Recipe for welcoming controversial viewpoints is simple

On Jan. 8, Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of 262 people at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. However, the importance of the event was neither in the content of his presentation nor the attendance.

More significant is how the congregation handled the controversy leading up to his appearance.

The question of how the organized Jewish community supports conflicting views on Israel may be the single most divisive topic we face. Frankly, many Bay Area congregations and organizations have stopped offering any Israel programming for fear of offending some segment of their membership.

In some cases, dictate or extortion are the operating principles for the decision: The rabbi or executive director unilaterally imposes his/her will, or a major donor threatens to remove support if a speaker or program is invited. End of discussion!

Israel is a strong country and will survive criticism of its policies. However, I am not as confident about the future of some of our religious organizations that do not embrace engagement with Israel in a respectful and inclusive way.

Jews want safe, respectful places to discuss Israel — not via staged presentations, but meaningful discourse — and some synagogues are rising to the fore by inviting representatives from J Street, the New Israel Fund and other such organizations, as well as StandWithUs, AIPAC, and the Israel Center, so their members and the public at large can be better informed about, and involved with, Israel.

The Year of Civil Discourse, a project sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council to help synagogue members listen to each other, was an excellent beginning (“An end to rude,” Jan. 6).

However, while listening is necessary, it is not sufficient for institutional openness. The additional ingredients are people and processes: the who (experienced leaders who can work together across the divides) and the how (the processes that enable those people to come to agreement on and implement an ongoing series of controversial issues).

Kol Shofar became stronger by offering the J Street presentation, even though there were members who disagreed with the decision to hold it. We provided a valuable experience to the larger Jewish community, as the event was free and open to the public. We also fulfilled a role synagogues should play — as a safe place for Jews to engage with important and controversial issues.

Those objecting had several basic concerns: that the way we promoted the program implied we were supporting the J Street mission; that we would allow Ben-Ami to have a platform and he would duck critical questions; and, on a more basic level, whether we should even host J Street and any other organizations some members believe are harmful to Israel.

We have been mostly successful in working through these issues, through good listening (and willingness to be flexible and adopt ideas), experienced people and process.

In 2001, with the start of the first intifada, Kol Shofar launched its Bridges to Israel program, which promotes three things: the need to learn about Israel, public involvement in Israeli culture and politics, and advocacy for Israel in the Bay Area.

We now have an informal leadership network that can discuss, vet, refine and collaborate on controversial programs and initiatives before they are launched. Our rabbi, executive director and program director are fully supportive and integrated with us, so our roles are fluid, yet everyone in leadership is informed, to encourage fast, open communication and decision-making.

The congregation is also informed and encouraged (through social media) to suggest ideas and present feedback; members also can, and do, make their thoughts known via informal conversations. We could not do this without a fully supportive clergy, staff and congregation that understand and support our intentions.

For example, at the Ben-Ami presentation, two members who represent different viewpoints collected the questions from the audience, and ensured that both critical and supportive questions were asked. There was no sense that one side or the other was forcing its will or “staging” the Q&A session.

While some members may not agree with J Street positions, we believe personal preferences should not dictate community offerings, particularly when we have a significant group of members at Kol Shofar who do affiliate with J Street. We respect their choice.

However, Jewish organizations that, through their stated objectives, actions or alliances, deny the right of Israel to exist as a sovereign Jewish state within secure and recognized boundaries are not welcome at Kol Shofar. So it is not true that “anything goes.”

The result is that our Bridges to Israel program is quite balanced and provides a safe place for people to listen to informed opinion, speak and engage about Israel as presented through a range of organizations/individuals.

Women of the Wall director and founder Anat Hoffman will be speaking on Feb. 11, and Brian Lurie, the New Israel Fund’s incoming president, will be speaking Feb. 15. But for those who are concerned about J Street, Women of the Wall and the NIF taking our program too far to the left, consider that recently we have hosted Zack Bodner (Northern California director of AIPAC), co-sponsored Donniel Hartman (president of the Shalom Hartman Institute), promoted and had a huge turnout for a StandWithUs event with Daniel Gordis (president of the Shalem Foundation), and will soon host Alan Elsner (communications director for The Israel Project).

Kol Shofar provides a wide tent with many portals where different kinds of Jews with different interests and opinions can feel at home. Our comprehensive Israel programming is one way that we can fulfill this mission. Other synagogues with vibrant Israel action programs are doing the same — and we hope more will be open to do so.

Engagement on serious, controversial issues can strengthen our Jewish institutions, help shape our community and enable more of us to be actively involved in our Jewish world.

Jeff Saperstein of Mill Valley is a Jewish community activist and former marketing director for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. He chairs the Bridges to Israel program at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

To hear a podcast of Jeremy Ben-Ami speaking at Congregation Kol Shofar, including questions from the audience, visit www.kolshofar.org/Israel.