When rabbis won’t speak about Israel

When rabbis won’t speak about Israel

AJR panel to offer tips for starting a conversation


Ironically, what should be a unifying topic for Jews often spurs such heated discussion that rabbis tend to avoid it, said Ora Horn Prouser, executive vice president and dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

Dr. Prouser, who lives in Franklin Lakes and is married to Temple Emanuel of North Jersey’s Rabbi Joseph Prouser, said that she heard a lot over the summer from rabbis and other spiritual leaders. They said that they were “unable or not comfortable talking about Israel in their synagogues,” she reported.

“It didn’t come from a lack of love,” Dr. Horn said. “They’re deeply invested in Israel, and yet they felt they could not get into a conversation without deeply offending other parts of their community.”

To help these rabbis, and the entire community, deal with this situation, Dr. Prouser’s seminary has organized an intensive three-day program, co-sponsored by the New York Board of Rabbis, for its students and alumni. On February 22, that program – “Israel: The Conversation” – will be open to the public.

“The idea for this program is based in the struggles that spiritual leaders feel in how to speak to their communities about Israel,” Dr. Prouser said. “This has led to many of them simply not speaking about Israel. This does not feel like a legitimate response to us at AJR, so we are running this program.”

The problem has been worsening over the years, she said, and only congregations filled with like-minded congregants have escaped its reach.

She noted that some rabbis feel the need to consistently defend Israel in face of outside criticism, while others feel that the way they express their love of Israel is to criticize it for what they see as its shortcomings.

“But it comes from the love of Israel,” she stressed. “That is a really important element to keep in mind. There can be people taking many different opposing views, each one acting out of a sincere connection to Israel.”

“It’s hard, given the climate in America, where many people have such deep feelings and are [so] defensive about their feelings,” Dr. Prouser said. Indeed, she added, there have been instances where the issue engendered such tremendous conflict within synagogues that people left their seats on the shul’s board, eventually leaving the synagogues entirely.

“It’s not simply that they were uncomfortable,” Dr. Prouser said. “It led to deep issues of people asking, ‘Do I belong there?'”

The issue is “front and center” for her school, she said, explaining why she has organized the program.

“We’re a pluralistic institution, full of diversity. Rather than thinking we need to be kept in separate boxes, the students can develop their own skills for dealing with difficult conversations…. As much as none of us like it when others put us in a box, we’re quick to put others in one.

“We work with students to show them that even when someone has a specific point of view, you don’t put them in a box. They may be richer in their thoughts than you give them credit for.”

Dr. Prouser said that students will be asked to use what they learn when they go back out into their communities. She called it part of the academy’s commitment to “hands-on learning. “It’s part of our training to help our students really be prepared to serve the Jewish community in many different ways,” she said.

There are many times where conversations are difficult, Dr. Prouser continued. Communal leaders should be able to have such conversations in an intelligent and thoughtful way, understanding that others cherish different beliefs and that just because you feel differently doesn’t mean you have to “dig in your heels. You can find ways to learn from each other – while sometimes disagreeing – yet continue to love klal Yisrael.”

Dr. Prouser hopes that the program will yield spirited dialogue.

“We’ve got wonderful presenters, with a wide range of opinions,” she said. “I expect we will learn from each other and really hear things we didn’t hear before. Perhaps we’ll be open to hearing things we hadn’t been open to before.”

The program will begin with a panel including Rabbi David Seth Kirshner of Closter, spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El there and president of the New York Board of Rabbis; Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu of Teaneck, director of Rabbis Without Borders at CLAL; Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, N.Y., and Rabbi Alana Suskin, director of strategic communications for Americans for Peace Now. It will be moderated by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky, AJR’s rabbinics curriculum coordinator, who grew up in Fair Lawn.

This will be followed by text study that reinforces and further explores the issues raised in the panel.

“We invited people who we know have strong feelings but also who we consider deep thinkers, seriously committed to Israel and the Jewish community,” Dr. Prouser said. She is in no doubt that “each one of us will agree more with one person than with the others.

“I hope and expect that people will see deep thinking, emotional caring, and the internal struggles that each of our speakers is feeling, and [will see] that each one wants to do right by Israel and their own Jewish community,” she said.

She also is pleased that each speaker has experience with a synagogue or with groups of rabbis.

“I didn’t bring in people who don’t understand what it means to serve a community,” she said.

Rabbi Pitkowsky noted that “when discussing Israel, we have to find the balance between knowing when and how to talk, and when and how to listen. Sometimes there is a lot of talking going on, but not much listening, while at other times people do not even know how to talk with one another.

“At the Academy for Jewish Religion, we value finding the balance between the two, and understand that they are both essential components of a vibrant and diverse Jewish community. We hope that this panel discussion will help contribute to creating a fruitful and honest discussion about Israel within our communities.”

While Closter’s Rabbi Kirshner will be a panelist, still, he said that “personally, I don’t think it is so difficult to talk about Israel.

“I don’t know why my colleagues seem to find this a challenge. I talk about it perhaps more than I should, all the time, in my congregation.”

He noted that although a Conservative congregation like his includes members at all levels of observance – including some who are shomer Shabbat and some who emphatically are not – “the major common denominator is a love for Israel.

“It’s a conversation that has to be had,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “People are more engaged in Jewish communal life when they are stockholders.

“I say anything and everything – I’m not so shy about my beliefs,” he added, pointing to his February 4 op-ed in this newspaper, suggesting that Prime Minister Netanyahu should refuse the U.S. Congress’s invitation to speak before it.

“I don’t hesitate to share,” he said. He noted, however, that there are some ground rules in his congregation.

“We disagree with kindness,” he said. “That’s the beauty of Judaism.

“It’s mission critical to lend our voice” to discussions on major issues, Rabbi Kirshner continued, and to debate such topics as whether French Jews should now make aliyah. “Rabbis who succumb to fear are lost, as are their communities. We’re hired to share our views, not to be fearful.”

Suggesting that he may be an anomaly in the rabbinic world, Rabbi Kirshner dismissed the idea that a rabbi can’t, for example, talk about AIPAC or JStreet, just because supporters of the other group are in the audience.

However, he acknowledged, “many future rabbis are scared about talking about Israel. It’s a loaded issue.

“Being a good rabbi means you want to be precise, thoughtful, and respectful,” he said. Accepting the premise that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, “You can’t say there’s one view of that and then 70 faces of Torah.”

People respond differently to Israel, depending on how old they are, Rabbi Kirshner posited. “More people are living longer than ever before, so 20-year-olds are sitting down with 80-year-olds. And while some 75-year-olds may be thinking about where to put their money if the next Holocaust is coming, some 25-year-olds don’t understand the need for the ADL.”

According to Rabbi Kirshner, “portals” connecting older people to Israel are less effective with younger people, who may not have the time or money, for example, to attend AIPAC conferences, visit Israel, or engage with Israeli leaders. Perhaps the only time the two groups come together is when tragedies occur. “Oppression is galvanizing,” Rabbi Kirshner said.

He agreed with the contention that anti-Israel sentiment is often used as a smokescreen for anti-Semitism, but he said that does not mean that being critical of Israel’s policies necessarily means that the critic is an anti-Semite.

Fellow panelist Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu said that in her job as director of CLAL’s Rabbis without Borders, “I help rabbis be more clear in their outlook.”

Not having a pulpit herself, “I am not being challenged by a congregation to take a clear stand on Israel,” she said. “I’m training rabbis to look at Israel from multiple sides,” so they can both express their own views and leave space for others to disagree.

Rabbis without Borders, which has more than 150 rabbis in its cross-denominational international network, strives to train rabbis to “serve anyone, anywhere,” Rabbi Sirbu said. “To do that in today’s increasingly diverse, multicultural, and politically polarized world, a lot of what we do is help rabbis be able to meet people wherever they are.”

They also help rabbis approach polarizing issues – including Israel – “from a perspective where they know where they are grounded – whatever their position – but can speak out to people where they are.

“We’re hoping to avoid situations where rabbis are alienating people because of what their position may be,” she said. “We encourage them to give their own views but to say that people can fully disagree.”

Rabbis across the country need to learn this skill, she added. “Israel right now is the third rail – they’re scared to touch it. They don’t want to alienate or inflame some portion of their congregation.”

Rabbi Sirbu said that the narrative about Israel that people believe has changed over the years. The older generation, who lived through the founding of Israel or the Six Day War, have a far different belief system than those who grew up in the 1990s. For one group, the main message is that Israel is constantly at risk and must be supported. The other group sees a nation that has conquered territories and does not let Palestinians have certain rights.

People who adhere to the narrative that Israel must be kept powerful tend to line up around AIPAC and Jewish federations, she said. The other group may gravitate to JStreet or Americans for Peace Now.

“It’s very complicated,” Rabbi Sirbu said, noting that some people call others “anti-Israel” because they disagree with the dominant narrative. “You have to be very careful when you start throwing those [terms] around. It’s different than what’s happening in Europe.”

Rabbi Sirbu said she learned from rabbis at several professional gatherings that they don’t talk about Israel because they find it “too divisive.”

“I find that sad,” she said. “Regardless of where you are on the spectrum of Israel and policies, it’s part and parcel of who we are as American Jews.

“It’s really important for rabbis to open up the conversation so that everyone can participate.”

What: “Israel: The Conversation”

When: Sunday, February 22, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: Academy of Jewish Religion,
28 Wells Avenue, N.Y.

For more information or to register: Go to ARJ’s website, www.ajrsem.org, and click on the link at the bottom for “Israel: The Conversation.”

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