In the past, Congregation Emanu-El's Israel programming has included such divisive speakers as comedian Roseanne Barr, who is known for her aggressive pro-Israel rhetoric on Twitter. (Photo/Hannah Rubin)
In the past, Congregation Emanu-El's Israel programming has included such divisive speakers as comedian Roseanne Barr, who is known for her aggressive pro-Israel rhetoric on Twitter. (Photo/Hannah Rubin)

Once-taboo Israel topics back on the table at S.F.’s largest synagogue

As they stood to pose for a photo together, Jordan Hymowitz, the head of Congregation Emanu-El’s Israel Action Committee, gestured to Rabbi Jonathan Singer and said with a smile, “You get on the left.”

The political adversaries have been working together the past three years to bring Israel programming back to the San Francisco synagogue after several years in which such discussions were considered too toxic.

Jordan Hymowitz and Rabbi Jonathan Singer of Congregation Emanu-El (Photo/Rob Gloster)

Like at many other congregations in the Bay Area, the Israel conversation, particularly about the nation’s policies in the West Bank, had sharply divided people at Emanu-El. The breaking point was reached at Yom Kippur about a decade ago, when a discussion about Israel turned into a shouting match. Israel programming was pretty much taken off the table after that.

That is no longer the case. The left-of-center rabbi and the right-of-center Hymowitz still disagree on many things, such as the Iran nuclear deal, but are united in a belief that sharing opinions from multiple viewpoints helps Emanu-El congregants appreciate and support Israel — and can help Israelis understand how U.S. Jews feel about issues facing the Jewish state.

“If we don’t have dialogue that’s diverse, I don’t think we’ll engage on a deeper level, and everyone loses as a result. If we only have one perspective, that really doesn’t address the community’s needs,” Singer said. “We have to be careful about shutting down speech anywhere; that’s not the Jewish way.”

The result of their collaboration and the committee’s work has been to bring to Emanu-El speakers as varied as Israeli singer Achinoam Nini, known as Noa, whose outspoken support for Israeli-Arab coexistence has included criticism of Israel’s actions in the West Bank, and actress-comedian Roseanne Barr, a vocal supporter of Israel and a staunch critic of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Other events have included representatives from groups ranging from the rightist Zionist Organization of America to the leftist New Israel Fund.

“We went from a place where there were almost no Israel events, and people were on eggshells for fear of offending someone, to now we have people calling who want to partner with us,” Hymowitz said. “When people stop talking to each other, that’s bad. And this committee has given people a chance to do that.”

Emanu-El is not the only Bay Area synagogue or Jewish institution that has struggled to present Israel programming without inflaming tensions. In fact, things got so heated that in 2011 the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council organized a Bay Area-wide Year of Civil Discourse, a series of workshops where synagogue and other Jewish leaders came to share ideas and learn how to work together across political divides.

About 1,000 people participated in the yearlong program, including rabbis and Jewish professionals, which focused on how people with deeply held views on a subject as personal as Israel could share their opinions without vitriol.

Though the project was considered a success — with huge majorities of the participants saying it made them feel more comfortable sharing their views — such efforts must continue today, said Abby Michelson Porth, the JCRC’s executive director and organizer of the Year of Civil Discourse.

We have to be careful about shutting down speech anywhere; that’s not the Jewish way.

“I think that rabbis and Jewish organization leaders have shared with us a greater sense of capacity to deal with controversial issues that arise in their institutions,” Porth said.

“At the same time, the world has become even more polarized and the issues are incredibly complex and the depth of passion has not changed. And so this is work that must be ongoing.”

Singer said Emanu-El had not yet restored its Israel programming when he and his wife, Rabbi Beth Singer, arrived as co-senior rabbis in 2013, so he organized a lunch at which congregants were invited to brainstorm. The committee that formed now meets four to six times a year, with up to 20 people attending.

Hymowitz said he takes the lead in answering complaints from the right when people such as Noa are invited (a synagogue concert of hers set for suburban Detroit this past May was canceled due to threats of right-wing protests). When Emanu-El invites a conservative speaker such as David Brog, executive director of Christians United For Israel, Singer deals with criticism from the left.

The two often find themselves defending the committee’s decisions even when they strongly disagree with the speakers’ viewpoints.

“It was a real push for me to partner with the ZOA,” Singer said. “They do not represent what I think American Judaism should be expressing on issues of immigration.”

Countered Hymowitz: “I was uncomfortable having the New Israel Fund speak. J Street, even more so. I’m troubled because of their support of the nuclear deal with Iran.”

The programs are not always political — such as one scheduled for March 2018 about Israeli advances in biomedical research, and others that have been about water issues and cybersecurity. But it’s reviving the political discussions that the committee can really congratulate itself on. Anywhere from 100 to 300 people usually attend the gatherings, which in upcoming months will feature Brog on Sept. 7, Israeli politician Natan Sharansky on Nov. 16 and a Dec.10 debate between conservative talk-show host Dennis Prager and J Street’s Alan Elsner.

“People came to the ZOA talk and said, ‘I’ll think about rejoining the temple I belonged to 20 years ago,’” Hymowitz said. “San Francisco is a very liberal town, but it’s been shocking to me how many right-of-center people we have in this temple. And they come to me and say how happy they are that their voice is being heard.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.