Bringing Conversations about Israel into the Life of American Congregations

Two hundred members of a not-so-typical synagogue meet in groups of 12 at different congregants’ houses one evening. They read a short text or watch a clip from a movie or listen to some music. The next two hours are filled with the sounds of debate, discussion, and conversation. In one house, people debate whether Arab Israelis should serve in the IDF; in another, people discuss whether “land” has any spiritual meaning for them; in a third, people struggle with different religious visions of American and Israeli Judaism. Participants disagree with each other, sometimes heatedly, but they listen to opposing views with respect and integrity, allowing for even the most contentious and alienated of voices. Congregants come to understand that the opposite of “commitment” is not “dislike;” it is “apathy.” At the end of the evening, congregants return to their homes, feeling that they were able to speak and be heard; that they were able to listen and learn; that they were able to understand and engage.

The vignette above took place at a well-known urban synagogue in 2008.  Marking a significant benchmark in their congregation’s Israel engagement work, it was in large part due to a year-long deliberation between one of the synagogue’s rabbis and one author of this paper. But this kind of activity is all too rare, as Israel has come to occupy a less than central place in American Jews’ consciousness and communities owing, in part, to the absence of real discourse about Israel between and among American Jews.

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