Open the Gates

This week marks the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days leading up to Yom Kippur in September. Like churches on Christmas for many Christians, synagogues on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are filled to capacity. Congregations bursting at the seams rent school auditoriums, theaters and even neighboring churches. Next month, every type of Jew imaginable -- believers and skeptics, straight and gay, Jews of color and Ashkenazi Jews, men, women and children -- will fill the seats of synagogues around the world. This is the spirit of Yom Kippur -- the holiest day on the Jewish calendar -- which opens with the Kol Nidre prayer, an invitation to all Jews to gather as a community.

Yet on Yom Kippur, one group of Jews -- and it is a rapidly growing number -- will have no synagogue to attend. Jewish Voice for Peace has over 200,000 members and supporters. I have heard repeatedly from these Jews that they are not able to pray with their fellow Jews. Not for a lack of synagogues or seats but because they do not feel welcome. I'm talking about Jews who stand for Palestinian liberation.

The signs of unwelcome are visible already outside synagogue buildings. The ubiquitous "We Stand with Israel" yard signs, announce most of our synagogues as advocates of Israeli policies. The rabbis are the community's gatekeepers. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they preach the ideology of Zionism from the pulpit, defining acceptable Jewishness so as to effectively bar dissenters from the Jewish community.

The Jewish community is paying a mounting price for excluding these Jews of conscience. Synagogue membership is diminishing, younger Jews are not affiliating with the community. There are various theories as to why this is happening. My Christian clergy friends tell me they struggle with the same challenges . What is indisputable is that the fastest growing community of progressive Jews are those who support Palestinian liberation. And these Jews need and deserve a spiritual home in the Jewish community. Keeping them at arms' length does a disservice both to them and to the future of the Jewish community as a whole.

Open Hillel is dedicated to promoting an inclusive Jewish community. Following last year's High Holy Days, I attended the Open Hillel Conference at Harvard. One older man broke down in tears. He said he can no longer enter any synagogue. He has tried repeatedly only to be rebuffed by the rabbi of each synagogue he visited. Another  man -- the grandfather of one of the student organizers of the conference -- said that nobody in his home congregation knows of his thoughts on Palestinian liberation "because if they did know, I would lose my friends and community." It was her rabbi's Rosh Hashanah Israel sermon that motivated college student Becca Rosenthal to step up as a leader in Open Hillel. She sought an inclusive Jewish community. She is now my partner in organizing the Open Hillel Rabbinical Council.

If the liberal Jewish community can welcome LGBTQ Jews and Interfaith families into their midst why are Jews who stand for Palestinian freedom so easily excluded? 

So, this Yom Kippur, Open Hillel Rabbinical Council calls on all rabbis to welcome all Jews to their communities.

This year, in the spirit of Kol Nidre, we encourage every rabbi to sign this statement:


In the spirit of an open Jewish community, I commit to upholding the sacred Jewish principle of machloket l'shem shamayim. (respectful debate on potentially divisive issues) I will not lend my name or my authority to any initiative that bars any Jewish individual or organization a place in the Jewish community on account of their positions -- or beliefs -- on Israel-Palestine. I accept that there is a range of opinion on Israel in the Jewish community including BDS and non-Zionist Judaism. While I may agree or disagree with all or parts of these positions, I cannot agree to censor them or deny those who hold them the right to be heard in the Jewish community as Jews. Therefore, I support and endorse the Open Hillel campaign as well as similar initiatives to "open" Jewish Community Centers, Jewish schools, synagogues and other Jewish institutions to be inclusive of the range of perspectives on Israel-Palestine that exist in the Jewish community.

Open Hillel Rabbinical Council urges all Jews to claim their place in the synagogue and in Hillel. The Kol Nidre prayer speaks for you, too. You have a place in the synagogue. If you feel excluded, call your rabbi and tell him or her why. Tell your rabbi what needs to be done to make you feel welcome at services this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

It's time for synagogues to open their gates to Jews who have opened their hearts to Palestinian suffering.

It is up to our rabbis to answer this call.