Non-Jewish Clergy Grapple With Israel


Interfaith dialogue can often seem like an amen chorus: like-minded people, already predisposed to dialogue, saying “amen” to phrases like “building bridges between people” and “making room for ‘the other.’” But sometimes it can be more tough-minded and clear-headed, and yield real benefits.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a Reform congregation on the Upper West Side, organized an interfaith visit to Israel for 15 Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Unitarian and Muslim religious leaders from New York. Nine of the clergy met Monday night at the synagogue for a discussion of their trip, from which they had just returned. Somewhere between the olive branch and the gun, many of the clergy seemed to be saying, the real Israel — a staggeringly complex place — emerged from their six-day visit. An Episcopal priest (Dr. James A. Kowalski of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine) is now “devouring” the bestseller “Startup Nation,” about Israel’s entrepreneurial drive; Israel has a lot it can teach this country, he said. A Unitarian minister (Rev. Galen Guengerich of All Souls Church), inspired by Natan Sharansky’s epiphany while in a Siberian prison (“what people want most is to belong and to be free,” Sharansky told the group), now has a new frame for seeing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the need for a two-state solution. And a Reformed Church minister (Rev. Shari Brink of Marble Collegiate Church) and an Episcopal rector (Rev. Brenda Husson of St. James) have a new hero, a “prophet,” in fact: a 60-something woman named Ronit they met in a farming town in southern Israel near the Gaza border. Ronit and her family have endured countless rockets fired from Hamas fighters but she still holds out hope for coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. “The conflict isn’t all their fault,” she told the group, referring to the Palestinians in Gaza. “But we won’t accept all the blame for it, either.”

Two rabbis (Marcelo Bronstein of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun and Elliot Cosgrove of the Conservative Park Avenue Synagogue) warned of the dangers of the growing “haredization,” or ultra-Orthodox influence, over Israel, Cosgrove saying that the current parliamentary system has led to a “toxic democracy” in the Jewish state. Other Israeli problems were on view Monday night, including the occupation and the relative lack of religious pluralism.

But perhaps we shouldn’t underestimate the potential power of New York religious leaders going back to their congregations (some of which tend to reflexively sympathize with the Palestinians) armed with a new, perhaps less black-and-white vision of Israel, and a mission to “empower the moderates,” as many of them put it.

It was noted during the discussion that no Orthodox rabbis were part of the trip. Rabbi Hirsch pointed out that several had declined invitations, saying that “under the communal circumstances that exist in the Jewish community today, it would not be the best thing to come.” Another indication of just how tricky interfaith dialogue can be.