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On IKAR’s website, Israel is not in the lexicon

In comparison to Sharon Brous's community, other synagogues Websites give the Jewish state a starring role

Having found the exchange between Rabbis Daniel Gordis and Sharon Brous to be of interest, I devoted some time to an examination of IKAR’s website, as well as those of three nearby Los Angeles congregations: Temple Isaiah (Reform), Temple Beth Am (Conservative), and Beth Jacob Congregation (Modern Orthodox). My purpose was to ascertain the extent to which Israel is accorded significance, both in word and deed, as reflected by organizational documents and recent, current, and/or upcoming congregational activities.

A search of IKAR’s stylish website reveals that the word “Israel” appears nowhere in its community “Lexicon,” nor in its vision statement, its calendar of events, its news, or in the description of its Limudim (religious school) program “designed to connect IKAR’s children and families to Judaism and the world.” There are two Israeli literature podcasts included in IKAR’s “Adult Learning” offerings, and a description of IKAR’s “Global Partnership” program mentions equipping a Ugandan village with “Israeli solar technology.” IKAR’s homepage contains links to Rabbi Brous’s “Heartache” letter sent to her community during the military confrontation between Israel and Gaza, and to a Jewish Journal article commenting on the tiff involving rabbis Brous and Gordis.

By way of comparison,Temple Isaiah’s website features an “Israel Action” page describing the congregation’s history of involvement with Israel. One sees that a congregational trip to Israel was conducted this past summer; that an “Israel Roundtable” convenes the first Wednesday of each month; and that the theme of the congregation’s family education program for the current year is “Israel! Come and learn.” Temple Isaiah’s adult education offerings include a five session course, jointly conducted with Israel’s Shalom Hartman Institute, titled, “Engaging Israel: Jewish Values and the Dilemma of Nationhood.” The website contains a page of special readings in commemoration of Israel Independence Day, and provides information about (and an exhortation to take action in light of) the lack of state-recognized Jewish religious pluralism in Israel.

Temple Beth Am’s website contains a congregational mission statement that includes a pledge of commitment to the state of Israel. Its “What Conservative Jews Believe” page posits that “the state of Israel and the Hebrew language are essential elements of Jewish Peoplehood.” A description of the congregation’s schools reiterates the goal of instilling a sense of commitment to the state of Israel. Its day school, Pressman Academy, pioneered what has become a longstanding relationship with the Magen School in Israel, via participation in the L.A.- Tel Aviv Partnership. There’s a page describing the activities of the congregation’s “Israel Committee,” and the website contains links to Israel-centered English language sources of news and commentary, as well as to texts and resources focusing on Israel.

Congregation Beth Jacob’s scholar in residence this past weekend was former Jerusalem Post editor in chief, Bret Stephens. The congregation is currently conducting an “Israel-Kiryat Malachi Appeal.” Last May, former Israeli Ambassador Yehuda Avner, author of The Prime Ministers, addressed the congregation as part of its observance of Yom Yerushalayim. There are links to photos of the congregation’s Israel Independence Day celebrations, and a “Response to Israeli Boycott” link. Notably, all of the preceding information appears on the website’s homepage. Elsewhere, there is mention of a “Friends of Israel” committee, as well as information about AIPAC’s 2013 Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. Although the congregation doesn’t operate schools, multi-level Hebrew classes, including conversational Hebrew, are provided for adults. Beth Jacob’s mission statement declares: “We promote support for the State of Israel, its institutions and its people.”

While websites neither capture nor communicate the full breadth and depth of any organization’s ethos and actions, they serve as a public face, and permit various inferences concerning what is and what is not central to an entity’s purposes. An examination of the four websites mentioned above suggests that when it comes to the significance accorded the state of Israel, the distinction between IKAR and the other three congregations is not merely one of magnitude, but categorical. In the institutional life of the other three congregations,Israel’s place can be said to occupy varying positions of centrality, while in the case of IKAR it appears to be beyond-peripheral.

I do not know Rabbi Brous, though I know of her as a brilliant and charismatic spiritual leader who has birthed and nourished a vibrant community of engaged Jews. I have no reason to doubt her personal commitment to Israel, and I join Rabbi Gordis in utterly deploring anyone who has abused or threatened her. I admit that my examination of IKAR’s website stopped short of reading any sermonic material, and that it could well be the case that IKAR’s clergy make Israel a focal point of teaching and leading from the pulpit. If, however, that should be the case, one can only wonder why there appears to be so little corresponding Israel-related congregational activity. (It may, of course, also be the case that I simply missed certain material.)

While I do not call Rabbi Brous’s commitment to Israel into question, I find myself at a loss to explain how her personal attachment to and concern for the state of Israel is reflected in the life of the community she leads. The answer might be obvious to members of IKAR, but to a naive outsider such as myself it is puzzling. Much of Rabbi Brous’s response to Rabbi Gordis’s article takes the form of a plaintive, “I thought you knew me better” narrative. But what of the majority of readers, myself included, whose knowledge of Rabbi Brous derives largely from what can be learned about the institution she has shaped and which she leads? I respectfully hope she will consider why an examination of her community’s website supports the view that its leader subordinates particularistic Jewish attachment to and support for the State of Israel to universal ideals and concerns.


About the Author
Ron Reynolds is executive director of the California Association of Private School Organizations, an umbrella organization representing some 1,300 private schools and 400,000 private school students. Ron studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and lived on a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley during the "War of Attrition" in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He holds a Ph.D. in Comparative and International Education from UCLA, and lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Miriam. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own and do not represent the position of CAPSO.