AUSTIN, Texas — A handful of white cowboy hats dotted the crowd among the hot pink kippas as Shabbat services commenced at Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin, Texas this past Saturday. And there were more congregants than usual.
Some were there to celebrate a Bat Mitzvah — hence the hot pink kippas worn by both men and women at this egalitarian congregation, the only Conservative synagogue in town. Some came to hear blessings for the upcoming nuptials of a young couple.
Many were there because they attend every week and are led in prayer and listen to the weekly sermon by Rabbi Neil Blumofe. Agudas Achim’s 45-year-old senior rabbi has steered the congregation for the past seven years; he was its cantor the previous decade.
But this Saturday’s service was different. (And not only because, in the interest of full disclosure, my husband was called to the pulpit for an aliya in honor of the second anniversary of his father’s death. My mother-in-law and her husband are long-time members of the congregation.)
The service followed a particularly contentious week for Blumofe and his community, surrounding a call for his resignation — or termination — and a mounting online campaign to brand him an anti-Semitic, anti-Israel Jewish leader. According to his detractors, he should be immediately excommunicated for his perceived sympathy for the Palestinian cause and alleged support for terror groups.
These are harsh, damaging accusations that came hard and fast over the previous six weeks as the controversy unfolded. The public debate even drew the involvement of a senior official in the Texas state government, a Tea Party conservative and ardent supporter of the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
A proposed visit to Arafat’s grave
The opening shot was a letter dated July 20 from an irate, long-time congregant who called into question Blumofe’s leadership and judgement for considering a congregational trip to Israel planned for June 2017. The problem? The proposed itinerary would have included a visit to the tomb of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
The 15-day trip was organized by MEJDI Tours, an “alternative” tour operator, co-founded by a Jew and a Palestinian, that specializes in a “dual narrative approach” to travel. MEJDI says it works with Israeli and Palestinian government offices to provide perspectives from both sides, and invites speakers from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Knesset, leftist or co-existence groups like Breaking the Silence and the Parents Circle Families Forum, and the Yesha Council (the umbrella organization of municipal councils of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and, previously, Gaza).
In addition to the Ramallah stop, the itinerary in question included a visit to the illegal West Bank outpost Havat Gilad and an overnight stay in the nearby settlement of Har Bracha, as well as a meeting with the head of its yeshiva.
Blumofe had met one of MEJDI’s Palestinian guides while on a personal visit to Israel — one of many he has taken over the past several years — and said he was impressed with his critical view of the Palestinian narrative. The rabbi felt the tour operator would be a good fit for the trip he had in mind.
In addition to interested Jewish congregants, Blumofe, who is the president of Interfaith Action of Central Texas, planned to include Christian clergy from streams that are not necessarily friendly to Israel. He had hoped, “based on my long term, invested relationships with various people in the interfaith community, that new relationships could be fostered and fresh paths made,” he told The Times of Israel.
Speaking from his office at Congregation Agudas Achim, which sits on the Dell Jewish Community Campus in west Austin, Blumofe said he certainly “paused for a moment” when he saw the proposed visit to Arafat’s grave, but felt that it was in keeping with the idea behind the trip. In any case, he explained, every item was up for discussion with the prospective travelers.
“The itinerary for the trip was in a draft form and was meant to serve as an unfolding thought experiment for those who indicated their interest in participating,” Blumofe told the Times of Israel. He added he “had hoped to build the trip in the upcoming months in real time together with prospective travelers, thus creating more ownership of the experiences and hopefully, richer conversation about identity and narratives.”
An initial meeting about the trip with about 30 interested congregants took place on June 30, where Blumofe said there was no mention of Arafat or the proposed visit to his grave. Another meeting was scheduled for later this month.
“Many aspects of the trip did invite response [during the first meeting] — like people wanting to spend more time in specific places — but no one brought up Arafat,” Blumofe said.
For Jon Weisblatt, 46, a member of the congregation for seven years, the main issue was not having enough time in Jerusalem, where the draft itinerary proposed spending just one day, a Saturday.
The rabbi, said Weisblatt, “told us numerous times: ‘This is your trip, I want your input.’ We had plenty of influence over it and we are free-thinking people, we all had the option of not going to certain spots or ducking out.”
“The point is that it was a draft itinerary, just a draft,” Weisblatt told the Times of Israel by phone in Austin.
‘To me, it’s no different than were you to travel to Germany to pay your respects at Adolf Hitler’s tomb, if one existed’
For Richard Brook, the furious congregant who wrote the letter, draft itinerary or not, the fact that Blumofe was entertaining the idea of taking congregants to visit Arafat’s grave disqualified the rabbi “completely and absolutely from being the moral and spiritual leader of a Conservative congregation of Jews.”
“To me, it’s no different than were you to travel to Germany to pay your respects at Adolf Hitler’s tomb, if one existed,” Brook wrote in his letter to Blomofe, adding that it was “time for you to resign. Depart and let us be done with you. In name of G-d, go!”
Brook, a semi-retired 56-year-old who works in the electronics industry, is a member of the congregation since 1990. He refused to meet with the rabbi to discuss the issue despite Blumofe’s invitations to do so.
Ramping up the pressure
Brook then decided to take things further, hoping to drum up more attention.
After corresponding with several people, including from other Jewish communities around the country, the issue was picked up on “Israel Matzav,” a right-wing blog run by “Carl in Jerusalem.”
In a post on August 16 titled “Monday, the rabbi worshipped at Arafat’s tomb,” Carl wrote of the rabbi who “thinks that Judaism requires him to go worship at the tomb of the father of terrorism.” He published Brook’s letter to Blumofe in full, as well as the MEJDI draft itinerary.
Through his correspondence, in a long thread emailed to The Times of Israel newsroom last week, Brook discovered that another rabbi, Eric Solomon of the Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh, North Carolina, was to lead a similar trip to Israel, in March 2017, with the same tour operator, that would have also included a visit to Arafat’s grave.
Alarmed, Brook sought to sound the bell on what he perceived to be a coordinated effort to bring busloads of American Jews to the grave of a man widely considered to have been responsible for the killings of hundreds of Israelis. A man who had, among other terrorism, provided the underhanded ok — and the funding — for hundreds of shooting attacks and suicide bombings during the Second Intifada.
In Israel and among many Jews, Arafat is remembered as a dishonest, scheming Palestinian leader who talked peace — sharing the 1994 Nobel Prize for peace with Shimon Peres and the late Yitzhak Rabin for their roles in the 1993 Oslo Accords — while actively orchestrating the violence.
Brook told The Times of Israel that when he first learned of the North Carolina rabbi, he asked himself if there was “a cabal of rabbis who wanted to see Arafat,” arguing in an August 28 email to an undisclosed recipient that “if there are 2 Rabbi’s [sic] planning trips to Arafat’s grave, I estimate that there are 20 more out there somewhere. But I don’t know how to find them.”
“It is not a coincidence that these two rabbis planned the same trip. How can it be a coincidence?” Brook said by phone in Austin last Thursday.
Solomon and Blumofe, it turns out, have known each other for years and both recently completed the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative fellowship at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Blumofe said he only learned of Solomon’s planned trip with MEJDI when they were both in Israel in July for their graduation.
Solomon is also the co-chair of T’ruah: A Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, formerly affiliated with the leftist Israeli NGO Rabbis for Human Rights. The two groups, both critical of Israeli policies, parted ways three years ago. However, T’ruah recently partnered with the controversial Israeli group Breaking the Silence — which tracks alleged abuses of Palestinians by IDF soldiers — to lead congregational, college and community trips to the West Bank.
The aim of the trips, according to T’ruah, is to “empower more American Jews to meet both Palestinians and IDF veterans who have served in the territories, to listen deeply to their narratives, and to bring these perspectives into working toward a better future for Israelis and Palestinians.”
Breaking the Silence recently drew fire from a number of Israeli lawmakers who called to outlaw the group, claiming it was a “subversive organization” whose aim was to damage the country.
In addition, one of MEJDI’s travel planners, Josh Bloom, is the former Director of Israel Programs for T’ruah.
Through Solomon then, Blumofe was linked with T’ruah and Breaking the Silence, though he is a member of neither organization.
About the T’ruah-MEJDI connection, Blumofe said he “wasn’t aware, though that is irrelevant.”
“I’m not looking to apply any litmus test to vendors that I may use,” he said.
‘No friend of Israel’
Blumofe’s lack of affiliation with the groups didn’t matter to his harsher critics, Joseph Davidsohn and Avi White, neither of whom belong to the Agudas Achim Congregation, but both of whom live in Austin and read the Israel Matzav blog.
In an open letter to Blumofe circulated widely, Davidsohn accused the rabbi of opening up “an entirely new page in the history of treachery” and “helping [to] promote modern blood liables [sic] against Israel and world Jewry.”
Davidsohn also called for Blumofe’s termination and his “rights to visit Israel” to “be rescinded forever.” In his email he noted he had “taken the liberty of cc’ing some friends and journalists, Israeli organizations and agencies, activists and publicists, along with bcc’ing some key financial supporters and personalities.”
Among those who received the letter was Michael Dell, the founder of Dell computers and a major benefactor of the Jewish community in Austin. It is on Dell’s land that the Agudas Achim Congregation is built, along with the Jewish Community Center, the Austin Jewish Academy, a Jewish day care center, an Orthodox shul, a Reform synagogue and a non-denominational temple.
White, a 32-year-old former IDF soldier who moved from Beersheba to Austin a decade ago and runs an advertising and PR firm, published a series of Facebook posts calling Blumofe a “terrorist sympathizer” and accusing him of promoting “blood libels.”
White also published a press release dated August 22 calling on Dell, the now-former CEO of the Austin JCC Jay Rubin and other Jewish leaders in Austin, including Orthodox Rabbi Moshe Trepp, to disavow Blumofe for allegedly supporting “George Soros funded organizations such as T’RUAH, Breaking the Silence.” He called on Dell to withhold funding from Blumofe and the JCC “until Blumofe ceases his scurrilous behavior and promises to end his support of these Soros-backed, homophobic, anti-Semitic organizations.”
‘This is an orchestrated attempt by groups intent on harming the State of Israel and willing to use American rabbis and their congregations to carry out their mission’
In an interview with The Times of Israel on Friday, White doubled down on his claims, saying that “anybody who deals with these groups is a terrorist sympathizer” and that if Blumofe has no affiliation with them, he should clearly and unequivocally say so.
In a follow-up email, White criticized what he saw as “an orchestrated attempt by groups intent on harming the State of Israel and willing to use American Rabbis and their congregations to carry out their mission.” He affirmed that he and others were “committed to exposing the hidden agenda of groups like MEJDI and the true nature of their trips.”
“This won’t happen overnight. But when we find examples of American Rabbis aiding and abetting them in their efforts, either knowingly or having been duped — it is our intent to expose them, not only to the people of their congregations but to the larger populations of Jews and Friends of Israel around the United States and the world,” he wrote.
Through his PR firm which works with a number of Republican politicians in Texas, White got the state Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller — who has recently campaigned for Trump — to publish a Facebook post on August 22 to his over 250,000 followers denouncing the “so-called Jewish leader from Austin Texas” for “planning to lead a group of Texans to Israel” to “pay homage to Mass Murderer and terrorist leader Yasser Arafat.”
That post has since been deleted, but the text was provided to the Times of Israel. Miller went on to publish another post on August 26 — which is still live — linking to the Israel Matzav blog and tagging Blumofe.
“It is impossible Neil Blumofe to call yourself a friend of Israel while at the same time encouraging others to visit the tomb of a terrorist leader,” wrote Miller, earning over 1,200 likes and dozens of comments.
Naiveté and responsibility
In Blumofe’s office last week, surrounded by hundreds of books, framed blueprints of the Temple Mount, a piano where he experiments with new tunes for his cantor duties, and a unique standing desk “modeled after that of Shai Agnon’s in Jerusalem,” the rabbi speaks softly and guardedly of being the “victim of an online campaign of bullying and slander.”
Blumofe said that while he understood the strong reaction, he did not fully “anticipate the politics behind it” because he “doesn’t live in that world.” He “didn’t think it would happen in this community,” comprised of 680 families from diverse backgrounds and “a huge range of political opinions.”
“This was not a trip to harness sympathy for anybody. I thought we would have a thoughtful conversation about places to visit,” he said. “I haven’t staked my rabbinate in politics and as far as the grave visit goes, I could take it or leave it. I thought people would trust me enough.”
Asked if he wasn’t being somewhat naive about not foreseeing a strong response, even from members of a community as seemingly liberal as his, Blumofe paused for a moment and said: “Yes, I guess I was a little naive.”
‘This was not a trip to harness sympathy for anybody. I thought we would have a thoughtful conversation about places to visit’
The most surprising aspect, however, Blumofe said, was Brook’s refusal to speak with him in the wake of their exchanges, instead launching a campaign to get him to leave.
Brook, Blumofe said, “flatly refused to meet with me claiming he knew what I thought, and without permission, he recklessly published the draft of the itinerary on the internet with a rebuke of me — causing others to take up insults, defamation, and libel. Others took up this negativity as well, looking to indict the larger Jewish Federation.”
Because of this, said Blumofe, the entire itinerary was canceled “for security reasons.”
In an email dated August 17, Blumofe wrote that a new trip would take place in June 2017 sans visit to Arafat’s grave.
“I believe that the goals of exploring Israel as it wrestles with its status as a democracy and Jewish state can be achieved in alternative, affirming ways,” he wrote.
A trip to Arafat’s grave was “not in the cards for the foreseeable future,” he later added.
Apologies all around
Blumofe’s critics claimed victory, but Brook himself felt it was not enough.
“I’m not done with Rabbi Blumofe,” Brook wrote in the August 28 email. “Its [sic] not sufficient that they cancelled the trip. The much bigger problem is that Blumofe doesn’t see [sic] to understand why he should not have put it in the itinerary in the first place.”
It’s a sentiment Brook also expressed to The Times of Israel, accusing the rabbi of trying to deflect attention.
“In the 6 weeks [since his letter to Blumofe], all I’m hearing is deception, denial and deceit,” Brook said. To him, the issue remains the mere fact that Blumofe thought to include the grave visit.
“I would be a village idiot to believe his explanation,” that the trip was about fostering dialogue, Brook said.
“If he wants to go talk to Palestinians, that’s his business. The issue is Arafat’s grave. He’s got no business being there, let alone as a representative of this congregation,” he said.
‘Can you imagine a Ukrainian Orthodox priest wanting to take his congregants to visit Stalin’s tomb? He would end up like Mussolini probably or locked in his church and set on fire’
“Can you imagine a Ukrainian Orthodox priest wanting to take his congregants to visit Stalin’s tomb [in Moscow]? He would end up like Mussolini probably or locked in his church and set on fire.”
Blumofe, Brook said, “may use flowery language like Shakespeare but he has the heart of [Geoffrey] Chaucer,” the 14th century English poet whose major work included a story based on a blood libel. (Brook refused to clarify or expand on that comment.)
Brook said that Blumofe should apologize and explain himself to his community “without deceit.”
“If this was a mistake on his part, he should say so. But it all depends on how he sees it. Was it a mistake because he got caught?” asked Brook.
White and other critics certainly believe that’s the case. They are demanding to know what the real reason was behind the cancellation — genuine regret or an attempt to calm things down after the exposure — and expect Blumofe to clarify his links with T’ruah, Breaking the Silence and MEJDI.
The cancellation came, White said, only because “it was exposed for what it was — an unbalanced tour that bear[s] no resemblance to anything that can be described as being ‘friendly’ to the State of Israel.”
Blumofe, White said, has “refused to acknowledge that the trip itself was a mistake. Instead, he cites security concerns as the rationale for canceling rather than the anger and concerns expressed by members of his congregation and others.”
“It was not the nature of the trip, its itinerary, or the planned visit to Arafat’s gravesite that caused Blumofe to cancel the trip, but rather unforeseen and unwanted publicity and criticism,” he claimed.
The awkward mediator
In his August 22 press release, White called on Rabbi Moshe Trepp, a personal friend of Blumofe and Torah study partner, to disavow him. An English Orthodox rabbi in Austin for 11 years, Trepp is the campus rabbi at the University of Texas and serves as a spiritual leader to many Austin Jews who are unaffiliated with a congregation, including White and Davidsohn.
The rabbi is placed in the rather awkward position of trying to understand his students while defending Blumofe against the harshest accusations.
“It’s the insults and the name-calling that is problematic. When it stops being about Israel and starts becoming personal, then it’s just like rival politicians fighting,” Trepp told The Times of Israel.
Many of the questions surrounding Blumofe’s intentions and rationale, “are good questions, and I understand where they are coming from, and why these answers are being sought. But there are better ways to do it than take to Facebook or run to the press,” said Trepp.
Nonetheless, Trepp wrote his own Facebook post defending Blumofe and affirming his pro-Israel bona fides, an act he suggests was not received too positively by those who sought his backing.
Currently, he’s trying to organize a meeting between White and Blumofe, believing that it would be a good idea to have them clear the air and turn the page on this “unpleasantness.”
To err is human
Among his congregants, even those who believe a visit to Arafat’s grave is absurd, Blumofe is described as a well-regarded, thoughtful and especially caring and giving rabbi.
“He’s kind and compassionate and he gives 110 percent of himself. Even people who don’t like him, respect him,” said Dr. David Goldblatt, a long-time member of the congregation who serves as the synagogue gabbai. “At a time when Conservative shuls are shrinking or dying, ours has grown by leaps and bounds, and that’s due to him.”
“Was this a mistake? Yes. But would I kill him for it? No. He’s my rabbi and I love him. People make mistakes all the time,” Goldblatt said.
‘Was this a mistake? Yes. Would I kill him for it? No. He’s my rabbi and I love him’
Michael Granof, a former president of the congregation who’s been a member for 44 years, said that while he had no objection to this type of trip, he’s asked himself why any Jew would want to go see Arafat’s grave.
“Speaking to Palestinians is one thing, but what does one learn by going to a tomb?” Granof told The Times of Israel.
Nonetheless, said the accounting professor at the University of Texas, people must “evaluate the rabbi in wider terms and consider his overall performances and not just this one element.”
That sentiment was echoed by Steve Bernstein, a member of the congregation since 1993 who also attends Torah study with Blumofe. He said that while he would feel “uncomfortable” on such a trip, there was no reason for the rabbi to resign or be fired.
But Cathy Schechter, a writer and consultant and also a long-time member of the congregation, sees a much wider issue. This is not about visiting Arafat’s grave, rather the internal debate among American Jews about Israel, which has become overlaid with the raucousness of the current presidential election campaign.
‘Most people — in any Jewish community — are not ready for this kind of trip’
“There are differences between those who go to Israel frequently, and speak to Israelis and read the papers and even have family there, and between those who don’t and who are maybe going on their first visit there. It is more difficult for those who don’t spend too much time there to understand” the conversation surrounding the conflict and the current political climate, she said by phone in Austin.
“It’s like trying to read Shakespeare before you learn the ABCs. Most people — in any Jewish community — are not ready for this kind of trip,” that includes the Palestinian perspective.
With regard to the “very nasty” aftermath and the criticism of Blumofe, Schechter thinks the American political climate has played a role.
“It’s become ok to be extreme about a given issue if you think you are right, regardless of the facts,” she said, adding that it points to a breakdown in the US on how to have a civil dialogue.
“I know what Neil was trying to do and I admire him for it,” Schechter said. “But first, people have to learn how to disagree and how to have discussions.”
Arafat in context
Back in Israel, Miri Eisin, a retired colonel in the IDF and a former media adviser to then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, sees a similar phenomenon.
“There’s certainly a climate, in Israel and all over the world really, of separation, of us versus them. We saw it with Brexit in the UK, with the burkini fiasco in France, with the [current] US elections,” Eisin told The Times of Israel by phone from Israel.
Eisin, who also sometimes speaks on some of MEJDI’s tours and has been to Arafat’s tomb, said he is the most important figure in Palestinian history and a visit to his grave would be an important part of a trip that aims to also show the Palestinian perspective.
“The man was who he was, he was my enemy as an Israeli, but he’s a historical figure for them. And besides, there are not a lot of places for the Palestinians to go to to show their national heritage. Where are they going to go?” said Eisin, who lectures about media and narratives at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC) in Israel.
“It’s about the symbolism,” said Eisin, adding that she understands that “right now, it’s very difficult for Jewish groups, because a trip to the tomb is perceived as supporting what he said, what he did.”
Aziz Abu Sarah, who co-founded MEJDI tours with Scott Cooper, said he doesn’t understand what the fuss is about.
“This rabbi’s critics are attacking him for an itinerary that was not finalized or authorized yet. They don’t understand our concept, they don’t understand what a ‘dual narrative’ is. In their minds, maybe just learning about the Palestinians is considered anti-Israel,” Abu Sarah said.
He denied that there was any push to take American Jews to see Arafat’s grave with MEJDI, and said that he had no previous example of taking any such Jewish or Jewish-majority group on such a trip.
“That said, we will not stop suggesting a visit to the tomb as an option. How can it be interpreted as endorsement? If that were the case, none of us could ever travel anywhere,” he said.
MEJDI operates tours for a variety of clients, including several recent ones for AIPAC, the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and the Shalom Hartman Institute. It has a “number of guides from all across the spectrum,” Abu Sarah said.
“We work closely with the Palestinian and Israeli governments [on our tours], and we coordinate with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and they see our itineraries, and at no point — including on trips that have included visits to Arafat’s grave — have we been accused of being anti-Israel,” he said.
Back in Austin, Blumofe seemed upbeat after Shabbat services on Saturday when congregants began forming a line to speak to him. Some embraced him, some shook his hand, others spoke to him calmly from a respectful distance.
He said he’d been fielding calls and messages of support all week. This was also evident on social media where friends, colleagues, congregants, students and former students were posting statuses expressing their dismay at the verbal attacks he’s had to endure, and their respect and admiration for the rabbi.
“What is happening to Neil has happened to many other rabbis and leaders of the Jewish community. No one should fear risking their career or their reputation because of their opinion on Israel or any other subject. It is up to all of us to repair the divisiveness, the name-calling and the overall negativity that has overtaken North American Jewry,” wrote one woman in a post that appeared on Blumofe’s Facebook wall.
‘I think we are learning a fresh lesson to not take our precious relationships for granted’
The incumbent president of the congregation, Caroline Legatt, wrote that she has been touched by the “posts, phone calls, and emails from people who have been sharing stories of ways in which our rabbi, Neil Blumofe, has been a source of strength, inspiration or comfort. I am proud to share community not only with him, but with all of you who have reminded of me the power of compassion and kindness. Your strength gives me strength.”
Blumofe said he’d received hundreds more messages in private and intends to respond to each personally.
He feels that the whole episode “has brought my diverse synagogue community together, and has encouraged people to intensify their efforts in committing to learn about difficult and sensitive issues.”
“I think we are learning a fresh lesson to not take our precious relationships for granted… seeing how quickly others can act as destroyers,” he said.
From Brook, Blumofe is looking for an apology and recognition on “how counterproductive his actions have been.”
A potential lawsuit
That is not likely to happen anytime soon, as Brook said he is as committed as ever to have the rabbi removed.
In a second interview with The Times of Israel on Monday, Brook said that he had been called in for a meeting with the congregation’s president, Legatt, and a former president and attorney, Michael Whellan in which he claims he was effectively threatened with a defamation lawsuit. Brook called this “a new low” for the community, “and further proof that something is not right.”
“They are trying to silence me,” he claimed, but “rabbis come and go, and momentum will build for this one to go.”
‘Rabbis come and go, and momentum will build for this one to go’
Whellan confirmed that a conversation with Brook occurred and that he was told that “words are powerful, facts matter, and disparaging or defaming individuals in the community will not be tolerated.”
Whellan said no action has been taken yet and that he has not been hired by anyone — “not the rabbi, the congregation or the Board of Directors” to represent them.
The purpose of the meeting, Whellan said, was “to find out where we were [standing] and whether the defamation [of Blumofe] would continue. But, he added, “I hope I never have to communicate with [Brook] again.”
Blumofe, who was not at the meeting but was aware it took place, said he would still like to “invite Mr. Brook to sit and study with me — our revered texts that address the dilemmas of living precariously in the face of harmful speech and baseless hatred.”
As for the trip itself, Blumofe concluded: “It is important to have conversations that run the spectrum of who we are as Jews and our relationship to Israel,” he said. “One should not be condemned for looking to find direction in a difficult, dangerous world.”