One-Week Workshops
view counter
Criticism Of Rabbinical Students On Israel Unfair
Mon, 05/16/2011 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week

Rabbi Daniel Gordis has maligned a generation of rabbinical students as being insufficiently Zionist (“Alienation From Israel Is Hitting Liberal Seminaries,” Editor’s column, May 6). Because I know and respect these students, I find his criticism to be not only inaccurate but also insulting to people who have collectively dedicated their lives to spreading the love of God, Torah, and Israel.

Are their feelings about the State of Israel and its policies complicated? Yes, of course — how could they not be? It is not 1967 but 2011, and as Gary Rosenblatt writes, the Jewish state is an increasingly complicated place. The more time that our students spend in Israel, the more deeply they know its people, places, and policies, and the more invested they become in its future. A fair and full portrait of this generation would find them to be Chovevei Zion — lovers of Zion — even if their love is not as simple as some demand.

Speaking only about the students at The Jewish Theological Seminary, I note that three of our recent students have made aliyah; four current students are veterans of the Israeli Defense Forces; and nearly all of our students have chosen to spend extended periods of their lives living, studying, and working in Israel. This year our students have fanned out around the country, volunteering with congregations and other organizations. Two students have helped to found a new congregation in Maale Adumim. Others have spent time with the parents of Gilad Shalit, showing them support in their extended period of suffering for their captive son.

This past week our students mourned Israel’s fallen soldiers, celebrated her independence, and journeyed north to our movement’s Kibbutz Hannaton to hike the land and listen to the voices of people making their homes in Israel. It is ludicrous to suggest that these students are boycotting Israel. Would that more American Jews chose to spend years studying Torah in Israel, speaking Hebrew, learning about Israeli society and culture, and volunteering for Israeli organizations like these students do. Upon reading the distorted portrait of her peers, one of our students in Jerusalem said she felt like screaming, “I love Israel!” But that isn’t newsworthy, is it?

Of course there is a kernel of truth to some of this coverage. Many rabbinical students, like many Israelis and American Jews, are concerned with the suffering of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. They are not so naïve as to assume that these problems are all Israel’s fault — there has been a state of war since the day of Israel’s birth. Nevertheless, these lovers of Israel desperately want to see the land and all of its people living in peace. Is this so bad?

Non-Orthodox rabbinical students may be more attuned than others to the myriad ways that the State of Israel favors Orthodoxy and discriminates against the other streams of Judaism. They have observed the preferential funding of Orthodox institutions and the monopoly granted Orthodox rabbis over sacred times like marriage and sacred spaces like the Kotel. These students would like to see the Jewish state treat all Jews equally. Is that a sin? Is ignoring such issues a way to strengthen the state, as Gordis implies, or a way to undermine it?

True, some American Jews feel disillusioned after spending extended time in Israel, but most return with a deeper understanding of the issues and a renewed commitment to help Israel address its challenges. This is certainly what I observe with our students.

Gary Rosenblatt’s column ends with the constructive call for deeper engagement with one another about Israel, and asks that we refrain from chastising others. If only Rabbi Gordis would adopt a similar tone. Questioning the Zionism of such students is like questioning the patriotism of Americans who want health care reform, or are dissatisfied with our nation’s immigration policy.

Having spent the past four years in daily conversation with students of this generation, I am convinced that these emerging leaders are deeply committed to the State of Israel as a Jewish democratic state that is secure and at peace with its neighbors. They have volunteered their time and energy and they have given their hearts to this noble cause. We in the Jewish community should be proud of them.

Rabbi Daniel S. Nevins is Pearl Resnick dean of The Rabbinical School and dean of the Division for Religious Leadership at The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Israel, Jewish life, Jewish Theological Seminary, Judaism, Maale Adumim, West Bank

Our Newsletters, Your Inbox


The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.


Gosh, I wish I would have had that informatoin earlier!

Regarding your comment that "Non-Orthodox rabbinical students may be more attuned than others to the myriad ways that the State of Israel favors Orthodoxy and discriminates against the other streams of Judaism." New sects of Judaism are readily accepted in the galut as it is not reasonable for non Jewish countries to dictate what constitutes authentic Judaism.

Israel, on the other hand, is a Jewish state, and it is perfectly reasonable for Jews in a Jewish state to determine what is or is not an authentic representation of their faith. This reality is enhanced many fold by the significant influence of the majority Sephardic demographic, where there is no such thing as "branches" of Judaism. In the Sephardic world there are more observant Jews and less observant Jews, but there is only one Judaism and it is the same Judaism practiced by their fathers and grandfather from time immemorial.

It would seem to me to carry a bit of hubris to demand that your new definition of Judaism should hold any sway in the Jewish state. As Ben-Gurion famously said, "the shul I don't attend is Orthodox".

As I mentioned in my post to Gary's column two weeks ago at the very least the Rabbinical students who decided to take a joy ride to Ramallah have to be disciplined by the JTS. JTS must begin to plan a different program for the students Year in Israel. The books have to be put aside and service has to be performed by the students in all aspects of Israeli society and that includes a ROTC type program in Israel run by the IDF. Only then will the name of the JTS and indeed the entire Conservative movement be redeemed.

Dear Rabbi Nevis

I was moved to read what you said about the JTS Students and do hope that the students are as you said both not afraid to express fears and concerns about Israel and its policies and on the same time devote them self to healing and repairing.
I just want to state two thing that I see from meeting a lot of them from all kinds of denominations both in Israel and in the state
1. a lot of them spend most of their time in Jerusalem and don't get a lot of chance to really meet vast populations of Israelis and to really interact with them. That makes many time experience Israel only through the eyes of their American friends and teachers and they don't have the chance to create partnerships with Israel around the topic of Tikkun Olam in Israel
2. There is a lot of confusion around Israel that sometimes or alienating leaders from talking about Israel out of the fear that they don't know what to say so let’s talk about something ales
or leading them to act against Israel, this is something that should be dealt with a lot of thought - how can we really not shut down the doubts and try to have a honest look but also find the right words that will help us as leaders to encourage our people to join the task of making Israel a better place

I support the redefinition of the new generation of Rabinic Students of the meaning of Israel and Zionism. The new Reform and Conservative Rabbi is a community activist who stands for social change. They seek to redefine the role of Rabbis in our moribound and sclerotic communities when they return to the US. The new Progressive Rabbi stands with the Palestinian Nation and seeks a return of all 5 million Palestinian refugees to their homes in Israel. The new Progressive Rabbi seeks to organize their congregations to support a one state solution for all peoples -- Jewish and Arab. The new Progressive Rabbi completely supports a realignment of ideals and teaching methods in their Hebrew Schools to support progressive socialism among our Jewish youth. The new Progressive Rabbi seeks to replace repressive Bar and Bat Mitzvas with Youth Social Awareness Projects. Let us all support the new Progressive agenda in our communities.

Soeak for yourself.