Rabbi’s Can Play a Pivotal Role on Israel by Martin J. Raffel

The growing partnership on Israel between the religious movements and other American Jewish institutions, in terms of philanthropy and political activism, is a welcome development.

We recently witnessed this when the religious movements joined with the Jewish Federations of North America in a special fundraising drive during the recent military operation in Gaza; and in recent years they have been working closely with JFNA to advance the religious pluralism agenda in Israel. Last spring, over 1,500 rabbis from all four religious movements and all 50 states signed a letter urging the Presbyterian Church USA and Methodist Church to defeat resolutions calling for divestment of funds from several companies doing business in Israel. And AIPAC successfully has intensified its outreach to congregations as a way of expanding grass-roots pro-Israel advocacy.

At the same time, it is not at all clear whether synagogues and their rabbis adequately are fulfilling an even more fundamental role, namely, cultivating a deep appreciation of Israel as integral to Jewish identity. The World War II generation, whose ranks diminish daily, and the older segment of the baby boomer generation, whose seminal experiences were the 1967 and 1973 wars of survival, by and large possess a visceral connection to Israel. But for Jews under the age of 50, shaped by a very different historical experience, Israel is less significant to their lives. There is no question that the Birthright and MASA programs have made a major positive impact on attitudes of young Jews toward Israel. But the overall trend toward emotional detachment is real.

Moreover, we need to recognize that young American Jews generally see themselves in terms of their affiliation with one of the religious movements, and not as members of a Jewish national group. And if they are justifiably uncomfortable with the notion of America officially being labeled as a “Christian” country, to the degree they think about these things, why would they unquestioningly accept the legitimacy of Israel as a “Jewish” state?

This situation will not be addressed merely by creating opportunities to debate the pros and cons of particular Israeli policies. It’s not about settlements, or where to draw borders, or who can pray at the Western Wall. Not that these matters are unimportant. But our challenge is more basic. Young Jews need to be given an opportunity to engage in a deeper, more profound exploration of Israel’s meaning to the Jewish people and of the role Israel might play in their personal Jewish journeys. They need forums to be able to process complex questions openly and honestly. Among them: Is there a contradiction to being Jewish and democratic, when roughly one-quarter of Israel’s citizens are not Jewish? How can Israel as a sovereign Jewish nation best reflect Jewish values? What are our obligations as American Jews to the Jewish state, not just in monetary and/or political terms, but also in a direct and organic partnership with the people of Israel?

We all have a stake in this issue, but synagogues, notwithstanding their dwindling memberships, remain the best institutions to facilitate such an exploration. Yet rabbis, regrettably, often shy away from serious Israel-centered discussions, fearing controversy and polarization in their congregations. They should be encouraged to take risks, and we should promote a culture of discourse in our community that makes conversations on these topics less risky. The recent controversy at New York’s B’nai Jeshurun — where the rabbis broke ranks with community consensus and expressed support for the unilateral Palestinian bid for statehood recognition — is a case in point. Their colleagues, understandably, may take this as a sign to steer clear. But that would be a big mistake. We need to have serious in-depth conversations around Palestinian self-determination — and Jewish self-determination.

These conversations can start with young Jews who already have started a nascent relationship with Israel through Birthright and MASA. But they must extend well beyond, to those who have not participated in such programs as well as to younger Jewish students in day and religious schools. And it would behoove synagogues to integrate this material into their family education programs as well. Quality resources exist to help synagogues fulfill this mission, including the iEngage program initiated by the Shalom Hartman Institute, the Chicago-based iCenter, MAKOM in the Jewish Agency for Israel and others.

Again, and I stress, this agenda is not the responsibility of synagogues and rabbis alone. Indeed the health and vitality of our future relationship with Israel is, or should be, the business of many communal institutions, from federations and JCRCs to overnight camps to JCCs. But we need their leadership — and courage.

Martin J. Raffel is senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public