BJ Rabbis Offer Another Statement on Palestine

Synagogue Members Mull Over Response and Next Step

From the Pulpit: Rabbi Rolando Matalon is beloved at BJ.
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From the Pulpit: Rabbi Rolando Matalon is beloved at BJ.

By Seth Berkman

Published December 21, 2012, issue of December 28, 2012.
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The turmoil appears to be continuing at one of Manhattan’s most prominent synagogues following a public statement by its rabbis embracing the recent United Nations resolution recognizing Palestine as a nonmember observer state.

Rabbi Rolando Matalon, one of three co-rabbis at B’nai Jeshurun, read from the pulpit a carefully worded apology for the recent email letter the rabbis sent out hailing the November 29 U.N. General Assembly resolution.

Matalon read his latest statement out loud at Friday evening Sabbath services December 14 before hundreds of congregants, according to members of the synagogue.

Though the U.N. resolution passed overwhelmingly, 148 to 9, the rabbis’ email statement stood in contrast to the positions of Israel, the United States and most of the organized Jewish community, all of which opposed the G.A. initiative.

Neither Matalon nor his two co-rabbis, Marcelo Bronstein and Felicia Sol, responded to multiple telephone and email messages from the Forward seeking information about the recent apology and what motivated it. Denise Waxman, B’nai Jeshurun’s communications director, would not provide a copy of the text. Jeannie Blaustein, president of the congregation’s board, did not return several phone messages seeking comment.

One longtime member who spoke with Blaustein about the apology told the Forward that Matalon “expressed his profound apology for the way the letter was crafted. Much of what was said in it was what they wanted to convey…. But the rabbis didn’t do their due diligence. There were things they wanted in the letter that didn’t get in there.”

The congregation member, who was not present at the Friday night services, declined to be identified, because the information the member had on what happened was based on private conversations with Blaustein and others who were there.

B’nai Jeshurun member Todd Chenko, who attended the synagogue December 14, declined to talk about Matalon’s apology, except to say, “I think the whole situation is very upsetting because of the drama that ensued.”

The rabbis’ original email, sent to the congregation November 30, was from the beginning highly controversial. It described the U.N. vote to grant Palestine non-member observer state status as “a great moment for us as citizens of the world.”

“This is an opportunity to celebrate a process that allows a nation to come forward and ask for recognition,” the email said. Referring to Israel’s founding, which also was accompanied by a formal vote in the U.N. General Assembly, it added: “Having gained independence ourselves in this way, we are especially conscious of this. Every people has the right of recognition.”

Less than a week after the email was sent, The New York Times published a front-page story that quoted members of the congregation as being divided on the announcement. The story led to another email the following day, in which rabbis Matalon, Bronstein and Sol wrote that an unedited version of the original email was sent out mistakenly. The rabbis further said that the congregation’s president and executive director, whose names were included as signatories on the letter, had never approved the statement. Nevertheless, the three rabbis affirmed “the essence of our message.”


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