Was ‘A Great Moment’ Too Alienating?

B’nai Jeshurun e-mails on Palestinians raises issues about rabbinic leadership, especially when it comes to Israel.

12/11/12
Staff Writer
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Should congregational rabbis lead or follow? Should they be prophetic figures or pastoral ones, consensus figures or divisive ones? And should they wade headlong into thorny political territory?

These are some of the questions being asked this week in the wake of the backlash created when the rabbis of B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan sent an e-mail to congregants heralding Palestinian recognition by the United Nations as “a great moment.” The letter has spurred a discussion of the role of a congregational rabbi, and how they are educated.

“Rabbis are unprepared in their education for the political complexities in the world,” said Steven L. Spiegel, a professor of political science at University of California Los Angeles and a national scholar at the Israel Policy Forum. “I wrote a paper in the ‘70s saying that rabbinical students should have some political science preparation courses for dealing with international and domestic issues — and particularly Israel. Congregations are divided and look to rabbis for guidance on everything — and of course on Israel.”

Rabbi Jack Moline of Alexandria, Va., has just started teaching a class in rabbinic leadership to rabbinical students at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

“What happened at BJ would fall under the rubric of what we teach in class,” he said. “We have talked about how a leader leads and what to do when your personal priorities may not be reflected among your constituents.”

“Do I think rabbis have an obligation to mix in the affairs of the world outside of their institution?” he asked rhetorically. “Yes, I do. But when you are the rabbi of a synagogue, your pastoral and educational responsibility to your members trumps your personal opinion.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization that is often at odds with mainstream Jewish groups, said he believes the backlash to rabbinic comments often comes from “a very limited subset of people who have significant means and whose support for the institution is critical for its ongoing work.”

“But the extent to which the speech of our spiritual community leaders should be limited by the politics of those who fund their institutions is an important one and one I’m sure has been struggled with over the millennia,” he added.

While the rabbis at B’nai Jeshurun were calling upon their congregants to “celebrate the process that allows a nation to come forward and ask for recognition,” seven White Plains rabbis took a different tack. They said the UN vote should be “greeted with cautious optimism and not simply recriminations, finger-pointing and expressions of despair.”

“We didn’t want to be divisive and thought this kind of statement would pull together those who had doubts about the official American and Israeli and American Jewish communal responses, which were staunchly pro-Israel,” said Rabbi Les Bronstein, spiritual leader of Bet Am Shalom Synagogue.

In fact, in a note accompanying the rabbinic statement, Rabbi Bronstein wrote that their e-mail was a “sane — even creative — response.”

Although declining to comment on the B’nai Jeshurun e-mail, he said he did not believe the UN vote was historic because the Palestinians were recognized only as a non-member state and that they still don’t have a functioning state.

“All that happened is that it opened a conversation and we were cautiously optimistic that it would be used for good,” Rabbi Bronstein continued. “The people I work for do not want anything that even suggests — that would allow anybody to think — that Israel is a bad place or that it has bad people. I would never do anything to hurt the Jewish state.”

The rabbis at B’nai Jeshurun issued a clarifying e-mail a day after their initial one in which they said they “regret the feelings of alienation that resulted from our letter.” They said they are “passionate lovers of Israel [and] … have spent significant parts of our lives there. … We are unequivocally committed to Israel’s security, democracy and peace.”

“While we affirm the essence of our message,” they continued, “we feel that it is important to share with you that through a series of unfortunate internal errors, an incomplete and unedited draft of the letter was sent out which resulted in a tone which did not reflect the complexities and uncertainties of this moment.”

Calls to their office Tuesday were not returned.

One White Plains rabbi who elected not to sign the letter his colleagues composed, Rabbi Chaim Marder, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of White Plains, said that although it was a “very well-crafted” letter he had some reservations.

“I realized that I didn’t share some of its implicit perceptions of the factors responsible for the ongoing non-resolution of the conflict, nor of the best path to secure peace,” he said. “I decided that I was not sufficiently comfortable to participate.”

In addition, Rabbi Marder said, “I had misgivings about issuing large statements about Israel. I’m uncertain about where my pulpit ends and where the national scene begins. Rabbis should share their views with their congregation; yet, electronic letters to the congregation on something like Israeli policy can easily become much more widely spread; the larger audience easily misses the nuance and context of such a communication that one’s own community grasps. For that reason as well, I chose to adopt an extra degree of caution.” 

Rabbi Shira Milgrom, spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami and one of those signing the White Plains letter, said nothing she has ever e-mailed to her congregation “generated the amount of response this letter did. And the overwhelming response was one of gratitude.”

One congregant wrote: “This is the first sane reaction I’ve seen anywhere. Of course why would we want to have peace when we could have warring factions for the next 5000 years!!!”

In another e-mail a congregant expressed his thanks for an  “articulate, thoughtful, and compassionate commentary on yesterday’s UN vote. I don’t know if people generally comment or respond to such notes, but it seems important to me to reply to the e-mail with an expression of support for their words of wisdom.”

Rabbi Milgrom said she believes her congregants “long for a Jewish response rooted in values and not only politics. And they understand that love of Israel can be expressed in many different ways. The institutional Jewish community has imparted the message that support and love of Israel can only be expressed one way, and I think people want to express a love of Israel in other ways.”

“A person can be pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel, and the support of one people does not mean a denial of the other,” she added. “If we play a zero-sum game, we are the ones who are going to lose, and I worry about Israel’s survival.”

Rabbi Moline pointed out that the “pressures on us [rabbis] from all different directions are significant. … In general it is not enough to know yourself; you have to know your values and your context — your community or constituency. When you are a leader, it is not simply enough to run out in front of the crowd and try to gauge where they are going. You have to have some sense of direction where you expect they will follow you.”

He added that if he were the rabbi of a hotel owner’s synagogue and he believed that hotel workers were being mistreated, “I might have to make a calculation about how I would say that. If I felt strongly enough, I wouldn’t be a leader if I didn’t speak out. But you can only do that so often before you and your community come to the conclusion that it is a bad match. You have to be careful when you buck the majority and be conscious of dissenting voices — and be skillful in responding to them.” 

Last Update:

12/18/2012 - 18:21

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These Rabbis don't know their history. Shame on them. They say they spend much time in Israel?? I made Aliyah 5 years ago with my 2 youngest children; I now have 5 here while the 2 oldest remain in N.Y. My youngest daughter is a proud infantry soldier in the IDF; my youngest son will be begin his service , G-d willing - in July. Hey Rabbis, next time you're at the Inbal Hotel on your congregants dime, talk to kids like mine, spend a Shabbat in Sderot or Chevron. Get down and dirty, and then tell me that the recent events in the U.N. should be heralded

Noevil19 says this, ' Even good willed Rabbis can't voice themselves.'
I disagree. Good willed Rabbis can say anything they want. They just can't say stupid things.
The 'Palestinians' could have had a state of their own, and all the self determination in the world that goes along with statehood, if they had simply accepted the 1949 UN partition plan. They didn't. Their eyes were wide open. Instead, they attacked the Jewish state with the intent of spilling a sea of Jewish blood and DESTROYING Israel.
64 years later, the Palestinians/Arabs are still trying to destroy Israel. They can't do it on the battlefield, so their trying at the UN. Netanyahu said sit down at the negotiating table with me. Abbas refuses. By the way, the Oslo Accords and every UN resolution on the issue says a settlement HAS to be negotiated directly between the Pals and Israel. Palestinian statehood can't be imposed on Israel by the UN legally.
If rabbis or any Jews want to employ weak logic to analyze made up facts, you are free to do so. But please don't whine and complain and play the victim of 'powerful', 'right-wing', Jewish contributors. It's not attractive and its not true.

this situation shows that just because a rabbi is an educated person it doesn't mean that he/she has common sense. having an opinion as an individual, especially about israel related topics, and publicly stating an opinion as a representative of ones congregation are two very diferent things.

I would submit that the Rabbi in the synagogue, regardless of the synagogue's denomination, and regardless of the synagogue's overall position on Israel, is no more competent to opine on Israeli-Arab affairs or on Israeli politics than any of his congregants.

Rabbis should speak for themselves on matters of politics - including Israel politics. They should speak for their congregation only on matters directly involved in their Rabbinic authority.

Rabbi Milgron believes "a person can be pro-'Palestinian' and pro-Israel, and the support of one people does not mean the denial of the other". Tell that to the so-called 'Palestinians', they will not agree. Rabbim, it's good to have friends. Ask Gedalyahu.

I think the time of blindly covering up and full support of Israel ,right or wrong are over. The intimidation of any one speaking out has gone too far . Even good willed Rabbis can't voice themselves. That should make us all think, haven't we gone too far in avoiding a face on; what does Israel stands for, and represents, about itself ,and all Jews ? I am for one, Israel is going on the wrong direction, were we could question, its future.

Mazel tov to the BJ and White Plains rabbis alike who, with their different nuances, accomplished the important task alluded to by Rabbi Milgrom -- showing that we can support Israel in more ways than the straightjacketed way promulgated by the mainstream Jewish community. Fortunately, the mainstream community is beginning to become a freer, more self-examining one.

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