For five days last month Israel increased its rabbinical supply. Six spiritual leaders from Western Pennsylvania joined three others from elsewhere in America and ventured east to participate in Rabbis Engaging with Israel (REIL), a program coordinated by Classrooms Without Borders (CWB) and the World Zionist Organization.
CWB, founded in 2011 by Zipora Gur, is an educational organization supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Having routinely led educators to Poland, Germany and Israel, REIL was CWB’s first effort at a decidedly rabbinical trip (there was one cantor in the mix). Bringing such clientele only furthered the trip’s success, explained Gur.
So much of why REIL worked was because the rabbis, “all of whom came from different denominations,” had an opportunity to “see things that they have not seen before,” she said.
And once their eyes were opened, the spiritual guides started seeing something new.
“It sort of connected on two levels,” explained Rabbi Chuck Diamond of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha. “One level was making Zionism relevant to us today, and the second level was spending time with rabbis from the community who come from different movements and backgrounds.”
With an intensive itinerary spanning five days, REIL ensured that the seven local leaders ate, trekked, learned and listened their way through the Holy Land. Specifically, the program facilitated commonality among often ideologically opposed participants.
Without lay people, REIL operated as a “separate place for the rabbis to be engaged with Israel in a serious way and ask themselves the questions of is it a Jewish state or is it a state for the Jews, you know the big questions,” Gur said, adding that such queries served as REIL’s directive.
“This year we are going to celebrate 120 years to Herzl and people should wish us not, ‘Until 120,’ but, ‘From 120.’ The Zionist dream is important especially now; I think people need to understand that the Zionist dream is living in different ways and people have to see that and understand that,” the Israeli- born educator explained.
CWB succeeded in its efforts, said Rabbi Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah Congregation.
“It was a wonderful trip on all accounts,” the rabbi said. “I’m not sure exactly what Jewish unity is, but I know it’s important, and if you take all the rabbis that were there from a rabbinic perspective, there’s very little we might agree on. But Israel is one of those things that can bring us all together.”
Gur noted that since returning back to Pittsburgh several rabbis from different denominations have participated in joint Israel engagement programming.
“Just this last Shabbat, Rabbi Wasserman invited Rabbi Diamond and me to seudah shlishit to talk about things we all are committed to as Zionists and as people who believe in a need for a secure, democratic Jewish state,” said Rabbi James Gibson of Temple Sinai.
Having a Reform and Conservative rabbi speak at an Orthodox synagogue made sense given the group’s shared experience, said Wasserman.
“The purpose of the trip was to engage our members more in Zionism and Israel, and I felt that it would be instructive not only for my shul to hear my impressions, but to hear other people’s impressions as well, because everybody was positively affected by the trip,” said the Orthodox spiritual leader.
The program at Shaare Torah was “wonderful to participate in,” said Diamond, who added that because of the trip he found a new friend from across the Jewish stream.
Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum of Chabad of the South Hills and “[I] became buddies on the trip. I got to understand where he is coming from and he got to understand where I am coming from. We were joking that we were going to start a shul together,” remarked Diamond.
Whether such a pulpit partnership is pioneered is uncertain, but for now REIL demonstrated that local ideologues can come a little closer.
“The uniqueness of the experience [caused] us all to look at Israel with new eyes and to look at each other with new eyes,” said Gibson.
“We need to be together and we need to be friends even if there’s very little on serious issues we agree on,” added Wasserman.
The other Pittsburgh-area rabbis who joined the trip were Michele Gray-Schaffer of Congregation B’nai Abraham in Butler and Bryna Milkow of Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park.
Moving forward, CWB plans on building on REIL’s success. There will be more dialogues like the one that Diamond, Gibson and Wasserman participated in at Shaare Torah, as well as curriculum and materials to support such happenings, said Gur. “It was a really important trip and I hope to do it again for other rabbis.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.