May 15, 2008
Rabbis work to build ties of U.S. Jews to Israel
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"Only by hearing each other do we realize that we are one people," she said.
Other rabbis move beyond politics.
"It's music and art and culture and history and people and right wing and left wing," said Bouskila, whose Westwood congregation includes many older Israelis. "They appreciate the connection. For older people who can't travel, this is all they've got -- it's their way of feeling they're in the Israeli scene."
For the past two years, leading up to Israel's 60th anniversary, Bouskila has offered a lecture series with topics ranging from the history of Israel to the people of Israel, and he has invited artists to help broaden the perception of Israel. Even recognizing poverty in Israel has been a way to connect his community to the country. For example, since 2002, Sephardic Temple has raised more than $2 million for an Israel relief fund to aid families living in poverty in 15 places all over Israel, and congregants have traveled to Israel to make personal the contributions.
Bouskila said he doesn't always get involved in politics because "when support becomes too tied to a certain issue, it becomes endangered."
Yet the political situation will always be the elephant in the room, since, unfortunately, the conflict is not going away anytime soon. And for some liberal-minded Jewish communities, who place a high value on human rights, the discussion can be difficult.
"It's hard to be able to talk about Israel in language that's meaningful," said Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah, a Reform congregation in Woodland Hills. Vogel, the president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, called American Jews' connection to Israel a "bifurcated" relationship. "We can talk about Israel being a homeland of the Jewish people, but we have trouble talking about the politics of today -- they struggle with policies of Israel."
Connecting [congregants'] values to the reality on the ground is essential, though, Rosove said.
"As rabbis, we don't have to sell Israel but to see it as it is -- with its strengths and its weaknesses, without our compromising our liberal democratic values, if that's who we are," he said.
Rosove noted that Israel is a liberal democratic society, and even in "these challenging times," there is a way to highlight those values.
Vogel said he "does not talk about politics from the bimah, whether Israeli or American," but focuses on "issues" instead. The synagogue, he said, is an important place to focus on issues.
"I believe people have to talk about the issues," Vogel said. "And that's the role of a synagogue -- to provide a place where people can engage in civil language, to be honest and critical."
Vogel invites speakers from throughout the spectrum to discuss particular issues.
"I believe in issues, not platforms," he said. "If you frame it correctly, I believe they'll be interested." Israel, he said, must be talked about. "When you keep talking about it, you keep it alive."
In the end, most rabbis agree that no matter what they might say to their congregants, the real solution is all about visiting Israel.
"You can't talk about Israel until you experience Israel; it's just a different dialogue," Vogel said.
"Personal contact with Israel is the only way to do it," Rosove agreed. "I take as many members to Israel as possible -- I try to do a mission every year or two."
Birthright Israel, of course, is built on this notion, that the best way to connect young Jews to Israel is to bring them to Israel. Since 2000, they have brought 160,000 18-26-year-olds on all-expenses-paid visits to the country.
Rabbi David Wolpe of the Conservative Sinai Temple in Westwood is hoping to start such trips even younger. Sinai is creating an Israel Center, a multimillion-dollar project to give every b'nai mitzvah student a voucher to travel to Israel. It will also coordinate all of Sinai Temple's Israel programs, organize trips, bring over Israeli artists and speakers and work with college students. Sinai's congregation, Wolpe said, is "passionately pro-Israel." It also will be sending the nation's largest synagogue delegation, 225 people, to the upcoming American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington, D.C.
Still, Wolpe advises that any rabbi who wants to connect his or her congregation to Israel should bring congregants there.
"Taking people to Israel is almost a magic solution," he said.
But there are challenges to getting people to Israel, challenges that even free trips won't solve.
"American Jews are afraid," Rosove said.
Many rabbis feel that another way to connect Americans to Israel these days is to make sure the relationship isn't only one-way. Rosove pointed out that while Israel is important to the hearts and souls of Jews of the Diaspora, the Conservative and Reform movements can offer Israel a "third way," between "rampant secularism" and right-wing Orthodoxy" on "what it means to be a Jew there." Rosove says he weaves these themes into many of his sermons and discussions at Temple Israel.
"Sometimes people will say that we're too Israel-oriented," he said. "And I'll say, 'Frankly I don't think we're Israel-oriented enough.'"
1 | 2