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.


On Living Text

Our tradition teaches that there are seventy faces of the Torah. Originally, shiv’im panim laTorah  referred to the multiplicity of ways a single verse can be interpreted: pshat, drash, remez, and sod (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15-16). It is mentioned later on in commentaries by Ibn Ezra, Nachmanides, and in the Zohar. Today, the Torah’s seventy faces often refers to the multiplicity of viewpoints within every community and gathering—the glorious tapestry that we know is our Judaism.

The 70 faces of Torah are an entry point into the tradition. But successfully claiming our inheritance from the tradition is most likely to happen when we are grounded in foundational Jewish knowledge. Exercising informed choice is only possible when we learn together and engage in discussion and dialogue. How do we offer our communities diverse ways to do this? How do we help our communities  experience the open, evolving Judaism which emerges when we live the texts, returning to the wellspring and renewing their relationship with the wisdom of our tradition? For just as the sages of the Talmud did for their times, we can (and must) bring our cherished values and hard won knowledge to the interpretation  of our tradition.

If you are looking to bring your community into the ongoing conversation, the CCAR, as your rabbinic membership organization, is continually creating new resources to help with this. That is why we are pleased to introduce the launch of Living Text, the CCAR’s presence on The Tent, the URJ’s collaborative workspace for lay and professional congregational and community leaders. Living Text’s mission is to foster ongoing discussion among scholars, rabbinic and cantorial leaders, educators, and community members, and to share ideas and resources on the CCAR Press’s newest works of thought and practice, as well as on Judaism’s rich library of wisdom literature, classic and contemporary. These texts will serve as the foundation for conversation as we navigate ways to meaningfully engage with Jewish tradition, bringing together past, present, and future.

Please visit, and join our forum. Our launch features Rabbis Rebecca Einstein Schorr and Alysa Mendelson Graf, editors of The Sacred Calling, who are inviting members to talk to them in real time, or view and download video interviews and study guides available on the group page. This is only the beginning. In the coming months, there will be resources for you on the themes of Creation, Israel engagement, and Reform Judaism, all of which will be available for teaching and learning within your communities.

Please explore Living Text, and let us know what you think. Post your comments and questions in the group, so that we can continue to develop new resources for community discussion and learning that you can use. We want to hear from you.

Rabbi Beth Lieberman serves as executive editor at CCAR Press.  Join CCAR Press in The Tent, in our new group, Living Texts.

lifelong learning

America Needs Your Voice, and Your Voice Needs Media Training

Some rabbis think that Judaism is relevant for American society. If you’re one of those rabbis, you should seriously consider attending CCAR’s upcoming Media Savvy: Harnessing Your Rabbinic Voice in Troubled Times.

When I joined the Auburn team in 2007 and participated in our media training, I had a number of revelations. I used to think that if a journalist called me I should answer their questions. I used to think that I knew how to translate my own writing for a broad audience. I used to think the media was made by other people. Not today.

Auburn’s media training has become somewhat infamous. Over 4,000 leaders of faith and moral courage have taken it over the last decade. Hundreds of organizations, including dozens of Jewish ones, have hired Auburn to media train their top leaders. It is a bonding experience.

You will learn whether to take an interview, how to get your writing “placed,” how to craft a message, how to stay on message, and even practice it all on camera. Most of all, you will learn and practice a discipline (we call it the “triangle”) that will stay with you for years, one that will help you with your sermons, your writing, and any media work you do.

If you want to take one concrete step to learn how to do all of that a little bit better, come to the media training hosted by the CCAR, on April 24-25th in New York: Media Savvy: Harnessing Your Rabbinic Voice in Troubled Times.  Day one will be led by Auburn Seminary and will focus on media training for leaders of faith and moral courage, and day two will be covered by Berlin Rosen Public Relations and will focus on effective messaging, best practices, and understanding the media landscape.  We rabbis have a responsibility to bring our voice into the media landscape, whether it be print, radio, television, YouTube, social media, blogging, or anything else.

Rabbi Justus Baird is Dean of Auburn Seminary in New York


CCAR Israel Leadership Trip

Greetings from Eretz Yisrael, where I’m privileged to be studying and traveling with a group of CCAR colleagues.  What distinguishes this journey from previous ones: an opportunity for us to reflect on “using” Israel as educators —  both in terms of intentionally creating meaningful itineraries as we lead groups (of congregants) here, and in terms of bringing this week’s experience back to our respective communities.

The beautiful lunch that the Druze community served us.

Our itinerary has been chock-full of the pressing issues of the day.  We had mifgashim that have touched on the ongoing Arab-Israel question, gender, LGBTQ inclusion, and the list goes on.  But for the moment, I find myself holding on to the interaction we had with the Druze outside of Haifa.  Many of us (myself included) have encountered the Druze, and their world famous hospitality, in previous visits to Israel.  We have heard of their vaunted sense of service in contributing to the Jewish State (as Arabs) by serving in the Army, often volunteering for combat roles.

This week’s encounter went deeper.  We were privileged to hear from Reda Mansour, a prominent Israeli Druze who holds the distinction of being the youngest Israeli ever appointed as an Ambassador in the Diplomatic Corps.

Mansour was teaching us about the Druze and their desire to be an active part of the communities they are living in.  Beyond their noted IDF service, he talked about the Druze’s longstanding commitment to building institutional relationships with the synagogue and church communities that are their neighbors.  The Druze embrace the notion of surrounding themselves with those who are different from them.

Mansour went so far as to suggest a strong similarity between the Druze of Israel, and the Jews of America.  Both communities, he noted with pride, have long records of engagement in the surrounding world.

Mansour also reminded us that the Druze have a very strict policy: a Druze cannot marry a non-Druze and remain in the community.  Period.  And they do not have a mechanism that would be analogous to our sense of conversion.

A speaker from the Druze community shares his experiences with us.

This seemed paradoxical.  On the one hand Mansour’s community was open to assimilation.  Young people are not required to dress traditionally.  Everyone is expected to engage with the non-Druze community.  And yet, their tradition does not seem to be equipped to deal with the social ramifications of that assimilation.

As Mansour repeatedly invoked his assertion that American Jews and Druze were similar, I couldn’t help but think that in one respect he was incorrect.  We liberal Jews have worked hard to adapt (and we continue to adapt) our Judaism so that it fully engages with modernity.  Our ritual practice has evolved.  And the definition of a Jewish family has evolved with it.  We’ve made room in our homes, synagogues, and communities for significant others who are not Jewish by birth – regardless of whether they are moved to formally convert.  We’ve embraced this willingness to regularly reform our sense of (communal) self, because we recognize that the survival of a meaningful contemporary Judaism depends on it.

I’m grateful for the Druze for the warm hospitality they extended to our group.  And I’m grateful for their devoted service to the State of Israel.  But most of all, I’m grateful that our encounter reminded me how proud I am to be part of a tradition that has the capacity to grow, change, and thrive over time.

Rabbi Jeffrey Brown serves Scarsdale Synagogue Temples Tremont and Emanu-El in Scarsdale, New York.

High Holy Days lifelong learning Mishkan haNefesh Rabbis

Welcoming Rabbi Victor Appell to CCAR

Like many, I have been exploring Mishkan HaNefesh. Opening up a new book is always an act filled with possibilities. If it is a work of fiction, I wonder if the plot line will take me out of my own life and if I will see myself in any of the characters. If I am reading non-fiction, I wonder how or if what I am reading will change the way I think about something. Opening the new machzor is a combination of both. Perhaps I am a character in this book and with any luck, I will be changed by my interaction with it.

In one of the introductory essays to the Rosh HaShanah volume, Dr. Laura Lieber writes, “Doorways are charged spaces. We know intuitively that the world on one side of a door is different from the world on the other side…Normally we give little thought to the doors and gates through which we pass, but the High Holy Days are different: we construct an “existential doorway” and linger there for ten days of reflection.”

During those days we may find the time to think about both the year that is ending and the year that is beginning.  Surely in the past year there have been high points and low points, opportunities seized and opportunities missed.  We look to the new year as one filled with promises and possibilities.  But we are wise enough to know that the possibilities are not endless.  We are well acquainted with the mantra that we must take care of ourselves before we can take care of others. The demands of our work and the obligations to our families require that we carefully budget our time and energy.

It is not an easy balancing act. Taking care of ourselves may mean that the laundry goes undone. Do we go to the gym or do we stay home in order to pay bills? Do we take some time for study or do we clean out our email inbox? Seeing it as black or white allows us to find the easy solution. We only do one of the options. And it is usually the option that benefits others more than it benefits us. But experience has shown us that we can actually do both. Even an hour can be divided in half. Moreover, doing something for ourselves often gives us the energy, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, to do even more. Just ask anyone who has exercised even a little. The benefits of greater energy or a clearer head last well beyond the minutes spent exercising.

In addition to making the time, planning is a key element in turning our best intentions into realities.  From setting an hour aside in our day for study to rearranging our schedules in order to attend an out-of-town conference, planning is essential.

As the new year is about to unfold, we again have the opportunity to consider, and plan, how study and professional development will add value to our lives and strengthen our leadership. Perhaps it will be a seminar on successful communications, taught by an expert in the field. Maybe it will be a series of webinars on building a Jewish mindfulness practice. Or a program designed specifically for rabbis of smaller congregations. As the role of the rabbi continues to change and the Jewish community continues to evolve, the CCAR is committed to providing you with the highest level of lifelong learning and professional development opportunities and experiences. The doorway of the new year is open, waiting for us to choose wisely from all that is there.

Rabbi Victor Appell is the new program manager at Central Conference of American Rabbis.