VI TRAN, HOST: For weeks now, protests against the Israeli government have been taking place in Washington Square Park. Israel, the Jewish state, is at a tipping point. The country’s right wing government is pushing laws to change the balance of power and weaken the powers of the courts.
But these conversations are difficult. And they’re not just happening at the Park. They’ve also entered New York City’s Synagogues.
And that means it’s up to rabbi’s help their congregants as they grapple with these complicated issues. Henrietta McFarlane checks in with New York City rabbis to see how they’re coping.
MCFARLANE, BYLINE: It’s 7 on a Tuesday evening. And the rows of blue folding chairs at the Kane Street Synagogue are packed. But the congregants aren’t here for a typical service. It’s Israel’s 75th anniversary. And rabbis from around Brooklyn have joined together to find a way to mark the birthday. Amachai Lau-Lavi is sitting at the front of the room. He’s one of the rabbi’s leading the meeting.
What is the role description of your role as Rabbi?
RABBI AMACHAI LAU-LAVI: I am the spiritual leader of a congregation, which means that I'm there when people have needs, such as a baby naming or a burial. When they have a broken heart, or broken limbs.
MCFARLANE: But tonight his role is different. The rabbis at this ceremony want to help their congregants consider their connections to Israel. That’s difficult this year because of the protests against the Israeli government.
Priminister Netanyahu’s government has proposed controversial changes which would limit the Supreme Court’s power to rule against him and other elected officials. Protestors say Israel’s democracy is at stake.
Rabbi Lau-Lavie says members of his congregation don’t all agree on the issue. As rabbi it’s his job to lead his community through difficult and confusing times. So, he, and other rabbis are making a point to discuss the issue, even though it’s a thorny one. One of the rabbi’s standing at the front of the room asks the attendees what they think about the country’s foundational promise.
EVENT RECORDING: On the 75th anniversary how do we celebrate? What is it that we’re celebrating?
MCFARLANE: she says - On the 75th anniversary, how do we celebrate? Everyone starts talking at once. It’s hard to hear over all the voices. You can feel the tension rising in the room…After centuries of persecution. Including the Holocaust which saw the systematic murder of six million jews, Israel was meant to be a place of hope and refuge.
One lady sitting toward the back of the room says she’s really disappointed in the Netanyahu government. Then a man at the front of the room stands up and raises a different issue.
EVENT RECORDING: The original sin that accompanies the Nakba, the expulsion is here and unadoged and unresolved.
MCFARLANE: He says, the original sin that accompanies the expulsion of Palestinians is unadoged and unresolved. He’s talking about the Palestinians who were displaced and exiled from their homes as Israel declared its independence. Today, many of their descendents remain stateless. The UN says there are nearly 6 million Palestinian refugees.There are Palestinians who do have Israeli citizenship but they are a minority in the country.
Rabbi Lau-Lavi says it must be addressed. He is also a human rights activist and has spent many years advocating for the rights of Palestinians. He’s playing that role tonight.
LAU-LAVI: It's an opportunity to ask hard questions.
MCFARLANE: What would some of those hard questions be?
LAU-LAVI: the hard questions are, there are many people in my community, in my world, in my family, and in my friend circle, who are not Zionists who do not believe that Israel should exist, as a land, as a nation as a homeland for Jews. If it comes at the expense of a democracy, that is an equal opportunity, land, and state for all its people.
MCFARLANE: Some rabbis in New York don’t bring up the topic of Palestinians at all. I reached out to about 10 of these rabbis but they either declined to comment or did not respond to my emails.
LAU-LAVI: So how do we honor the Fallen who have died in the wars and in all the violent attacks, and then we celebrate Israel's independence, and we're pro Palestine. And we know that 20% of Israeli citizens are not Jewish, and they are Palestinian, and then not celebrating tonight? Some of them are my dear friends. So how do we do both?
MCFARLANE: But as a rabbi and activist, encouraging his congregation to join in the protests in New York City is another way he’s been addressing the topic of Israel. For the past few months, protestors have been gathering next to the fountain in Washington Square Park. Today they’re holding blue and white Israeli flags and they’re they’re shouting the Hebrew word for democracy.
PROTESTERS: Democracia, democracia, democracia
MCFARLANE: Carrie Carter is a rabbi at the Park Slope Synagogue in Brooklyn. She’s also been at many of the protests But says addressing the topic of Israel in her congregation has been challenging for her… she initially didn’t want to speak to a reporter about it.
RABBI CARIE CARTER: Israel is just complicated. It's Israel is just complicated.
MCFARLANE: Rabbi Carter has a different approach than Rabbi Lau Lavi to addressing the conversation of Israel with her congregation. She takes a more backseat approach, and focuses on giving people space to think for themselves.
CARTER: I've always thought of my role as being a being a person who creates a frame so that people can find their path into all kinds of things about Judaism, but especially around especially now around Israel. I feel like my role is to help tell people come to these spaces, where they can figure out for themselves, how they can be a part of the conversation.
MCFARLANE: Carter says Israel’s 75th anniversary can’t be addressed in one event, or one space. So the Park Slope Jewish Center is running a series of events on Israel. From reflectives like the event this evening to Israeli film showings, a poetry reading by Palestinian and Israeli poets, and kids activities. But rabbis are people too, and just like her congregants Carter says she also needs help sometimes.
So you you help all these people, you give them advice and frameworks? Where do you go for help, or advice?
CARTER: There are wonderful colleagues who can help. And on top of that, I have an amazing therapist.
MCFARLANE: But a therapist can’t give advice on what to tell a congregation about Israel. That’s Basya Gartenstein’s job - she gives advice to the advisors. I caught up with her at another protest outside the Israeli consulate in midtown. A swarm of umbrellas and Israeli flags wave in the air. I hop under Gartenstein’s umbrella to chat. She works for a Jewish Community organization in Virginia but she’s being sent all over New York state to speak at synagogues.
GARTENSTEIN: People feel intimidated. And so they don't, they don't maybe feel confident enough to look for information and synagogues feel nervous about what side to take in the issue.
MCFARLANE: Gartenstein’s job is to equip them with the complicated political knowledge they need to confidently talk about Israel with their congregations. Back at the Kane Street Synagogue, for rabbi Lau-Lavi that extends beyond the synagogue doors - it’s personal. Israel’s birthday is his birthday too!
LAU-LAVI: I'm 54. For the last 54 years, there's a double decker two tier chocolate cake with whipped cream frosting and strawberries with candles and flags of Israel.
MCFARLANE: One of the cake’s layers is for him, the other, for Israel. Lau-Lavi grew up in Israel and his family still live there. He shows me a video message he received earlier that day from his family in Jerusalem.
VIDEO MESSAGE RECORDING: Ha'yom Yom Huledet...
MCFARLANE: His family are sitting around a large wooden table singing Happy Birthday in Hebrew. And of course, in the middle of the table is the two tiered cake. Lau-Lavi says he’s usually not too happy having the Israeli flag on his cake but this year, for the first time, he’s ok with it.
LAU-LAVI: I told my mother. You can do the little flags. This year I won’t mind. I see so many people who have the flag and are excited about what it means as a hopeful sign of the Israel we want. Not the Israel that is now.
MCFARLANE: The flag has become a symbol of the protest movement in Israel. Members of the Kane Street Synagogue will be heading out to the Washington Square Park protest again on Sunday. And the rabbis here this evening hope they can play a part in helping their communities through this challenging time. Henrietta McFarlane, Columbia Radio News.