“I really believe that there is a genuine middle,” said Rabbi Ronne Friedman, Temple Israel’s senior rabbi. “It’s a middle that wants to hear, and more than it wants to hear it also wants the disputation to be thoughtful and civil.”
But Friedman and Morrison said the real challenge for Temple Israel was to combat apathy and disengagement, to deepen the congregation’s understanding of Israel, its people and its politics.
Each year has had a theme: Last year’s was Jerusalem, and civil discourse itself; this year is democracy and nation building; next year’s will be Israel and its neighbors in the modern Middle East. The congregation has hosted a wide range of prominent speakers, including, during the conflict with Gaza in November, Daniel Kurtzer, the former ambassador to Egypt, and, previously, to Israel.
The synagogue is now in the midst of hosting a series of advocacy groups with different perspectives; Ben-Ami of J Street came last month, this month, a speaker from American Israel Public Affairs Committee will address the congregation.
The intensive adult education course, called iEngage, drew about 30 people, and involved extensive reading and online video coursework as well as a two-hour weekly discussion led by Morrison and Friedman. The curriculum explored
Mitchell Shames, one of the participants, said that although the class included just a small fraction of Temple Israel’s congregation, XXX, it gave participants a common language and framework to continue the discussion.
“These are very complicated issues,” he said. “People have complicated histories and backgrounds. The change comes in an evolutionary way.”
Ed Murad, a 78-year-old member of the congregation, is a native of Iraq who vividly recalls hiding in the basement of his Baghdad apartment building with his family as a teenager while pogroms raged in the streets outside. His family eventually sought refuge in the U.S., but dozens of his first cousins fled to Israel and remain there with their family today.
He knows that many in the congregation don’t feel the same closeness to Israel that he does, and that some are sharply critical of the government’s treatment of the Palestinians. But he says the conversations this year have been productive.
“I feel we can talk to each other,” he said.
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.