‘We are losing the next generation’ — rabbis describe crisis over Israel in their congregations

US Politics
on 31 Comments

The American Jewish community is today roiled by divisions over Israel. These divisions are manifest in countless synagogues around the country, but are largely silent– because Israel-critics are muzzling themselves. Rabbis are in a difficult position. They want the conversation to happen, but big donors threaten to leave the congregations if there is criticism of Israel.

Yet the rabbis say there will be no choice but to have the conversation: because young Jews are abandoning the synagogues, and the community needs the next generation more than it needs money.

That was the news from a vigorous discussion among rabbis that took place last week at the J Street conference in Washington. The discussion felt like a group therapy session for the 80 people in the room, as sometimes-agonized rabbis discussed strategies for getting the old guard to allow conversations about Israel to take place. They talked about colleagues shamed for trying to lead a “dual-narrative” trip by Jews to Israel and Palestine, and about a Miami synagogue backing out of sponsorship for a speech by liberal Zionist Roger Cohen because he is considered too far left.

“Can you send spiritual help?” a Jewish lay leader called out to laughter after describing his synagogue leadership’s efforts to shut out representatives of J Street.

Make no mistake, J Street is a Zionist group that constantly offers love for Israel. The fact that it is considered anti-Israel by many mainstream institutions is a sign of how reactionary the discourse is inside the Jewish community. But that is the discourse inside the Jewish community.

Let me lay out several cases from the session. I am protecting the rabbis’ identities because while the session was on the record, I don’t think any rabbi in the room thought a reporter was there recording them; and I aim to be kind.

 

Case 1. Donors and the “dynamic of power” in a synagogue.

A Reform temple in a big city on the east coast tried to stop the Israel discussion from happening  for years because it would divide the synagogue. A new rabbi came in ten years ago and saw that people needed to talk about it; and had a right to, because tikkun olam (repairing the world) is a mission of Judaism.

The rabbi told of starting an Israel Committee. Its guiding principle is, “responsibility” to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. “Not everyone’s happy with that, but that’s where the consensus firmly lay.” The committee does not allow “people who call for the destruction of Israel or violence or nondemocratic methods within the framework. The framework is a Jewish and democratic state, whatever that means.”

Many congregants want to be able to discuss Israel’s flaws; but one congregant said she was afraid when she heard the Palestinians walking down a main street of the city, demanding rights.

The rabbi has learned about the “dynamic of power” in the synagogue. Most of his major donors, who give very substantial gifts to the synagogue, “are not happy that I come to J Street. They’re firmly in the AIPAC camp. I go out of my way to have civil conversations with them.”

He has learned that he can push back at the donors by telling them about all the congregants who want to talk about the occupation. That is also a form of power. “Don’t despair,” he told his colleagues. The key is for rabbis to be “engaged” with their congregants.

 

Case 2. A rabbi urges congregants not to shun those who support BDS. 

A liberal synagogue in a university town sometimes feels like it is cracking up. Those who support the Jewish National Fund or AIPAC are considered outside the lines by leftwing congregants. But those who support J Street or Breaking the Silence are considered outside by the right.

The rabbi is also worried about financial pressure. He watched two colleagues pilloried by AIPAC, the rightwing Israel lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee for trying to talk about Palestine. He saw attacks on a Jewish day school for not toeing the Netanyahu line. He saw big donors attacking the Jewish Federations for their statement critical of Steve Bannon’s role in the Trump administration.

A member of the synagogue board is an activist for Jewish Voice for Peace and BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) in her outside life. The rabbi has sat with the congregants who don’t believe in a Jewish state. “That’s where my buttons get pushed,” he said. He is against BDS. But he gave a sermon to the synagogue saying these ideas are not anti-semitic, even if there are some anti-Semites involved the BDS movement.

He gave that sermon to an audience of one: a leading member of the congregation who spoke of the anti-semites in the synagogue. “With table pounding. It was not fun.”

When the rightwing gets angry, they threaten to “pick up all their marbles and move to a different synagogue.” The rabbi wishes the folks on the left would play that game a bit more; it would be a fairer fight.

The young have a lot of power. “Also on our board, was a young member who was a founder of Open Hillel. This is the demographic that every congregation wants, a 20-something who is excited to be a synagogue leader–  but it’s this big thing looming.”

 

Case 3. Some of my congregants don’t believe in a Jewish state.

In this progressive synagogue, some congregants are against the idea of a Jewish state. The rabbi was stunned when she came into the foyer one day and a prominent member of the synagogue pointed at the Israeli flag and said, “What is that doing there. That should not be there!”

But meantime, the president and the past president of the synagogue were Israel-right-or-wrong types.

A few years ago, the rabbi gave a sermon and said, “We’ve really got to talk about Israel and our relationship to it.” She saw discomfort and a lot of nodding in the faces before her. She quoted the famous passage from Talmud about a dispute between Shamai and Hillel, over strict and liberal interpretations of scripture, which was resolved with openness: “These and those are the words of the living god.”

This belief led her to take a trip to Israel and Palestine of 18 synagogue members. The liberal Zionist group the New Israel Fund guided her on the trip. They began by meeting Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem. They met a lot of people undertaking dialogue; and they felt hope.

Her husband had an insight that was helpful to her. They were at a cemetery for founders of Israel, and saw a gravestone with the carving of a mosquito on it. Evidently it was a young person who had died of malaria, helped to drain swamps. Her husband said, “I understand they could not have known what would become of Israel at that point. And we too can’t possibly know how this is going to unfold, and we can do all we can to help build peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but it may not happen in our lifetime.”

The trip was “graced.” But after they got back they held a meeting for Sami Awad and an older member of the congregation confronted her: “How do you feel about being the first congregation to support BDS?”

“I said, what are you talking about! I got angry at him and then I got angry at myself for getting angry.”

 

4. A conservative power synagogue in a power city.

A lay leader described his struggle to establish room for J Street supporters in a conservative synagogue with power brokers in it.

“Israel had almost disappeared from our congregational life. That was troubling to a lot of folks,” he said. The leadership of the synagogue was largely wed to an “institutional approach– actually, AIPAC is the term.”

But the affiliation was hurting the synagogue:

“They didn’t know why and how, but they were losing the next generation in this area, and they wanted something to be done, no matter how uncomfortable they were about that.”

The synagogue began a process to open up the conversation—to include those who were somewhat critical of Israel. The lay leader says most J Street supporters aren’t out of the closet.

“We now hope to find people who will come out.  It’s very uncomfortable especially for lay leaders in many places to say, Hi, I’m with J Street. I think the culture is changing enough so that we will now one way or another be able to get people to come out. And the number of people freed to participate with their real views will increase dramatically,” he said.

++++

After these cases were heard, others spoke from the floor.

A Jewish educator said that the community was angering and alienating young Jews with an unsophisticated Israel curriculum that doesn’t discuss Israeli crimes. Her own children are “still engaged” with the community; but lots of their friends and the friends of friends in the next generation have said that it’s “absolutely intolerable” that they went all the way through Jewish schools and never had a conversation about human rights and Palestinians. “They’re not stupid. They saw that this was grownups covering it up.”

The educator urged “change… so young people do not turn against us.”

A student at the Jewish Theological Seminary recommended a curriculum out of Madison, Wisconsin, called Reframing Israel. It asks fundamental questions about Zionism that it says young Jews are “eager and capable of exploring”:

  • What does it mean to support a Jewish state? Is supporting a Jewish state a necessary component of Jewish identity and connection to Jewish community?

Among the questions are ones stressing that Zionism is becoming irrelevant to young Americans:

What did Zionism mean in the past and what does it mean today? How do personal and historical experiences shape each individual’s understanding of Zionism?

What might a Jewish identity look like that gives full consideration to the Palestinian experience?

A few Orthodox people in the room said that the other Jews were lucky to be having a conversation about including J Street. In their synagogues, J Street is far outside the pale. “I’m laughing when I hear that BDS is a conversation,” one said. “That’s so left.”

+++++

The conversation among the rabbis at J Street is is a communal Jewish conversation; it has the political constraints of a community that wed itself to Zionism two generations ago. Theirs is obviously not the conversation that is happening on anti-Zionist websites. Many of our readers regard “dialogue” groups and liberal Zionism as illusory alternatives to a just resolution of the conflict.

But many traditional communities exercise constraints over their members that the more-universal of us regard as absurd and oppressive. That is why I see these rabbis as brave. They are trying to drag an extremely-conservative and frightened community toward greater awareness. This process may ultimately be liberating for Americans, given the crucial role of Jews as gatekeepers of Middle East discussion.

We can all take hope from the fact that the Jewish community is today in crisis. By confronting the inhibitions and curses of older, moneyed congregants, these rabbis are leaders.

 

 

 

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

Other posts by .


Posted In:

31 Responses

  1. JLewisDickerson
    March 8, 2017, 1:37 pm

    RE: “I am protecting the rabbis’ identities because while the session was on the record, I don’t think any rabbi in the room thought a reporter was there recording them; and I aim to be kind.” ~ Weiss

    MY COMMENT: Kindness is its own reward, notwithstanding the likelihood that it would also be extremely counterproductive to “out” these concerned rabbis!

    SEE: “Israel’s sugar daddy, Sheldon Adelson”, by Brad A. Greenberg, JewishJournal.com, June 27, 2008

    “He gives more money to Israel than the U.S. government.”

    A friend, who has worked for Sheldon Adelson, the third-richest man in the United States, behind Buffett and Gates, offered that analysis recently. It’s not quite accurate—no one provides more aide to Israel than the United States—but it wasn’t far off either.

    Adelson’s Israel-related charity is overwhelming to the point that it could whitewash even the most blemished biography, not to make any implications of Adelson’s. Fifty-five million dollars to birthright israel over the past two years to finance first trips to the Jewish state for tens of thousands of diaspora Jews; $25 million to the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem; $4.5 million for a think tank.

    But Adelson’s reach hasn’t been limited to charity. In fact, some say he uses money to meddle in Israeli politics, pushing a right-wing vision void of a peace process through his connections with American politicians—Bush called the Republican donor “some crazy Jewish billionaire”—and his free daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, which observers criticize as being stuffed with propaganda for Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. . .

    . . . But what really shocked me was a portion a little closer to home for Adelson, whose non-union Venetian was in 1999 being picketed by the Culinary Union:

    Las Vegas’s Temple Beth Sholom was holding a dinner to fête the new mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman. Adelson, a member of Beth Sholom, had recently pledged two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to the temple’s new-building fund. The dinner was to be held at the Venetian, but Mayor Goodman said that he would not cross the picket line, and synagogue officials decided to go elsewhere. Adelson excoriated Beth Sholom’s rabbi, Felipe Goodman. Rabbi Goodman told the Review-Journal that Adelson had been “so verbally abusive. I was very upset because no one had ever talked to me like he talked to me.” After the dinner took place at the Four Seasons, Adelson withdrew his pledge to Beth Sholom. He gave large sums to the local Chabad, a branch of the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitchers, for the construction of a new center. . .

    ENTIRE ARTICLE – http://jewishjournal.com/uncategorized/64532/

    • JLewisDickerson
      March 8, 2017, 1:57 pm

      P.S.
      Here is a nice photo of “The Littlest Dictator” in his palatial office atop the Venetian (hotel-casino) in Las Vegas. [He just sent Miriam to get some darts to use for target practice.]

      • JLewisDickerson
        March 8, 2017, 2:20 pm

        P.P.S. What’s the use in being “judgement proof” if you don’t say whatever the hell you damn well want to?!?!

        YOU’RE NEXT, BIG BOY:
        Donald Trump: A True Narcissistic Sociopath

      • RoHa
        March 9, 2017, 12:01 am

        “■ Donald Trump: A True Narcissistic Sociopath”

        So you are saying he’s just like all the other presidents?

      • JLewisDickerson
        March 9, 2017, 1:44 am

        P.P.P.S. EXCERPT:

        . . . In the first chapter of Plato’s masterpiece The Republic, there appears a character named Thrasymachus. Socrates engages this character in a debate about the nature of justice. Thrasymachus argues that justice is ultimately whatever the stronger party says it is, and he tries to bully Socrates into agreeing with him. He is uninterested in Socrates’ opinion or the logic of his argument while intent on dominating the conversation. When Thrasymachus is unable to get his way he becomes sullen and rude.

        Plato’s effort to construct an ideal state, governed by so-called “philosopher kings” – that is, people who, in Plato’s opinion, have the ability to accurately understand the world – can be understood as a reaction to a world that has become governed by the likes of Thrasymachus. . .

        SOURCE – http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/03/07/trump-and-the-anti-semites/

      • JLewisDickerson
        March 9, 2017, 10:04 am

        RE: “So you are saying he’s just like all the other presidents?” ~ RoHa

        MY COMMENT: Actually, “a true narcissistic sociopath” is what the person who posted the video to YouTube said.
        Certainly U.S. Presidents have been overwhelmingly narcissistic, but I doubt that many of them have also been full-blown sociopaths.

        YOU BE THE JUDGE/THERAPIST:

        http://www.mcafee.cc/Bin/sb.html

        Profile of the Sociopath

        This website summarizes some of the common features of descriptions of the behavior of sociopaths.

        Glibness and Superficial Charm

        Manipulative and Conning
        They never recognize the rights of others and see their self-serving behaviors as permissible. They appear to be charming, yet are covertly hostile and domineering, seeing their victim as merely an instrument to be used. They may dominate and humiliate their victims.

        Grandiose Sense of Self
        Feels entitled to certain things as “their right.”

        Pathological Lying
        Has no problem lying coolly and easily and it is almost impossible for them to be truthful on a consistent basis. Can create, and get caught up in, a complex belief about their own powers and abilities. Extremely convincing and even able to pass lie detector tests.

        Lack of Remorse, Shame or Guilt
        A deep seated rage, which is split off and repressed, is at their core. Does not see others around them as people, but only as targets and opportunities. Instead of friends, they have victims and accomplices who end up as victims. The end always justifies the means and they let nothing stand in their way.

        Shallow Emotions
        When they show what seems to be warmth, joy, love and compassion it is more feigned than experienced and serves an ulterior motive. Outraged by insignificant matters, yet remaining unmoved and cold by what would upset a normal person. Since they are not genuine, neither are their promises.

        Incapacity for Love

        Need for Stimulation
        Living on the edge. Verbal outbursts and physical punishments are normal. Promiscuity and gambling are common.

        Callousness/Lack of Empathy
        Unable to empathize with the pain of their victims, having only contempt for others’ feelings of distress and readily taking advantage of them.

        Poor Behavioral Controls/Impulsive Nature
        Rage and abuse, alternating with small expressions of love and approval produce an addictive cycle for abuser and abused, as well as creating hopelessness in the victim. Believe they are all-powerful, all-knowing, entitled to every wish, no sense of personal boundaries, no concern for their impact on others.

        Early Behavior Problems/Juvenile Delinquency
        Usually has a history of behavioral and academic difficulties, yet “gets by” by conning others. Problems in making and keeping friends; aberrant behaviors such as cruelty to people or animals, stealing, etc.

        Irresponsibility/Unreliability
        Not concerned about wrecking others’ lives and dreams. Oblivious or indifferent to the devastation they cause. Does not accept blame themselves, but blames others, even for acts they obviously committed.

        Promiscuous Sexual Behavior/Infidelity
        Promiscuity, child sexual abuse, rape and sexual acting out of all sorts.

        Lack of Realistic Life Plan/Parasitic Lifestyle
        Tends to move around a lot or makes all encompassing promises for the future, poor work ethic but exploits others effectively.

        Criminal or Entrepreneurial Versatility
        Changes their image as needed to avoid prosecution. Changes life story readily.

        SOURCE – http://www.mcafee.cc/Bin/sb.html

      • JLewisDickerson
        March 9, 2017, 2:53 pm

      • echinococcus
        March 9, 2017, 4:19 pm

        JLD,

        So it’s just as RoHa said.

        OK, I’ll give you a little doubt on Carter. Perhaps.

      • JLewisDickerson
        March 12, 2017, 5:35 pm

        I will grant you it can be reasonably argued that the U.S. (as a whole) is a sociopathic nation.

  2. JLewisDickerson
    March 8, 2017, 2:42 pm

    RE: “It’s very uncomfortable especially for lay leaders in many places to say, Hi, I’m with J Street.” ~ Weiss

    TWELVE STEP PROGRAM MEETING: “Hello everyone, my name is Joel. As of today, I’ve been Ziocaine*-free for three whole weeks!”

    *Ziocaine is a registered trademark of The Mooser Corporation, U.S.A.

  3. Maghlawatan
    March 8, 2017, 2:52 pm

    Tough titty, rabbis. Israel is sick

  4. broadside
    March 8, 2017, 3:36 pm

    More Jewish navel-gazing. Give us a break.

    “Rabbis are in a difficult position”; “as sometimes-agonized rabbis…”

    Aw. Boo-hoo. (To repair the world, you gotta break some eggs.)

    “I am protecting the rabbis’ identities because while the session was on the record …”

    … I don’t wish to cause them any more agony. (In time, goyim. In time.)

    “That is why I see these rabbis as brave. They are trying to drag an extremely-conservative and frightened community toward greater awareness. This process may ultimately be liberating for Americans, given the crucial role of Jews as gatekeepers of Middle East discussion.

    We can all take hope from the fact that the Jewish community is today in crisis. By confronting the inhibitions and curses of older, moneyed congregants, these rabbis are leaders.”

    Actually, they’re cowards.

  5. Maghlawatan
    March 8, 2017, 3:45 pm

    Israel is in a moral death spiral
    http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.775739

    “Debating the issue of a Palestinian state, and with Palestinian Israeli MK Ahmed Tibi (Joint List) chairing the Knesset debate, Hazan exclaimed:
    “We’re gonna shut your mouths and we’re going to speak the truth. There is no Palestinian People. And there has never been a Palestinian People [in Hebrew, Am Ha’Falastinai].
    However, he continued, “There is a Palestinian Moron, [in vulgar Hebrew slang, Ama Falastinai]. And you will stay a Palestinian Moron. And you know that even ‘Ama’ [a brand of dish detergent liquid] is worth more than the Palestinians.”

    Israel is now reaping what it has sown. And ain’t nobody else responsible.

    And news for the rabbis- things are going to get a lot worse. they will not get better

    • oldgeezer
      March 8, 2017, 7:19 pm

      @Maghlawatan

      Surely this is a nonstory. Given the adl states that part of it’s mission is to ensure respect for all within Israel it is only a matter of minutes before greenblatt issues a press release which is publicly supported by netanyahu lieberman bennet and shaked denouncing these words. Tomorrow they will move to have hazan stripped of his knesset privileges and that will be supported by all GoI members.

      Meanwhile back on earth…..

  6. Maghlawatan
    March 8, 2017, 4:13 pm

    Anyone who cared 15 years ago could have seen this in broad daylight. Israel was never a good country. It has always been run by narcissistic sociopaths. It never took the decent option. It always preferred violence and bad faith . Jewish orgs in the US preferred to go with the flow rather than ask tough questions. Zionists in Israel knew they could be walked over.

    The Torah has loads of examples of ego trips and delusions that end in a mess. Add Israel to the list.

  7. Citizen
    March 8, 2017, 5:44 pm

    So you sow, so you reap. I don’t think those rabbis are morally or ethically brave at all. They’ve just had to confront the fact their congregation isn’t getting any younger.

    • Mooser
      March 9, 2017, 3:49 pm

      .” They’ve just had to confront the fact their congregation isn’t getting any younger.”

      Or the younger congregation isn’t getting richer, or not at the rate which endows Temples.
      And is still subject to lose a battle of wills, too.

  8. broadside
    March 8, 2017, 6:44 pm

    Let’s cut to the chase: the dilemma facing these rabbis: do I keep the money coming? Or do I do the right thing?

    Fifty years later, they still haven’t decided.

    These are Jewish leaders? Who are the followers?

    • Mooser
      March 10, 2017, 10:59 am

      “Who are the followers?”

      “Followers”? Who needs them?

      In Judaism we are all leaders.

  9. JWalters
    March 8, 2017, 8:04 pm

    “Can you send spiritual help?” – Jewish lay leader

    God does not care what language a person prays in, what ceremonies they conduct, what their ethnicity is, or what organized religion they belong to. The only thing that matters to God is that a person follows the Golden Rule, treating others as they would want to be treated. Do this and God will favor you. Put your main focus on money and status and you will be left to crash and burn on your own.

    • Philip Weiss
      March 9, 2017, 6:28 pm

      I like that. John Brown said that the Declaration of Independence and the Golden Rule were the same moral code, equality.

      • JWalters
        March 10, 2017, 1:04 am

        Interesting. Let’s hope the rabbis see as clearly as John Brown.

  10. Maghlawatan
    March 9, 2017, 1:23 am

    Jews who care about the future of the religion have got to be ultra careful with language . Donors give blood. The sociopaths who fund the big Jewish orgs are not donors. They are the problem.

  11. Boomer
    March 9, 2017, 8:21 am

    I have nothing to say about rabbis and their congregations, so why am I intruding on the comments here? Because this seems to be the only article by Philip on the front page currently, and because he often comments on NYT’s editorial choices. Accordingly, I thought of him when I found this, explaining “How Israel Got It’s Supreme Court Right.” I was surprised by it. I’m not sure what to make of it.

    I don’t necessarily impute similar views to the editors of NYT. Maybe they thought some of their readers would like it. Maybe they thought others would not like it, but should be informed about it. Diversity of opinion on the Op-Ed page is good. Or maybe it should be read as guidance for the US, to get right with the Right. Perhaps some reader here will offer insight.

    excerpt: “The new judicial appointments, Ms. Shaked argued, “reflect the human and legal diversity” that she said had “until now has been so lacking on our highest court.” After decades dominating politics, the Israeli right had finally broken through into this bastion of unapologetic liberalism. Now the right has the opportunity to prove that it can run the country effectively without being fettered by a liberal court.”

    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/09/opinion/how-israel-got-its-supreme-court-right.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-left-region&region=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region

    • Boo
      March 9, 2017, 12:46 pm

      “After four decades of political dominance, the conservative coalition that runs Israel feels confident and mature enough to steer the country without a need for the easy excuses that the High Court provided.”

      And, one hopes, without the need for “Daddy’s” allowance. Time to break the piggy bank, Bibi.

  12. JLWarner
    March 9, 2017, 5:46 pm

    “big donors threaten to leave the congregations if there is criticism of Israel.” Aren’t there also big donors who insist on criticism of Israel??

  13. hellsbells
    March 11, 2017, 3:45 pm

    How encouraging… the end of generational Judaism with it’s Zionist twist. Just walk out! That’s the best protest any enlighten Jew can do.

Leave a Reply