I don’t think American Jews have a right to say anything about what goes on in Israel,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, an Orthodox rabbi from Raanana, Israel. After a long pause Farber continued, “They have a responsibility to do so.”
Farber, the founder of ITIM, an advocacy organization fighting for an inclusive religious establishment in Israel, was one of four rabbis who spoke Sunday, Nov. 11, on the subject of how American Jews can open doors to religious choice in Israel. He was joined by Rabbi David Hoffman, vice chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, and two pulpit rabbis, E. Samuel Klibanoff of the Orthodox Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston and Matthew Gewirtz of the Reform Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills. (Spoiler alert: None of the rabbis oppose pluralism.)
The event marked a rare opportunity to hear a healthy discussion between rabbis from different sides of the Orthodox-liberal divide. A crowd of about 75 attended the conversation held at the JCC MetroWest in West Orange and sponsored by the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and the Honey Foundation for Israel. Moderated by Sarah Lipsey Brokman, president of the Honey Foundation, the panel talked about some critical issues such as the complicated relationship between American and Israeli Jews when it comes to money, how it is that Jews are good at coming together under persecution but not so much in everyday life, even what the goal of Zionism ought to be.
“We need to articulate a vision of Zionism that exhibits the organic health of the Jewish people and is not about a piece of land,” said Hoffman.
One takeaway from the panel is that it will be difficult to gain traction on pluralism issues in Israel — like definitions of who is a Jew, which rabbis have authority to oversee conversion and life cycle events, and who can pray at the Kotel and where — if American Jews are uninterested or unwilling to speak out, and at the same time, if Israelis on the street don’t care.
There was some agreement among the rabbis regarding the lack of connection most secular Israelis have with Judaism that has, in turn, led to their detachment from the pluralism issue — for them, religion is a right-wing affair.
Another shared notion was the importance of face-to-face interactions between Israelis and American Jews. The rabbis shared stories of connecting with Israelis, here and abroad, in ways that change lives, implying that personal interactions could lead to a political change over the long term.
Klibanoff described meeting taxi drivers in Israel who couldn’t believe he is a rabbi because he has no beard and his views are not extreme. “If I had a rabbi like you I could go to your shul,” he recalled one saying.
Klibanoff acknowledged that prior to a federation rabbinic trip to Israel that included a workshop on speaking about Israel from the pulpit, he was unaware of the challenges facing his liberal colleagues.
His congregants, he said, are “well informed” about Israel. “I encourage people to see what the other sides are saying. So if you’re right leaning, read Haaretz, and talk to people on the ground.”
Gewirtz said that talking about Israel in a nuanced manner is a challenge. “How many of our congregants know the difference between Haaretz and Maariv when they are trying to keep up with Fox [News] and MSNBC?”
He related that on a recent trip to Israel, his congregants were content to visit the Kotel and split off into men’s and women’s groups without much thought. However, those who attended a prayer service at the Kotel with Women of the Wall experienced first-hand the hostilities from the ultra-Orthodox and so learned about the challenge of religious pluralism.
Hoffman suggested that Conservative Jews are upset when they are educated about these issues and then want to raise their voices, but that pluralism in Israel is not on the radar of average Conservative Jews, especially young ones who are more interested in Israeli-Palestinian challenges than religious ones.
Farber views the issues tied to pluralism as among the most important facing Israel, and the whole Jewish people. He suggested that the Israeli rabbinate, an arm of the Israeli government, doesn’t take the liberal community in Israel “seriously.”
“The current trajectory will lead to an enormous schism,” he said. “It means liberal communities of this country and some Orthodox communities will be lopped off the Jewish people.”
And if Israelis aren’t interested, then “Israelis need to be led to care,” he said. “You need to lead them.”