Modern Israel and Interfaith Relations: A Sacred Journey

Recently, I was guest lecturer at Georgia Tech. I addressed a bright group of young juniors and seniors taking a Religion and Science course. My assignment was to give them an overview of Jewish beliefs and practices from a personal point of view, something they wouldn’t gain from their required textbook. The class was made up of Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims. After an hour of presenting Jewish tradition and the wide spectrum of current practices and beliefs, I opened the floor for questions. The first question was prefaced by an apology that it might be too complicated for the remaining 15 minutes. Could I explain, “If two of the most highly regarded teachings of Judaism are that all human beings are equal and that one must not do to others what is hateful to themselves, how do you feel about the way Palestinians are treated by Israel?” I wasn’t surprised —this was not my first interfaith rodeo — and this is often a common question from interfaith groups.

Working in Jewish education for over 25 years, I have had countless opportunities to explore ways to teach and experience Modern Israel. And, most recently, I spent two intensive years working with Professor Ken Stein at the Center for Israel Education (CIE), an organization associated with the Institute for Modern Israel at Emory University. I had the pleasure and challenge of working with Ken and a couple of other educators developing workshops and curricular materials focused on methodologies for teaching Modern Israel.  So, I explained to this young student and his classmates, that the answer is a little complicated, to say the least.

In the past six years, I’ve also shifted from occasional participation in interfaith programs to undertaking a major role in my community as an interfaith leader. I sit on the board of Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta. I have been a guest speaker at rallies, vigils, city council meetings and seminars, and I’ve been blessed to be on the leadership team of several interfaith trips comprised of Jews, Christians, Buddhists and Muslims as we forge close and meaningful friendships.

And, yet the intersection between my work life at CIE and my avocation as an interfaith leader is rare. It’s clear to me, as I imagine it is to many of my rabbinic colleagues, that the single most challenging topic of discussion for liberal faith leaders and lay people is that of Modern Israel. Israel is often a deal breaker in interfaith relations, or at the very least it’s the elephant in the room as it was on my visit to Georgia Tech.  It can be awkward and emotional to bring up the painful aspects that emerged as we sought, build, and as we support and sustain the Modern Jewish state. However, I can say, that as difficult as the topic is, I strive to be honest and forthright with my closest interfaith friends. They are willing to hear me. And, I am willing to hear them. Because we have come to deeply trust one another.  And because we know how each of us strives for similar principles and ideals of human behavior, it is possible to broach challenging conversations. 

I am grateful for the insightful essays that tackle the struggles for liberal Jews on Israel in the upcoming CCAR publication The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices in Liberal Zionism. It will surely provide all of us with new considerations and also fresh ways to express ourselves as modern Zionists.

I also firmly believe that the insight and experience we can gain from the upcoming CCAR-sponsored interfaith clergy trip to Israel from January 28 through February 3, 2018 will be invaluable. I am confident that the intimate alliances formed with travel buddies yield a deep trust and friendship that opens the possibility of discussing the most challenging of topics. We have so much to gain from this opportunity. My hope is that two or three colleagues from various locales along with their interfaith clergy colleagues will form teams that can explore Modern Israel together on the ground. Then, upon their return will continue the discussions and embark on learning modules for their respective communities, teaching other colleagues in their area how to approach dialogue about Israel amongst Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other faith groups. Our world and God are crying out for us to find partners with whom to bring about the deep friendships and greater understanding that are necessary and will provide the foundation for lasting peace. In preparation for this sacred work, I hope you will invite your interfaith colleagues to join you on this sacred journey hosted by CCAR staff and members.

Rabbi Ellen Nemhauser is in her second year as Co-President of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. Most recently, she has worked at The Center for Israel Education at Emory University as a rabbinic fellow, developing and disseminating curriculum for teaching Modern Israel. She has now moved on to be a full-time volunteer in the Interfaith activities in Atlanta, GA.

Books Israel

Fragile Identities in Dialogue: What is Zionism today?

I grew up in an age when the State of Israel was touted as the panacea for the lost American Jew. We celebrated Yom haAtzmaut as fervently as we celebrated Purim. The most exciting skits put on by our day camp counselors all ended up with the characters realizing they could just go to Israel. It was messaged, both subtly and not-so-subtly, that the greatest move we could make as a Jew was Aliyah. The State of Israel was a modern miracle. I do not remember the word Zionism crossing anyone’s lips, but I was certainly raised a Zionist.

When I ventured to Israel for the first time as a senior in highschool, I came back fully bought into the triumphalist Zionist narrative of the State of Israel as the culmination of all Jewish history; the reclamation of Jewish strength; the realization of Jewish sovereignty, and, soon, in vague whispers, the messiah. Then I went to college in Gambier, OH, and I found that there was another side to the story – a reality of oppression inflicted by the State of Israel upon the Palestinians that wasn’t justifiable.

In search of answers, I returned to Israel for my junior year abroad in 2004-2005, and now off the rails of the high school Israel-as-Disneyland experience, I was free to see a much broader spectrum of Israeli life. Busses exploded blocks from my dorm in Beer Sheva; religious extremists refused to leave their settlements in Gaza, threatening to tear apart the country; Bedouin were rounded up and forcibly settled in the Negev against their will, often in abject poverty. I returned from that experience confused and concerned. Why had I been taught this State was the answer to all my questions about Judaism? What even is Zionism, and do I want anything to do with it?

Dr. Joshua Holo, the dean of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, writes in the upcoming release from CCAR Press, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism, that Zionism “seeks to guarantee Israel’s existence and its Jewish and democratic character…(and) merely reflects the fact that Jews and Judaism are tightly bound up with the Land of Israel.”

Regardless of the inner conflict, the crack at the foundation of my relationship to Israel, I still feel bound up with the Land of Israel. After writing a graduate thesis on the development of secular Israeli identity, and spending my first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem, I am no longer surprised by the disappointments the government of Israel consistently bring me. It no longer hurts when my very Jewish identity is denied authenticity by that same government. My anger no longer burns so strongly at the continued and worsening oppression of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli government. It has all become old hat, and as predictable as the rest of the Jewish calendar.

Coming from the perspective of a Jewish educator, in her chapter from The Fragile Dialogue titled, “Educating for Ambiguity,” Rabbi Dr. Lisa Grant, writes, “Just as all would agree that God, Torah, and shabbat are integral to Jewish experience but that different Jews have different beliefs and practices, the same can be said about Israel. There is no one right way to engage with Israel, but engaging is an essential aspect of Jewish experience.”

Words are slippery creatures. Jewish tradition has spilled much ink arguing over the definition of one word or another. Once a word referring specifically to the lofty dream of a new nation State for the Jews, upon the accomplishment of this goal it has now spun into a multitude of different amalgamations: Religious Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, Classical Zionism, Anti-Zionism – and, as these writers discuss, Liberal Zionism.

I’m not sure if I’m a Liberal Zionist, but I am sure that no matter what I do, the State of Israel is as basic to my daily thoughts as Torah and the Jewish calendar. Although I no longer see the State of Israel as a miracle (just as I no longer think that Moses literally parted the Red Sea), I can not cut the ties that bind me to her. So I must join the conversation, and welcome all the voices, from Religious Zionists to Anti-Zionists, but also be willing to stand and put my own relationship with Israel into words.

During Purim we celebrate the story of the victory of the Jews of Persia over their oppressors, and also look critically, even ashamedly, at the end of the book of Esther in which these same Jews massacre 75,000 of their enemies. If we can manage this confusing and confounding tradition each year, we can celebrate the accomplishments within the contemporary State of Israel, as well as protest the moral failings we see in its government.

Andy Kahn is entering his fifth year as a rabbinic student at HUC-JIR. He has served as the CCAR Rabbinic Intern and is currently the Rabbinic Intern at East End Temple in New York City. 

Books Israel

Swiftly Flow the Days

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share how the book came together. The book is officially available for pre-order now from CCAR Press. 

When I sat with David Ben Gurion in his Tel Aviv apartment in 1973, there was no doubt in “The Old Man’s” mind as to what Zionism was: To come to the Land.  To build and to be rebuilt.  To create a new Jew and a new Judaism in the Old/New Land.  He was bemused by the fact that there was push back from some quarters in the Diaspora.  All those ‘Zionists’ had come out to cheer BG in London.  But then he boarded his plane to return to Eretz Yisrael, and they returned to the London suburbs.  So what’s a Zionist?

And then there was the struggle with Jacob Blaustein of the American Jewish Committee.  All Israel’s founder had said was that Jews were obligated to settle in Israel. Blaustein strongly protested against this obvious denigration of the Diaspora, so the Blaustein-Ben Gurion Agreement was signed in 1951.  Blaustein would support the Zionist enterprise from afar and BG would not (often) criticize that distancing.  So what’s a Zionist?

In 1967, it seems that everyone was now a Zionist.  Following the victories of the Six-Day War, Jewish volunteers flooded Israel.  Youth programs expanded dramatically.  Israeli flags flourished on synagogue pulpits across the world.  Heschel wrote: Israel, An Echo of Eternity.  Soviet Jewry began to flex its muscles.  American Jewry was marked by parades, marches and other public events in which our Zionist identities were celebrated with pride.

But with the passing years there were increasing doubts and uncertainties and disappointments.  The world was moving away from the fervent nationalisms that described the mid-20th century.  Israel became controversial.  Some deemed its policy of Occupation to be colonialist or worse.  Ethnicity and peoplehood eroded as the individual was increasingly celebrated.  More wars.  Intifadas.  Ethiopian Jews confronted discrimination, as had the Mizrachim before them.  As do Israeli Arabs.  Reform Judaism was far too often treated as an unwelcome, alien presence.  Huge gaps opened up between the very rich and the very poor.  Was the bloom off the rose?

The nations of the world increasingly felt free from their burden of responsibility for having incited anti-Semitism over the centuries.  But now anti-Semitism was being cloaked in anti-Zionism.  And long suppressed arguments burst forth from within world Jewry.  Too easily accommodating to new norms for discussion, shouting replaced words; ad hominem insults replaced reasoned disagreement; rage replaced discomfort.  We refused to hear anything with which we disagreed.  By the second decade of the 21st century, Jews began boycotting Jews over arguments regarding who and what is a ‘good’ Zionist?  And whose views were the most likely to guarantee Israel’s security?  Battered increasingly from without, we turned on each other.

The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism has the self-assumed role of trying to demonstrate that we Jews must and can learn how to speak with one another about core, existential issues.  This book is intended to be a model for Jewish disagreement about the meaning, purposes and goals of Zionism.  No more demonization.  No more exclusion or banning.  Neither Rabbi Englander nor I have any intention of attempting to define right answers, but only to demonstrate that strongly held positions from within the liberal Jewish community both need to be heard and must be heard.

Does anything go?  Frankly, No.  Our scholars and teachers had to meet one standard: they are firmly committed to the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and Democratic State.

Some of our authors favor the possibility of a One State Solution.  Some favor Two States.  Some favor a nuanced imposition of BDS.  Some see Israel as a Divine gift.  Some reject any claim that Israel is “The beginning of our Redemption.”  Some want us to teach Zionism with an embrace of ambiguity; some see the survival of North American Jewry as dependent upon the survival of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State.  They all have a place in this book; and they all have a place in our synagogues, campuses, and Jewish organizations.  Open wide the umbrella!

Enough banning of Zionist voices with which we are uncomfortable!  Hear each other.  See each other.  Greet each other with respect.  Make space so that our children can find their own, unique liberal Zionist voices – without fear of being ostracized.

In recent days, complaints against the Netanyahu Government over the Kotel and over Conversion have made this book even more important.  The language of liberal, religious Zionism can give us the power to state our demands while not encouraging even more distancing or, worse, indifference.

The liberal Zionist dialogue is fragile, but we must preserve it.  Larry and I have worked with that imperative firmly in mind.

Read as if our future depends upon it.  Because it does.

Rabbi Stanley M. Davids serves as rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta, GA. He is also a Co-Editor of CCAR Press’s newest book, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism, now officially available for pre-order from CCAR Press. 


Kotel Controversy

World Jewry was shocked that Prime Minister Netanyahu reneged on his commitment to developing a pluralistic space at the Kotel so that all Jews could feel comfortable and respected praying there.

The timing, when the Governing Board of the Jewish Agency, filled with representatives of North American Jewry, was in town seemed particularly insulting.

When we learned Biblical grammar we studied the “vav ha-mehapechet” the “vav” that changes everything. It turns past tense into future (ve-shamru) and future into past (va-yomer).  One letter can change everything. Take the word tziyoni (Zionist). Take away the vav and it becomes tzini – cynical.

That is what we witnessed theses past few days– passionate Zionist politicians dropped the “vav” and became hardened cynics. First and foremost, our Prime Minister spat in the faces of all the representatives of Israeli and Diaspora non-Orthodox leadership. These servants of the Jewish people negotiated in good faith and made far reaching compromises to reach an agreement. The Prime Minister spoke at length of his commitment to the making Israel a welcoming place for all Jews. It turns out to have been lip service. The only question is how cynical is Prime Minister Netanyahu. Did he ever mean to implement this agreement? Does it matter? He completely lacks the political will to do the right thing. (By the way– now you know how the Palestinians feel when our Prime Minister speaks of his commitment to peace.)

I am also appalled by the cynicism of opposition Israeli politicians who have condemned the Prime Minister and expressed their enthusiastic support for the non-Orthodox movements. As if they would not sell us out for the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties if they were dependent upon them for a coalition. Do the math and understand that there is no way any major party can put together a coalition without either the Ultra-Orthodox parties or the Modern Orthodox Bayit HaYehudi party. If a center left coalition is possible (God willing) and they want to move forward on the peace process, it will only happen with the support of the Ultra-Orthodox parties. At a recent conference Moshe Gafni, an Ultra-Orthodox member of Knesset, stated clearly that he would prefer to support a coalition that would promote peace, but that as long as the center left continues to support the Reform movement it will never happen. He did not hesitate to proclaim that the possibility of advancing peace, preventing war, and saving lives takes a back seat to his opposition to our movement! If you were an Israeli with a kid about to go into the army, what would you advise the person trying to put together the coalition?

We in the non-Orthodox world were also cynical. We were depending on cynical Bibi to pay off the cynical Ultra-Orthodox parties to allow the deal to go through. That’s what usually happens. I have no doubt that Bibi could have bought them off but he just couldn’t be bothered this time.

What happened? What changed?

Even before the election of Donald Trump, Bibi demonstrated his contempt for liberal American Jews by speaking at Congress against the Iran deal. That was his declaration that he no longer had any use for liberal American Jews (not to mention bi-partisan support for Israel). The same way that Bibi has thrown his lot in with the extreme right in Israel – so it is in the U.S. He believes that the future lays with the Evangelical Christian right and Orthodox Jews. In the long term he looks at the demographics and writes off liberal American Jews. In the short term, the election of President Trump vindicates that decision and this week’s events are a direct result of this world view.

The American Reform Movement had no way to know that Trump would be elected but the consequences are clear- very diminished political influence.

So where does this leave us? I hope a little wiser when it comes to Israeli politics and politicians. For God sake – stop inviting them to speak at your conventions and synagogues and giving them standing ovations and fawning over them when you come to Israel. They see that there are absolutely no consequences to their actions. Our lack of self respect is appalling!

There are mixed feelings in the Israeli Reform Movement regarding getting our hands dirty with politics. I have no problem with our political involvement as long as we act wisely. In politics sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. It’s a long term game. If this strengthens our resolve to fight for what we believe in – then it was a worthwhile struggle. If it causes further alienation and disengagement from Israel (and I fear it does) then it is a disaster. The Reform Movement leadership will have to take responsibility for this disaster – naively or foolishly raising expectations without considering the consequences of failure.

Most of us Israelis were less surprised. I am reminded of Claude Rains in “Casablanca” when he declares that he is “shocked” to discover there is gambling at Rick’s as the croupier hands him his winnings. If you are shocked that the Israeli politician reneged on a promise for political expediency – welcome to the world of Israeli politics. If we are going to play the political game we have to be realistic.

As an Israeli Reform rabbi I am also depressed by the behavior of North American Jewry. We have been fighting the battle for religious pluralism for so long. I did four weddings this month – all of the couples had to go abroad to be married civilly so their union would be recognized in the Jewish State. That is an issue that deeply troubles Israelis and it should make American Jews furious. The struggle for a pluralistic prayer space at the Kotel is not at the heart of the matter for most Israelis in general or for Israeli Reform Jews in particular. We have extremely mixed feelings about the Kotel for many reasons (a religious site that has become a fetishization of stones, an historical/national site that has become a place for military ceremonies…) .  This is a symbolic issue that reflects the growing power of the Ultra Orthodox rabbinate. The general Israeli public appreciates that we are at the front line in the battle to make Israel as pluralist as possible. They are confused by our obsession with the Kotel.

My prayer is that North American Jewry throw itself into the real struggle for religious pluralism in Israel even if it is less sexy then being dragged away from Kotel by the police while wrapped in a tallit and holding a Torah. Help us to restore the “vav” and turn the tzinim (cynics) back into Tziyonim Zionists. It could also be a chance for North American Jews to support issues (beyond religious pluralism) that reflect the values of justice, morality and peace that are at the heart of our beliefs. This would demand a total reshaping of how Diaspora Jewry relates to religious life in Israel. It would demand that Israeli and Diaspora Jews recognize our real power and our real limitations. It would demand political and spiritual maturity.

Levi Weiman-Kelman is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem. Rabbi Weiman-Kelman teaches prayer and liturgy at the Hebrew Union College Jerusalem campus. He lectures frequently in Israel and abroad on Jewish spirituality and prayer.  Rabbi Weiman-Kelman has served as Chairperson of MaRaM (the Council of Progressive Rabbis) and is one of the founders and past chairs of Shomrei Mishpat – Rabbis for Human Rights.


Books Israel

It’s Lonely in the Middle

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share how the book came together. The book is officially available for pre-order now from CCAR Press. 

Randy Newman, tongue planted firmly in cheek, wrote a song with the title “It’s Lonely at the Top.”  When it comes to political ideology – and in particular, to Zionism – it’s more like “It’s lonely in the middle.”  That covers a wide range somewhere between Haredi fanatics who want to expel every non-Jew from Greater Israel to those whom I call “template leftists” who see Israel only through the lens of colonialism.  Where do we find the ground to engage in reasonable dialogue, even with those whose perspectives differ from our own, without any side claiming a monopoly on truth?  Where do we find a safe ground for this dialogue to take place?

These questions prompted the vision for the forthcoming book, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism.  In the autumn of 2011, I had guest-edited an issue of the CCAR Journal which contained a symposium on Progressive Religious Zionism.  A few years later, Rabbi Stanley Davids (who had contributed a seminal article to that symposium) took the initiative to suggest that we expand that dialogue between the covers of a book.  Our objective was to garner a wide spectrum of perspectives, ages, and topics.  Now that we have seen the finished product, both of us are very pleased with the result – and we hope that you will be too.

Among other things, I’m happy that every article in the book presents something new and fresh.  I learned something significant from each and every author.  Rather than point to specific articles, I’d like to share some of the insights that I gained from the collection as a whole:

  • I was reminded that, even though the Jewish population of Eretz Yisrael has been scant at times, we as a people have never relinquished our hope for a return.  This constitutes the historical core of our Progressive Religious Zionism.
  • I learned that there is a widening gap between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews with regard to our expressions of Zionism.  We don’t always understand each other.
  • I also read first-hand accounts of the distancing from Israel that is taking place, especially in the United States.  This appears to be due to different factors: discomfort or disagreement with Israeli government policies, fear of being singled out on campus as an Israel supporter, or simple lack of interest.
  • I became convinced that any solution to the above phenomenon will depend on intensive, creative and nuanced educational initiatives.
  • It was also interesting to discover that liberal Zionism is expressed differently in different countries of the Diaspora.  In our book, we gain an insight from the United Kingdom; I hope the exchange between Rabbis Baginsky and Gold will open the door for other nationalities to join the conversation and to learn from each other.
  • I was saddened to read that, for some liberal Zionists, Israel must take second place to their home country in addressing issues of civil society.  I would have hoped that the values of Reform/Progressive Judaism would be applicable – and necessary – for both nations.

These are my impressions after reading the essays in solitude on my computer screen.  But my main hope for our Fragile Dialogue is that it will encourage readers to meet together and to initiate their own dialogues to discuss its contents and to seek meaningful responses.  The book has been deliberately crafted so that a wide range of responses are presented and respectful disagreement is encouraged; and even beyond these, the door remains wide open for further thoughts and plans of action to emerge.  I welcome you to pick up what I truly believe is a great read!

Rabbi Lawrence A. Englander serves as Rabbi Emeritus of Solel Congregation of Mississauga, Ontario and Adjunct Rabbi at Temple Sinai in Toronto.  He also serves as Chair of ARZENU, the international Reform Zionist organization, until August of 2017.  The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press. 

Books Israel

What’s in an Anniversary?

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share how the book came together. The book is officially available for pre-order now from CCAR Press. 

On the occasion of Israel’s 8th anniversary Rav Joseph Soloveitchik gave a series of landmark lectures which were later compiled and called “Kol Dodi Dofek” or “The Voice of my Beloved Hearkens.” This quickly became a seminal document in the canon of Religious Zionism which examines clear manifestations of God’s presence in modern historical events. This visionary rabbi – tasked with the mission to rebuild the Orthodox community in a post-Shoah reality – realized that merely 8 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, we were already seeing a drifting apart between the two largest Jewish communities in the world, Israel and North America.  His hope was that these two communities would operate as if they were a person with one body and two heads.[1] Soloveitchik’s argument boiled down is a basic תוכחה (rebuke) or clever commentary on Israeli and American Jewish life that accuses Israelis of being too focused on peoplehood thereby, being weak on Torah values, and American Jews for being weak on peoplehood and mutual responsibility while being overly focused on Religion.  His is a statement claiming that the early development of these two polarities could set a course of furthering one from the other and creating an insurmountable metaphoric (and physical) distance between the two communities.

This year, a year of fortuitous and fateful anniversaries, would that we could reflect back upon the Rav’s assessment and thankfully extol how wrong he was.  But alas…

This year much of the Israel-oriented and Zionist world is hyper-focused on 5777 being:

120 years since the first World Zionist Congress

100 years since the Balfour Declaration

70 years the UN vote to accept the Partition plan on November 29th

50 years since the Six Day war

40 years since the “מהפך”  (the revolutionary moment when Menachem Begin and the Likud rose to power reversing the establishment rule of the Labor party), and the establishment of ARZA(!)

30 years since the first Intifada…

All leading up to the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel which we will celebrate in 5778.

Anniversaries are important, as they mark milestones and offer opportunities for individual and collective heshbon nefesh. They allow to us pause, zoom out and ask ourselves what has happened in the past 100 or 50 years, and whether we have achieved our goals, strayed dangerously from the path of righteousness and justice, or engineer a necessary cause for celebration and affirmation that we fell on the right side of history.

Of all the anniversaries that we mark this year, the Balfour declaration and the Six Day war have been highlighted as the source of discussion, debate and convenient conferencing and teaching. These are important opportunities for engagement with our students, congregants and fellow Jews but we must not let them be used out of context or glorified for more than they are. Use this moment to teach, to read books and evaluate the current situation.  Is this moment a cause for celebration?  There is no question in my mind that it is.  Is this moment a cause for consternation, concern and recognition and that Israel has reached a point of no return, also true? A century after the British Empire awarded us with favour the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” do we not also recognize that Sir Henry McMahon made a similar promise to Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca who then saw the Balfour Declaration as a violation of previous agreements made in their correspondence?  Do we see the Six Day War only in the light of the miraculous victory that saved the State of Israel from imminent destruction, or do we view this moment as the predicate to the military rule over another people?

The answer, I hope, is “Yes, and…”.

Yes, this is cause for celebration and cause for concern and let us not forget that Zionism is about creating the exemplary society that the pioneers romanticized.  It is about liberation, self-determination and creating a society based on the principles of חסד  (chesed – loving kindness) and צדק (tzedek – justice), ones that we hope will prevail for the next 50, 70 and 100 years.  As our contemporary Zionist leader Anat Hoffman often reminds us, that “love is what remains after we know the truth.”  Seek the truth, teach it and preach it, and instill the love that is at the core of who we are and what we do.

Happy anniversaries.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, and is a contributor to The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism, now available for pre-order from CCAR Press. 


[1] Shared Suffering: A logical, and natural, consequence of the awareness of a shared predicament would be a commonality of anguish; the sharing by all Jews of each other’s suffering. To illustrate this point, the Rav utilizes a midrash based upon the discussion of the legacy to which a man with two heads is entitled (based on a parable in BT Menahot 37a).
The situations begs the question that if he should receive two shares, or just one; does he constitute two separate entities inhabiting the same body, or just a single entity with diverse appearances?
Answer:   The answer is to have boiling water poured on one of the heads. If it alone cries out in pain, then it is truly separate from the other; if both experience the agony, however, then there is but one.



Books Israel

My Classmate Was A Force of Nature: Rabbi Bob Samuels

Each of my HUC-JIR classmates (Cincinnati ’60) has had a transformative impact on his congregation or community.  (Yes, sadly we were a class of all men.) We taught and counseled, provoked and celebrated in ways that enriched and deepened the lives of those we served.

One of the members of our class had a particularly powerful impact on his community.

Bob Samuels made aliyah to Israel with his family in 1962 and never looked back. The saga of his amazing career is captured in a newly published book, Stepping Up to the Plate, Building a Liberal Pluralistic Israel, which Bob completed shortly before his death in 2016.  Published by the CCAR, it is the first volume issued under its newest imprint, “Rabbis Press.”

Bob was my cherished friend and my hero. His entire life was powered by the ideals of the Hebrew prophets. Every day of his life, Bob translated those ideals into real life action that lifted up the fallen, fed the needy, and embraced those who live at the margins of society.

Bob understood that Progressive Judaism would flourish in Israel only if we raise up exceptional leaders. The Leo Baeck Educational Center in Haifa, which Bob built into one of the premier institutions in Israel, produced such leaders.

Bob was a force of nature. I have never known anyone with as many talents, as determined a spirit, and as much energy as Bob Samuels.  A star first baseman at Brandeis who was scouted by Major League Baseball, Bob knew what it meant to “step up to the plate.” He never flinched.  Even after he was diagnosed with a devastating disease, he continued to live a life of courageous determination, doing good and loving us all.

Our colleague Michael Marmur wrote, “This book tells his story. Reading it can do what Bob always managed to do in his life. Even if we are disheartened and out of new ideas, even if the next step seems unclear, it builds us up.”

I hope you will read and be inspired by this amazing story about what it means to be a leader of our people.

Charles A. Kroloff is past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  Currently Vice President for Special Projects at HUC-JIR, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El, Westfield, NJ.  Rabbi Robert L. Samuel’s book Stepping Up to the Plate, Building a Liberal Pluralistic Israel, is now available for purchase from CCAR Press. 

Convention Israel News

WUPJ Connections 2017 – Different Languages, One Heart

Recently, I had the privilege of participating in the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s Connections 2017 conference in Jerusalem.  Joined by rabbis, cantors, lay leaders, rabbinical school students, and representatives from NETZER and TAMAR, the worldwide organizations for Jewish youth and young adults, respectively, this international convention gathers together Jews “me’arbah kanfot ha’aretz,” from the four corners of the globe, for four days of learning, prayer, and engagement.  It is the only meeting of its kind, bringing together over 450 progressive Jews from 30 countries.  Here we were, in Jerusalem, having journeyed from Australia and Austria, Brazil and Belarus, Canada and the Czech Republic, the United States and the United Kingdom, just to name a few.  And though they did not have to travel quite as far, there was also a strong, enthusiastic contingent from the progressive synagogues in Israel, as well as from the IMPJ and IRAC.

Attending this conference and hearing about the great strides we have made as an international movement, one could not help but swell with pride. From the opening of a new seminary in Moscow, the continued success of WUPJ camps, to thriving Jewish communities in places where the practice of Judaism was previously prohibited or discouraged; we have come so far!  Undoubtedly, liberal Judaism has positively impacted the lives of so many across the globe.  We are truly a global community of faith.

During this exciting and informative conference, we had the opportunity to hear from three different Members of Knesset, who each gave their perspective on the happenings in Israel.  We heard from innovators like Yosef Abramowitz, president of the Arava Power Company, Israel’s leading solar energy company, as he works to tackle the issue of climate change. Another highlight was a presentation from David Birnbaum, the CEO of Sodastream, who gave a thoughtful message on what it takes to succeed as a leader, while also speaking about his company’s achievements in creating a work environment that employs Jews, Arabs, Bedouins, and Palestinians.

And yes, you may have heard we made a little history together. Early on Thursday morning, we gathered together at Robinson’s Arch and held a beautiful worship service, the highlight of which was celebrating the b’not mitzvah of 13 women from South America.  And, if that was not enough, we then marched together, Torah scrolls in our arms, to the outer plaza of the Western Wall. Detained briefly by security, they let us pass, and we, an egalitarian, progressive community, were able to read Torah together and conclude our service, thankfully without incident.  What a moment!  And, speaking of important progressive milestones, we also experienced another “first,” as we celebrated Kabbalat Shabbat at Jerusalem’s “Tachanah Rishonah,” the First Railway Station, which is now a thriving cultural and culinary hub.  What made this evening so powerful is that it was the first time that eight progressive synagogues from the greater Jerusalem area came together for a Shabbat service.  As we prayed, sang, and danced together, 1,000 strong, we couldn’t help noticing how many people stopped to join us in joyously welcoming Shabbat.

For me, this conference is the ultimate expression of Jewish peoplehood. Though hailing from different countries and, in some cases, divided by language, we are nonetheless united by our shared faith and our progressive values. We share the same ideals, the same dreams, the same vision for the future.  And, as anyone who participated in Connections 2017 could tell you, that future is bright!

I invite all rabbis, cantors, Jewish professionals, and lay leaders to learn more about the WUPJ and consider getting involved.  Let’s all work together to support Reform Judaism across the globe, building progressive Jewish communities and nurturing future Jewish leaders, so we may continue moving from strength to strength!

Rabbi Joshua Lobel serves Congregation Beth El in Missouri City, TX and is a member of the WUPJ’s International Assembly.


What Happens When We Listen?

Our world has become filled with talking.  We have to push our thoughts and opinions out into the world in an effort to convince others that we are right.  However, when we are talking we are not really listening.  When we are talking, we are often arguing over the heads of others and responding without even thinking about what the other is saying, we just want to be right and be sure the other is wrong.  It is as if we are holding up an identity card that immediately shows others what we believe and what our thoughts on a certain subject might be.  Others hold up these same identity cards, we walk away and relationships break down.

When we listen, we build relationships and human connection. On Wednesday at Convention, we witnessed that and we lived that.  Listening to the incredibly deep changes that Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Ali Abu Awwad have gone through in their lives is remarkable.  If they can change so can we.  For an Israeli settler Orthodox rabbi to go from never seeing a Palestinian to breaking bread with Palestinians and creating grassroots change is almost unheard of.  For a Palestinian to go from a agitator and someone who was shot by an Israeli soldier to say, “I want to defend Judaism and the right Jews have to their land, at the same time I want to defend my own state,” is a profound acknowledgement and acceptance of the other’s narrative and existence.

Hanan and Ali’s words are a reminder that two opposites can come together and make peace.  The American Jewish Community has witnessed disconnect and a breakdown when it comes to Israel.  If Hanan and Ali, two seemingly bitter enemies, can see the other, why can’t we? We need to create a culture of civil discourse not disagreement.  We were inspired to learn today that Civil Discourse is rooted in listening emphatically and actively.  When we hear the stories of another and ask people to clarify where they are coming from, we create human relationships.  When we listen in order to understand and not respond, we create human relationships.

Our tradition is rooted in understanding.  We learn in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:3 that the Sanhedrin was physically set up in a semi-circle so that every member of the Sanhedrin could see the face or the profile of the other.  Such a set up ensures the interpersonal relationships would not be interrupted during debate.  Today, seeing the face of the other is felt in hearing one’s story and connecting personally.  Seeing the face of the other is listening without trying to respond and listening for understanding and emotion.

What happens when we listen?  We engage in civil discourse, we hear and see the other, and we build a relationship with a fellow human being.

Rabbi Rick Kellner serves Congregation Beth Tikvah in Columbus, Ohio.  

Israel Social Justice

Could You Hear Us Over The Sea?

Last year, during the High Holidays, my Heshbon nefesh brought me to question whether I am doing enough to share and protest regarding my unhappiness with the Netanyahu government.  I felt that there was much more that I could do.

I thought about the meeting I had with Muslim, Christian, Druze and Jewish religious women… a place of true meeting, and thought to myself, “Everyone enjoys Arab hospitality, what about if we turn this on its head and invite our neighbors from Arab towns and villages to our Jewish homes? ”

We invited 40 women of three religions to be hosted by 40 Jewish women. We met their bus with songs and flower petals. Drinks were served. A representative from each religion offered a prayer. Right there, I felt the Oneness of Rachmana, I understood in basic Arabic, that the Muslim prayer was a like Shema and V’Ahavta.  A love prayer for God. We danced, warmly and closely, we served our lovingly made food. They joked that it wasn’t spicy or sweet enough, but they appreciated the effort. Our cultural differences are real, emphasizing the need for a bridge.

Meanwhile the cataclysmic changes of the government in the USA took place. We joined those of you who marched on Washington and around the States. A sister demonstration was organized in Tel Aviv opposite the American Embassy.  Rabbi Naama Kelman asked if I would address the crowd as an Israeli Rabbi ordained here but brought up in America.  I was thrilled as I was born in 1958, and grew up in the anti-Vietnam protests, cut my teeth on sit-ins to wear pants to school in the 5th grade and was blessed to grow up in the first wave of Jewish feminism. That experience and music are what brought me to Judaism, as my sisters assimilated into American society and disappeared as Jews. Social justice is in my blood and in my soul.

Feeling a strong sense of Oneness with everyone marching in the world against racism, sexism, heterosexism, chauvinism, and anti-religious sentiment- we arrived with our signs. Do you ever wonder if Rachmana arranges Torah portions to fit a given situation?

I spoke these words as I spoke to the crowd in Tel Aviv:

Israeli women unite with women of the world! We are the midwives of a new era of activism and hope, we are Shifra and Puah, who refused the edict of the newly appointed leader and chose life for all!

We are the Daughter of Pharoah, whose simple but profound action changed the course of history.  She had her eyes open to see a troubled situation, she empowered other women to help, and she opened up the basket to get to the root of the problem. She heard the pain and cries of the child. She paid women what they were worth! She adopted another as her own. She teaches us all that we have to know as to how to bring godliness to this world. We join the chain of women who redeemed others.

We are seeking our name and our voice, like God, “We will be what we will be.” We will be our best selves and dedicate ourselves to be change and hope in this world.

The promenade by the sea filled up with hundreds of women, men, and children, some of American origin, some Israeli born.  My husband is who is British, was there as a feminist and a seeker of justice, and as the steadfast partner to a Rabbi.  It was so liberating to remind ourselves that action, praying with our feet, making an effort to go to the big city, to call friends is what it truly important.  Today we appeared in Haaretz and other press, including the Hebrew press.

There are so many ways to explore the meaning of “Shema Yisrael.” To make our voices heard. To make our voices count. To listen to the “other.” I was delighted to hear at this rally, “Black lives matter!” “Queer lives matter!”  To be humbled by the “other.” By our togetherness, by our Oneness.  We are all one.

Rabbi Judith Edelman-Green serves as Pastoral Care Giver at Tel HaShomer hospital and at Beth Protea with the elderly, those with dementia, and those in nursing care.  She also leads creative musical services in Kfar Sava.  For the High Holidays, Rabbi Edelman-Green has served Rodef Shalom in Mumbai, India since 2010.