Israel crisis spurs Bay Area synagogues into action

When about 100 members of Temple Beth Jacob gathered last month to listen to a UCLA professor lecture about Israel, it wasn't just another adult education program.

It was the launch of a new committee called the Israel Action Committee at the Redwood City Conservative synagogue, formed specifically for members to get involved in supporting Israel.

"The goal is to try to get not only the Temple Beth Jacob community, but also neighboring synagogues, more actively involved in being advocates for Israel," said Brett Ehrlich, one of the committee's founding members.

While such activism has long been the provenance of larger organizations like AIPAC, the committee at Beth Jacob, as well as others, signifies increased grassroots efforts on the Mideast issue.

Beth Jacob's committee ([email protected]) plans to focus on both advocacy and education. One focus will be counteracting anti-Israel bias in the media.

"We're hoping to get a group like CAMERA [a pro-Israel media watchdog organization] to teach us how to identify media bias and what we can do about it, and what is the most effective way to speak to the press on these issues," Ehrlich said.

Noting the anti-Israel activities that have taken place on area college campuses since the violence in Israel broke out last fall, he said the committee also hopes to be able to support campus Jewish groups.

There is also talk of organizing a solidarity mission to Israel, and an e-mail list will be set up so congregants can be urged to write their elected officials and be alerted to events happening in the community.

And the committee hopes to inspire other congregations on the peninsula to join them with similar activities, forming a pro-Israel synagogue network.

"We have to start somewhere," said Jim Scheinman, another member of the Beth Jacob group. "If we can get several hundred active here, they'll tell their friends at other shuls."

Scheinman said that at the recent event, he was approached by several people from other local synagogues, who wanted to start something similar.

One congregation that is already doing something similar is Kol Shofar, just north of the Golden Gate.

Called "Bridges to Israel — Gesherim L'Yisrael," the Tiburon Conservative synagogue has set up a multifaceted committee designed not only to encourage pro-Israel activism but to establish personal connections between American and Israeli Jews.

Alan Zimmerman, the chair of the steering committee, decided to take an activist stance after visiting Israel recently for the first time at age 58.

The Kol Shofar committee has several subgroups. While political action is one component, the committee also hopes to establish a tie with a sister congregation in Israel.

The committee has a presence on the shul's Web site, (www.kolshofar.org), from which it is possible to link to online editions of Israeli newspapers as well as local Jewish resources.

The group also hopes to set up pen-pal relationships between young synagogue members and Israeli children, and expects to organize a synagogue trip to Israel some time in the near future.

Planned adult education programs include a lecture series in the fall, and establishing dialogue with the Palestinian-American community.

The objective is "for our members to have a real connection to Israel and what's going on there on a day-to-day basis," said Zimmerman. "We want them to have a heightened awareness…and allow people in Israel to know what it's like to be a Jew in America."

Like the group at Temple Beth Jacob, Kol Shofar's is open to synagogue members and non-members alike. "We're hoping to expand this beyond our own synagogue," said Zimmerman. "We hope other synagogues will try to use our model to develop a similar program."

While the Israel committees at Temple Beth Jacob and Congregation Kol Shofar were formed to show solidarity with Israel at a time of heightened conflict, another Bay area shul has long used similar activist tools, but to espouse a different viewpoint.

When Rabbi Burt Jacobson founded Berkeley's Kehilla Community Synagogue in 1984, his mission statement declared the congregation's support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"I'm a political leftist and I've had a fairly strong position on Israel and Palestine since the early '70s," said Jacobson, "so most of my outreach in the early years was to political leftists who were mostly secular. I thought maybe some of them might be interested in Jewish spirituality and Chassidism, and what Renewal had to offer them."

While the Middle East peace committee was the first one to be formed, the synagogue soon established a sanctuary committee as well, to deal with immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala.

In the 1990s the Middle East committee fell dormant as other concerns took precedence, but about five years ago, it started up again. Activities have included visiting elected officials, holding fund-raisers for projects in the West Bank and Gaza, and selling crafts made by Palestinian women.

Quite a few Kehilla members, including Jacobson, are also involved in the Coalition for Jews for Justice in Israel and Palestine. As such, Jacobson said he is often walking a fine line between those who are pro-Israel and critical, and those who are just critical.

Speaking of the Kehilla community as well as himself, he said, "We're not just pro-Palestinian, we never have been.

"What we've felt all along is that having a Palestinian state is in the best interest of Israel in the long run. It simply has to happen."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."