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As Israel debates rage, Jewish professionals face employment repercussions

Rabbi Doug Kahn, fourth from left, the director of the San Francisco JCRC, shown presiding at a panel kicking off the "Year of Civil Discourse," where clergy discuss navigating congregational rifts over Israel, Dec. 12, 2010. To his right is Rabbi Paula Marcus of Temple Beth El, a California synagogue that used JCRC mediation in resolving a split over Israel programming.  (Minh La, San Francisco JCRC)

Rabbi Doug Kahn, fourth from left, the director of the San Francisco JCRC, shown presiding at a panel kicking off the “Year of Civil Discourse,” where clergy discuss navigating congregational rifts over Israel, Dec. 12, 2010. To his right is Rabbi Paula Marcus of Temple Beth El, a California synagogue that used JCRC mediation in resolving a split over Israel programming. (Minh La, San Francisco JCRC)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – 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.”

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.

Rabbi John Friedman of Durham, N.C., described being invited recently to speak at a synagogue in another town only to discover that its Israel Action Committee banned his presence because of his affiliation with J Street, a group that is often critical of what it calls Israel’s laggard approach to peacemaking. So instead, Friedman spoke off campus.

“If you’re a rabbi in any number of conservative communities and you say something that is in your heart about Israel — ‘I don’t think Israel is helping itself by home demolitions’ — if you say that you’re likely to be disciplined in some way and deal with a lot of pushback from your congregation,” he said.

Jewish communities have a long history of arguing vigorously, even viciously, especially relating to Zionism and Israel. But the intensity of the battles over Israel have spiked in the last couple of years, community professionals say.

“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 keep them informed while maintaining the peace, or “shalom bayit.”

Rabbi Paula Marcus of Temple Beth El in Aptos, Calif., describes herself as seized by both desires. After months of debate, her synagogue recently produced a position paper that emphasizes support for Israel as “a democratic Jewish state and the historic homeland of the Jewish people, with Jerusalem her capital” and explicitly rejects the movement to boycott Israel.

But Marcus made it clear that she would not accept certain constraints when she exercised her “freedom of the pulpit.”

Walking that nuanced line sometimes may be necessary, but it also can diminish a rabbi’s relationship with his congregation, says 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 says he has dedicated himself to searching the Torah and other Jewish sources, “looking for voices that teach respectful dialogue.” His research 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 discreetly 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. “

Friedman, who for 30 years has served Judea Reform congregation in Durham, N.C., says that even once such tensions have subsided, a community never quite heals. Deep divisions over Israel affect ministry to those who have been on the other side of a congregational argument.

“Once or twice there were families I couldn’t help in they way I could have if I had not said something,” he said.

Such a lasting breach is why 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.

“I’m not for boycotts, but I’m willing to talk to people who are for boycotts,” Friedman said.

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.”

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