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Talking About Israel During Wartime? Here’s One Reconstructionist Model

The front door of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Ill.
The front door of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Ill.

“My vision for the Reconstructionist movement includes committing and recommitting to communicating across differences with respect and humility, and with recognition that relationship is a path to holiness.” Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., president and CEO of Reconstructing Judaism, shared these words in a November 9 email, inviting people to attend the March for Israel at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where she and other Reconstructionist leaders attended as part of the “Peace Bloc.” 

(The Peace Bloc was comprised of numerous local, regional and national groups seeking to express their support for Israel’s security, their concern for Gazan civilian lives, and their desire for a two-state solution in the future.) 

In many congregations, well before Oct. 7, conversations about Israel were avoided like a third rail. Now, with the Israel-Hamas War raging, and with Jews traumatized and experiencing outsized emotions, constructive dialogue about the war — or the future of Israelis and Palestinians more broadly — seems beyond difficult.  

Members of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Ill. — one of the movement’s oldest congregations, and one where the conversation about Israel had long proved polarizing — have shown that such respectful engagement is possible, maybe even necessary.  

This was a chance to lean into belonging, and belonging in this moment means recognizing there is more than one perspective.

Rabbi Rachel Weiss

Over the past two months, the congregation has leaned into Reconstructionist values by emphasizing the community’s voice over the rabbi’s and embracing complexity and nuance. Following a process that lasted for about three weeks, entailing thousands of emails, two board meetings and feedback from more than 200 members, the congregation adopted a statement steeped in Jewish values, that declared “All parties must stop the killing to create the conditions for lasting peace.” 

For sure, the substance of the statement matters. Yet it was the process by which JRC arrived at its statement that demonstrates how a community can include multiple voices and attempt to tackle the most pressing moral challenges. 

“This was a chance to lean into belonging, and belonging in this moment means recognizing there is more than one perspective.  Holding the ‘and’ is an important value right now,” said Rabbi Rachel Weiss, JRC’s spiritual leader. “At JRC, you can come in and not know exactly what you think about Israel-Palestine, or feel very conflicted about what to believe, or have a definite opinion that is long-formed, or has developed over time, and still have a place here.  This is a place where you might not agree about the war, but where members who think and feel and act very differently than you do will still show up at your house to say kaddish with you when you’re sitting shivah. Where members will still create curriculum on Israel-Palestine to make sure your kids have the tools to learn for themselves and will still sit in a circle after Shabbat services with you and listen to you when you’re pouring out your grief, even if that grief comes from a different place than your own.” 

Standing in front of a synagogue ark at RRC's 2023 graduation: Rabbi Rachel Weiss with JRC congregants Sallie Gratch and Alan Gratch.
Rabbi Rachel Weiss (left) at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College's 2023 graduation with JRC congregants Sallie Gratch and Alan Gratch.

Reconstructing Judaism is a Zionist movement that supports a two-state solution, as well as safety and justice for Israelis and Palestinians. The organization champions dialogue and nuance and opens a wide tent to a range of perspectives. Reconstructing Judaism does not endorse or oppose any of the statements its individual member congregations have made regarding the current crisis, but its leaders are inspired by the Reconstructionist process JRC employed to create their statement. (Read Reconstructing Judaism’s statement here.) 

“It’s no secret that, in some Reconstructionist affiliates, there’s a wide degree of opinions and perspectives related to Israel, the Palestinians and Zionism,” said Rabbi Maurice Harris, Reconstructing Judaism’s Israel affairs specialist. “In many other affiliates, the issue is less contentious. We are a movement that encourages all affiliates to undergo values-driven processes to arrive at their shared positions on contemporary issues.” 

JRC’s statement expresses commitment to the Jewish people, upholds the dignity of every human, condemns the heinous act of terror by Hamas, calls for immediate release of hostages and asks for all parties to stop the killing to create the conditions for lasting peace. 

“As we grieve, our hearts are full of love and support for Israelis and Palestinians as they reel from both the Hamas attack and the military onslaught in Gaza. We also know that no true justice and accountability can take place during a war where so many innocent civilians are caught in the crossfire. Therefore, in order to protect the lives of Israeli and Palestinian civilians, we call for an immediate stop to the killing and for immediate release of all hostages,” the statement reads. 

We are a movement that encourages all affiliates to undergo values-driven processes to arrive at their shared positions on contemporary issues.

Rabbi Maurice Harris

That statement represented a consensus reached by Zionists, non-Zionists and anti-Zionists within the congregation. How did such a group come to a consensus on anything? 

According to Weiss, JRC has a complex history when it comes to engaging and talking with one another about Israel and Palestine.  From a painful parting with a previous rabbi, to deeply divided and heated conversations that left members in conflict with one another, JRC has long struggled to find ways to engage in robust discussion about Israel and has largely avoided it.  After Oct. 7, it seemed like it was now or never, said Weiss.  

“I approached our immediate past president, and we agreed that we have to find a way to talk about Israel,” said Weiss. “If it is a JRC value that we don’t want this congregation’s voice on Israel-Palestine to come from the rabbi, then we have to find a way for the congregational voice to speak now.” 

Quickly, the congregation formed an Israel-Palestine Working Group, representing the diversity of its membership including age, Jewish status, American and Israeli nationality, and Zionist, non-Zionist and anti-Zionist ideologies. Initially, it wasn’t at all clear the group would work on a statement, according to Abby Harris-Ridker, 32, and Sandy Spatz, 61, two members of the working group who were instrumental in shaping the process and outcome. Rather, the working group members began by naming what they could all agree upon. In fact, most members of the group were surprised at how much they had in common, they explained.  

“We all agree we love the Jewish people, and we believe in the future of Judaism. And I think that in our statement that is reflected,” said Harris-Ridker, a fifth-grade teacher who had attended the 2018 Reconstructing Judaism convention as part of the Shapiro Fellowship, and who grew up in the congregation. “I think this process has been so incredible. And I do want to share it with other people.” 

Abby Harris-Ridker (center) takes part in Reconstructing Judaism's 2018 Convention.

Another commonality was the members’ desire to speak with nuance and avoid simplistic formulations.  

 

The group — which was advised by Weiss but entirely lay-led — decided early that if it were to produce a statement, any statement would have to be adopted unanimously by the committee. It would also require board approval and congregational input. Spatz noted that, even as the committee labored over the document, the congregation served as a place for people to meet and process their feelings and emotions with weekly listening sessions. 

“People are craving to talk and just to be together. This is a very hard, dark time to be a Jew,” said Spatz, an actress and former congregation president. 

Three members of the group set to write a first draft, going back and forth among themselves before presenting it to all 12 members. More back-and-forth ensued, much of it over email.  

The group came up with a statement that didn’t solely reflect any of their personal positions, but each felt best encapsulated the consensus points for the committee. Through an open board meeting, gatherings on Shabbat, and email, the committee collected feedback from some 200 congregants. To no one’s surprise, congregants responded with plenty of comments. 

JRC congregants volunteering at a soup kitchen.
JRC members operate two Soup Kitchens in Evanston.

Originally, the statement called for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas War. Many of the congregants pushed back, and that specific language was replaced with a call on both Hamas and Israel to “stop the killing.” Spatz said that, in the end, she thinks it’s a stronger statement because of the back-and-forth. 

Now, the statement sits on the congregation’s homepage and has been sent to more than 200 members of the media. The group continues to meet and may work on a subsequent statement, although much of the work has shifted to programming suggested by congregants, and has included conversations on antisemitism, talking with kids, how non-Jews in the congregation are engaging in this moment, and the need for many to learn nuanced history from both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives. Harris-Ridker said she hopes to get the statement in front of influential lawmakers including U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky  (D-Ill.) and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) She also hopes other congregations — within the Reconstructionist movement and beyond — will follow suit and address difficult questions head-on. 

Weiss noted that the statement was released several weeks before the weeklong pause in fighting, during which time more than 100 hostages were released and humanitarian aid flowed more freely to thousands of displaced Palestinians.  

“Things looked more positive when the fighting stopped,” said Weiss. “And now that we’ve moved back into a phase where there’s much more killing and much more military action, it feels a whole lot scarier.  It is hard to hold on to hope, but being in a place where people are willing to be vulnerable, to learn from one another, to express their needs and to open our doors and keep the tent wide; that gives me hope.” 

 

Further Resources

The Reconstructionist Network