From Our CEO
A Call for Jewish Leadership
March 24th, 2023

The head of an Orthodox high school. A Hillel CUNY college rabbi. Two Sephardic rabbis. Women rabbis. Conservative and reform rabbis. A renewal rabbi. Though they live and work within miles of one another (sometimes just blocks), many had never met before. Surprising and also not surprising given the often-siloed world of Jewish New York. But the walls came down last week when, at the invitation of UJA and with thanks to funding from the Paul E. Singer Foundation, these rabbis traveled together to Israel — 24 rabbis in all.

Why had we brought them together?

Because for months now (as I’ve written previously, here and here), many have been consumed with the situation in Israel. We’re anxiously wading through news coverage about the government's proposed judicial legislation, wondering what will unfold, how it will shape Israeli society and by extension, Israel-diaspora relations. We’ve seen the massive protests, read the pundits, and wrung our hands. Next week, Knesset is expected to vote on — and pass — a provision around the selection of judges, the first of a series of judicial reforms that would alter the democratic character of Israel.

In the context of this highly fraught moment, we wanted to give the rabbis, and by extension their constituents and congregants, access to information, nuance about the issues at stake, and a platform to share their concerns.

Over three and a half days, the rabbis met with representatives from the governing coalition, including MK Simcha Rothman, one of the principal architects of the proposed reforms, as well as leaders of the opposition. They heard from protestors and non-protestors. They heard from journalists from left-leaning publications and right-leaning publications, public intellectuals, and Israeli rabbinic colleagues. They met with the leaders of NGOs long supported by UJA, who are working to bridge societal divides and advance religious pluralism.

There was a newfound understanding for many of the rabbis of the decades-long sense of hurt and exclusion that’s spurring the governing coalition, particularly Mizrahi and Haredi Israelis who had been passed over for judicial appointments by what they perceive as the “secular elite.” The rabbis also learned that many have felt marginalized since the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. It became clear that behind the politics, there are real human emotions at play. As one of the Israeli presenters memorably told the rabbis, what today is one person’s dream is another person’s nightmare.

Other speakers described this moment as a reckoning, long overdue, about the nature of equality and democracy in Israel.

The rabbis’ presence was itself a statement to Israel’s leadership — this is what civility and compromise can look like. We can live as different types of Jews. We can have fundamental disagreements even about our most personal values — and, yes, we can find common shared experience: a love for Israel is this unshakable common ground.

And now, with a vote on the horizon and even larger protests expected, we wait for what comes next — including the very painful possibility of a potential breach between Knesset and the Supreme Court, with the army and/or police deciding who’s in control.

I find inspiration — and a vital call to action — in a d’var Torah from this week’s parsha Vayikra, written by the renowned Jewish thinker Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who passed away in 2020.

Vayikra is about rituals performed in the Tabernacle, including offerings to God to atone for unintentional mistakes or errors. Rabbi Sacks notes the distinctly different language used in the Bible between offerings made by individuals versus leaders, noting that individuals bring an offering “IF” (im) they make a mistake. Leaders, on the other hand, bring offerings “WHEN” (asher) they make mistakes.

Rabbi Sacks’ point is that leaders in a free society will invariably have errors in judgement. "The politics of free societies is always conflict-ridden. The only societies where there is no conflict are tyrannical or totalitarian ones in which dissenting voices are suppressed — and Judaism is a standing protest against tyranny.” He concludes: “The Jewish approach to leadership is thus an unusual combination of realism and idealism — realism in its acknowledgement that leaders inevitably make mistakes, idealism in its constant subordination of politics to ethics, power to responsibility, pragmatism to the demands of conscience."

Rabbi Sacks’ words resonate particularly powerfully in this moment, as history books may well write of this next week as one of the most consequential in Israel’s almost 75 years.

Constitutional crisis need not be inevitable. With strength and humility, Israel’s leaders — the government and the opposition — must subordinate politics and responsibly find a path to compromise.

Shabbat shalom