Skip To Content
Israel News

Meet the Jazz-Playing, Erotica-Writing Rabbi Who Planned a Synagogue Trip to Arafat’s Grave

A Conservative rabbi in Austin, Texas, has become the flashpoint of a controvery over a proposed congregational trip to Israel that would have included a visit to the grave of the late Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.

It all started when Rabbi Neil Blumofe, 45, sent out a tentative itinerary for a planned 15-day trip to Israel in 2017 for members of Congregation Agudas Achim. The trip is organized by Mejdi Tours, a company that uses both Israeli and Palestinian guides on their tours to create a “dual narrative approach.” Proposed in the draft: a 20-minute visit to the West Bank to see Arafat’s tomb.

When Richard Brook, 56, a long-time congregant, saw the itinerary, he was shocked. “To me, it’s no different than were you to travel to Germany to pay your respects at Adolf Hitler’s tomb, if one existed,” he wrote in a letter to his rabbi.

The outraged Brook then started an online campaign calling for the resignation of Blumofe and alleging that the rabbi was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. His appeal got picked up by right-wing blogs, and was widely shared on Facebook, including by a Tea Party politician who supports Donald Trump. Public letters called Blumofe a supporter of terrorism and anti-Semitism.

So far, the only real consequence of the ongoing controversy was the rescheduling of the trip – minus the visit to the gravesite. The congregation itself says it stands behind their rabbi, who sees himself as the victim of slander. The whole incident was “spun with a treacherous, defaming narrative,” Blumofe told the Forward.

Here’s seven facts about the rabbi who went a bit viral.

  • Blumofe is a classically-trained pianist and jazz composer. He hosts a weekly radio show highlighting great jazz artists for the NPR affiliate KUT and regularly participates in their “Views and Brews”-festival.

  • Blumofe’s jazz recordings are available on iTunes. Before becoming Agudas Achim’s rabbi, Blumofe was the congregation’s cantor.

  • The rabbi teaches both Jewish Studies and Jazz Studies at St. Edwards University.

  • He also writes his own blog and has published several stories on Jewrotica, an online community that describes itself both as a “hub for Jewish sexual expression” as well as a sex-ed resource for the Jewish community.

  • Jay Rubin, the CEO of the local Jewish federation described Blumofe as “a healer and community builder deeply connected personally, professionally and politically to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” in the Jewish Week.

  • Blumofe has been heavily involved in interfaith activities. He had planned to invite Israel-critical Christian clergy to the now controversial trip. His hope was that “new relationships could be fostered and fresh paths made,” he told the Times of Israel.

  • The rabbi travels to Israel with members of his community every two years. Each year has a different theme: “2013 was an investigation of the Holy Cities (Safed, Hebron, Jerusalem); 2015 included a tour of Israel’s borders — including an important visit touring the work JNF has done in Sederot,” Blumofe told the Forward. This summer’s trip was meant to explore Israel in the context of the larger region.

Lilly Maier is a news intern at the Forward. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter at @lillymmaier.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.