Wednesday, January 8, 2014

How can my congregation talk about Israel in ways that are productive?

by Ask A Rabbi from

How can my congregation talk about Israel in ways that are productive?

By Rabbi Rachel Dvash Schoenfeld

Talk About IsraelMany liberal congregations have difficulty talking about Israel, and especially politics around Israel/Palestine. Talking about Israel is loaded with emotion, especially within Jewish communities. Synagogues and many families have a hard time talking about these issues, which are based on deeply held values and can be painful to disagree on.

Two surveys this year illustrate how central this issue is to American Jews. The recent Pew Research Center portrait of Jewish Americans showed that 43 percent of American Jews think that caring about Israel is essential to Jewish identity; this means that 57 percent don’t. Without even getting to the substance of the issue, just the question of the centrality of Israel divides Jews. Many Jews feel that they need to support Israel as a matter of Jewish survival, while other Jews feel they have a responsibility to improve Israel and be more critical. These two basic identities and positions often clash. A survey from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs said that one-third of rabbis feel they can’t freely express their own views about Israel. My experience is that at least one-third of people in Jewish communities feel this way, not just rabbis.

Due to the difficulty of talking about Israel’s politics, a few great resources have evolved. I’ve been an active facilitator for the Jewish Dialogue Group, an organization that works to foster constructive dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other challenging issues within Jewish communities. Another good resource is israel360, funded by Combined Jewish Philanthropies, whose mission is to talk about Israel from all sides, with none of the food fights. They hold dialogues in Boston. (The next israel360 “convo salon” is this Wednesday, Dec. 18.)

At my congregation in Newton, Shir Hadash Havurah, we are having a yearlong exploration of diverse points of view related to Israel and Palestine, and we invite anyone to come learn with us.

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