27 rabbis, 7 days, 1 Jewish state: Bay Area rabbis take pluralism to Israel

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

As 27 Bay Area rabbis sat down in the Knesset to meet with Israeli government officials, Rabbi Stephen Pearce leaned forward to speak.

“Well, as long as we’re in this space,” he quipped, “let’s solve all the problems.”

The senior rabbi of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El got a big laugh, in part because he and his colleagues knew full well they could not solve Israel’s problems.

The weeklong Northern California Rabbis Mission to Israel, which took place Jan. 23 to 30, was a Bay Area first. While they routinely gather for their movement conventions or meet in smaller regional councils, never before had so many local rabbis, representing the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements, traveled to Israel as a group.

They came from as far north as Ukiah, as far south as Santa Cruz, as far east as Davis and all points in between.

Many are pulpit rabbis, others serve communal organizations. Some championed the rights of the Palestinians, others defended the settlers in the West Bank.

They met with top politicians from the left and the right. They test-drove an all-electric car that may thrust Israel to the forefront of global green technology. They studied Torah at an Orthodox yeshiva in the West Bank and a secular yeshiva in Tel Aviv, testing their political and theological limits.

But unfailingly, all shared a mutual respect and concern for Israel’s well being. Along the way, friendships formed and preconceptions unraveled.

“Even though we don’t agree theologically on all issues, when it comes to Israel everyone has such love for this land,” said Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi of Congregation Chevra Thilim, an Orthodox shul in San Francisco. “It’s a unifying force, our shared homeland, the center of Judaism.”

Also on board, Barak Loozon, a native Israel currently working with the Israel Center and representing the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Rabbis attend a Torah study session a BINA, a secular yeshiva in Tel Aviv. photos/rabbi daniel pressman

The trip came at a time of political and religious turmoil in Israel. In recent months, the Knesset has grappled with such hot-button issues as Jewish conversion and loyalty oaths. The visit also coincided with the uprising in Egypt, which added an air of trepidation.

But the rabbis hoped their show of inter-denominational unity would impress Israelis unused to such religious pluralism.

“We put them in their element and outside their element,” said Consul General Akiva Tor, who planned much of the mission itinerary and traveled with the rabbis. “I thought it would bring clarity.”

While several of the rabbis knew each other prior to the trip, some were strangers to each other. Yet once in Israel together, it didn’t take long for a feeling of professional simpatico to emerge.

“Rabbis should be friends with and support other rabbis,” Rabbi Daniel Pressman of Congregation Beth David in Saratoga said of the underlying credo of the mission. “No one understands what we experience better than other rabbis.”

Organized in concert with the Consulate General of Israel and the Northern California Board of Rabbis (though not sponsored by the Board), the mission was the brainchild of Rabbi Allen Bennett of Temple Israel, a Reform synagogue in Alameda.

Early last year, he learned of a similar mission undertaken by Los Angeles rabbis. That’s when a light bulb went off.

“It seemed in the increasingly polarized situation among religious streams in Israel, this ought to happen,” Bennett recalled. “I mentioned it to Akiva. He thought it was a good idea.”

Tor and Bennett worked together to design an itinerary that explored Israel’s civil, political and religious life in all its messy, multifaceted glory. “Akiva called in all of his chips,” Bennett noted.

While such missions to Israel often include political and social agendas, this trip had a twist: The rabbis had a chance to dive into Torah study opportunities. “Torah is the one place all Jews meet,” said Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe of Congregation Emanu-El.

“One of the goals of the trip was for the rabbis to be able to engage with one another, and create collegial relationships,” added Rabbi Elon Sunshine of Congregation B’nai Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Walnut Creek. “What better way than to unite around the study of Jewish text.”

Sunshine put his finger on the core of the mission: to have a diverse group of rabbis break bread together as fellow Jews, no matter which denomination they represented, and find common ground.

They could have nicknamed the trip “Eat. Pray. Love.”

“People I’ve respected I’ve become positively attached to,” reflected Rabbi Harry Manhoff of Temple Beth Sholom, a Conservative shul in San Leandro. “As I got to know them and feel their passion, I had more respect for what they’re doing.”

This was indeed a passion-driven trip, and though all 27 rabbis claim a strong affinity to Israel, they expressed it in different ways.

For Rabbi Pamela Frydman (director of the Holocaust Education Project at the Academy for Jewish Religion, and regional director of the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal), the Women of the Wall movement, which seeks equal rights for women at the Kotel, took center stage. For Rabbi David Cooper of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, reminding the group of the hardships Palestinians face in the region took precedence. For the three Orthodox rabbis, it was showing solidarity with budding Torah scholars in a West Bank settlement.

But whatever their prior concerns, the rabbis came to Israel to listen and learn.

“All we do is put out fires, and we’re not even good at that,” said Knesset member Nachman Shai to the visiting rabbis, speaking metaphorically of the devastating Carmel fires last year.

Shai was one of several politicians with whom the group met. Also on the schedule: talks with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, Likud’s Yuli Edelstein and Natan Sharansky, the one-time Soviet refusenik and current head of the Jewish Agency.

They addressed issues of concern to the rabbis and the Jewish world, including a controversial proposed bill, now on hold, that would hand oversight of Jewish conversions over to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

“The question of who is a Jew is on the agenda again,” Sharansky told the rabbis. “Most American Jews don’t understand why [Israel] can’t be like America. Israel belongs to all the Jews of the world. Easy to say, difficult to accept.”

Ayalon greeted the rabbis at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. He belongs to Yisrael Beiteinu, the party that sponsored the conversion bill and another bill to mandate a loyalty oath, and also pushed for a Knesset subcommittee to investigate left-leaning NGOs in Israel. “There are,” he said, “Israelis that are in many ways enemies of the state.”

That did not sit well with some of the visiting rabbis.

“I didn’t think he understood the political realities on the ground in the Bay Area,” said Rabbi Marvin Goodman, head of the Northern California Board of Rabbis, and one of the mission organizers. “He didn’t understand what we’re facing in terms of delegitimization [of Israel]. I think it was spin.”

Added Orthodox Rabbi Judah Dardik of Oakland’s Beth Jacob Congregation, “Some of the politicians were uber-slick. Of course, the difference between whether you think someone is uber-slick or brilliant is whether you agree with them.”

A visit to the Israeli Supreme Court elicited more enthusiasm. Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, which hears about 80 cases a year, the Israeli version receives more than 10,000 petitions annually. Anyone, including West Bank Palestinians, has a right to petition the court.

The rabbis met with justices Elyakim Rubinstein and Salim Jubran, the latter a Christian Arab. They explained their institution’s role in upholding Israeli democracy.

That meeting impressed Rabbi Richard Litvak of Temple Beth El in Aptos. “Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue,” he said, quoting Deuteronomy. “Here that verse was fulfilled.”

But the visit frustrated Rabbi Rosalind Glazer of San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Israel Judea. She disapproved of the court’s handling of the Women of the Wall case, which took years to adjudicate and did not result in greater freedom for women worshippers.

“[Justice Rubinstein] wasn’t even familiar with the nuances of the case,” Glazer said. “For us it’s a huge concern. So many colleagues of mine came here for rabbinical school, went to the Kotel and were so deeply offended they said ‘I don’t want to come back here ever.’ It’s a shanda.”

The rabbis got a different take from Anat Hoffman, head of the Israel Religious Action Center. She was one of the first to attempt to read from a Torah scroll at the Kotel years ago, and paid a price with arrest and physical violence.

“Here’s a tip,” she said at IRAC headquarters in Jerusalem. “If you want to be a social activist, get a folding table, and make sure it’s a light one because it may end up on your head.”

Hoffman spoke of IRAC’s work on behalf of Women of the Wall, as well as Israel’s minorities, including Roma, Bedouins and others.

Pearce, who has known Hoffman for years, supports IRAC’s work. “She’s on the front lines,” he said of Hoffman. “Every time I come to Israel I can’t leave without seeing what she’s doing and seeing how I can possibly help.”

The political conversation shifted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a visit to the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, headed by Gershon Baskin, a Jewish peace activist, and Hannah Sinoria, a Palestinian journalist.

Both sounded the alarm over the status of the two-state solution, placing most of the blame on Israel.

“The window is closing fast,” Baskin told the rabbis from IPCRI’s Jerusalem headquarters. “If we fail to partition soon, the Palestinians will say ‘No more.’ By the end of 2011, the window is finished.”

The comments drew strong reactions afterward.

“For him to blame just the Israelis isn’t right,” said Rabbi Dennis Eisner of Peninsula Temple Beth El, a Reform synagogue in San Mateo. “Where’s the culpability for bad behavior, for 10,000 rockets? Israel does great things for the world. I’m tired of the rest of the world not seeing that.”

Soon after, the rabbis were bused to Gush Etzion, a Jewish settlement block east of Jerusalem that has sparked controversy over Israel’s presence in the West Bank.

For some, crossing the Green Line meant crossing a personal line, and they chose to stay behind. For the rest, even those opposed to settlements, the visit was eye-opening.

The first Gush Etzion was destroyed in Israel’s War of Independence of 1948. It was re-established after the Six-Day War, and now comprises 15 communities with a population of 85,000.

At Yeshivat Har Etzion, the rabbis settled in for some intense Torah study. Professor Mordechai Friedman proved a tough taskmaster, teaching a shiur (lesson) about why Jews eat three meals on Shabbat. Like Formula One drivers jostling for position, the rabbis fired responses to Friedman’s probing questions.

They were utterly in their element.

“I’m opposed to settlements politically,” said Rabbi Steven Chester of Reform Temple Sinai in Oakland. “Yet I would love to go and study at that yeshiva. Would I agree with their theology or politics? No, but with the pure aspect of study, my eyes really opened up. It was very exciting.”

Rabbi Roberto Graetz of Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah shared Chester’s excitement, but it was not unqualified.

“I liked what I saw in terms of the people and the work,” he noted. “But at the end of the day, even though [Jews] may have historic reasons to be there, we are seen by the local population as occupiers, so it’s still a problem for me.”

In Tel Aviv, the rabbis toured the Better Place visitor’s center to learn more about that company’s ambitious plan to green up the automobile.

Better Place launches its electric car, accompanying charging spots and battery switch stations across Israel starting this year. The company will also test its system in the Bay Area when a few taxis and charging spots debut later this year.

The rabbis not only learned about it, they experienced it, test-driving the cars on an adjacent half-mile track. “The ride was wonderful,” said Chester afterward. “Israel is not afraid to experiment and take a first step.”

On Friday night, the rabbis scattered to various synagogues around town for Kabbalat Shabbat. They met up later for a sumptuous Shabbat dinner at the home of Mem Bernstein, a former San Franciscan who is a trustee of the Avi Chai Foundation, which funds Jewish education projects around the world.

It was a fitting end to an intense but fulfilling week.

“I have loved Israel all my life,” said Frydman as the trip drew to a close. “Yet my feelings are deepened even more by virtue of being here with colleagues.”

For Rabbi SaraLeya Schley of Chochmat HaLev, a Renewal congregation in Berkeley, the trip brought her closer to colleagues of varying denominations.

“It was beautiful,” she said. “People have been really respectful. My [ordination] is not from a major institution, yet I felt completely accepted and honored.”

The rabbis hoped the bonds formed on the trip would only strengthen over time, and lead to more collaboration back home — perhaps a Torah study group, or a more revved-up rabbinic engine for social change.

“I want this to form a strong coalition of rabbis who care deeply about our connection to Israel,” said Rabbi Micah Hyman of San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom. “We are comfortable with one another because of our disposition in the Bay. Not just tolerance but pluralism. We’re in this together.”

On the way to Ben-Gurion Airport to fly home, Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, summed up the trip.

“At some point during the trip, everybody was out of his or her comfort zone. But everyone held everyone else up, and ended up feeling less trepidation,” he said.

“Everyone stretched, trying to understand the perspectives of colleagues who come from very different places. And from beginning to end, there was absolutely civility, absolute respect.”

J. staff writer Dan Pine accompanied the Northern California Rabbis Mission to Israel, which funded his participation.

Rabbis who went

The participants in the Northern California Rabbis Mission to Israel:

Allen Bennett (Reform), Temple Israel, Alameda

James Brandt (Reform), CEO, Jewish Federation of the East Bay

Steven Chester (Reform), Temple Sinai, Oakland

Yonatan Cohen (Orthodox), Congregation Beth Israel, Berkeley

David Cooper (Renewal), Kehilla Community Synagogue, Piedmont

Judah Dardik (Orthodox), Beth Jacob Congregation, Oakland

Shoshana Devorah (Renewal), Congregation Kol HaEmek, Redwood Valley

Dennis Eisner (Reform), Peninsula Temple Beth El, San Mateo

Pamela Frydman (Renewal), regional director of Ohalah

Rosalind Glazer (Reconstructionist), Congregation Beth Israel Judea, San Francisco

Marvin Goodman (Conservative), executive director

of the Northern California Board of Rabbis

Roberto Graetz (Reform), Temple Isaiah, Lafayette

Micah Hyman (Conservative), Congregation Beth Sholom, San Francisco

Jonathan Jaffe (Reform), Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco

Valerie Joseph, chaplain, Veterans Administration Hospital, Palo Alto

Doug Kahn (Reform), executive director, Jewish Community Relations Council

Moshe Levin (Conservative), Congregation Ner Tamid, San Francisco

Richard Litvak (Reform), Temple Beth El, Aptos

Barak Loozon, director for young adult engagement to Israel,

the Israel Center, San Francisco

Harry Manhoff (Reform) Congregation Beth Sholom, San Leandro

Stephen Pearce (Reform), Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco

Daniel Pressman (Conservative), Congregation Beth David, Saratoga

SaraLeya Schley (Renewal), Chochmat HaLev, Berkeley

Chaim Schneider (Renewal), Chadeish Yameinu, Santa Cruz

Elon Sunshine (Conservative), Congregation B’nai Shalom, Walnut Creek

Akiva Tor, consul general of Israel, Pacific Northwest

Eric Weiss (Reform), executive director, Bay Area Jewish Healing Center

Gregory Wolfe (Reform), Congregation Bet Haverim, Davis

Shlomo Zarchi (Orthodox), Congregation Chevra Thilim, San Francisco

Orthodox rabbis see the other side of the spectrum

For Rabbis Yonatan Cohen, Judah Dardik and Shlomo Zarchi, studying Torah comes as naturally as breathing.

All three are Bay Area Orthodox rabbis for whom study goes hand in hand with strict religious observance. Imagine their surprise visiting BINA, a secular yeshiva in a blighted Tel Aviv neighborhood, where students study Jewish texts in a Humanist context.

Oxymoronic as the concept of a secular yeshiva may seem at first blush, Dardik was inspired by his visit.

“If you had told me in advance ‘You’re going to a secular yeshiva and you’re going to like it,’ I would have said it’s a contradiction in terms,” noted Dardik, rabbi at Oakland’s Beth Jacob Congregation. “This was not. This was so deeply Jewish.”

The Orthodox rabbis visited Israel as members of the Northern California Rabbis Mission to Israel, which wrapped its one-week tour late last month. They joined 24 other rabbis from the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements.

While most of the mission featured meetings with politicians and political observers, there were also several Torah study options, including one at an Orthodox

yeshiva in a West Bank settlement.

The Orthodox rabbis were on familiar ground there. But not at BINA. Established in 1996 after the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, the yeshiva adapts ancient Jewish wisdom for Jews who consider themselves non-religious.

Executive Director Noga Brenner Samia led the rabbis through a Torah lesson, BINA-style, linking a talmudic tale about charity to her organization’s many tikkun olam projects in the surrounding neighborhood.

Delinking Torah and Talmud from divine origins challenged the Orthodox rabbis, but they also saw great value in BINA.

“I don’t believe our problem today is that people have different interpretations of Judaism,” Dardik reflected later. “The problem is that people don’t care [about Jewish life], whether it’s about religion or Torah study. BINA might come to conclusions that I might deeply disagree with, but if they have people learning Torah, I am blown away by that.”

As much as they appreciated the mission’s itinerary, all three Orthodox rabbis enjoyed even more the chance to know their colleagues better. “The most profound aspect [of the mission] is the coming together of the rabbis, the personal relationships,” said Cohen, rabbi of Berkeley’s Congregation Beth Israel.

Zarchi, of Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco, agreed. “We wanted to show we can get along,” he said, “travel together, study together, appreciate what we have in common and respect our differences.”

Living and working in the Bay Area, all three Orthodox rabbis understand how their approach to Judaism dovetails with more liberal denominations. Said Cohen, “I’ve been operating in a pluralistic world a long time.”

That didn’t mean everything the rabbis encountered on the mission met with their full blessing. Dardik said he felt uncomfortable during a meeting with Anat Hoffman, head of the Israel Religious Action Center and the woman behind the Women of the Wall.

That movement seeks to open the Kotel up to women who wish to read from Torah scrolls, just as men may today. “It was a stretch,” he said of his meeting with Hoffman. “I feel I get it better. I also feel I accept it more.”

He also admitted he bristled when some rabbis expressed reservations about Gush Etzion, a Jewish settlement block in the West Bank, which was on the mission itinerary.

“I spent many summers there with my children,” he said. “People [on the left] are very uncomfortable crossing the Green Line. For me, going to Gush Etzion is going to my backyard.”

But all three bonded with their fellow rabbis, and said they look forward to working and studying with them again soon.

“Every Jew has something to give,” Zarchi said, “and that’s true with this group.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.