. Let’s see, what else? Oh, yeah: Natalie Portman won the prestigious Genesis Prize ($1 million to be granted to philanthropic programs focused on advancing women's equality); Alex Bregman (who grew up at Congregation Albert in Albuquerque, NM) led the Houston Astros to a World Series win; and the James Beard Foundation named Israeli-American chef Michael Solomonov Outstanding Chef of 2017.

8. Disaster relief efforts arose all across the U.S., all year long.

From hurricanes to wildfires and beyond, natural disasters devastated portions of the United States in 2017, including Texas, Florida, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and California. In the fall, the California fires swept through URJ Camp Newman, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Santa Rosa, CA, badly damaging the camp’s physical structure (though it will still open in summer 2018 as Newman By the Bay, hosted by a nearby university). The Reform Jewish community’s relief efforts included fundraising for hurricane-impacted areas, organizing to send much-needed water filters to Puerto Rico’s hard-hit communities, sending gift cards to communities in need, setting up Hurricane Harvey Day Camp for storm-affected families in Texas, local synagogues partnering to support one another in California… the list goes on. Here’s to asking Mother Nature for a calm 2018, please.

9. The 100th Israeli Reform rabbi was ordained.

In November, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion ordained the "Class of the 100th Israeli Reform Rabbi,” which included four talented, passionate new rabbis who are committed to furthering Reform Judaism in the State of Israel. Said Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D., president of the college, “The ordination of our 100th Israeli Reform rabbi is a historic milestone in our mission to advance progressive Judaism and religious pluralism in the Jewish State.” Dismayingly, the celebration of this historic moment was marred by violence when Reform Jews celebrating at the Kotel – including prominent North American Reform leaders – were forcibly prevented from bringing a Torah to the Wall. 

10. A new social justice album provided the soundtrack for our work.

Can Jewish music inspire the Jewish community to better the world? We say yes. This fall saw the launch of the much-anticipated album Together as One, a compilation of original Jewish songs meant to inspire us to take action for tikkun olam, the repair of our broken world. Says musician Billy Jonas, whose tune “Karleigh’s Song” appears on the album, “A bunch of individuals, all doing the right thing, and judging their actions by whether they put more love in the world? And then singing about it? That’s galvanizing – the seeds of a movement.” The album is available for purchase online.

Kate (Bigam) Kaput is the social media and community manager for the Union for Reform Judaism, serving as a content manager and editor for ReformJudaism.org. She is a proud alumna of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s Eisendrath Legislative Assistant fellowship and also served as the RAC's press secretary. A native Ohioan, Kate grew up at Temple Beth Shalom in Hudson, OH, and holds a degree in magazine journalism from Kent State University. She lives in Cleveland with her husband, Mike. 

Kate Kaput
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