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On Meeting Shimon Peres, Natan Sharansky and Other Vignettes

I have just returned from Israel where I co-chaired with Rabbi Mauricio Balter of Beer Sheva the Rabbinical Assembly Annual Convention in Jerusalem.  Having served in 2008 as the Chairman of the convention in Washington, I felt privileged to be the only rabbi asked to chair two RA conventions.


Approximately 200 Conservative rabbis primarily from the United States, as well as from Israel and elsewhere around the world gathered in Jerusalem for the convention.  All of the speeches and sessions were conducted entirely in Hebrew, which made quite an impact on the Israeli officials with whom we met.


Our program opened on Tuesday evening with a shiur, a lesson taught by Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, an extremely talented young Israeli rabbi.


Wednesday was a high point, as we went to the home of the President of the State of Israel.  Shimon Peres, alert as ever, greeted us warmly and spoke eloquently.  He was introduced by RA President Rabbi Jerry Skolnik with an extremely moving and gracious introduction.  I sat next to Peres and after he spoke, asked him a question on behalf of the rabbis about the opening of Israeli society to non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism.  (You will hear more about the story he told about Ben Gurion on the High Holidays.)  I was honored to then present to the President the RA resolution in honor of the 65th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel.


From the President’s home we traveled to the Knesset where I introduced Yuli Edelstein, Speaker of the Knesset.  I became friendly with the famous former Soviet Refusenik in his previous position as Minister of Diaspora Affairs.  He spoke about the importance of being accepting of diverse opinions in the Jewish community.  His talk was followed by a historic address.  The head of the party known as Bayit Yehudi (Jewish home), Naftali Bennett, spoke to us.  His appearance was significant because it was the first time an Israeli Minister of Religion spoke to the organization of Conservative rabbis.  He was extremely warm and went out of his way to express his belief in the importance of all branches of Judaism working together.  On several occasions he referred to us as, “my brothers and my sisters.”  He also said how important it is for us to sit together at a round table where we can all speak together about solving the problems which confront the Jewish people together.  His message of inclusiveness and recognition that there are multiple ways to live a committed Jewish life was received like a breath of fresh air.


This new, refreshingly enlightened approach continued with another unprecedented gesture.  We were recognized and officially welcomed by the presiding officer of the Knesset while we were in the gallery.  This also was unprecedented.


We then divided into groups to meet with members of the Israeli Parliament about religious pluralism, Israel and its Arab minority, and security.  I attended the session on religious pluralism, where three members of Knesset spoke about the importance of including and accepting all Jews and all streams of Judaism.    Rabbi Dov Lipman of Yesh Atid echoed this message as did an extremely impressive MK I had never heard before, Elazar Stern.  Stern, a practicing Orthodox Jew who wears a kippah, from the Tnuah Party of Tzipi Livni said he had no problem with women davening at the Wall and wearing tallitot and tefillin.  His only concern is that the prayer services at this most sacred site be worship and not a political demonstration.


Over 40 of the 120 members of Knesset are new members of the Knesset, many of them new to politics.  One of the members told us that when the current Knesset was sworn in, they ran out of seats in the gallery since so many invited their grandparents to attend the ceremony.


The extremely exciting day concluded with tours of the under-visited but fascinating Israel Bible Lands Museum and a beautiful outdoor reception honoring rabbis who were ordained 50 years ago.


On Thursday after a study session the rabbis divided into groups to tour the country and explore and delve into four important issues.  The theme of our convention was “Israel Today:  Confronting the Challenges of Tomorrow.”  I was especially pleased at the way this all went, as it was my idea to work with four national agencies to sponsor the trips.  Those interested in Hi-Tech went to Google headquarters in Tel Aviv for a program sponsored by Israel Bonds.  The environment and ecology tour sponsored by the Jewish National Fund went to Sderot and Beer Sheva where they saw the amazing water reclamation work that Israel is doing, making it a world leader in this field, as well as the indoor playground built in Sderot.  Another group sponsored by the Friends of the IDF traveled to Nablus in a double reinforced bus to meet with members of the Israel Defense Force who do surveillance of suspected Palestinian terrorists.  The fourth group explored issues of social integration, and was sponsored by JAFI (The Jewish Agency for Israel) and the Joint Distribution Committee.  We visited an employment center which helps members of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community acquire the necessary skills so they can enter the workforce, as well as a program sponsored by the Army known as, “Nativ,” where members of all streams teach Judaism to soldiers who may not be halachically Jewish to help facilitate their conversion.


After the groups returned to the Fuchsberg Center in Jerusalem for dinner, I interviewed Natan Sharansky in front of over 200 people.  I asked him about a wide variety of issues including the proposal he is working on to expand the Kotel to provide for non-traditional modes of worship, as well as his personal journey and how he and his wife navigate their religious differences.  I asked about his vision for The Jewish Agency and the role it plays in strengthening Jewish identity.  I concluded the session with Sharansky by quoting a verse from the Torah portion, “Moses asked God to appoint a leader, and said, ‘May God of the wind and the spirits of all flesh appoint a leader over the community.’ “Rashi explains that Moses understood that the leader God would appoint needed to be tolerant.  Kedushat Levi expands on Rashi’s comments that a leader of the Jewish people must be someone who loves all, regardless of whether they are God fearing or not, and must love each and every Jew just as he is.


After davening Friday at the Robinson’s Arch area of the Kotel, the rabbis went either on a walking tour of the Old City or a trip to Herodion, the city built by Herod, and then to the exhibit at the Israel Museum about Herodion and Herod.


The convention concluded on another high note with a speech by Ruth Calderon, a new member of the Knesset, who is electrifying many with her embrace of Talmudic text study.  Although she is a secular Jew, she spoke about the place that Jewish wisdom and sources can play in enriching the appreciation of our Jewish heritage in the State of Israel.


Upon my suggestion, we rose and concluded the convention by singing Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem.


Meeting with Israel’s President Shimon Peres, introducing Yuli Edelstein, the Speaker of the Knesset, interviewing Natan Sharansky, organizing highly successful excursions around the country, and doing all of this in Hebrew – all and all an extremely thrilling, exhilarating and inspiring week!


Also published on Medium.


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Stuart Weinblatt

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is the President of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America. From 2009 - 2014 he served as Director of Israel Policy and Advocacy for the Rabbinical Assembly.
Rabbi Weinblatt is the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland, a vibrant Conservative synagogue of 650 families he founded in 1988, along with his wife and a handful of families.