When eight rabbis from the Bay Area visited Tel Aviv’s City Hall last month, they didn’t head over to the office of longtime Mayor Ron Huldai, as one might expect. Instead, they went to sit down with Deputy Mayor Chen Arieli, the LGBT leader and rising star in Israeli politics.
The meeting was one of many frank, eye-opening encounters between the delegation of rabbis and Israeli officials and diplomats, NGO heads, community leaders and Bedouin academics on a six-day Rabbis’ Mission that concluded Nov. 23. The trip was spearheaded by the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco and organized jointly with the nonprofit Northern California Board of Rabbis led by Rabbi Pam Frydman. It was sponsored by the Koret Foundation and Taube Philanthropies.
Arieli, the first openly gay or lesbian individual to occupy the role of deputy mayor, is a former activist who led street protests in 2018 against Israel’s anti-gay surrogacy laws, among other issues, before entering politics. She spoke candidly to the group about her experience transitioning from activist to citywide politician; about allegations of “pinkwashing,” or claims that Israel uses its progressive stance on LGBT issues to paper over mistreatment of Palestinians; and about her ongoing efforts to secure full equality for LGBT Israelis.
“She was inspiring,” said Rabbi Jill Perlman, one of the newest Bay Area rabbis in the group, who joined Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah in July. “It was fascinating to see what Israeli leaders are thinking about.”
“Once you’re in the deputy mayor’s office, it’s not just your own community’s agenda you’re promoting. You become responsible for all the inhabitants of the city,” said Rabbi Serena Eisenberg, Northern California’s regional director of the American Jewish Committee.
“It was refreshingly honest to have someone talk about her own personal journey,” said Rabbi Corey Helfand of Foster City’s Peninsula Sinai Congregation.
The rabbis’ tour began in the south, in the Negev city of Beersheva and the border town of Sderot, and continued on to the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Gaza before heading to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where the group spent Shabbat.
Matan Zamir, Israel’s deputy consul general in San Francisco who also was on the trip, said the consulate planned an itinerary that would show “all sides of the political spectrum” — even voices critical of the Netanyahu administration and of certain Israeli policies. “If we only took rabbis to hear one voice, we wouldn’t have achieved anything.”
Many of the rabbis came with sophisticated knowledge of Israeli politics and society. “This is a group of people that is very familiar with Israel,” Zamir said. “The idea was not for them to come and listen to Israelis talk at them.”
There were plenty of challenging conversations to be had: Tensions with Gaza were flaring, Israeli politics were in limbo with a second election failing to produce a governing coalition, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was under investigation for corruption.
But on this trip, the group sought to explore Israel’s complexities and conflicts from the point of view of average Israelis. Arriving just days after rounds of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip hit southern Israel, resulting in retaliatory strikes from the Israeli military against Hamas, the rabbis visited Sderot, a western Negev town often targeted by rocket fire. There they visited a protected indoor playground that houses soccer goals and other play equipment for children, for use when it is unsafe to go outside.
“People were still on edge. People were still talking about it,” said Perlman of the rocket attacks. “To a certain extent, you’re always aware of where the shelters are.”
The following day the group visited a trading hub — a symbol not of violence between Palestinians and Israelis, but of exchange. Kerem Shalom is a border-crossing site with Gaza on the southwestern tip of the country, where hundreds of trucks come in and out each day, bearing supplies and goods such as water pipes, scrap metal, fertilizer and produce.
“Trucks arrive from Gaza filled with goods,” Frydman explained. “The goods are offloaded and examined, then loaded onto Israeli trucks, which go into Israel.”
Between 400 and 600 trucks pass through the site each day. Each item entering or leaving Israel must be removed and inspected using the help of Palestinian and Israeli inspectors and bomb-sniffing dogs. The site has been attacked by militants before. In 2008, Hamas sent car bombs that exploded at the crossing, killing the three bombers and wounding 13 Israeli soldiers. In 2012 armed men burst through the crossing point after killing 16 soldiers at an Egyptian base in the Sinai.
The supervisor of the crossing site, Ami Shaked, addressed the group spiritedly, several of the rabbis said. He checked dozens of different screens, intermittently spoke into a microphone to communicate with officers, shouted orders in Hebrew and Arabic, and showed the group contraband-like pipe bombs and shrapnel that he and his employees had recovered. And he showed off his beloved bomb-sniffing dogs.
Eisenberg called Shaked “extremely inspiring.”
“He was extremely charismatic,” Zamir added.
There were other moments on the trip, indicative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that did not go as seamlessly.
The rabbis had planned to meet with leaders connected to Shorashim, a peace group that facilitates face-to-face meetings between Palestinians and Israelis living in the West Bank. However, because it was a Friday, thousands of Palestinians were crossing the border to pray in the Old City. As a result, Palestinian leader Khaled Abu Awwad could not make it through the crowded checkpoint in time for the event. The group met instead with the Israeli leader, Shaul David Judelman.
“It was too bad,” said Rabbi Susan Leider of Congregation Kol Shofar. She has twice visited Shorashim’s West Bank campus and has arranged a partnership between her Tiburon synagogue and the group, whose name means “roots.” “It’s an utterly fascinating organization.”
Traveling on to the capital, the rabbis met for a full day of briefings with officials at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, including Yaron Sideman, director of affairs with the U.S. Congress, and Akiva Tor, former consul general in San Francisco and current head of the Bureau for World Jewish Affairs and World Religions at the ministry.
Some were struck by the fact that the diplomats were keenly interested in the security situation not only in the Middle East, but in the United States, too. They wanted to know what was being done to protect synagogues, JCCs and other Jewish institutions from anti-Semitic attacks like the ones seen in Pittsburgh and Poway.
“It was a little surprising considering we were there to be briefed on geopolitical aspects of Israel’s situation,” said Leider. “We spent quite a bit of time talking about what was going on here.”
Although the trip had no specific theme, the rabbis’ focus naturally turned to spirituality and, specifically, the progressive Jewish movements that are becoming increasingly popular as more non-Orthodox Jews seek a connection with Jewish practice and religious thought.
The group met with Mor Shimoni, a young Tel Avivian and a former student at Bina, a “secular yeshiva” for progressive and egalitarian Jewish education that includes in-depth study of texts. Among other projects, Shimoni traveled to India to set up a center for Israeli tourists and expats to connect to Judaism.
“There are more and more people who are seeking connection in Jewish ways, through tradition, through prayer, through holidays and community,” Helfand said.
For Kabbalat Shabbat, the group attended a service at a Masorti (Conservative) congregation in south Jerusalem. Kehilat Zion describes itself as a gathering place to “re-dream Jerusalem as a meeting point for all.” Its founder, Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, was named by the Forward as one of the “most influential female religious leaders in Israel” in 2010.
“She’s on the cutting edge,” said Leider. “She’s attracting a lot of secular Israelis, and people who used to be affiliated, who grew up in Orthodox homes but fell away.”
A common thread during the trip was the symbiotic relationship between Israelis and diaspora Jews — and how to strengthen that connection. Helfand recounted how Arieli, the Tel Aviv deputy mayor, said that after the Pittsburgh shooting she felt Israeli Jews didn’t coalesce around the tragedy the way Americans did.
“Part of bridging the growing chasm between Israeli Jewry and diaspora Jewry is getting to know each other, to see each other, and to show up for each other,” Helfand said, “even though we have different political landscapes and different struggles.”
“There’s a critical need for American Jews to understand what’s in the kishkes of Israelis,” Eisenberg said. “What do they care about? What’s in their news? What’s their experience of daily life?”
Rabbis Lisa Delson of Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, Nat Ezray of Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City and Daniel Stein of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek also participated in the trip, which turned out to be a bonding experience.
“I was grateful to get to know some of my colleagues better,” said Stein, who thanked the trip’s organizers and other planners, including Frydman, Eisenberg and Helfand, for creating an experience he described as “new and different.”
“I lived in Jerusalem for close to a year, and I’ve lived in Tel Aviv. All of us had strong knowledge of certain aspects of Israel,” Stein said. “They created an Israel experience that brought us beyond the beaten path.” n