St. Louis rabbi part of Unity Mission that met with Netanyahu

Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of United Hebrew Congregation participated in a rabbinic mission to Israel last week. 

The group of 20 rabbis from the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements was able to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

The goal of the four-day North American Unity Mission was to “stress our commitment to the unity of the Jewish people, to affirm our unbreakable bond with and support for the State of Israel, and to discuss our concerns,” the group said in a statement.

But the Israeli newspaper Haaretz described the mission as an effort to open up “back channel” communication with American rabbis, rather than through leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements. 

In the last year, there has been friction between the prime minister and leaders of the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism over issues such as a freeze in implementation of a plan to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, and proposed legislation that would place all conversions under the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate.

“This whole thing came about through a conversation I had with (Ron Dermer, Israeli ambassador to the United States). I guess there was some level of frustration with some of the existing leadership, where channels of communication had not been positive or constructive,” Stuart Weinblatt, the senior rabbi of B’nai Tzedek, a Conservative congregation in Potomac, Md., told Haaretz.

Group members expressed their concerns about the issues affecting the movements to the prime minister, Rosenberg said.

“One of the things we talked about is how (the rabbis) have an unconditional love of Israel but may still criticize Israel at times for the decisions that the government makes, but it doesn’t mean we love Israel any less,” Rosenberg said.

They met with Netanyahu on Oct. 17 despite the fact that a rocket fired from Gaza, which is controlled by the terrorist organization Hamas, struck a house in Beersheba earlier that day. 

“It was pretty incredible that he kept his meeting with us,” said Rosenberg, the Reform rabbi who had been to Israel at least 10 times. “It was a day of crisis and he could have canceled.” 

For his part, the prime minister’s office released a statement afterwards expressing “appreciation for all that the rabbis are doing to strengthen Jewish identity and foster support for Israel in North America.”

The group also met with Michael Oren, a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, and with opposition leader Tzipi Livni and Natan Sharansky, the former head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which aims to foster immigration of Jews to Israel. 

In meeting with an academic who has studied the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Rosenberg said she had an “aha moment.”

The speaker explained that Israel is concerned by the conditions civilians face in the territory, but that “this is a people who are ruled by a group, Hamas, that wants the destruction of Israel.”

“Over and over for me throughout the four days, there was a realization that one of the places where American Jews and Jewish Israelis differs is that we Americans are Western,” said Rosenberg who lived in Israel for a year. “But Israel certainly does not live in a Western part of the world; its neighborhood is not westernized, so the way they think and approach the world is very different. 

Israeli’s foreign ministry sponsored the trip. Rabbis had to pay for their own travel.

When Haaretz asked URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs about Netanyahu’s meeting with the rabbis, he said, “We’ve always welcomed any dialogue with the Israeli government with our rabbis and leaders that will strengthen the bonds between Israel and Diaspora Jewry….We did not and would not break off respectful discussions with the leadership of the Israeli government. It was the prime minister who broke his promises to provide government funding for our congregations in Israel, to fund mikvahs [ritual baths] for the streams, reneged on the Western Wall compromise agreement, and has done nothing to stop the vicious incitement against our movement.”

Rosenberg criticized the Haaretz story, writing in an email to the Jewish Light that it was “unfortunate that they captured us in a way that suggests the PM’s office [used] us as ‘tools’ to possibly speak out against our movements.  That was not the case.  All of us, myself included, support our movements.  We were there to learn and listen and to see if there are ways to continue and increase the dialogue, especially in our own congregations.”