Like most rabbis, Alissa Wise practices pastoral care. In her case, it’s not to counsel congregants on marital troubles or spiritual emptiness, but to help members of Jewish Voice for Peace who feel ostracized by the Jewish community because of their very critical views of Israel.
Wise, 32, a Reconstructionist rabbi, serves as a national organizer for JVP, an Oakland-based organization that works to end Israel’s presence in Palestinian territories and is often harshly critical of Israeli policies. She moved to San Francisco from Brooklyn, N.Y., in January to take the position.
In addition to counseling and offering alternative Jewish holiday rituals, her job description includes providing political education and supporting the group’s selective boycott and divestment campaigns.
Critics say the group’s aim is the destruction of Israel itself, a charge Wise dismisses. Nevertheless, in San Francisco, as elsewhere, JVP lies outside the Jewish communal consensus: The group does not recognize Israel as a Jewish state, opposes U.S. military aid to Israel, promotes divesting from certain companies that do business with Israel and stages boycotts of certain Israeli-made products.
Wise’s JVP activism is a far cry from her pro-Israel, Modern Orthodox upbringing in Cincinnati, where she attended Jewish day schools and summer camps. While studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1999, she began to question views she had been raised to believe.
“On campus, someone raised a Palestinian flag in a protest around the occupation,” she recalls. “That was my personal moment of thinking the story I grew up with did not include this current occupation, as well as mass displacement in 1948.”
Her new political stance taught her a hard lesson.
“This community that had raised me up suddenly was very upset with me,” she says. “I was a little naive about the dynamics of the mainstream Jewish community surrounding Israel.”
Wise co-founded JVP’s rabbinical council, and has also worked with Jews Against the Occupation and the International Women’s Peace Service, volunteering in the West Bank. She is a member of the Northern California Board of Rabbis, and says her colleagues express little more than mild surprise that JVP would employ a rabbi.
Rabbi Marvin Goodman, the board’s executive director, says there is no political litmus test for membership.
“You have to be ordained and be a member of a national body of rabbis,” he says. “Nobody to my knowledge has ever been refused membership for any political perspective. The Board of Rabbis tries not to take political stands because we want to be a collegial body where all rabbis can get support and be supportive of each other.”
When it comes to Jewish communal funding for JVP, that’s a different story.
“Jewish Voice for Peace routinely allows itself to be used as political cover by organizations promoting anti-Israel boycotts and divestment so that they can claim that they have Jewish backing for their positions, even though JVP represents a tiny fraction of the community,” explains Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, which helped write new federation funding guidelines two years ago following a controversial screening of the film “Rachel,” a documentary about the death of anti-Israel activist Rachel Corrie. JVP was a co-presenter of the film.
“Adding a rabbi to its staff is clearly intended to elevate that cover-giving strategy,” Kahn said.
JVP has at times rallied alongside two groups, ANSWER Coalition and the International Solidarity Movement, that openly call for an end to the Jewish state of Israel. Wise says she is “personally uncomfortable with a lot of those organizations.”
“We do intense work with a lot of our closest allies about common agreements, but we’re not responsible for the language used by others,” she says. “I do feel some of those groups do more harm than good, and that’s extremely frustrating to witness.”
Although few of her political views enjoy widespread Jewish support, that doesn’t stop Wise from speaking out.
“My dominant feeling of being a Jew in the world is being part of a creative, vibrant community,” she says. “I see our work [at JVP] as trying to promote self-determination and equality for all people. It feels like a fruition of Jewish values, the path of living a Jewish life for me.”