New group fears rabbis are drifting away from Zionism
While there aren’t many opinion surveys done on rabbis, a major 2013 study by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs found high levels of support for Israel. But despite these numbers, many rabbis who attended the inaugural meeting of the Zionist Rabbinic Coalition in Washington, D. “There was a time when it was understood to be a rabbi meant to be a lover of Israel,” Weinblatt, who runs a Conservative shul in suburban Maryland, told the nearly 40 rabbis who gathered for the three-day meeting. There are other reasons to think a shift may be coming in the larger American Jewish community, with 25% of Jewish voters saying in a July survey that they believed Israel was an “apartheid state” and 22% stating it was “committing genocide against the Palestinians” — both figures that spike among younger Jews. “I have seen this drift,” Weinblatt, who runs a Conservative shul in suburban Maryland, said in an interview. Those concerns bubbled up during a Tuesday session discussing the future of the coalition, with several rabbis making clear that they see themselves as a counter to national leadership they believe has moved too far left on Israel. “One of the things that has been really disheartening to me is when so many of our senior leadership in the Reform movement have been bullying our colleagues,” said Rabbi Rosie Haim, chair of the Israel Bonds rabbinic council. “We’re dealing with bullies,” agreed Rabbi Hal Schevitz, the leader of Congregation Or Atid, a Conservative synagogue near Richmond, Virginia. Rabbi Ariel Boxman, director of learning at Temple Shalom in Naples, Florida, said she was afraid to post in the Facebook group for Reform rabbis. “I can’t share my pro-Israel beliefs and love of Israel with my colleagues, especially the younger ones,” said Boxman.
The coalition didn’t reach any clear conclusions about how to address their concerns, but its roster of supporters shows that some influential leaders are invested in its success. Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer suggested creating the coalition, which now counts more than 200 dues-paying members, during an encounter at the inauguration of the Museum of the Bible in 2017, according to Weinblatt. In a nod to that original conversation, the conference held its opening night at the Bible Museum. During one lecture attendees were invited to share anonymous messages on what they had learned about supporting Israel: “Be more articulate and emotional about why I am Zionist,” one said. While it was largely a collegial affair, there were some signs of tensions bubbling under the surface. “I don’t hear ‘Tucker Carlson’ and ‘right-wing antisemitism,’” said Rabbi Aaron Gaber, who leads Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown, Pennsylvania. Weinblatt said anyone who supported the coalition’s mission of promoting the “self-determination of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel” was welcome. “There are probably members of J Street’s rabbinic cabinet who might not even be aware of some of the extremist positions that J Street takes,” Weinblatt said in an interview. Rabbi Josh Weinberg, director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, said he agreed with the coalition that rabbis should be Zionists and acknowledged that the Reform movement “can always be doing more. “If we don’t acknowledge the occupation and deal with it,” said Weinberg, “and say that we are against it — and that it is a moral stain on the fabric of the Zionist enterprise — then we will not be able to maintain a liberal Zionism for the future.
Despite concerns over liberal seminaries at the conference, Weinberg said he had seen students who were skeptical about Zionism when they were admitted to Hebrew Union-College-Jewish Institute of Religion develop a closer connection to Israel over the five years of study. Sarrae Crane, who runs the Conservative movement’s Zionist arm, said the Jewish Theological Seminary had moved to strengthen its Israel education in light of the open letter last year. “People who don’t care about Israel don’t sign such a letter,” Crane said. (HUC-JIR, the Reform seminary, said that the programming on its mandatory year in Israel teaches that the country is “core to the Jewish people’s modern reality,” and that it offers a robust Israel studies program at its North American campuses. The letter also received a relatively swift backlash from some leaders in the Jewish community, with Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, who leads the influential Central Synagogue in New York City, saying that her first impulse was to make sure not to hire anyone who had signed it. And when it comes to the question of Israel, it’s often anti-Zionist Jews describe feeling alienated from mainstream Jewish institutions and leadership — which both remain tremendously supportive of Israel. Some at the conference suggested that the prominent role that Zionism continues to play in the Jewish community may have depressed turnout at the event. “I did reach out personally to some people to come here and they couldn’t quite understand what we were doing,” said Rabbi Lisa Malik, who leads Temple Beth Am in New Jersey.
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