NEW YORK — A second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary says her year-in-Israel experience, as part of her academic training, has been “enriching and incredibly painful” in terms of what she sees of Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians.
“The Israel I see does not seem to reflect so many of the Jewish values that my family and community raised me with,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Jewish Week.
The woman, who asked that her name not be used, said she is part of a group of American rabbinical students in Israel who meet every other week “to share our struggles and hopes and dreams for Israel.” She added that “it was through this group that I ended up [at a] birthday party in Ramallah” for a fellow student at a bar featuring anti-Israel slogans in Arabic.
The birthday incident was cited in a recent Jerusalem Post opinion piece by educator Daniel Gordis as an example of the disturbing level of discontent with the Jewish state among a number of Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbinical students spending a year in Israel.
While officials of major rabbinical seminaries are publicly downplaying reports of anti-government actions and sentiments among their students in Israel, saying they have been exaggerated, they privately admit that the issue is real, and of deep concern. And the highly critical views among some students are causing at least several American Jewish leaders in the liberal movements to question the value of the year-in-Israel programs in their current form.
“The central objective of the program is to build a Zionist mindset,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue (Reform) in Manhattan. “Otherwise it’s a wasted opportunity.”
He said if a significant number of students are disenchanted with Israel, the programs may be “deeply flawed” and should be reviewed.
Several troubling incidents of distancing from the Zionist cause first surfaced in an April 1 essay in the Jerusalem Post by Gordis, senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. Describing “a new battleground emerging” among liberal American rabbinical students in Israel, he cited such examples as a student seeking to buy a tallit on the condition that it not be made in Israel; a discussion among students where one said that the anniversary of Israeli independence should be marked as a day of mourning; and the students who celebrated a peer’s birthday at a bar in Ramallah with anti-Israel slogans on the walls.
Gordis noted that liberal rabbinical students who profess strong support for Israel are often treated like “pariahs” by their fellow students.
In an interview, Gordis said his piece was based on extensive conversations with rabbinical students in Israel for the year and that the level and tone of follow-up calls and correspondence from officials of their respective schools underscored that he had “touched a raw nerve.”
He said the complaints were that he was hurting fundraising efforts back home, according to one official, and spreading lashon hara, according to another.
“I don’t buy it,” Gordis said of the criticism, noting that he was careful not to quantify the extent of student attitudes highly critical of Israel, but was highlighting a “troubling but undeniable shift in loyalties [among] bright, decent, thoughtful and deeply Jewishly committed” young people who will be future leaders of American Jewish life.
The Gordis essay prompted a number of published replies in the Jerusalem Post, as well as blogs and internal discussions among students and administrators.
“I remain convinced that, if anything, this enormous response and defensiveness shows that I was correct,” he said.
Putting liberal rabbinical students “exclusively in classes in Jerusalem for a year rather than using Israeli society as a setting for complex and nuanced exploration is an enormous missed opportunity,” according to Gordis.
Seminary officials point out that they already run extensive seminars and site visits for their students in Israel.
What tends to happen, though, the administrators say, is that some of the future rabbis on their own time are inclined to seek out and participate in a range of programs that open them up to encounters and dialogue with Palestinians. And the students’ liberal leanings, universalist nature and sympathy for the underdog sometimes combine to find them viewing Israeli policy, particularly regarding the settlements and West Bank occupation (not to mention the Orthodox monopoly on conversion, marriage, divorce and male prayer at the Western Wall), as oppressive and immoral.
In mid-March, Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, told a colloquium sponsored by the American Jewish Committee on the distancing of American Jews from Israel that he estimated that about 20 percent of Reform rabbinical students who spend their first year of study in Jerusalem come back feeling “hostile” toward the Jewish state, and another 10 percent return “indifferent.”
While noting with pride that the Reform movement is the only one to require each of its future rabbis to spend a year in Israel, Rabbi Ellenson noted that young American Jews tend to feel “mystified, at best, and alienated, at worst” in learning of and grappling with some of Israel’s religious and political policies up close.
After the Gordis essay appeared in The Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Ellenson sent out a lengthy letter to the HUC-JIR community noting that his colleague and friend had “focused on several extreme examples of anti-Israel sentiment among rabbinical students attending non-Orthodox seminaries” and that he himself felt “the overwhelming majority” of these students did not share such views. He went on to note how much more complex Israeli society has become over the last four decades, and that “a time of unity and solidarity” has been replaced by “a broad array of views and by the sense of an increasing strain on the Israel-diaspora relationship.”
Rabbi Ellenson described the mood among students as “a kind of engaged confusion, born of an honest attempt to grapple with the complexities of their relationship with Israel, the land and the people.”
In an interview on Monday, Rabbi Ellenson said he regretted having used the word “hostile” in his talk at the AJC. He said it would be more accurate to say that after a year in Israel, many HUC students feel “both attached to and critical of Israel.”
He soon after met with rabbinic students about to be ordained, one of whom told him her rabbinate will be about her love for Torah, not about Israel, which she finds problematic. And he said another rabbinic student who is pro-AIPAC, the Jewish lobby, said she felt very much out of place among her peers.
The rabbi said he worries most about “indifference” among students, stressing HUC-JIR’s commitment to affirm among its students “the centrality of Jewish peoplehood on their path to Jewish leadership.”
Our communal challenge, he said, is to be able “to have a conversation where one can show commitment and love for Israel and at the same time be able to engage critically.” And he is not at all certain we have reached that level of candor and commitment.
The issue may just be heating up. Daniel Gordis is working on a 4,500-word piece for Commentary that will expand on his concerns; establishment officials are worried about what it will say and the fact that it will further highlight and prolong their discomfort with this issue.
Stepping back, it seems that the Peter Beinart Syndrome — the concern, expressed a year ago in The New York Review of Books that young American Jews are choosing liberal values over Zionist ones — has reached our liberal rabbinic seminaries.
That shouldn’t be surprising. Our future liberal denomination rabbis are prime examples of the current generational clash over values, history and emotional attachment to Israel. On the one side are young people, raised as liberals and humanitarians, who have grown up seeing Israel through the prism of intifadas, harsh and inconclusive wars in Lebanon and Gaza, and increasing international isolation. On the other side are their elders who recall the courageous, even miraculous, early successes of the Jewish state and who are not afraid to call themselves nationalists when it comes to Israel.
Gordis believes that while these future rabbis, and many of their peers, want Israel to live up to its ideals, he and his generation want Israel to survive.
The fact that Israelis have real enemies — people who seek their national and personal destruction — may be unpleasant for young people to contemplate, but it’s a fact of life.
At the same time, it’s not helpful to lecture or chastise our youth, particularly those who are expressing their idealism and Jewish commitment by choosing to serve the community as spiritual leaders.
What’s called for is a full and open discussion about this troubling divide. That means being able to acknowledge worrisome Israeli government actions without feeling disloyal, and recognizing the importance of inculcating young people with a sense of Jewish peoplehood and collective responsibility from the earliest age.
Wrestling with Israel is nothing new; indeed the biblical Jacob became “Israel” only after struggling with an angel all night. The key is to do so with respect and humility, and in the name of Heaven.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org.)