TEANECK As soon as he saw protesters gathering with a Palestinian flag outside his house across the street from Cong. Bnai Yeshurun here last Sunday, Joey Bodner pinned Israeli and American flags to the side of his deck behind them. He then offered hot coffee and cocoa to the police, and to a demonstrator who asked him for some.
"The guy said, ‘Thank you,’ and I said, ‘My pleasure,’ and then I offered coffee to all the others," said Bodner. "Of course, as we walked away there was a dig like, ‘Could you be nice to the Palestinians, too?’ So instead of just appreciating the genuine gesture
." He shrugged. "They’re human beings. They’re entitled to freedom of speech."
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky being interviewed by NBC news. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman
The program about ‘0 people had come to protest was a presentation by an organization that facilitates the purchase of property in the contested Yehuda and Shomron ("west bank") regions of Israel.
"I’m proud of my shul for hosting this, and I’m proud of my community for giving people their equal rights," said Bodner, a member of Bnai Yeshurun’s executive board and of the township’s planning board. "I’m still trying to figure out what international law we’re violating [by having this program]. In fact, there is none."
Bnai Yeshurun president Mike Roth was stationed at the door, explaining that the presentation was closed to the many members of the media converging on the event including an Israeli reporter from Al Jazeera. Said Roth, "They have the right to protest, we have the right to support Israel. That’s America."
In the vestibule, where reporters were permitted to interview participants, one shul member questioned why protesters would target a housing fair. "Were they [protesting] when Saddam Hussein was slaughtering Muslims in Iraq?" he asked.
Bodner’s next-door neighbor, Bnai Yeshurun member Stan Steinreich, said he’d discussed the event beforehand with his children. "I explained that in America, peaceful demonstration is part of the dialogue process." His 1′-year-old son said he was concerned that their house would be seen in pictures of the protest.
Some neighbors were feeling even more unsettled. One shul member told Roth her house had been pelted with eggs and tomatoes over the weekend. And the demonstrators loudly heckled those exiting the shul, including this reporter, as police looked on.
"My kids were scared when I put up the flags," Bodner said of his two teenagers. "They were scared and then they were proud."
Ironically, advance reports in at least two local newspapers may have been responsible for the heavy turnout of interested buyers, which filled the synagogue’s auxiliary sanctuary and included people from outside the township.
"I’m interested in looking into purchasing property in Israel, to support settlement in those communities and perhaps one day to move there," said one attendee afterward. "The presentation was reassuring and made a lot of sense. They’re encouraging you to buy property and build a house there as an investment, to rent to a family that would like to live there. If at some time in the future you decide you want to live in that house they will make it available to you."
Kal Feinberg, a member of another township Orthodox congregation who attended the presentation, said some people worried that the Israeli government could one day withdraw from these territories as it did from Gaza.
"Here’s my answer to that: The creation of the State of Israel was obviously a miracle created by God," said Feinberg. "If God wants us to be there, the settlements will become an indigenous part of Israel, and if not, there’s nothing that the government of the State of Israel can do. Our bitachon [trust] should not be with the State of Israel and its government; it should be with God."
In all, about ’50 people left with information packets from the sponsoring organization, Amana (amana.org.il).
"I have to thank the protestors outside for giving us some valuable publicity, because it easily quadrupled our turnout today," said the congregation’s rabbi, Steven Pruzansky. "Some have already committed to purchasing homes."
Pruzansky said his only reservation in hosting the housing fair had been whether it would draw enough response. After discussing it at length with the organizers and with other rabbis, he decided to "let the market prevail. If people are interested they will come."
He was not planning to speak to the protesters outside, but when asked what he would say to them, Pruzansky answered, "I would say that they have every right to protest but something must be torn inside of them, especially those who are Jews, that would make them want to do this.
"There is so much injustice in the world," he continued. "The Muslims, whose ‘bags’ they are carrying, are killing people in Bali, in Iraq, in Chechnya, in Darfur, in Moscow, Paris, London, Madrid, Washington, and New York. Why are they making it their business to protest settlement in the land of Israel, when there is so much real injustice going on?
"I think that cuts to the core of their Jewishness. For many of them, I think this is the closest they’ve ever come to an Orthodox synagogue. Maybe sometime in the future," he said with a smile, "I can get them inside."