The Baltimore Jewish Council held its annual meeting Thursday, June 13, at Chizuk Amuno Congregation. Israel at 65: Rabbis Reflect featured an intellectual and honest panel discussion by three of Baltimore’s rabbinical leaders: Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El Congregation, Rabbi Ron Shulman of Chizuk Amuno Congregation and Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation.
The discussion was moderated by Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
It didn’t take long for the rabbis to get down to business.
Rabbi Wohlberg marked the internal friction, both politically and socially, between the secular and religious in Israel as an issue of paramount concern.
“The Haredim are growing constantly; in two generations the majority of Israel’s [Haredim] will not be working, will not be serving in the army and will not be taught science and mathematics in school. This does not represent a bright future for the ‘Start-up Nation,’” he said.
Rabbi Shulman seconded Rabbi Wohlberg’s concern. He noted that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu chose not to include the ultra-Orthodox parties in his government coalition. Shulman said, “Pluralism cannot be a political issue or a political accomplishment. It must be a social accomplishment.”
While the internal social and political challenges took center stage, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and actions by the Israeli government concerning the seemingly frozen peace process, was also a subject of a steamy debate between the three rabbis, each with very different perspectives.
Rabbi Schwartz implored the crowd and Israel to “always be on our guard so that there is never a second class of citizens in Israel.”
Rabbi Shulman, challenged attendees with a contextual question: “In our lifetime, where else have Jews been a majority population?” (To this, Rabbi Wohlberg said with a chuckle, “Pikesville.”)
“Being the majority,” Rabbi Shulman explained, “comes with the obligation to treat the minority well. Our history of being a minority should challenge us to treat them well.”
Rabbi Wohlberg urged the attendees and the community at large not to “paint ourselves too vague a picture. If Arabs are not living as well as Israelis, they are still living better than they would be doing in any Arab country.”
On the topic of the construction of settlements in the West Bank, Rabbi Wohlberg and Rabbi Schwartz openly disagreed. Rabbi Schwartz said, “Minimally, settlement building is not good for the peace process. Why complicate it by building in what will probably be a Palestinian state in the future.”
Rabbi Wohlberg’s rebuttal was short: “I believe Jews have the right to settle any place in the land of Israel.”
Then Rabbi Wohlberg made clear what he considers to be the real impediment to peace.
“As long as children are taught in school that Jews are monkeys, that Israel does not exist on a map, and [as long as Palestinians] continues to applaud so called martyrs, there will not be peace.”
The rest of the evening was debate and discussion surrounding Israel’s other security and political challenges and to what degree American Jewry should play a role in the Jewish state.
At the end, Rabbi Shulman pulled the talk together with one statement on which all the rabbis agreed:
“I would not trade who we are for anything. The Zionist dream was to create a state with the troubles and triumphs. And, as we see today, we have troubles and then some. But I would not trade it for the world,” he said.
The evening also honored Sen. Ed DeGrange and State Delegate Sandy Rosenberg for their tireless pursuit and success in securing and increasing funds for non-public schools throughout Maryland. The senator and delegate were personally thanked by two female students from Bnos Yisroel of Baltimore, whose education has been enhanced by the state funding.
Justin Hayet is a JT intern firstname.lastname@example.org