Israel: It’s Complicated

Keeping Connected    December 2019

Dear Friends,

The Jewish world is like a family in which there has been and will always be vigorous debate about issues, beliefs, practices and more. This has been the case since Judaism emerged as a civilization. Seeking to understand and engage with this debate gets at the core of what being Jewish means. There have been so many, many debates through time:

  • Did God give one Torah to Moses, the written Torah, or did God also give the oral Torah/interpretations?
  • Can you practice Judaism in diaspora without the sacrifices of the Temple being essential to Jewish religious life?
  • Should Jews be able to assimilate to some degree while still keeping Jewish practices or does there always need to be a complete separation of practices from the communities we live within?
  • Is the entire Torah “written” by God or was it written by people inspired by God?
  • Does being Jewish require us to follow all of the mitzvot from the Torah or can we practice Judaism by adapting rituals and practices to current norms of society?
  • Can you eat legumes and rice during Passover or are these strictly forbidden because of the belief that one should build a fence around Torah?

Some of the conversations and debates are less controversial and divisive, but some of the beliefs and practices in the Jewish world do evoke a great deal of discord. These very subjects and concerns, however, are often at the heart of what is MOST important to the Jewish community:

  • Can one live a Jewish life if they are intermarried?
  • Can the children of a Jewish man be Jewish without conversion if they have a mother who isn’t Jewish?
  • Should women be able to be rabbis and read from Torah scrolls at the Kotel?
  • Are the conversions performed by Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis valid? Are all Orthodox conversions valid?

In my rabbinate, however, I have observed that one of the most difficult and challenging topics to talk about is Israel. Even for Jews who equally would say they are Zionists and love the State of Israel, there can be name calling and questions of loyalty to the Jewish Homeland. Many progressive rabbis have just stopped talking about and teaching about Israel.

For me, in the last several years, I have found this to be a more difficult approach. In particular after having many conversations with young adults who have visited Israel and experienced debate on college campuses, I realize that simply not engaging is not an option. The comment I have heard most is that young people feel cheated and angry that they were not better prepared for the conversations they were hearing about as adults and that they had not felt they have been given a broad enough experience of Israel curriculum at our synagogue. Toward those ends, we have started using a new curriculum with our 7th graders with a textbook called Israel: It’s Complicated by Behrman House. This program tries to present the students with opportunities to learn about the unique, diverse, compelling and sometimes controversial place that Israel is. The curriculum encourages students to learn from history and to engage in meaningful debate. So far, the students have been very responsive to these classes.

For adults, as you know, we have had several sessions about Israel with Dr. Karen Spira in years past and she will be joining us again starting in March to explore the following topics:

  • Women in Israel
  • One State, Two States?
  • Jewish Extremism, the Ultra-Orthodox, and Religious Zionism in Israel.

Recently I have also learned about a new program from the Shalom Hartman Institute, which is a leading center of Jewish thought and education, serving Israel and North America. Their mission is to strengthen Jewish peoplehood, identity and pluralism, enhance the Jewish and democratic character of Israel, and ensure that Judaism is a compelling force for good in the 21st century. The work of the Shalom Hartman Institute focuses on:

  • Judaism and Modernity: Developing compelling Jewish ideas capable of competing in the modern marketplace of identities and thought .
  • Religious Pluralism: Building a Jewish people and a State of Israel that respect and celebrate diversity.
  • Jewish and Democratic Israel: Ensuring Israel’s foundations as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people, committed to equal rights and religious freedom for all.
  • Jewish Peoplehood: Forming a strong mutual commitment between world Jewry and Israelis as equal partners in the future of Jewish life.
  • Judaism and the World: Serving as a gateway for leaders of other faiths to engage with Judaism and Israel and build new foundations of understanding and cooperation.

Shalom Hartman has also produced a curriculum for adults called, Jewish Values and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. For those who are interested in learning more about the possibility of bringing such a program to our community, please read the links below.  This curriculum is not meant to provide a single lens of understanding.  Shalom Hartman describes the program this way:  “Through the study of Jewish narratives about Israel and the unpacking of the complex meanings of peace in Jewish tradition, participants are invited to explore the ideas and values that animate different attitudes toward the conflict and how these values shape their own political understandings. Though a common political platform may not be attainable, this course strives to achieve a shared respect for our differences.”  Since this curriculum is expensive ($500) to purchase for our synagogue and since it requires a commitment of 12 sessions for the participants, I do not want to move forward without getting feedback from members to see if there is enough interest to pursue this curriculum with our Adult Education program.  Please read through the below information and let me know if you would be interested in the class.  Please e-mail me if you would be interested in participating.

Learn about Shalom Hartman program

More information on the Shalom Hartman program

Finally, as many of you may know, recently the United States State Department recently changed a long-standing American policy about settlements in the West Bank. This has evoked a great deal of concern for many within the Jewish community. I understand that there will be a wide range of opinions and reactions about this policy shift, even within our own community. I personally feel that it is important, however, that as a Reform congregation, our members should have the opportunity to read the statements that were put out in response from the Union for Reform Judaism and the Reform rabbinical association.

Rabbi Shoshana M. Perry


Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs issued this statement on New York, NY; November 18, 2019

“The URJ is greatly concerned about today’s statement by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo which, while focusing on international law, will be widely read as a broader change to the U.S. position on Israeli settlements – a policy which has been long held by both Republican and Democratic U.S. administrations.

Any unilateral move to this effect would place serious and critical obstacles to a viable two-state solution, damaging the prospect of renewing the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and causing a long-term threat to Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state. We urge the Trump Administration to reverse its position.”

Central Conference of American Rabbis’ statement on Secretary of State Pompeo’s position on the legality of West Bank settlements

The Central Conference of American Rabbis denounces the change in United States policy, declared by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, regarding the legality of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Having long opposed expansion and growth of those settlements, we fear that this change in policy attenuates the already-limited extent to which the United States may be seen as an appropriate facilitator for a Middle East peace process.

The CCAR has for decades voiced strong support for a two-state solution, which offers the only viable future for Israel, the Palestinian people, a peaceful Middle East, and a Jewish and democratic State of Israel. We recognize with regret that current Palestinian leadership is not a viable partner for peace, we deplore the violence that threatens Israelis’ lives and well-being daily, and we note that Israeli government policies and practices often multiply hardships of Palestinians living under occupation. Still, we continue to favor any and all measures that may increase confidence on both sides and lead to fruitful peace negotiations. Moreover, the CCAR advocates for the United States’ role in facilitating peace negotiations and this announcement by Secretary of State Pompeo dramatically compromises our country’s ability to do so.

We urge the Trump Administration to continue the United States’ long-standing policy opposing West Bank settlement expansion and growth and to work diligently and creatively to do this country’s part in building a peaceful future in the Middle East.

Rabbi Ronald Segal
Central Conference of American Rabbis

Rabbi Hara E. Person
Chief Executive
Central Conference of American Rabbis