On a cold, wet evening in the last week of December, members of New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue filled a gigantic Jerusalem banquet hall festooned with blue and white balloons. As the music pumped and the food and alcohol flowed freely, they celebrated 70 years of Israeli independence and 136 years since their congregation’s founding.
With the Park Avenue Synagogue’s 450-strong contingent, the eight-day mission was possibly the largest Jewish congregational trip ever to visit Israel. This was the latest in a succession of annual visits organized by the synagogue over the last decade and a half. None of the previous shul trips, however, reached the size of this latest one in 2018, the year in which Israel saw a record 4 million visitors.
At a time when many American Jews question their commitment to Israel over matters such as religious pluralism and Israel’s 50-year occupation of the West Bank, the Park Avenue Synagogue’s latest trip to the Jewish state stands out.
But even as many boogied on the dance floor along with costumed early Zionist and Israeli leaders Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, the congregants weren’t stuck in the past. For many, the trip offered a means to explore the future of their relationships with Israel, given that Conservative Judaism continues to be marginalized — if not disparaged — by Israel’s rabbinic authorities.
Through their arrival in Israel in such numbers, Park Avenue Synagogue’s leaders and members are voting with their feet. As in the past, their support for Israel is steadfast. But now it comes with caveats and demands for acceptance.
“If you have concerns, you have the choice of sitting on the sidelines or taking a seat at the table. We are expressing both our support and our concern by showing up,” said Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, the spiritual leader of the synagogue for the past 10 years.
In another subtle statement of support, the congregation donated a Torah scroll to Ezrat Yisrael, the pluralistic prayer platform located at the Western Wall. In accepting the Torah, which was presented at the party, Israeli Masorti (Conservative) Rabbi Chaya Rowan-Baker thanked Park Avenue Synagogue for “standing with us in an uphill battle for Israel’s future, in which the spiritual is as important as the physical.”
With 1,700 member families, Park Avenue Synagogue is one of the largest and most prominent egalitarian Conservative synagogues in North America. Located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, it is also one of the most affluent. Its historically significant, 1200-seat sanctuary on 87th Street between Park and Madison Avenues dates to 1927. Designed by architect Walter Schneider, it is one of the last synagogues built in the ornate Moorish style, which first became popular in Europe in the 1850s.
The congregation has a history of Jewish educational travel. In addition to Israel, destinations have included Cuba, Eastern Europe, Russia, and the US south to learn about Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement.
“We’ve built community as an outcome of travel,” said Amy Bressman, a former chairperson of the synagogue, under whose tenure the regular Israel trips began.
“I felt that we needed to show a physical connection to Israel,” she said.
Former synagogue president Paul Corwin added, “We’re building a compelling community around the value of Israel as part of a North American Jewish identity in the 21st century.”
The synagogue’s lay and professional leadership spent two years planning the recent December Israel trip. The participants, ranging in age from infants to senior citizens, were divided into five tracks: young families; b’nei mitzvah families; teenagers and their parents; millennials and their parents; and adult learners and leaders. Children and teenagers between the ages of one and 18 accounted for 160 of the 450 travelers.
The age-appropriate itineraries for the various tracks shared common elements with the aim of ultimately feeling like one single congregational experience rather than five separate trips. All five tracks included encounters with the IDF, and dealt with matters surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, religious pluralism, and inclusion within Israeli society. Each group also took part in a volunteer project.
The tracks’ itineraries reflected an eyes-wide-open approach to touring the country. They involved serious engagement with the political and social challenges of current-day Israel, with opportunities to meet and speak with Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, as well as with members of the community of African asylum seekers living in south Tel Aviv. Two tracks crossed the Green Line to visit the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Hebron.
High school student Olivia Becker, 16, said the trip’s content would allow her to better engage in dialogue with Israel’s detractors, whom she expected to encounter on her future college campus.
Ellie Bressman Davis, a 30-year-old teacher, has already been to Israel seven times. She especially appreciated this opportunity to delve into Israeli economic and cultural issues that her peers back home — including Israel supporters — are generally unaware of.
“The more I’ve been here, the more interested I have become in the internal matters like the economy, pluralism, government bureaucracy, and citizenship issues,” Bressman said.
“I had no idea about the high cost of living that makes it so hard especially for young people to get by here,” she said.
While the insufficient recognition of the liberal streams of Judaism in Israel remains a stumbling block, it did not seem to dampen enthusiasm for the Jewish state.
Becker said she respected the ultra-Orthodox, but disagreed with some of their practices. “It makes me sad that egalitarian Judaism is not respected here. But that won’t change my resolute support for Israel,” said the teenager.
Park Avenue Synagogue’s artist-in-residence Ellen Alt has taught at the congregation since 2003. She said she has seen a growing awareness in recent years among her students and their families about Israel’s lack of recognition of Conservative Judaism.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s backtracking from the “Kotel Compromise” plan in June 2017 due to pressure from ultra-Orthodox coalition partners was a key turning point, said Alt. The plan would have given Liberal Judaism de facto official recognition and a seat at the table in governing the Western Wall prayer pavilion.
“Our girls read from the Torah at their bat mitzvah, and the kids see their moms read from the Torah,” Alt said.
“#MeToo is the next incarnation of feminism. This generation of girls is growing up with a sense of respect and power, and they will be surprised that it’s not that way in Israel,” she said.
Alt led an art project in the run-up to the Israel trip for the entire congregation, including those who did not travel to Israel. The project was part of a yearlong synagogue-wide program of learning, under the theme of “Telling Israel’s Story.” Throughout the year, the congregation engaged in serious dialogue about Israel with speakers and scholars-in-residence with varying points of view, said Alt. The learning would continue after the trip, as well.
“The educational program preceding the trip helped prepare people to ask questions when they got here,” said director of congregational education Rabbi Charles Savenor.
“We stand with Israel, and we are partners with Israel, so we are allowed to ask difficult questions — especially when it is not matching up with our spiritual and communal values,” he said.
Savenor said he hoped that through the trip’s tracks, which dug deeper into Israel society, congregants would be inspired to be part of the solutions to challenges facing the country.
Park Avenue Synagogue members have views all along the political spectrum, and head rabbi Cosgrove thinks that is healthy. They key is to be able to disagree without being disagreeable.
“One of the dangers in the Jewish world is the inability to hold a textured conversation about Israel. There’s a lot of name calling and toxic discourse. Park Avenue Synagogue presents the possibility of a sane center. If you are committed to building a safe and democratic Israel, then Park Avenue Synagogue is a place to house you as part of a Jewish community,” said Cosgrove.
In speaking to the huge crowd at the party, Cosgrove recalled having been encouraged by a mentor when he was young to always leave a place in better shape than when you found it.
“Maybe, just maybe, our showing up here will have made a difference, and Israel will be strengthened by our having been here,” Cosgrove said.