Learning to discuss Israel on a ‘nonpartisan’ basis

Learning to discuss Israel on a ‘nonpartisan’ basis

16 rabbinical students return from a weeklong interdenominational trip

Some of the fellowship members say goodbye as they get ready for their flight back home. (All photos Courtesy Lise Stern)
Some of the fellowship members say goodbye as they get ready for their flight back home. (All photos Courtesy Lise Stern)

It’s not so easy for rabbis to talk about Israel now.

Although it used to be a safe subject, virtually guaranteed to make most congregants feel proud, the fraught politics that swirl around it have made rabbis uneasy about taking it on. It’s too controversial, they often feel.

HUC student Tori Greene plays the oud at the David Citadel in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Erez Sherman, a Jewish Theological Seminary graduate who’s about to become the senior rabbi at the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles (he’s filling the large — and very publicly visible — shoes of the retiring Rabbi David Wolpe, but that’s another story entirely) is trying to fix that situation by taking rabbinical students to Israel.

His new program, the Sinai Temple Israel Center Rabbinical School Fellowship, whose first cohort just returned home last week, is an effort to bring together second- and third-year students from rabbinical seminaries ranging across both the continent, from east to west coasts, and the Jewish religious world. Its goal is not to introduce these students to Israel — everyone on this trip has been there before, some of the HUC students have spent a year there, and in fact it would be hard to find a rabbinical student for whom it would be a first visit — but to give them a chance to meet with a wide range of thinkers, representing many philosophies, backgrounds, and worldviews. The goal is to expose them to a range of ideas and allow consideration of them, and to do so in the company of others. It’s about the process of thinking, not the conclusions such thoughts will produce.

Zoe Dressner-Wolberg of HUC talks with a waiter from the David Citadel.

And, Rabbi Sherman said, what differentiates this trip from others is that it takes students at the beginning of their rabbinical school careers, before their ideas about Israel have had a chance to harden. It’s to help them “see Israel through the eyes of a Diaspora rabbi, in a nuanced way,” he said.

The 16 rabbinical students on this trip came from eight seminaries. Two are Orthodox — Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in Manhattan and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in the Bronx. Two are Conservative — JTS in Manhattan and the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. One is Reform — Hebrew Union College, which has three branches, in Manhattan, Cincinnati (until 2026) and Los Angeles. And two are non- or post-denominational — Hebrew College in suburban Boston and the Academy for Jewish Religion, which has branches in Yonkers and Los Angeles; the student on this trip came from the L.A. school.

Rabbi Erez Sherman of Sinai Temple led the group.

One of those students, Maximillian Hollander, is a student at RIETS, where he is about to begin his third year. He grew up in south Jersey, went to yeshivot there and then to NYU, where he double-majored in Judaic studies and in digital media and communications. Now he lives in Passaic with his wife, their young child, and their dog.

The trip was “nonpartisan,” Mr. Hollander said. “There was no sense, coming into it, that the organizers have or impose on us any particular political belief or view. They know that it’s complicated, and they want to give us as much information as possible.”

Lise Stern of Hebrew College strikes a teapot pose.

He’s been to Israel many times, he said, but this time it was different. “Going to Israel is always lovely, but this seems to be a unique opportunity to meet individuals you might otherwise not be able to meet, and to have more boots-on-the ground conversations. I’m able to see and meet people on both sides for myself.

“I think that it’s inevitable, given the way politics is going in Israel and in America, that these are hot topics and will not be going away any time soon. As a rabbi, I will be front and center as a representative of the Jewish people, and questions inevitably will be directed to me, both as a rabbi and as a Jew, and I would like to be as informed as possible when I answer them.

The tour’s educator, Yisrael Klitsner, discussed the day’s events with the fellowship members.

“Yes, we all come to this trip with ideas, but rabbinic students should be capable of learning new things, and of nuance. There is always more for us to learn.

“One thing that I have felt for a long time, and heard highlighted a lot, is that while there obviously are struggles and challenges, and people who feel a lot of animosity toward each other, there also are a lot of people who really want peace across borders, who care about each other.”

This Israeli led a Thursday-evening tour of Mea Shearim.

Mr. Hollander was moved by a program called Roads to Recovery, “run by an Israeli man and a Palestinian man,” he said. “Their job is to ensure that kids who live in Palestinian areas can travel to places like Rambam for medical care. There are a lot of volunteers who drive them; it is a huge expense.”

He also learned a great deal from visiting “a yeshiva in Yerushalayim, by the dividing wall in the West Bank. We heard difficult stories about the checkpoints, so we took a trip to Bethlehem, and I got to see the wall for myself.

Rabbinic students and life partners Matthew Schultz of Hebrew College and Yoav Varadi of HUC went on the trip together.

“The idea of waking up to that wall — it would be hard to start every day seeing that clear sign of division, no matter what side of it you are on. It inspired me to recognize the human beings in that scenario.

“We had many speakers, but standing there, by the wall, gave me even more of a sense of being there, of how I would feel. I could understand a bit more about what it must be like to live there.”

Students eat, talk, and bond over dinner at Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda.

Rabbi Sherman said that the program was inspired by an open letter, signed by more than 100 rabbinical students in 2021, that attacked Israel as an apartheid state that engaged in “violent suppression of human rights.” As a believer in nuance — a word he uses often — Rabbi Sherman was taken aback by its absence from that letter. He assumes that rabbinical students and rabbis will have a wide range of beliefs, but he fears that students often lack the knowledge to undergird them. So he proposed this program, which is based on the Israel programming at Sinai Temple; he found funding for it, and then the planning began.

It’s based on the model Sinai has created. “We don’t tell people what to think,” Rabbi Sherman said. “We present ideas about how to think. We bring in people from right, left, and center, to offer different points of view.”

Palestinian journalist Rami Nazzal leads a tour of Bethlehem.

The Rabbinic Fellowship began with four Zoom seminars, “based on the founding ideals of Zionism and how they are lived out today,” Rabbi Sherman said.

“We have done stuff that has been challenging to some of our students, and some stuff they loved. We have gone to the West Bank, and have hit every type of area — A, B, and C. We went to Elkanah and Ariel. We met Rabbi Dee,” whose wife and daughters were murdered by terrorists in the West Bank in April, “and we went to East Jerusalem, with a New York Times journalist, Rami Nazzal.

Knesset members Meirav Ben-Ari of Yesh Atid and Boaz Bizmouth of Likud meet with the group.

“We started with the Knesset — we thought that everyone must have been there, but it turned out that only two of them had been there. We talked about the Israeli Declaration of Independence. What does it mean? We still are grappling with it.

“The bus conversations were amazing,” Rabbi Sherman said. The sixteen students spent a great deal of time together, and most of them were unlikely to have met otherwise. “The interdenominationalism was not secondary,” he said. “We will not agree on levels of kashrut, or on halacha, or on how to observe Shabbat, or maybe even on Israel, but we can talk to each other about it.”

Although he is a Conservative rabbi, that’s irrelevant, as are his own views and practices. “My goal is that if you were to ask a student, at the end of the trip, who Rabbi Sherman voted for, they wouldn’t know.”

But they would know that he believes that a rabbi should love Israel — not in any particular way — and should be able to talk about it. With nuance.

And is he planning to run this trip again next year? “Every year, God willing,” Rabbi Sherman said.

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