Of Sermons and Strategies

In this spring of youthful Arab discontent, it has become de rigueur to note that no one could have seen this coming. We had no warning, the strategists are all explaining – there was no way to predict this.

Perhaps. But closer to home, where other seismic shifts are already changing our world, we do know already what is happening. Far from the Middle East, a new battleground is emerging, and it is going to change the world we bequeath to the next generation no less than what is happening in Egypt, Syria and Libya. For the most part, though, we’ve chosen to ignore it.

This battleground, strange though it may sound, is the world of rabbinic training in America. Now, if you’re tempted to say, “Are you kidding? With everything going on in the world, in Japan, the Middle East, Israel and more, you’re worried about a few dozen students studying Talmud?”

Well, yes, I am. Why? Because the impact of these people – most of them bright, decent, thoughtful and deeply Jewishly committed – is exponential. Each one of them influences hundreds of others, and the best and the brightest ultimately have enormous national influence.

So what is the problem? Consider the following:

Item: Not long ago, a student at one of America’s recognized rabbinic schools sent a note to the school’s e-mail list saying that it was time to buy a new tallit.  Seeking advice about what to buy and where to get it, the student noted that there was only one stipulation – the tallit could not be made in Israel.

Item: After that e-mail went out, a rather energetic discussion unfolded. As the conversation became increasingly heated, students were told that e-mail conversations about Israel were now off limits. You can discuss politics, the economy, sex and theology, but not Israel.

Item: Also not long ago, other rabbinical students were discussing how to add relevance to their observance of Tisha Be’av. They began to compile a list of other moments in history that should be mourned. One suggested that 1948 be added. Because of the Nakba? No, actually. It was time, this student said, to mourn the creation of the State of Israel.

Item: A rabbinical student in Jerusalem for the year chose to celebrate his birthday in Ramallah, accompanied by fellow students. There they sat at the bar, with posters (which they either did or didn’t understand) extolling violence against the Jewish state on the wall behind them, downing their drinks and feeling utterly comfortable. Photographs of the celebration got posted online.

THE EXAMPLES abound. You don’t have to spend that much time listening to rabbinical students in New York, Los Angeles, Boston or Jerusalem to hear these stories. Often, a few students ask to meet privately. And almost invariably, regardless of the school in which they’re enrolled or the movement to which they’re committed, what they want to discuss is the profound loneliness they feel as unabashedly Zionist and pro-Israel rabbis-in-the-making.

They’re impressive, these young students. The ones I’ve spoken with are bright, thoughtful, well-read, deeply decent human beings. There is none of that “everything Israel does is right” bravado about them, none of the morally obtuse “who cares about the Palestinians?” position that one hears in other circles. They, too, are struggling with the strategic and moral dilemmas Israel faces. But they’re unwilling to say that creating the Jewish state was a mistake. They’re not falling for the one-state solution trap. They may not love the settlements, but they’re too sophisticated to believe that they are the reason that Israel has no peace with the Palestinians.

And for that, they say, their fellow students often treat them like pariahs.

To be sure, many of the faculty and administrators at these schools are deeply committed Zionists, superb academics who represent the very best of contemporary Jewish life. This troubling but undeniable shift in the loyalties of many rabbinical students is not, by and large, institutionally sanctioned. But that is what the Jewish tradition calls a hatzi nehama, a partial consolation at best. Because what matters is not what the schools’ administrators believe – what matters is what the next generation of rabbis believes. Because what these rabbis-to-be believe is what American Jews will soon be hearing from their spiritual leaders.

IT IS thus time to get strategic, just as the Saudis did years ago when they began to seed academic positions across America. The Saudis understood that an entire generation could be shaped by the people who teach America’s best students. Now, they’re reaping the benefits of their strategic foresight. Dare we do less? What, we should ask ourselves, can be done to support those students who are feeling so vulnerable? How do we let them know there are many of us who hold them in extraordinarily high regard for their commitment, their tenacity, their nuanced and brave positions? How do we exhort them not to give up, for they are the frontline in a battle that must be won, a battle to ensure that the next generation of American rabbis is unabashedly committed to the continued flourishing of a Jewish State of Israel?

In this fiscally challenging era for schools, could we find the funding to place academically superb and unequivocally Israel-supportive professors in the schools that want them? Can we create settings where these students, from across movements, spend more time together than they are currently able to, deriving strength from the knowledge that they are not alone? Are there foundations that might want to support them and their studies, both financially and content-wise?

There is no limit to the possibilities, and figuring out what to do should become a communal priority. Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya might have been beyond our capacity to predict. But what is unfolding in our own communities is not. We know. Now we must just decide if we have the courage to act.

About Daniel Gordis

Dr. Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. The author of numerous books on Jewish thought and currents in Israel, and a recent winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Dr. Gordis was the founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

56 Comments on "Of Sermons and Strategies"

  • Dan Pankowsky says

    Dear Rabbi Gordis,

    You have, once again, hit the proverbial nail right on the head. Here in our town we are dealing with one of these young, confused Rabbis who was hired to replace an older Rabbi. This man has completely lost respect in large parts of our community because of his wife’s active stance in J-street and his extreme leftist views. While he is not anti-Israel per se, he takes positions that are not, shall we say, within the mainstream of Zionist thought (even within the Zionist political left wing). Sadly, he does have some supporters but for the most part, this community considers him an embarrassment. He has been quite stubborn in his views even after being counseled by the congregation that most of them would not tolerate this kind of politics from their pulpit. We are shocked that some like this could be produced by a Rabbinical school and it is likely that he will find himself without a job here when his contract expires.

  • Elihu says

    So, are the Rabbinical students in question learning in the kollelim of the Neturei Karta or…? 🙂 Of course not – but it would be interesting for these students to dialogue with the Neturei Karta and perhaps understand that they have more more in common with them than they know.

    Secular academia in Israel as well as the U.S. has done a great deal to ‘shut down’ (or shout down) those who espouse and articulate Zionist ideals (especially religious zionist ones)- it is no real surprise that rabbinical students raised on the milk of that academia share its ‘post-Zionist’ values and misunderstanding of Israel’s role in the world.

    Small wonder. The State of Israel’s political leadership -as well as its inteelectual elite- hasn’t really figured out how to integrate religious values with its own political ideology (such as one exists beyond mere survivalism). The mere fact that the new head of Shabak wears a kippah actually sparked controversy; that in and of itself should have sparked questions.

    Unless and until 1) the yeshivot teaching these Rabbis can articualate with crystal clarity their own views on issues of State and religion – and 2) the government of Israel does a much better job of understanding and articulating the religious foundations of its own existence – including the moral arguments for -gasp!- settlement of the land beyond the ’49 armistice lines, Israel will remain hobbled on the international stage and be continually surprised by its own youngsters who have adopted dogma espousing ideals paradoxically shared by the Neturei Karta ivory-tower secular theorists – and, come to think of it, radical Islamists – who publicly bash Israel at every turn.

  • Marcy Needle says

    Smack. Well this certainly woke me up as I drank my morning coffee. I first heard of the Saudi seeding of university professors (while we were having buildings named after ourselves!) while attending a JNF America conference several years ago. I would like to add one thought; we must find ways to engage anti Israel rabbinic students so that they have non judgmental opportunities to examine their beliefs. As you state, Israel is not perfect (as are none of us nor our countries) but there are so many reasons why the two state solution is crucial to our very existence. We know the anti Israel slant that exists in our undergraduate schools. How do we counter balance that in rabbinic school? This is crucial to the formation of our rabbinic leadership as we contemplate their impact on our future.

  • Scott Brightman says

    Today you’re writing about my front line. I’m Chair of the Israel Connection Team of one of the most vibrant Reform congregations in America. Yes, before we had a team the temple was having a hard time discussing Israel. Recently a neighboring Reform temple had a very public split that led to a cancelation of an event for J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami. The division is real and presents a risk to what we want the temple to be – a place of Jewish learning and community. The Israel Connection Team has been in place now for over a year and we have made progress.
    As for me, I’m politically right of center, I have unconditional love for Israel, I almost always agree with Daniel Gordis (recently invited him to speak at our temple). I’m even married to a Sephardic girl. I became so detached from the temple do to the lack of discussion around Israel that if not for my kids’ attachment, would have left. Rather than run away from the problem I ran toward it.
    Today I can say that I love my volunteer job. Much of my time and my new friendships are in fact with people that see the world very differently than I do. I’ve come to understand them and I’ve learned to be effective.
    Not everyone that loves Israel has unconditional love for her. Many supporters of J Street that are also involved temple members do love Israel but believe in a “tough love” approach. I have also found on both ends of the spectrum that many people have strong opinions but there is a huge gulf in the knowledge of the facts and slippery slopes that their positions involve (such as should Jews be able to live safely in a future PA state?). If you can park your emotions and try to have empathy to understand where the person you’re speaking to comes from in the love spectrum you actually can have a very reasonable and productive dialog. By the way, I find most individuals are conflicted by having both unconditional love and believing in a tough love approach. Most want to be proud of Israel they just don’t know how to reconcile that Israel is and must be a military state.
    There’s a far greater challenge and opportunity than temple members who have conflicting opinions about Israel and that’s reaching out to individuals that have no feelings or interest whatsoever. (Support Birthright and Jewish Camping and make it a focal point of the youth education programs).
    My goal is to have lots of programming – I want to bring it on. From J Street (yes, I share many of your concerns of Soros, Goldstone, UN Resolution, Not revealing donor list, foreign donor) to speakers on the Right who can articulate their opinions of Settlements and their politics. Activity around Israel is the answer. Where we have common ground in areas such as supporting Progressive – Reform Judaism is a win-win opportunity for us to put the pedal to the medal.
    I’m not saying that it easy, but I can say we’re on the right path. Isn’t Israel worth it?
    Shabbat shalom

  • Would someone kindly provide some links and/or names of the “Rabbinic Schools” that Gordis is referring to… and to the zitzit and Ramala stories? When Gordis writes: “regardless of the school in which they’re enrolled or the movement to which they’re committed…” is he refering to Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Haredi?

  • Ira M. Salwen says

    Silly me! As a lay person living in a world that increasingly sees things as black or white with no grays in between, I figured that Rabbinical schools would be one of the few places left where people are taught to think critically, to analyze, to really search for answers instead of grabbing the first one that comes along.

    It’s important to realize that, like it or not, these young Rabbis are creatures of their environment. They never lived in a world without Israel. They don’t remember 1948 – they don’t even remember 1967 or 1973! They’re susceptible to the “facts” put out by J Street, APN, etc.

    When fish swim in a river surrounded by pollution, they absorb it and soon become unsafe to eat. We live in an information environment that has become so polluted that all of us, whether we realize it or not, suffer from its toxic effects.

    I’m sure these young Rabbis, like many of their contemporaries, are incredibly ignorant about the Middle East. Sadly, as Rabbis, their opinions will be sought out by congregants, by the media, by clergy of other faiths.

    All of these Rabbis went to College somewhere. Some o them even went to Hebrew School somewhere. What are the movements doing to teach Ahavat Yisrael in Hebrew School? Even in Yeshivas, students are succumbing to anti-Israel propaganda, according to a recent study. We need to try to give them facts, not just an emotional attachment to Israel. The fact are on our side, yet we do a terrible job of teaching them to our own people.

    Thanks, Daniel, for putting this out there. Let’s hope somebody who reads this has the funding and the ideas to attack the problem.

  • MANNY JAKEL says


    It would be hard to describe the great and everlasting esteem in which i hold you. To see the picture of the Shalem Center on my computer, reminds me of summer school back in the 40’s. Great warmth mixed with unhappiness but enough of that.
    I would like to talk to one of those people studying for the Rabbinate and who have no great love of Israel.
    I would like them to perform a thought experiment, ask them that if they had it in their power, and could peacefully and calmly remove the STATE OF ISRAEL from reality, would they do it and if they would then what they think the result would be.
    I assure you, dear Daniel, that once i were through with them, they would either have discovered the Rabbinate was not for them or else would embrace Israel with 100 X the love they ever had and then some.
    It’s really either a case of living the life of a garbage can, i give you the most noteworthy, norman finkelstein, or being a MAN in the best and highest sense of the word.
    Best of health to you, Daniel, and of course your family.
    Manny Jakel

  • Natan says

    Though I am sure these events happen, I have never experienced anything close to this at the seminary I attend. Two of my best friends attend a different seminary in the same city, and I have no doubt that they would attest to Rabbi Gordis’ remarks.

    The problem I face is not the one described here, but the exact opposite. There is virtually no understanding that Israel is anything but the perfect place and that Palestinians are evil. Fortunately, I get to vote in Israeli elections and most of them dont.

  • Thank you for this amazing and courageous piece! In this open source world, it is not often that we read articles that actually tell us something that we didn’t already know but you did it.

    Having said that, I believe that you blew it at the end with your proposed solution. In my opinion, you are putting the cart before the horse or the chicken before the egg or the kasha before the borscht or whatever and so do a number of your commenters.

    You make us aware of something that we sort of already knew (but not about rabbis)– that more and more committed American and Israeli Jews who care deeply about Israel are increasingly troubled by the actions of that country’s politic and religious leaders. It is clear that many of those leaders (and an increasing percentage of Israeli citizens according to a recent study http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/poll-young-israelis-moving-much-farther-to-the-right-politically-1.353187) are far to the Right of most of their American counterparts and more out of synch than ever before.

    Most Jews in America are drawn to Judaism based on Jewish wisdom, values, and ethics which we find compelling and we refuse to sit by silently when the Jewish state behaves in a way that seems in conflict with those values.

    We don’t feel that way because of the influence of J Street. We gravitate to J Street (as I have) because we feel that way.

    These rabbinic students don’t have strong concerns and feelings about Israel because they haven’t been properly taught to think clearly by their schools. They have these feelings because they HAVE been taught to think analytically and not take the approach of so-called “pro-Israel” organizations and self-annointed “leaders” who tell us that we need to support the Israeli government no matter what they do or how they behave and any concerns or suggestions we have should be kept to ourselves.

    So your proposed solution–better public relations and more strategic planting of teachers and professors who will defend the actions of the Israeli government–is no solution at all because bad PR is not the root of the problem.

    Israel is changing. The demographics there are changing. The rest of the world is changing. The Jewish community here is changing.

    Ironically, this is all happening at a time where here in the U.S., Jews and Israel have never been held in higher esteem by the broad population. Bad P.R. is the least of our worries.

    Those of us who care about Israel need to focus on the morality, wisdom and nature of decisions that are being made by Israeli government and religious leaders and speak out from a sense of love and caring and a desire to get the best result. I call that “love.” The term “tough love” is only used by those who think we should say nothing.

    Regardless of whether one is supportive or critical of those decisions by Israeli leaders, there can be little doubt that THEY are the reason why so many caring Jews and rabbinic students here have developed strong concerns and negative feelings.

    It’s not about the packaging. It’s about the product.

  • Rabbi Janie Grackin says

    So, it has become an epidemic! The first time I heard anti-Israel words come from the mouth of a Jewish professional, I was stunned. Now, I see that it is becoming “a movement” under youthful Rabbinic leadership.
    Living in America, we Jews have been blessed with comfort and security, the national right to freedom of speach and religion. Anti-semitism has not been an issue in most of our lives. But anti-semitism is not dead, and the need for Israel as a homeland for the Jews is vitally important, as is the right for the country to exist.
    As you beautifully stated, Israel is struggling with “strategic and moral dilemmas”. As Rabbis, we must have the courage to discuss these issues openly. If we chose to be silent and ignore the subject, we will surely reap what we sow. As we can now see, our new leadership who oppose Israel are making their positions LOUD and CLEAR.
    Rabbi Janie Grackin

  • Victor Kava says

    I think that Elihu touches on the central issue: where will the western boundary of the country of Israel be?
    Fifty years ago, Israel was known around the world as the country of the kibbutz.
    Now, fairly or not, it is known as the country of the settlement.
    And I think that this, exactly this, is the source of Israel’s poor image around the world, and on college campuses, and among rabbinical students.
    So far, I have not heard a coherent statement of the Israeli position on this question, and of the related question of what will happen with the people who now live in the West Bank. People who, I have been taught, are made in the image of God.
    The Jewish people have been know for discussion and argument — two Jews, three opinions.
    I think that it is time for a full, on the table discussion of this boundary issue, and of related issues. Once a clear Israeli position is worked out, I think that campuses and rabbis will go on to other questions.

  • Ira M. Salwen says

    I’m concerned, Victor, with the implication that borders are somehow tied to the issue of “the people who now live in the West Bank”. Does that imply that “the people who now live in the West Bank” have to be removed for there to be a conclusion to the conflict? Does the idea of hanging a “No Jews Allowed” sign anywhere bother anyone besides me? Do the Arabs get to declare that the new state will be Judenrein? That’s hardly a recipe for understanding between peoples!

    As a practical matter, Israel has shown that, given a real chance for peace, it will indeed remove people and erase its presence from “Arab” territory. Ever seen Yamit in the Sinai? A beautiful city, now gone without a trace. Remember Sinai residents being physically carried out of their homes by crying soldiers under the command of that famous “hard-liner” Ariel Sharon. How many “settlers” are left in Gaza?

    The history of the conflict is, sad to say, a history of Jewish compromise and escalating Arab expectations. When 78% of the Palestine Mandate was given to the Arabs, the Jews accepted it and adjusted their expectations accordingly. When half of what was left was given to the Arabs, the Jews accepted it and again adjusted their expectations. It was the Arabs who wouldn’t accept “only” 78% of Palestine, or “only” 89% of Palestine.

    Polls show that a significant segment of the Arab population has been indoctrinated to never accept any Jewish presence on “Arab territory”. While some define that territory as Jericho others see it as Jaffa. Those latter folks feel there are no borders to negotiate.

    Until the Arab leadership (not just the Palestinian leadership) starts conditioning people to seek coexistence instead of confrontation, there’s not much Israel can do, as was evidenced by the offer the Israelis made at Camp David, an offer described by one Israeli negotiator as “so generous they wouldn’t be able to refuse it”. Not only did they refuse it, but Arafat launched a new Intifada.

    Now the Palestinian leadership won’t even sit down at the same table as the Israelis. They blame the “settlements”, but Israel has proven repeatedly that the settlements aren’t an issue, just an excuse. I haven’t noticed J Street putting pressure on Abbas and Fayyad to come to the table. I haven’t heard Americans for Peace Now take the Arabs to task for the ongoing propaganda war against the Jews. Of course, Israel isn’t perfect. Of course, we all want it to be. But the Israelis live in a tough neighborhood with some pretty questionable neighbors. The problem is that these left-leaning, well-meaning young Rabbis don’t seem to want to take that into account.

  • Elliott Rosen says

    I find myself generally disagreeing with Dr. Gordis but I’m always impressed with his thoughtfulness and insight and read his commentary regularly. But this time I’m floored–and floored by readers’ comments as well. So here’s the deal: there are are a few folks out there training to be rabbis who take radical (and yes, kind of foolish)positions vis-a-vis Israel, undoubtedly in response to the actions of the Israeli government. Our reaction should be to “seed” yea-sayers rather than consider that this small group may reflect a growing unwillingness on the part of many Jews (in Israel and the galut) to blindly support policies that appear increasingly tone-deaf and sometimes downright ridiculous? It boggles the mind! Yes, let’s dumb down what we’ve always prided ourselves on–open intellectual inquiry– and go the way of those whose “know-nothingism” we otherwise scoff at. Yes, those Saudis have a great idea–so does Lubavitch, by the way! Let’s send out right-thinking shlichim to make sure we outshout leaders who might stand up and disagree with the policies of the Israeli government. Sheer brilliance!

  • Victor Kava says

    to Ira M. Salwen:
    I have no specific recommendation for the future of the people living in the West Bank.
    My point is simply that they are there.
    And that resolving their future would contribute to improving Israel’s status among other nations.

  • adam ginzberg says

    while the attitudes you describe are indeed a serious problem the “saudi solution” you describe is almost as bad. What’s next advice to the israeli security forces to use the “saudi solution” like the one they helped apply in bahrain next time there are protests in sheikh jarra or in the west bank. The “saudi solution” to political participation applied to israel and to groups like J street in the US (a few stipend checks and they’ll just shut up !)

    Your admirable passion for the zionist idea has come to cloud your judgement. quite a shame. American rabbi makes aliya to the only democracy in the ME and winds up thinking it’s the monarchy that knows how to get things done the right way.

  • adam ginzberg says

    taking our model on how to deal with dissent from a medieval style absolutist monarchy
    aych nofloo geborim

    how about creating programs for these rabbinical students during their year in israel so they get out of the bubble of their institutions and english speaking jerusalem and actually get to encounter israeli society warts and all…and learn a little history of the zionism movement (warts and all ) as well. If we arent confident enough that they will come away with a more positive view than the one they currently have than we should be very afraid israeli society is as closed minded (and doomed) as that monarchy.

    treat them like the son that doesn’t yet know how to ask, not the evil rebellious son

  • L wynman says

    Boy do you have the wrong solution to a very real problem
    The answer lies in returning these institutions to what they set out to be places that combined Jewish text study at the level of the great yeshivot with intellectual discourse as open as at the greatest western university

    Training future rabbis in an environment of rote memorization and obscurantist views like a saudi funded madrasa ….one terrible idea that I can guarantee you wont save the Jewish future

    What happens when those rabbis who urged a ban on renting to Arabs propose a “Saudi solution to improving the faculty at yeshivat male gilboa” where the letter was savagely attacked ?e

  • Davida Geller Rosenberg says

    Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Anyone see the connection? Rabbis, students, philosophers fiddle, and Israel needs Jews!

    We are back seat drivers, would be doctors,
    and wanna be politicians… but what Israel needs is Jews!

    Passover will arrive here in a few short weeks and we will say the words we used to say with longing and romance, but we will say them this time with rocks in our mouth.. as we utter Next Year in Jerusalem!

    We really don’t mean it.

    And here it is..the raw grit truth of who we are. We are American Jews. We should consider ourselves Israelites… and catch the Spirit, and Open the Door and Mean it..
    hoping to see Eliyah the Prophet come to announce the glorious, magnificent, eternal life giving arrival of the Kingdom
    of Elohim!

    Come on everbody…. return to your first love. Make the Torah and it’s Promises come alive in your heart, in your depth of mind and soul, in your true self.. the true self which should know.. that the world is devolving and America is turning
    enemy to our land, our people, and our inheritance.

    Hasn’t anyone noticed.. the King of the Universe is missing from our dialogue… our spirit and our strength.

    This is the problem and nothing less.

    Let God Arise! and Let Israel be reborn.
    with our Aliyah.

    Davida Geller Rosenberg

  • The influence of leftist politics in the Rabbinate is the reason that I left my Reform Temple. While the rabbis are actually very descent people (their charity work is undeniable), their skewed reality when it comes to US politics and especially Israel (huge JStreet activists) made it intolerable to belong to that Temple.

  • robert davidson says

    the saudis are reaping the benefit of their strategic foresight ? ?? are you reading the newspapers ?

    Seems like they are shaking in their boots as monarchs and oligarchs are being challenged by popular uprisings across the arab world.

    And what happens when those jewish princes with their checkbooks decide that the “right” kind of faculty to teach the next generation of clerical leaders shouldn’t be wishy washy on israel and in fact SHOULD be people who teach that
    ““everything Israel does is right” bravado about them, none of the morally obtuse “who cares about the Palestinians?” position that one hears in other circles. “”
    why should their hard earned cash go to encourage:

    “struggling with the strategic and moral dilemmas Israel faces.”

    Last i heard those saudi funded madrasas weren’t teaching students skills in building empathy for the “other” or the moral dilemmas for islam in the modern world

    why should our jewish royalty not use their $$$ to follow the saudi example and fund closed mindedness in order to train the next generation of leaders

  • Howard Schwartz says

    Rabbi Gordis,
    can you please specify, at the very least, what sorts of Rabbinic Schools thase were/are ?

    In other words, Charedi, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform , New Age, etc.

  • louis says

    Last year I was on a rabbinical search committee for my shul. We asked each candidate what they liked to speak about and what they didn’t like to speak about. Every one said the one topic they wouldn’t speak about was Israel because it was too polarizing for the community. Imagine a Jewsih community, in shul, finds discussing Israel to be polarizing.

  • Sophie says

    “….Would someone kindly provide some links and/or names of the “Rabbinic Schools” that Gordis is referring to… and to the zitzit and Ramala stories?….”

    Geoffrey, I know for a fact many of these rabbis were ordained by JTS, the Conservative movement. I have davened & studied with them. And stopped partly because the politics were so enraging and all-encompassing. Yes, they treat pro-Israel students and others like pariahs. I know a student there now who has to stay in the closet, as it were, just to have some credibility with his class cohort.

    There are some incredibly either naive or anti-Israel professors at JTS. They just had a Muslim-Jewish “dialogue” with ISNA, for God’s sake. Like they couldn’t find any moderate Muslims to meet with?

    That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Don’t get me started. i could rant about these people for days.

    Most of the Reform movement is like this too, and the Reconstructionist movement has always been very Left, but the JTS crowd is the one I know.

  • Sophie says

    “….So here’s the deal: there are are a few folks out there training to be rabbis who take radical (and yes, kind of foolish)positions vis-a-vis Israel, undoubtedly in response to the actions of the Israeli government…..”

    No, undoubtably mostly in response to their leftist Ivy League educations and ultra-liberal parents and milieu, and mutual reinforcement because they are cliquish herd animals who insulate themselves against opposing points of view. And it sounds like you share their biases if you have a kneejerk willingness to lay their radicalism at the feet of the Israeli government.

    I don’t know of anyone (including pretty much all Israelis) who doesn’t have some criticism of the Israeli government (from all directions) – we Jews are an opinionated lot – but that word “undoubtedly” exposed your bias. Or rather your assumptions about the water you swim in.

  • Sophie says

    I love how half the commenters jumped on Gordis’ brief use of the Saudis example of FUNDING INSTITUTIONS TO FURTHER THEIR IDEAS (which is an uncontroversial idea – everyone does this) to accuse him of wanting to set up madrassas and force rote learning and God knows what else.

    Do you all not think that the current state of our rabbinical schools (and our universities for that matter) are a result of people funding institutions to further their points of view?

    All I see Gordis trying to do is create a little intellectual diversity, so that the pro-Israel students have faculty to support them, and the others are exposed to a wider range of views. Which is the opposite of an atmosphere where students are treated like pariahs for politics which are unremarkable in the mainstream world, if not the hothouse of academe. The leftist madrassa is already there, and you’re the folks propping it up.

  • Anon says

    Thank you so much for writing this piece! I am a conservative in a liberal rabbinical school and often feel isolated. The comments I receive are unprofessional at best and abusive at worst. Many days I go home and think “I can’t believe I’m getting bullied in Rabbinical school.”

    It would be wonderful to have extra support on campus. I’ve brought this issue up to my dean a few times. Things get better for a while, then they revert. It would be wonderful to have a like minded, articulate faculty member to talk with. It is so very hard to fight this battle alone.

  • JAT says

    As a recently graduated student of the largest liberal Rabbinical school and a current worker at said Rabbinical School, I can assure you all that this is the worst type of reactionary scaremongering. I have no idea if the nameless anecdotes which Rabbi Gordis brings in this article are falsified, exagerated or 100% true, but I can assure you that they are not representative nor do they require us to take the steps he is suggesting. Setting up a fund for more Zionist rabbinical students? Gordis really means more right wing rabbinical students. Which is fine – that is his right to suggest it, but he should be honest about it. As a Jew living in Israel (round the corner from R. Gordis’ house here in J’lem), I am happy that the next generation of rabbinical students are being educated to think critically about Israel. What is needed is that they should also be educated to think critically about the Jewish world of America – that is what is truly missing. I would be happy to fund lectures on the meaning of exile for Jewish American Rabbinical Students.

  • adam ginzberg says

    if those rabbinical schools were producing students who had the
    “everything Israel does is right” bravado about them, none of the morally obtuse “who cares about the Palestinians?” ”

    would Mr. Gordis or his acolytes find anything worth writing a negative article about

    and we all no 90% of the kids that go to an orthodox yeshiva on a gap year program come away with those attitudes

  • Sophie says

    “….Setting up a fund for more Zionist rabbinical students? Gordis really means more right wing rabbinical students. Which is fine – that is his right to suggest it, but he should be honest about it…..”

    You are using the word “rightwing” as a catchall term for politics you don’t like, which is what your cohort does. This sentence shows you are an example of the students Gordis is writing about. Zionist = “rightwing”? Define “rightwing” and then tell me what is wrong with having more intellectual diversity in rabbinical schools?

    As for the anecdotes and the ostracism of students who don’t agree with it: as a close observer of this community – studying, davening with – I know they are true. (and I suspect you do too, although you don’t want to admit it).

  • JAT says

    Dear Sophie,

    Thank you so much for telling me what I mean when i say right-wing. And also thank you for telling me what me and my cohort do.

    I am an Israeli. I chose to live here after growing up in exile. You are telling me that I think Zionism is right-wing and that I am anti-right-wing? I am the most uber-zionist person I know. When it comes to Zionism, I am a bit of a fascist! I think all Jews outside of Israel should show up or shut up. So, no Sophie – don’t tell me what I think and don’t tell me what I do. You don’t know me, whereas I have been reading Rabbi Gordis’ articles for many years, and I find it objectionable that he should suggest that criticism of Israel is beyond the pale for a Rabbinical student. Do I like these opinions? Absolutely not. Do I accept that some people will have them within the leadership of American Jewry – yes. Eilu v’Eilu divrei elokim haim. The main point is this – are the actual anti-Zionists (not whom R. Gordis decides is an anti-Zionist) taking over? No absolutely not. Is he using scare tactics to make the zionists among us fear the red peril? Yes absolutely.

  • Lee says

    I saw this years ago. I was in my 30’s and a grad student in NYC and considered applying for rabbinical school. But as I met more and more rabbinical students–and faculty of the rabbinical schools–my first thought was “WTF?” I couldn’t believe the anti-Israel sentiment coming from them, and seeing who’s been hired at the places, it is has definitely gotten WORSE. Now I fear what is happening as these students go forth an take on pulpits, as “spiritual” leaders for Jewish Communities throughout the country. Maybe the NYC seminaries should close down and move to Indiana, or Kansas, or Missouri–into “flyover” country… I don’t know…. But it appalls me and is just getting worse. Thank you Rabbi Gordis for writing about this! Maybe we can somehow affect a change!


    In composing a comment, I was going to suggest that official state discrimination against all but Orthodox rabbis could be the cause of the disaffections he writes of.

    But on reflection and after querying seminary affiliated acquaintances – and also finding no mention of these un sourced incidents elsewhere, I wonder if the reason no one else has reported them is because…they never happened! Surely such extravagant behavior would have been reported earlier if the activities were real.

    Unless Rabbi Gordis is able to document these events, I fear he has been the victim of a lashon hara hoax.

  • Nice piece, Danny. Here is a considered response to your comments from Scott Copeland. http://bit.ly/hs4ztV

  • Howard Stevens says

    Upon reflection, I am concerned that my prior April 5 comment could be misconstrued as accusing Rabbi Gordis of himself spreading lashon hara which I did not intend and for which I sincerely apologize. Having been an enthusiast of his many books and articles over the years, I should have assumed that he had reasonable grounds to believe the incidents he reported were real.

    As to the substance of the piece, along with several others on this blog, I wonder if the attitude of these students is, at least in part, the result of the official discrimination the state fosters toward them.

  • Mark Popovsky says

    I think Howard’s point is well-taken. The events described above, if accurate, do not sound like the result of well-informed reasoning. However, they do provide some insight into how the policies of the Israeli government have alienated a large number of American rabbis, future-rabbis, and regular Jews. Where the government has an open and explicit policy of discrimination against non-orthodox Jews, my confidence in that same government’s ability to make wise decisions in other arenas is limited. Because discrimination against non-orthodox Jews harms the Jewish people as a whole, I no longer subscribe to any underlying assumption that the Israeli government is committed to making choice in the best interest of its own citizens or the Jewish people. Of course, I don’t mean to say that every policy of the Israeli government necessarily runs counter to the best interests of Jews. But I do mean to say that American rabbis should feel empowered to promote healthy criticism of the Israeli government’s policy choices where appropriate–whether regarding internal religious affairs or external foreign relations. Hopefully, this discussion will encourage individuals to engage in that healthy criticism following a process of textured debate and substantive reasoning, rather than to proceed with a more inflammatory approach.

  • Rabbi Spike Anderson says

    My experiences in HUC-JIR, NYC from ’03-’08 are very much in line with R’ Gordis’ understanding and comments. I was shocked at what I heard and saw from fellow rabbinical students, and even some of the Rabbi/Professors. What is really disheartening is that in the interview process, the interview committee had tremendous leeway in the questions that they asked applicants, but in all my inquiries I have never heard of anyone being questioned on one’s stance on a Jewish Israel. Why is that, but nothing else, taboo? What’s more, there are many reasons why a student could be disqualified from being ordained (academic, moral, behavioral, intermarriage, etc.) but anti-Israel sentiment is not even on the radar. Clearly, some folks were ordained in ’08, and now have congregations, who were unabashedly anti-Israel. This has reverberations to the nth degree. As for R’ Gordis’ solution- it would be good to have a conscious effort made to reverse an extremely concerning trend in Progressive seminaries. I’m sure that it could be done easily enough, if the designated leadership thought that it was important enough to be attention to it…

  • hana blume says

    I don’t know about the Orthodox yeshivas, but I hadn’t noticed that the rest of the rabbinate is attracting “bright, thoughtful, deeply Jewishly committed” students. And now they aren’t even Zionists? Tough love? What baloney! What self-respecting people turns on itself, especially when its opponents all long for its demise? Why are these people admitted to the seminaries? Who needs them, when they’ll be given generous salaries and a bully pulpit from which to multiply their mischief? If that’s what the seminaries are producing, close them. Who needs what passes for a rabbi anyway? Most of them are certainly not scholars.

  • shai levy says

    It is so important that this conversation take place with students at the places teacing people to be Rabbis – not only on the internet. MAKOM is working on this stuff. See Scott Copeland’s take -http://makom.haaretz.com/blog.asp?snt=1&rId=257&t=1#sent

  • JAT says

    With regard to Scott Copeland’s rebuttal to R. Gordis’ piece, it is important to note that when he talks about Makom engaging with JTS and HUC students, he is not talking about one afternoon while they are here for the year. Scott teaches a whole day a week at HUC as part of their Israel seminar and for a third of the HUC students, he himself (maybe after their Hebrew teacher) will be the teacher they see most in face to face teaching throughout the week. No subject apart from Hebrew is given as much time as Israel. The other teachers of the Israel seminar are a woman who served as a Jewish agency Shlicha to the UK for 3 years and a man who made aliyah 20 years ago and has brought up his family here. Are these Anti-Zionist voices? Or rather, simply because they don’t proscribe to R. Gordis’ narrow definition of Zionism, they are not promoting a love of Israel and a desire to “hug and wrestle” with it.

    I encourage all readers of R. Gordis’ blog to check out for themselves whether their movement’s rabbincal schools are producing anti-Israel leadership – I am sure you will find out that it is far from the truth and that extreme non-representative examples of anti-Israel sentiment are bound to occur in a vibrant, democratic Jewish population such as North America and it is only healthy that these voices are also occasionally represented in its leadership. R. Gordis – stop trying to scare us. Try to lead.

  • LMNOP says

    They way the Israeli religious establishment treats non-Orthodox Jews, how could you not see this coming?

  • Essa says

    Are any of the rabbinic students involved students of Israeli yeshivot? No? Golly, what a surprise… The problem Rabbi Gordis describes is an American problem, not an Israeli one. The belief that Israel should or could do something or other to somehow address this attitude is missing the point. These kids are the result of the stridently anti-Zionist, New Left leadership that has taken over the US Reform movement is now making inroads into the left-leaning Conservative streams. The problem is American through and through and its for you guys to sort out.

  • JAT says

    I don’t believe anyone has actually posted the response to R. Gordis’ article from one of the original people he talked about in this article:


    It goes to show that R. Gordis had assumed a huge ammount from the small amount of info that he had based his scaremongering on.

  • JAT says


    I assume that like me, you are an english speaking immigrant to Israel. So just to get you scared. I am a graduate of an Israeli “Yeshiva” (Liberal Beit Midrash) and R. Gordis would put me in the same group as the so-called Anti Zionists that you and he believe are taking over the Liberal movements of America. On the whole I agree with you – that this is an American issue, but I assume that like me, you made Aliyah because you believe in Jewish peoplehood, so presumably you do care about the Jewish people of North America, and if you didn’t, why are you reading this website which is clearly aimed at North Americans? And moreover, can we afford to be so naive as to think that Israelis shouldn’t care at all about their relationship with North American Jewry? Tourism is after all one of our largest industries – if nothing else, let’s be honest, we want their money.


    The tenor of many comments suggest to me the existence of a more serious problem than that of a few rabbinical students’ untoward behavior. Here we are presumably all grown ups. Yet one writer refers to ““facts”” put out by J Street [and Americans for Peace Now]” suggesting these groups make false reports. Another supports “settlement of the land beyond the ’49 armistice lines,” thus breaching the Jewish Agency’s agreement to the 1947 partition, as if Jewish words can’t be trusted but are merely the starting point for aggrandizement. One more disapproves of his rabbi’s wife’s “active stance in J Street” and the rabbi not being within in the writer’s conception of the “mainstream of Zionist thought.” And in Tel Aviv a few days ago, demonstrators for a two state solution were vilified by opponents as “traitors” and “Jewish Nazis.”

    In an atmosphere like this, where an argument “in the name of heaven” seems no longer permissible, and honest differences about the best course for Israel are dismissed as treason, is it so hard to understand how an unrepresentative handful of young, impressionable, idealistic and unsophisticated souls could take provocatively radical stances?

    It seems to me that Rabbi Daniel Gordis, an important voice in the Jewish world, could more productively address this loss of civility and reason, rather than the proposed strategy.

  • Andrea says

    How fun. My experience is exactly the opposite.
    During my year in Israel I have been blessed by great teachers, and by an eganging and challenging Israeli program. All of this, at HUC in Jerusalem. When I moved back to my Rabbinical College in London I was -and still I am- much more a committed Zionist than I had been before. I have now introduced the custom of singing Ha Tikwa at the end of the Seder. In every synagogue I visit, I pray for the end of defamation of Israel (congregants appreciate).
    Were my fellow Rabbinical students radical as the ones described in the article? The average of them, no. Definitively no.
    So what about the radicalization of the few ones? It’s not politics IMO. As it happens, during our studies, we Rabbinical students discover the most kept secrets of synagogue life. Namely, that Rabbis are less influential in synagogues, and many decisions are in the hands of Presidents, Boards and the alike. This is not pleasant, and can be frustrating. It’s hard to keep ahavat israel if you, young and idealistic, are dealing with a much older macher, maybe slightly arrogant. Some of us react by radicalization. And when you find yourself among the Radicals, the Palestinian cause is unfortunately a very obvious one. At least in Europe.
    Very interesting discussion anyway. And yes, I am in favour of setting a fund to improve Israeli education among the Rabbinical students. If only they could be blessed by teachers like the ones I had.

  • Alan Blank says

    While I have already been troubled with this, reading article after article for years, I’m not sure if this is a new problem. Rabbis have presented differing views and opinions on Israel in its earlier years, but now each voice has a chance to be taken seriously because what they say and do can be “posted”, seen and heard. It’s no longer an anonymous world.
    The only way to stem this is for the Jewish establishments and organizations to make minimum standards for appropriate conduct by a rabbinical student, for example. I’m not suggesting this be done, but don’t understand why, while rabbinical students are studying Jewish law and rules, conduct cannot be judged.
    Are the institutions, requiring tuition to merely exist, too timid to “offend” their students, for fear of losing them or are the administrations simply ignoring these facts and care not what happens just outside the classrooms as long as enrollment is positive?
    If unmarried and/or unengaged students cannot share a room for fear of being expelled from the seminary for shaming it, why can’t the administration create other rules of conduct applying to this problem.
    This first step would show the student how important this is and standardize rules of conduct just like the others strictly enforced.

  • John Brosseau says

    The Knesset is investigating an American
    Jewish organization. The Congress is investigating a world religion. Now, Mr.
    Gordis draws unsustainable conclusions
    from what must be dismissed as anecdotal
    evidence. UGH!

  • John Brosseau says

    So, my response appears on my computer
    screen, but nowhere else. How cowardly!
    Please do not tell me that you value
    free speech! Do not tell me that you
    defend the values of the West. You are
    their enemy.


    NY Jewish Week editor, Gary Rosenblatt:

    “…[I]t’s not helpful to lecture or chastise our youth, particularly those who are expressing their idealism and Jewish commitment by choosing to serve the community as spiritual leaders.

    “What’s called for is a full and open discussion about this troubling divide. That means being able to acknowledging worrisome Israeli government actions without feeling disloyal, and recognizing the importance of inculcating young people with a sense of Jewish peoplehood and collective responsibility from the earliest age.

    “Wrestling with Israel is nothing new; indeed the biblical Jacob became “Israel” only after struggling with an angel all night. The key is to do so with respect and humility, and in the name of Heaven.”

    The complete editorial is at:


  • Howard Stevens says

    Some supportive views from my kids’ Modern Orthodox Day School:




    A response by the Rabbi Danuek Nevins, Dean of the Jewish Theolgical Seminary USA:


  • L says

    I finally, finally read the entirety of this article after having read part of it in the Forward a month or so ago.

    As a 4th year rabbinical student, here are my main thoughts: 1) Rabbi Gordis, you are right that it’s almost lonely to be a Zionist rabbinical student but 2) you didn’t talk about a more urgent problem among rabbinical students re: Israel, one that hit me in the face during my rabbinical year in Israel. It’s not just that there are more students who are totally anti-Israel and only pro-Palestine. It’s the students who are utterly ignorant or uncaring about Israel in general, not because of politics but just out of apathy. I don’t see the rabbinical students who have their b-day in Ramallah as the majority danger. I see the main danger being the students (soon rabbis) who have no connection to Israel on any deep, real level and could give a crap about it.

    In general, this phenomenon is probably linked to politics in that it’s harder these days, unfortunately, to be ra-ra about a lot of what the Israeli government is doing, but I also think it’s just the effect of American inwardness and the assimilation of our generation into American culture, which ignores Israel as the Jewish state in any meaningful way and is very American-centric and has fully bought the party line that was more difficult to swallow for our parents and grandparents (more closely tied to other countries of origin and Anti-Semitic experiences) — that America is the Promised Land, not Israel.

    I’d love to hear thoughts on this and speak more about it from others and from you, Rabbi Gordis, if you read these things…


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *