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Once a Holdout, K.I. Now Stands Behind the Jewish State

September 15, 2005 By:
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The American and Israeli flags make for a ubiquitous pairing inside Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, adorning the Elkins Park synagogue's sanctuary bimah, chapel, library and classrooms like a couple that had seemingly been together forever.

But just two years ago, Israeli flags were in short supply within the building - an omission that seemed less representative of 2003 than of the 1940s, when American Jews were bitterly divided over whether or not the push to establish a Jewish state was really a good thing.

Back then, Keneseth Israel was synonymous with the American Council for Judaism, an outspoken Philadelphia-based group that opposed the idea of Zionism and counted the synagogue's rabbi, William Fineshriber, as one of its most prominent members.

But those days are long gone, and today's congregants, along with current religious leader Rabbi Lance Sussman, say that the ease with which the Israeli blue-and-white was introduced to the sanctuary two summers ago illustrated just how far Keneseth Israel - and Reform Judaism - has come regarding its support for the Jewish state.

"When I first arrived here, there was only an American flag on the bimah. I felt there should be both," said Sussman, who's served as senior rabbi since 2001. "I encountered very little resistance; it was really no longer an issue. The vote was 53-6, and for most of those who voted against, it was a matter of, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' "

In the fall of 2003, Sussman pushed for the establishment of the congregation's first permanent Israel Committee dedicated to increasing members' identification with their homeland.

To that end, the new group held its first event in the fall of 2004, featuring a talk by Jewish Exponent executive editor Jonathan Tobin. Now, it's teaming up with Old York Road Temple- Beth Am's Israel Advocacy Committee - a committee with a longer history and far more experience in planning events - for a Sept. 18 program called "Jewish Americans & Israel - Making the Connection."

During that event - which will start at 8:45 a.m. at Keneseth Israel - Mitchell Bard, executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, and Roz Rothstein, national director of StandWithUs, a pro-Israel organization, will speak about contributions the Jewish state has made in terms of science, medicine, technology and culture. The event is funded in part by the Kehillah of Old York Road, a project of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

Why Change Now?
But the question remains: Why did the congregation make these changes so late, when the Reform movement officially endorsed Zionism and the idea of a Jewish homeland back in 1937?

"We were a holdout," admitted Deenie Silow, who sits on the committee. "Look at the history of K.I. - we had services on Sunday at one point."

The history Silow referred to is that of classical American Reform Judaism, a philosophy formulated by German Jewish immigrants in the latter half of the 19th century that downplayed Jewish peoplehood or nationality, and stressed sole allegiance to the United States. Because of this interpretation, some Reform leaders opposed the idea of a Jewish homeland during the early days of political Zionism.

"Sometimes, things become ingrained into a congregation or a community," said Gary P. Zola, director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. "Because it had so much importance to one of its leaders, or its history, it can be very hard to give up."

As an example, he cited a small but vocal number of congregations that refused to switch when the movement adopted a new prayerbook in 1976, utilizing more Hebrew and more contemporary English.

Both Sussman and Zola said it would be a mistake to believe that the recent lack of an Israel group or flag on the bimah represented a lack of commitment on the part of the congregation to the Jewish state. In fact, they noted that numerous Israel-centered programs took place well before Sussman's arrival - including tours of the Jewish state - but that a cohesive approach had simply not been adopted.

For her part, Silow said it was continued Palestinian violence directed at Israelis - and how media coverage of those events negatively affected many Americans' perceptions of Israel - that inspired a core group of congregants to dedicate themselves to Israel advocacy. The task has become even more important in light of last month's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, with the world's spotlight remaining on tiny Israel.

"You always feel like you're fighting an uphill battle," said Silow, who then stressed why more cooperation between synagogues is needed: "Let's face it, Beth Am and K.I. are competing for the same limited pool for potential members. It's unusual for them to work formally together. But I think there should be more of it."

To register for the event, call 215-887-8700.

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