With Israel in turmoil, group of US rabbis visits with a mission: to listen and learn


Over the last few weeks, while Israel has been roiled by demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands, and President Isaac Herzog has warned about the possibility of civil war, American Jews have been watching with grave concern.

Even after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a delay in the government plan to overhaul the judiciary that sparked the mass protests, tensions in Israel remained high.

It was precisely at this fraught moment that UJA-Federation of New York decided to bring a group of rabbis from the New York area to Israel — to listen, learn and talk with key Israeli figures, and to communicate the nuances of what they heard back to their communities in New York.

“I learned more than I thought was possible,” said participant Rabbi Jonah Geffen, senior Jewish educator and campus rabbi at Hunter College Hillel in New York.

Over four days in March, the diverse group of 24 rabbis met with a wide range of Israelis, ranging from politicians — including architects of the judicial reform and representatives from the opposition — to leading public intellectuals, journalists representing publications from both the left and the right, community activists, and thought leaders. The trip was funded by the Paul E. Singer Foundation.

“UJA has a tradition of getting our community leaders and our rabbis proximate to the issues of the day to help them as they lead their communities,” said Hana Gruenberg, managing director of Jewish life at UJA-Federation, who accompanied the delegation of rabbis. “We’ve brought rabbis to Israel when there have been security issues, we’ve brought rabbis to Ukraine, and most recently, during this time of challenge in Israel around internal domestic issues and judicial reform, we wanted to give rabbis support in leading their communities at this complicated time.”

Among those with whom the rabbis met to discuss the current political situation in the country were leaders of two Israeli civil society organizations, Yozmat Hameah (the Initiative of the Hundreds) and a group called the Israeli Congress, which strives to address the tension between the state’s Jewish and democratic identities.

The delegation also participated in a program with Co.Lab, a collaborative sponsored by UJA-Federation comprised of social influencers from diverse backgrounds. The group is working on initiatives to advance cohesion in Israeli society.

The group heard from Micah Goodman, research fellow at the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem; Knesset member Simcha Rothman of the Religious Zionist Party, who as chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee is trying to advance the judicial reform; Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli; and Rabbi Gilad Kariv, a Knesset member from the Labor Party.

The rabbinic delegation met with several journalists, including author Matti Friedman, Times of Israel political correspondent Carrie Keller- Lynn, and Jewish world reporter Zvika Klein of the Jerusalem Post.

Rabbis from the New York area gather in a Knesset meeting room ahead of a meeting with Knesset Member Simcha Rothman, an architect of the proposed judicial overhaul in Israel, March 17, 2023. (Courtesy of UJA-Federation)

“UJA was really thoughtful about our hearing from so many different perspectives explaining to us the complexity of these issues,” said Bracha Jaffe, associate rabba at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx. “It struck me as such an eye-opener that it’s more than just about judicial reform. All the different societal factions have felt at one time marginalized, coerced on one side, not being seen, not being represented.”

One of the many reasons for this sort of mission to Israel, said Eric S. Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation, is to convene rabbis from different denominations and across the cultural spectrum that represent the diversity of the New York Jewish community.

“These trips give prominent New York rabbis the opportunity to have their voices heard by leaders in Israel. They provide the rabbis with the ability to better understand the complex reality there so they can more effectively lead their communities in these challenging moments,” Goldstein said. “And they bring together rabbis from across the denominational spectrum, helping to more closely knit our own New York Jewish community — an ever-more important priority.”

Often, the day-to-day life of a rabbi does not lend itself to reflective moments with colleagues to listen and share multiple viewpoints on complex issues facing the Jewish community and Israel.

“What made this trip significant was that people who love Israel equally can have a varied view about what is in the best interest of the Jewish state,” said Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City.

With an itinerary that carefully struck a balance between intellectual, spiritual and political leaders, as well as advocates and activists, the group was exposed to a kaleidoscope of viewpoints, Cosgrove said.

“I was engaging with ideas that affirmed my beliefs about judicial reform and also challenged my beliefs,” he noted.

Both during and after the trip, the rabbis discussed the question of what it means to be a spiritual leader at this moment.

“One of our most important roles is to make sure that our people find reasons to maintain that connection both to the Land of Israel and the people of Israel,” said Rabbi Joshua Davidson of Temple Emanu-El in New York. “For me, that is a critical part of my identity as a Jew and my role as a rabbi. I believe that it is going to be a harder and harder but a more and more important
endeavor in these months to come.”

Rabbi Ari Lorge of Central Synagogue in New York said each participant came to the trip with different viewpoints on Israel, but with a common hope to see the country and its citizens flourish.

“Each of us comes with our own dreams for Israel,” he said. “We’re not neutral observers. We must continue to advocate and encourage this kind of dialogue and hold fast to those dreams.”

While any Knesset vote on judicial reform is unlikely before late April, the political tumult in Israel is far from over, and American Jewish leaders intend to stay as involved as possible.

“In this rapidly evolving situation, we’ll continue with these kinds of engagements for rabbis, knowing that we’re still in the middle of this,” Gruenberg said. “We care deeply about what comes next.”