Liturgist and poet Alden Solovy discusses the challenge of praising God during a period of political distress and uncertainty.
A strangely festive undertone animates the weekly Saturday evening demonstrations against the so-called judicial reforms here in Jerusalem. I’ve attended many of these protests in the thirty-two weeks since they began in January.
The post-Shabbat protests outside the president’s residence have become a place to catch up with neighbors and friends, hear music, cheer for speakers, blow kazoos in call and response with a circle of drummers, and chant slogans with enthusiasm.
Most of the demonstrations across the country occur without incident, while some have been marred by police violence and attacks on protesters, typically when major news breaks about the government’s relentless attempts to eviscerate the Israeli justice system or when protesters seek out government officials at their homes or when they are out in the field on government business. Here in Jerusalem, the typical mood at the weekly demonstrations is a strange combination of upbeat enthusiasm and downbeat disappointment, anger, and fear.
This dichotomy is manifested by the costumes that some protesters wear. While some are humorous digs at the government—a clown on stilts and various wild animals, for example—others are deadly serious, like the women dressed as “Handmaid” characters from The Handmaid’s Tale, silently calling attention to the potential of the “reforms” to erode women’s rights.
In spite of the onset of “protest fatigue,” people are still coming out to demonstrate. Each week, the protests take on a different tenor. Two weeks ago, around the country, the mood was more somber. In Jerusalem, the musical act was eliminated from the program in respect after a terror attack in Tel Aviv earlier in the day. We sang Hatikvah (“The Hope”), Israel’s national anthem, at the end of the rally and went home early.
The leaders have called the weekly protests a “festival of democracy”—a festival that comes hand in hand with dark fears for the future of the State.
Jews around the world will soon bring in the new month of Elul, beginning a forty-day period of introspection and change including the High Holy Days. Our traditional t’filah for Rosh Chodesh includes singing Hallel, psalms of praise and rejoicing.
How can we rejoice in the face of this deep fear, pain, and sorrow for the State of Israel? Much like the somber realities combining with the festive atmosphere of many of the protests, this year the traditional Hallel may need a more layered and nuanced set of emotions.
Two and a half years ago—in the heart of the pandemic—I asked a similar question in the context of COVID and the approaching Passover seders, during which Hallel is also recited. How can we sing Hallel with a full heart at socially distanced seders? I crafted an alternative called “Hallel in a Minor Key,” inviting singer-songwriter Sue Horowitz to compose music for the opening poem. Partnering with the CCAR, Sue and I offered the liturgy as a thank-you gift to the congregations, rabbis, cantors, and spiritual leaders who have used our work.
We offer this liturgy to you again in answer to a new question: How do we recite Hallel as we fear for the future of the State of Israel? You can download a PDF of the full liturgy, along with the sheet music. You can also download a recording of the music. Read about the spiritual and musical influences behind this liturgy in our original RavBlog post “Hallel in a Minor Key.”
We encourage you to add music or additional readings that would deepen the meaning of your worship. If you use this liturgy, we’d love to hear from you. Reach Alden at firstname.lastname@example.org and Sue at email@example.com.
The 134th annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis was held February 20-26, 2023 in Israel, where 250 Reform rabbis gathered in person. Here, we share CCAR Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person’s moving address about the direction of the CCAR, the meaning of gathering in Israel during the largest civil protests in history, and the need to speak out for justice in an Israelof our highest aspirations.
February 26, 2023: Parashat T’tzaveh reminds us of the importance of the Ner Tamid, the light that is to burn at all times, throughout the ages. When I was ordained, reaching this milestone of twenty-five years seemed impossibly far away. Today, thinking back to who I was twenty-five years ago, I find myself looking for my Ner Tamid, the light that has remained constant throughout this journey and binds that new rabbi to who I am today.
There’s so much to be grateful for in my most unusual career. These twenty-five years have been incredibly fulfilling, hard, and challenging, never boring. Getting to spend twenty-one years publishing Jewish books for the Reform Movement was an incredible gift. Having had an unusual route through HUC-JIR, not doing the typical year in Israel, and then being part of two different classes, I never had the same sense of “class” or “classmates” that most of you have had, though I love my two classes and congratulate both my class of 1997 on their Doctorate in Divinity from last year, and the class I was ordained with in ’98 on their upcoming Doctorates. But getting to develop deep relationships with colleagues, who have made me a better rabbi, and really a better person, who have become mentors and friends, has been another gift of these twenty-five years.
I decided to become a rabbi because, while I was in grad school for something else, I realized that it was the rabbinate that was aligned with my deepest values. My personal Ner Tamid, that which filled my life with light, was located in the Jewish world. Going to rabbinic school seemed to be the way to fulfill my personal purpose, a way to connect with the ideas and values that were essential to who I was. My road to the rabbinate was not straightforward, and my career has been unexpected and unusual, but I am so grateful to have had the opportunities to learn and grow, to stretch and yes, to struggle, as a rabbi these twenty-five years, and to have, God willing, much more still ahead of me.
These last several years have been so hard, and indeed, there has been much struggle. And yet out of this time, some incredibly generative work has grown. I am very proud of us as a Conference, in the ways that we continue to push ourselves to learn, and to be better than we were the year before. For all this work and more, I want to recognize the CCAR staff who are here with us, and those who we weren’t able to bring this year.
There is so much important work underway, work that continues to make us a stronger and better Conference. The innovative growth in the area of wellness and support, under the leadership of Rabbi Betsy Torop, with Julie Vanek and Rabbi Dusty Klass, and assisted by Ariel Dorvil, is extraordinary. The wealth of classes, trainings, support groups, and gatherings is breathtaking. And of course, Betsy and Julie, together with the Israel Convention Committee, put this extraordinary week together for all of us.
The long awaited release of the Clergy Monologues video and discussion guide, created by the Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate, will soon be available, thanks to the work of Tamar Anitai—only a small part of her portfolio. This will be a great resource to spark important conversations about gender, equity, and bias in your communities. We are grateful to everyone who has helped bring this project to fruition, including the Reform Pay Equity Initiative. If you’re feeling good about this week’s press coverage, that’s also thanks to Tamar.
Our development team, led by Pamela Goldstein, with the support of Samantha Rutter and Sarah Stern, works hard to find ways to fund all the incredible work we’re doing. The needs are ever greater, and none of that is possible without funding. So many of you have helped, both with your own contributions to the Annual Giving Campaign, as well as with introductions to those in your communities who are inspired by what we do to serve rabbis. Thank you for helping us fulfill our mission.
Laurie Pinho, and her team of Jaqui Dellaria and Michael Santiago, keep us on track in more ways than you can imagine. If you’ve interacted with Laurie, you know how lucky we are that she’s part of our executive team, and I’m so glad that Laurie is here with us this week, not only doing more than you can imagine behind the scenes, but also experiencing Israel for the first time.
In a changed landscape, Rabbi Leora Kaye and Rabbi Alan Berlin, assisted by Rodney Dailey, and with Rabbi Dennis Ross advising in the area of interim work, are doing a fabulous job managing rabbinic searches and advising colleagues on their careers. Before Convention, I was on the road visiting rabbis and congregations for about seven weeks. And I’m hearing so much positive feedback about the ways we’re now able to serve rabbis, and the congregations and institutions where rabbis lead. Our new model of two full-time professionals in this department, as well as the shift in the focus of our work within it, is already making a big difference.
It is amazing that we are able to have trained counselors on our staff to support you professionally and personally, including Rabbi Rex Perlmeter and Rabbi Don Rossoff, now joined by Rabbi Dayle Friedman. I’m very sad that Rex will be retiring this summer, but so grateful for all his help in establishing this program and leading the way.
And of course we have done, and are continuing to do, significant and meaningful work in the area of ethics. With the hiring of David Kasakove, our Director of Rabbinic Ethics, and Cara Raich, our Ethics Advisor for Inquiries and Intake, both former attorneys, we now have a whole new CCAR department. I’m very grateful for the support from you as we’ve moved as quickly, as carefully, and as thoughtfully as possible to revise our Ethics Code and update our system. That process is still ongoing, with the Ethics Task Force working on several proposals for change. It’s amazing how far we’ve already come in a short time, with much more on the way.
I have to also add that Rabbi Steve Fox is an amazing emeritus, available when needed and so respectful of boundaries. Especially given the craziness of these past three years, it has been such a gift to have Steve there when needed as an advisor.
And I can’t speak about staff without mentioning my assistant, Rosemarie Cisluycis, whom many of you know as Roe. Roe has no easy task managing me, and I’m grateful for her patience, organizational skills, and sense of humor.
The CCAR couldn’t do anything without our devoted staff team. But it is the partnership with our volunteers that really make the CCAR who we are. I thank everyone who has been part of our work in any capacity. Rav todot. I especially want to take a moment and thank Rabbi Mara Nathan, Rabbi Lev Hernnson, and the whole Convention Committee team. All I can say at this moment is: Wow! Kol hakavod. I am so grateful to all of you! And while I’m on thank yous, we are also grateful to everything J2 did to make this week happen, and look forward to more years of growth and collaboration together.
And our board is truly the backbone of the CCAR. This board, for the last two years under the leadership of Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, and now led by Rabbi Erica Asch, CCAR President, is an active working board. To be on the board is not an honorific, but a real commitment to dig in and move the CCAR forward. I am so grateful for the partnership of Lewis, Erica, and the whole board, and the tremendous commitment they demonstrate to the well-being of the CCAR and our members.
For the last three years, the board has been involved in an additional change process as well. The vice president positions have been rethought and revised to better meet the needs of who the CCAR is today. For example, we now have a vice president of varied rabbinates, in recognition of the many different ways that our members serve as rabbis.
Moreover, beginning with Rabbi Ron Segal’s leadership as board president and then under Lewis Kamrass’s board presidency, the board decided that it was time for a review of the mission, last revised in 2008, and at the ways in which the mission is carried out. At the last in-person meeting in December, after a three-year strategic visioning process of deliberation and study spanning two boards and two presidents, the board passed a new mission for the CCAR, along with a set of core strategies that lay out the top-line ways in which we achieve the mission.
This new mission is: The CCAR supports and strengthens Reform rabbis so that our members, their communities, and Reform Jewish values thrive.
The core strategies, formerly called pillars, are:
Reform Movement Leadership
This revised language is not a radical new vision—rather, it is our organizational Ner Tamid that provides clarity and a reemphasis that reflect the needs and aspirations of the CCAR of today. The vessel may be new, but the light within remains unchanged. I am very proud to be part of an organization that undertook such a deliberate and intentional process, and asked many hard questions in order to arrive at these new articulations of our purpose. This sharper focus will help us in the years to come, as we seek to always stay true to our mission and purpose.
There are also new initiatives in different areas, and I’m going to share one that I’m particularly excited about. When what we lovingly call “the Plaut Torah Commentary” was published in 1981, it was truly a gift to us from those who brought it forward—Plaut, Bamberger, Hallo, and all those who made it happen. Can you imagine our Reform community without this commentary, which was such a pioneering effort in its time? And then there was the revised edition in 2005, out of which came the bar/bat mitzvah booklets that so many of you rely on. And in 2008, The Torah: A Women’s Commentarywas published to tremendous acclaim—a truly groundbreaking work. It was my honor to have worked on all of those projects and to have provided those very necessary and beloved resources to our community. But the scholarship featured in the Plaut is from the ‘70s, and some of it is, well, dated.
Torah is our central sacred text, the light in in our midst. Torah is critical to our mission as Jews and as rabbis. And because we are a forward-thinking Movement, it is now time to plan for our gift to the next generation, the next Reform Torah commentary. This is an ambitious, huge project that is going to take tremendous resources. But indeed, we must do it. There is much that is still to be decided in the months and years to come. But some key decisions have been made. I am delighted to share that Bible scholar Dr. Elsie Stern has been named the chief editor of the project. HUC-JIR Bible scholar Dr. Daniel Fisher-Livne will be working with her. There will be other scholars involved as well, and that list is still being determined, as are many questions about approach, the types of commentary, writers, and so on.
Because this project isn’t ambitious enough already, we are also creating a brand-new translation—the first translation that will truly be a Reform Movement translation and not licensed from another source. That part of the work is already well underway, led by our colleagues Rabbi Janet and Rabbi Shelly Marder, under the supervision of Daniel Fisher-Livne and Elsie Stern. We will be running the first of several pilots this coming fall—this first round will focus on the translation.
And lest you worry, we are not limiting the planning of this commentary to just a print book format. Right now the focus is on developing the content, which can be purposed in many different ways. I am extremely excited if not also a bit daunted about the work that lies ahead on this project. And I will keep you informed as it develops.
So, there is much change happening in many places within the CCAR. In an increasingly complex and uncertain world, we can no longer depend on the ideas, structures, and resources that we assumed were always going to be there, and were always going to meet our needs. Needs change, the topography changes, and we change. Just as each of us evolves and grows during the course of our careers, the CCAR as an organization must rethink those givens, and redetermine our purpose, our goals, and our tools. That is the change process we have been in these past three years—it is exciting, sometimes scary, and even at times daunting, but necessary for the good of the CCAR.
What is visible as the throughline in all this work that I’ve shared this morning are the essential values that undergird and guide all of it in the midst of great complexity. What is there for us to grab onto while the storms surge around us is the clarity of our mission, our values, and our commitment to staying focused on our purpose of serving rabbis, so that rabbis can serve the Jewish people. This clarity of purpose is our Ner Tamid, the light that continues to burn brightly even as change swirls around it.
And speaking of complexity, I can’t stand here today, in Tel Aviv, and not also address where we are and what we’re doing here at this complicated moment in the history of this Land, this place with which we each have our own personal relationship and unique story.
My Israel story goes back to 1973, fifty years ago, when I came home from Yom Kippur services. I was nine years old. I had gone to services with my mother while my father stayed home to watch football. And as we walked into the room where he sat, the game was interrupted by breaking news. What I still remember so clearly was my mother crying out: “They’re doing it to us again!”
That was the day that I learned that there was a Jewish country called Israel. I’m sure I had heard about it before, but I hadn’t paid much attention. My parents were not Zionists. They were busy taking part in the great story of making it in America, my father the son of Russian socialist immigrants, and my mother a daughter of long-time American Jews of German ancestry on one side and second generation European jumble on the other. They had never been to Israel. It just wasn’t in their consciousness, that is until it was on the news, being besieged.
I had no idea what my mother was talking about, but as she cried, she explained to me that Israel was under attack. And I was confused—confused that my mother was so upset about a war taking place across the world, and confused as to why, if there was a Jewish country, we didn’t live there.
That day changed the trajectory of my life, because I decided then and there that when I was old enough, I was going to live in Israel. And I began to read about it voraciously over the next years, biographies, novels, history. I was fascinated, in particular, with the idea of the kibbutz, and couldn’t wait until I was old enough to go live on one.
As soon as I could go to Israel, I did. At nineteen, I set off for a year on Kibbutz Tzora, taking part in the late NFTY college program, CAY, as I know some of you also did. That year had a huge impact on my life: because of that year, my children are half Israeli. I then returned to Israel for several years after college, living in Jerusalem and studying art in Tel Aviv.
It was while living in Israel that I really became an adult, and it was also where I decided not to become a rabbi, because while living in Israel, I realized that I could have a rich, dynamic Jewish life without needing to become a Jewish professional—a very healthy realization.
All of this is to say that Israel is deeply woven into my personal history. And in this land so deeply seeped in the past, there is something about being here that conjures up so much about who we have been as individuals, and as a people, and who we may still become.
As I stand here today celebrating my twenty-five years in the rabbinate, having reaffirmed that choice eventually after my initial decision to not go into the rabbinate, I no longer feel that sense of bright connection to Israel portrayed on the Bloomingdale’s poster in 1979. My relationship with Israel is much more nuanced today, certainly more than it was when I was nine or fifteen and had not yet ever been here, but also more complicated than when I was in my twenties and living here. I still have a love for Israel, a fondness and a connection, but there’s a different comfort level than I once had. I struggle with how to reconcile the Israel of my dreams and of our collective aspirations: the Israel of poetry and medical miracles; of art and innovation and green valleys full of anemones; the Israel of progressive values and generous hospitality, with all the ways in which Israel can be infuriating, opposed to our shared values, denying of pluralism, equality, and democracy. How do we express our outrage and disappointment, or as we heard during the demonstrations in Tel Aviv, the sense of bushah, shame? How do we stay engaged with this country that feels less and less welcoming, less and less connected to who we are or what we want to be, and yet still calls to us?
I know that our partners here in Israel share our highest aspirations and hopes. And I want to acknowledge them—our friends at IMPJ, IRAC and all the Reform rabbis here in MARAM. We should all be proud of their incredible work, and grateful for what they do every day: advancing pluralism, fighting against discrimination and oppression, standing up for civil rights of minorities, working toward peace and co-existence, and civil society, fighting for accountability, and doing the tachlis, often thankless work of building Reform Judaism in Israel. The work you are involved in here on the ground every day brings the light of our shared core values into the darkness, and provides hope. And we thank you for your help with putting this week together.
Being in Israel is a reminder of what is essential to us as Reform rabbis. As rabbis, we can’t just engage with Israel as the Disneyland of Judaism. Israel can’t just be the place to practice our Hebrew on cab drivers, to stock up on Judaica, and to enjoy rugelach from Marzipan. We can’t romanticize Israel as the place where we can experience “authentic” Jewish life. We also have to speak out for our most deeply held values just as we do at home. Just as we speak out for justice at home, we have to speak out for justice in Israel. Just as we believe in speaking up for the powerless at home, we must pursue that in our relationship to Israel as well. Just as we engage in the work of racial justice at home, we must hold that as a value here too. As people who love Judaism, the Jewish people, and Israel, we must do our part to keep the Ner Tamid of our highest values burning here too.
Moreover, we have to be willing to have difficult conversations with each other about Israel without falling back on accusation and polarization. We have to learn to live with disagreement and be open to different perspectives and narratives. We have to be able to move beyond terms like “pro-Israel” and “anti-Israel”—the reality is much more complex than those two binary positions. We have real enemies out there: witness on the one side our experience at the Kotel, or the “Day of Hate” in the United States. The energy we spend on demonizing each other about how we interact with Israel is a distraction, a waste of our resources. We have to get comfortable with having a large, open tent, here in the CCAR, in our home communities, and in our families. Gone are the days of Israel, The Dream. Israel, the Reality, is complicated, often antithetical to the very values we hold dear, and frankly, often unwelcoming to who we are.
But that doesn’t mean we have to reject those whose perspectives doesn’t align with ours, or give up on the Israel we believe is still possible. We have to keep learning, we have to keep listening, and we have to keep speaking out.
When we originally planned this Convention, of course we had no idea what a challenging moment this was going to be in Israel. But here we are. As rabbis, we understand nuance and complexity. We can hold the contradiction of today’s difficult truth, that we object to what the new government is proposing to do in regard to civil rights, human rights, pluralism, the judiciary, and so much more, and we can still believe in the potential of Israel, an ideal not yet reached but worth striving for.
My Israel story today is not what it was in 1973, or in 2003, and neither is my rabbinic story. All of our stories keep changing, as we keep changing and as realities keep changing. Earlier this week, Merav Michaeli reminded us of the famous quote from Gold Meir, that as Jews we can’t afford to be pessimists. Rather, our job as Jews is to be eternal optimists. What is unchanging in the midst of it all is hope, the light that flickers but does not go out at our core. As rabbis, our job is to speak out against the injustices of today, while keeping in sight the potential of a better tomorrow. No matter how hopeless things seem, no matter how grim the current reality, our job is to nurture the Ner Tamid within us, to keep that light of hope for a better future alive even in, or especially in, the darkest of times.
With the World Zionist Congress 2020 elections underway, and a robust slate of Reform candidates on the Reform slate, American Jews have the ability to vote for the Jewish future of Israel and help set policies regarding key institutions that support global Jewish life and which allocate nearly $1 billion annually to support Israel and World Jewry and to invest in a Zionism that sustains an Israel that is Jewish, democratic, and a free society that upholds equality of religion, gender, race, and ethnicity.
Here, we share the thoughts of Matityahu Sperber—one of the many diverse members of the Reform Jewish community in Israel—who shares his desire for liberal Jewish Democratic values to remain at the heart of the Jewish State.
I grew up in and was an active youth member of Temple Israel of Jamaica in Queens, New York. I was president of the youth group and president of LIFTY, but the most significant experiences of my Jewish/Zionist education were as a camper, staff, and faculty member at Kutz Camp, and the year I spent as a student at the Hebrew University. There, I was profoundly influenced by my studies with a recent new immigrant, Rabbi David Hartman. It was during that year that I made the decision to make aliyah and to make my contribution to the development of the Jewish Democratic State. I hoped then, and still hope today, that the liberal, progressive Jewish values that were so much a part of my Jewish upbringing would find their place in the developing State of Israel and that I could make a small contribution to that process.
I was privileged to be able
to be part of the original settlement group to Kibbutz Yahel: Garin Arava, and
arrived there together with my wife Laura in 1977. Together we joined with the
Israeli garinim in a bold attempt to
create a living and all-encompassing community that would be based on those
same Jewish, liberal, democratic, and socialistic values. Add to this the
challenges of creating a new, agriculturally-based settlement in the distant
Arava desert, and we had clearly signed on for a major challenge. We are still struggling to grow and to
attract people, who share our vision of a modern Reform Jewish Community, but
much has been accomplished and we are optimistic regarding Yahel’s future.
Most of my energy has been
spent within the Yahel community, developing it both socially, spiritually, and
economically. But, I have also found the time and opportunity to make my
contribution in the region—the Southern Arava, as well as in JAFI, the JNF,
IRAC, and the Israeli Reform Movement. I believe deeply that these
organizations represent the best of those same liberal Jewish Democratic values
that I want so much to be at the heart of the Jewish State.
In the last year most of my
energy in the Reform Movement has been spent leading the Movement’s efforts to
create its first permanent summer camp facility with year round programming. I
know from experience how much this can contribute to the development of the lay
and rabbinic leadership that is needed to strengthen the Israel Reform
The last five years have
found me in the trenches fighting the good fight in the halls and board rooms
of the KKL/JNF. From my position as the chair of Himanuta, the company in
charge of all land purchasing, the management of $150 million dollars of rental
properties, and the development of $1.8 billion dollars of real estate, I have
a unique opportunity to bring our Movement’s values to these important
The issues relevant to the
Reform Movement that have kept me busy include:
Use of properties owned by Himanuta in East Jerusalem and the old city.
Properties occupied by Bedouin in the Negev and Galilee.
Limiting the purchasing of land to areas that are part of the widest consensus of the Jewish People.
Use of Himanuta’s and the KKL’s properties for the benefit of all of Israel’s citizens.
As Israel has continued its movement to the right in the last five years, the battles in the KKL between our center/left coalition, (which has a small majority), and the right wing have become much more intense. Unfortunately, in the last year, rare are the moments when all the representatives function together in the name of all of the Jewish people. I hope and believe that the results of the current election to the World Zionist Congress will leave the Reform Movement in a position to join with the other liberal and progressive political forces to maintain and strengthen Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State that we can all be proud of.
Below, read an excerpt by Rabbi Noa Sattath and Rabbi Judith Schindler, the book’s consulting editors.
“Overcoming the Loneliness We Feel: A Way Forward Together”
Rabbi Noa Sattath, Israel
Progressive activists in Israel are facing tremendous
challenges—hostile governments, complex bureaucracies, and ongoing conflict.
Over the past decade we have been feeling increasingly isolated. The right wing in Israel receives massive, growing support from Jewish (and Evangelical) constituencies in North America. While this conservative support is growing exponentially, support from American liberals is declining. The majority of the North American Jewish community has liberal political and religious views and self-identifies as “pro-Israel.”1 Yet American Jewish support for progressive activities in Israel is diminishing. With current extreme anti-democratic trends in Israel,2 many Jews are struggling to balance their liberal political and religious positions with their support for Israel. Too often, this struggle leads to liberals disengaging from Israel and Israeli progressive activists and organizations losing support—moral, political, and financial support.
In order to break the isolation, I believe we need to redefine
the meaning of “pro-Israel.” If “pro-Israel” only means embracing every Israeli
government policy, too many liberal Jews will not be able to identify
themselves as such. We need to define “pro-Israel” as supporting Israel’s
Declaration of Independence, supporting the Israel that lives up to the dreams
of its founders, and supporting those Israeli organizations and activists that
share our progressive values and work to protect them.
Anti-democratic trends around the world use fear to enable
national leaders to gain more power, incite people against minorities, and
attack gender equality—all in an attempt to sustain or restore a power
structure that will preserve the supremacy of old elites. These trends appear
not only in Israel, but in North America, Europe, and elsewhere around the
Recent years have put extensive demands on us progressives
on both sides of the ocean as we have strived to advance our Jewish vision of
just societies. Facing tremendous backlash, we have had to work in more
focused, strategic, and innovative ways.
In Israel, we have experienced this anti-democratic trend
for almost a decade. Our opponents on the Israeli right are working to build an
illiberal, racist Israel that continues to occupy land on which millions of
Palestinians live. They do so with the support of elements within the North
American Jewish community, support of which the progressive camp can only
dream. The settlements are backed by North American Jewish donors, and almost
no settlement could survive without North American support. With billions of
dollars, Sheldon Adelson finances the most widely read newspaper in Israel,
which is distributed for free and supports the current government positions.
Our political opponents are working in Israel and around the world with North
American Jewish support—while portraying and imposing Jewish orthodoxy as the
only authentic Jewish religious expression.
The majority of the North American Jewish community, which
is liberal both politically and religiously, is increasingly pulling back from
Israel. It is quite overwhelming to compare the large impact of right-wing
North American groups to the decreasing impact of their liberal counterparts.
It is one of the core reasons for the continued decrease of power of the
progressive camp. It is a vicious cycle: because significant elements within
the North American community increase their support of the anti-democratic
camp, the Israeli government takes more positions and actions against the
egalitarian, democratic camp. In response, North American liberal Jews withdraw
even further, thus strengthening the anti-democratic camp, which then leads to
more hawkish Israeli policies, and so on. As progressive activists in Israel,
we sometimes feel abandoned by our North American brothers and sisters. We must
break this cycle.
There are two narratives of the situation in Israel and
Palestine that dominate the discourse in North America. One is the narrative of
Israel’s public diplomacy: Israel can do no wrong; the IDF is the most moral
army in the world; there is no solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict;
the stagnation of the process toward a two-state solution is the fault of the
Palestinians; and the conflict within Israel is either nonexistent or not
important. Reform Jews, and especially younger Reform Jews, are buying into
this narrative less and less.
The second narrative claims that there is a huge moral
problem with Israel’s oppressive treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and
Gaza and that the only appropriate response is boycott, divestment, and
sanctions (BDS). Reform Jews, and especially younger Reform Jews, are buying
into this narrative more and more.
Our movement works for social justice in North America and
Israel. It is up to us to build a third narrative—one that acknowledges the
moral challenges, and one that is determined to arrive at a solution building
on a more intentional and strategic partnership between North American and Israeli
As liberal Zionists, our goal is for our society to be “a
light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6). We aspire to achieve the
prophetic Jewish vision of a repaired world and a just society. We want more
than to be measured in comparison to our neighboring countries or to other countries
violating human rights.
Discussing social justice questions means to scrutinize and
analyze complex power structures, traditions, and belief systems. As demonstrated
in the chapters of this book, there are multiple and multilayered social
justice questions to be discussed both in and in regard to Israel. Many North
American Jews pull away from Israel because they are disappointed by its
government policies—and because they shy away from an overwhelmingly
complicated issue. Speaking about addressing the social justice questions in
Israel, one cannot hope for simple, instant solutions. But this must not
Many progressives in North America have a nuanced understanding of gender equality and racial justice and feel a deep commitment to work toward the establishment of these values in Israel. They understand that this will require sustained, long-term efforts. We, together with our North American Reform Movement, are looking at systems of injustice that will take immense labor and time to transform. It will take decades. However, every time we cannot provide any answer to the question “What do we do about Israel?” we feed into a growing sense of frustration and disconnect. We need to find a balance between implementing the necessary short-term fixes and our work toward longer-term structural and institutional change.
Rabbi Judith Schindler, United States
The challenge of Lilla Watson, Aboriginal activist and artist, in doing the work of justice, often echoes in my mind. “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time,” she said. “But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”3 Our redemption as American Jews and as Israelis is tied to one another.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence marked a monumental
step toward redemption. After millennia of exile, Jews finally have an
internationally recognized home. The Declaration of Independence calls upon the
Diaspora to “rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel” in their immigration and
upbuilding, and to support them in their struggle to realize that “redemption.”
As American Jews and Israelis, we celebrate that redemption
and the greatest political freedom that we have known since our last time of
sovereignty almost two thousand years ago. The achievements of our communities
inspire awe. Yet we labor tirelessly and continuously to ensure justice,
equality, and safety for ourselves and for our neighbors. We do so because the
memories of being the oppressed “other”—victims of discrimination and
violence—have remained an integral part of the Jewish collective consciousness.
Those of us working for social justice in American cities
are confronting a harsh reality of increasing anti-Zionism. As I teach about
Judaism and address social issues—from refugees to racism, from countering
antisemitism to expanding affordable housing—I have learned to expect questions
or comments about Israel and its treatment of Palestinians. Sometimes the
inquiry is motivated by a desire to increase understanding and engage in
dialogue. Sometimes the remark is accusatory: “How can you stand for justice
and stand for Israel?” Sometimes the statement is said on a stage at a rally,
vigil, or event and before hundreds or thousands. The phrase “Israel’s
oppression of Palestinians” is woven into a litany of other social wrongs,
leaving me feeling both defensive and wounded.
As Americans, we regularly face a decontextualized
condemnation of Israel in our newspapers, on our social media feeds, and in the
streets where we strive to support others. Admired American social justice
authors and leaders such as Michelle Alexander, Alice Walker, and Angela Davis
publicly decry the Palestinian plight, often based on an unbalanced or
one-sided assessment. We struggle to respond effectively.
What can we say to underscore Israel’s complex history and capture our disagreement with some of Israel’s policies, while still supporting the Jewish state we love? What can we do to affirm our commitment to global social justice without fueling the fires of anti-Zionism or antisemitism that threaten us all? Former member of Knesset and famous Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky offered clarity for our dialogue in noting the three d’s of the new antisemitism of which we need to be continually cognizant: demonization, double standards, and delegitimization.4 While criticizing Israel is not in itself antisemitic, antisemitism often uses criticism of the Israeli government as concealment for its true intentions. As liberal Zionists, we see the moral crisis in the ongoing Israeli military presence in the West Bank, and we seek to bring peace and justice to both Israelis and Palestinians. We can hold both these complex truths in our activism.
The attack on equality in Israel is not only aimed at the non-Jew; it is also aimed at non-orthodox Jews. In November 2017, when images of our Reform Jewish American and Israeli leaders being assaulted for carrying Torah scrolls to the Western Wall plaza appeared in our media, a Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter called me for an interview and tried to badger me into saying that Israel’s leaders had gone too far and that there are limits to our relationship and support. My response was the opposite. In those times when Israel’s government devalues us as liberal Jews or promotes policies that contradict the pluralism and equality we demand, we need to double down on our work—amplify our voices, exert our influence, and deepen our Israel-American partnership. Just as we North American Jews support Israel, we appeal to our Israeli sisters and brothers to support us. We need a deep and mutual relationship.
As Rabbi Noa Sattath so beautifully articulated, we need a
new narrative—not the right-wing or orthodox narrative of ethnocentrism, and
not the BDS narrative of isolation and alienation, but a narrative that
acknowledges the moral crisis in Israel and advocates for engagement to create
change. Just as social justice activists understand systemic racism and the
fact that these structures were created over centuries, the Israeli systems of
inequality were created over time. It will take time to dismantle them—policy
by policy. We as social activists understand that change starts with story and
North American progressive Zionists feel alone in their
defense of Israel on our city streets and in our daily encounters. Israeli
progressive Zionists feel abandoned by their North American counterparts. We
need not feel alone; we can work together in partnership.
Last month, I had the great privilege of
worshiping and sharing Shabbat dinner with friends at Congregation Bavat Ayin
in Rosh HaAyin, Israel and in the home of Rabbi Ayala and Avi Miron.
This visit was not my
first. In the fall of 2016, ARZA World-Daat
arranged for members of Congregation B’nai Israel to worship at Bavat Ayin, and
enjoy home hospitality for Shabbat dinner, during our congregation’s Israel
trip in the fall of 2016. We have continued our relationship in a program
called Domim, which means, “similar,” a pairing of Reform congregations
in Israel and North America. In the fall of 2017, on the first anniversary of
our visit, donors from our congregation sponsored Bavat Ayin’s Selichot program;
and I returned to Bavat Ayin in the summers of 2017 and 2018.
In the coming spring, I
plan to make a grant from my discretionary fund to sponsor the congregation’s
Jerusalem Day celebration, featuring the art of Michal Memit Vorka, who
“immigrated to Israel at the tender age of two through Operation Moses.” On
Jerusalem Day at Bavat Ayin, “She will introduce her art as well as her story,
relate to her Jewish-Ethiopian traditions and discuss the challenges that
Ethiopian-Jews are meeting in their encounter with Israeli society. Since
2004[,] Jerusalem Day has also been recognized as a Memorial Day for around
4,000 Ethiopian Jews who tragically perished on their way to Israel, while
striving to fulfill their decades long dream to reach [Jerusalem].”[i]
I share these details
because we in North America can get the impression that Reform Judaism in
Israel consumes all of its energy fighting for its rights in the face of
ultra-Orthodox, government-supported discrimination. Those struggles are
important. However, the truth about our Israeli Reform partners is much more
complex and inspiring. Despite all the challenges they face, the Israel
Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism has been growing by leaps and
bounds. Just as important, my Israeli colleagues and their partners in lay
leadership are laser-focused on creativity and deep meaning. For example, this
year, I was privileged to worship from a pilot edition of our Israel Movement’s
next prayer book, edited by Professor Dalia Marx and Dr. Alona Lisitsa of
Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. This prayer book is informed by the deep
spirituality of our Movement in Israel and even by some of the stylistic
innovations of our own American Reform prayer books.
While many people will tell
you that Israeli Jews are either “religious,” meaning Orthodox, or “secular,”
the reality is that “[Rabbi Gilad] Kariv, who heads the Israeli Movement for
Reform and Progressive Judaism,] likes to cite recent surveys that show as many
as 12 to 13 percent of Israelis Jews identifying as either Reform or
Perhaps more importantly, “In 2013 36% of Israeli Jews, or nearly 2 million
individuals, reported that they had participated in one or more Reform or
Conservative events.”[iii] While our Movement hoped
to establish fifty congregations in Israel by 2020, its leader, Rabbi Gilad
Gariv, celebrates that the goal was accomplished several years earlier.”[iv] Hebrew Union
College-Jewish Institute of Religion has ordained more than 100 rabbis at its
Jerusalem campus, by far the largest number of non-Orthodox Jewish clergy in
the Jewish State.
Laurence Wolf, who has studied the Reform Movement in Israel, has described participation in ways that will sound familiar to us: “While average attendance for Shabbat evening services is usually modest, … attendance for holidays…is high, as secular [sic] Jews seek more meaningful spiritual experiences. For example, in 2013 over 1000 people participated in Yom Kippur services at Yotzma in Modi’in, [a Jerusalem suburb,] many of them standing outside the small synagogue and participating in the service through loudspeakers in an expansive meadow.”[v]
While we most often hear about the struggle for egalitarian worship at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, which is important, marriage is a more significant flash-point for Israelis. Wolf writes, “Young people are increasingly resisting marriage ceremonies led by Orthodox rabbis. A 2015 survey found that 49% of all Jews (and 80% of secular Jews) did not want Orthodox marriage…17% [wanted] a Reform or Conservative marriage.”[vi] Despite the fact that Israeli law does not recognize the weddings they officiate, Reform rabbis were already officiating at more than 1000 weddings per year in Israel by 2013.[vii]
Funerals in military cemeteries were also at issue until a recent development. Imagine a grieving family, not at all Orthodox, being told that only an Orthodox rabbi may officiate at their loved one’s funeral. Often, these rabbis will not permit women and men to stand together at the funeral as families, allow women to offer a eulogy or even to say Kaddish for an immediate family member. And remember, we’re talking about military funerals, often for young people who have given their lives in the service of the country. Only last month did the Israel Defense Force relent and announce that Reform rabbis may officiate at funerals in Israel’s military cemeteries, a change precipitated by pressure from Israel’s High Court of Justice, thanks to Hiddush, an organization that agitates for religious liberty in the Jewish state.[viii]
As the Israeli Reform
Movement’s reach and popularity have grown, its detractors have become more
threatened by it. The Orthodox establishment is working harder than ever to
curtail our Movement’s rights. The greatest damage would be done by diminishing
the authority of Israel’s Supreme Court, as proposed by Prime Minister
Netanyahu and his prospective coalition partners, including the ultra-Orthodox
American Jews can make a
difference. The representatives of our largest American Jewish organizations –
Jewish Federations of North America, the Union for Reform Judaism, and AIPAC –
can, often do, and must continue to insist on equal rights for all Israelis.
This winter, we shall all have the opportunity to make our voices heard in
World Zionist Organization elections, in which each and every adult Jew worldwide
has the right to vote.
My synagogue, Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas celebrates that we are domim, similar, and partners of Congregation Bavat Ayin – like us, an isolated, middle-sized Reform congregation – and continue to contribute to that partnership. We can, and we must, remain strong, strengthening one another, across oceans, but very close to our hearts.
— Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.
[i] Kehillat Bavat Ayin, “Recreating Torah: A Program for Jewish-cultural study,” undated document transmitted from Rabbi Ayala Miron to Rabbi Barry Block via email, July 15, 2019. [ii] Judy Maltz, “The Reform Leader Running to Be Israel’s First non-Orthodox Rabbi in the Knesset,” Ha-aretz, August 8, 2019. [iii] Laurence Wolf, “The Reform Movement in Israel: Past Present and Future,” The Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, University of Maryland, July 6, 2015, p. 4. [iv] Rabbi Gilad Kariv, speaking at CCAR-MARAM Yom Iyyun, July 8, 2019. [v] Wolf, p. 5. [vi] Ibid. [vii] Ibid. [viii] Anna Ahronheim and Ilanit Chernick, “IDF to Allow Reofrm Rabbis to Officiate at Military Funerals,” The Jerusalem Post, July 4, 2019.
I write this as I am returning to Chicago from a week spent with a number of rabbinical colleagues in Israel. The purpose of the trip was to expose our group to the creativity and innovations that are occurring in Israel, as well as to consider the continued societal and political challenges that Israel faces. The trip was sponsored by the Central Conference of American Rabbis and run by the same travel agency I have been using for congregational trips to Israel since 1998, Da’at/Arzaworld Tours. It was led by Rabbi Hara Person and Rabbi Don Goor. Th title was Israel: Innovation, Change and Creativity.
Highlights of the trip included lectures on how Israel is becoming a leader in the field of hi-tech. We also visited hi-tech centers in Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion University in the Negev. We met social entrepreneurial start-ups like Soapy, a company that provides hygienic soap and water to schools in India (and also sells their systems to McDonalds, KFC and Subway in the States). We learned how finally Israel is taking recycling seriously. We visited a program for abandoned children that gives them a beautiful place to live and a second chance at life.
We also met with Rabbi Noa Sattath, the director of the religious action center of Israel, an institution devoted to fighting for the rights of liberal Jews in Israel so that they can enjoy government support as well as the support given to the ultra-orthodox. We met with a West Bank settler and his dialogue partner, a Palestinian, who has suffered greatly from the occupation of the West Bank. These two men, part of a group called Roots, are not meeting to seek peace so much as to seek a way to live without violence and to speak of a new paradigm for achieving a sense of equality in the relationship between Jews and Palestinians.
On a cultural level we enjoyed delicious Israeli cuisine, tasted Israeli wine and even whiskey, visited the newly renovated museum for the Jewish experience in the Diaspora, and enjoyed watching the highly rated Amos Kolben modern dance troupe of Jerusalem.
Unlike my home in Chicago, weather was beautiful and the country was humming with excitement due to the upcoming national elections. While we were there, the former Chief of Staff of the army, Benny Ganz, announced his intention to compete for Prime Minister. His speech was seen as electrifying and game changing.
To sum up, I would say the mood in Israel is generally optimistic. People feel very much alive and excited about the future. The majority would prefer a future without having to police Palestinians and their lands but there is little hope in that regard that such a peace plan will come soon. Indeed, people do not speak of peace. They speak of lack of hostility and making some kind of agreement. Israelis also would like to see the Orthodox establishment be more tolerant of non-Orthodox denominations like Reform Judaism, but the work is slow and will take a lot of money and time to convince the government that liberal voices need to be heard.
On Friday night we visited the amazing Reform synagogue outside of Jerusalem, Mevaseret Zion and their youth group led service (on the topic of feminism) was inspiring and could have fit right at home in NFTY.
Reform Judaism is alive and well in Israel. There are over 100 Reform rabbis practicing. Their jobs are not easy but they are bringing our religious values to a secular public in need of such a spiritual and relevant perspective.
I cannot promise that any trip to January will have such great weather (although I can probably guarantee that the rates will be lower than the summer and the weather better than Chicago). But I can promise you will find in Israel a vibrant, complicated, heterogeneous country that offers experiences for Jews and non-Jews alike that will challenge you, delight you and sustain you. The other rabbis were a joy to be with and our guide, Yishay, was outstanding. I am so grateful to Da’at and the CCAR for offering us this trip.
Rabbi Edwin Goldberg serves Temple Sholom of Chicago.
The following is the response of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, issued by our colleague Rabbi Gilad Kariv, after the police interrogation of Rabbi Dubi Hayon of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement. We stand in support of our Reform and Conservative colleagues in Israel against these outrageous and shameful actions, and reaffirm our longstanding belief that the stranglehold of the Orthodox monopoly in Israel must be broken.
At 5:30 am this morning: Rabbi Dubi Hayoun, Rabbi and leader of the Masorti Conservative community in Haifa, woke up to police officers hammering on his front door, questioning him on the “charge” of holding a chuppah (marriage ceremony) based on a complaint filed by the rabbinical court of Haifa. Today, Rabbi Hayoun will speak at the President Rivlin’s event in honor of Tisha b’Av, alongside key figures and leaders from the entire spectrum of Jewish streams. Never before has the battle waged over the spirit of Judaism in Israel been more pronounced.
The Reform Movement in Israel is outraged at the interrogation of Rabbi Hayoun, of the Conservative Movement.
The summons of Rabbi Hayoun to a police investigation is a disgrace! We are certain that this investigation will not bear fruit – Rabbi Hayoun, along with hundreds of other Reform and Conservative Rabbis, hold weddings in Israel every day. However, the very essence of this investigation is crossing a red line! We demand that the Attorney General intervene immediately and order an end to this outrageous investigation which is not only against Rabbi Hayoun, but against hundreds of Conservative and Reform rabbis in Israel, and against the tens of thousands of Israeli couples who chose them to officiate their Jewish ceremony of marriage.
This investigation is yet another expression of the aggressive behavior of the rabbinical establishment in Israel, supported by government authorities, against Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism. We will not be deterred by this behavior, and we believe that we will eventually succeed in breaking up the Orthodox monopoly on religious affairs in Israel.
We will continue to officiate at marriages of marry thousands of couples each year. We will continue to accompany tens of thousands of Israeli families in moments of sorrow and joy. We will continue to fight this ugly wave of fanaticism. And we will continue to fulfill our promise as expressed in Hatikvah our national anthem: “Lihyot Am Hofshi b’Artzenu” – to be a free people in our country.
Later today there will be demonstrations in Jerusalem and Haifa against the Orthodox chief rabbinate monopoly on marriage.
We join in solidarity with our Israeli colleagues and with the whole Israeli Reform Movement in opposing the Nation State Law just passed last night. The following is a statement on the law from our Israeli colleagues Rabbi Gilad Kariv and Rabbi Noa Sattath.
Friends and Partners Shalom,
Last night the Knesset passed the final version of the “Nation State” Law.
As all of you are aware, over the past weeks and especially the last few days we have organized and led the intense public and political “battle” to prevent this law from passing. Many of you aided us in this effort and we want to express our deepest gratitude. We believe that our efforts put Reform and Progressive Jews in the forefront of the struggle for Israel’s democratic and Jewish values based on our Zionist and Democratic world view.
During this public struggle we stated clearly that the “Nation State” Law can actually help us in legal claims regarding recognition of the non- Orthodox streams of Judaism from the very fact of the statement in the law that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. At the same time we nonetheless fiercely opposed the law because of the worsening of relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel, and because the law does not mention Israel’s Declaration of Independence, or the principle of equality and democratic values of the state of Israel.
It is important to note that the version of the law that was ratified by the Knesset is very different from the original versions that were proposed. It does not include any statement in which the Jewish character of the state is more important than the democratic character (the democratic character of Israel is anchored in the Basic Law of Human Dignity and Freedom passed in the 90s). The law also does not include a statement giving an official status of Jewish law (halacha) as a source of inspiration, nor does the law give itself a higher status than the other Basic Laws. Additionally instead of the original line that stated clearly that people could be prevented from joining community settlements on the basis of religion, ethnicity, or nationality, the law now only makes a general statement in support of Jewish settlement as a national value that the nation should promote.
All of these points reduce the negativity of the original versions, but it’s still important to state that we feel that this is a terrible and unnecessary law which erodes the necessary balances among the core values of the state of Israel.
In the coming days we will distribute a detailed summery regarding the law including the lessons we have learned in the process of the struggle against the law, and thoughts regarding the future. We are convinced that our Zionist, Progressive and Democratic Voice is needed now more than ever to be heard. We believe that even after the law is passed, we should express our disappointment and concern to Israeli ambassadors and representatives throughout the world. It’s very important that Jerusalem be made aware that the passing of the law leaves a heavy burden on Israeli society and world Jewry and that large numbers of the Jewish people in Israel and around the world are deeply worried about erosion of Israel’s core values.
We want to thank all those who helped and continue to participate in the effort, both our professionals and our volunteer leadership in Israel and around the world.
Pastor Todd Buurstra, Dr. Ali Chaudry, and I have been making strides together for some time now. Moved by the travel ban that singled out Muslims for discrimination, we organized a prayer vigil that brought together a community of communities representing nine different religions to stand together against hate. A few months ago, after the president announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Accords on climate change, we held an interfaith teach-in on environmental responsibility that included 10 different religious traditions.
Recently, the three of us were blessed to make pilgrimage to the Holy Land — to walk in the footsteps of the forebears of our three faiths, bear witness to the truths that each of us holds dear, and reflect on the greater truth of the One God that unites us all.
Pastor Todd and I shared our journey with the CCAR Interfaith Clergy Mission to Israel, which included six rabbis, six Christian clergy, and one imam; Dr. Ali joined Rabbi Marc Kline on an Interfaith Clergy Mission with the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ. Though these two missions were organized under different auspices, their itineraries were so similar that it is possible to speak of them as if we had shared the same experience.
Upon reflection, Pastor Todd, Dr. Ali, and I agreed that the most powerful aspects of our journey fell into three categories: Witnessing Faith, Witnessing Hope, and Witnessing Modern Israel — Jews, Arabs, and Palestinians.
I have visited the holy places of other faiths before, but I must confess that such encounters were primarily of academic or historical interest. This time, the experience was remarkably different. Standing side by side with Christian and Muslim friends for whom these sites were part of their living-faith narrative made them come alive with emotion and drama. We were witnessing each other’s faith as we listened to the stories of events that happened in each place and saw them through each other’s eyes.
We spoke openly and soulfully about what these events and places mean to us, how they have shaped us, and also of our struggles to reconcile the contradictions inherent in religious symbolism. I noted the discomfort of my Christian colleagues as they watched coreligionists kissing the burial slab of Jesus. And they saw my distress at how the Western Wall has become a place of exclusion, division, and even violence against those who don’t hew to ultra-Orthodox interpretations. The more we learned and engaged in heartfelt dialogue, the more we returned to the same mantra to describe what we were observing, intoning like a chorus the words, “It’s complicated!” But through all the complexity there was the deep emotion of witnessing each other’s faith that touched our souls. Through the differences we saw an illuminating similarity shining through, and that was the shared experience of God’s presence in the world and in our lives.
News reports from Israel and the Middle East depict a bleak reality of bitter conflict and discord. Rarely do the media offer reason for optimism. But there is much more to the picture than hatred and violent struggle. There is also cooperation, coexistence, understanding, and even loving fellowship between Jews and Arabs, Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It may not make the headlines, but it is there to be seen, and it is cause for hope.
One shining example is the work of an organization called Roots, which was founded by former extremists Rabbi Hannan Schlesinger and Ali Abu Awad. Hannan is a West Bank settler who once believed that the entire Land of Israel was given by God to the Jewish people. He had never met a Palestinian face to face. In fact, he says they were invisible to him. Then, one day, he had a transformational encounter with a Palestinian neighbor that compelled him to understand and embrace the truth that there is another people, the Palestinians, who have a legitimate claim to the same land and a right to their own sovereign state.
We met Hannan along with a young Palestinian man from Bethlehem named Noor Awad. Noor and his family have experienced great hardship under Israeli occupation, and many of his friends have embraced the path of militant resistance. But Noor, too, was moved by a human encounter with his neighbors, Jewish settlers whom he has embraced as partners in the pursuit of peace and reconciliation. At this stage, Roots is promoting dialogue and human understanding, but they realize that this is a precursor to the quest for a political solution that will involve two states that share one homeland.
Witnessing Modern Israel — Jews, Arabs, and Palestinians
From afar, the Middle East takes on a mythic quality. It seems more like a seething cauldron of powerful forces that threatens to overflow and scorch the earth than the actual pastoral landscape of hills and valleys, verdant vineyards, bustling cities, and diverse people living colorful lives day by day. The land of the Bible, the place where Jesus lived and taught and the site of Muhammad’s rise to heaven, is also a thriving modern country inhabited by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It is not a place only of dreams deferred, but also one of dreams fulfilled, though certainly more so for the Jewish people than the Palestinians. But here, too, lies a source of hope. Israel is a model of a people dispersed and despised returning home to build a nation where they can be self-reliant.
That quest has come at a cost. Security is a constant challenge, as we saw when we visited the northern border, where threats loom large from Hezbollah and ISIS in Syria and Lebanon. Standing on the Golan Heights, it was clear to all why Israel had to take control of the hills from which Syrian artillery rained down on Jewish communities in the valley below from 1948-1967.
Similarly, one cannot fully understand what Israel means to the Jewish people unless one goes to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. It brings home with the most painful clarity why the Jewish people believe in the necessity of a sovereign Jewish state. One of the most meaningful moments of our journey was the tearful embrace of a Christian colleague that conveyed to me the depth of that understanding.
Yes, Israel is a complicated reality. Yes, there is so much more to do to realize the promise of peace and dignity for all the people who are destined to share that holy land. But we, three faith leaders from Central New Jersey on a pilgrimage to the roots of our respective faiths, discovered the greater truth of all our faiths that was forged on that sacred soil — that we are all children of the One God, sisters and brothers who must learn to love one another and share the gifts that God has given us.
Rabbi Arnold Gluck serves Temple Beth-El of Hillsborough, New Jersey.
My wife, Sarah, grew up going to Jewish day school. When I talk about the work I do, she has a very familiar reference point. She has lived it, more or less. I don’t have to explain Jewish ritual to her; more often, she causes me to question and dive deeper into the work that I do. It is a rare opportunity, though, when I get to bring her work into what I do.
A few years ago, she and her colleagues at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, published a paper about what happens in the brain when people with strongly held political believes are presented with challenges to those believes. The paper was eventually turned into an episode of the web comic, “The Oatmeal,” titled, “You’re Not Going To Believe What I’m About To Tell You.” The basic premise, as it relates to this topic, is that when people are presented with a challenge to a belief that is connected to one’s core identity, people tend to dismiss this alternative perspective and dig their heels in deeper to their previously strongly held belief.
One of the reasons why CCAR Press’ recent publication, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism is so poignant is because the Zionist stakes are high. The new voices of liberal Zionism are teaching us that digging into previously held beliefs and narratives sets up a recipe for disaster, or more realistically, disengagement with Israel. At the workshop featuring chapter authors from The Fragile Dialogue, Michael Marmur, Liya Rechtman, and Eric Rosenstein presented diverging narratives of even what it means to be a liberal Zionist today.
Marmur opened with an implicit nod to how we deal with differing narratives, noting, “We create our own myths, which become our facts.” He continued his observation that we try to squeeze each other’s facts into our myths. “Most of us spend a lot of time doing myth preserving, making sure that our myths are neither strengthened nor weakened. This quells creativity around our myths.” This caused me to wonder: the rabbis who created Midrash had no problem getting creative around our foundational myths (Marmur even noted that our tradition has established for us a foundation where “we’re meant to be creatively uncomfortable”) – specifically when it comes to Zionism, why have we shifted so drastically against creativity?
Because it’s a fragile dialogue.
Liya Rechtman presented a narrative which was important for this room to hear, specifically because it was so challenging. “When you have red lines of who you will hear from, you inherently cut people out of the conversation,” she offered. And she’s right. How many times have we not invited — or worse, disinvited — speakers purely because their views crossed a red line for someone in our community? One of my rabbinic mentors has noted, “We spent 2000 years dreaming of having a Jewish parliament, and one of the members of that Jewish parliament wants to speak to us, and we’re saying ‘no’?”
Because it’s a fragile dialogue.
I feared going into this session that if we were to hear, as we did from Liya and Eric, that 21st century Israel narratives are based on the accepting the diversity in our narratives and finding places of mutuality and common ground, whereas 20th century Israel narratives were about the preservation of Jewish life, participants would backfire — digging their heels in, not believing what they were hearing. What gave me hope is that the opposite happened. Yes, assumptions were challenged. Yes, there were disagreements in perspectives. And yes, looking into a mirror of the generational divide on even what it means to be a liberal Zionist was difficult. But we heard each other.
Because we all know it’s a fragile dialogue.
If learning happens through failure, growing at a moment when a premise is challenged, this workshop showed that the future of our leadership and our approach to liberal Zionism is no exception.
Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael – How wonderful are your sessions O Jacob, your dwellings of fragile dialogue, O Israel!
Rabbi Jeremy Gimbel serves Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, CA.