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Hebrew Union College prides itself on being open and pluralistic. But some Reform rabbinical students say the reality contradicts this vision.

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The entrance to Hebrew Union College in Manhattan. (Tablet Magazine)

Earlier this year, word spread that the president of Hebrew Union College had been approached by a potential funder who wanted to endow the school with a chair for a politically conservative scholar. Like countless other religious and academic institutions, HUC had suffered tremendously in the aftermath of the financial meltdown of 2008. Less than three years ago, the seminary faced a $3 million deficit. Professors’ salaries had been cut, tuition had been raised, and reports surfaced that the school was considering closing two of its three American campuses. The school “was in the most challenging position it has faced in its history—even more so than during the Great Depression,” HUC President David Ellenson wrote at the time.

And yet, the conservative chair never materialized—a fact that came as a disappointment, if not a surprise, to some. Although American Judaism’s largest religious denomination prides itself on being a big tent—part of HUC’s mission statement is to apply “the open and pluralistic spirit of the Reform movement to the study of the great issues of Jewish life and thought”—certain students and observers are sensing a troubling trend that directly contradicts this vision, particularly on the matter of Israel.

“While I loved my time there and deeply respected my professors, I found that HUC was not comfortable exploring or discussing anything politically that wasn’t left,” said Rabbi Samantha Kahn, who received her ordination from Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles in 2011 and is now the assistant rabbi at Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas. “I definitely struggled with it, and I was hurt by the lack of openness and the anger toward positions of center and right when it came to Israel and foreign affairs.”

To be sure, most observers point out that the political atmosphere at HUC does not comprehensively reflect the reality of the wider Reform movement. But the differences can sometimes be unusually stark. Kahn, who worked at the Hillel at the University of Miami before entering HUC, recently recalled the “strange transition” she experienced: “As a Hillel professional, it seemed that I was [politically] very left. All of a sudden, at HUC I wasn’t left anymore, but very right. The truth is, being in Houston, I feel more left again. I pay attention to the New Israel Fund and read Haaretz. But I’m also still involved with and appreciative of AIPAC and Hadassah and am glad to see them still thriving in Houston. At HUC, AIPAC and Hadassah were four-letter words. They were the devil.”

HUC—like all educational institutions—is a bubble of sorts, and it is often difficult to find genuine ideological pluralism inside any such closed environment, especially on a subject as complicated as Israel. Nevertheless, some have grown concerned about the ways the political culture of HUC could influence the future texture of Reform Judaism and the broader American Jewish community.

“You could probably do the same story at Yeshiva University and you might get the exact opposite political trend,” David Wolpe, the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, said in an interview this week. “Having said that, the difference between right-wing support of Israel and left-wing support of Israel is that left-wing support much more easily morphs into indifference to and abandonment of Israel. That’s what the left wing has to guard against.”


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College has always been a proudly liberal institution. It has brought religious leaders through its ranks that have played integral roles in nearly every major social movement of the past century—from its social-action mandate in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform to the March on Washington in 1963. Rabbi Jerome Davidson, a longtime pulpit rabbi from Great Neck, N.Y., who teaches a required course on social action at the seminary, seems to exemplify a certain model of rabbi-as-political-leader popular at the institution. “As far as I’m concerned, a rabbi should be able to get up on his pulpit and speak about why it’s necessary to have stronger gun-control laws or why the death penalty should be abolished or curtailed or strengthened or whatever she or he thinks Judaism teaches us,” Davidson said in an interview this week. And to his mind, the politics that should be transmitted from the pulpit are very specific.

“Judaism is very clear about the nature of government, that government is a social contract and that it exists, in significant part, to benefit the vulnerable,” he explained. “The Torah, the book of Deuteronomy, and the book of Exodus are filled with materials that reflect that. It’s about how the structure of government has to somehow take care of the vulnerable, the needy, the poor, the orphan, and so on. There’s a real mandate. Looking through Jewish values onto the political scene certainly mandates Reform Judaism and Jews, laypeople, or clergy to act on behalf of those Jewish values, and it is certainly reflected in the politics.”

But if Davidson believes firmly in supporting left-wing causes, some students in a younger generation argue that the very definition of “liberal politics” is in flux—particularly when it comes to Israel.

Kahn recalls that during her year abroad in 2006—all students are required to spend their first academic year in Israel—war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah. Several of her fellow students were excused from class to volunteer for Encounter, a group that connects Diaspora Jews with Palestinians in part by organizing trips to the West Bank, but when Kahn informed the school that she intended to volunteer for an organization that paid visits to IDF soldiers in hospitals, she was told that her absences would not be excused.

Josh Herman, a third-year rabbinical student at HUC’s Cincinnati campus—and, according to him, not among the school’s most politically conservative students—recently found himself in an argument with another student about Israel. The other student’s reply stunned him: “I would rather give up being Jewish than ever set foot in Israel again,” Herman recounted the student saying.

The halls of academia are littered with isolated incidents of this sort, and rumors about the exchange spread. Herman eventually met with some of the administration to register his disapproval. “I suggested that I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue with school if they were going to tolerate anti-Zionist statements like that, which ended up with the student sort of retracting the statement,” Herman said.

But the episode didn’t end there. “After it happened,” Herman said, “I ended up having a lot of conversations with people informally, friends and whatnot, about the parameters of what we think is acceptable for a rabbinical student or a rabbi to say. I wondered if there was something he could have said or done that would have made HUC say, ‘We’re sorry, but we can’t ordain you,’ and I was very much the minority.”

This sense of isolation is brought up by others, too. Josh Beraha, now a third-year student at Hebrew Union College’s New York campus, was raised in Providence, R.I., and attended college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. After spending much of his life in cities and institutions that were, in his view, reflexively liberal, his politics shifted after five years teaching in New York City public schools. (At the same time, he married into a prominent Jewish conservative family.)

Beraha was particularly disheartened by the way the school handled the issue of Park 51—the so-called Ground Zero mosque—which became a political lightning rod in the fall of 2010. In the midst of the controversy, a group of students marched from HUC’s campus down Broadway to the proposed site—with the dean, Rabbi Shirley Idelson, a prominent participant.

“The Park 51 controversy happened during my second year,” Beraha said. “I was a little afraid, as I still am, about how to respond. Moments like that when there’s an assumption that everyone thinks a certain way. I really don’t know where to begin. I just walked out of class that day.”

Davidson, who teaches the social action course, saw nothing wrong with the march.
“It was the right thing to do,” Davidson said this week in an interview. “Most of the Jewish community doesn’t want anything to do with Muslims, they think they are all just a bunch of Arabs who just want to blow up Israel and the United States and everything else. They have no idea what the moderate Muslim population is all about in this country. Here was an opportunity for these students who felt that Islamic faith had just as much of a right to have a place anywhere they wanted.”

Some students argue, though, that this sort of homogeneous political activism has stifled the very dialogue that Hebrew Union College historically prided itself on fostering. “I do feel as if I am always the naysayer in class, I am constantly having to be a dissenting voice,” says Herman. “It’s not that people are being unfair; it’s that it’s exhausting to constantly have arguments and to be 1-on-9 in these arguments or 2-on-8.”

“We can never have a real conversation in class because everyone assumes we’re on the same page,” Beraha added, echoing Herman. “I go back and forth about whether or not to engage in the conversation at all. It’s almost not worth it.”

Hannah Goldstein, one of the co-presidents of Hebrew Union College’s Student Association in New York, admits that an overwhelming majority—“maybe 90 percent”—share what she calls “pretty liberal politics.” Accordingly, she says, it’s no wonder that students with more center or right-wing views feel alone.

“I think feeling lonely is not the same as being made to feel like an outsider,” she said. “If I had more conservative political leanings, I would feel lonely. I think there’s a lot of people who feel that way in the student body. It would be the same if you were in a liberal-arts school in New England. But is feeling lonely the same as being made to feel like an outsider?”

In Goldstein’s view, the faculty seems to have more political diversity than the student body—which, while possibly true, is also difficult to gauge.

“I would be curious to know how many registered Republicans there are among the HUC faculty, and I say this as an independent—not a Republican,” said Wolpe. “If there are few or none, for a representative education in America, that’s something that ought to be taken note of.”

In 2008, Martin Sherman—a self-defined “hawk” on Israel—was asked to be a visiting professor at the Los Angeles campus, teaching a course on the Arab-Israeli conflict called “Prospect for Peace.” According to Sherman, when he arrived on campus, it was explained to him that his views would be known and that he should anticipate that students would challenge him. Instead, only four students opted to take his course. When virtually no students registered for his second-semester course, Sherman taught exclusively at the University of Southern California, which had partnered with HUC to bring him to Los Angeles.

“I had the feeling they didn’t want to engage. And with the social milieu, I understand there was some hostility,” Sherman said in an interview this week from Israel, where he lives. “There were one or two people on the faculty who were interested in what I was saying and wanted to give me a wider audience, and they couldn’t. Some of them might have even had more assertive hawkish views than they could actually have expressed given their professional positions.”


The division between the old guard and at least some of HUC’s current students is not just over politics, but over what the very definition of pastoral duty should be today. The students I spoke to tend to believe in a very different conception of the rabbi than the previous generation.

“I personally—and this is an argument I get into constantly—have no patience for politics from the bimah,” Herman asserted. “I think that the job of the rabbi is to teach and that any given event or issue being played out, it’s usually very difficult to find what Judaism says about it unequivocally. You take any sort of issue, and there’s not usually a Jewish answer to that issue, which is why I don’t believe in the Religious Action Center and why I don’t think rabbis should be preaching from the pulpit, as they say.”

“The Jewish community needs spiritual leaders who can bring people Torah, they don’t need someone who’s going to read the New York Times and give a sermon about it,” Beraha added. “People are intelligent, you can tell them what Torah, Talmud, Midrash says, end of sentence. Let people go a step farther and understand that Judaism says feed the poor and don’t add Obama’s policies on wealth distribution.”

Despite their occasional objections, Herman and Beraha speak highly of the professors and their programs. Both are also confident that after being ordained each will find pulpits where they fit and are happy, as Kahn has done. The question, if this trend continues, is what it will mean for the Reform movement and its more than one million members.

“HUC is training a one-niche rabbi,” said Kahn. “It’s off from where the rest of the movement is. And if there’s more anger than hope, it will carry through to the movement.”

CORRECTION, January 3: This article originally stated that the rumored funder was Willy Stern, an adjunct law professor at Vanderbilt University and occasional contributor to the Weekly Standard. Stern, who originally declined to be interviewed for the story, has since informed us that he did not make this offer.

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I have to say that during my years at HUC in Jerusalem and New York (1989-1996) I never encountered an attempt to quell political dissent. I was able to argue constantly and enjoyed it very much. I sense this is more about a younger generation’s over-sensitivity and need for validation than any real quelling of differing views. What would have made more interesting reading from my perspective would have been a story about what happens to Reform rabbinic students who want to become more observant while at HUC–now THAT’S interesting.

Is it really a shock that there appear to be a bunch of self-hating, liberal, Anti-Zionists at the Reform seminary? Is it any wonder that you go to most reform temples on a Saturday morning and they are appallingly empty, unless there happens to be a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or if it is the “High Holidays”.

Adam Chandler says:

Andy, I agree, I think it is a different era with (yes) heightened sensitivities, but also bigger, more polarizing crises.

Asher: Met a lot of dedicated Zionists in the course of writing this and in the course of being a Reform Jew.

Oh Asher. Let’s not sling mud, brother! Come to our shul on Shabbat. We have hundreds of Jews here and this February, for the third year in a row, twenty-five members of our synagogue are traveling to Israel.

Lansing Reed says:

Liberal? Check.

Close minded? Check.

Self-rightous? Check.

These folks may claim to worship tolerance and diversity, but at the end of the day, they only worship themselves.

Dear Colleagues:

As director of the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies, I am pleased to report that from our medical campus to our law school to our undergraduate colleges and our yeshiva, Yeshiva University– the largest Jewish institution of higher learning outside of Medinat Yisrael, is hugely diverse when it comes to Israel.

Our members associate with the right, left and center of the Israel political spectrum. Together we share a committment to the state of Israel, and to Israel everywhere.

The YU Center for Israel Studies, established in 2007, is an expression of the longstanding relationship between Yeshiva University and the land and State of Israel. The center nurtures excellence in interdisciplinary scholarship and the teaching of Israel throughout history and across disciplines, with a keen focus upon the modern state.

We support research, conferences, publications, museum exhibitions, public programs and educational opportunities that enhance awareness and study of Israel in all of its complexities. In our short history, we have already become a national and an international forum for engagement of the political, social, scientific, economic, historical, religious and cultural significance of Israel in the world community.

I invite those who might not have visited YU in a while to visit our campuses, and to meet our students and faculty. Please explore our website,, to learn more about the diversity that is Yeshiva University.

Steven Fine,
Professor of Jewish History,
Director, Center for Israel Studies
Yeshiva University

Raymond in DC says:

The Reform movement is fighting a battle to remain relevant when demographics are working against it. Women in Reform families on average have only 1.5 children – well below replacement levels. Reproduction rates in Conservative families are slightly higher, but still below replacement levels. So both movements are shrinking and aging.

Traditional Jews, like the Syrians of NY and NJ, are growing in numbers, as are the Modern and ultra-Orthodox sector. They all, unlike their liberal brethren, have something they believe in that goes beyond their politics and sentiments about “social justice”, something they want to convey to the next generation.

If preachers–Jewish and otherwise–hadn’t gotten involved in the civil rights movement, it probably wouldn’t have happened and certainly wouldn’t have been relatively peaceful; it would have been a full-out war. I personally know one rabbi from that era who spoke out, in spite of some congregants telling him it wasn’t their fight, don’t make such a shtuss. He said it absolutely was their fight: injustice is everybody’s problem. Preachers should take a stand on important issues, especially when they clearly run counter to major tenets of Judaism. People are free to make up their own minds, change congregations, or talk back.

So, everyone else is allowed to have their point of view, but the Reform have to self-mutilate? Hmm…

Just in case that last point wasn’t clear enough, it’s interesting to me how the Reform always get held to a double standard the same way Israel does in international opinion. It’s like we can’t wait to use the same tactics antisemites use against us against other Jews.

Is it really news that the Reform are liberal and their seminary is liberal? If the students who went there felt uncomfortable, boo-f’n-hoo. I went to a college wayyyy to the left of me and survived unscathed. Life is challenging sometimes.

Israel is so important to me that I’m scared to speak my opinion about it at school. lol.

When I was living in Jerusalem a few years back, I got to know American students from all the various seminaries (Reform, Conservative, etc). I don’t recall having many political discussions, but I do recall having the distinct impression that the students from HUC were hands down of the lowest caliber intellectually. They had a very weak grasp of Hebrew, Jewish source material and overall knowledge of Judaism and just weren’t very interesting to engage with. It’s not at all surprising that HUC suffers a from left wing group think.

masortiman says:

1. The notion that Reform, which has made social justice and political activism central to its identity, would abandon politcs from the bimah, strikes me as laughable

2. Reform, esp the cinci campus of HUC, historically included a strong antizionist component. I can’t see how they could deny someone ordination for not being a Zionist.

3. That HUC is somewhat more left than the reform rabbinate, which in turn is somewhat more left than the mass of American Jews, is not surprising. given that, that they would be 90% for J Street and cool to AIPAC, is also not surprising.

4. Very few instutions want an endowed chair with ideological strings attached. Turning something like that down is not evidence of intolerance.

5. I would expect, based on history, some distinctiveness between NYC and Cinci campuses. I see no note of that in this article. I am very reluctant to draw conclusions about whats happeing at HUC based on this article

Here in Fort Lauderdale at Temple Bat Yam we have a very diverse crowd of right, left and centre. Saturday services are not huge but our discussions are my favourite part of Shabbat. We are like it says on the money: E Pluribus Unim! I am a proud moderate zionist Reform Jew,thank you!

Miriam says:

I am a student at HUC. This article both saddens me and encourages me. It’s important to have open, diverse dialogue, which this article encourages. But this article also starts out with a dishearteningly one-sided and exagerrated view of HUC, as if the politics of the school–faculty, administration, students–were monolithic. And as if hiring a faculty member based on his or her politics is a reasonable stance for a religious and academic institution. Not so.

I agree with some of the students that HUC’s tendency is liberal, but so is the majority of Reform Judaism and its history. And there is a large diversity of voices across many spectrums at the College.

The school & its education is strongly Zionist, believing in the importance of the State of Israel and teaching its history. However, the political issues around Israel are so fraught that many LA students don’t talk about them very often after the first year, except in the few classes where that is part of the curriculum. HUC is much better at creating a forum for exploring multiple views of what a rabbi’s role should be on the bimah, in the community, and around social, political and justice issues (a conversation both Herman and Beraha engaged in) than what is the “right” approach regarding any particular issue. And since part of the job of a Reform rabbi is to learn all the material and make a decision for him/her self–and empower other Jews to do the same (in my formulation of the rabbinate), that’s a more appropriate role for the institution anyway.

To some of the contributors to the forum let me say that most HUC students are Zionist.

And to LJ, let me remind you that unlike the other rabbinical institutions, HUC students spend their _first_ year in Israel, not their third, so many are just beginning to master Hebrew and to encounter Jewish texts outside of synagogue education and Jewish studies programs. What you experienced was not a low intellectual caliber but a different stage of learning.

George Iversen says:

It isn’t just the the young and students at HUC that are having a problem. During the Yom Kippur sermon, my Rabbi delivered a political rant. In general, I agree with my rabbi. However, his rant on happenings at the URJ, denouncing prime Minister Netanyahu, and why we should support President Obama was totally inappropriate. There was no inkling of morality or ethics or Torah. It was a direct political assault from the bimah. It wasn’t a reasoned or logical argument but simply a rant and it was clear that that to him anything other than what he head decreed was right wing and wrong. The path to social justice will not be found by following political lines but by following Torah and by attention to what our actions mean to other people.

Adam Chandler says:

Masortiman, the quote was 90% liberal, not 90% J-Street. My understanding is that, at least on the NYC campus, the opinions on Israel are more diffuse than on domestic issues.

LJ: Some of the most thoughtful things I’ve heard about Judaism in many years came out of conversations with the HUC crop I interviewed.

Jon: The comparison to being a conservative at a liberal arts college was made by the student body president. boo-fn-hoo indeed homey.

The Jewish community is moving rightwards towards the political center, while young Reform rabbis seem to be moving ever more to the left. This divide can undermine congregations, as people quickly tire of being told their views on public policy are not just mistaken, but morally wrong.

To take an example from the article, many would questions whether it is really a violation of Jewish ethical mandates to oppose public policies that promote reliance on the government to ‘somehow take care of’ the needy.

Young rabbis need to be trained not just to listen respectfully, but to take seriously the views of others. Rabbi Davidson’s quote ridiculing what “most of the Jewish community” thinks about Muslims sets a very poor example.

Rabbis of all political persuasions need to give thoughtful consideration to the range of potentially valid views on an issue before proclaiming that Jewish morality mandates support for a particular policy approach.

Jesse Berger says:

Having worked in a University, it is always a pleasure to hear that a donor ahs come forward to underwrite a professorial position. What is problematic is hearing that the offer comes attached with ideological ‘strings.’ And almost every institution of higher learning has had to deal with this. Yes, the choice of a professor always reflects the wishes, or biases, if you prefer, of the administration. But those choices must not be dictated by an outside source. A professorship should not and cannot be a ‘right-wing’ chair any more than a ‘left-wing’ chair. It should represent the highest level of scholarship available. Clearly there is no ‘bias-free’ instruction; nor should there be. The intellectual pursuit mandates understanding the underlying principals and biases of the teacher, and grappling with them; not demanding that the underlying principles are dictated a priori.

As a current first-year HUC rabbinical student in Jerusalem, I see a variety of student opinions, openly expressed, but seldom engaged in dialogue together

Unfortunately, not much has changed since I was ordained in 1975. I was a strong feminist and still am, but when the then placement officee refused to interview me for placement, I spoke out loud and clear at a public meeting of the Sisterhood organization. I said that if everyone at HUC was not ready to foster and nurture the acceptance of women as Rabbis within the Reform Movement, they were not doing us any favors by ordaining us. I did get a standing ovation at that meeting, but a cold shoulder ever since. I was never placed by HUC and was told I must be crazy and to see a psychiatrist of their choosing at my expense. Since I lived on the West Coast and was a single parent at the time, they knew that was not an option. Ever since, I have been treated as the Black Sheep of the Reform Rabbinate, despite my having been the first woman ordained by the New York School. I was never asked to serve on a committee or contribute in any way. I then went on to distinction in Law School and had a productive career teaching in several universities, heading 2 foundations and spending 7 years at a Silicon Valley Company as Manager of Government and Community Relations. I am working on a memoir ‘ “Rabbi, Your Cleavage is Showing” and I know they don’t want me to recall many incidents. A Black Sheep or Dark Horse I have been labelled and to them, shall always remain that way. No ceremony upon my retirement from the Rabbinate (although I am a published poet with one book out and another on the way.) Instead, I feel ostracised, lonely and not really a part of the movement. If young people are moving away, I do know why. My son, who witnessed the appalling way I was treated by movement and congregations alike, wants nothing to do with organized Judaism.It seems “ayn hadash tachat ha shamesh”- nothing new under the sun- some things will never change. As an attorney, I fear that women will not receive maternity benefits, will be paid less than male counterparts, & achieve less acclaim

Interesting article. There was a diversity of political opinions in the classes at the LA campus when I attended there (2003-08) and yes, the majority of students were political liberals in many ways. However, quite a bunch of us were also proud Zionists. The 2002-03 Year in Jerusalem class were all there during the Second Intifada by choice; we had the option of taking that year later (a choice the school has said it will never offer again). But every one of us felt strongly about standing with Israel at a difficult time.

I recall taking a class on American Jewish Institutions with Dr. Steven Windmueller and he did not speak a single ill word about AIPAC, just the contrary! I naively thought all Jews were liberals (like my friends back home), and he made sure that I became acquainted with AIPAC and with publications like Commentary. I’m not sure about his personal political views. I know that I came away well-equipped to speak and listen intelligently in many different circles; my first congregational position was with a congregation where the majority of members were quite a bit to the right of my personal opinions but we could still study Torah together and learn.

A diversity of opinions and views can enrich our learning, provided we don’t disdain the opportunity to learn with those with whom we disagree. If the current student body is passing up those opportunities out of tender feelings or ill manners, that’s really a shame.

Miriam’s point is also an important one: HUC students begin their rabbinical education with the Year in Israel, and we were at a considerable disadvantage in conversation with students from other movements who were years further along in their educations. I remember the students from other schools who took an attitude of disdain that fulfilled their prejudices about Reform, rather than bothering to get to know us. Thank goodness it wasn’t all of them;

Jameson says:

No president of a respected and respectable college/seminary should or would accept an endowment that has political strings attached. Simple as that. Perhaps you might want to find out the details of the deal before writing an article like this. I am so sorry that Tablet keeps falling into this bizarre neo-con sense of victimization. We don’t need yet another Jewish magazine that does this.

For what it’s worth this is what is going on at the largest synagogue (conservative) in my community. The rabbi supports J Street and New Israel Fund. He never mentions Israel. Recently he said that his congregation should focus on supporting gays and lesbians and also to reach out to the local Muslims.
His recent newsletter to his members decried the sharp drop in synagogue attendance and he wondered if introducing musical instruments is what is needed. He is cold and aloof except for the rich among his congregants.
I no longer belong to any local synagogue because none of them have any genuine Jewish spirit. We are steadily dissolving away and almost no one seems to care.
In Jewish history this seems to be the time when Hashem sends real trouble to remind us of the promise that we made at Sinai.

Rachel Kaplan Marks says:

As a current third year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR, I’d like to respond to some of the points that were made in the article.

1. I would imagine that the offer for the endowment of a politically conservative chair was declined, because HUC-JIR is an institution that does not mandate the views of its faculty… and thank God for that.

2. I strongly believe that not only CAN we use our sacred texts to talk and to preach about current issues, but that we MUST use our sacred texts to talk and to preach about current issues. Is that not what rabbis have been doing for the past two millennia? Abraham Geiger, one of the early protagonists of Reform Judaism, taught that Judaism’s great strength was its ability to take tradition and interpret it in each and every generation. If we cannot do that, if we cannot make our sacred texts relevant for us and for the people that we teach… then what exactly are we doing in the Reform Movement?

3. HUC-JIR is a Zionist institution. In fact, I believe, that HUC-JIR is the only seminary in the USA that has a full campus in Jerusalem. Furthermore, HUC students spend their first year of studies in Jerusalem, and put a great emphasis on learning Modern Hebrew…which, as many faculty members convey, is the language of the Jews.

4. It saddens me that both Josh Beraha and Josh Herman feel isolated at HUC. My teacher, Rabbi Dr. Dvora Weisberg spoke in her Talmud class about the reason for teaching Talmud at HUC… it is to learn the art of Jewish discourse. To both Josh and Josh, and to the rest of the student body: at the start of the new semester, let’s all be more aware of our differences, let’s embrace them through engaging conversations, let’s disagree and at the same time, respect one another. I know that I speak for many when I say that oftentimes I disagree with my classmates, but at the end of the day, I still deeply respect them.

Stephen Rifkin says:

Anti’zionism’ or whatever you want to call it, is the coin of the left. It’s the price of admission to anything calling itself ‘liberal’. I would no more expect the Refor/Liberal/Lefist/Atheist wing of American Judaism to mount even a weak defense of Israel than I would the ‘moderate liberal’ Islamists in Egypt suggest that perhaps Egypt has a future as an open tolerant society. Reform/Leftist Jews are firmly in the “I love you as long as you love Hamas” camp of Jews and there’s nothing that’s going to change that. Their piety is to the people who hate them. And like every similar minded person from Tom Friedman to Jon Stewart, first and foremost they have stand on the throat of Israel, rhetorically speaking, to fool themselves that the Arabs who mock and hate them will at least tolerate them and ask them to the ball.

David B. Cohen says:

I am disappointed by the depiction – no, the caricature – of HUC as a hotbed of liberal, anti-zionist, thinking.

The article asserts a donation was turned down for political reasons. The author sources “murmurings” but doesn’t produce a quote. The assertion, in fact, defies reason; practically all Universities would shun an offer to underwrite a position if a candidate’s politics were subject to a litmus test.

The article then sets up retired Rabbi Davidson as the very spirit of liberalism at HUC. Davidson, an adjunct faculty member, is peripheral to the students’ education. Were there no liberal professors to cite?

A student is aghast that no one among his peers thinks setting limits on rabbis’ speech is a particularly good idea. The same student “doesn’t believe in the Religious Action Center”, whose offices where were the landmark voter rights act and civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 were written. I guess rabbis shouldn’t have been involved in fighting discrimination, either.

Another student, Elliot Abrams’ son in law, no less, finds his peers’ opinions on the Park 51 issue unacceptably liberal. Other students are cited for declining to enroll in an elective taught by a self-defined “Hawk” on Israel. This is evidence for liberal slant? Perhaps the fact that some students took his class the first semester and none the second is more a comment on his teaching than his politics.

The article then quotes conservative Rabbi David Wolpe guessing that the political slant at HUC is probably exactly opposite at Yeshiva U. Why is he brought into the conversation?

The bottom line is this: most people abhor rabbis opining on politics, but only when it doesn’t match their own. When I attended HUC, I was taught that a rabbi’s role is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, not to mirror the proportion of conservative to liberal congregants. It’s called prophetic monotheism and it’s the bedrock of reform Judaism.

Lou Adams says:

Let us support balance, as long as it’s from a completely liberal point of view.
I am appalled at how some on the far left are unable to be open to hear let alone value other points of view.

Bruce Phillips says:

This is surprisingly weak journalism for Adam Chandler. Here is one example: Martin Sherman’s elective on the LA campus is given as anexample of left-wng bias. Here is one simple questios Chandler could have asked: What other electives did students have choose from (i.e. who was Sherman competing with?)Were they maybe more interesting courses with sought after teachers? Adam jumped quickly to his foregone conclusion–and I like Martin and personally recruited students for his class at USC.

Menachem says:

I was closely associated with a Reform congregation for many years both as a congregant and as part of the lay leadership. I found many Israel supportive friends in the congregation, but was continually at odds with the “professional” leadership, who worked hard to earn the wit’s description of Reform Judaism as the chaplaincy of the Democratic party.

Many Liberals say the essence of Judaism is standing for the oppressed, against injustice and tyranny, etc., and they point to their involvement in the civil rights cause and support of the ground zero mosque as proof. This is utter nonsense.

Liberal Jews can be found marching in support of every protest movement in the world except those supporting their own people. Did they march in support of Meir Kahane, who really only preached self defense. Did they support Peter Bergson or Jonathan Pollard or Gilad Shalit? Not likely, but they are there for Rachel Corrie and Jessie Jackson.

In my experience Liberal and Reform are other ways of saying superficial, intolerant of dissent, uninformed, and endlessly fascinated with themselves. Judaism is the misused and misunderstood hook to let them feel good about themselves.

LOL! saying Meir Kahane only preached self defense is more absurd than your accusations against liberals, Menachem.

I have very conflicted feelings about politics being preached from the bimah. Should rabbis speak to the issues of the day? Absolutely.

What I have found, however, both at the Reform congregation I attend regularly and others I have visited, is an assumption that all in the room are already in agreement– And anyone who is not is in the wrong place and should just lump it or leave. Even when I agree with what is being said, this disheartens me greatly. I often feel as though politics are not being just preached, but jammed down my throat on the assumption that I agree.

This example is certainly out there, but at one small congregation I visited, the rabbi quite literally said that anyone who did not agree with his position on gun control was an idiot. He didn’t sort of say it– he actually used the words idiot and stupid, amongst others, multiple times. There was no room for dissent, and his assumption seemed to be that his faithful flock would receive his great wisdom and echo it back to him with adoration- which is essentially what happened. That is not the Judaism I want.

As I said, it’s not always disagreement that bothers me. Like one of the commenters above, my rabbi used his Yom Kippur sermon as an opportunity to deliver a political rant. Although he spoke in animated tones, I was bored to tears because I’d heard it all before. I agreed generally with his sentiment, but I thought it was a horrible, uninspiring and almost areligious sermon. What came from the bimah contributed nothing to the awe of that holy day.

Other occurrences of this type have me almost convinced that it is probably past time to find a new temple, and it may very well not be a Reform temple, sad as that makes me; for I have the utmost respect for Reform Judaism as I believe its founders envisioned it. Yet that vision is vanishing into the clouds of hot air blown ever more vehemently from the pulpit.

Tammie says:

The tendency of reform rabbis to carry their political views on the pulpit has been a turnoff for me for a very long time. While I tend to agree with many of reform Judiasm’s positions, I don’t go to synagogue to be harangued with political opinion. A few years ago, I went to Yom Kippur services and people were wearing – Barack Obama – Yes, we can! buttons. To see such a holy day desecrated with such a political message disgusted and saddened me. I have no problem with social justice and tikkun olam, but there is a time and place for everything. Yom Kippur is a day of reflection and prayer. If you can’t escape politics on the most holy of days, when can you?

Given the age demographics of Reform Judaism (not as bad as Conservative Judaism, but still pretty bad), I wonder why anyone would want to start a career as a Reform rabbi anyway.

Who finds this surprising and more to the point, who cares? Demographically Reform Judaism is no different from dying mainline Protestant denominations. What’s the point of being a reform Jew when you can be happily secular and left wing to your heart’s content? Maybe HUC students should spend more time grappling with this question as opposed to carrying water for one particular ideological camp.

Greg Weisman says:

I found this article to be incredibly challenging, both because of concerns I had with the comments of my fellow HUC students and because of the way the author turned those comments into a characture of HUC, its students, and the administration.

Overall, I wonder whether it is fair and accurate to make the conclusions that Chandler asks us too, given the limited nature of the comments that the students shared with him.

For a more fully-developed response, please read my blog post from Friday:

masortiman says:

“Masortiman, the quote was 90% liberal, not 90% J-Street. My understanding is that, at least on the NYC campus, the opinions on Israel are more diffuse than on domestic issues. ”

well that makes more sense. Heck, in my (somewhat limited) experience, Masorti congregations are mostly registered dems (if mostly centrists) say one third liberals/lefties, one third DLC/moderates (IE people who are now called socialists the tea party) and maybe one third GOP members or leaners, with that last group disproportionately leaning towards whats left of moderate Republicanism (IE they are “RINOs”) Given everything I know about Reform, I am not surprised it would be to the left of that.

Theres a lot of confusion here – like the belief that everyone who is a political liberal is anti-AIPAC – that is NOT at all the case, lots of Jewish Dems support AIPAC. Or that being pro J Street makes you anti Zionist.

Judaism, as opposed to Protestantism, is based on Mitzvot (laws and commandments). Reform Judaism has taken away this base and they are left with a bunch of blah blah blah comments and ideas that you can see and hear everywhere else and that biol down to “be a nice person”. In short, they have nothing special to offer, and I will be shocked if there is such a thing as Reform Judaism in 50 years.

    Geoffrey Dennis says:

    All Judaism, including Reform, speak the language of mitzvot, we just don’t get all weirdly fundamentalist about them, or insist that what was appropriate for the Iron Age makes equal sense today. 

In 2004, I met a student girl from HUC in Jerusalem at a shabbat dinner. The host was a Tunisian traditionalist Jew and the meal went accordingly – a regular, traditionnal, Shabbat meal. The girl acted like she never saw that in her life. She did not even know basic hebrew words that even goyim understand. That was appalling.

Regarding the issue of rabbis speaking about politics: the most astounishing, for me who goes to synagogue every shabbat, is to read that rabbis have a sermon. We sometimes have a small Torah talks (in winter only when Shabbat is early), never by the rav, but most of the time, we just pray. We do not come to listen to a boring speech.

While HUC claims to be pluralistic, but like all left-wing institutions, they are fascists when it comes to any opinion that isn’t left-wing.

Yeshiva University does not pretend to be anything other than an Orthodox Jewish institution. And, as such, there is a Torah-defined limit to how much bending to left is possible. There are no committees to make up new laws as they see fit.

    Geoffrey Dennis says:

    Indeed, and fascists are famous for their tolerance of women, people of color, and queer folks. When you use the word “Fascist,” the thoughts of Indigo Montoya apply to you – “I no think that word means what you think it means.”

Apparently fascists ordain queer and female rabbis…

George Iversen says:

We should all be careful about the words we use and not throw words like fascist about willy nilly.
Adam Kirsch in his review of Vasily graossman’s book “Life and Fate” refers to a particular paragraph:

“One of the central scenes in the novel is a dialogue between a Gestapo officer, Liss, and a Russian prisoner of war, Mostovskoy, who is an old and loyal Bolshevik. In this dialogue, deliberately patterned after the Grand Inquisitor scene in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the Nazi tells the Communist that their warring systems are in fact identical: “When we look one another in the face, we’re neither of us just looking at a face we hate—no, we’re gazing into a mirror. That’s the tragedy of our age.”

Quite often, the left or the right goes around a circle and they meet. Much to the detriment of non political citizens.

regina winters says:

A chair endowment can have a long life–And strings that seem sensible attachments now, may become garottes in fifty years. HUC was right to say no.

Geoffrey says:

Like the “Obama hates Isrel” stories, this is mostly ginned up. As a student at HUC Cincinnati in the 90’s, I had a number of prominent professors who were deeply politically conservative. Maybe LA lacks that kind of presence, but that reflects living in LA, not the Reform movement.

The problem is not a rabbi or other Jewish leader arguing that Judaism favors peace, justice, freedom, or the like and that h/she believes that a particular policy will promote that. The problem, which almost always occurs with liberal/left folk, is that if you argue that they are wrong simply on policy or empirical terms (e.g., that minimum wage laws hurt blacks and the poor) they wont argue policy or facts, but accuse you of being uncompassionate or, in this case, not trueto what they believe Judaism “teaches” –but there is obviously no “Jewish” position on a fact. It either us or is not true, or we don’t know yet. But liberals cannot argue policy that way–it removes their trump card –that they are morally superior, and therefore exempt from accountability for the work ability of their proposals or positions.

work that group x is actually
ot negotiating with Israel in good faith,

Rabbi Henry Jay Karp says:

As a graduate of the HUC, I found this article quite disturbing, but not for the reasons the author intended.
Despite the author’s own prejudice, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the prevailing mood of HUC being one of social liberalism. Josh Beraha states “The Jewish community needs spiritual leaders who can bring people Torah, they don’t need someone who’s going to read the New York Times and give a sermon about it.” Well, in the Torah that I study there is a great deal of teaching about social justice – you know, all that liberal stuff.
I also wish to point out that it is extremely misleading to label such messages as “political.” Rabbis do not speak about “politics.” They speak about social issues. They do not call for the support of or opposition to Republicans or Democrats. They call for the support of causes which promote true justice and the opposition to that which is harmful or toxic in our society. For the author to label such messages as “political” rather than “social” is to betray the author’s own perspective that there is one political party that cares for such social issues and another that does not, and therefore to address such issues is to engage in politics.
I want to affirm the statement made by Hannah Goldstein – “I think feeling lonely is not the same as being made to feel like an outsider.” With Reform Judaism historically being on the liberal side of social issues, it is not surprising that social conservatives would find themselves in a “lonely” minority in HUC. But there is a vast and important difference between “feeling lonely” and having the institution formally treat one as an “outsider.” The author intentionally attempts to blur that line. Indeed, he even stoops to denying liberal students the right to express their opinions in private conversations with those who are more conservative. It seems that for him, freedom of expression should be limited to those with whom he agrees.

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Hebrew Union College prides itself on being open and pluralistic. But some Reform rabbinical students say the reality contradicts this vision.