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My friend Naftali is now Israel’s prime minister

We met when the Bennetts came to services at Manhattan's KJ congregation and discovered a Judaism that, like Avraham’s tent, is open to all
Elie Weinstock with Naftali Bennett at AIPAC Policy Conference 2017
Elie Weinstock with Naftali Bennett at AIPAC Policy Conference 2017

It is surreal to watch Naftali Bennett address the Knesset and be sworn in as Israel’s 13th prime minister.

It’s surreal since Israel’s new “change government” is an unlikely – and unprecedented – coalition of very diverse parties spanning the spectrum of ideology, personality, and even religion. It’s also surreal since I know Naftali Bennett well and am seeing a one-time congregant, Shabbat guest, and friend ascend to the leadership of the country we love – and where our daughter currently serves in the IDF.

It’s a story Naftali often tells audiences when visiting the US. About 18 years ago, he and his wife, Gilat, were living in New York when he was working with his hi-tech company. While he grew up religious, Gilat grew up secular and had not connected with tradition in Israel. One day, they saw a sign advertising the Beginners Service at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ) on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. They walked into a small classroom on the third floor, tried it out, and kept coming back for several years.

As rabbi of the service, I had a chance to worship and study with them, as well as host them in our home for Shabbat. As Naftali describes their experience: “We had to leave Israel and travel to New York for Gilat, my secular wife, to grow closer to Judaism. It was an open house Judaism, where nobody measured your sleeves or asked how you got to shul. They were just glad you came. It was like Avraham’s open tent. That’s the type of Judaism we need more of in Israel.”

I am proud to have played a role in the Bennetts’ Jewish journey. I am also encouraged that Naftali Bennett will bring his appreciation for such a Judaism to the Prime Minister’s Office. In addition to the fact that the coalition includes parties who have a greater appreciation for the diversity of Diaspora Jews, the new prime minister specifically mentioned improving kosher supervision to strengthen the public’s faith in the system. As far back as 2013, Naftali Bennett opened an officially sanctioned egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, the Azarat Yisrael. Admittedly, the process (like many such attempts in Israel) did not make everyone happy, but it demonstrates Naftali’s creativity, pragmatism, and commitment to working with all Jews as partners. He is a “k’lal Yisrael” Jew, one who appreciates the value of each Jew and their unique connection with Judaism.

I realize that there is a lot more to being Israel’s prime minister than having an appreciation for other Jews. Naftali Bennett is head of a right-wing party, and his views on a host of issues are very different than many American Jews. In Israel, he faces right-wing criticism for sitting in a government with ideological opponents, and he has been unfairly accused of blasphemy with calls to take off his yarmulke. Such harsh language is unfortunately par for the course in Israel. I am optimistic, though, that the new government will provide a very different approach to issues that are important to Israelis as well as Diaspora Jews.

On Sunday, the world witnessed Israeli democracy in action. It was loud, unruly, and not as smooth as many of us are used to. At the same time, something truly revolutionary took place. We have a government spanning the gamut of left to right. There is a government with an Arab party as part of the coalition. There is a government in which the head of the largest party allowed the head of a smaller party to become prime minister. For the first time, the prime minister is a kippa-wearing, Religious-Zionist, observant and tolerant Jew who knows firsthand the issues facing Diaspora Jewry. I know that the road ahead is not an easy one, but right now I am proud of Israel and thrilled for my friend.

You never know who may be sitting around your Shabbat table. It may be the next prime minister of Israel…

About the Author
Rabbi Elie Weinstock is Senior Rabbi of the Jewish Center of Atlantic Beach in Long Island. A believer in a Judaism that is accessible to all, he prefers "Just Judaism" to any denominational label.
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