‘Zionism: A New Conversation’ brings together 110 rabbis across denominations to talk about Israel

The off-the-record, for-rabbis-by-rabbis gathering was organized by the Leffell Foundation, Paul E. Singer Foundation and Maimonides Fund

Since the pandemic hit and the many national conferences went on pause, there hasn’t been a national convening for rabbis to discuss Israel. “Rabbis have a lot on their plate, specifically with Israel,” Erez Sherman, a Conservative rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, told eJewishPhilanthropy. With their communities depending on them to be leaders, particularly at a time when the Israel-Hamas war and the rise in antisemitism have gripped Jews around the country, it can feel lonely.

The inaugural three-day conference, “Zionism: A New Conversation,” provided a fresh opportunity for a wide range of rabbis to grapple with modern-day Israel. The conference, which ended Tuesday, brought 110 rabbis from congregations, day schools, rabbinical schools and Jewish organizations across America to Miami for sometimes tough conversations; it was sponsored by the Lisa and Michael Leffell Foundation, the Paul E. Singer Foundation and the Maimonides Fund. 

Sherman, who has mentored rabbis about Israel through the Leffell Foundation in the past, reached out to the foundation with the idea of a conference not organized by pro-Israel organizations, but by foundations. “There’s no commercials for anything,” he said. “It’s simply the rabbis getting what they need.”

After officials at Leffell consulted with its partners, the conference received the thumbs-up. The first step was setting up an advisory committee of rabbis from different denominations, ages and locations, to ensure that the programming met all their needs. “This was a conference where the pedagogy was designed by rabbis for rabbis,” Michael Leffell, who, along with his wife, established the Leffell Foundation in 1999, told eJP.

Session topics included reengaging youth when discussing Israel, creating allies, understanding social media, answering the hard questions and reclaiming Zionism. Speakers included educators, leaders from Zionist organizations such as Zioness and Boundless, and leaders from the LGBTQ, Black and Latino communities. The event featured presentations by conservative New York Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens and Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY), who is known as a pro-Israel progressive.

“In a post-Oct. 7 world, the need to organize the leadership of the Jewish community has taken on new urgency,” Torres — who calls himself “an improbable friend of both the Jewish state and the Jewish people” — told eJP. “It was inspiring to be in a room full of rabbis who are eager to be spiritual leaders in a time when it’s so desperately needed.”

It’s important that allyship had emphasis at the conference, Torres said, because Jews feel more alone than ever. “I see it as my role to tell the Jewish community that you’re not alone. There are non-Jews who do care. There are non-Jews who do stand up. And there are non-Jews who do speak out against antisemitism, and I am only one of them.”

He feels the need to speak up because Israel “is a multiracial, multiethnic, multilingual democracy, a microcosm of America,” and “if I were to turn a blind eye to antisemitism in a post-Oct. 7 world, then I would have no business being an elected office.”

The urgency of the conference may have intensified after Oct. 7, but it was in the planning since winter 2023, according to Leffell. “Israel was getting ripped apart at that time by all these internal divisions over the proposed judicial reform, and we saw it impacting American Jewry. Conversations were getting more divisive,” he said. “We heard about some rabbis who declined to say the prayer for the State of Israel or for the government of Israel. And I thought that was really terrible. People were losing sight of the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people.”

Over the past several years, politics have been further polarized due to social media, he said. “Those things came together and I said, ‘Well, we got a real problem here.’”

Oct. 7 showed that the American Jewish community had gotten complacent, Leffell said. “We’ve grown very comfortable with our relative success,” and after the attacks Jews living in the Diaspora are “fighting adversaries from the right and the left, and it often feels like from above and below as well.”

The issues bubbling up today have been under the surface since long before Hamas crossed the border, Rachel Fish, the co-founder of Boundless, a think-action tank looking to revitalize Israel education and combat Jew-hatred, told eJP. During her two sessions at the conference, she encouraged rabbis to “be brave individuals, because they need to model moral courage for their congregants, for their students, for their educators, for the larger community, and they can’t avoid the hard topics.”

They need to remember that talking about Israel is “not so complicated,” she said. You can disagree with the government and its actions. “You can hold all of that complexity, but the conversation that’s taking place in the public square is adjudicating Israel’s right to exist. It is not nuanced. It is not holding the complexity. [It’s starting with the idea that] Israel was born in sin and therefore it has no right to exist. That’s what they have to be able to address.”

While the conference discussed how to target antisemitism and anti-Zionism, it was also about “embracing ourselves,” said Yael Dadoun, a Reform rabbi at The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Cleveland. “Defining our own identities as Jews, as Zionists, and owning those narratives, rather than constantly having to deal with being defined from the outside.”

This is essential, Fish said, because “if we do not reclaim the discourse on Zionism now, we cannot expect others in our community to do it for us.”

The conference included a keynote address on “Understanding Christian Zionists”  by Rev. Johnnie Moore, president of the Congress of Christian Leaders. Leffell noted that Moore was chosen as the keynote speaker because “the Christians still like us.” Leffell said. He understood that having a Christian keynote speaker would be controversial,  and pointed to the opening session, which was about “learning how to listen to things you don’t agree with.”

Attendees were personally invited by the advisory committee, and the costs for everything other than transportation were covered. “We didn’t want there to be any reason other than schedule for somebody not to come if they were invited,” Leffell said.

Leffell noted that the conference was “off the record”  because “we wanted to create as brave an environment as possible, as comfortable an environment as possible, so there can be very candid discussion.”

Dadoun, who identifies as a Moroccan-Tunisian-Israeli-American, was moved by the diversity of the presenters. “It painted a really bright future of who we are and who we have the potential to become,”she said.

Stereotypes about different denominations and their relationship to Israel and its policies broke down, Sherman said, with attendees realizing the complicated views everyone had of the situation and how they talk about it. “It felt really good to realize that we are not alone across North America, and that we have allies within our own worlds, across denominations.”

Leffell said the advisory committee is currently planning next steps to supporting the community, keeping in mind that they don’t want to create conference fatigue.

Even though he helped prompt the conference, Sherman said that he didn’t realize how important the event would be. “Steve Jobs said, ‘You didn’t know you needed the iPhone until it was in your hand.’ I feel like a lot of rabbis did not know that we all needed this until we got it.”

When the conference started, Dadoun said, “I felt like I was coming in [on] Tisha b’Av,” the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, “feeling enormous weight and heaviness and sadness around what’s going on in the world.” When it ended, she said, “I feel like I’m leaving with Adar in mind,” referencing the current joyous Jewish month that includes Purim.