When I think of famous Jews in the world today, ones that would be ideal to visit a conference like the recent Reform biennial in Toronto, who comes to mind? Rahm Emanuel, Joe Liebermanâ€¦. and Tony Blair? The reformers brought out some big guns at their conference, pulling a few surprises that may have proved more effective speakers than the wieldy names that I just listed above.
First of all, having Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of the UK, speak at the conference was a bit of a surprise. After all, Reform Judaism is often associated with progressivism and liberalism, while Blair was a staunch ally of conservative American president George Bush while both were in office. After more careful consideration, though, Blair may just have been one of the perfect candidates to deliver a speech.
Blair brings with him a sense of international recognition, which he will always carry due to his long stint in office overseas. Having worked with countless international leaders in peace and war negotiations, Blairâ€™s rhetoric and reputation both precede him. Therefore, by coming to the conference, he may have bestowed a sort of global recognition on the Reform movement. While reformism is growing around the world, it originated and remains strongest in America. Blairâ€™s visit on behalf of his Tony Blair foundation acknowledges the importance of the reform community in the States and worldwide as a group that he wants on his side. The foundation fights for â€œunderstanding and social action between the major faiths,â€ the Jewish Telegraphic Agency article states. To have the former Prime Minister of the UK ask for the Union of Reform Judaismâ€™s help, then, in such a weighty matter is an important coup for Reformism.
A second celebrity then spoke up at the conference, but was of a different variety than Blair. Sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer is a Jewish celebrity of the infamous kind, one whom it is sort of embarrassing to acknowledge. Her explicitness and candid interviews are funny, revealing, and applicable to the topic with which she deals, but why would the URJ want a sex therapist to speak? The answer simply lies in the fact that she is a wonderful representative for Judaism today. An empowered woman in her own right, Westheimer is a â€œHolocaust survivor and ex-Haganah fighter,â€ one who has survived the travails of anti-Semitism and emerged stronger. She created her own brand, carved out her own unique niche in society, and advocates sexual equality, a view that is reminiscent of the often-liberal view that the URJ holds.
(My favorite moment that the JTA recounted was Westheimerâ€™s advice to the rabbis in the room. â€œNow I want all of you in relationships â€“donâ€™t pick up someone in the hallway, Iâ€™m very old-fashioned â€“ to go to your hotel rooms tonight and try a new position,â€ she ordered. â€œAnd call me up afterwards.â€)
Others did speak at the conference, some who were more explicitly religious in their goals than others, but the speeches of Dr. Ruth and Tony Blair struck me the most. Dr. Ruth, though an unusual character, is a woman of whom the Jewish community can be proud. Her empowering message to women is one with which the reform community should take sides. Tony Blair, though an international figure of politics, chose to come to this religious conference, stressing the importance he places on the URJ in his attempt at interfaith dialogue. Both figures are unique and demonstrate both what Judaism can produce and can attract: reform Judaism at its best.