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Israel debate tricky for Jewish professionals in Tucson, across U.S.

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Rabbi Helen T. Cohn

The speaker invited then uninvited. The signature on the petition removed. The activity joined, then unjoined. The job threatened.

Rabbis and Jewish professionals increasingly are being faced with a dilemma over discussing divisive topics — especially regarding Israel — central to how they see their Jewish missions without losing their professional mission.

“One of the concerns we have — and we hear this over and over again from rabbis and community leaders — people are afraid to discuss Israel,” said Ethan Felson, the vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish policy groups and Jewish community relations councils. “People fear for their jobs, their professional lives if they have these conversations.”

Rabbi Thomas Louchheim
Rabbi Shafir Lobb

After the rabbi of one congregation recently appeared on a list of clergy pledging to “Fast for Gaza” — part of an effort by an ad hoc group to bring attention to the plight of Gaza’s residents — a firestorm erupted among congregants who said they felt blindsided by such a pronounced opinion by the rabbi on a topic the congregation otherwise had not given enough attention in recent years. A handful of congregants called for the rabbi’s dismissal, though that stance didn’t catch on.

The congregation almost split.

“This is what I learned: You don’t get that far ahead of your congregation,” said the rabbi, who asked not to be named in order to keep the firestorm from regenerating.

Joining the fast was the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” the rabbi told JTA. “Some felt hurt, some felt angry.”

Now the rabbi treads much more gingerly when it comes to hot-button topics like Israel.

In Tucson, disagreement about Israeli policy surely exists. “I have a general perspective on what we should or should not say from the bima,” said Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon of Temple Emanu-El.

“Since Rabbi Bilgray, I’m pretty sure I’ve been the most pro-Israel Zionist rabbi at Temple,” he told the AJP. “To some degree that gives me credibility even to criticize Israel, which I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t so pro-Israel.”

Cohon continued, “I have freedom of the pulpit. At one Kol Nidre I spoke against the continued occupation of Iraq.” Not everyone agreed with him. But synagogue is a place to examine moral perspectives and engage in ethical discussions, he said.

Cohon will soon be traveling to Israel for two weeks with Rabbis Engaging With Israel. The group will include an equal number of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis.

“I promise you, we’ll discuss, argue and disagree,” said Cohon.

Another Tucson rabbi, Helen Cohn of Congregation M’Kor Hayim, said she does not bring politics into the sanctuary, a choice supported by the congregation’s board.

“There are a number of institutions, including synagogues, where there is real polarization, particularly over Israel,” said Rabbi Doug Kahn, speaking of the San Francisco region covered by the JCRC he directs. Israel, he said, “has become harder to discuss.”

Rabbis and professionals may be caught between competing imperatives: trying to lead their communities or keeping them informed while maintaining the peace, or “shalom bayit.”

“I’m kind of an Obama-type rabbi who thinks Israel and the Palestinians need to negotiate a peace,” said Thomas Louchheim of Tucson’s Congregation Or Chadash. “Maybe once a year on the High Holy Days I talk about my hope for a future Palestinian state to exist beside Israel. I don’t really talk about the Palestinians bombing the heck out of Israel,” he said, “or Israel bombing the heck out of the Palestinians. We need to discuss everyone’s suffering.”

“During the second intifada, around eight years ago, I was advocating for peace in the Middle East,” said Louchheim. “I was heartbroken because I thought that the ­Jewish community lost an opportunity to hear Muslim members of the community” and promote dialogue when a rally for Israel was held instead of a forum on Middle East peace.

“I did attend that rally,” noted Louchheim. “I lost the battle but I didn’t absent myself.”

Walking that nuanced line sometimes may be necessary, but it also can diminish a rabbi’s relationship with his congregation, said Rabbi Sheldon Lewis, the rabbi emeritus at Temple Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, Calif.

Lewis organized off-campus events for left-wing groups he admired, including Rabbis for Human Rights and a Bethlehem school promoting dialogue, after his temple’s Israel action committee nixed formal invitations.

“It was very painful,” Lewis told JTA. “This was an area of continual challenge, which is not good. It was awkward and polarizing.” He speaks with regret of congregants left “feeling alienated by the community.”

Overall, Lewis said, he is grateful for his 33 years in active service to Kol Emeth. But he remains frustrated that throughout his career, he could not overcome the tensions that beset discussions of Israel.

“I couldn’t find a good formula to make this work,” he said.

Since his retirement four years ago, Lewis said he has dedicated himself to searching the Torah and other Jewish sources, “looking for voices that teach respectful dialogue.”

Rabbi Shafir Lobb of Tucson’s Congregation Kol Simchah told the AJP that there “are repercussions to anything a rabbi said.” But it’s essential that “a multitude of opinions are heard,” she said. “That’s when growth and learning occur.

“I don’t agree with Arizona SB 1070 [which has been criticized for promoting racial profiling], and don’t agree with everything the Knesset passes, but I’m not an Israeli citizen,” said Lobb. “I’d like to see Israel come to a peaceful place, the whole world come to a peaceful place and Arizona come to a peaceful place.”

But getting to this place of peace is not easy. “We must separate friends from friends’opinions, keeping our hearts open,” said Lobb.

Research performed by Kol Emeth’s Rabbi Lewis has become a resource for the Bay Area JCRC, which last fall launched what it dubbed the Year of Civil Discourse with a pastoral letter from more than 140 rabbis of all streams.

In it, the rabbis “urgently call for a sincere effort by all parties in the debate to listen and to learn from one another even in the midst of passionate argument.”

One of the components of the Year of Civil Discourse has been so-called rabbis’ circles in which rabbis discretely can share experiences and strategies in dealing with congregations in ferment.

Another builds on Project Reconnections, established by the Bay Area JCRC in 2005, which isolates 15-20 members within a congregation or organization who represent the most passionately held opinions. Then, in mediated sessions, facilitators draw out the experiences that shaped the protagonists’ views.

“We have a trained facilitator who goes in and leads the cohort in intensive dialogue to understand the values and experiences that guide the opinions that each holds so dear,” said Abby Porth, who runs the project for the JCRC. Four synagogues and a Hillel in the Bay Area currently are undergoing Project Reconnections “treatment.”

It makes sense for professionals employed by the community to operate within a broad consensus, said Ron Halber, executive director of the JCRC of Greater Washington.

“The Jewish community has to have a big tent, but we’re under no obligation to have people ripping at the fabric,” he said. Dealing with those who advocate BDS — the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions strategy — or who contemplate a binational state is “beyond the pale,” he said.

No one interviewed for this story advocated those positions, but some chafed at not being able to have exchanges with those who do.

One solution is simply to start a new, self-selective community. That’s what Rabbi Victor Reinstein did six years ago when he and his wife founded Nehar Shalom in Jamaica Plain, Mass.

“The fear of speaking out affects rabbis in relation to the wider Jewish community,” said Reinstein, who had served a more conventional Conservative synagogue as a congregational rabbi.

The most important thing, he said, is giving spiritual leadership to whoever needs it.

“Long ago, a rabbi conveyed to me the wisdom of an older Protestant minister: If you love them enough, you can do anything,” Reinstein said. “That is one of the needs that we as a wider Jewish community need to grapple with: In the end we need to be there for each other.”

AJP Assistant Editor Sheila Wilensky contributed to this article.