Behind the Headlines: Rabbis Urge Both Traditional and Targeted Giving to Israel

Despite increasing tension over religious pluralism and the fears of fund raisers at Jewish establishment charities, this year’s High Holiday sermons found rabbis urging congregants to support the traditional causes: the State of Israel Bonds and the United Jewish Appeal.

But based on a random sampling of rabbis from around the country, many rabbis from each of the liberal movements also urged their listeners, in language at least as strong, to give to the philanthropies that support causes they back themselves.

The New Israel Fund, as a result, found itself benefiting from an unanticipated High Holiday appeal.

More than a dozen rabbis requested pre-printed contribution envelopes from NIF after the liberal fund-raising group mailed to liberal and some Orthodox rabbis a resource guide exploring traditional and contemporary Jewish sources related to issues of religious diversity and Jewish unity.

The Israeli branches of the Reform and Conservative movements also expect a flow of contributions as a result of speeches from their movements’ rabbis.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Judaism’s New Year and Day of Atonement, are the most well-attended services of the year and the time, traditionally, when rabbis deliver their most important sermons.

The High Holidays are also the time, in many Orthodox and liberal synagogues, for annual appeals for Israel Bonds and UJA.

It is too early to know the results of the appeals, but officials at UJA believe that things went well.

The fund-raising agency did what it could to ensure positive results, said Rabbi Doniel Kramer, director of UJA’s Rabbinic Cabinet. Each rabbi in America received three mailings from UJA in the month before Rosh Hashanah, including a detailed report of what each of the religious movements in Israel receives in funding through the UJA system.

Leaders of each of the movements also urged their rabbis to support UJA in their own letters.

There had been much concern in the central Jewish fund-raising establishment that anger among many Reform and Conservative Jews over Israel’s lack of recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism would create a backlash, spurring non- Orthodox religious leaders to advocate against giving to UJA.

Indeed, some liberal rabbis used the occasion to vent their anger over such issues as pending Knesset legislation that would codify the Orthodox monopoly over conversions in Israel and the assault on egalitarian prayer groups at the Western Wall.

Reform Rabbi Harvey Fields, of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, used his Rosh Hashanah platform to issue a stinging condemnation of Orthodox and Israeli leaders. He warned that if proposed legislation is passed, they will risk the relationship with the majority of American Jews, who if they affiliate do so as Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist.

“They must feel our heat on this issue. They must feel it hot, and righteous, and unrelenting,” he said.

But many of the rabbis who made similar points in last year’s sermons this year refrained.

Instead, feeling bruised by the recent Orthodox-liberal/Israel-Diaspora battles, they said, they consciously spoke of Jewish unity in a positive way.

Rather than focus exclusively on the stress points, they framed the problems in ways that tried not to raise any questions about their fundamental commitment to Israel.

Rabbi David Wolpe, of the Conservative Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, spoke about loving Israel before criticizing it.

When children and grandchildren hear only “a constant drumbeat of criticism,” he said in a phone interview, they are “going to grow up with a distance and coldness toward Israel that their parents cannot now imagine, and that’s what frightens me.”

In her sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Vivian Schirn borrowed from the epitaph of American poet Robert Frost when she said, “I have a lover’s quarrel with Judaism and Israel.

“I love all of it, but one of the quarrels I have is with the audacity or chutzpah of one group of Jews claiming authenticity for their Jewish practice and disclaiming the authenticity of other Jewish groups,” she added.

Schirn is spiritual leader of the 220-family Or Hadash Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington, Pa.

She was one of the rabbis who arranged for NIF envelopes to be distributed to her congregants, she said, because “it is important for people to be given an option to do something” about the disenchantment they feel with the establishment.

Her congregation this year had its traditional Israel Bonds appeal, “but we’re starting to question it more seriously because the Israeli government is going in so many directions which counter religious pluralism and the peace process,” she said.

No one from Israel Bonds was available for comment.

But at least one rabbi who last year encouraged his congregants to send the percentage of their Jewish federation donation that usually would have gone to Israel through UJA directly to Reform institutions had a different message this year.

Rabbi Peter Kasdan, of Reform Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston, N.J., is no less passionate on the issue now, but said he feels more hopeful about steps taken by his local federation and UJA to devote more support to the Reform and Conservative movements.

As a result, during his Kol Nidre sermon, Kasdan urged the 550 families in his congregation to support Reform institutions in Israel, but to do so through the local Jewish federation.

He, like many Reform rabbis across the country, also urged his congregants to contribute to the Reform movement’s Emergency Israel Building Fund, whose first project was to help rebuild the the Reform kindergarten in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mevasseret Zion that was burned by arsonists on Sept. 1.

“Yom Kippur is a time of return and I am returning to the fold, coming with one foot in and one foot out,” Kasdan said. “Some of the things I called for have been put in motion, and now I’m waiting to see.”

One of the recent steps was a decision by UJA and the federation system to help raise money for Reform and Conservative institutions in Israel beyond the regular campaign.

“I reserve judgement to see what happens this year before I come back fully and unconditionally next year,” Kasdan said.

The Association of Reform Zionists of America, which is coordinating the Emergency Israel Building Fund, sent out tens of thousands of pledge cards to its approximately 850 affiliated congregations.

The money raised will be used “for bricks, mortar, and anything else necessary to root ourselves in the soil in Israel, like teacher training, coalition building and political work,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, ARZA’s executive vice president.

“Despite all the negative news about Israel flowing for the last year, this has been a way to convert the negative energy into positive channels, to say, `We’re not going to abandon Israel; we just have to work harder at changing things,’” he said.

The Conservative movement tried to address the same need in a different way.

Instead of creating a new fund-raising campaign, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, published a pamphlet explaining the mitzvah of charity, listing all of his movement’s related institutions in North and South America and in Israel.

For their part, Orthodox rabbis who were interviewed said that when they touched the issue at all, it was to emphasize the importance of Jewish unity, even as they made clear their support of the status quo in Israel, which leaves all religious matters under Orthodox control.

“The Reform and Conservative need to address it more from their pulpits than we do, because the impetus for change is coming from their side and they need to stem the tide of anger,” said Orthodox Rabbi Joel Finkelstein of Anshei Sphard- Beth El Emeth Congregation, in Memphis, Tenn.

But even for Finkelstein, who didn’t address the issue during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is coming up. He saved the sermon for the Shabbat morning during Sukkot.

Its title is “Pluralism: Can We All Be Right?”

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