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(Some) U.S. Jews (finally) take a stand for Israeli democracy

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Rabbi Angela Buchdahl wants you to know that she did not skip out on singing “Hatikvah” at this morning’s rally for Israeli democracy outside the United Nations because of the backlash from some of her more conservative congregants.

It’s not that there wasn’t backlash. Buchdahl, senior rabbi of Manhattan’s mammoth Central Synagogue, got a number of very tough emails challenging her decision to protest outside the U.N. of all places, saying it would only embolden Israel’s enemies. There were plenty of nasty comments online, too, after her Rosh Hashanah sermon saying American Jews “cannot walk away” from this fight went a little viral on YouTube (34,000 views and counting).

But Rabbi Buchdahl responded to each of those emails with strong counter-arguments. Then on Wednesday night, she tested positive for COVID-19.

“I didn’t not show up because people were mad about it, because that is not how I roll,” she told me by phone.

“These days are days that you discern what really matters and what you care about and how we want to behave in this coming year,” Buchdahl said of this period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known as the Days of Awe. “Here is a first opportunity for those who want to see a thriving Israel to act on that.

“This feels like a real act of teshuvah,” she added of the protest, using the Hebrew word for “return” and repentance. “It feels like a kind of return to our Israeli brothers and sisters, who’ve been crying out for the last nine months and we’ve been mostly silent.”

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Davening by bullhorn: A few dozen liberal American Jews had a spirited, egalitarian morning prayer service before Friday’s pro-democracy rally outside of the United Nations, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke. (Jodi Rudoren)

As regular readers of this newsletter know well, I’ve been saying kaddish for my dad every morning since he died in February. So when I decided to cover this morning’s protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan, I concocted an elaborate plan to get into Manhattan early enough to park, get coffee, and Zoom into my regular Friday minyan.


I was listening in to that service via AirPods as I strolled into Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza ahead of the rally’s scheduled 8:30 a.m. start, only to find an exuberant circle of men and women in prayer shawls and tefillin reciting the morning blessings. Many wore handout cardboard yarmulkes printed with “Pray for Jewish and democratic Israel.”


This was a new thing for the local arm of the protests, which until this week had been filled mainly with secular Israeli-Americans. The organizers had made a pointed effort to engage American rabbis in this week’s rallies around Netanyahu’s visit to the U.S., given that it coincides with the holiest week of the Jewish year.


At one point, I looked across the makeshift minyan to see Esther Sperber, an Upper West Side architect who has been the main non-Israeli organizer of the New York rallies. She was in tears. 


“I’ve been working so hard to get my community to show up and they’re finally here,” explained Sperber, who described herself as “liberal-leaning modern Orthodox.” 


“I’ve been talking to all of them for the last eight months about how if missiles were falling on Israel, we’d all be out in force, and this is a self-inflicted missile,” she said. “I think this may be the turning point.”  


A key part of that was persuading prominent leaders like Buchdahl, whose synagogue has 3,000 member-households — with 800 more on a wait-list — to take a marquee role. When she couldn’t make it, the organizers invited all the clergy in the crowd to the stage for “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem; there were 30 or 40 of them, men and women, queer and straight, in knitted kippot and baseball caps. 


In the middle stood Elliot Cosgrove, senior rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue on the Upper East Side, the largest Conservative shul in New York. He is an icon of the mainstream Jewish establishment, and looked the part in suit and tie, a sharp contrast to the sea of T-shirts with political slogans (“Save Israeli Democracy,” “Resisting Tyrants Since Pharoah,” “Torah Trumps Hate,” “Palestinian Lives Matter”). 


“This is an amazing moment for us that he’s here,” Shany Granot-Lubaton, the Israeli-American leader of the New York protests, said in introducing Cosgrove. “I’m saying this for the Israelis, most of whom are secular and don’t know. This is a major moment.” 


Cosgrove surprised and delighted the crowd by delivering his short and stirring speech in both Hebrew and English, invoking Hillel’s famous saying, with a twist: If not now, when? If not here, where? If not me, who?


“This has been such a transformative year for American Jewry,” Cosgrove told me offstage. “Protesting the Israeli government has become an expression of Jewish identity. What was treyf has become kosher.” 

“I’ve been talking to all of them for the last eight months about how if missiles were falling on Israel, we’d all be out in force, and this is a self-inflicted missile. I think this may be the turning point.”  

– Esther Sperber, protest organizer

Maybe. About 2,000 people turned up Friday morning outside the U.N., far more than at any previous protest in the U.S. since Netanyahu’s far-right government proposed its judicial plan — and far, far fewer than typically join New York’s annual Celebrate Israel parade on Fifth Avenue. 


The crowd definitely included a higher percentage of Americans than the March protest I attended in Greenwich Village. But when someone bumped into me, she said “slicha” — Hebrew for “sorry” — and many of the crowd-control instructions were given in Hebrew first. 


As with the weekly democracy protests in Israel, the plaza was a sea of Israeli flags — the organizers had purchased 1,000 for the occasion. And as in Israel, there was an eclectic mix of slogans on the signs and shirts: “From the river to the sea, democracy for all.” “Jews for Palestinian justice.” An image of Netanyahu tearing an Israeli flag. “Rabbis say: Repent, Bibi!” 


There were no visibly Orthodox Jews — until a couple of dozen Chabad guys in black hats and black suits showed up on the sidelines, asking random men if they wanted to wrap tefillin — I wished they’d been there an hour before to see the women wearing tefillin at the egalitarian minyan; I wished I’d brought my own tefillin to show them. 


There were two small counter-protests: One with a few dozen people holding signs with pictures of Netanyahu that said “Americans got your back,” the other made up of perhaps a dozen Haredi Jews with banners opposing Zionism altogether. This is what democracy looks like, indeed.


Offir Gutelzon, the Israeli-American tech entrepreneur who started UnXeptable, the group leading the U.S. protests, agreed with Sperber that this week has felt like a turning point. His group has doubled the number of people on its email list and WhatsApp group to 10,000 since the Israeli Knesset’s July vote to strip the Supreme Court’s of some of its power to review legislation, he said. It now has 40 chapters across North America, up from 25 earlier in the year.


The protest movement has also hired a high-powered Washington P.R. firm, Trident DMG, for three months at a cost of $75,000. And this week’s actions included a plane flying overhead with a banner saying “Defend Israel’s Democracy,” a boat sailing across from the U.N. with a sign shouting “NEVER SURRENDER” and messages projected onto prominent New York buildings. (Spokespeople declined to say how much all this cost, or how much the movement has raised in 2023.)


“It grew up really fast,” Gutzelon said. “It’s hard to get Jewish Americans to say something against the policies — the DNA was always you support Israel no matter what. It’s hard to get people to say, ‘It’s OK to criticize the judicial overhaul, it’s not about criticizing Israel.’ You are holding an Israeli flag, you cannot be against Israel.”


That’s pretty much what Rabbi Buchdahl told the conservative congregants who expressed concern about her plan to participate in today’s rally, what she said in her sermon.


“We are reclaiming the flag, we are reclaiming the Declaration of Independence, we are reclaiming this language around Jewish values,” she said. “Of all my Israel sermons, this one felt less controversial to me, because who doesn’t stand for democracy? We are one people. Our destinies are bound up with each other. We shouldn’t walk away from Israel.”


Buchdahl, who I’ve known since college and who is a member of the Forward Association — our advisory board — first went to Israel at age 16 on the prestigious Bronfman fellowship. She has  been back about 40 times since, including this year, when she joined the hundreds of thousands protesting every Saturday night on the streets of Tel Aviv. 


She had not originally planned to speak about Israel during these High Holidays — her Rosh Hashanah address was going to be about artificial intelligence. But she said she changed her mind about three weeks before the holiday, after listening to some podcasts in which prominent Israelis were begging for Americans to stand up and speak out.


“I woke up one morning,” she recalled, and thought to herself, “‘You are a rabbi in this moment, you have to talk about Israel.’ Up until this point, American Jews have been radically silent in the face of all that’s going on. It’s like, where the hell are American Jews right now?”


Some hundreds of them were in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza on Friday morning, screaming “Busha, busha” — Hebrew for “shame, shame” — backed by drums and whistles as Netanyahu spoke inside the U.N., largely ignoring the political turmoil tearing his country apart.


It hardly feels like enough.

Shabbat Shalom and G’mar chatimah tovah! 



Dept. of Corrections : In introducing our three new fellows in last week’s newsletter, I should have said the program is supported in part by a grant from the Jews of Color Initiative, in partnership with the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. To join them in supporting the Forward, become a monthly donor today.



Our Laura E. Adkins sat down with two leading experts on Israel’s judicial overhaul and the protest movement, Daniel Gordis and Dahlia Scheindlin. In normal political times, Gordis sits on the center-right of the political spectrum and Scheindlin on the left, but they are in violent agreement about the threats the current government poses to Israeli democracy. 






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