Zionist Rabbinic Coalition gathers in D.C. to bond, hear speakers and hold meetings on Capitol Hill

Dozens of rabbis from across the country and the denominational spectrum amid 'polarized' time in the Jewish community, attendee says

As some 70 rabbis and lay leaders from around the country gathered in Washington, D.C., for three days this week to offer collegial support and affirm their commitment to Israel in its war against Hamas, Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz found himself reflecting on a simpler time — one in which the term “Zionism” and belief in it wasn’t so fraught.

“At one point, my colleagues and I found that support within each of our own denominations,” Lebovitz, who leads Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., one of the largest Conservative synagogues in the U.S., told eJewishPhilanthropy. “I don’t think that’s the case anymore and I don’t think any denomination creates the kind of Zionist space that’s needed at this moment.” 

But for three days this week, Lebovitz relished being in such a “Zionist space,” at a conference organized by the Zionist Rabbinic Coalition, an organization comprised of hundreds of rabbis across the denominational spectrum started in 2019 by Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, the senior rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek, a Conservative synagogue in Potomac, Md. This year’s conference, the third that ZRC has held, was designed to “help fortify rabbis with information so we’re able to go back to our communities better understanding both the issues and the importance of the issues, [which includes] support for Israel and Jewish unity,” according to Weinblatt.  

Attendees heard from a number of speakers on Tuesday — whom Lebovitz described as “some supportive of Israel and some supportive and critical of Israel” — including Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; David Bernstein, founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values; Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor of Newsweek and the author of Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy; and David Harris, former longtime CEO of the American Jewish Committee. 

Several of the speeches focused on the rise of antisemitism on college campuses and in K-12 schools. Bernstein and Schanzer both said that more attention should be placed on the latter. 

“A lot of us are focused on [antisemitism on] college campuses,” Bernstein said. “The biggest battle right now is K-12. Every kid goes through K-12, not every kid goes through humanities at Brown [University].”

Schanzer said that the FDD has recently begun investigating “the bias, influence and money flowing into K-12,” which he called “a new area but a scary one, because the Qataris, who are sponsors of Hamas, the Taliban and Al-Qaida, also have unfettered access in the U.S.” 

Leaving their congregations for three days was no simple feat for many of the rabbis, who traveled from states including Texas, California and New York. Many were still working from a distance — on the sidelines of Tuesday’s meetings, one rabbi could be overheard giving a mi sheberach (prayer for the sick) to a congregant over the phone. But Lebovitz said the turnout was higher this year than at past ZRC conferences because “rabbis are struggling.” 

“That’s what I heard over and over again the last few days,” he said. “Rabbis feel pressure to walk a line, in spite of the fact that we are exposed to the truth of what’s happening. Part of a society that’s so polarized is also congregational life that’s so polarized. The responsibility that falls on to the shoulders of rabbis is to steer the Jewish community through this moment, making sure that all voices in the tent feel welcome and that the tent is squarely placed, standing in support with Israel.” 

On Wednesday, the rabbis and lay leaders went to Capitol Hill, where they met with seven Republican and Democratic lawmakers to discuss the Israel-Hamas war and the state of U.S.-Israel relations. The meetings came on the heels of the passage in the House of the Antisemitism Awareness Act, which would codify the Trump-era executive order that designated antisemitism as a form of prohibited discrimination on campuses, as defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism. The fate of the act in the Senate remains unclear after a bipartisan effort to unanimously fast-track passage of the bill encountered objections on both sides of the aisle.

Several of the lawmakers raised concerns about the conduct of the war and Israel’s leadership. “We’re losing a worldwide propaganda war to baby killers,” Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) told the rabbis, referring to Hamas. “That means things are not going well at all.”

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) told attendees that Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s hard-right minister of national security, is a “damn fool” who is “hurting Israel.” 

On the Republican side, Rep. Max Miller (R-OH) suggested that combating antisemitism start in “this damn place,” singling out his colleagues, Reps. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), for perpetuating antisemitic stereotypes. 

“Being on Capitol Hill and hearing from a number of members of both sides of the aisle, of both parties, was reassuring,” Weinblatt told eJP. “Especially since we hear all kinds of voices coming out of college campuses and elsewhere. It was reassuring to hear strong, bipartisan messages of support for Israel and to have the opportunity to express our appreciation to the representatives we met.”  

Lebovitz, a ZRC board member, said that it falls on American rabbis to address the “second most important outcome of Israel’s war.” 

“The most important outcome of Israel’s war is to win the war,” he said. “The secondary outcome has to be the preservation of the strong unique bond that has always existed between the U.S. and Israel.”