NEW YORK – On Thursday, the rabbis backtracked. In an unusual mea culpa, the three rabbis at the helm of the progressive synagogue Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, sent a note to congregants all but pleading for forgiveness.
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It followed an email to synagogue members on Friday celebrating Palestine’s admittance to United Nations membership. That led to an uproar – and a front page article in Tuesday’s New York Times.
The synagogue members pushed back, inundating the staff at BJ, as the synagogue is known, with responses. The rabbis’ second letter sounded chastened in response. “The depth of feeling expressed has moved us. Some of you found our words very upsetting; for others of you, the message resonated powerfully,” the rabbis wrote on Thursday.
The second letter said that the first was sent out in error, when it was just “an incomplete and unedited draft.” While the rabbis affirmed “the essence of our message,” they also expressed regret that it “resulted in a tone which did not reflect the complexities and uncertainties of this moment.”
“We genuinely love this community,” wrote Rabbis J. Rolando Matalon, Marcello Bronstein and Felicia Sol in the second letter. “BJ is our home and we have devoted many years building relationships with so many of you. We have achieved a great deal together. We do not take that for granted, and we regret the feelings of alienation that resulted from our letter.”
The rabbis’ first letter read, in part, “Remember the crucial role that diplomacy played in achieving independence for the State of Israel.” That email, which was signed by the synagogue’s three rabbis, its cantor, board president, executive director and director of Israel engagement also said, “The vote at the UN yesterday is a great moment for us as citizens of the world.”
In their second email, the rabbis wrote that the first “should not have included the names of our Hazzan, Ari Priven, our Board President, Jeannie Blaustein, our Executive Director, Steve Goldberg, and our Director of Israel Engagement, Orli Moss.”
The progressive views held by the rabbis are well known to BJ members. But even some of those who agree with the rabbis’ perspective were surprised at Friday night services when Matalon, known to everyone as Roly, tied the previous day’s UN vote accepting Palestine as a member nation to the Torah portion about relations between the Biblical brothers Jacob and Esau. Using their contentious dynamic but eventual agreement as a frame Roly spoke about redemption through reconciliation.
“When Roly started speaking it seemed very organic and not at all surprising. Then I realized that this was new. This was a bolder connecting of the dots than one typically hears, even at BJ,” said Kathleen Peratis, a congregant since the early 1990s and former synagogue board member.
“Things got really quiet. I felt that the congregation was all of a sudden clicking into the fact that this was significant,” said Peratis, a Manhattan attorney who is also a board member of Americans for Peace Now and Human Rights Watch, in an interview.
It did not take long for strong feelings within the synagogue community about the rabbis’ statement to become evident.
“There was big pushback to the rabbis,” said Sally Gottesman, a philanthropist and consultant to non-profit organizations who also serves as vice president of the B’nai Jeshurun board of trustees, in an interview.
After an article about controversy appeared on the front page of the New York Times Wednesday morning, the synagogue’s staff was inundated with phone calls and emails. Gottesman said that emergency meetings of the board and staff were arranged to discuss the fallout.
BJ’s communications director and rabbis did not respond to multiple requests for comment. One of them, Rabbi Felicia Sol, said in an email, “We will be in touch when we are ready to respond.”
Several BJ members said by others to be upset by the rabbis’ letter declined Haaretz’s interview request or did not respond to it.
Another congregant, Meryl Zegarek, said in an interview that she was taken aback only that any member of the synagogue would be surprised by the rabbis’ stance. “This has been the message coming from the pulpit for years,” said Zegarek, who owns a public relations business and has been a member since 1990. “I’m surprised anyone in the congregation would be shocked by this. In a way it’s what we’ve been waiting for as a step forward.”
Gottesman said that BJ’s commitment to supporting Israel’s wellbeing is illustrated by the fact that it is the first American synagogue to have on staff a full time Israeli shaliach, or emissary, runs regular congregational trips to Israel and provides ongoing support to social justice and other programs there.
The rabbis “put out a letter last month saying they deplore the work of Hamas and that they support Israel’s right to defend itself. They also called for a two-state solution then. [But] that doesn’t make it to the front page of the New York Times,” Gottesman said.
Talking about Israel from the pulpit is currently considered so fraught that she knows rabbis from New York City to California who are no longer willing to do so, Gottesman said. “Most rabbis want to avoid talking about Israel like the plague. The [BJ] rabbis are willing to speak,” she said. “The irony of this is that these rabbis put Israel front and center.”
Even the internal fallout over the rabbis’ letter reflects the synagogue community’s passion for Israel, said Gottesman. “It shows that the congregation, from the left to the right, is full of people who love and support Israel.”
The rabbis’ handling of the issue – starting with the fact that a draft of the intended letter was sent to the congregation’s roughly 2,000 member households and ending with the fact that it took them a full week to follow up with the community – also reflects the fact that rabbis are not always good managers, Gottesman said on Thursday.
“Our rabbis are good spiritual leaders and then we ask them to be managers. Management problems happen and synagogues don’t know how to effectively deal with it,” she said after the second letter was sent.
Peratis called it “an office mix up that’s really embarrassing.”
It also isn’t the first time that there has been congregational conflict around issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she said.
“When speakers have been invited from the bereaved parents circle [the group “Palestinian Israeli Bereaved Families for Peace”], from Shovrim Shtika, [“Breaking the Silence,” an organization of Israeli soldiers talking about the occupation] and the first time J Street was brought in there were a lot of upset people,” said Peratis.
“Whether this one will be a lasting problem or temporary kerfuffle it is too soon to say.”