WASHINGTON — The leader of an interdenominational group of American rabbis engaging with the Israeli government on diaspora relations wants to make something clear: they are not trying to “bypass” the Conservative and Reform movements that have had a tumultuous relationship with Jerusalem.
A report in the national-religious right-leaning Makor Rishon newspaper last week claimed Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer was encouraging “a semi-secret delegation of rabbis” to work around Conservative and Reform leaders.
But Stuart Weinblatt, a Conservative rabbi from Potomac, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC, who organized the group, said the purpose was to create another avenue for dialogue between US rabbis and the Israeli government — not to sideline the movement leaders.
“By no means is this an attempt to do an end-around the movements,” he told The Times of Israel. “It’s an attempt to provide a forum for rabbis to be positively and constructively engaged with Israel. The impetus for it was that I wanted to pull together individuals to engage with leaders in Israel to create greater understanding with the diaspora.”
In October, Weinblatt brought 21 rabbis — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — to Israel to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other government officials and prominent Israeli leaders, such as Natan Sharansky and Tzipi Livni.
The visit was planned with the help of Dermer, confirmed the rabbi, and was clearly not secret as Weinblatt wrote about the trip at the time in a blog post for The Times of Israel.
Weinblatt also pushed back against the notion that Dermer orchestrated the group — making clear that it was his idea — but said the ambassador’s assistance was instrumental in securing a meeting with the Israeli premier.
“Ambassador Dermer has been extremely helpful and has helped to open doors for us in that we had about a 45-minute meeting with the prime minister,” he said.
At that meeting, Weinblatt said that he and the other rabbis “raised serious issues of concern to the American Jewish community.” He asserted that the forum allowed “an opportunity for there to be give and take.”
The Israeli Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Over the last several years, a rupture between some US Jews and the Netanyahu government has intensified considerably.
Many Liberal American Jewish leaders were infuriated by his decision to renege on his promise to ensure a permanent egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall jointly supervised by leaders of non-Orthodox Jewish streams, and were appalled by his efforts to secure a deal that would bring the extreme right-wing Otzmah Yehudit (Jewish Power) party into a possible governing coalition in the April elections.
When Israel arrested a Conservative rabbi last year for performing weddings outside the auspices of the state-run Chief Rabbinate, Steven Wernick, the head of USCJ at the time, said it was a sign that Israel is “no longer a Jewish homeland for all the Jewish people.”
Moreover, many Jewish leaders have expressed an uneasiness about Netanyahu’s cozy relationship with US President Donald Trump, who is deeply polarizing in the United States.
Trump’s policies of separating families at the US-Mexico border and rhetoric of warning that Mexicans are “invading” the country and that congresswomen of color should “go back” to where they came from have been denounced as racist and cruel by Jewish leaders.
Weinblatt said he wanted the group to help both sides — American Jews and Israeli government officials — to understand the divide. “Part of it is to help rabbis understand the role that we play vis-a-vis this gap between the American Jewish community and Israel,” he said.
The next meeting between the group of rabbis will be in Washington, D.C. in September, when they will already be in the capital for an annual AIPAC gathering of the nation’s rabbis.