BROOKLINE — Several years ago, the clergy of Temple Israel, the state’s largest Reform congregation, began to notice something unsettling. Israel could be a contentious topic in the synagogue — when people paid attention to it at all.
Some congregants hesitated to bring it up. Others knew little about Israel’s complex political situation, or felt frustrated by it, so they avoided the subject. This self-perpetuating cycle of disconnection concerned the rabbis most.
So they decided to talk about Israel. Not for a night, or a weekend, or a month — for three solid years. The conversation would involve classes, lectures, congregation-wide discussions, even a clergy-led trip to Israel.
“Our goal is not actually to create staunch supporters [of Israel], it’s really to move the dial on apathy,” said Rabbi Jeremy S. Morrison, who oversees education at the synagogue. “I’m hopeful that more and more people will be able to talk about these issues in ways that are more productive.”
Temple Israel is not alone in its effort to get serious about improving the dialogue on Israel within its congregation. The synagogue is one of a dozen in Greater Boston offering iEngage, an intensive seminar on the political and moral quandaries facing Israel and the relationship between Israel and Jews elsewhere in the world, developed by the Shalom Hartman Institute, a pluralistic research and education center. Combined Jewish Philanthropies, which is helping to sponsor the course, says that interest has been so high that some synagogues have waiting lists.
And at Brandeis University, students dismayed with the animosity among Israel-related organizations on campus recently started Brandeis Visions for Israel in an Evolving World , or bVIEW, which has gained an enthusiastic early following for its open, experimental approach. A recent panel discussion featured the usual representation from left, right, and center groups, but with a twist. Instead of rehashing arguments about past events, they could only ask and answer questions about the future.
“I think that there is a concern that, just as America has polarized and found it difficult to see left and right talk to one another — witness what we’ve just seen on Capitol Hill — so in Jewish life, the left and the right have trouble talking to one another,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis.
In November, the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta canceled a talk by Peter Beinart, author of “The Crisis in Zionism.” Lamenting this in Tablet Magazine, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and a frequent critic of Beinart’s, wrote: “Have the People of the Book really become so uninterested in thinking?”
(Soon after, Gordis drew criticism for harshly chastising a colleague and former student for urging Israelis to empathize with Palestinian suffering, even as she voiced support for Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket fire from Gaza.)
In 2010, a Newton synagogue rescinded an invitation to Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder of J Street, an advocacy group that advocates for a two-state solution and has been critical of some Israeli government policies, after some members complained. And last year, at another Newton synagogue, members of Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine and other activists, screaming “Israel is an apartheid state” and other slogans, were ejected from an event featuring five members of the Israeli Knesset.
Temple Israel had had some experience with similar disruptions in the past. Within the last decade or so, two Israel-related public events the synagogue hosted soured when non-members in the audience grew hostile; in one case, people in the crowd heckled the speakers, and in the other, sharply worded questions created tension.
So the congregation took special care to set a respectful tone as it launched its three-year endeavor, called “Israel and Us.”
It began with three, open, congregation-wide discussions, the first of which established ground rules — people’s willingness to speak, for example, should match their willingness to listen.
“I really believe that there is a genuine middle,” said Rabbi Ronne Friedman, Temple Israel’s senior rabbi. “It’s a middle that wants to hear, and more than it wants to hear, it also wants the disputation to be thoughtful and civil.”
But Friedman and Morrison said apathy was by far a greater concern than incivility among their congregants; so “Israel and Us’ is not about the airing of views so much as it is about education.
The synagogue established a loose theme for each year: Last year’s was Jerusalem, and civil discourse itself; this year is democracy and nation building; next year’s will be Israel’s relationship with its neighbors in the modern Middle East.
The congregation has hosted a range of speakers, including, during the conflict with Gaza in November, Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Egypt and Israel. The synagogue is now hosting advocacy groups with different perspectives. Ben-Ami of J Street came last month; later this month, Eric Giesser, regional director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a more hawkish pro-Israel lobby, will address the congregation.
This spring, David E. Matz, founder of the Graduate Programs in Conflict Resolution at UMass Boston, will offer a three-part course on Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and S. Ilan Troen, a professor of Israel studies at Brandeis, will lecture on Jewish claims to the land of Israel. Just Vision, whose films highlight Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, will also offer a presentation.
The iEngage course at Temple Israel late last year drew about 30 people — a small fraction of the 2,000 or so adults in the congregation. But one participant, Mitchell Shames, said it offered those at the table a common language and framework for people thinking through their own views, and for continuing the discussion within the congregation.
“These are very complicated issues,” he said. “People come to the discussion with varying backgrounds and perspectives.”
Edmond Murad, another participant, said a major focus of the iEngage course was on connecting the moral teachings of Judaism and the conduct of a modern state, which he found interesting.
Murad is a native of Iraq who vividly recalls hiding, as an 8-year-old child in 1941, in the basement of his Baghdad apartment building with his family while pogroms raged in the streets outside.
His family eventually immigrated to the United States, but many of his relatives went to Israel and remain there with their families today.
He knows that many in the congregation do not feel as strongly about the importance of Israel as a Jewish homeland as he does, and that some are very critical of the government’s treatment of the Palestinians. But he says “Israel and Us” has given the congregation a chance to talk over their differences. Some of the speakers, he said, have opened his eyes to complexities he had not considered before.
“I think the nature of the problem is so polarizing that it’s hard . . . just to see another person or another valid viewpoint just across from you,” he said.