When Bad Rabbis Happen to Good People

The “Israel apartheid” wall at Duke University. (Credit: Amy Rosenthal)

Perfidy from the pulpit

A Reform rabbi in Durham, North Carolina, has led his flock astray. Seduced by utopian fantasies, this rabbi and others like him elevate Jews who promote boycotts of Israel.

One of his congregants, however, Kathryn Wolf, refused to surrender to authority and watch passively as her house of worship was hijacked. Instead, Wolf took action.

In a proposal to her shul’s Social Action Committee, Wolf urged specific measures be taken to fight anti-Zionism, the most widespread form of anti-Semitism today. When that proposal was rejected, Wolf sent an open letter to her rabbi and every congregant in the synagogue directory, decrying the normalization of anti-Zionism.

When that, too, failed to effect change and the synagogue’s brass attempted to marginalize and threaten her, Wolf went public and published an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post about her travails.

Kathryn Wolf. (Facebook)

The Jewish Leadership Project believes Wolf’s insistence that her synagogue address the scourge of anti-Semitic anti-Zionism and examine its part in it is a model for reclaiming our most sacred Jewish institutions. Specifically, Wolf’s Social Action Committee proposal can be used as a template by members of any synagogue to insist that their Jewish leaders prioritize the fight against anti-Semitism over other social justice concerns.

Read Wolf’s Social Action Committee proposal and her open letter below, which the Jewish Leadership Project obtained and is making available exclusively to subscribers for use in their own synagogues as they see fit.

Is your rabbi enabling anti-Semites by refusing to condemn anti-Zionism? We urge you: don’t turn away, confront it, and let us know how you are fighting back!

For additional inspiration, read Kathryn Wolf’s excellent article “The Screamers” published in Tablet.


Kathryn’s Open Letter to Her Rabbi

Open Letter to Judea Reform Rabbinical and Lay Leaders and Congregants
Durham, NC
January 5, 2023

Dear Rabbi Soffer and Congregants:

With due respect, there is a rot in this house.

Judea Reform is set to host a panel discussion, “How do we talk to our school-aged kids about antisemitism?” One of your panelists is infamous for spearheading a historic boycott against Israel while mayor of this city.

Steve Schewel’s boycott of an acclaimed Israeli police training program remains on Durham’s municipal books. The resolution is trumpeted on the website of the Israel-hate group, Jewish Voice for Peace. It widened the Overton window, allowing regular Americans to talk about Israel as a bloodthirsty oppressor of Palestinians and black Americans alike since both libels drove the boycott. Schewel said into his mic the night the city council unanimously passed his boycott: “I know the terrible traumas visited on us as a people we are now visiting on others in Gaza and on the West Bank,” casting Israelis as Nazis, a Holocaust inversion.

This, Rabbi, is the man you put forth to school us on antisemitism?

I am stunned we have arrived at this point. But I am not surprised.

Not after the numerous times this temple ignored or rejected my polite yet urgent pleas to tackle the new antisemitism that Schewel helped unleash here — hatred of Israel and its supporters.

Or the times this temple has hosted talks by people who espoused calumnies that Israel is an “apartheid” state and supports gay rights to “pink-wash” supposed atrocities.

Or the time this temple was set to hold a discussion on “disturbing parallels between Nazi concentration camps and US detention centers,” featuring a panelist who Tweeted that since the centers were “run by private corporations” they were “worse” than concentration camps, and that Hillary Clinton was beholden to “wealthy #jewish donors,” until enough outcry forced a cancellation.

Or the time this temple featured a talk by a congressman known for his combative stance against Israel while denying my request for a talk by Zionist Organization of America’s Director of Government Relations, Dan Pollak.

Or the time this temple’s Israel Discourse Advisory Committee in its Report to Board of Trustees took aim at unnamed congregants for unspecified “bad behavior” in relation to the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” and pondered how it might “hold the behavior in question up to public scrutiny” and “as a collective entity might assert its moral force” to intimidate and silence the last few outspoken Zionists here through baseless accusations.

Or the time this temple invited Jewish teens to discuss their “white privilege,” an ahistorical, offensive and dangerous proposition that I might expect only from someone who had never met a Jew.

Or the time this temple gave Schewel a “Volunteer of the Year” award, even after his abhorrent boycott.

And yet, by holding up Schewel as a model for fighting antisemitism rather than normalizing it, we seem to have smashed a new window.

This is no argument for the sake of heaven. Do black churches ask racists to lecture churchgoers? Do Catholics honor those who want to dissolve the Vatican? We invite arsonists into our so-called big tent.

The anti-Zionism in here is jaw-dropping. Out there, it’s bone-chilling. Our kids are now uncomfortable identifying as Jews and terrified of being identified as Zionists, and for good reason.

Antisemites in white sheets or brown shirts have always been at our backs. But it’s the anti-Zionist hoards yelling “Free Palestine!” who are breathing down our necks.

You pointed out recently that the Reform tradition has since its founding wrestled with its relationship with Israel, as though that somehow justifies what goes on in here.

We might do well also to recall how Moses Mendelssohn, the 18th-century father of Reform Judaism no less, had nine grandchildren with but a single Jew among them.

I keep in my desk a Life magazine clipping from June 28, 1943, titled “Reply to Zionism.” Even at the hellish height of the Holocaust, Reform leader Lessing J. Rosenwald was arguing against the establishment of a Jewish state, writing “Jewish citizens of other nations would be embarrassed either by its decisions or by its neutrality.”

As Rosenwald wrote those repugnant words, he had the luxury of an ocean between himself and the marked Jews of Europe. That luxury has evaporated. We’re the marked Jews now. Many are asking how many years we have left in this country. Maybe we’re not history’s exception. Zion may be important after all.

And what has the Reform tradition of disdain for Israel wrought, if not bitter fruit?

Parents who regularly sat around the family dinner table, oh-so-honestly parsing whatever crime du jour Israelis were accused of, have come to find they’ve raised youths who — surprise! — want little to do with Israel. Nor are they too keen on being Jewish, period. Many are headed the way of Mendelssohn’s descendants.

Others won’t go so quietly. Banging on about their Jewish bona fides in front of every campus “Israel Apartheid Wall,” they lock arms with non-Jewish anti-Zionist bullies, giving them cover.

So many of us don’t seem to understand that Zionism is our worldwide liberation movement. That Israel is not one prayer in the Mishkan T’filah but the bedrock of our entire religion. And that thousands of years of our being colonized has led so many of us to internalize the lie that we are not entitled to the same dignity, security and self-determination as everyone else on this planet — when indeed we are.

But you, Rabbi, want to both-sides it. “I don’t agree with anti-Zionism personally,” you’ve said. “I find it hurtful.” At the same time you are a member of the rabbinic council of J Street, an organization that filed an amicus brief in support of companies that want to boycott our kin.

This temple’s social action committee looks behind every door for a group to uplift. Yesterday we were buying gift cards to persuade people to get Covid shots. Tomorrow we may take to the streets because smoking pot is a human right.

Reform Judaism is tikkun olam-ing us to death.

Our gorgeous particularism — the very things that make us Jews — has been put in service to some generalized, sanitized “greater good.” We are disappearing ourselves into the great blob of universalism.

But I can think of no greater good than insisting Jews have a place in this world. So I recently urged our social action committee to uplift an altogether new group: Us.

I wanted to raise money for victims of antisemitic violence, teach parents about toxic anti-Israel instruction in schools, and put boots on the ground whenever Jew-hatred emerges around here.

That proposal was a bridge too far. The response from temple brass: “providing a platform for a conversation around antisemitism and anti-Zionism will only serve to divide our sacred community.”

We are at a tipping point. American Jews will hunker down, set boundaries, and emerge stronger if leaner. Or we will fizzle into one more instance of exceptional nothingness.

When you hitch your love for Israel to an apology, you hand ammunition to Jew-haters. When you try to force Israelis to bend to your will, you ratchet up American arrogance. When you soft-pedal anti-Zionism, you engender moral confusion. When you feature anti-Zionists, you amplify Jew-hatred. When you cancel outspoken Zionists, you undermine our defenders.

In a recent sermon, you mused whether “calling all anti-Zionist Jews antisemitic is not, in a twisted away, yet another form of antisemitism.” No wonder so many vocal Zionists have quit this place.

So let me be clear. My Zionism comes with no caveat, no mea culpa, none.

I need Zionism. My children need Zionism. My People need Zionism.

Anti-Zionists oppose the deepest part of me, as a Jew. And that, Rabbi, is wholly unacceptable. Unacceptable in our city government. Unacceptable in our classrooms. And, most of all, unacceptable in our last safe space, our shuls.

The hour is here. The threat is existential.

I urge you, Rabbi: Draw a line. Clean house. Anything less is to be complicit in our undoing.

Am Yisrael Chai.

Kathryn Wolf
Member, Judea Reform Congregation


Kathryn’s Social Action Committee Proposal

Kathryn Wolf
Judea Reform Congregation, member
Social Action Committee, member
October 9, 2022

I urge you to consider a new social action project.

American Jewry must recognize the volcano in our midst that soon will erupt on us all.

Berkeley law school now has hostile zones for Zionists. Nine affinity groups have changed their bylaws to exclude speakers who support Israel – including women’s groups, a Black group, the Queer caucus, a Muslim group.

You may say: Jewish students aren’t much affected.

In the words of Berkeley law student Shay Cohen: “I have a target on my back now.”

You may say: But it’s only nine groups.

What if only nine groups said Blacks who support Black Lives Matter couldn’t speak. What if only nine groups said Muslims who love Mecca couldn’t speak.

Would that not move us to act?

You may say: Berkeley isn’t Durham.

But Berkeley is a tipping point. JCRC’s Tyler Gregory is warning: “Train and empower students across the country. We’ve seen this show before, and it’s coming to a theater near you.”

I count myself among the “screamers” in Durham. We have been at it for four years now, ever since then-mayor Steve Schewel and the city council set fire to this town by enacting a historic boycott against Israel. We said if you don’t quench those flames, they will spread. Some of you thought we were maniacs.

There is now a constant barrage of anti-Zionist incidents here. A sampling: A few weeks ago, a raucous BDS rally was held in front of Google; last summer an op-ed in the UNC Daily Tar Heel urged students to “scrutinize” peers who vacation in Israel; last winter Duke Student Government refused at first to recognize the club Students Supporting Israel; then activist Mohammed El-Kurd came to Duke and openly heckled Jewish students in the audience while hundreds cheered. Next week we’ve got a fundraiser in Raleigh with Amer Zahr, an activist who just tweeted a selfie in an airport while wearing a t-shirt glorifying an El Al hijacker.

The handful of us trying to stem the rising tide of hatred here are outnumbered and out-maneuvered.

The social action committee has come to the defense of many. Afghan refugees. The undocumented. The poor.

Long overdue is attention to another group: The Jews.

I propose we do three things. One, raise money to help pay medical bills for Jewish victims of increasing antisemitic violence.

Two, educate Jewish teens and parents about the anti-Zionism poisoning our high schools and universities.

And three, like the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, form an Antisemitism Task Force to put boots on the ground whenever Jew-hatred occurs here.

I fear this appeal will fall on deaf ears, as though we are separated by some sort of thicket.

Why bother, you may say. Why bother?

Because that’s what a truly liberal society demands of us. That we make space for everyone — including ourselves.

Because if I am not for myself, who will be for me?

Because we say we are committed to Tzedek, to addressing injustice. And this is injustice.

Because Kol Yisrael arevin zeh bazeh — every Jew is responsible for every other Jew.

Because we owe it to our children to ensure this country is as wide open to them as it was to us.

Because of the very building in which we stand. Judea Reform Congregation. Named after the kingdom of Judah. Israel.

Because for Zion’s sake I will not keep silent.

Because if not now, when?

Kathryn Wolf
Durham, NC


American Jewry must recognize the volcano in our midst that soon will erupt on us all. — Ze’ev Jabotinsky, speech in Warsaw, Tisha B’Av 1938

We said if you don’t quench those flames, they will spread. Some of you thought we were maniacs. — Arthur Koestler, “We, the Screamers,” New York Times, January 9, 1944

…some sort of thicket. — Koestler

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? — Hillel the Elder, 1st century BCE

Kol Yisrael arevin zeh bazeh — Talmud (Shevuot 39a)

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent — Prophets (Isaiah 62:1)

If not now, when? — Hillel

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