Building on a coalition of 1,500 rabbis assembled last summer in response to Israel divestment initiatives proposed by both the Methodists and the Presbyterians, the Israel Action Network (IAN) is hoping to reach hundreds of thousands of Jews over the High Holy Days this year in an effort to counter a public relations war against the Jewish state.
This new year, the IAN — a project of the Jewish Federations of North America in partnership with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — is joining with top rabbinical associations to counter attacks on Israel’s right to exist.
IAN’s partnership with the rabbis marks an unprecedented effort by the organized North American Jewish community to engage people on the topic of the continued attack on Israel’s legitimacy.
More than 5,000 North American rabbis have been implored to deliver High Holy Days sermons encouraging their congregants to become educated and empowered to come to the defense of Israel when faced with attacks on its right to exist, and allegations of apartheid.
In collaboration with groups such as the JFNA Rabbinic Cabinet, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, among others, the IAN has reached out to thousands of rabbis as part its continuing efforts to educate and mobilize the Jewish community.
“The High Holidays are a wonderful time to reach a wide spectrum of the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, chairman of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the JFNA. “There is concern about the ongoing efforts to question the legitimacy of Israel, and it calls for a response. During the High Holidays, there is a strong attendance across the country and there is a chance to tie this in with certain themes.”
The IAN has provided the rabbis with various distribution materials and sermon inserts to help get its message across.
“There are a variety of distributions through different movements and networks,” Weinblatt said. “We wanted to make the message available, but it is up to the individual rabbis to deliver it. Hopefully, rabbis will speak in support of Israel, and make the materials available to their members.”
Weinblatt sees the High Holy Days as an “opportunity to disseminate information and to raise awareness of the ongoing campaign to vilify Israel.”
Despite a “fringe” group of rabbis who were very vocal last July in Pittsburgh speaking in favor of divestment at the Presbyterian Church (USA) convention, Israel has “very wide-ranging support” among rabbis, Weinblatt said.
The power of rabbis working together on behalf of Israel was evidenced last summer when 1,500 rabbis from across denominations signed a Letter of Hope sent to the Methodists and Presbyterians. Both Christian denominations eventually rejected their respective divestment resolutions, and may have been influenced by that Letter of Hope, Weinblatt said.
In contrast, only 26 rabbis signed a letter to the Methodists and Presbyterians encouraging divestment and boycotts.
“Fifteen hundred speaks volumes as to where the American Jewish rabbinate stands on this issue,” Weinblatt said.
IAN’s outreach to rabbis extends to all four mainstream denominations — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist, said Geri Palast, IAN’s managing director. Rabbis, she said, are in a unique position to influence their congregants to stand up for Israel.
“Rabbis are generally trusted leaders,” she said. “This was shown with the Letter of Hope. That sent a powerful message to the Methodists and the Presbyterians. We felt it was an important core to build on.”
“We feel it was a great accomplishment to organize that many rabbis in that many communities,” she added. “We are a network fighting a network. This is a great basis from which to build our network.”
The aim is to encourage rabbis during these High Holy Days to show their congregants ways to counter assaults on Israel’s legitimacy, and how to work together on a peace initiative, she said.
“We want to reach the widest group of people we can, using our most important messengers at this time of reflection,” she said.
Although the Methodists and Presbyterians each rejected divestment this year, the Presbyterian margin was razor thin, and the issue will no doubt be on the agenda again in 2014 at their next convention.
“A huge part of our ongoing efforts is to get rabbis and their congregations engaged in these issues so we have a different dynamic in two years,” Palast said.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)