The New York Times reported early last week that three rabbis associated with Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, a large non-denominational – and decidedly non-Orthodox – synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, had sent out an e-mail to their members on Friday, November 30th in which they enthusiastically supported the recent vote by the United Nations to upgrade the status of Palestinians living on the West Bank to a “non-member observer state.” The UN vote took place on the previous day, to coincide with the 65th anniversary of the United Nations vote to partition what was then called Palestine into both an Arab and Jewish state.
“The vote at the UN yesterday is a great moment for us as citizens of the world,” said the e-mail, which was sent to all congregants. “This is an opportunity to celebrate the process that allows a nation to come forward and ask for recognition.” The e-mail was a collaborative effort by three B’nai Jeshurun rabbis - J. Rolando Matalon, Marcelo R. Bronstein and Felicia L. Sol, and was also signed by the president of the synagogue’s board of directors and its executive director.
Reaction to the polemical e-mail varied amongst congregants. Some say that it reflected a schism among American Jews and a bold willingness to publicly disagree with Israel. While rabbis at other Jewish congregations have, in various ways, promulgated their affirmative beliefs about the United Nations’ vote, B’nai Jeshurun’s response garnered attention because of its size and prominence.
Allan Ripp, a B’nai Jeshurun member, said he and his wife were appalled by the content of the e-mail. “We are just sort of in a state of shock,” he said. “It’s not as if we don’t support a two-state solution, but to say it with such a warm embrace, it is like a high-five to the PLO, and that has left us numb.”
Other B’nai Jeshurun members welcomed the message of the e-mail and lauded the rabbis who composed it. “I thought it was very courageous of them,” said Gil Kulick, a congregant. “I think as of late there has been a reluctance to speak out on this issue,” he added, “and that’s why I was really delighted that they chose to take a strong unequivocal stand.”
Historically, American Jews have engaged in vigorous, and at times acrimonious, debates about the positions of the Israeli government and the peace process with the Palestinians. However, many have kept their critical views within the walls of their houses of worship.
“At most times we impose a kind of discipline upon ourselves; nobody imposes it on us, particularly on a matter on which the Israeli government has asked for unanimous support from the Jewish community,” said Samuel Norich, the publisher of the Forward, a Jewish affairs weekly based in New York. “When they speak out, that is rare,” Norich said of mainstream congregations.
While the gist of the e-mail was not surprising to congregants, in that it implied that the vote could be a step toward a two-state solution and Middle East peace; its tone and its timing were jarring to some. “It’s very shocking to many of the congregants that this position was taken publicly and this e-mail was sent around,” said Eve Birnbaum, a member of the congregation for about 15 years. “I am very dismayed, as a longstanding member of the synagogue, that the rabbis and the board would take a position that is contrary to what many members believe, contrary to the peace process,” she added.
“The statement reflected the views of the rabbinate and the leadership,” said Scott A. Weiner, 63, a synagogue congregant. Weiner said that during the Gaza conflict, he had been among about 20 people in Israel with Rabbi Matalon, the congregation’s senior rabbi, and that the group had been forced into bomb shelters several times. “There is an unwavering commitment of support for the State of Israel,” he said. “But just as Israeli society is multidimensional, so, too, is the congregation.”
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a heated debate ensued online over an e-mail that was sent out by Rabbi Sharon Brous to her congregation during the recent Gaza conflict that said the Palestinian people “are also children of God, whose suffering is real and undeniable.” Her perspective was critiqued by Rabbi Daniel Gordis, senior vice president at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. In a column for the Times of Israel web site, Rabbi Gordis wrote, “I wanted her to tell her community to love my family and my neighbors more than they love the people who elected Hamas and who celebrate each time a suicide bomber kills Jews. Is that really too much to ask?”
Rabbi David Ingber of Romemu, another liberal synagogue on the Upper West Side, said the criticism of Rabbi Brous had helped inspire him to lead his congregants in a prayer for the children of Gaza, as well as for the Israeli people.
As a result of the heightening controversy swirling around the B’nai Jeshurun e-mail, the three rabbis that originally penned it said several days after the New York Times article appeared that they “regretted the tone” of it.
In an indirect apology, Rabbis Matalon, Bronstein and Sol said in a follow up e-mail to congregants that, “While we affirm the essence of our message, 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.”
The rabbis expressed regret at “the feeling of alienation that resulted from our letter,” and added that they “omitted key passages honoring the diversity of viewpoints in our community as well as links to a series of articles in the Israeli press representing a range of opinions on the UN vote.” The new letter also said that the first letter should not have included as signatories the names of the synagogue’s cantor, Ari Priven; its board president, Jeannie Blaustein; its executive director, Steve Goldberg; or its director of Israel engagement, Orli Moss.
Taking pains to express their support for the Jewish state, the rabbis said in the latter e-mail that they are “passionate lovers of Israel” and added that, “we have spent significant parts of our lives there, we have family and friends there, we have traveled to Israel many times with B’nai Jeshurun members, and we are unequivocally committed to Israel’s security, democracy and peace. We will continue to devote ourselves to the dignity of Israel, of our people and of all peoples.”