Israel and the Palestinian U.N. bid: A sermon topic for High Holidays?

September 27, 2011

The subject of Israel has grown increasingly sensitive for rabbis, with the American Jewish community divided over the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. But the subject will be unavoidable this week as uncertainty in the Middle East and Israel’s opposition to a Palestinian bid for United Nations recognition coincide with the start of the High Holidays, when themes and liturgy are all about the uncertainty of life.

“Even with disagreements, Israel is on everyone’s minds,” said Gil Steinlauf, rabbi at the Northwest Washington synagogue Adas Israel.

Recognizing the confluence of Jewish preaching and news about Israel, Kenneth Cohen, a Bethesda rabbi, recently wrote a resource guide to help colleagues talk about Israel during the holidays, which begin when Rosh Hashanah starts at sunset Wednes­day and end with Yom Kippur next week. The guide was funded by the Israeli Embassy and sent to virtually every rabbi in the country.

Aimed at the most-attended synagogue services of the year, Cohen’s tutorial includes references to Jewish scripture and prayers for peace, love of Israel, compromise and negotiations, among other things. It includes sample sermons from rabbis across the theological spectrum.

In interviews, rabbis around the region reflected on a variety of approaches for dealing with Israel. Some said their job was to stand for an unwavering commitment to the existence and safety of the state of Israel. Others want to help Jews find areas of commonality in attitudes about the state and the biblical idea of a Jewish homeland.

Still others said they planned to preach about Israel from a strictly spiritual perspective — fodder for a lesson about dealing with sadness and despair at a time when relations not only with the Palestinians but with longtime allies Egypt and Turkey are churning.

And some Jewish groups said there would be no preaching about Israel or the U.N. controversy because they had passed “no politics” policies to avoid bringing such divisive subjects into worship time.

Rabbi Shira Stutman, who leads some of the High Holidays services at the Sixth and I synagogue in Chinatown, said she’ll be speaking to about 700 Jews in their 20s and 30s, many of whom don’t have the strong connection to Israel their parents and grandparents did. In addition to that disconnect, every reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict includes disputed words and political language.

She said she plans a special blessing for congregants who have traveled recently to Israel and their responsibility to engage on the subject in some way. She plans to speak about Israel in the context of “the past, present and future of Judaism in our own lives and how time doesn’t move in a linear direction but a more spiral one,” she said. “Every year Rosh Hashanah happens again, the prayers are the same, but we are different.”

Stutman, who doesn’t relish preaching about Israel, says she is impressed by rabbis who have been able to find a proper spiritual vocabulary. But right now, “there is a deep sense of despair for people who love Israel and are concerned about the Middle East,” she said. “I want to speak about the spiritual parts.”

Typically divided over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, American Jews across the spectrum oppose the Palestinians’ bid for U.N. recognition of a state based on borders that existed in 1967.

Steinlauf said he was recently in a briefing with the Israeli ambassador and about 50 rabbis from various schools of Judaism. All shared a deep sense of uncertainty over events in the Middle East, including the ramifications of the Palestinians’ bid for statehood and disputes between Israel and Turkey and Egypt.

Steinlauf said he would sermonize over the holidays about Israel in the context of uncertainty and the importance of keeping one’s faith. “My responsibility as a rabbi is not to teach political planks here,” he said. “My responsibility is to help the Jewish community frame how we can go forward in such difficulties. All the liturgy [of the holidays] focuses on us not being in control of this life. So it is in that sobering acknowledgment that we enter into the new year, vowing to be our best selves.”

The American Jewish community of today is not like previous generations, which were “one solid Jewish voice on Israel with one shared narrative about the role of Israel and the role of the United States,” Steinlauf said.

“Divisions can be quite bitter, and there is a weariness in the Jewish community around these issues,” he said. “Where do we turn for strength? For inspiration? To find faith to go forward? Especially in a town like D.C., I think people are even more desperate for how to hold onto their faith.”

Leaders of D.C. Minyan, a lay-led group of Orthodox Jews, said they long ago resolved on a no-politics sermon policy. And in Washington, where many congregants work in politics or Middle East advocacy — on various sides — Israel equals politics.

“We do that all day. We don’t want to then do that in our place of worship and our spiritual community,” said Zvikah Krieger, who coordinates education and sermons for D.C. Minyan and works in policy for a Middle East advocacy group as his day job.

The driving force among lay-led groups like his, which are popular among younger Jews in particular, is “trying to fix what we felt was wrong with the synagogues growing up, the things that frustrated us,” Krieger said. “And I know of people who had to deal with politics spoken from the pulpit — why is my rabbi talking about foreign policy? If I wanted to learn about that, I’d turn to CNN.”

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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