Rabbi Steven Schwartz said he speaks about Israel all the time — in the context of his sermons, in his adult education classes, in Torah study sessions.
“I don’t know how you cannot,” he said.
But it appears that Rabbi Schwartz — and many of Baltimore’s local rabbis who responded to the question, “To what extent (if at all) do you repress publicly expressing your privately held views on Israel?” — is not in line with a recent study that was published by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. According to that study, “Reluctant or Repressed: Aversion to Expressing Views on Israel Among American Rabbis,” about one-third of rabbis surveyed testified restraint, reluctance or repression of their true views. Over 18 percent say that their private views are more “dovish” than those expressed publicly. And just over 12 percent said that they are “closet hawks.”
In addition, JCPA reported, about 39 percent sometimes or often “avoid expressing your true feelings about Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians for fear of offending your listeners or those around you.” Almost half reported that in the last three years, they have refrained from publicly voicing their views on Israel.
Rabbi Andrew Busch of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation said he “could not understand the question” when, where and to whom do you talk about Israel? His answer, like that of Rabbi Schwartz: “I talk about Israel in many settings.”
And Rabbi Busch is not afraid to voice his opinion. While he noted the importance for a rabbi to be thoughtful in what he or she says regardless of the subject, noting that every rabbi “risks being taken out of context or [risks] a partial statement being taken as a full statement … I don’t feel that I avoid saying things.”
Why not? “I am trying to encourage thought and open thinking among those who are listening,” he said.
A lot of this has to do with the reputation, history and understanding the community has about the rabbi, explained Rabbi Schwartz. He told the JT that his congregants know that when he speaks about Israel, the dialogue starts from a place of love of Israel. And he describes his own policies as neither right nor left, but rather focused on what he thinks is best for the Jewish state.
For example, said Rabbi Schwartz, while he supports Israel’s erecting of the security fence along its border, he is opposed to additional homes being built in communities over the green line.
Rabbi Schwartz recalled that 10 years ago he noted during a sermon that Israel should “get out of Gaza and the West Bank. That, at the time, was not something people were saying publicly.”
Rabbi Schwartz said it caused tremendous uproar in the community — and even nationally. The Baltimore Zionist District asked to meet with him.
“This was an intense reaction. But at the end of the day, a few weeks went by, and it was all done,” he said.
Rabbi Craig Axler of Temple Isaiah in Fulton said he tries to engage his constituents in dialogue about Israel, trying to ensure they understand that Israel is like a family member, and the common denominator has to be “care and love for the State of Israel and the shared desire to see her safe, secure and successful.”
He continued, “I think that silence from rabbinical leaders on Israel is simply unacceptable.”
Except when it’s OK, according to Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro. The head of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah, Rabbi Shapiro said he thinks rabbis should be supportive of Israel and that “you have to have a lot of relationship currency in order to express controversial views. You risk destroying your relationships with members who may vehemently disagree. It is important to walk a fine line and to do it gradually.”
Why does Rabbi Shapiro think a rabbi might be fearful of expressing his or her views on the Jewish state?
“He doesn’t want to be seen as a traitor or as naive,” he said.
Noted Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen of the Chabad Center in Owings Mills: “Discussing Israel is not considered discussing politics. I do not discuss politics. But I will discuss and defend Israel from the podium and in public.”
To read the full Jewish Council for Public Affairs survey, “Reluctant or Repressed: Aversion to Expressing Views on Israel Among American Rabbis,” visit jewishpublicaffairs.org.
Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief — firstname.lastname@example.org