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Anti-Zionism forced us to withdraw from Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

RRC fosters a culture of intimidation that dissuades students from expressing any positive connection to Israel

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College will graduate 11 new rabbis this Sunday. Of them, at least half identify as anti-Zionists or have been participating in anti-Israel protests and actions. 

By contrast, when we and other students formed the RRC Students Supporting Israel chapter after Oct. 7, only eight students joined out of the 60 at RRC. Over a grueling year of isolation, three members withdrew from the school (including us), and another three left the group.

Our time at RRC was marked with sorrow and shock, as we experienced an increasingly vociferous anti-Zionism among the student body, the steady erosion of civil discourse and the seminary’s inability to transmit the Jewish narrative to those it will ordain as future spiritual leaders of the Jewish people.

RRC is the rabbinical school of Reconstructing Judaism, founded on the scholarship of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who famously articulated that Judaism is a civilization and at its center is the Jewish people. Kaplan was devoted to establishing the state of Israel as a primary hub of creative and meaningful renaissance of the Jewish civilization, in relationship with other hubs in the diaspora. 

We believed upon entering RRC that our rabbinical school would teach us to serve the Jewish people, emphasizing the centrality of Jewish peoplehood and support for our survival and self-determination.

Instead, we came to find that RRC is, de facto, a training ground for anti-Zionist rabbis. Because of RRC’s rabbinical program, protests led by Jewish Voice for Peace and other anti-Israel organizations will count increasing numbers of rabbis among their ranks, training the next generations to oppose Israel and the safety of Israelis — our own people.

We began our studies at RRC in fall 2021 and 2023, respectively. Before Oct. 7, we were surprised that RRC’s curriculum did not include much about how and why Reconstructionism’s progressive Zionist positions developed.

We were also surprised by the loud anti-Zionist sentiment among the student body and the culture of silence and intimidation that dissuaded students from expressing any positive connection with Israel. We saw members of the faculty and administration largely ignore anti-Zionist rhetoric under a guise of pluralism, when in fact, open conversation, curiosity and learning were stifled in this environment.

Students characterized Israel as committing apartheid, ethnic cleansing, settler colonialism and genocide. Faculty refrained from teaching the definitions of these terms and from explaining the mutable nature of antisemitism.

Mentions of collective Jewish pain and the Shoah were met with dismissiveness, even eyerolls. Classmates told us to get over our own intergenerational trauma, even as we learned to make space for everyone else’s. 

A tension emerged for us. On the one hand, we relish Judaism’s focus on machloket leshem shamayim — argument for the sake of heaven. We can and often must disagree respectfully in order to learn, grow and serve others. And we know that not all Jews are Zionist or feel connected with Israel, as we do. 

On the other hand, we chose to attend the seminary of a progressive Zionist movement, and it was difficult to understand why RRC would ordain rabbis who not only do not engage with its positions, but actively disrespect and work to undermine them. 

We were glad to be in a community that recognized the legitimate aspirations for Palestinian self-determination and freedom. But all too often, the rhetoric we were hearing at RRC cast Israelis as disgraceful, and expressed little concern for their security. After Oct. 7, we saw how deep this antipathy ran.

On Oct. 7, the movement sent out a statement recognizing the horrors perpetrated by Hamas. That same day, as we were trying to make sense of what was happening and if loved ones survived, we saw classmates post such sentiments on social media as: “Gaza is now free,” and “What did you think would happen?”

We heard more and more from other students that Israel was committing genocide and ethnic cleansing, that Israelis were white settler colonialists. Some of our classmates confessed to us that they didn’t fully understand these terms, but would be joining other students and recent ordinees at anti-Zionist protests anyway.

A month after Oct. 7, one of RRC’s faculty members began sending weekly pre-Shabbat emails. The hostages were not mentioned until Dec. 22, and the sexual violence Israelis experienced was never mentioned, even during Women’s History Month.

The capacity for civil discourse, which we understood to be critical skills for rabbis, was diminishing.

Over the next six months, we and other members of our pro-Israel group met collectively and individually dozens of times with members of faculty, administration and senior leadership of the movement.

We asked them to address the growing anti-Zionism and erosion of civil discourse in the school with urgency and care. Instead, both the president and the executive vice president of Reconstructing Judaism, Rabbis Deborah Waxman and Amber Powers, went so far as to tell us that not everyone ordained by RRC had the maturity and skill set required of rabbis, but that the school assumed this would develop in their rabbinates. 

It was shocking to hear how aware senior leadership of Reconstructing Judaism was that they ordain rabbis and send them into communities before they are ready to guide and serve their constituents appropriately. 

At the end of January, Rabbi Waxman, who is also the president of RRC, addressed the RRC community and insisted the school does not have litmus tests about whether students enter or leave the school as Reconstructionist Jews, or as Zionists. 

On Feb. 1, outside protesters came to the RRC campus and asked students trying to enter the main building if they were Zionist.

The final straw for us came shortly after Rabbi Waxman’s speech, when the student association was facing a budget surplus. To pay down the surplus, the student body was voting to make substantial tzedakah donations to two organizations, one of which had characterized Israel’s actions as settler colonialism, apartheid and genocide in a social media post. 

We were astounded and conflicted: This particular organization was run by and serves Black Jews, whom we consider vital for the Jewish community to support and uplift. But we were concerned about what it would mean for a rabbinical student association to financially support an organization whose words inaccurately vilified Israel.

When we shared our concerns, students organized against us and mischaracterized our support for Israel as racism, erasing our personal records of fighting for racial justice.

Students repeated their personal attacks at a subsequent town hall with Reconstructing Judaism leadership. One student association board member apologized for being complicit in anti-Black racism for merely listening to the concerns of pro-Israel students. One student being ordained this year said that Zionism is racism and antisemitism. 

Rabbi Waxman said nothing. 

We were devastated, and the next morning, the two of us withdrew. The student association approved the donation. 

More and more Jews holding the spiritual authority of clergy from an accredited rabbinical college will seek to counteract the traditions, longings and aspirations for self-determination, undermining what the majority of Jews hope for Israel and our people. 

We are deeply concerned about the impact to the collective and individual psyches of the Jewish people in being led by rabbis who have chosen intimidation over dialogue, who believe that, unlike all other peoples, we are not deserving of autonomy, self-definition, self-determination, safety or home. 

We urge all Jewish congregations to take great care in choosing their spiritual leaders, to dig deep into their positions on Israel. We hope for a renewal of the Jewish people’s ability to engage in conversation and learning across difference.

Corrections: The original version of this essay incorrectly stated that the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College curriculum did not include material about the movement’s progressive Zionist positions; it does, though the authors found it lacking.

It also incorrectly said the students “were given no guidance as to how to engage in discussion across difference.” A spokesperson for the school said there were several workshops and programs, including “a two-day immersive on Israel and Palestine; a training on digital citizenship; and a faculty-led program Yom Haatzma’ut program on Israeli poetry.”

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