All in the family: How these 4 rabbis from across Canada have been talking to their congregants about Israel

Clockwise from left: Rabbi Susan Tendler from Beth Tikvah Congregation in Richmond, B.C.; Rabbi Boris Dolin of Congregation Darshei Emet in Montreal; Rabbi Yael Splansky of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto; Rabbi Jarrod Grover of Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto.)

Rabbi Susan Tendler is still jet-lagged after returning from a congregational trip to Israel a few days ago, back to her home in Richmond, B.C.

But it was an ideal time to be in the country, which was roiled by protests over judicial reforms proposed by the right-wing government. Congregants from her Conservative synagogue, Beth Tikvah, wandered among the protestors outside their Tel Aviv hotel—whose signs displayed a diversity of socio-political concerns, not just the judicial reforms.

After witnessing the situation, she wants to explain to her synagogue how the situation in Israel is far more complex than is often portrayed by the mainstream media.

While she often speaks about Israel from the bimah, she rarely discusses politics, although occasionally as a rabbi she says it’s her job to ruffle feathers.

“When I speak about Israel, I don’t always try to speak about things that are quite as controversial. It’s not controversial to say that the reform bill that was brought forward by the Knesset is much more complex than we tend to give it credit.

“Whether people are left-wing or they’re right-wing, I tend to focus on what people can be united on when I speak about Israel, furthering and deepening a love for Israel, giving people reasons that we should continue to feel connected (to Israel)… why the world is better with Israel in it.”

The unprecedented protests and civil upheaval in Israel have highlighted a divide among Canada’s rabbis, particularly in non-Orthodox synagogues, over how to speak about their Zionism from the pulpit. They wonder if Disapora Jews—not to mention their religious leaders—have the right to comment and even criticize Israeli politics.

The issue is not an academic one, either.

Canadian Jews are tightly connected to Israel, far more than their American counterparts. The 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada found that 79 percent of Canadian Jews were very or somewhat attached to Israel, compared to 69 percent of American Jews. Nearly eight in ten, 79 percent, of Canadian Jews have been to Israel at least once, compared to just 43 percent of American Jews.

Inevitably, both religious and secular Jewish leaders fall back on a relative metaphor.

“I’m always clear that there’s complexity,” says Rabbi Tendler. “Yet at the same time you don’t always get along with your siblings but you can still love them as family.”

A statement issued by the Toronto Board of Rabbis on March 27 uses the same analogy. “We believe Diaspora Jewry and the state of Israel have a shared destiny, and like family, we are inextricably bound to one another,” the statement begins.

“We believe we have the right and responsibility to speak about Israel when there is pride and joy as well as when there is concern and distress,” continued the letter signed by the city’s Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis, as well as some whose congregations are not affiliated with any movement.

But there are some rabbis who suggest that family relations are getting so strained that it’s time for an intervention.  

“Israel is part of our family, and like any family member we will always love them, but we also want them to be the best that they can be,” says Rabbi Boris Dolin of Montreal, who leads the Reconstructionist synagogue Dorshei Emet. “To ignore them and not help them become better, to ignore Israel and not help them become stronger, more ethical, that is being a bad member of the family.”

Dorshei Emet is one of the few liberal voices in a city where more conservative attitudes about Israel have dominated the conversation.

“We represent something unique in Montreal, really in Canada, which is a much more traditional Jewish community. I feel an obligation to have a viewpoint that would be considered a little more left. We’re a Zionist community, we love Israel, but we’re also proud of how we can question and challenge and work together to make Israel a better place,” he says.

“If there’s not a place for people who are left and centre and everything in between in one place, then I’m not fulfilling my duty as a rabbi to this congregation. Many of the other synagogues follow the same viewpoint and I think we need to represent something different.”

Rabbi Dolin meets regularly with members of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights where they attend monthly lectures and discuss what it means to be a Zionist today.

“We can’t just say we’re Zionists when the country is not necessarily representing the values of the Jewish community in general, in Israel and the Diaspora community.”

Israel was not a controversial topic not so long ago—but now it has the potential to be divisive, notes Rabbi Jarrod Grover, who leads Toronto’s Conservative Beth Tikvah Synagogue.

He draws a line between speaking publicly about what he feels are Israeli domestic issues, from those that affect the Jewish Diaspora.

The judicial reforms are an issue to be resolved by Israelis “in a democratic way,” he says. “I think my congregants are smart enough to read the blogs and the articles that defend both sides and make a determination for themselves.”

On the other hand, he spoke out not long after the current coalition was elected, when changes were proposed to the Law of Return, which was an issue that would have directly affected Diaspora Jews.

And like Rabbi Tendler, he believes that a rabbi’s mission is ultimately to strengthen the community’s connection with Israel.

“I am deeply concerned about rabbis who are promoting division and not unity around Israel and rabbis who are becoming increasingly distant from Israel,” he says.

He’s working on a program with JNF that will bring American rabbinical students to Israel to “counter some of the slanted views of Israel that some well-funded left-wing organizations are organizing.”

“I’m not an extremist who believes that criticism of Israel makes you an enemy or makes you anti-Zionist.  It is not a perfect country, it is not immune from criticism,” he says.

“For me, it’s about when we’re criticizing and what we’re criticizing and the loving tone behind the criticism. The criticism that also affirms the dignity of Israel’s Jewish citizens and not just its Palestinian ones and understands the complexity of the conflict.”

The debate over Israel’s politics and the role Diaspora Jews should play isn’t just taking place in hushed chapels. At a rally organized by an Israeli grassroots group on March 26 at Toronto City Hall,  Rabbi Yael Splansky, senior rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple, Canada’s largest Reform  congregation, addressed the matter head on.

Rabbi Splansky told the crowd that while Israeli Jews have the direct responsibility for the direction of the state, Jews in the Diaspora have a voice as well.

“Canadian Zionists are very respectful that they’re not voting citizens of Israel, so I think there’s this polite Canadian thing at play, which I appreciate,” she said in an interview as the rally concluded.

 “But that’s why I turned to this prayer (Cause a new light to shine on Zion and let us all soon be worthy of its light), that the state of Israel and the character of the state of Israel is for all of us to shape and for all of us to build together.”

And, while some in the community have said that only those who have made aliyah and live in Israel, can criticize Israel, she disagrees, returning once again to a familiar analogy.

“This is a conversation of family-to-family. And when there’s a concern in the family, we have to look each other in the eye and say hard things to each other.

“I’m not interested in talking to anyone other than my family right now.”