Jewish National Fund-USA recently sat down with Sinai Temple’s Rabbi Erez Sherman to discuss an innovative new initiative that’s bringing up-and-coming rabbinical students from across the affiliation spectrum together over a topic they can all discuss—Israel—and with it come some unexpected results.
Q: With support from Jewish National Fund-USA’s Boruchin Center, you recently created Sinai Temple’s Israel Fellowship, which brings rabbinical students from the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements together for conversations about Zionism and Israel. What was the catalyst or your “aha” moment behind the initiative’s creation?
A: My ‘aha’ moment happened in 2019 when I participated in the AIPAC Leffell Israel Fellowship, a program that brings rabbinical students together to explore the nuances of the U.S.-Israel relationship. The year-long program brings fellows to Israel for a week of dialogue and exploration with regional stakeholders. My main takeaway from the experience was that “Israel is complicated.”’ And when you understand that it’s complicated, you can see “the other” regarding the situation on the ground. During the trip, I also became friendly with people I may not have agreed with, however, I would never have had the opportunity if not for the trip.
Q: It sounds like you had a great experience.
A: I did. The interseminary dialogue was fantastic; however, I kept asking myself, “What was their Israel education before the trip? Who were their sources? When did their Israel narrative begin? Was it in 1948? 1967? Or 70 C.E.? Because it shapes where the conversation goes. My second “aha” moment occurred when I saw the letter from 100 rabbinical students that was highly critical of Israel. While criticism is fine, you can’t deny Israel’s legitimacy or right to exist.
Q: So there was a confluence of factors that led to the Fellowship’s creation?
A: Correct. We asked: “What can be done?” At Sinai Temple, we don’t tell people what to think. We present them with the information and empower them to have informed discussions.
When Jewish National Fund-USA’s Boruchin Center provided the seed funding, in addition to funding from the Lisa and Michael Leffell Foundation, the Paul E. Singer Foundation and an anonymous foundation, we set out to create a platform that created dialogue throughout rabbinical seminaries so when issues come up, people don’t have to just “tweet” soundbites; they can come back to their cohort and discuss the issues with their peers. They can feel confident and have a voice in the conversation.
Q: From your experiences, do most rabbinical courses incorporate classes about Zionism and Israel into their curricula?
A: The word “Zionism” has become a loaded word with negative connotations for some. And that’s exactly why we’re focusing on it. Let’s talk about what it meant to Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion. When I started “knocking” on rabbinical school doors to discuss the Fellowship, I thought I’d be shut down. However, they were actually interested and welcomed the opportunity to engage.
To be sure, there are curricula that incorporate Israel education; however, many aren’t able to give students the necessary time to unpack the issues, and that’s what we’re providing. Do we really take the time to say, “What was the Balfour Declaration?” instead of just knowing that it exists. … We get to unpack things on a deeper level. We know that “tomorrow,” there will be a situation that will require us to be together on a topic. And with our forum, we can get to a point where we can stand together and find common ground.
Q: What would entice students from different Jewish streams to learn together?
A: In interviewing dozens of students for the fellowship, people spoke beyond the denominational lines. As you mentioned, people asked, “Why would they sit together?” The answer? Because we might not be able to talk about kosher, Shabbat, halachah (Jewish law), but we can talk about Israel. It has been a beautiful thing to see yeshivah students and those from other institutions come together. There are also participants who’ve studied in Israel, but they haven’t studied about Israel.
Q: Is there any prerequisite for students to have previous experience with Israel?
A: Not at all. In fact, for some non-Orthodox students, this may be their first interaction with Israel.
Q: Is it enough to learn about Israel via webinars and classes, or do people need to see it for themselves?
A: Sometimes, we forget that Zoom webinars weren’t as prolific just four years ago as they are today. Nothing can replace being there in person and walking through the Knesset to observe the discourse.
Following the pandemic, many rabbinical schools have adapted their programs … and some are reducing or taking out the “travel to Israel” component. So, we are not only offering that missing experience, but we are also providing a forum for students from different streams of Judaism to hear about each other’s “why,” appreciating that it may, and often does, conflict with their practices. Yet they now have a relationship that wouldn’t have existed without our fellowship.
As for me, I was lucky enough to travel with my parents (who were also rabbis) to Israel throughout my formative school years, so I received my “Israel education” on the ground, experiencing our homeland’s history at heritage sites like Jewish National Fund-USA’s Atlit Detention Camp.
Q: Does Sinai Temple have plans to bring congregants to Israel?
A: Yes! In partnership with Jewish National Fund-USA’s Synagogue Tours to Israel, we have a Family Mission going on July 31. We also provide opportunities for congregants celebrating their b’nai mitzvot to mark the occasion with our temple in Israel.
We also have a day school, and our eighth-graders are currently in Israel. And even though these kids have been together for nine years as a cohort, they still come back as changed people with lifelong bonds from the trip. And many of our alumni who go on to study at the Milken Community School return to Israel as part of a semester abroad experience at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel.
Q: As a Jewish National Fund-USA Rabbi for Israel and someone who is closing in on two decades in the rabbinical field, what is your message to other congregational rabbis who are looking for new ways to connect with their congregants?
A: I think of the line before the Shema … that you should bring peace from all corners of the earth, a concept also represented through our tallit … and there’s only one place where that happens: Israel. Yes, there are complications; however, we can either be part of the noise or part of the solution where we bring constructive conversations to the marketplace of ideas—something that will be progressed through Jewish National Fund-USA’s World Zionist Village. You have to be part of the conversation to have a stake in the future.
What’s represented through Jewish National Fund-USA’s Boruchin Center, like our other incredible partners in the Lisa and Michael Leffell Foundation, the Paul E. Singer Foundation and an anonymous Foundation, is that you have four major foundations all saying that talking constructively about Israel and Zionism should be a must for future rabbis because when they go into their schools, communities and synagogues, they’re talking about something that we can all relate to as members of the Jewish people. As rabbis, we don’t speak about (Mike) Pence or (Nancy) Pelosi; rather, we inspire through Moses and Maimonides. And if they connect you to Israel, that’s great. However, we’re just here to create your connection—however that looks and whatever that means to you. The one thing that can’t be denied is that Israel is an intractable part of our history, and it’s our job to continue this connection.
For more information about the Boruchin Center, click here.