Richard Sandler at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Washington D.C. in 2015.

JFNA’s Sandler taking heat for support of David Friedman

The chairman of one of America’s largest Jewish membership organizations is facing criticism for publicly supporting President Donald Trump’s controversial nominee for ambassador to Israel.

Appearing in Tel Aviv on a panel about Israeli-American relations under Trump, Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) board of trustees chair Richard Sandler spoke highly of David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer and Trump confidante.

“I believe he’s a very intelligent individual, and I think he’ll be a good representative if he is confirmed,” Sandler said, according to Haaretz. “My expectations of him are very positive.”

Friedman has made headlines for inflammatory comments about liberal Jews, for instance, comparing members of the left-wing group J Street to Jews who collaborated with the Nazi regime. Sandler’s support for Friedman came as a shock to some who feel those comments are disqualifying.

“Unless one really represents the majority view of the organization, sometimes it’s better just to keep your mouth shut — and this is one of those times,” said Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood and national chairman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), the Israel arm of the American Reform movement. “And I’m sorry that he did it.”

Meanwhile, Sandler, a Santa Monica-based attorney and former chair of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, was quick to frame his comments as a personal opinion, rather than the view of JFNA, the umbrella group for Federations across the continent.

“The comments reported in the press were in response to a question directed to me about David Friedman and reflected my personal view, based upon my analysis of the situation and my personal contact with Mr. Friedman,” Sandler wrote in an email to JFNA trustees. He declined to comment for this story.

At the panel, Sandler cited Friedman’s apology before the Senate as grounds to move beyond the nominee’s past statements.

“These were hurtful words and I deeply regret them,” Friedman told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a confirmation hearing last month. “They’re not reflective of my nature or my character.”

But Rosove of ARZA, who is also a member of the executive rabbinic cabinet of J Street, was less than convinced.

“I’m surprised that a distinguished leader of the Los Angeles Jewish community would believe anything that David Friedman says,” he told the Journal.

He said that ARZA’s board voted unanimously to oppose Friedman’s appointment. He called Sandler’s support for Friedman wrongheaded and inappropriate, saying he hoped the Federations leader would recant his view.

Others in the community were more disappointed than angry about Sandler’s comments.

“He’s done a lot for both the L.A. as well as the national Jewish community,” Adam Wergeles, a co-founder of the West L.A. congregation IKAR, told the Journal. “And on the other hand, you have a guy like Friedman who has said some horribly divisive things about progressive Jewry. And it is upsetting to see someone like Sandler — who’s kind of using his stature — to support what felt to me like Friedman’s very convenient and self-serving retraction.”

Yet Sandler is only one of a number of mainstream Jewish leaders now expressing support for Friedman. On Feb. 19, Stephen Greenberg, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, said Friedman has “all the makings” of a successful diplomat and spoke highly of his performance before the Senate.

Greenberg stopped short of issuing an endorsement, while others felt it necessary to go further.

Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel, which represents more than 100 synagogues and 25,000 members nationwide, said he felt compelled to speak out in favor of Friedman after hearing criticism from the left. He said he took Friedman for his word when the nominee apologized for past comments.

“These people who come out against him are not really people who know him,” he said, citing multiple conversations he’d had with Young Israel members who knew Friedman personally and spoke highly of him.

Sandler’s comments come on the heels of a public debate on whether Federations should take political stances at all. The L.A. Federation came under fire last month after an email from its president and CEO addressed – but did not denounce – Trump’s executive actions on refugees and immigration.

At the time, Sandler told the Journal that he supported the L.A. Federation’s decision to refrain from taking a position, saying political statements invariably upset some donors.

“Federations really should not get involved in making statements one way or another, because they need not get distracted from the work Federations are supposed to do,” he said at the time.

JFNA has previously shied away from commenting on political appointees. In November, the group came under pressure to condemn the appointment of Steve Bannon as chief White House strategist for his role at the helm of Breitbart News, but declined to take a position.

Hollywood’s reform Rabbi takes on a top American zionist role

The Israeli Reform movement is a shadow of its American counterpart. Look no further than a recent Pew Research Center poll: Whereas 30 percent of American Jews identify as Reform, merely 3 percent of Israeli Jews say the same.

Yet Reform Judaism is far from irrelevant in Israel.

Sitting in his wood-paneled office at Temple Israel of Hollywood, Rabbi John Rosove rattled off a list of issues for which he thinks the American Reform movement can provide much-needed support in Israel, from African immigration to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Earlier this month, Rosove assumed the position of board chairman for the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), the Zionist wing of the national Reform movement. The position puts him among the most prominent figures in American Zionism.

Already, he said, Israeli Reform leaders have been central in the struggle to wrest power from the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate on issues such as civil marriage, egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall Plaza and conversion to Judaism — a religious insurgency that Rosove said draws on traditions of American Reform.

“That’s the nature of the American Reform movement: We are on the cutting edge,” he said.

Rosove, 66, assumed the head post at Temple Israel nearly three decades ago but was active in the Reform movement long before, dating from his youth at the Leo Baeck Temple in the Sepulveda Pass.

He described himself as a lifelong advocate for Israel and said he has been involved with ARZA for the majority of its three-decade history. (He also happens to be a second cousin of the Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin.)

In an interview with the Jewish Journal, Rosove discussed ARZA’s role in the broader picture of American Zionism and the civil liberties battles it fights in Israel. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Jewish Journal: What is ARZA’s goal or mission?

John Rosove: It’s simply first to organize and expand the reach of Zionism in the Reform movement in America, to educate and to stimulate activism on behalf of the State of Israel, to get people there on congregational trips and also to support the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, which is the Reform movement there. There are 45 Reform congregations in Israel; there are many, many social justice projects; there are two kibbutzim in the south, there’s the Leo Baeck school in Haifa; there are a number of ganim [kindergartens] in synagogues all over the place. … There’s also the Israel Reform Action Center, which is the most prominent social justice organization in Israel arguing before the Knesset and the courts on diversity issues and rights for all citizens of the state.

JJ: ARZA asks Americans to “take ownership” over Israel. Where do Americans get that right? Why do we deserve a say in what goes on in Israel?

JR:  We won’t be telling the government what to do. I don’t believe we have that right. What I do believe personally, and this is very personal, is that we are partners with Israel — secondary partners. Israeli citizens are the ones who have to make the decision. Their government makes the decision. They’re the ones who pay the taxes and go into the army. We support them as a statement of love. … There’s Klal Yisrael, there’s Am Yisrael, there’s Eretz Yisrael, and there’s Medinat Yisrael [the community of Israel, the nation of Israel, the land of Israel and the State of Israel]. We have to distinguish what we’re talking about here. For us, it’s all of them. It’s all of them together. We have a stake in what Israel is and becomes and does. Our security here is dependent on that.

JJ: You served as a regional co-chair of J Street, an organization that is often critical of the Israeli government. A lot of people don’t think of J Street as a Zionist organization, so I would be remiss if I did not ask you to square the circle for those people.

JR: All you have to do is look at the J Street website. It is a pro-Israel Zionist organization that’s on the middle-left with regard to the two-state solution. Those who say it’s not pro-Zionist have a very narrow definition of what Zionism is, and I just beg to differ. I think it’s unfair and it’s wrong and it’s exclusionary. What we’ve seen happen is that the fastest growing element of J Street is on college campuses — J Street U — those students are the first line of defense against BDS [the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel]. Everybody recognizes it. Those are the kids who are eloquently and with strength standing up against BDS on college campuses around the country. … So those who say it’s not a pro-Zionist organization, they’re just flat wrong.

JJ: Does ARZA or the Reform movement more generally have a position on the peace process or the two-state solution?

JR: Yes. A two-state solution is the only way that Israel can remain democratic and Jewish. The Union for Reform Judaism is on record with resolutions, ARZA is on record — it is a Reform movement position. But we are also a very strong pro-Israel community.

JJ: How can ARZA change or help or move the conversation on the Western Wall Plaza, allowing egalitarian prayer, which is so deadlocked in Israel right now, and so contentious?

JR: The agreement that was made was so carefully struggled for, any change will mean it will collapse. And now, what [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants] — because he’s gotten pressure from the religious parties — is he wants to go back and renegotiate it. It won’t work. And so our position has been, the Reform movement and the Conservative movement, that you have an agreement, that’s the agreement, and that’s it. And if you renege on this agreement, Mr. Prime Minister, you will be basically — what’s the right word? — you will go back on a promise and on a commitment to Diaspora Jewry. If you follow it through, you’ll be a hero on this issue. It’s that simple. Either you violate a vow and a commitment, or you become a hero, and it’s your choice. And we’re not negotiating anymore. The negotiations have taken place. This is the line — we’ve gone as far as we’re going to go.

JJ: Despite the best efforts of Reform leaders, their movement hasn’t caught on in Israel. Why is that, and how you can change that?

JR: Surveys have been done that indicate that 30 percent of Israelis would go to a Reform or Conservative synagogue if there were one near them. They’ve been exposed to a different kind of Judaism, in Orthodoxy, which they won’t touch with a 10-foot pole. There’s a hunger for liberal Judaism in Israel, as there is in the United States. 

Reform movement raps Israeli settlement plans, Palestinian U.N. upgrade

The Union for Reform Judaism criticized Israel for its decision to build new settlement housing and the Palestinians for unilaterally seeking upgraded status at the United Nations.

The newly adopted policy statement was adopted overwhelmingly on Sunday following a debate at the group's board of trustees meeting in St. Petersburg, Fla. More than 200 board members of URJ's Central Conference of American Rabbis and its Zionist wing ARZA attended the meeting.

The resolution condemned the Palestinian Authority “for the unilateral decision to seek upgraded status at the United Nation as counterproductive to the cause of peace ” and expressed “deep concern to those countries that supported the upgraded status, and to those who abstained.” The U.N. General Assembly voted last week to give the Palestinians non-member state observer status.

On Israel's plan to build in the E1 corridor between Jerusalem and the major Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim, the resolution said it “would split the Ramallah region off from Bethlehem, effectively cutting the West Bank in two and making a contiguous Palestinian state virtually impossible.” It further said, “Building there makes progress toward peace far more challenging, and is difficult to reconcile with the Government of Israel's stated commitment to a two-state solution.”

The resolution also calls on the Palestinians “to return to the negotiating table immediately without preconditions, as Israel has committed to doing,” and supports “appropriate measures if the Palestinians use their new status at the U.N. to initiate formal action against Israel via the International Criminal Court or other agency.”

It also opposes actions taken as a result of the U.N. vote “that would undercut the prospects for renewing the peace process leading to a two-state solution,” such as reducing financial support to the United Nations or the Palestinian Authority or reducing the currently recognized Palestinian diplomatic presence.

ARZA wins WZO Elections

The Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) easily won elections for the American slate to the World Zionist Organization’s 35th Congress of the Jewish People.

ARZA took home just over 38 percent of the 75,686 votes cast, garnering it 55 delegates to the June congress in Israel. ARZA’s victory “demonstrates that our message — love of Israel, devotion to Zionist ideals and commitment to policies of moderation and religious pluralism in the Jewish state — has become the dominant voice of American Zionism,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

ARZA was followed by the Religious Zionist Slate, which won 24 percent and 35 delegates; Mercaz U.S.A., the Zionist organization of the Conservative Movement, which won 22 percent and 32 delegates; the Zionist Organization of America, which won 3.4 percent and five delegates; and Hatikva, a coalition of Ameinu and Meretz, which won 3.3 percent and five delegates.

ARZA also won the last election in 2002, though this year it garnered six fewer delegates, while the Religious Zionist Slate gained six delegates over the last vote. The total number of voters for the 12 slates running this year represented a drop from 2002, when 88,753 people cast ballots. — Jewish Telegraphic Agency