Rabbi Rick Jacobs ( center), head of North America's Union for Reform Judaism, and other non-Orthodox Jews clashing with security guards at the entrance to the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem, Nov. 16, 2017. (Photo/JTA-Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash 90)
Rabbi Rick Jacobs ( center), head of North America's Union for Reform Judaism, and other non-Orthodox Jews clashing with security guards at the entrance to the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem, Nov. 16, 2017. (Photo/JTA-Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash 90)

In Bay Area and beyond, American pulpit rabbis wrestle with Israel’s new government

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On the second Friday in March, Rabbi Jill Perlman of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette stood on the bimah and addressed the political unrest in Israel.

“American Jews, we have a problem,” she began.

Speaking on the topic for the first time, Perlman condemned the judicial reforms proposed by Israel’s new right-wing government and expressed support for the protesters in Israel and around the world.

“We need to speak up for the good of Israel — because if Israel is no longer truly democratic, the foundation upon which the U.S.-Israel relationship has been built will suddenly become a lot less stable.”

Just before that Shabbat sermon, Perlman told J. it was her responsibility to make sure her congregation was aware of what she called a threat to Israel’s democracy.

Rabbi Jill Perlman
Rabbi Jill Perlman

“I think if rabbis are not talking about Israel right now, we’re probably not paying attention,” Perlman said.

All over the United States, non-Orthodox rabbis are making similar calculations in response to Israel’s new governing coalition, which has sparked widespread protests over its policy moves and which includes far-right parties that aim to curb the rights of Arabs, non-Orthodox Jews and LGBTQ Israelis. (Orthodox communities tend to be more politically conservative and skew to the right on Israeli issues.)

Israel’s government is advancing an overhaul of the legal system that would sap the power of the Supreme Court.

Some rabbis feel emboldened to speak up. Some believe Israel has been discussed too little from the bimah. Some feel that criticizing Israel is a misguided and even dangerous venture that could splinter American Jewish communities.

Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit
Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit

Clergy at Congregation Beth Am in the Los Altos Hills have never shied away from talking about Israel, said Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit, one of three associate rabbis at the Reform synagogue.

In Beth Am’s latest online “Clergy Column,” Prosnit wrote of the “majesty and miracle of Israel’s 75th birthday” before addressing how he felt about the rightward swing of its government.

“I’m crushed by the stripping of democratic norms … This [g]overnment’s open hostility towards LGBTQ+ people, Reform and Conservative Jews and its clear prioritization of Jews over non-Jews in Israel is devastating.”

His criticism comes from a place of connection and deep love for Israel, Prosnit told J.

“We cannot let the hardliners, bigots and nationalists be the only voices in the Israel conversation,” he wrote in the column.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of Reform Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City, launched an initiative last year that aims to counter what he calls “the growing influence of an anti-Zionist element” in the next generation of Jewish clergy.

Hirsch, 64, said the new coalition is complicating Amplify Israel’s task. “The new government is going to make our promotion of Israel more difficult in the United States,” he said. It “has elements in it that are deeply problematic and even offensive to most American Jews.”

He contends it is possible for rabbis to criticize aspects of the Israeli government from the bimah while still remaining broadly supportive of the Jewish state and encouraging their congregants to be the same.

We cannot let the hardliners, bigots and nationalists be the only voices in the Israel conversation.

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Conservative Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland, chosen by the Forward in 2016 as one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis,” believes rabbis should always be supportive of Israel in public — even if they choose to pressure the Israeli government and advocate against certain policies in private.

“My position has always been that support for Israel should be unconditional,” he said. “If we as rabbis are sharply critical of Israel, the result can often lead to a distancing from Israel, which ultimately may diminish the connection people feel to Judaism and the Jewish people.

“People do not always distinguish and differentiate between opposition to a particular policy and broader criticisms of Israel [that] can do lasting damage.”

Recently, hundreds of Reform rabbis returned to their U.S. congregations from a week in Israel, where the movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis held its biennial convention.

Attendees included Rabbis Jonathan and Beth Singer of Congregation Emanu-El (San Francisco), Rabbi Dana Magat of Temple Emanu-El (San Jose) and three emeritus rabbis: Rick Block of Beth Am (Los Altos Hills), Steven Chester of Temple Sinai (Oakland) and Greg Wolfe of Congregation Bet Haverim (Davis).

Emanu-El Rabbis Beth and Jonathan Singer at a recent pro-democracy protest in Tel Aviv. (Photo/Courtesy Singers)
Emanu-El Rabbis Beth and Jonathan Singer at a recent pro-democracy protest in Tel Aviv. (Photo/Courtesy Singers)

Some of them — including the Singers and Chester — took part in one of the massive protests in Tel Aviv.

Chester recalled seeing demonstrators of all ages waving Israeli flags and shouting demokratiya (democracy) and boshet (shame).

Rabbi Steven Chester
Rabbi Steven Chester

“People are more afraid for the future of Israel, because of this issue, than they ever have been,” Chester told J.

While the CCAR convention was going on, the Knesset advanced the judicial reform legislation and three people were killed in a Palestinian shooting and subsequent settler riot in the West Bank.

With that as a backdrop, Rabbi Hara Person, the chief executive of the CCAR, called for Reform clergy to move away from defining Israel in stark black-and-white terms.

“In order to connect better with those in our communities around Israel in a nuanced and meaningful way,” Person said, “we must be able to move beyond the [pro-Israel and anti-Israel] dichotomy, which only serves to divide us in ways that are a distraction to the actual issues at hand.”

Survey data suggests that American Jews are moving to the left on Israel at the same time Israel has shifted to the right.

The 2021 Pew Research Center survey of American Jews found that most American Jews have a negative opinion of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, only one-third think Israel is making a sincere effort to achieve peace with Palestinians, and 10% support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Conservative Congregation Ansche Chesed in New York City announced in December that his congregation would no longer recite the Prayer for the State of Israel, part of most congregations’ Shabbat morning liturgy since 1948, replacing it with the more generally worded Prayer for Peace in Jerusalem.

“I couldn’t just say, God, please guide our leaders well,” Kalmanofsky said, noting that extremist politicians Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich are now government ministers who would be the beneficiaries of such prayer. “The things that they’re saying cannot possibly represent the Israel that I want to support.”

Kalmanofsky said he has faced tough feedback from some in his community, such as those who believe this is a moment that demands more, not less, prayer for Israel.

“Not an unreasonable response,” he conceded.

But a month into the liturgy change, he is confident he made the right call.

“Something really meaningful had changed in the public life of the State of Israel. That deserved real recognition, and a real response,” he said.

“If you’re going to have a pulpit,” he added, “you’re going to have to use it once in a while.”

Andrew Lapin

Andrew Lapin is the Managing Editor for Local News at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

JTA

Content distributed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news service.

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene was a staff writer at J. from 2022-2023.