The following article, published in the Jewish Exponent, mentions Rabbi Hirsch’s approach to talking about Israel in his sermons for the High Holidays:
Rabbi Adam Zeff told his Germantown Jewish Centre congregation on Rosh Hashanah that the idea that “Israel is a land of Jews” is a myth.
So is the idea that “there is one and only one legitimate way to support Israel,” he said later in the sermon.
“You support the settlements? So does one group of Israelis,” Zeff said. “You want to express your pain at the destruction of Gaza? There are Israelis doing exactly that.”
He made these statements to a congregation that, like many, includes Jews across the political spectrum, from members of the Zionist Organization of America to those who support the boycott, divest and sanctions movement against Israel. And he did so despite the current conventional wisdom that it’s potentially risky and even inappropriate for rabbis to address political issues — and particularly politics related to Israel — during the most well-attended services of the year, if at all.
But this High Holidays season, less than a month after a ceasefire ended a Gaza war that proved especially emotional and painful for Jews around the world, many local pulpit rabbis chose to ignore the taboo.
Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg of Congregation Beth El in Yardley said he felt compelled to talk about Israel in an “in-depth fashion” from the bimah on Rosh Hashanah for the first time in his 11 years as a head rabbi.
“It seems to me that this year, of all years, there was a pretty clear need for people in the community to hear something about Israel,” said Gruenberg, who has been at the local Conservative synagogue for four years. “People get very emotional when it comes to Israel, and I think that it’s a good thing — it means that we have a relationship with Israel.”
For some local rabbis, the question was not whether to sermonize about Israel, but how best to approach it: Promote one particular view on Israel and risk alienating congregants? Or stay away from the political aspects and address more general themes relating to the Jewish connection to Israel?
Gruenberg did both. A self-described “centrist,” he told his congregants that Jews share a responsibility to forge deeper ties with Israel on both institutional and personal levels. He shared his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while simultaneously questioning whether Israel has any real partners for peace among the Palestinians. Despite the difficulties, he said he told them, “we always, always have to seek peace.”
While most of his congregants were complimentary, Gruenberg said a few sought him out afterwards to ask for clarification on some of his talking points and even to disagree.
“But that’s OK,” Gruenberg said. “If I don’t put my own viewpoints out there, then how are other people going to feel safe doing that? And I think if there’s a sense that you can respectfully disagree when it comes to politics in Israel with your rabbi, then you can respectfully disagree with anybody.”
But Gruenberg also had the advantage of recently signing a new seven-year contract with Beth El. For some rabbis, he said, contract status could affect how comfortable they feel bringing potentially controversial issues into their sermons.
Rabbi Rachel Brown of Congregation B’nai Jacob chose to speak about Israel on the second day of Rosh Hashanah without delving into the headlines.
“I talked about Israel from the perspective of emotional connection. I didn’t talk about politics at all. I talked about why does Israel’s existence matter to us,” said Brown, who has been at the Conservative congregation in Phoenixville for a decade. “In the past, when I talked about political issues, I got very negative feedback from some people and, honestly, we don’t have to be feeling negative on the High Holidays.”
That motivation — or lack thereof — to talk about political issues is not always driven by concern about making congregants uncomfortable and is not limited to one stream of Judaism.
“It is really important to address issues in our world,” said Rabbi Peter Rigler of Temple Sholom, a Reform congregation in Broomall. Shortly after taking over the pulpit there six years ago, he recalled, he spoke about how “providing health care is a Jewish value.” He spent the next month meeting with 50 congregants who were upset about the sermon.
On Rosh Hashanah this year, he spoke about the need to stand with Israel despite criticisms congregants may have about particular policies. He has since heard from “some people, in particular on the left side of things, who are struggling a bit with my words. But I’m happy that they heard them; I’m happy that we’re engaged in dialogue.”
For his part, Rabbi Eliezer Hirsch, of the Orthodox Mekor Habracha in Center City, said he had told congregants before the High Holidays that he was not going to focus on the Gaza war in any of his holiday sermons.
“My policy is to speak about Rosh Hashanah on Rosh Hashanah,” he said, rather than “topics that might take one’s focus away. The day itself is a spiritual, solemn day that can’t be replicated, and it offers a very unique opportunity.”
He said he did, however, mention Israel and the war, telling congregants that they should view the country from a “macro level.” While “it’s very easy” to focus on mistakes the country has made, he said, “it’s not our job to second guess and criticize Israel.”
Likewise, Rabbi Barry Blum of Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid in Broomall, said he chose to avoid politics during his Rosh Hashanah sermons because he didn’t want to take away from “what the High Holidays are about, which is unity and coming together.”
However, he said he planned to speak on Yom Kippur about Israel — but from a non-political angle. The focus won’t be on looking at the past, he said, but rather peering into the future.
“Because so many bad things happened this year, I want to take the opposite spin and talk about things that can be good,” Blum said.
For some rabbis, Israel is the one potentially hot-button issue that they will touch.
“I never speak about political issues from the bimah except when it comes to Israel,” said Rabbi Joshua Kalev of Tiferet Bet Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Blue Bell. He is an Israeli citizen whose father was a Yemenite Jew airlifted from the turmoil in Aden after the creation of Israel.
“A few years ago, I gave a sermon saying that J Street will absolutely never be welcome in a synagogue that I am the rabbi at, and I received a few comments about that,” he said of the leftist Israel advocacy group. This year, he tried to dispel what he described as misconceptions about Israel’s presence in the West Bank, explaining the outcome of previous wars in which Israel had to defend itself. “Israel would love to give back land for true peace as it tried to do in Gaza,” if it had a partner in peace, Kalev said he told his congregants.
Kalev, in his seventh year at the congregation, said he does not worry about negative feedback from congregants.
“I kind of feel like this is what you get, and if I’m not the one, then that’s OK,” he said. “I will tell you that it has caused congregants to come from other synagogues to our community because their community is not as supportive of Israel as they would like.”
For his part, Zeff, the Germantown rabbi who was in Israel over the summer and will return to spend a sabbatical year after Yom Kippur, said he was surprised to hear “an incredible uniformity of support,” after delivering his Rosh Hashanah sermon. “It’s amazing to me because I knew that when I said, ‘I’m challenging myths,’ that it was going to be provocative, but people seem to have really appreciated it.”
He began his sermon, which he had not originally planned to focus on Israel, saying he wanted to talk about “how we can each go deeper in our understanding of Israel and in our engagement with the land, the state, and the people who live there.”
After declaring “Israel is a land of Jews” a myth, Zeff explained that he had an “us and them” view of Jews and Arabs until very recently.
He said that even after he lived for a year in Tel Aviv back in the 1980s, with a Yemenite family, whose connection with Arab culture “was undeniable,” he still thought of Israel as the “land of Jews and Jews alone,” he said. That changed this summer, he said, when he and his family lived in Haifa, a diverse city he chose for his sabbatical year specifically because he would regularly interact with non-Jews living there. He explained the long history of other religious and ethnic groups living in Israel and then spoke about his family’s experience in Haifa.
“We have also learned about the difficulties in the lives of these non-Jewish Israelis, whose school systems, housing and health care often are at levels far below those of the Jewish majority,” he said. “The inhabitants of Israel are complex, diverse and multi faceted, just as they have always been. Closing our eyes may make our thinking simpler, but it will not make that reality go away.”
Exponent staff writer Amishai Gottlieb contributed to this report.