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Why Synagogues Should Be Out Front on Israel

October 23, 2013 By:
Rabbi Eric Yanoff
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A recent survey by the Jewish council for public affairs found that many Jewish religious leaders are reticent to express their views about Israel and bring Israel-related topics to the attention or programmatic focus of their institutions. Ironically, on Oct. 9, one day after this survey was released, I humbly accepted the Zionist Organization of America’s “Guardian of Israel” award. But this recognition was less about personal achievement — and more about what our Adath Israel community does to foster a broader sense of Israel advocacy at our synagogue.

Little did we know that our efforts would grow 10-fold in just three years. But in that short time, I have come to learn from our volunteers that supporting Israel makes sense for synagogues. It should be one of our central purposes, for the following three reasons:

Supporting Israel as a synagogue is the right thing to do.

Given the historical claim of the Jewish people to the Jewish homeland, it is a part of our narrative. As a people, we have a story. As a synagogue, we are — and should be — an ideologically-driven community. This means that we are not bound by the relativistic principle that “all viewpoints are equally valid.” We have a narrative. We have a history. We have a purpose and a vision for this world, and for our valid, enduring place in this world. But how proud are we of our story?

I ask our high school kids this all the time — and we all need to ask ourselves this: How well do we know our story as a people — and how far would we go to share and even defend our version of the narrative? How proud are we of the story that defines who we are?

Knowledge of our Jewish story — that is an educational question. But pride in our Jewish story — that is a kishkes question, which cuts to the core of who we are, and how we see ourselves, our Jewish self-esteem. We need to feel part of something big, and timeless —to own that story.

Supporting Israel as a synagogue is good for Israel.

Given the need to advocate for a small but miraculous country whose security and stature in the world is far from assured, whose demonization and singling out barely raises an eyebrow, we cannot overestimate the effect that our support has. Also, we cannot overestimate the effect that our tacit or overt acceptance of those who seek Israel’s destruction does to “give license” to their hateful speech and actions. People hear our voices, but those who are “on the fence” or less aware of the issues hear even more clearly our silence in the face of antagonism toward Israel.

For this reason, I was most proud to be in the company of State Sen. Anthony Williams, who in accepting his ZOA award, proudly expressed his friendship and admiration of the state of Israel, despite pressure against him from Israel’s antagonists. Indeed, it was Sen. Williams who reminds those in the Jewish community who may express ambivalence or enmity toward our homeland, “There is a state of Israel, not just because Jews wanted it, but because the world demanded it.” Israel needs friends like this — and if Jewish communal institutions do not support her basic right to exist and thrive — even through policy disagreements that exist in any open society — then we can hardly expect the world at-large to do so.

These first two reasons should be enough of a rationale for synagogues’ support of the Jewish state. But the third reason was one that, initially, I did not anticipate.

Supporting Israel as a synagogue is good for the synagogue.

Showing support for Israel has been good for us as a community. It strength­ens us; it fosters pride and it gives people a strong sense of “belonging.” We stand for something — for a narrative, a hope, a belief that has driven the Jewish imagination for millennia. It is at the core of our being; it is the backbone of who we seek to become, a catalyst for building a more perfect world.

This energizes us as a synagogue — and absent the hope and efforts for a peaceful and secure Israel, we would have little left in our story. Think of the Torah. In the Book of Genesis, God tells Abraham “Lech l’cha — Go forth, to a land that I will show you”; without Israel, Abraham has no destination, no purpose. He has no reluctance to leave that land when famine forces him to do so.

In Exodus, the point of leaving Egypt is that there is a land where our people can be safe from persecution. In Leviticus, most of the laws are predicated on there being a land of Israel, with Jerusalem at its core. In Numbers, we wander in search of a land, on whose border we encamp, with great anticipation, for the entire book of Deuteronomy. Israel is at the core of our story — and the story would be much shorter — and much emptier — without this core.

This story enlivens our synagogue’s Jewish life. It is a privilege to be a part of a community that proudly tells the narrative — because it is good for the modern, miraculous Jewish state of Israel; because it is enriching for us in our own synagogue community; and because it is, simply, the right thing to do.

Rabbi Eric Yanoff is religious leader of Adath Israel in Merion Station.

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