Liberal rabbis urge congregants to donate to pluralism causes

Bonds mounts its largest campaign of the year during the High Holy Days, and rabbis across the country make a pitch on the organization's behalf.

This year, however, Barenbaum took a different tack. Instead of pushing for Bonds, the rabbi of San Rafael's Congregation Rodef Sholom urged congregants to channel money into two other organizations: the Association of Reform Zionists of America and the New Israel Fund.

The Reform rabbi singled out ARZA and NIF because "I thought they were the two organizations that most supported the agenda of liberal Judaism and religious pluralism and peace and human rights."

Barenbaum is not alone.

While this year's High Holy Day sermons found rabbis across the country urging support for Bonds and the United Jewish Appeal, a random sampling showed that many from each of the liberal movements also urged listeners to back the philanthropies that support causes they back themselves.

Such causes have assumed new urgency, they say, with assaults on egalitarian prayer groups at Jerusalem's Western Wall and with pending Knesset legislation that would codify Orthodox control over conversions in Israel.

This year, many rabbis requested pre-printed contributions envelopes from the NIF. Shortly before the holidays, the fund-raising group had mailed material on religious diversity and Jewish unity to rabbis.

Meanwhile, ARZA and Masorti, the Israel branches of the Reform and Conservative movements respectively, expected a heavier flow of contributions as a result of Holy Day appeals by their movements' rabbis.

ARZA, for its part, sent out tens of thousands of pledge cards to its 850 affiliated organizations. "The money will be used for bricks, mortar and anything else necessary to root ourselves in the soil in Israel, like teacher training, coalition building and political work," said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, ARZA's executive vice president.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services traditionally draw record numbers, offering rabbis a chance to reach crowds rarely seen throughout the year. This year, many rabbis used the occasion to express deep distress over increased threats to religious pluralism.

Rabbi Mark Diamond of Conservative Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, who speaks on the topic often, was one of them.

Though he chose not to make a direct appeal for Masorti — "We don't do appeals anymore on the holidays," he said — he did speak firmly on the need for American Jews to involve themselves in the sorts of battles Masorti fights.

"We need to let Israeli officials know exactly how we feel about this," Diamond told congregants. "We're not going to stand by idly as they legislate us out of existence."

But Diamond, like many other rabbis, also consciously spoke of Jewish unity in a positive light.

"We cannot sink to the level of our detractors," he said. "We all have a role to play in responding to sinat chinam — causeless hatred — with love and respect and tolerance."

Rather than focusing exclusively on the stress points, some rabbis tried to frame the problems in the context of their fundamental commitment to Israel.

"There is much to love in Israel. There is much to admire," Barenbaum said.

At the same time, he stressed the need to recognize the struggles being waged by the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, "by women, by new immigrants unable to produce adequate Jewish pedigrees…by secular Jews whose rights are jeopardized by the stranglehold that the religious right exercises on Israel's government."

Speaking along similar lines, Rabbi Vivian Schirn paraphrased the epitaph of American poet Robert Frost, saying, "I have a lover's quarrel with Judaism and Israel.

"I love all of it but one of the quarrels I have is with the audacity or chutzpah of one group of Jews claiming authenticity for their Jewish practice and disclaiming the authenticity of other Jewish groups," said the rabbi of Or Hadash Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington, Pa.

While others shunned the Israel Bonds campaign altogether, Schirn arranged for NIF envelopes to be distributed to her congregants at the same time she pressed forward with the synagogue's traditional Bonds appeal.

"But we're starting to question it more seriously because the Israeli government is going in so many directions which counter religious pluralism and the peace process," she said.

Ricki Nickel, executive director of Israel Bonds here, said she did not see a decrease in the number of local synagogues making appeals. "We actually had more synagogues doing an appeal than we have had in the past," she said, estimating this year's number at 24.

It is too early to assess the extent to which UJA, another recipient of traditional High Holy Day appeals, has been affected by current events in Israel.

The fund-raising agency did what it could to ensure positive results, said Rabbi Doniel Kramer, director of UJA's Rabbinic Cabinet. Each rabbi in America received three mailings from UJA in the month before Rosh Hashanah, including a detailed report of what each of the religious movements in Israel receives in funding through the UJA system.

Leaders of each of the movements also urged their rabbis to support UJA in their own letters.

There had been much concern in the central Jewish fund-raising establishment that anger among Reform and Conservative Jews over Israel's failure to recognize non-Orthodox Judaism would create a backlash, spurring non-Orthodox religious leaders to advocate against giving to UJA.

Their worry was not without cause.

Last year, Rabbi Peter Kasdan, the leader of Reform Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston, N.J., told congregants to send the percentage of their Jewish federation donation that would have gone to Israel through UJA directly to Reform institutions there.

Now no less passionate about religious pluralism, Kasdan feels hopeful about steps taken by his local federation and UJA to funnel more support to the Reform and Conservative movements. He has thus moderated his stance.

This year, during his Yom Kippur Kol Nidre sermon, Kasdan urged those sitting in his synagogue's pews to contribute to the local federation and to direct those donations to Reform institutions in Israel by enclosing a note with their check.

"Yom Kippur is a time of return and I am coming back to the fold with one foot in and one foot out," Kasdan said. "I reserve judgment to see what happens this year before I come back fully and unconditionally next year."