When Israel first was declared an independent nation, in 1948, in the wake of the Second World War, Americans, certainly including American Jews, generally considered it to be a miracle, a phoenix arisen out of the ashes of devastated Europe.
Over time, that perception has changed. To some extent, Israel has lost some of its mythic luster, and now seems to many people to be a country more or less like any other, although relatively new, shadowed by history, predicated on history, and surrounded by bloodthirsty, implacable enemies.
Some Americans still see the state of Israel as an expression of God’s will, while others consider it to be uniquely evil, somehow far worse than any other country, or possibly worse because it’s held to higher standards, possibly because it’s the Jewish homeland. It’s often the target of anti-Zionism that verges over toward and occasionally merges with pure anti-Semitism. It’s often a blatant, huge bull’s-eye, attracting poisoned arrows.
Given all that, it’s not surprising that many rabbis don’t want to talk about Israel, and that in fact many Jews steer clear of that discussion. It’s just too divisive. Too unpleasant. Too risky.
That’s not healthy, according to the editors of “The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism,” a new compilation of essays from the Reform movement’s CCAR Press.
At Sweet Tastes of Torah, the author of one of the essays, Rabbi Josh Weinberg, will give the keynote address. He’ll ask: “Is Love of Israel Conditional?”
That talk will be one of the highlights of Sweet Tastes of Torah, the Saturday night program that brings together rabbis and laypeople from across Bergen, Hudson, and Passaic counties. It’s sponsored by the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, which includes most of the area’s Conservative and Reform clergy members; after the keynote, prominent local rabbis will lead small-group discussions, most of them centering on the perception and the reality of Israel today. It also includes some food, lots of chances to meet people and talk, and Israeli folk dancing.
Rabbi Weinberg will talk about “what I see as the growing rift between American Jews and Israel,” he said. “What does it mean to have a connection to Israel? I will give some statistics about the growing rifts between different demographics, and how Israelis might perceive American Jews.”
That’s what “Fragile Dialogue” explores. “It’s meant to be a conversation starter,” he said. “Its editors, Rabbi Stanley Davids and Rabbi Larry Englander, said that we need new voices talking about Israel. We need to keep publishing intellectual approaches to the conflict. We have to get more voices — specifically progressive voices.”
That’s because if the discussion is not jumpstarted, at least in the liberal community, it won’t happen, he said. “American Jews are averse to confrontation. No one likes to have a confrontation, especially in what is supposed to be a safe place. And so you end up not talking about it — which I think is both sad and wrong.”
Rabbi Weinberg knows what he’s talking about. A native of Evanston, Ill., a suburb just north of Chicago, he grew up a proud Reform Jew; as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin he spent three semesters in Israel, and then, when he was 25, in 2003, he made aliyah to Israel. He served in the IDF, taught Jewish history for six years, and eventually went to Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s rabbinical seminary. Unlike most American Jews ordained by HUC, his ordination came from the school’s branch in Jerusalem.
He, his wife, Mara, who has a doctorate in sociology and now teaches at Brooklyn College, and their four young daughters moved back to the United States in 2015. The move was not because the family gave up on Israel; it was, instead, because Rabbi Weinberg was tapped to lead Arza, the Reform movement’s Zionist organization. Because ARZA now is part of the Union for Reform Judaism, “I also have the honor of serving as the URJ’s vice president for Israel,” he said.
He has watched “the growing rift” on Israel, as American Jews “became a little more right wing or a little more left wing. I think the gaps are widening. Alongside that, I also see a growing apathy, both for its own sake — people just aren’t so interested in things that happen outside their own four walls — and because the situation on the ground in Israel causes people to distance themselves from it.”
One of the basic disconnects between Israeli and American Jews is the concept of home, he said. “Americans keep thinking that America is the default.” Of course, part of that is because the place where you grow up and your family lives actually is home, but he thinks that it goes deeper than that. “It really was hard for people to swallow the fact that I made aliyah,” he added.
“And Israelis are taken aback when American Jews don’t want to move to Israel immediately.” When Israeli Jews press their American counterparts on making aliyah, as Rabbi Weinberg says they do, “they say ‘Wait a second. We’re here for a first trip. We hope it will be meaningful. But we are not refugees from war-torn places.’
“I remember saying to some of my family, on the eve of making aliyah, when they told me that they want me to realize how good America has been to me, ‘I am not running away from America. I am going for ideological reasons. I am going to build a life in a place where I think the future of Jewish life is.’
“And now we have to see what we have to offer each other beyond our pocketbooks.”
He thinks that the diaspora has many useful models to offer Israelis.
“I think that Jews outside Israel have figured out how to create a vibrant community in a privatized economy, where the government does not support or control religion,” he said. “I do think that there are other models outside the United States, in countries like Germany or the Netherlands.”
Those examples, and the inspiration to be drawn from them, are necessary because the Israeli government supports only Orthodox institutions. “So in Israel, we have to figure out how to build Jewish communities without governmental support,” Rabbi Weinberg said. “We are doing it here in the United States because it is important to us. We support clergy and buildings and maintenance from our pockets. That is a mode that we have to export to Israel.”
American Jews often are accused of trying to impose American-style Reform or Masorti (as the Conservative movement is called outside North American) Judaism on Israelis, who, the country’s government-supported chief rabbi’s office says, are not authentic Jews, and certainly not authentic Israelis.
That can change, Rabbi Weinberg said. “The more organically we can make change, the more the authority and the monopoly of the chief rabbinate will erode.”
There has been movement, he said, even if the chief rabbinate tries to hide it, and it comes from the intersection of Israeli and diaspora Jews. Most of the students in his rabbinical school class grew up in Israel. “Yet 95 percent of the students came to the program after some eye-opening and formative experience with Judaism abroad,” he said. “Different experiences — some were shlichim,” emissaries, representatives of Israeli culture “from the Jewish Agency, or to summer camps, and some spent a few years in New York, or wherever, and some just had been on holiday.” They saw Judaism practiced in ways that astonished and moved them to the point that they made those practices their own, and then took it farther.
Rabbi Weinberg told the story of a rabbinical school colleague “who had been in Wales on Yom Kippur and found a Reform synagogue.
“He came back to Israel and told the head of his program that he wanted to be a rabbi, and the head of the program said ‘It’s wonderful that you are so enthusiastic.
“‘But you are a dentist!’
“And the guy said ‘You’re right. I am a dentist.’ And then he took another program in Jewish history, and then he went to rabbinical school. And now he’s a rabbi in Ramat HaSharon.
“A vibrant movement is being built and is growing in Israel,” Rabbi Weinberg said. “It is changing the discussion about what it means to be Jewish; 70 years later people are waking up to a whole new reality.
“The polarizing dichotomy between religious and secular does not answer the needs of the mainstream any more. Israelis are searching. They want access to the Torah and the Jewish bookshelf. They want to find meaning and community. That is what we want to provide.
“It is not too different from American Jews, who outside of the Orthodox world are not necessarily going to synagogue out of halachic obligation, but because they want their kids to have Jewish experiences and meet like-minded people.”
Rabbi Steven Sirbu of Temple Emeth in Teaneck and Rabbi David Widzer of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter are Sweet Tastes’ co-chairs.
“I’m very excited about the topic,” Rabbi Sirbu said. At Sweet Tastes, “we often have stayed with topics related directly to the Torah or to this time of year, but this year we are wrestling with the issues around Israel.
“We’re also excited to have a new rabbi in the community hosting the program.” That’s Rabbi Beni Wajnberg of Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff. “This is the chance for him to introduce himself to the greater community.”
There will be two sessions of classes, Rabbi Sirbu said, and more than 20 rabbis on hand to teach them. And there also will be “the chance to buy the book,” he said; “The Fragile Dialogue” will be for sale in Beth Rishon. He hopes that people not only will buy the book but then will read it. The more voices that can join the conversation — the more people who can reconsider their connection to Israel, and draw closer to it — the better.
Who: Rabbi Josh Weinberg
What: Will give the keynote talk at this year’s Sweet Tastes of Torah
When: On Saturday evening, February 2; doors open at 6:30 p.m.;
community-wide Havdalah at 6:50.
Where: Temple Beth Rishon, 85 Russell Ave., Wyckoff
How much: $15 per person by January 29; $20 at door (cash or check only)
How to register: Google “Sweet Tastes of Torah 2019” and follow the links.