An ostensible advantage of leading one of the largest synagogues in Los Angeles, Sinai Temple, is that the outside world tends to monitor what is and is not said during a perceived crisis.
In May of 2021, 90 rabbinical and cantorial students signed a 965-word public criticism of Israel’s defensive response to a Gaza uprising.
After commending American Jews for their racial reckoning response following George Floyd’s death, the students declared:
“So many of those same institutions are silent when abuse of power and racist violence erupts in Israel and Palestine. So many of us ignore the day-to-day indignity that the Israeli military and police forces enact on Palestinians, and sit idly by as Israel upholds two separate legal systems for the same region.”
Rabbi Erez Sherman, co-senior rabbi of Sinai Temple, characterized the letter as “pretty harsh against Israel. It did not give the proper space for Israel to respond in that time.”
His reaction was a strongly worded letter published in the Jewish Journal. In it, he was candidly critical of the future rabbis.
Soon after, the whole landscape was about to change.
Rabbi Sherman recalled being approached by a foundation that asked him, “How can Sinai Temple’s approach to Israel be beneficial to conversations in rabbinical schools around the country?”
“Starting from scratch,” he said, “we got major project funding from Jewish National Fund-USA, the Paul E. Singer Foundation, the Lisa and Michael Leffell Foundation and a private donor. They said ‘If you can do something, try it out.’”
Rabbi Sherman did, and the Sinai Temple Israel Center Rabbinical School Fellowship was born.
Sixteen students were recruited from nine different seminaries across the country — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and nondenominational. They have been studying for a year.
“We did four seminars the first half of the year, and, in June, took a one-week mission to Israel,” Rabbi Sherman said. “Then we did four more seminars on Zoom and finished the year at the Jewish National Fund-USA Global Conference in Denver.”
Recruiting for the second cohort should bring twice as many students.
“We had to recruit 16 students and convince them this program would help them engage with Israel during their rabbinical school career and beyond,” he said. “This year, we are oversold. The students now understand the need for this program, to engage with Israel across the denominations in a deep way.”
The Jewish National Fund-USA Global Conference at the start of December was a celebratory – and sad – experience.
“The most beautiful things happened that weekend,” Sherman said. “A Shabbat dinner with 2,500 people was a memorable highlight.”
However, outdoors on a chilly Colorado December night, there was a major group of anti-Israel protestors banging on the glass of the Denver Convention Center. “[It was] quite scary,” Sherman said.
But his face brightened when he turned his attention indoors. “When I looked at the table of these (rabbinic) fellows, each one was sitting with someone from a different seminary. It wasn’t because of assigned seats but because over the year, they had gotten to know each other as colleagues. They might have different views about Israel, but they understand they are all on the same cohort. They can have those respectful disagreements.”
For Israelis, the year is ending very differently from the way it started. “The first half of 2023,” said Rabbi Sherman, “was spent on internal strife over judicial reform. But when October 7 happened, we got lots of calls from rabbinical students, who said, ‘I didn’t realize how much I needed a space to speak with other rabbinical students and rabbis about Israel.’ And it was already there because we had started this long before the war.”
Drilling down on Israel was the obvious (or perhaps not so obvious) attention-grabber.
“Last year I sort of had to coax, to sell a product,” Rabbi Sherman said. “But this year we were oversold. It’s a program that we believe in and that can help the future of Jewish leaders as well.”
He explained that half of the first-year Fellowship students were in Israel from January to June, and the other half are there now.
“They are experiencing a very different Israel now,” Sherman said.
The Center spans the Jewish world. Of the 16 students, two are from the Modern Orthodox Yeshiva University, one is from the Open Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, two from the Hebrew College of Boston, one from Hebrew Union College (HUC) Los Angeles, two from HUC New York, two from the Jewish Theological Seminary, three from American Jewish University and one from the Academy of Jewish Religion California.
In January, the Center is expanding to include Yeshivat Maharat, the female Open Orthodox seminary, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York.
Rabbi Sherman explained that in the last year a significant educational element has been overlooked – until now.
“I am hearing that while Zionism in Israel education happens, the space for conversation is not necessarily happening,” he said. “It is sort of ignored. We are a little nervous. We (now) have become a space where those students can come.
“Instead of writing a letter and getting themselves in trouble, rabbinical students have space to come and talk.
“A typical example might be a student saying ‘I am going to my synagogue to speak. This is what I plan to say – tell me what you think of it.’”
The point, Sherman added, is that there is a safe space that allows rabbinical students to use their voice as well.
When Sherman and the students were in Israel in June, they visited the Gaza Envelope, where on the border they encountered Groovetech, a project of the Jewish National Fund-USA.
The rabbi described it as “a gigantic, basically safe innovation center for children. If a rocket comes, they are safe. They can keep playing their games along with a planetarium and a gigantic cooking center.”
“October 7, when I gave a sermon, I told the congregation about Groovetech. I said ‘I wonder where those children are now.’
His question was answered two months later.
Last June at Groovetech, Rabbi Sherman met the director, Michal Uzziyahu. The next time he saw her, “she came to Denver, in tears, to speak with us.” When asked about the children, she said “some are okay, but some have lost their lives.”
Mixed with that sadness, Sherman has been comforted by the success of his initiative to assist Israel.
“It all began with a letter highly critical of Israel by future rabbis during a dangerous time,” he said.
Sherman’s goal is to be prepared for the next time. As if addressing students, he said “When it comes — and it will — what kind of letter will you write? All the concerns you have for Palestinians, and your criticism of the Israeli government — can you also acknowledge the existence of Israel and its right to defend itself?”
Sherman was asked if he was shocked that the original May 2021 letter could come from rabbinical students.
After a year of speaking to rabbinic students the 40-year-old rabbi is hearing that the political environment they grew up in was not the environment they wished to see. They equate the American political environment with Israel, “and that cannot be,” he said.
“It is the intersectionality of the social justice causes that were happening in America over the last 10 to 15 years. Therefore, Israel was seen as an oppressor, as the victimizer, not the other way around. It was hard for some students to get over that aspect.”– Rabbi Erez Sherman
“It is the intersectionality of the social justice causes that were happening in America over the last 10 to 15 years. Therefore, Israel was seen as an oppressor, as the victimizer, not the other way around. It was hard for some students to get over that aspect.”