A New York City rabbi recently made national headlines when he announced that, as an act of protest against extremists in the government of Israel, his Conservative congregation would no longer recite the prayer for the wellbeing of the State of Israel and its government, part of the Shabbat service across almost all denominations and sects of Judaism today.
Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky wrote that that removing the prayer was a rejection of the “Jewish supremacists, fascists and racists” appointed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, not of Israel or Zionism. In its place, the congregation would read Psalm 122, which includes the line “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”
In contrast, multiple congregational leaders in Greater Washington say they intend to keep the prayer for Israel in their services — a continued expression of communal support and hope, even as they and their congregants wrestle with the actions of the most extreme government in the state’s history.
“It doesn’t matter who happens to be the elected official at any one particular time,” Rabbi David Kalender of Congregation Olam Tikvah, a Conservative synagogue in Fairfax, said in a phone interview on Monday. “We always want the spirit of God and the Torah to be part of the experience. That crosses over every single political line.”
“When it’s an issue of family — and Israel is part of our family, and America is obviously part of our family — we don’t just give up on family, we see what we can do to be supportive. Sometimes things are really difficult, but we don’t give up and we don’t turn away.”
Rabbi Adam Raskin of Congregation Har Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Potomac, said this isn’t the first time members wanted to stop praying for a government they didn’t like.
“When people were agitating to change or not say the prayer for our country during the Trump administration, I resisted that,” Raskin said. “America transcends any particular administration or regime, and I definitely believe that about Israel as well.”
Like Kalender, Raskin said his congregants are not urging to change or stop saying the prayer. “That’s not to say that the situation in Israel isn’t very much a topic of conversation or concern,” he added.
In January, Raskin started holding drop-in daytime gatherings, now happening twice a month, for people to discuss current events in Israel.
“That’s been definitely an outlet for people to ask a lot of questions, trying to understand what this situation of judicial reform is all about and how to make sense of it; also other issues regarding this rightwing government,” he said.
(Judicial reform refers to legislation sponsored by Prime Minister Netanyahu to, among other things, give the Knesset power to nullify decisions of the Supreme Court with a bare majority.)
“We really try to bring in all the different voices and all the different perspectives, but at the end of the day, we’re committed to the State of Israel. We’re committed to the existence and safety and security and vibrancy of the Jewish state, and really believe fundamentally that that has to transcend any ideology or politics of the moment.”
In January, Kol Shalom in Rockville adopted an alternative text for the traditional prayer for Israel said in the Conservative synagogue. When congregant Alan Elsner, a retired journalist and former Jerusalem bureau chief for Reuters, presented the idea and his proposed text to Interim Rabbi Eric Rosin, “I was happy to hear that his goal was to think about a prayer that we can offer for Israel at this moment that really is still a prayer for Israel,” said Rosin.
“Part of the impetus for him to write this was maybe a response to people who would say we can’t pray for Israel anymore, because it’s very much part of this community and a part of his history to pray with all of our hearts for Israel. But he thought that the prayer that was needed was a prayer to really embrace those principles that are in the Israeli Declaration of Independence.”
Elsner lived in Israel for eight years and served in the IDF during the first Lebanon War in 1982. He was prompted to develop a new text for the prayer, initially for his own use, by his growing unease with the political situation in Israel. The proposed judiciary reform and elevation of “political actors who are unapologetically and clearly racist” were unprecedented territory to him. “I never felt that Israeli democracy was under threat the way it is now,” he said.
In crafting the prayer, Elsner solicited feedback from friends and family living in Israel as well as Kol Shalom’s Hebrew-speakers social group. Rosin circulated the prayer to the congregation via email before it debuted in the service, and both he and Elsner gave a little introduction before it was recited for the first time in synagogue.
“Of course, changing the liturgy is always something that people need a little bit of framing to understand,” said Rosin, “but I think the community really has been supportive, and even those people who are uncomfortable with changes in liturgy understood the framing; that this was done carefully and for reasons they could support. I think it helps that this really is a prayer very much in support of a very traditional understanding of the potential of the State of Israel, so I don’t think people saw it as a challenge; I think they saw it as heartfelt wishes for the state.”
On Saturday night, Rabbi Adam Rosenwasser of Temple Emanuel in Kensington joined the mass protests in Tel Aviv. He was one of 250 Reform rabbis who gathered in Israel for the Central Conference of American Rabbis Convention last week. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, spoke to the demonstrators — the first person from outside of Israel to address them directly, Rosenwasser said via email.
“[Jacobs] shared my sentiments: we will never turn our back on Israel even as we stand in protest and demand Israel do better,” said Rosenwasser. “Israel needs our prayers, our support and our indignation more than ever. It is up to us to lean in, not to disengage, and to demand that Israel remain a Jewish and democratic homeland for us and all who would join us in peace.” ■
Rachel Kohn is a freelance writer.
What isn’t in question in Israel, any more than it is in America, is the future of democracy. For all of the differences between the two countries, one thing they have in common is a belief on the part of their left-wing politicians and followers that opposition to their rule isn’t so much wrong as it is anti-democratic.