NEW YORK — Where do you draw the line between a rabbi’s freedom to preach and his or her responsibility to maintain a cohesive congregation?
That is a topic of internal debate still swirling within B’nai Jeshurun, the popular mega-synagogue on the Upper West Side known for its joyful, spiritual services, progressive advocacy of causes like gay rights and caring for the needy and — unfortunately for some members — its three senior rabbis’ high-profile criticism of Israeli policy on the Palestinian issue.
Several notable members resigned in response to Rabbis Rolando Matalon and Felicia Sol signing on to a recent public letter criticizing Mayor Bill de Blasio for his support of AIPAC, the official pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington. (Rabbi Marcello Bronstein was said to be out of town when the letter was circulated.)
Other members are on the verge of resigning, and several BJ congregants I spoke with said they were weighing a similar move. They are deeply pained by the two rabbis’ action, particularly since this was not the first time they made headlines for taking a controversial stand on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and causing dissension in the nondenominational congregation of some 1,740 households.
In December 2012, after hailing as a “historic moment” a United Nations resolution elevating the Palestinians to nonmember status — which touched off criticism from many congregants — Rabbis Matalon and Sol, along with their colleague, Rabbi Bronstein, wrote to express “regret [for] the feelings of alienation” within the congregation.
It is believed that scores of members resigned at the time. Others, like Sam Levine, a BJ congregant for 25 years, who said he was “livid” at the rabbis’ actions, held back. They did so in part because they felt the rabbis, in frank, emergency meetings with critics, were sincerely apologetic, and in part because the members loved the teachings of the rabbis, the spirituality of the prayer services and the sense of community within BJ.
That was more than a year ago.
The last straw for Levine came with the recent anti-AIPAC letter, though. He wrote a long letter of resignation to the rabbis on behalf of his family — his children and wife, Laurie Blitzer, a vice chair of Birthright Israel, among her many affiliations in the community. Levine wrote the rabbis that he joined BJ because of their “extraordinary talents in making the spiritual elements of Judaism relevant and meaningful,” but that their positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were creating “painful disagreements” and “extraordinary tension.”
Those positions over the last several years, he said, included their “participating in a Palestinian forum airing grievances against Israel … publicly bashing Israel’s ‘cruelty’ toward the ‘peace-loving innocents of Gaza,’ and of course your letter celebrating the declaration” regarding Palestinian nonmember status at the United Nations.
More than a year after that major flare-up, the rabbis’ decision to criticize the mayor for supporting AIPAC was “unforgivable, inexcusable,” Levine told me, because “they took advantage of their extraordinary platform and instead of strengthening the Jewish people, they do the opposite.” (At a private AIPAC meeting in New York, de Blasio was quoted as saying that City Hall was always open to AIPAC and that he would “happily” stand with the group anytime and anyplace.)
Eve Birnbaum, a BJ member for 16 years who almost resigned last year over the U.N. flap, said she was “emotionally exhausted from expressing the same arguments and objections to the rabbis’ destructive actions and statements — in letters and e-mails to the rabbis and correspondence among like-minded congregants.” Her letter of resignation last week consisted of just a sentence or two announcing her family’s decision.
In an interview, she said there was much she admired about the rabbis and that she cherished the warm relationship Rabbi Matalon had with her children, who had their bar and bat mitzvahs at BJ. But she said the rabbis’ views on Israel were “antithetical to me” and that as a result of their insistence on speaking out as they have, “we felt like outsiders, and my kavanah [spiritual intention] was broken each time an anti-Israel political missile was launched from the bimah during services.”
She added that many people come to BJ for its warmth and spiritual services, not to hear about Mideast politics.
“How could they [the rabbis] break up our [congregational] family?” she asked. “I hope they will rethink their impact on the congregation.”
Birnbaum does not know where the family will pray now. For the time being, “I’ll be a wandering Jew,” she said.
Is this about rabbinical freedom of speech, misperceptions of AIPAC, signing on to a letter that contained supporters of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement, the common practice of disgruntled congregants leaving a synagogue, or all of the above?
Birnbaum and other members who voiced their criticism to the rabbis received a brief email this week from Rabbis Matalon and Sol saying, “I care about your feelings and concern,” and “I will be calling you next week so we can have a personal conversation about the issues you have raised.”
The rabbis did not respond to requests for an interview, and the congregation has taken no official position on their signing on to the letter criticizing de Blasio.
Jeanie Blaustein, president of the board of BJ, responded to an interview request with the following email: “There is a wide variety of viewpoints in the American Jewish community about what is needed to secure Israel’s future. The challenge before all of us is to develop ways of speaking so that we can listen to others’ points of view on such complex issues.
“It requires all of us to stretch. I am proud to be the president of a congregation that wrestles with these issues, and we will continue to work hard at the vital mission of deepening our engagement and commitment to the people and state of Israel.”
Critics blame the board for allowing these issues to have festered for years, resulting in occasional emergency board meetings and press coverage that they say has further split the congregation, especially at a time when it is being called on to raise tens of millions of dollars to renovate its recently purchased building. Some members on the left have encouraged the rabbis to continue to speak out on issues of conscience and not be swayed by detractors. Other members insist that whether or not they agree with the rabbis’ views on the Mideast conflict, as clergy they have the right and responsibility to give voice to their moral positions.
It may well be, though, that a majority of BJ members are not upset, or even aware, of the recent disagreement. Anne Mintz, a member for more than 10 years, wrote me a note on Sunday to question The Jewish Week’s previous coverage of the AIPAC-de Blasio incident. “Where’s the news here?” she wrote. “The political leanings and activism of the BJ clergy are long and widely known” and only “a sliver of the BJ membership” was “annoyed,” she said, adding that the matter “wasn’t even news inside the congregation.”
If accurate, perhaps that speaks to BJ’s size and diversity. Many believe that while the majority of the congregation is left of center politically, including those most active in a variety of social action projects, a significant number of members who attend Shabbat and holiday services regularly reflect a wider range of Mideast views. And those I spoke with stressed how alienated nonleft members have felt for some time now when it comes to hearing the rabbis speak out on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, rarely celebrating Jerusalem’s actions.
One member said her close relatives who made aliyah from the United States are “demoralized” when they hear and read about “what the rabbis of such a major New York synagogue are saying” on these issues.
Jeff Feig, a member of BJ since 1994, says the congregation is “a big part of my life and brought me closer to Judaism.” But he was deeply troubled at the rabbis’ support for the U.N. action and, as a supporter of AIPAC, he thinks the rabbis see the pro-Israel lobby as hawkish rather than bipartisan, and morally unacceptable. He is considering leaving the synagogue.
Mark Pearlman, a member for 17 years, said he was pained and conflicted over the recurring controversies and weighing whether to remain in the synagogue. (Pearlman has supported a number of initiatives with The Jewish Week and with B’nai Jeshurun.) He noted that the rabbis’ political advocacy on “these sensitive and explosive issues take away from the prayer service and spiritual environment” that his family so much enjoyed.
“The synagogue, in a strange way, appears to be consciously trying to divide its own community,” he said. Once proud of his affiliation with BJ, Pearlman said he feels “embarrassed” at times, and asserted that the congregation “needs to decide what it wants to be and what it views as important” so members can have a clear choice of staying or leaving.
A woman who has been a member for 15 years and whose great-grandfather was a founder of the congregation, said she now feels “tremendous shame and disappointment” in “a place I once considered my spiritual home.” She said the synagogue was “not a place for politics,” and that the rabbis are “embarrassing the congregation” and “the Jewish community.”
Anne Mintz isn’t persuaded by these complaints. When I spoke to her the day after I received her note, she said that every synagogue has members who leave or threaten to, and that “when you join BJ you know the rabbis talk about politics, and if you don’t like it, maybe it’s not the shul for you.”
What she worries about, though, is that other rabbis who read of the flak the BJ rabbis are getting will be that much “less willing to take controversial stands in the hopes of guiding congregants through the difficult issues.
“We need rabbis with more moral courage,” not less, she said.
Jewish leaders since biblical times have stirred controversy for speaking out. Moses complained to God about the demands of the Israelites, and the prophets who chastised the people as sinners were harassed and ignored.
Even harsh critics of the BJ rabbis believe the spiritual leaders are sincere in their love of Israel and believe it is part of their moral duty to speak out against perceived injustices against the Palestinians.
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, acknowledges that “it’s a delicate line for rabbis who know that their congregants thirst for them to stand up and not waffle” on important issues and yet “not stand so tall that they drown out” other voices.
“I’m torn as to whether this issue [at BJ] is about freedom of speech or exercising poor judgment,” he said, noting that a synagogue should be “a place for dialogue rather than dogmatism.”
He questioned “the process” of the rabbis signing on to a public statement, along with known BDS supporters, rather than, for example, addressing the topic from the pulpits, though that route has been problematic in the past as well.
As a supporter of AIPAC, he says there is “gross misunderstanding of AIPAC in the Jewish community,” noting that “this is the same AIPAC that supports liberal governments in Israel” as well.
Rabbi Kirshner said he hears from rabbinic colleagues that “talking about Israel from the pulpit is the third rail,” but he disagrees, estimating that about one-third of his sermons are devoted in some way to Israel. “It’s the core of our existence, the fuel of our shul,” Temple Emanu-el, a Conservative congregation in Closter, N.J.
He said that if he were to chastise his children or criticize America, a listener shouldn’t be able to question his underlying love for his family or country. And if that is not the case — if, for example, one’s criticism of Israel did not seem rooted in affection — “that’s a problem.” He added that one’s Zionism should not be contingent on a set of specific issues.
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, says he never tells rabbis, publicly, what they should do. “I whisper in their ear.”
He demurred from discussing the specifics of the BJ conflict, but did say, “At the end of the day, you want to keep your congregation together. Where are you without community?”
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column first appeared in the Week.)