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At Conservative and Reform rabbinical schools, a debate over red lines on anti-Zionism

There’s little tolerance for anti-Israel sentiment at many synagogues. Now, rabbinical schools grapple with anti-Zionism among students

The global Jewish community is in crisis. But in the U.S., there is a severe shortage of rabbis to help American Jews make sense of it all. And among the up-and-coming generation of Jewish leaders, a small but outspoken number of young rabbis are pushing back against the deep-seated support for Israel that has been a hallmark of American Jewish leadership for decades. 

A large Conservative synagogue on the East Coast came face-to-face with the divide between some young rabbis and the synagogues they hope to serve last year. When several candidates applied for a rabbinical position at the synagogue, the congregation’s search committee was thrilled to be in the increasingly rare position of having options — and to their surprise, one of the first candidates they interviewed came in eager to critique the synagogue’s approach to Israel and armed with a plan to push it to the left.

“Maybe just your rabbi is pro-Israel but maybe the synagogue is not,” the candidate suggested, according to a person who was in the interview. (The individual asked for anonymity to discuss sensitive hiring decisions.) The synagogue’s president then explained to the candidate that Zionism is a core value for the synagogue’s leaders and its congregants, a position from which the candidate diverged.

“Obviously,” the person from the search committee told Jewish Insider, “they never got to the second stage of the interview.” 

Officially, Zionism is a key pillar of all three major Jewish denominations in the U.S. But in the more progressive Reform and Conservative movements, some prominent rabbis are raising the alarm about a small but significant number of rabbinical students and early career rabbis who identify as non-Zionist or anti-Zionist, and who lack the connection to Israel that has for decades been a key part of what it means to be Jewish in the diaspora. 

The debate comes nearly three years after a now-infamous open letter signed by almost 100 rabbinical students from Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary and other non-Orthodox seminaries in May 2021. In a post-Oct. 7 landscape, those conversations have shifted.

Administrators at the seminaries are stuck between competing priorities: If they set clear boundaries about the centrality of Israel to their religious movements, they risk alienating some of the already small number of young Jews seeking to enter the rabbinate.

“It’s perceived as a buyer’s market. There’s not enough students, so schools are reluctant to draw clearer ideological boundaries that require their students to adhere to,” said Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. 

Setting clear ground rules around Israel — explaining it’s downright unkosher to believe Israel shouldn’t exist as a Jewish state — is rare. The leading liberal rabbinical schools and Jewish movements have instead taken a big-tent approach to Israel that welcomes even those students who take a position that is firmly at odds with the Zionism espoused by their seminaries. The result is that many students emerge from these schools with an approach to Israel that may put them at odds with their future congregants. 

“There’s still a pretty pronounced gap in most sectors of the Reform and Conservative Jewish world between the rabbis being trained now, and their ambivalence around Israel, and the people that they’re serving,” said Kurtzer. “This could create a real problem if the schools are effectively putting people out of the system who hold these views, but they can’t get hired and sometimes get fired, because their views don’t align with what the laity basically believes.” 

Things get fuzzy when the seminaries are asked to define the boundaries of acceptable attitudes toward Israel, and whether there is a place for anti-Zionist students at the liberal seminaries.

“They know that our movement is firmly Zionist and supportive of the State of Israel. There are lots of different ways to identify in terms of being Jewish and being a part of the Masorti-Conservative movement,” said Blumenthal, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and its rabbinic arm, the Rabbinical Assembly. “I think they need to decide how they feel about the fact that our movement is Zionist and supportive of the State of Israel.”

“There’s no loyalty oath that we expect, but we do expect deep, serious engagement in the history, in the culture, in the ongoing reality of Israel, and people can choose to express that in their own ways, from their own point of view,” said Rabbi Lisa Grant, the director of the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College’s New York campus. The Reform seminary also has campuses in Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Jerusalem.

Conservative rabbinical students who identify as anti-Zionist are making an affirmative choice to study at institutions that are strongly supportive of Israel, according to Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, the official head of the Conservative movement. 

“They know that our movement is firmly Zionist and supportive of the State of Israel. There are lots of different ways to identify in terms of being Jewish and being a part of the Masorti-Conservative movement,” said Blumenthal, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and its rabbinic arm, the Rabbinical Assembly. “I think they need to decide how they feel about the fact that our movement is Zionist and supportive of the State of Israel.”

But Blumenthal declined to say whether he had concerns about the fact that there are some students graduating from the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies who describe themselves as anti-Zionist.

“I don’t think I need to be on the record on that at this moment,” Blumenthal said. ”I think this is not the right time to be talking about those lines. I think our focus right now is on Israel and the needs of Israelis.”

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School American Jewish University in Los Angeles, has made clear that there are limits to what is considered in-bounds. 

“There’s a strong recognition that the Reform movement and Conservative and others as well have failed, in many ways, to do enough to teach that sense of peoplehood, that sense of connection to fellow Jews, feeling their pain and suffering,” said Rabbi Bradd Boxman, the spiritual leader at Congregation Kol Tikvah, a Reform synagogue in Parkland, Fla. 

“We’re not going to take someone who is hostile to the enterprise of Jewish national self-determination. But we do create within that large latitude for the range of ways people can contribute to that national effort,” Artson said of Ziegler, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement but is much smaller than JTS.

These conversations have only become more urgent — and more fraught — after the Oct. 7 terror attacks in Israel and the resulting war in Gaza. 

“There’s a strong recognition that the Reform movement and Conservative and others as well have failed, in many ways, to do enough to teach that sense of peoplehood, that sense of connection to fellow Jews, feeling their pain and suffering,” said Rabbi Bradd Boxman, the spiritual leader at Congregation Kol Tikvah, a Reform synagogue in Parkland, Fla. 

Boxman, a J Street activist, is unafraid to condemn Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank while also clearly communicating his love for Israel. At his synagogue, the guidelines for debate around Israel are clear: Non-negotiables are Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish, democratic state.

Rabbinical students with a range of perspectives on Israel told Jewish Insider that Israel is generally not formally addressed at the liberal seminaries beyond the time students spend in Israel — one year for Reform HUC students, and usually at least a semester for Conservative students. 

“They send us to Israel our first year and then we return to campus and there are such few opportunities to engage with Israel on campus,” said an HUC student who requested anonymity to speak candidly about their school. “I want to feel better prepared to talk about Israel when I enter the rabbinate, and I don’t feel as though my school is helping me with that.” 

“[Discussions about Israel are] the third rail of Jewish life, as much as we don’t want it to be,” said Miriam Leisman Rubin, a third-year student at JTS who is currently spending the year in Israel. In her experience, Israel is a topic that was rarely discussed when she was in school in New York. “We need people to be aware of the same facts, even if their opinions are different, and we can’t just walk into rooms and go, ‘Nope, we’re not going to touch that. We don’t discuss that.’”

“There’s been an eroding commitment by liberal rabbinical schools around Israel for a long time,” Kurtzer said.

The result is that students are afraid to talk about Israel, wary of being “canceled,” one student told JI, explaining that students are not given the skills to address Israel in an authoritative rabbinic voice. One Israeli instructor who works with American rabbinical students called the phenomenon “death by Israel”: a fear of talking about the Jewish state from the pulpit. 

“[Discussions about Israel are] the third rail of Jewish life, as much as we don’t want it to be,” said Miriam Leisman Rubin, a third-year student at JTS who is currently spending the year in Israel. In her experience, Israel is a topic that was rarely discussed when she was in school in New York. “We need people to be aware of the same facts, even if their opinions are different, and we can’t just walk into rooms and go, ‘Nope, we’re not going to touch that. We don’t discuss that.’”

Since Oct. 7, American Jewish life has seen a strange renaissance. At a time of deep distress and increasing antisemitism, more people than ever are going to synagogue, hosting Shabbat dinners and seeking Jewish community. For many, that renewed connection to Jewish life has also correlated with a stronger connection to Israel. A pro-Israel rally at the National Mall in Washington in November drew close to 300,000 people, the largest and most diverse gathering of Jews in America since the Soviet Jewry march in 1987. A November poll from the Jewish Electorate Institute found that more than 90% of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews identified as emotionally attached to Israel. 

But the strong pro-Israel sentiment in the overall Jewish community, counterintuitively, isn’t translating into the most Jewishly dedicated rabbinical students at the Conservative and Reform rabbinical seminaries. The HUC student told JI that since Oct. 7, it’s been easier to speak about Israel with more secular Jewish friends outside of their seminary than rabbinical school classmates.

Younger Americans in general lean much more liberal than the population at large. The same is true for their attitudes toward Israel. That’s the atmosphere in which rabbinical students have been educated. 

“If you are a Jew who is a member of one of the liberal movements, you also were much more likely to go to a liberal arts college, in which the same dialogue and conversation around who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed has been dominant,” said Leisman Rubin. A lot of people “internalized the negative characterizations of Israel in the absence of counter-arguments in those types of communities.” 

A December poll found that 91% of American Jews over the age of 50 supported Israel’s military campaign against Hamas. Among Jews between the ages of 18-29, that number dropped to 60%. 

“There is a generation of [young] rabbis and Jewish leaders who don’t have the same sense of vulnerability of what it means to live without a Jewish state, or the sense of powerlessness that maybe people of an older generation understand, that never again will the Jewish people be powerless,” said Artson. “There is a sense of ignorance of history and nuance.” 

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, senior rabbi at the Conservative Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md., in 2021, said the growing antipathy towards Israel among young rabbinical students was so noticeable that he brought together a coalition of rabbis to combat the problem. 

“Unfortunately, the default position certainly in many of the rabbinical seminaries has been that one must be critical of Israel, to the point that is almost an assumption and a given,” said Weinblatt. “We hear that students who are good old-fashioned Zionists, pro-Israel advocates, often feel intimidated, and are afraid to speak up.” 

Weinblatt started the Zionist Rabbinic Coalition, which has more than 200 members, after the publication of the 2021 letter. Written amid Israel’s last conflagration with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the students called their missive an “appeal to the heart of the Jewish community.” In an emotional letter, filled with references to Jewish teachings, the students accused American Jewish institutions of complicity in Israeli violence against Palestinians. 

The letter caused an immediate uproar, sending the Reform and Conservative movements into crisis. Some students were let go from rabbinic internships. Nearly every one of the more than a dozen rabbis and rabbinical students who talked to Jewish Insider for this article mentioned the letter. Students at JTS and HUC who chose to sign the letter are still being asked about it in interviews for internships and full-time positions, and some prominent rabbis have pledged not to hire anyone who signed it. 

Artson, the dean of the Ziegler School, wrote in a poignant response in the Forward at the time that the letter failed to apply its empathetic lens to the Jewish people.

“There was a partial application of the Jewish recognition that all people are made in God’s image, specifically about the value of Palestinian life and longings for freedom,” Artson wrote. “But there was no affirmation of love for the Jewish people, of which we are a part and which we aspire to lead.”

There was no response from JTS, the larger Conservative seminary, or HUC. 

Many of the students who signed the 2021 letter have been asked about their stance on Israel in interviews for post-graduation jobs. Some were forced to defend their choice to sign the letter. But there is also some self-selection involved — they may look for congregations with a more left-wing approach to Israel. “There were places that I chose not to apply to at least in part because of their Israel work, that I felt it was not nuanced enough and not tolerant enough of dissonance and diversity of opinion,” one HUC student with left-leaning politics on Israel told JI.  

Current rabbinical students, most of whom are in their 20s, have only known an Israel run by right-wing leaders. Benjamin Netanyahu has been prime minister since 2009, save for a year and a half from 2021 to 2022, making him Israel’s longest-serving leader. That can be hard to square with students’ progressive politics.

“Some people who are on the right have said that being pro-Israel means being pro-occupation, or being pro-Israel means being pro-every policy of the Netanyahu government, which is just ludicrous. It would be like saying, being pro-America means that you have to support every policy of whichever administration is in charge,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights groups. “I want to reclaim the term [pro-Israel].”

Like many progressive rabbinical students, Jacobs wants to see more focus on the Palestinians from within the U.S. Jewish community. But she does not see disengagement, or seeking an end to the Jewish state, as options. 

“At this point, there is a state. There’s 9 million people who are citizens of it. We’re not going back,” said Jacobs. “I think the question to ask for people who feel like they don’t want a connection to Israel, or they don’t feel connected to Israel: Half the world’s Jewish population lives there, and Jews are a people. What’s your connection to half the world’s Jewish population?”

There’s a core tension at the heart of many of these conversations — as Jews, how much do we emphasize the universal versus the particular? 

“I think if you have an obligation to our family and our people, which we do, we have to be concerned about how we keep our people safe in Israel, here and everywhere. But if we’re only concerned about the well-being of the Jewish people, and we don’t have that concern, then we’re missing a whole part of the Jewish tradition,” said Union of Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs.  “I think it may be that some of our younger rabbis and young rabbinic students are in that dynamic tension and land a bit more universal than particular.”

“I think that we understand that there’s a horrible human tragedy unfolding on the other side of the border. There’s no question about that,” said Rabbi Daniel Gordis, who lives in Israel and has for years argued that liberal seminaries, including his alma mater JTS, are not doing a good enough job of educating about Israel. “But we were attacked. And my instinct is, I care about the Jewish people first — not at the expense of, but first.” 

A famous teaching from Rabbi Hillel asks: If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?

“I think in the Jewish world, people are landing on one or two of those questions. Not as many of us are really wrestling with all of them,” said the Union of Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs. 

“I think if you have an obligation to our family and our people, which we do, we have to be concerned about how we keep our people safe in Israel, here and everywhere. But if we’re only concerned about the well-being of the Jewish people, and we don’t have that concern, then we’re missing a whole part of the Jewish tradition,” Jacobs continued. “I think it may be that some of our younger rabbis and young rabbinic students are in that dynamic tension and land a bit more universal than particular.”

For rabbis — people who devote years to studying in a seminary and then the rest of their lives to working in the service of the Jewish people — is there a special obligation to land more on the particular, to identify more closely with Jews who are under attack than others? 

Leading rabbis in the liberal Jewish movements say yes. A notable number of their successors are more ambivalent. 

“What has been taught in non-Orthodox synagogues over the last couple of decades has been an emphasis on tikkun olam, and appropriately so,” said Weinblatt, referring to the Jewish notion of “repairing the world,” the idea that animates many Jews involved in advocating for social justice causes. 

“That is a very critical, essential, important part — an integral part — of Judaism,” said Weinblatt. “But sometimes it’s been done to the exclusion of recognizing the other half of what Hillel had said, which is, if I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

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