Experiential learning

Reform rabbis on Amplify Israel Fellowship visit a ‘nation at war,’ bring experiences home

Fellows say they have a better understanding of the vulnerability of Israelis after visiting the country after the Oct. 7 attacks

Unlike the dozens of missions and trips that have come to Israel since Oct. 7, the group of nine Reform rabbis who visited Israel from the United States last month weren’t here to show solidarity or to volunteer (though they did both) but to learn.

They were part of the Amplify Israel Fellowship, a newly launched initiative that is meant to prepare the next generation of Reform rabbis to lead the movement, particularly on Zionist and Israel-related issues. 

The fellowship, which  is being funded by the Lisa and Michael Leffell Foundation, Maimonides Fund, The Paul E. Singer Foundation and the Zalik Foundation Fund, was announced this summer as a response to trends within the American Jewish community in general and among Reform Jews in particular of a distancing from Israel. 

While many of those who have been critical or openly antagonistic toward Israel in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks have come from more progressive denominations, a large majority of the U.S. Jewish community has reaffirmed its support for Israel.

“This clarified for many liberal Jews how important Israel is, what a miraculous accomplishment a Jewish state is, how privileged we are to be living in this period of Jewish history and how mobilized we must be to protect this state and allow it to prosper,” Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, the senior rabbi of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City and the leader of the fellowship.

“The nexus between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, I think it was less clear before. I think it is much clearer now,” he said.

The trip was planned well before the Oct. 7 attacks as a key part of the yearlong fellowship, which also includes mentorship, seminars and study sessions. After the attacks, the program, which is also led by the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue’s Israel fellow, Rabbi Tracy Kaplowitz, decided to press on with the weeklong trip, which ran from Nov. 14-20, albeit with an updated itinerary and without some of the participants.

“The Jewish world and even Western history will look back on the events of Oct. 7 and delineate a pre-Oct. 7 and post-Oct. 7 world. I’m sure of that for Jewish history and for the history of the State of Israel. So to be here during these times… is something that needs to be lived and experienced,” Hirsch told eJP shortly after the trip.

Offering an example, Hirsch noted that on the Friday night of the trip, rockets were fired at Tel Aviv while the participants were in synagogue. “In the middle of Kabbalat Shabbat, the sirens went off. That too was an important moment to be able to identify with our people in Israel,” he said.

“Some of the themes remained the same,” Kaplowitz told eJP. “We were always going to be deeply exploring the role of the Reform movement in Israel. We were always going to look at civil society. We were always going to look at security issues. We’re always going to discuss the Diaspora-Israel relation. Those are all things that were always going to be part of this trip.”

Before Oct. 7, the organizers planned to focus more on what was then the cause du jour in Israel: the government’s contentious judicial overhaul. “No one’s thinking about [the overhaul] as the primary conversation now,” Kaplowitz said. “A lot of the conversation transformed. It became about a nation at war. We thought we’d join judicial reform rallies, instead we joined the hostage rallies. So there are many ways that this trip shifted. We’re traveling with nine members, not all the 13 fellows.”

The other four who decided not to come on the trip — for whatever reason; Kaplowitz and Hirsch didn’t ask for explanations — are still considered fully part of the fellowship. If possible, they will join the next cohort’s trip to Israel.

Kaplowitz anticipated that this wartime trip would allow the participants to more viscerally understand the realities of life in Israel. 

“The vulnerability of Israelis is something that is very hard to observe in a regular visit,”  Kaplowitz said. “Just take, for example, Amir Tibon, Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent. We were originally scheduled to meet with him on Kibbutz Nahal Oz [where Tibon lived], to hear from him about how he sees the security situation in Gaza. Instead, we met with him in Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’Emek [where Nahal Oz residents have temporarily resettled].”

According to Kaplowitz, these experiences will “empower these rabbis to speak in a way that gives color to what is so often understood in black and white and gray.”

Rabbi Allison Peiser, the temple educator at Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, Mass., said that vulnerability was palpable now, even more so than during the Second Intifada when she spent considerable time in Israel. Those fears made it clear to her why Israel had launched the war to topple Hamas, as opposed to weaken it, which she could now better explain to her congregants.

“Every Israeli is now afraid that Hamas can enter into their home,” Peiser told eJP during a stop in Tel Aviv. “During the intifada, people felt you might be unlucky if you were affected by a terrorist attack, but then you could choose not to leave your home. So just having another cease-fire is not an option this time.”

For Rabbi Samantha Kahn, the senior associate rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Boca Raton, Fla., the trip impressed upon her the role that civil society has been playing in Israel since the attacks and how prevalent the plight of the hostages is in Israeli society. (The trip concluded just before the hostage release deal was brokered.)

“The way that civil society has mobilized to this extent is not a story that we’re necessarily hearing in America, and I think that it’s a beautiful, impressive and incredible story that should be shared. And that’s one I hope to bring back,” Khan said. “The second is that the hostages are so present in every moment, in every breath, in every conversation in Israel. And in America, even in the Jewish community, it’s not the primary conversation, it’s this additional conversation. And I think that.. this feeling that it could have been anyone, that it could have been me, that it could have been my daughter, that could have been my family — that that’s a message we need to take back to America very much.”

For Rabbi Sam Spector of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, Utah, a major benefit of the trip was the connections to Israelis, whom he can bring to speak back home, such as Mohammed Darawshe, an Arab Israeli activist, who spoke to the group.

“I didn’t agree with everything, but he said a lot of things that I think presents a narrative that our local Muslim community in Utah, which is 10 times larger than the Jewish community, would really listen to and be impressed by,” Spector said. “So I’ve already made some phone calls, and we were arranging to bring him to Utah to talk to both the Jewish and Muslim communities.”

Rabbi Lindsey Danziger, the assistant director of organizing at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said just the fact that she was on the trip — as anyone who sent her an email during that week could see from her “out of office” automatic reply — served as a message to people she worked with in progressive spaces, many of whom have been critical of Israel throughout the war.

“When people I work with from all these different coalitions that might be taking stances right now on Israel and Palestine see my ‘out-of-office,’ see that I am in Israel, I think even just that is powerful because they know me,” she said. “They know me as someone who mobilizes my community in the thousands to stand with them. And they can just see in my out-of-office that I’m here in Israel because this is where I need to be. And I will have those conversations [about Israel] with them when I get back.” 

Hirsch said one of the “very central challenges” that the fellowship will face going forward is how to ensure that those visceral experiences don’t fade once the participants return home and get back into their routines, far from Israel.

“How do you sustain not just the intellectual but the emotional connections?” 

Hirsch said he believed that what the participants saw, heard and felt during their trip will remain with them — on some level — no matter what.

“Every one of these experiences that we have that touches us deeply, emotionally, they add something to our personality,” Hirsch said. “Something that we experienced will continue to resonate with us.”

Hirsch — one of the Reform Jewry’s most prominent, avowed Zionists — said the movement has to do more to impress upon its member the “role of Israel in the identity of world Jewry” through a variety of new initiatives. 

“We need to create all kinds of programs once the war stops, and I look forward to being part of that effort. That is an urgent requirement for our movement,” he said.