The following is a transcript of Episode 145 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Jordana: Hi and welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. My name is Jordana Amsel. I serve as director of development for Israel programs at the Shalom Hartman Institute, and I am currently speaking to you from Israel. We just concluded our community leadership program, which is an annual week of learning at our Jerusalem campus, where 175 lay leaders, learners, and philanthropic professionals gather from around the world to explore our core commitments of modern Judaism and Zionism, and to reflect on Jewish meaning, belonging, and obligation with fresh eyes.
The following is a conversation recorded last week at our program in front of a live audience. Elana Stein Hain spoke with Orly Erez-Likhovski and Rick Jacobs about Jewish liberal activism in Israel and North America. In it, they discuss how liberal values translate to political action.
Elana is Rosh Beit Midrash of the Shalom Hartman Institute North America and co-host of the For Heaven’s Sake podcast, Orly is the director of the Israel Religious Action Center, and Rick is president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Take a listen.
Elana: Okay, welcome everyone to the last night of our community leadership program. We have been speaking, for those who are watching us online, and those who are here, we have been speaking the whole week about religion and politics, but I’ve noticed that the religion conversations tended to be a bit more on the personal side, and the political conversations tended to be about politics sans the religious conversation.
And what we’re going to try to do tonight is we’re going to try to have a conversation about how religious values get translated into public policy. So in some ways, politics as public religion, if you would.
And I’m very pleased to be joined here by two people who represent the Reform movement throughout the world, who are really translating their understandings of Jewish values, and their movements understanding of Jewish values, into political action. I want to introduce them, though I’m sure most of the people watching know who they are.
Immediately to my left, we have Orly Erez-Likhovski, who graduated from the Faculty of Law at Tel Aviv University. She also clerked at this Israeli Supreme Court, studied for a master’s degree in law at Columbia University, focusing on human rights. Orly’s a member of both the Israeli and the New York Bar. She’s been working at the Israel Religious Action Center of the Reform movement. She’s been working there since 2004, was the director of the legal department of IRAC between 2014 and 2021. In this capacity, she led the legal struggle against discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation, gender segregation in the public sphere, and racial incitement.
Orly has led significant legal achievements, such as abolishing gender segregation on public transportation, breaking the Orthodox Monopoly regarding the payment of salaries of state-employed rabbis, and disqualifying racist candidates from running for the Knesset. Since November 2021, Orly has been the director of IRAC and since 2020 January 2023 she has been the executive director of IRAC. She is a member of a Reform congregation in Mevaseret Tzion, Israel, where she lives with her family. Thank you so much for joining us here this evening.
Orly: Pleasure being here.
Elana: To her left is Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, URJ. The URJ leads the largest and most diverse Jewish movement in North America, reaching more than 1.5 million people, through 850 congregations, 15 overnight camps, and the Reform teen youth movement NFTY, as well as the Religious Action Center, the RAC, in Washington D.C.
He’s a long-time devoted and creative change agent, who spent 20 years as a spiritual leader at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York. Before that, during his tenure as the rabbi of the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, he created the first homeless shelter in a New York City synagogue. Rabbi Jacobs is a tireless advocate for an Israel that is secure, Jewish, Democratic, and pluralistic, with a vibrant Reform Jewish community. He has studied for two decades at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where he is a senior rabbinic fellow.
Now, Rabbi Jacobs and Orly, we have decided that we’re going to go with first names this evening, so now that I have read your incredible credentials, we’re gonna get real friendly here.
Okay, so Rick, I want to start with you. What we want to talk about tonight is, I’m going to do this kind of in, let’s organize it. We’re going to start with talking about religion and kind of collective Reform movement conversation, we’re going to move into relationships between religion and politics, and we’re going to move ultimately into, I would say Hartman’s favorite subject, which is Jewish peoplehood. Okay, so we’ll try to get everywhere along those tracks, even if we don’t hit every stop within each of those, that’s what we’re trying to do writ large.
So let’s start with Reform Judaism as a denomination and much to the chagrin of my South American, Australian, and Canadian friends, I’m going to start with a question about American Reform Judaism, okay?
The question is, what do you think are its greatest successes right now, and what do you think are its greatest challenges?
Rick: First of all, it’s great to be here. It just feels so much like home, and with a beloved colleague and a wonderful teacher of mine, so thank you. You gave us introductions, somebody should make sure, for your bio,
Elana: I’m Elana. I work here.
Rick: Yeah. I would say there are a lot of things I would share, I’m going to try and just distill. The Reform movement, as you heard, we’re the largest movement in North American Jewish life. By the way, we’re North American, not American, because we’re Canada and U.S. And I would say, if you looked before World War II, we were far from the largest. After World War II we really grew dramatically. And the growth really is also not just from within, but we’ve had a lot of immigration from outside the Reform movement. Many people who grew up in very traditional backgrounds, some who grew up in Yiddish, you know, socialist homes, some who grew up in other faith traditions.
So one of the great strengths for us is that we are a big tent, and that we work hard, to not just be a welcoming tent, but be a tent that really puts our arms out and tries to pull in the true diversity of the Jewish people, many of whom have yet to find a place that really is home. So part of that growth has been from, I think also our adaptive kind of vision for Jewish life. One of my predecessors, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, in the late 1970s, when the Jewish community was already getting very panicked about intermarriage and the Jewish community as a whole was doing this, Rabbi Schindler said that’s not a good Jewish stance in the world. Let’s bring into our midst anyone who’s hungry, who’s searching, who’s seeking. And it was a powerful way to reframe.
I also think that I’ll use words that I’m sure, no matter where you sit in the Jewish spectrum, you hopefully can use those words about where you live. But I think the Reform movement today is joyful, it’s purposeful, it’s growing, and it’s deepening. And I’m really especially proud of the deepening. Because as we think about Jewish life, by being a big tent, it means that everybody has a place within. But some people are just starting out their Jewish journeys within our whole structure. And our goal is to bring them not just in, but in and then deeper.
So for us, it’s a community of learners and a learning community. It’s a place where ritual is alive and changing. It’s a place where social justice is not a thing that some people do over there, it’s woven into the very heart of what we are.
And so tonight’s conversation for us is a very perfect setup, because the idea that, you know, it’s one of those things that you could take or leave. We don’t say that about Jewish learning, right? Jewish learning, everybody’s got that in their basket. Ritual of some kind? We have that. But social justice today is that thing that I think a lot of people have moved to the side, and so that’s not really core to what being Jewish is all about. So for us, it’s the integration, it’s the way those things feed each other.
For example, the talit I wear every morning is a cloth that I bought in a refugee camp in eastern Chad, when I was there witnessing the plight and the survival of the people who made it through the genocide in Darfur. And we were heading out and I said stop I want to buy a talis. My colleague said, Rick, you’re not going to buy a talis in the middle of Chad, one of the two poorest countries on God’s Earth. I said no, look, and there was a little boy selling cloth. So I bought this this piece of cloth and got home, my daughter was about to have her bat mitzvah, and we tied the tzitzit together.
So when I put on my talit every morning, to me, it reminds me in a ritual way that I’m part of a wider world, and it’s my obligation to bring that world together. So again, learning, ritual, kindness within community, and justice, it is a powerful, powerful combination, and to me, that’s our strength.
And then you probably want to know if there are any weaknesses and I’ll have to sit and really think hard,
Elana: Mm-hmm. No we have time, we can’t wait.
Rick: You’re probably curious about that. I would actually say everything I just said, and maybe the flip of that. Because to be truthful, we are so, I think, proud of our inclusivity, that one of the challenges is, can we not only be inclusive, but can we also change as rapidly as we need to.
The Jewish world and the wider religious world is going through a metamorphosis. If you look what’s happening in liberal Christianity, it’s quite startling. More churches have been closed per year than you could even imagine, somewhere in the neighborhood of ten thousand.
So this is a new religious landscape. So for us the question is, can we change and adapt to this moment quickly enough, to make sure that all those people who identify with us, and there are many who identify who are not currently formally affiliated, right? They see what we stand for, they hear what we stand for, they say that is closest to what I am, but maybe they haven’t actually acted upon that connection.
So for us, can we create all the on-ramps, all the doorways, all the ways for people, and can we make sure that synagogues, we love synagogues, we have 850 that are proudly part of our Reform movement, the synagogue can be the most adaptive institution, and it must be in this moment. If the synagogue doesn’t rapidly rethink how it does its core work, whether it’s membership, learning, the way spirituality, the way community lives, the way justice is practiced, I really think that’s the greatest challenge. Not can we change, but can we change fast enough?
Elana: You know, Orly, when you hear a number like 1.5 million Reform Jews, and you’re here in Israel where denominationalism in general is, it’s just less prominent, who do you think about as being in your camp of Reform Judaism or really Reform religious action? And how do you come to affiliate yourself as a Reform Jew?
Orly: Yeah, so, hi everyone, good evening. It is such a pleasure to be here. I spoke with Elana before and I think maybe we should start with my personal story, because like many Israelis, I grew up in a secular family. I was, by the way born in Ottawa, Canada, in the middle of the winter, that’s why probably I really, really hate cold weather.
But I came back to Israel as a baby and grew up in a completely secular family and didn’t know anything about Reform Judaism growing up. And only when I moved to Mevaseret Tzion, a suburb of Jerusalem, 23 years ago, when I was looking for a preschool for my oldest son, who was then three, people told me you should go to the Reform preschool, that’s the best preschool in Mevaseret.
And I was a little apprehensive, I wasn’t sure what I was to be expected, but I sent my son there and then my other kids too, and it was great and that’s how I joined the Reform congregation in Mevaseret Tzion. And a couple of years later when I was looking for a job as a lawyer in social change, I asked my Rabbi whether she has any recommendations, and she said, you have to talk to the Israel Religious Action Center. And she sent me to two people Anat Hoffman and Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who was then a newly, a new Rabbi. And that’s what I did.
And that was 2004, and that’s where I found my home, my professional home. And I’ve been, I’ve been there ever since, and I really found a place which allows me to work in social change, to address injustices in Israeli society through my Jewish values, and I grew into being, you know a Reform Jew over the years, I’ve been a member of the board of my congregation for many years, and I think this is a typical story for a lot of Israelis.
So I think a lot of Israelis do not know about Reform Judaism, but this is changing dramatically. You probably know the saying that the synagogue most Israelis don’t go to is Orthodox. I think this is not true anymore. So if at all, the synagogue most Israelis don’t go to, it’s also Reform or Conservative, because today, Israelis have more and more alternatives.
So it’s true that most Israelis would not be congregation members in the sense that they would pay dues, but for, you know, their life cycle events, for holidays, they would usually, more and more people would choose an egalitarian option, and according to surveys, we’re talking about 13% of Israelis who identify as either Conservative or Reform. So that’s around 800,000 Israelis. That’s a very large segment of Israeli society and that’s a dramatic increase, if you look back a decade ago.
So we see that Israelis are more and more taking ownership of how to express their Judaism, how to practice their Judaism, and that happens even though the state, you know, confronts us, or gives us only, usually, one option to express our Judaism. And we, you know, that’s part of what we at the Israel Religious Action Center have been fighting for, freedom of religion, and really showing Israelis that there is more more than one way to be Jewish.
I think this is changing more and more and Rick spoke about, of course, our social action, which is, you know, what we do. And I think that even more Israelis identify with our issues, with our social action issues as, and that’s also a camp which is growing dramatically. And I think this is especially true these days, when, you know, we’re seeing hundreds of thousands of Israelis going out to the streets, really talking about the values that we have been, you know, talking about for so many years. And we knew that so many Israelis are sharing them, but now actually people are showing with their feet that they are for equality, they’re for freedom of religion, they’re for Israel as a liberal, democratic, and truly pluralistic Jewish society. And this is, I think, very good news for Israel, for the liberal camp in Israel, and for frum Judaism.
Elana: So let’s actually, let’s talk about religion and politics, right, because we, we both went right there, right, both sign of the times and also deep in the DNA of the movement, right. Here’s what I’m wondering, Orly. A lot of people spend their time saying what they don’t like about the current vision of religion and politics in Israel. Can you give us, what is your vision for a Jewish state? How should religion show up in the public square? Meaning, I know how it shouldn’t. How should it show up?
And one of the reasons why I’m asking that is because I think that for a crowd that is not Israeli, primarily the idea that religion should be public at all is a little bit of a, you know, let’s be careful here. Because who knows what that leads to? And yet I’m looking at things that you do, like try to get state funding for Conservative and Reform rabbis, which is saying, bring it on, church and state. Let’s bring them together, in some way. So can you give us some insight into your vision?
Orly: Yeah, for sure. And again, going back to the protests, I think also bringing a positive vision is extremely important always, and especially today, not only saying what the government is doing is terrible, but what do we offer to the Israeli public? And our vision is, you know, not separating completely religion and state. We don’t want this for the Jewish state. But we want the institutional separation between the religion and state, meaning that no religious stream would be part of the government.
Okay, we know that one of the biggest problem here in Israel is that we have the Chief Rabbinate, which is part of the government, a monopoly which really takes religion and brings it to the extreme, corrupts it, and literally makes people, make people draw far from religion rather than bring them closer.
So in our vision, it’s okay for the state to fund religious services, and to be part of the religion, but it cannot be that it’s going to prefer one denomination or one stream over the other. So the funding and the treatment should be equal all the way. And you know, literally every person would be able to choose under, you know, a competition, which would be fair because all streams would receive the same funding and the same treatment, and there we could really compete and each one could decide what he or she wants.
I wanted to share two more points on the issue of issue of the Chief Rabbinate. I think what we have been seeing over the past decades is a growing extremism of the Rabbinate and making many, many people, even Orthodox people, drove away from it, and it now basically just represents a very small segment of Israelis who identify with ultra-Orthodox Judaism in one sense. And we see it in many respects.
One of the most troubling, in the growing incitement that rabbis in formal posts here in Israel who are part of the public service incite against different groups in Israeli society. They incite against the Reform movement and against our congregations. This is especially true these days and those expressions are not just expressions which are in and of themselves terrible. They are translated into hate crimes. Just today it was published that there was a crime here in the congregation Kol Haneshama here in Jerusalem, in Baka, twice in one week, people got into the synagogue building, broke into the building, vandalized a, tore a pride flag that was there, and it happened here just a few streets away, because people keep hearing how Reform Jews are basically the Satan, and, you know, horrible, horrible curses, and they translate into hate crimes.
So we hear rabbis saying those awful things, rabbis who are employed by the state. We see rabbis talking against the LGBTQ community, we see rabbis talking against Arabs, against Israeli-Palestinians, and we have had a lot of proceedings against such rabbis saying, that this is not our Judaism and that this should not be allowed, especially not as a part of the state system.
The second thing I wanted to say about the Chief Rabbinate is that for many years what we have tried to do is to get a foot at the door within the rabbinate and its institutions. So there are religious councils all across Israel which are supposed to be in charge of religious services to the residents, and for many years we have tried to put representatives, Reform and Conservative representatives, in those councils.
In the end, we figured it doesn’t make any sense. First of all, because even if there was one representative, they couldn’t change anything, and also because once there was a liberal representative, the councils just did not convene, they found, you know, a lot of ways to just overcome it.
And what we do for the past decade or so is really just not try to get there, but build our own strong mechanism or alternative, and demand equal treatment for that. And we have had a lot of successes in this regard, making the state fund our rabbis, fund our synagogues, and the interesting thing is that this has paved the way for modern Orthodoxy or moderate Orthodoxy to have their own religious services outside of the Chief Rabbinate, because for many people this is not something that expresses their beliefs.
So you know we won our cases of recognizing our conversions, so we have now Orthodox conversions outside the Chief Rabbinate, and we have marriages out of the Chief Rabbinate and we broke the monopoly of the Rabbinate over kashrut, and now we have Orthodox kashrut outside the Chief Rabbinate, and so this is really shows you that, you know, this fight for more than one way to be Jewish really serves all streams of Judaism and Israel is for all walks of life.
Elana: And just a clarifying question. When you sa,y we got this done, we got that done, we’re talking about work you did through the Judiciary, right?
Orly: For sure, yeah.
Elana: Meaning, I want people to really feel that. When we’re talking about judicial reform and the Judiciary in Israel, what we’re talking about is how can you have values that, it could be that those are getting more popular, but basically represent a minority voice to be able to pass what they want past. The Judiciary is the answer to that question, right?
Orly: Yes, for sure. Almost all of the achievements I mentioned, I mean 99 of our achievements have been achieved through the courts, because we do not, as you said, we have a lot of support, but politically we are a minority, okay. We’re not represented as maybe we should have been in the Knesset, and that’s why we need to go to the court every time we are fighting for the rights of Reform Jews or Israeli-Palestinians or LGBTQ or women in all of those instances when we go and challenge discriminatory practices by the government or by municipalities or by other public authorities. We have only the courts that we can resort to. Without the courts, we would not have been able to do any of the things I’ve talked and I’m going to talk about. So that’s a tremendously important point.
Elana: And it’s so funny, I mean at some point it’s going to be revealed that I am an Orthodox Jew who is interviewing these wonderful Reform leaders and the way that the community that I affiliate with talks about the Judiciary is very, very different in terms of the sense of being abandoned by the Judiciary.
But I just, I want us to experience, as a peoplehood, conversation, how core to people’s identity this judicial overhaul issue is, it’s so real, and we’re going to get to it later. Thank you for opening that.
Rick, I want you to weigh on this, but I also want to push you on North America. May I?
Elana: Okay, so let’s talk about the saddling of politics and religion in North America. Whoa, right? It’s, you’re in this party if you’re this denomination, you’re in that party if you’re that denomination, you’re not really sure what denomination you’re in if you’re not really sure what party you’re in, right? Can you talk a little bit about the advantages of that, you know, linking of religion and politics, or really political strategy and political goals and religious goals, and what are some of the challenges of it?
Rick: So first of all, framing it as sort of politics and religion already kind of puts it in other categories. I would actually say, to me, politics is a a form of, I would say societal ethics. What are the values that are being lived out in the public sphere and to me, how in the world could a person of faith, wherever you are on a faith continuum, how could you not be deeply engaged with what is being shaped in terms of public morality?
So for us, first of all, it’s not about which party you happen to, you know, align with, and then we send you an email and say, okay, well if you’re with this party, then you’re going to believe these 12 things. It’s not that, of course.
And to me, partisan politics is the, that’s the red flashing light. Partisan politics, if I get up and give it a drasha on Shabbat and I start talking, not about poverty, not about gun violence, but I start literally spewing out talking points that come right out of the political frame, as opposed to grounding whatever it is that I want to say in the values of our tradition. And our values obligate us in the public sphere.
Obviously personal morality is critical, familial, even in our quote tribes, to use, you know, President Rivlin’s terms, but what happens out there, that only is something for me to be, not just casually concerned about, and what’s being done in quote our name. So I think, first of all, we do speak up. And we do lobby.
Today there was a release of a, it’s a survey every year by the Jewish Electoral Institute and they start, you know, assessing what is the number one issue on the minds of Jewish voters. Can I just do a little, call out if you think you know what the number one thing is for Jewish voters on their minds as they they head to elections, whether it be local, municipal, or you know state or federal. Just let me just hear some of the possibilities.
Abortion, anti-semitism, economy, democracy, democracy was number one, economy was number two. Then you drop down and you have things like gun violence, preventing gun violence, abortion is right up there, so it’s not to say that there is one Jewish view of all those but they’re obviously, we’re at the Hartman Institute, so, hello, there actually are lots of different voices within the tradition.
So how do we open that conversation as a values, textual underpinning? But that, let’s not leave it in the Beit Midrash. I mean if we leave it in the Beit Midrash and say, I’m sure the nice people that are elected will do the right thing. Excuse me, on what planet is that a plan? And on what planet is that a responsible Jewish stance in the world, right?
But I do think we have this vilification of, you know, kind of the political Judaism. And I would say, you know, first of all, it’s a larger conversation in North America, because it’s not just Jewish and political, it’s Christian and political, particularly, in, certainly in the United States. So this is something that’s happening in a very problematic way, I think, where it’s just fused together. And we actually don’t have the differentiation or even the underpinning of what actually gives us a voice.
And even for the abortion debate, I mean, can I just say, the breakdown by denomination for abortion 97, I believe, of the Reform movement is in favor of greater abortion rights. And again, there’s some within the modern Orthodox and certainly the Conservative movement. So there’s some issues that there’s greater consensus, and others that there’s just a lot of just deep division, but rather than just kind of like hope for the best, we do lobby. We’ve actually spent two days lobbying here in the beloved Jewish state.
And that doesn’t mean we come in with a Tanakh and we start you know clapping people over the head saying, you know, you got to do this but to say here are the things we deeply care about from our Jewish convictions and here’s how we think those those convictions could get lived out in the public sphere. So we do that over there, guess what, it fits in the suitcase, you can even take it on the plane, you can put it right over your seat, those same values? They work here too.
Elana: Sure, what I think is kind of remarkable about it is to think about weaving the tapestry of American society using Reform Jewish values. Meaning, it’s one thing to say, I want to change Israel, the Jewish state. It’s another thing to say, we want American Jewish values, of the Reform variety as you’re describing, to shape America in some way, right? Which I think is, it’s profound and it shows a profound at-homeness.
My question is, how do we avoid the partisanship? What do we do about those issues where you don’t have 97 percent agreement? How do people talk about them within the Reform movement?
Rick: So, again to say that I spent most of my career as a congregational Rabbi, two beautiful communities, one in Brooklyn, New York, and one in Westchester, New York, and so I understand that diversity, that was my community in both, both settings. And I think it’s also how we invoke the sources and how we make arguments. To me, if someone says, you know that was a illegitimate drasha, an illegitimate sermon, because I gave a very specific set of value obligations around combating poverty, I’ll just take something that I think is beyond anyone, to say the Jewish tradition has nothing to say about poverty is enormous, you know, kind of tones to say about poverty. Someone could say, I thought you maybe invoked only some of the sources, but you can’t make the case that that’s not a profoundly Jewish issue.
And I think part of it is how, I’ll just speak for myself, when I also leave open, and even in the drasha or a teaching, to bring the divrei acher, bring the other voices of the tradition. I think that already says, you know, it’s not me giving the definitive interpretation of, you know, three thousand years of Jewish wisdom. It’s, excuse me, this is my reading of the sources. This is my reading of the values that animate me. And I know that there are others who have competing views. That’s not something I want to hide. I want to actually lay that out, I think, that sometimes really deflates the partisanship.
But I don’t know if people paid attention in the United States, there was a particular uptick in partisan tension. And I found lots of rabbis avoiding lots of subjects because it was just too hot to handle, And people just, as soon as you even said a word, presume that they, you know, saw what was behind it.
And I think, for us, we’ve got to figure out, not only how to talk about the hard things, but how to argue, really argue with arguments and values and texts, and to do it in a place where it doesn’t demonize someone who holds a different view. We’re not going to have, you know, the address I give about the Shoah, I’m not going to invite a Holocaust denier, because, you know, I want to get everybody into the conversation, at some point it’s ridiculous, it’s ridiculous. But there are, there’s more diversity.
Elana: But where do you have a range that you want to respect, or relationships that you want to hold on to, and in order to hold those relationships, to be able to bring those people in?
Orly: Yeah, I wanted to add, because sort of it rings a note with me about what happened here in the Reform movement in Israel, in our congregations, around the protest. Okay, so the protests started at the very beginning of January, or the end of December, once this government has been sworn in. And the Israeli Reform movement passed a very brave decision, right at the very beginning, of joining the protest.
And now, I mean, it’s, of course everybody’s like, of course we should we should be against the government. The first days, it wasn’t clear. And at first, we had a lot of repercussions from some of our rabbis, and they said, well, we don’t know ,maybe some of our congregations are for the government, we are afraid to talk about it in our drasha, because it may be, may push people away, we want to have a wide tent, we have to have all of us together, and we’ve had a lot of interesting discussions with our rabbis.
And, you know, some of the issues that were raised were like, of course, we have a big, wide tent, but not all opinions are legitimate, right? I mean, if people come to the shul and are saying we are against LGBTQ rights, well, the rabbis will say, we’re sorry, because we accept LGBTQ people to our congregation, so it’s clear that we have to have sort of a basic, sort of agreement, about what is allowed and what isn’t.
And we went through this interesting process of having more and more congregations and rabbis sort of on board with us, and it took people a few weeks, but it was pretty quick and within maybe two or three weeks people said, we understand that we are in a completely different situation, that it may be sort of a political decision, and, by the way, we immediately told them, you know, being a Reform Jew in Israel is a political issue, it’s a political statement, it’s a political action. Having a girl have a bat mitzvah, that’s political action, entering a Reform synagogue is a political action.
So, and people understood that this is not a regular time. This is a time like never before and a time that you have to raise a voice if you care about the values of freedom and dignity and equality for all Israelis. But this interesting process sort of reminds me of what you said, about whether what is allowed to talk within the synagogue, and what are we going out to the streets in the name of Reform Judaism.
Elana: Yeah, well, I’m interested in the question of, when you go out into the streets in the name of Reform Judaism, here, who are your allies? Because you do mention, and I listened to a speech that you gave, a wonderful speech that you gave in Central Synagogue a few months ago, and you assured the crowd, most people are on our side, right? Meaning, don’t worry. So, who who are the allies in this? And I’m curious, you work on a whole suite of issues. Are there some people with whom you can ally on issue X but you can’t really ally on issue Y? Can you give us a, like more of a nuanced sense of what the landscape looks like,?
Orly: Yeah, for sure. First of all, when I said that most Israelis are with us I meant that especially when you look now around us, you see that most Israelis are for women’s rights and they’re for religious pluralism and they’re for LGBTQ rights. I think the issue of fighting racism is a little more complicated, but most Israelis are against, by the way, the judicial reform or coup, especially the way it’s being conducted by the government. And most Israelites wants the government to sit down with the opposition and reach an agreement, rather than having, you know, one side crush the other. So that’s what I meant when I said most Israelis are with us.
We are working on a variety of issues and we have a lot of coalition with many, many organizations. Our main issues are religious pluralism, fighting gender segregation, fighting racism and assisting new immigrants and converts. And for each issue, we have cooperation with a whole lot of organizations.
And it’s true, Elana, that there are, of course, organizations which, you know, cooperate with us on issue of freedom of religion, we which would not cooperate with us on issues of racism, because they either they do not deal with this, or they would not necessarily agree with what we are doing or agree with our tactics or with our strategy.
We have, I think the interesting example I want to give about the shift in Israeli public opinion, you know, the issue is on the issue of women’s rights, so we have been fighting gender segregation, and exclusion of women in the public sphere for almost two decades. And when we started to fight this phenomenon, and it started with segregation on buses, you know the Mehadrin bus lines, where women were asked to board the bus, ask for, ordered to board the bus from the back door and sit at the back of the bus.
We started to deal with this around 2002 and most Israelis did not understand. What’s the point, they said, well, it’s a few bus lines, let the Haredim live the way they want, what do you care, why are you talking on their behalf. And it was amazing because people from outside of Israel, especially people from the U.S, were just shocked that actually this practice exists here.
We took the case to court and then we had ultra-Orthodox women call us and thank us, because they were against this practice, but did not have anyone to raise a voice against it. So we won the case, and then we had a lot of other cases on issues of exclusion of women, and we saw that over time, the Israeli public opinion shifted dramatically.
And today, I mean even before the protests, and especially during the protests, now people are not willing to accept those practices anymore, and are completely on board with us like they have never been before.
So just a couple of weeks ago, it was published at a pharmacy in Bnei Brak took hair products that showed images of women on it and put stickers on it, because, God forbid, you can’t see faces of women on hair products in a pharmacy. There was such an outrage of the Israeli public that within two days they took the stickers off.
So something that was considered legitimate a few years ago just not, you know, go now without change. And you know, commercial companies and also the government, they’re responding to what the public is saying, and this shift in public opinion is, I think really makes me optimistic, because you see that, I think it’s partly because of our struggles for many, many years, and because of the current atmosphere, that you see that we are against a government which is extremist and also misogynistic and homophobic. And Israelis understand they have to raise the voice. And we have the power now as the liberal camp, raising a voice together, and this can create change.
So you know, all those coalitions and and corporations that we had over the years are, we really seeing the fruits now, and you know, it’s tremendous.
Elana: It’s such a funny thing, because you work in enforcement, essentially right? You work in legalizing and banning. And I work in education. So, you know, when you’re an educator and you ask yourself, whose faces aren’t being shown, right? I have to tell you, just between us and the wall and everybody listening. I learned Mishnah with my children, out of this fabulous, fabulous Mishnah for kids book. There’s women in it, but not enough for my liking. So we take stickers of women and girls and also cats and also people who don’t necessarily look like all the people who are in there already, and we put the stickers in.
So I just, we’re doing it, we’re just each doing it our own way.
Orly: It really reminds me of a really nice story. We represented a group of Orthodox women in Beit Shemesh and, you know, the struggle against modesty signs which are hung on the streets on Beit Shemesh, of Beit Shemesh, which is sort of half Haredi, half modern-Orthodox, secular, and Masorti. It wasn’t easy, by the way, for Orthodox women to be represented by the Reform movement, but we grew very close together and they were very, very thankful for what we have done. We’ve represented them for over a decade.
And at one point, they were so sick and tired of the fact that you don’t see in the streets of Beit Shemesh images of women, that they went to, you know, the entrance to the city, there were huge billboards showing, it was like an advertisement to a new construction building, huge, you know, huge billboards showing men and boys.
So they went to a print shop, printed huge images of women, said, oh my God, this poor boy, he doesn’t have a mother, let’s give him a mother. And they literally went out and did this, and this was so amazing.
Elana: That is absolutely amazing.
Okay, let’s talk about Israel and North American Jews. Right, let’s talk about it.
You know, Rick, you gave this impassioned speech, I mean I had to prepare for this, so I got the real joy of watching the two of them address the others’ community. I mean, you spoke, how many people were at that rally in Tel Aviv yhat you spoke at in March?
Rick: It was like a typical Friday at most eveyerbody’s shul, it was like 160,000 people. It was an off night, what can I say?
Elana: You know, you’re talking, we are with you, the Reform movement will never abandon you, we support you from back there. Let’s talk about the future of Zionism in North American Reform Judaism. What are you seeing? What are you expecting? What are interventions that are happening, right? Let’s get beyond the niceties. We know that it’s really hard right now for North American Jews to connect with Israel in the ways that they used to.
Rick: So let me just go back, if I could, to Tel Aviv that Saturday night, because what was really powerful is I was invited to give that talk. I was the first non-Israeli to speak at a protest, and I wasn’t sure how I’d be received, to be honest, I mean, and when I started, there was a a quiet chanting that grew louder, I didn’t know what they were saying, because I was kind of just focusing on, you know, just getting through my talk.
And I’m thinking to myself, they’re probably saying, Reform rabbi, go home, Reform rabbi, go home. And they’re thinking, like, you know, enough.
Elana: This is like the trauma.
Rick: And finally when I finished, and I was walking down, I actually could hear what they were saying. They were saying, todah rabah, todah rabah, thank you. One of the first times we were invited, not only to show up, but to speak, and to speak words from love, for something, but also critical. Those were things were not allowed, I’m just gonna tell you, a year ago? 10 years ago? I’m not going to suggest that it’s changed now forever, but that’s already a very different dynamic.
So let’s be really clear. In North America, Jewish Democratic isn’t like one of those, we just need one of those, whichever one you have is fine. Jewish and Democratic, they go together, they are inseparable for us. And our Jewish is also informing our Democratic. And our Democratic is also informing our Jewish. So I think for a lot of North American Jews who’ve watched this new government take, not only shape, but take stands that are so anathema to their core Jewish convictions, and for us, one of the big moves is to say, your connection to Israel isn’t to a politician, a party, or a policy, but to the people and the values upon which this country are built.
But it’s a tough slog, particularly last week, you know, when, frankly, our brothers and sisters are murdered outside of Ilit, and then all hell breaks loose. And basically what has been described as pogroms happen with Jewish hands.
So I think it’s a pretty fraught moment for our communities. But I met with a a person from this government, and I said to this person, here’s the good news. You’re stuck with me. You’re stuck with non-Orthodox Jews. You’re stuck with non-Orthodox Reform and Conservative Jews. And guess what? We’re the largest group. And guess what else? We love Israel. We love, not necessarily, what your government is doing, but we love the Zionist, not dream, but the Zionist enterprise.
And I said, now here’s the bad news for me. I’m stuck with you. Because you’re also part of the Jewish people, and I can rail, I can, I can just, I can cry, but we’re stuck in this. And I think, one of the things that we’re busy doing in North America, first of all, right, at the moment, we’ve got more young people in the country. And guess what? They’re also falling in love with Israel. Not with every aspect of it, because we want them to have eyes wide open, to see what is here, see what is unbelievable and inspiring, and that which is maddening, and the things that Orly works on every single day.
I’ve seen this woman in the Supreme Court. If you want to see awesome, watch her argue in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court that this judicial reform wants to basically, you know, not just change a little bit, but really take out its core. So I think, for us, it’s a real repositioning. But what we’re doing is leaning in and leaning into the things that actually are foundational for Zionism. Like the core commitments to Jewish peoplehood. This is part of our extended Jewish family. And also we we have the largest Jewish community on planet Earth here.
So we are, we are in this relationship. But this government is pushing us away, every day, with so many decisions, so many voices, that are so filled with things that to us, are opposite to what we deeply believe.
And so that makes it challenging. And the easier thing would be to just kind of pack it all up and say, you know what, we’ll worry about things happening here in Utica, Mississippi, more than we’re going to worry about what happens in Ramat Gan. But I don’t think that’s a responsible Jewish position. But it’s a hard, new chapter for all of us to to really build together.
Orly: I wanted to say, I was next to Rick when he gave this speech at the rally in Tel Aviv, and I can tell you that afterwards, when we went out to try to get a cab, and we had Israelis stop Rick and told him, thank you so much. And I experienced, from my point of view, it was so moving for me to see how Israelis responded, and told him, it was so important to us to learn that our fellow brothers and sisters in North America are with us, that we’re not alone in the struggle. And this in and of itself gives us so much energy to continue to fight for our shared values.
And I think that for many years, you know, maybe Israelis had a lot of opinions as to whether diaspora Jews should have a say, I think now this has changed. I think now people understand that Jews from outside of Israel have a seat at the table. This is a country, not only of Israelis, but of Jews from all over the world. And what I keep saying is that under the current circumstances, I think that it is not only your right to talk about those issues, it is your duty. Because if you care, if you love Israel, if you’re concerned about Israel, you should raise the voice now, because we have to make sure Israel stays a democracy for all of us.
I mean this is a project, a joint project, and when we see someone we love who is in danger or is doing something problematic, we have to tell him that he’s wrong. And when I was, last March in a trip in America, both in the West coast and the East Coast, people were very apprehensive. They asked, what can we do and they wanted me to, I mean they wanted to hear, we want to hear your voice, we want you around the table, because they were like, could we say it? Could we criticize Israel? And I said, this is the time to do so, before it’s too late.
So we really feel, I mean on both sides of the ocean, that we have this project together and we have, this is a time like never before, where we have to go out to the streets and you have to speak up and, you know, together, we can keep Israel a democracy.
Elana: So what I think is so interesting about this is the description at one of, one and the same time, of government pushing you away, but the people pulling you in. And I would imagine that the people who are in government now, there was a time at which the American Jews who support them felt the same way. The government was pushing them away, but their allies in Israel on the right were pulling them in.
So I just think it’s maybe worth thinking about, as Jews who live outside of Israel, can we connect in more than one way. I mean sometimes we’re connecting through support of the government, sometimes we’re connecting through support of the people, they’re not the same thing always. They’re not the same thing. And I want us also to hold that as a different way of talking about, connecting to Israel.
You know, I’m curious, I want people in the crowd, by the way, to think about the questions that you want to ask. We want to give you time to ask questions in a couple of minutes. I want to ask you, I want to get to a peoplehood question here, okay?
So it’s always in the air for me, working at Hartman, because I’m in a pluralistic environment, but I’m generally in the minority as an Orthodox Jew. Generally speaking. And the question of Jewish peoplehood is such a big one here, because whether you’re talking about America or you’re talking about Israel in the broad swaths. What we are looking at is a culture clash between the Orthodox and the liberal streams.
It’s true. On the issue of abortion. Look at the amicus briefs. I’ve looked at them, right? Aguda, Orthodox, RAC, Reform. Where Modern Orthodox people find themselves, we’re always confused and trying to figure out who we belong to, right, and who we want to ally ourselves with.
Here, come on, who’s supporting judicial reform? How do we do this peoplehood thing? You might say, now is not the time. You might say, we can’t think about peoplehood right now. But I love the makeup of our panel, because we’re trying to support each other and care about each other, even when, you know, you’re saying, how fast can we change? I belong to a community that’s like, how slow can we change?
And yet we share these, we don’t want segregation on buses, I mean, so how do you do the peoplehood thing with the people you have to stand against in the Supreme Court? Like really, for yourselves, I’m asking, because I have equal and opposite conversations with people on the other side. And I say, how are you going to do this peoplehood thing, because Israel is not just a partisan game? It’s a peoplehood practice and discourse. So what do you think?
Orly: You know, I think for me, the divide is not denominational. It’s really between moderate, people who believe in moderation or in extremism. And I gave the example of Beit Shemesh and it was a good example, because for us to be together in the fight against people who, you know, use the modesty signs to spit at women and throw stones at them and curse them, it doesn’t matter what denomination you are. It’s either you are for women’s rights and against extremism and zealotry, or you’re, you know, the other side.
So I think this cooperation is a good example, that you cross denominational lines to fight together for the values we believe in. And I think you see it now in the streets of Israel, and especially here, at the streets of Jerusalem, I don’t know if you’ve been to the protest in Shabbat in Jerusalem, but in Jerusalem, you see so many Orthodox people going out to the street, fighting against the judicial coup.
And you have people on the other side as well. But you have people of other denominations, of course, secular and Masorti and Orthodox, and you know, some, maybe, liberal Jews who are there, not a lot. And I think what brings us together now is the belief that we have to, you know, go around those central values that we cannot compromise on. And that is common for people from all walks of Israeli society and I think that maybe the Tel Aviv protest is more homogeneous and less, you know, diverse than here, but I think that here, you see a lot of people from really all walks of life. And it brought out of the streets people that were never activists before, and would never even identify as liberal people, who believe in liberal values.
And in this sense I think I’m hopeful, because I think it goes beyond those lines. I mean, we have other divisions which are problematic and,
Elana: I was going to say, that’s the next, the next frontier, what do you do there?
Orly: On the other hand, we do, now, a lot of people now understand what’s important, what are the things that we should vote on for the next elections? Okay, we had, you know, last week elections for the bar association, and we won. That was sort of the first test of actual power of the protest to bring, you know, a person who is pro-democracy and against the judicial coup to head the bar association.
And we have the next test in a couple of months in the municipal elections. And municipal elections all across Israel are going to be a held and that’s going to be another test for the liberal camp. Could we join forces together in different municipalities, you know, liberal Jews and Orthodox Jews, who believe in those values of live and let live, and of freedom of religion, and join together and make sure we elect the mayor and we elect our representatives, to make our lives as we want them to be.
So I think we have a lot of opportunities now to join forces. You know, we have a lot of disagreements with other sectors of Israeli society, that’s true, and the polarization is like never before, but this polarization also made it crystal clear, for many of us, what’s important, what are the things that we should fight for, and that’s I think a giant step forward.
Elana: That’s beautiful.
Rick: So, I’m just going to start the peoplehood question back in North America, among ourselves, as Jewish people in North America, because I don’t have to come here to be stretched. And I think the degree to which we are actively stretching ourselves to experience the fullness of Jewish peoplehood wherever we live.
I’ll just give it an example. So I was a rabbi in Westchester for almost 20 years and I literally had just unpacked my books and my local Orthodox colleague invited me to speak at his synagogue on Shabbat. I didn’t know this guy from Adam. And I thought to myself, oh this could be, I could be the sacrificial offering, this is really, this is really exciting, you know, I could be, I could start and I could end all in the same few months.
So I said to him, I said, I don’t know you well, thank you for the invitation, it was so lovely, okay what’s the plan here? He said, well, I thought you would speak about what you love about Orthodoxy and I would speak about what I love about Reform? So then, you know, a little chutzpah, I said, well I have a lot to say. So you have something to say in that category? He goes, I’ll go first. He gets up, half an hour, talks about what he loves, authentically, about us, not, you know, we have nice buildings, and I really like the way you speak English, it’s beautiful.
And then it’s my turn, and I, of course, talk a lot about the Hartman Institute and I talk about Rabbi David Hartman, who’s the reason I’m a rabbi, because when I was a junior in college I walked into a seminar in Mount Scopus on Spinoza, Maimonides, and Halevi, and I never left. Itt just drew me in.
So that relationship led to, I invited him to come to my son’s bar mitzvah, who, you know, was in our Reform synagogue with a really amazing cantor named Angela Buchdal. He’d never been in a Reform synagogue and he literally left his Shabbos morning and said, I have to go and didn’t say, I don’t feel well, I’m gonna go take a nap, I’m gonna go to the Kiddush Club, he said I’m gonna go I’m now to Westchester Reform Temple because my friend’s son is having his bar mitzvah, and then he walked out.
And, can you imagine? This is a Young Israel of Scarsdale and he just put it right out there in public and so when I, you know, went to speak there, people said, you can’t go to speak there, they have a mechitza, I said, I know, but my friend’s daughter is getting married and they’re having an aufruf, and my chavruta, my colleague, my friend invited me, so I’m gonna go, of course I’m gonna go.
I don’t tell you that story to virtue signal. I’m telling you that story because, as Brian Stevenson said, get proximate. We have got to figure out how we do that diversity thing among the Jewish people. And it’s not going so well. And then when I get here, if I have positive things that have stretched me, I can function much better in the pluralism of this place, which doesn’t actually hold pluralism as the value that we hold there, but I think the sense of Jewish peoplehood happens around anti-Semitism, you know, just this past Shabbat in Macon, Georgia, there was a group of neo-nazis, surrounded the Reform synagogue right before Shabbat tefillah. And luckily, we’re able to get, you know, local law enforcement.
They showed up again the next day and the Christians and the Muslims, everybody came together to stand with the Jewish community and then they were dispersed again, they went to Chabad. So in a beautiful way, the Reform rabbi, Liz Bahar, reaches out to the Chabad saying, we got a problem together.
So what are the things we can actually stand together for? Stand together for the Jewish state, that there is a Jewish State, thank God. That we can stand together against the rise in anti-Semitism. That we can stand together for all those things, because there are a lot of things we don’t line up on. But on the most important things, we completely line up.
And that is Torah. We have to teach, we have to live, and I think that’s just a little bit tentative here on this side of the ocean, because teaching pluralism in the Israeli schools and the Be’eri program here at Hartman is bringing that framework to Israelis, whether they’re secular, non-Orthodox, modern Orthodox, they need those tools. We all need those tools. And we’re all in a kind of kita aleph mode.
Orly: Notice that there is no real word in Hebrew for pluralism. Right. Pluralism, yeah. We used to be called the Center for Jewish Pluralism and that was, people were like, what’s pluralism, like people don’t know what this word, then, you know, it’s not a coincidence, because we don’t practice enough pluralism in this country.
Elana: Well, before I ask you anything else, I want to see what questions we have out in the crowd, so if everyone could raise their hand, I don’t know that we’re going to get to everyone, but we’re gonna try. I’m gonna go over here first and try to do a wave that way.
So I happen to know Naftuli’s name, so Naftuli, Karen is coming towards you with a mic, and if you could just introduce yourself and say who your question is directed to.
Naftuli: Hi, my name is Naftuli Moster. I’m from New York. My question is to both, I guess, mostly to Rabbi Jacobs. We heard a lot about activism here in Israel and activism in the US, or North America as it relates to Israel, but I’m wondering what would it take to get the liberal Jewish community to take the same interest in issues relating to the Haredi community in New York.
So we have the same issues. Women being segregated on buses. Women’s pictures being removed. The lack of education in yeshivas. And it’s the fastest growing population. In a few decades, it’s going to be the face of the Jewish people. In some aspects, in New York politics, it already is.
I used to be involved in activism around Yeshiva education and sometimes the Haredi activists or leaders would accuse us of having the support of the Reform movement, and I said, halavai, I wish! But in reality, whenever we reached out, it was mostly like, eh, it’s their issue, you know, it’s not our business, or we don’t want to intervene. And we were crying out that we needed that intervention.
Elana: It sounds like you need Orly. That’s what it sounds like.
Naftuli: Yes, we need an Orly.
Rick: Everybody needs an Orly.
Elana: If you had time, he’s got a project for you.
Naftuli: More than one.
Orly: We did this here in Israel.
Elana: Let’s hear them address it.
Rick: Look, can I just say, that is a perfect peoplehood test, right? Because for us, I live in New York City and we’ve had a proliferation of anti-Semitic incidents, mostly against the traditional community in New York, because as my colleagues would say, we wear Judaism, we’re identifiable, all the time. I may have a kippah but I can also put on a baseball cap. So how do we show up for one another and particularly the non-Orthodox community, that may have a whole, you know, kind of, set of either misconceptions, or maybe lack of experience with the traditional Jewish community.
This is one of those classic places where we need to show up together. And we may have different ideas about, you know, kind of, yeshiva education, and the place of, you know, basic learning, but I think that’s a beautiful place, where, in New York, we could be doing much more.
And actually, the mayor of New York City just convened a council, I think it met today for the first time, and it has very many traditional and some liberal, and figuring out how can they work together in New York City to make it a much more tolerant place, not just for Jews within the Jewish community, but in the larger.
I think that’s a great test and I know in New York, you know, al chet shechatanu, I’ve been, you know, to Crown Heights, Borough Park, Williamsburg, and really trying to build bridges that did not exist to the non-Orthodox community. And the danger on their side is to be in a picture with me. The danger on my side is to be in a picture with them. And the goal is where there’s no danger, it’s just obvious that we’re part of one people, and what hurts you, hurts me, what hurts me, hurts you. And that I think those are just great, tangible ways that we do the work.
Orly: By the way, I can just add, that we have actually had a long struggle on the issue of core curriculum here in Haredi schools. We’ve brought a petition to the court years ago and we won it, but then the Knesset passed a law, really, deciding no core curriculum studies.
But it was interesting because a few years ago, modern Orthodox people came to us and said, listen, for the best interest of this issue, we ask you to step aside, because once you get into the matter, then people within the Hardedi community, who want core curriculum were like, okay, that’s a Reform issue, we will, we won’t discuss, you know, we won’t do anything with it. So it’s interesting that here, just actually people told us, just back off, because that would maybe allow us to get, you know, achievements on this issue.
Elana: We have, in the back, in the orange shirt.
Rafi: Hi, Rafi Rone. Thanks so much, it’s really interesting, it’s great to see you both.
So this question is for Rabbi Jacobs. No one questions the Reform movement’s, I think, or certainly not you, like love of Israel and passion about Israel, and it’s incredible that you’re at the demonstration. But I think all of the progressive movements are challenged now, with incoming rabbinical students and young rabbis who don’t share the same sentiment about Israel.
What can you and your Reconstructionist and Conservative colleagues, what are you, what are you doing to work on that, knowing that the challenges that you face, in that, just a few years ago, it used to be a requirement for them to come and study at least a year here?
Rick: Well, it’s still a requirement, it was, in the Reform movement, the first year is the first year in Israel, and I teach in that first year, when I’m here, throughout the year.
Thank you for the question, Rafi, because it’s a real thing. So what I hate is when people like me get in front of anybody and say, why aren’t our young people more like us? I think it’s like a, it’s a sport, I mean, I hear it all the time, you know, why can’t they just be as committed to, you know, learning as I was? Why don’t they care about social justice the way I care? Why don’t they care?
The truth is it’s not their job to care the way I do, but it’s it’s absolutely right that they have a different experience of the Jewish State. They grew up in a different time. You know, I lived on Mount Scopus, you know, when the Entebbe rescue happened, I was rushing to the library because I had a paper that was overdue and my Israeli roommates stopped and they said, “Did you hear, did you hear?” I said, “Don’t bother me, I got a lot of stuff to do here.” “No, did you hear?”
So that was, that was my, I was here when Sadat came to Jerusalem. It just shaped my life. My landlady was so anti anybody Arab, just like, and then the day of the motorcade coming through Rechavia, there’s my landlady, she’s holding an Israeli flag and an Egyptian flag, and she’s waving them both, and I thought I was gonna die, right. So that’s my, that’s, that’s the Israel that I experienced.
My kids and our, proverbial, all of our kids, they have grown up in a completely different, so on the simplest terms, I say we’re going to just love them, we’re going to learn with them, and we’re not going to try and sanitize and download a relationship to Israel to them. It’s got to grow.
So our first-year program, I know it’s true, help them discover, and also face the hardest things. We take them to the hardest places. We want them to see, you know, up close and personal that which is miraculous, that which isn’t, and guess what? They’re going to talk about Israel differently and they’re going to be authentic Jewish leaders.
So I’ll just tell you, you say it very kindly, Rafi, that, you know, there’s no question how much I love Israel? Excuse me, every day, within the wider Israeli community, I’m thought of as a hater of Israel. Why? Because I don’t have a, you know, a very right-wing view of the Jewish state or the Jewish people or the Jewish tradition, not to put all those together, but I just did, sorry. And so I actually am demonized as someone who doesn’t really hold that love. So we also have to kind of broaden our Jewish communities to understand that pro-Israel doesn’t mean pro-Likud.
I was speaking at a liberal College in the Hudson Valley, that’s all I’ll say, I won’t identify it further, and I finished my talk, and the Q and A, and there was a real kind of hesitancy for people to put their hands up. Finally a woman in the first row with a hijab put her hand up. She said Rabbi Jacobs, I’m looking around to see if there’s a a second hand come up, because I just, I don’t want the hardest one first, I like to just kind of ease into the Q and A, so I’m looking around, it’s just that one hand, so I said yes, she goes Rabbi Jacobs, are you pro-Israel? I said 100%.
She sat down, really angry, there’s smoke coming out of her ears, and I said, well, you want to ask me another question. She said, I don’t want to ask you another question. I said, no, you do. She said, what question do I want to ask you? I said, you want to ask me if I’m pro-Palestinian. She said, why would I ask you that question? You just told me that you were pro-Israel. I said, well, ask me. Are you pro-Palestinian? I said yes.
Why is it that, I am a hundred percent for this whole enterprise we call Israel, that means I have to be anti the dignity and the well-being of the Palestinian people? What kind of, if that’s what we’re teaching our young people, and I don’t believe we are, certainly, I hope, nobody here is teaching that, then honestly, we’re already modeling that this is something that, you know, we don’t see a future for. So I think we have to help our young people. I see a lot of my colleagues doing this with them. That just, that’s not the same.
Some of our rabbinic students wrote a letter at a very precarious moment. It was actually in May of 2021. When I say we, I mean modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist Judaism, Renewal, all signed a letter. I wasn’t a letter that I would have signed, it’s not letter that I would have written, but I made it my business to reach out to all the people who had signed it that I knew, and sit with them, and talk, like, I want to understand, you know.
And honestly, what happened is they were demonized by, and a number of my colleagues said, we will never hire any of those, let’s get that list of names, because those are rabbis who’ll never work in our, man, that’s just not the way.
But it’s a hard moment, and our young rabbis, and our young everyone, are really having a different experience, and I think a lot of what our community has done is first of all, to talk about Israel in a, forgive me, in a cartoonish way. This is not a cartoon. This is an extraordinary place with unbelievable people and a, just a passion for what we’re building here, and it’s got really hard.
We got to stop, as a Jewish community, sanitizing that, and just thinking like, when we get into those hard things, like can you say the O word? Ariel Sharon is the first guy who said the O word. I think it was 2005 or 2006 in a public speech, like, it’s a real thing. And I can be a hundred percent pro-Israel, and I have to have a sense of the dignity and well-being of the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Palestinians who live beyond the Green Line. I think that’s already a different conversation. It’s not the one I hear all the time or even occasionally in our wider Jewish community, and it’s the only way we move forward.
Orly: I can just add that I think the current special moment really creates an opportunity to, maybe, bring together some young liberal Jews in America, who felt, you know, more, less connected to Israel, and now watch this amazing energy on the streets, and can relate to it, you know, maybe from their own experience in protesting against issues in America. So this can really bring people together, even at this very precarious moment which might draw people apart. But it could also be an opportunity to sort of,
Elana: I mean from the American perspective, what we’re seeing is people joining demonstrations with Israeli flags. We are demonstrating, in the name of Israeli democracy, to support Israeli democracy, not, we’re demonstrating against the government, to support Israeli democracy. It is a moment.
Orly: And the fact that we have, sort of, you know, we took the flag back, right? The flag was associated with the right, and now it’s, you know, it’s a symbol of the liberal camp as well. I mean that’s also a big thing, both here and abroad.
Elana: Alright, what else do we have? So many, it’s great. Sir.
Dan: Dan Siegel, from Philadelphia. First of all, thank you for the really very extraordinary presentations. I’d like to sort of spring off of something that was said just at the end by, particularly Rabbi Jacobs.
We’ve had discussions really centering on social justice, both last night and tonight, and what’s very striking to me, you can almost call it the elephant in the room, in all those conversations, about social justice. What we haven’t talked about at all were social justice issues regarding the occupation. I mean, even last night when we were talking about shared society, the shared society we were talking about is Israeli citizens, asking Palestinian Israelis to adopt an Israeli identity and a Palestinian identity, and no mention of the fact that the people we wanted to have a Palestinian identity share that identity with millions of people who are under Israeli rule.
And this same thing in the, in,
Elana: Can I push this one to Orly? Because I’m curious. You do anti-racism work. To what extent is it occupation-related, to what extent is it internal to Israel, right? Meaning, not just about this program, but I’m curious even about your work.
Orly: So, yeah, we have a large part of our work devoted to anti-racism, I guess incitement racism, against racist practices. Most of our work relates to issues within Israel. So within the Green Line. In general, we don’t deal with issues over the West Bank. What we do address are the really horrible instances of settlers violence, which Rick just mentioned, so we did address the issue that happened just a few days ago, and this is something we have been dealing with for for quite a while.
I think that in general, Israelis now, even many Israelis that were indifferent to the issue of the occupation, or have started to try to ignore it, understand that things that happen in the West Bank penetrate Israel. So that’s a lot of things that people are talking about right now, the fact that you cannot sort of separate the two issues, but that, you know, that’s a problem that is going to have repercussions here in Israel. And that, you know, we see it very clearly with this current government, and I think that in a way, people, Israelis, are now connecting the dots and understanding that all of the issues are connected.
So the fact that Palestinians do not have rights and Palestinians are treated in one way than other people here in Israel, the protesters are treated badly, and those are the same tactics, or some of the tactics that have been targeted to the Palestinian population.
So I think in this way we’ve come a small way. Not enough. I think, still, the issue of the occupation is something that most people, even the people protesting on the streets, we have in every protest the block against the occupation and it’s always being pushed aside and people are very much against, you know, waving Palestinian flags. And that’s like a big debate here among the protest movement, the large protest movements, people feel that bringing this thing up could draw people away and hurt the protest.
I personally think, of course we should discuss it, and that’s a very big part of what is wrong now and what should be fixed, but it’s one of the, you know, most debatable issues still in Israel, even within the liberal camp unfortunately.
Elana: Okay, we have time for a few more. I’m gonna get, back there on the steps, sitting on the first step.
Robin: Hi, my name’s Robin, I’m from London. So I should say I’m not from North America, but also, we’re in Israel, the land of chutzpah, so I thought I’d ask Rabbi Rick a kind of slightly chutzpadik question. And a few nights ago, we heard from Rabbi Elliott Cosgrove, one of the leaders of the Conservative movement in America, and he said something, I think kind of in a slightly off-hand way, but quite provocatively. He said that he thought that in some senses the Conservative movement had kind of served its original purpose, about kind of Americanizing Eastern European Jews. And he kind of put full stop. It was a kind of, he didn’t say anything else, but I think I wasn’t the only one to hear in that that he was like, and we need to come up with something else, in the, you know, in the wake of a declining Conservative movement, and so on and so forth.
So I suppose my, the nice version of my question is what do you see as the relationship with the Conservative movement? Because we often say Reform and Conservative Jews. But obviously they’re different, and maybe the pushy version is, would you support a merger with the Conservative movement?
Rick: Go for it, I mean, the land of chutzpah, let’s all find a little bit more moxie.
First of all, Elliott Cosgrove is a dear friend, we taught together at a tikkun leil Shavuot, this past Shavuot. Just a gift, what a spectacular Rabbi, and what a phenomenal community, Park Avenue Synagogue is, I also know people who have gone to Park Avenue synagogue erev Shabbat and thought they were in a Reform synagogue. In a good way. And that’s not a criticism of him or what goes on there but thinking like, this is really comfortable. And you know the immediate past president grew up in the Reform movement and she is absolutely at home there.
So I’ll let Elliot explain what he meant, obviously he’s very articulate, very smart but your larger question is, have we all served all of our movements? Have we served the purpose for which we were created? We were created, you know, go back to Europe as sort of the harbinger of the Jewish emancipation, right? Could Judaism adapt to a modern world, not just preserve itself as an enclave, but could it actually find a way to live in this world and adopt to some of the new norms?
And the answer is, that’s happened wildly. We had Rabbah Sarah Hurwitz spoke at our graduation at HUC this past May. The first woman to be ordained in the Orthodox community. And she gave tribute to Rabbi Sally Prisandd, who was the first woman ordained within the Reform movement in North America in 1972.
Sally, unbeknownst to Rabbi Horowitz, was in the congregation. And it was a beautiful expression of how, not only have we led change within our movement, but some of the changes we’ve led emerged from the Reform movement. But now are shared in the wider, that’s a great shehecheyanu moment.
I actually don’t think we’ve finished our shelichut, our kind of, our mission in the world, but the larger question you ask is, is it time for a merger? First of all, we work so closely together with the Conservative movement on so many things, including here, so I think the sense of collaboration is absolute. A lot of the numeric strength I described in the very first answer is due to a whole lot of conservative Jews who are intermarried, who felt they really wouldn’t be at home in the synagogue unless it was within our movement. I think the Conservative movement is trying to adapt to the reality.
But I do think there’s a million ways we are collaborating with the modern Orthodox world, with the Reconstructing Judaism, and I look around the Jewish world, I see partners and I see collaboration everywhere. A formal merger, you know, that was a conversation on a Yehuda Kurtzer podcast a couple of years ago, because Yehuda got, that would be a juicy one, let’s get that one on there, and like, and then my colleague Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal was on and we said, we’re working together every day, and we’ll continue to work together every day, but we actually think there’s still something in, you know, the core mission of both.
But I do think we want to reimagine the map of Jewish life. I think the idea that we’re so institutionally defined, I don’t think, actually, is helpful. I think people join, if they join, which is a big if, particularly for young people, the place that engages them. They’re not looking for the label. What’s going on there? What’s the, you know, core set of commitments in this community, and am I going to be embraced?
So that’s a better frame for us than, you know, which brand is that, is that Pepsi or Coke? There are differences. They’re real differences. A lot of them, and Elliot wrote about this in a journal article, very recently .
Elana: Yeah, our Sources journal.
Rick: Yeah, very important, people, we should all read it, and some people read Elliot’s piece and said, oh so, you’re coming to stand with us. I think we ought to be having honest, open, public conversations about all this. And I think the change that I referenced in my first answer, that we’re not changing fast enough is true of the entire Jewish world. We’re still obsessed with our buildings. We’re obsessed with models of membership that were invented 100 years ago, not 2,000 years ago.
So I just think, this is a good moment for us to not be in panic mode. Can I also just say, it’s a good moment for us not to only focus on the people who hate us. There are people who hate us. And build something in Jewish life that actually takes all of our energy. We’re going to fight the haters, we’re going to stand, we’re going to make our community safe, but there’s something bigger for us all to do, and it’s not just to make a thriving Jewish community to be God’s partners in shaping, a just, more equitable, more compassionate world.
Elana: Okay, we have time for one more question, until we close it up. Right here in the front, please.
Joyce: I’m Joyce Stiefel from Bellevue, Washington, and I’m a physician, and I wanted to clarify something.
The Orthodox Union which represents Orthodox Jews in the United States is really with the liberal Jews on the issue of abortion. They issued a statement in June 2022, we do not observe Catholic law where life begins at conception. Life begins when the head comes out. And they wrote Jewish law prioritizes the life of the pregnant mother over the life of the fetus, such that where the pregnancy critically endangers the physical health or mental health of the mother, an abortion may be authorized, if not mandated by Halakha and should be available to all women irrespective of their economic status.
Elana: So I think what you just did, which I think is very important, is said, let’s not paint groups of people all in the same brush. And I think that’s what we’ve tried to do here tonight.
I’m going to end with this question and I didn’t tell them that I’m asking them. What do we share? We share Torah. That’s what we share. You both talked Torah. I heard you. I watched it. You started with Torah. You wove it in the middle. And you ended with it. And Rick, I know you talk Torah, all the time.
Can you give us a piece of Torah that is inspiring who you are and what you’re doing right now for the Jewish people?
Orly: So I want to quote, not the Torah, but I want to quote a Tunisian French writer called Albert Memmi, who wrote about racism, and this piece was quoted by the Chief Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, in the case which, when she accepted our petition to disqualify one of the racist candidates of the Jewish strength party four years ago. It was the first time the Supreme Court disqualified a racist candidate since 1992.
And when I thought about what drives me, what Jewish values drive me in the work I do, I thought about the compassion I feel toward others because of this tradition of being a minorit. We spoke about minority rights, we spoke about the need to protect minority rights. We know that our Torah tells us to be compassionate toward the orphan, the widow, and the stranger, and so this really resonated with me.
And she wrote this piece. You can’t be compassionate toward racism. You don’t bring a monster into the house, not even and especially not in disguise. To come to terms with a racist world, even to a small extent, means to support fear, injustice, and violence. It means to come to terms with a continuing presence of the darkness of history, in which we still live in. It means to put up with a stranger being a possible victim, and after all, who among us is not a stranger somewhere? So I really hope we always remember to be compassionate toward the people around us and, you know, together.
Elana: Imagine what she could have come up with had I told her beforehand that I was asking her this. Wow, that is so deep.
Rick: So we have a Parsha this week, I also, remember, some of the diaspora/Israel things about the parsha, and we’re like out of sync for a while, but we’re in sync this Shabbat, so the Parsha, Balak, right, the most famous, mah tovu ohalecha, how good are your tents of Jacob.
So this King Balak wants to curse. He’s filled with a lot of antipathy towards the Jewish people.
To me, in that, is the kind of core mission, which is transformation. Is heal the word? I think transform. So what’s the lineage, again, in Elana’s presence, you know, one of our great teachers of text, in Sanhedrin 105B, there’s this beautiful section that talks about Balak’s descendants.
So who’s one of his descendants? Ruth the moabite that we read on Shavuot. And so she actually is descending from this hater, this whose hate is always just turned into bracha, his kala, his curse, turns into a blessing, right? And then who’s the descendant from Ruth, as we know in our tradition, and the the text in Sanhedrin reminds us? The Messiah, King David, and the Davidic line.
To me, that’s our job. Our job is to turn curse into blessing, and most importantly, to transform what is to what could be. Not just on Parashat, you know, Balak, but every day. That’s the core mission, and I just love the lineage. You talk about and this, I think, ties in beautifully to Orly’s teaching, which is, in transformation, we can’t even begin to imagine what is possible. And I think we’ve got more work than probably we know what to do with, but it’s our job to transform this, and I think we can turn, as we are, blessings, are just, the one example I’ll give is Rabbi Liz Bahar in Macon, Georgia, whose synagogue was surrounded by these neo-nazis, who had a Jew in effigy.
And what are they doing this Sunday? They’re having a community celebration of love and unity and it’s with the Jewish community, organized with the Christian and the Buddhist and the Muslim and the Hindu and the Sikh, and mah tovu ohalecha, how beautiful are our tents. And one day soon, may that be the beautiful tents of our whole world.
Elana: Well thank you both so very much for being here. Your candor, your integrity, and your friendship. Thank you. Good night everyone.
Orly: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Jordana: Thanks for listening to our show. Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman with assistance from Miri Miller, Sarina Shohet, and Yoav Friedman. This episode was edited by Gareth Hobbes at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. Maital Friedman is our vice president of communications and creative, and our music is provided by Socalled.
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