BROOKLINE – Several years ago, the clergy of Temple Israel, New England’s largest Reform congregation, began to notice something unsettling. Israel had become a third rail in the synagogue – if people were paying attention to it at all.
Some congregants hesitated to bring up such an emotional and divisive topic. Others knew little about Israel and its complex political situation, or felt frustrated by it, so they avoided the subject. This self-perpetuating cycle of disconnection concerned the rabbis most.
So they decided to talk about Israel. Not for a night, or a weekend, or a month — for three years. The conversation would involve classes, lectures, congregation-wide discussions, even a clergy-led trip to Israel.
“Our goal is not actually to create staunch supporters (of Israel), it’s really to move the dial on apathy,’’ said Rabbi Jeremy Morrison, who oversees adult education at the synagogue. “I’m hopeful that more and more people will be able to talk about these issues in ways that are more productive.’’
Temple Israel is not alone in its effort to get serious about improving the dialogue about Israel within its congregation. The synagogue is one of a dozen in Greater Boston offering an intensive adult education course on the political and moral quandaries facing Israel developed by the Shalom Hartman Institute, a pluralistic research and education center that focuses on Israel and Judaism worldwide. Combined Jewish Philanthropies, which is helping to sponsor the course, says that interest is so high that a number of synagogues have started waiting lists.
And at Brandeis University, students dismayed with the animosity among Israel-related organizations on campus recently started Brandeis Visions for Israel in an Evolving World, or bVIEW, which has gained an enthusiastic early following for its inventive approach to improving the conversation. A recent panel discussion featured the usual representation from left, right and center groups; the twist was that all the questions and answers had to be future-oriented.
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis, said he fears the stabilizing presence of the moderate middle has diminished in the Jewish community, just as it has in other spheres.
“I think that there is a concern that, just as America has polarized and found it difficult to see left and right talk to one another — witness what we’ve just seen on Capitol Hill — so in Jewish life, the left and the right have trouble talking to one another,’’ he said.
The tension – and, for some on the left, disaffection — has only increased as Israel’s government has moved to the right. As a story in the Christian Science Monitor noted in November, 70 percent Jewish voters in the U.S. backed Barack Obama, according to exit polls, but surveys found that Israeli voters would have supported Romney by a 2-to-1 margin.
“There is clearly a huge chasm between their views on what policies Israel should take and the views of the (Israeli) government,’’ Sarna said.
Meanwhile, the rise of Hamas in the Palestinian territories – the U.S. considers it a terrorist organization – has created further challenges to a peace settlement.
In November, when the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta cancelled a talk by Peter Beinart, the left-of-center author of “The Crisis in Zionism,’’ a frequent critic of Beinart’s, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, wrote in the Tablet: “Have the People of the Book really become so uninterested in thinking?’’ he lamented in an article in the Tablet.
(Shortly thereafter, Gordis himself was widely disparaged for harshly criticizing a rabbinical colleague and former student for urging Israelis to empathize with Palestinian suffering, even as she defended Israel’s right to self-defense.)
Closer to home, an appearance by J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami at a Newton synagogue was cancelled in 2010 after some members complained. And last year, at another Newton synagogue, members of Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine screaming “Israel is an apartheid state’’ and other slogans were ejected from an event featuring five members of the Israeli Knesset.
Temple Israel had had some experience with that kind of eruption; within the last decade or so, the synagogue hosted two public events related to Israel that soured when non-members in the audience became hostile.
So the congregation took special care to set a respectful tone as it opened its three year project, “Israel and Us.’’ They began with three open congregation-wide discussions, the first of which established ground rules — for example, opinions that denied either the dignity of the Palestinians or Israel’s right to exist were not welcome.
“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.