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In Support Of My B’nai Jeshurun Rabbis
Mon, 12/17/2012 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Peter Geffen
Peter Geffen

My rabbis have been under attack. Not from the usual suspects. 

No terrorists of foreign nations involved. No native anti-Semites. Just my fellow Jews, from other rabbis to other Jewish people. People “known” and unknown. People wise and less so. People of great generosity of both spirit and pocketbook. Probably good people all. What has happened to us?

My rabbis wanted to help turn the corner into the next (and inevitable) chapter of the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy. They wanted to anticipate the future. They wanted to encourage Palestinian and Israeli moderates to use the recent United Nations vote to begin to effect change. They wanted to say that we may not have a future if we continue to be headed on the current path of more powerful violence in each new encounter. And they wanted all of these things because of their abiding and consistently demonstrated love of the land, people and State of Israel.

I sit in their pews. I listen to their teachings. I read their writings. I chant with them on the High Holidays as they minister to thousands of members that they have nurtured and educated since the rebirth of a moribund congregation of a few remaining members in 1983. I am not hard of hearing. I am not hard of heart. And by any fair measure I am one of the most committed and engaged Israel educators in the Jewish world. So why the disparity between me and the critics?

Change is difficult. From our earliest years, we reveal our greatest vulnerabilities when faced with changes that we either could not have anticipated or did not anticipate accurately. And when we are truly unprepared for new realities, we often react with fear, ongoing anxiety and even confusion. We don’t see the future clearly.

I think the Jewish people are now in the midst of such a time. Whatever our individual political orientation, we all feel uncertain at the moment. The United Nations vote to accept Palestine as a non-member observer state scares and concerns us all. Some find it anathema; others promising. But none of us can predict the future. With looming existential threats from Iran and extremists throughout the Middle East and beyond, we all are struggling.

If there was ever a moment for encouraging open discussion and free speech it should be now. We need the widest expanse of ideas to help us imagine where we go from here. It should be clear to all that none of us has “the answer.” We all want a peaceful Israel.

We all want a more secure Israel. And we all want to live in a more just and peaceful world. We differ on how to get there, and that is as it should be.

But now we have a new reality staring us in the face. Shall we retreat in anger at an international voice and vote with which many of us do not agree? Now is the time for our most imaginative minds to consider where we go from here. The Zionist movement itself was one of contention and disagreement (and as a result one of the most dynamic in all of Jewish history). One could certainly argue that the birth of the State of Israel was made possible by the struggles of passion and imagination between the most extreme ideologues of the early Zionist movement. Why today are we seeking to close the doors of independent thought in the American Jewish community? Even before Rabbis Marcelo Bronstein, Rolando Matalon and Felicia Sol issued their controversial statement, distinguished Jewish thinkers like Daniel Gordis were calling the expansive words of Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar in Los Angeles expressions of “betrayal” (read “traitor”).

The prime minister of Israel, a gifted leader of the political right has declared himself committed to a “two-state solution.” While we might disagree about the timing, and even more strongly disagree about the venue, what is the actual problem with the UN recognition of a “non-state observer status” to the Palestinians? Isn’t it at least possible that it might encourage more dialogue, lead to more negotiation and ultimately even help to bring about the shared conviction of two states for two people?

My rabbis are dreamers and that is why I love them. Other rabbis may be more pragmatic. Some even skeptical. But can a rabbi lead us from behind? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “Significance is contingent on vision and anticipation, on living the future in the present tense.” The past can inform us only so far; the future demands more of us … it sometimes demands going beyond what appears to be “realistic.” And David Ben-Gurion even said: “A person who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.”

Now isn’t that a thought for this Chanukah season, the celebration of the miraculous.

Peter A Geffen is the founder of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York City, and of the nonprofit KIVUNIM, a gap-year study/travel program.


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As a long time BJ congregant and a staunch Right-Winger I will
quote the following with regard to the "Two State" solution:
Dar Al Horb, the Islamic view of the world. Secondly, my
mentor in this area, Daniel Pipes, an historian, political thinker,
and founder of The Middle East Forum says the only time one
can come to a peace agreement is when one of the parties has
been thoroughly vanquished and no longer believes that
continued struggle will yield positive results. The UN vote is
a move in exactly the opposite direction. Many people both
inside BJ and especially among outside contacts ask why I am
still a member and my answer is that BJ is where I learned
what Judaism is and discovered my spiritual self. This goes
back to 1990. I still find the services compelling even though
the rabbinic position on Israel doesn't resonate. I love our
rabbis and I love my fellow BJers. I'm a "red diaper baby"
and living on the UWS and being a "liberal" up til age 50, I
find most of my friends and contacts feel that way.

I applaud the courage of the BJ rabbis in supporting the UN vote. Peter Geffen's letter and Theo Bikel comments are excellent. There are many in Israel who also welcome the UN vote.

With all due respect, Peter Geffen's article is disingenuous. He writes, "If there was ever a moment for encouraging open discussion and free speech it should be now." It sounds nice, but he doesn't mean it. What he means is that open discussion and free speech are great when it's the views of BJ's rabbis that we're discussing. When someone comes out disagreeing with BJ's rabbis, then he writes an article expressing bafflement. If we're going to have open discussion, then that means that many people are going to disagree with BJ's rabbis, and we should be encouraging that in the name of free speech. Too often, the Jewish left invokes free speech whenever anyone dares to criticize them. Disagreement is not the same thing as censure. If Mr. Geffen wants open dialogue, then he has no right to complain about people who express their disagreement or disapproval. If he really means what he says, then he should welcome it.

Well stated; Very, very true.

Mr Geffen, there are many who believe that a two state solution is the only solution. And in fact, it could have been had many times over if Israel had a partner for peace in the Palestinian people. As Abba Even has famously said, they "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity". More dialogue in the UN as a forum ???. . Have you been paying attention to the anti-semetic rhetoric coming from the UN these days? Elevating the Palestinians to observer status will do nothing to promote dialogue between Israelis and Palestinans . . it can only serve to further demonize Israel in the UN and the world. Dreamers - yes . . . Blindness to reality - INSANE. To hear such talk from Rabbis is outrageous. Let Roly, Marcello and Felicia spend some time living in S'derot under constant threat of rocket fire from a land from which Israel unilaterally withdrew. Would they have the same position?

I was horrified at what happened.This congregation needs to find new rabbis who will not destroy their good name and reputation.

For BJ Rabbi's to come out with a political message in the manner that they did was the height of arrogance and misuse of the pulpit. To have followed that verbal message by writing a letter to the congregants celebrating a UN vote that could lead to horrible accusations in the International Court of Criminal justice that could harm the State of Israel was ludicrous. How this could lead to achieving peace eludes most reasonable people.

They then followed up that letter with another letter to disown the first letter by saying that it was sent out unedited and wasn't actually signed by all the BJ Board members and the President as they initially represented. Of course, one scratched their head as they wondered about the integrity and honesty of such

They followed up this letter up by sincerely apologizing to the congregation for the divisive reaction to the first letter which they now almost totally disowned but totally failed to retract any of the actual viewpoints or contents of the letter. To the humble congregant, the Rabbi's explanations, positions, and misuse of the pulpit appeared dishonest, not courageous, incompetent, not intellectual and obviously lacking any foresight!

Congregants go to BJ primarily for the spiritual, musical and community aspects. I have been going to BJ for over 10 years, and I know very, very few who actually find the Rabbis personally inspiring or personally caring to the congregants.

The Rabbis have Rabbinical degrees, they have no proven record as political thinkers. The Rabbis announced their opposition to the Israeli Government and the American Government in a thoughtless manner. It caused incredible disappointment and harm to numerous BJ members who do not share their political viewpoints and who were left helpless in explaining this to people outside the synagogue as well as to how or why we would continue to associate with Rabbi's who displayed these kind of ill-conceived and questionable actions.

For many of us, the beautiful music and ambience of BJ could be a thing of the past. My deepest wish would be if other synagogues could capture the beauty and spiritual aspects of a BJ service, without the serious problems that I alluded to above. Similarly, I have appreciated Peter Geffen's beautiful singing voice in synagogue, but I really disagree with the voice and tenor of this article. It seems that the Peter Principle is alive and well.

The Peace Now and J Street, now joined by Mr. Geffen, actively undermine the state of Israel by promoting the idea that Israel is unwilling to work with Arab "moderates." Where o where are these Arab "moderates" -- and please do not point to Mr. Abbas, who, like Arafat, occasionally says sweet words about peace, and then launches into a rant against Israel in the U.N. and before the monuments to Arab "martyrs" (those who kill Jews).

As for Mr. Salner, "SOME recognition" of the so-called Palestinians is not a "beginning" but another step in the continuous struggle by the Arabs against the very existence of a Jewish state.

There can be no peace until Golda Meir´s well known and wise condition is met by truly peace loving Arabs.

I totally agree with Mr. Geffen. The BJ rabbis dare us to dream and to reach deeper within ourselves and further out into our world. They are dedicated, they are sensitive, they give their all. Its okay to disagree. But in the end we have to work together to reach our Jewish potential. That means trying and taking risks, and changing.

Geffen's naivete is amazing. His argument, though eloquent, is devoid of substance, as are the collective dreams of his crowd - like so many Rabbinical sermons that float from the podium like fairy dust to gently settle on the bored congregants. Joseph too was a dreamer, but he became Joseph Hazzadik when he moved on from his dreams to the real-politik world of managing to be an observant Jew and managing to rule Egypt. The leftist dreamer is no longer relevant in the mideast of today. If peace will come it will come - and if not the situation will be managed. What fool would lead the Israeli government to broker a deal with any other party or entity in the mideast today? Abbas may seem like an attractive partner, but what happens when he lets Syria truck some chemical weapons into Ramallah? In the present climate can Abbas or any other Arab leader really deliver a fair deal to Israel - or any deal at all? Get real Geffen.

These rabbis think that they know how to solve the the Israel-Palestinian conflict better than the democratically elected government of Israel? As a Psychiatrist, I can teel you that the best way to predict future behavior is to study past behavior,. There is no evidence, especially from Abbas's anti-Semitic speech, that Israel has a partner for peace. Please do not sit in your comfortable chairs in the US, like most American Jews did during the Holocaust, and try to interfere with the internal politics and foreign affairs of Israel. Please watch SWC, Against the Tide" to learn what happened as a result of this type of behavior from the leadership of the Jewish community in the 1940's.

The truth cannot be adjusted to fit one’s political beliefs or dreams. Too few Jews have studied the history of the Jewish people and the history of modern Israel and the peace process. Anyone who thinks that Palestinian Muslims are joking when they chant “from the river to the sea, the land occupied by the Jews will be ours” is fooling himself. Apparently such people are not aware of the values and threats Israel shares with the West. While no country is perfect (compare Israel to Russia, China, England, and even the United States), consider the effect of one more Jew criticizing Israel publicly before you write to the New York Times. Before you criticize the building of settlements, consider the fact that the future Palestine is destined to be free of all Jews. Our enemies have not won on the battlefields, but they are now winning the hearts and minds of a world reverting to the incurable disease of antisemitism and political propaganda. Israel has to make difficult decisions for the security of its citizens, which include one million Russian refugees, as well as refugees from the Arab countries and the Holocaust, while protecting its democratic values.
I recommend the two excellent programs on Shalom TV about the UN vote. We need a Jewish TV channel as an alternative to the often slanted coverage of Israel in the mainstream media. Shalom TV, ( is available live on Cablevision and "On-Demand" on Comcast and Time Warner. Here, you can watch a roundtable discussion led by Rabbi Mark S. Golub in addition to Rabbi Golub's personal comments about the UN vote. You can have the benefit of commentary by analysts both in Israel and the US on the major issues facing us today. You can watch conferences held by organizations including AIPAC, CUFI, AIFL. You will be inspired. You will be educated. You will fall in love with Israel, our homeland, the most amazing country in the world.

Outstanding letter. People who forget history are doomed to repeat it, even "the moderate terrorist organization" PLO is using observer status in the UN to further its goal of eliminating Israel, our Jewish nation. We are in an existential war against Iran and their friends who seek to destroy both the US and Israel
The answer to the lack of knowledge exhibited by many Jews is to watch Shalom TV which features many idscussions of the UN resolutions against Israe
I watch Shalom TV regularly

Where has Mr. Geffen been the last 20 years. When will the dreamer wake up to reality. Israel was born to create a homeland for Jews. Palestinian leaders dream of a state from which to attack and destroy Israel. Palestinians did not need a seat at the UN to make peace. What if Palestine becomes Hamastan? I guess Mr. Geffen would say "who knew". But we do know. We need only look at Gaza. We need only look at the 1,500 Israelis killed in terrorism since Oslo. Mr. Geffen sits safely ensconced in NY and tells Israelis to ignore the hatred and rockets surronding them.
When will Mr. Geffen ever get it? Will it require a rocket landing in a school killing 50 Israeli children or will he simply and simplistically say, "now is the time for us to recommit ...." Thank goodness America did not respond in that way to the attack on Pearl Harbor. It is great to believe in miracles, but you don't tell another person to walk into a fire and believe a miracle will save them. Let Mr. Geffen send his children into the fire first, before telling Israelis to trust the Palestinians fire.

I applaud Peter Geffen for a reasoned argument, for his devotion to dialog, for his defense of the rabbis. Peace will come not as a result of hardened intransigence but in the end peace can only be achieved when two parties leave the table dissatisfied but willing to live with compromise. In this process former adversaries do not decide to love each other but will make the effort to live with each other.
I, too, am fearful. But I am not sure what I fear more, a Palestinian presence at the UN or the swing to the right by some of my fellow Jews.

Though at times flawed and certainly not 100% effective, the UN remains the world's
best avenue for conflict resolution. There must be a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and giving the Palestinians at least SOME recognition in the body of the UN is a beginning.