Just a few weeks ago, the Park Slope Food Co-op became ground zero of the global movement to boycott Israel. A whirl of pamphlets, “The Daily Show” cameras and citizen journalists descended upon the Brooklyn neighborhood’s chic streets for a few days, and most of the area’s synagogues were swept into the melée.
But Kolot Chayeinu, Hebrew for “Voices of Our Lives,” kept its distance, even though it sits only a mile away from the co-op, a block from Prospect Park.
“Kolot as an institution didn’t get involved,” said Cindy Greenberg, the synagogue’s president. “We were not out there on the streets as a congregation.”
A maverick shul of about 400 souls, many of them writers, musicians and nonprofit professionals, Kolot is unaffiliated with any movement and started as a havurah around Rabbi Ellen Lippmann’s dining room table. Today, almost 20 years later, it does its davening in a Presbyterian church.
Its relationship to Israel is similarly iconoclastic. Kolot didn’t take a position on the co-op boycott debate because it strives to accommodate everybody. At Shabbat services, Zionists pray alongside fellow congregants wearing T-shirts proclaiming support for the flotilla that sought to break the Israeli navy’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Rabbis at other Slope synagogues, along with several Christian clergy, signed a letter opposing the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” movement, which tries to force changes in Israeli policy toward Palestinians through economic means.
Kolot’s rabbi, Ellen Lippmann, declined to sign, calling the letter “too black and white” and writing her own instead.
“As so often is true, I find myself standing in the middle,” she wrote, adding that she is not a supporter of BDS, although she does favor some use of boycott of products made in West Bank settlements.
Ordained at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1991, Rabbi Lippmann is a hugger and a talker, a warm woman who insists on ending every meeting — even a roundtable with a reporter — with clasped hands and song.
But she is also a forceful presence. She founded HUC’s soup kitchen in Manhattan and won’t allow Kolot, which charges dues on a sliding scale, to charge for High Holy Day tickets.
“The original vision for Kolot was of a café,” Rabbi Lippmann said. “It was supposed to be a place where people could come and talk.”
The synagogue has not conducted a study of its members’ attitudes toward Israel, so there’s no way to know if there is a coherent majority of any kind, whether that’s supporters of a two-state solution, or those that oppose a Jewish state altogether, or a number of other possible stances. Most congregants see themselves in the minority, regardless of which views they hold.
That happens in many communities, said Mitch Chanin, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Jewish Dialogue Group, which helps Jewish communities talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by facilitating conversations, offering training workshops and creating publications such as guidebooks.
“Sometimes, different people perceive who is the majority and who is the minority differently. It can be a ‘Rashomon’ situation, where it’s easy to feel marginalized,” he said, referring to the Japanese film that tells the story of a crime from four different perspectives.
“It isn’t easy to have a community that has all these different views,” said Rabbi Lippmann. “We try to have some places where they are expressed without it becoming a free-for-all, and without them dissolving the bonds of community.”
Sometimes those bonds do break, Rabbi Lippmann said. “People on both sides have left Kolot because it’s been too hard; it was more important for some people to be where their thoughts and feelings about Israel were similar than to be in a community that they loved otherwise. It’s occasionally been very distressing to have those losses. Usually when you draw lines you leave people out; in this case we tried not to draw lines and we lost people.”
Kolot definitely provides a haven for those who are simply not interested in Israel, as well as those who reject the notion of a Jewish state. Many Kolot congregants have either never joined another synagogue, or were serial shul shoppers before settling at Kolot. It’s also known for its embrace of lesbian, gay, transgendered and bisexual Jews. Rabbi Lippmann herself is married to a woman, Kathryn Conroy, who goes by the title “Rebbetzin” on the congregation’s website.
Gayle Kirshenbaum, who grew up in the Young Judaea Zionist youth movement but says she is no longer a Zionist, warmly remembers a community discussion prompted by Israel’s 2008 attack on Gaza. “We ended up talking about our fears and our grief and our hopes. By the end of it, I felt known, even if I didn’t agree with the view of the person next to me, and they didn’t agree with me.”
Kolot does not explicitly support Israel. Instead, its “Mission and Values Statement” says, “While we join Jews everywhere in facing Jerusalem while we pray, we have no consensus on political solutions, nor their philosophical underpinnings.”
Its Shabbat liturgy omits the prayer for the State of Israel (and the prayer for the United States). Its synagogue school curriculum includes the Palestinian perspective on Israel and explains the word “nakba,” Arabic for “catastrophe,” which Palestinians use to refer to the creation of the Jewish state.
The congregation also contains BDS supporters, said Phillip Saperia, a founding member of Kolot who says Israel is central to his notion of himself as a Jew.
Kolot is unusual, said Theodore Sasson, a senior research scientist specializing in Israeli-diaspora relations at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University. Yet he doesn’t believe Kolot’s ability to accommodate criticism of Israel indicates mass movement of American Jews away from their engagement with Israel.
“The congregation has seemed to expand its tent quite broadly, saying we’re going to include people who disagree about Israel and even people who don’t feel that Israel ought to play a prominent role in American Jewish life at all,” he said.
American Jewish views on Israel are increasingly diverse, and Kolot’s complicated relationship with Israel reflects that, Sasson said.
Only 4 percent of Jews say Israel is the most important issue in the 2012 presidential election, according to a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute.
And while some critics of Peter Beinart’s book “The Crisis of Zionism” accuse him of overreaching, his basic claim that young and liberal Jews are less engaged with Israel has some quantitative basis. Beinart is speaking at Kolot on April 24.
American Jewish leaders in their 20s and 30s directing newer organizations, for example, are more likely to be conflicted about even being associated with Zionism, found a 2010 study led by Jack Wertheimer, a professor of Jewish history at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. They also tend to reject the notion that Israel should be central to American Jewish life.
After all, even passionate supporters of Israel like Saperia can square their feelings for the state with their membership in Kolot. He loves the shul and he also has qualms about Israel. Juliet Milkins, another lifelong supporter of Israel, has grown more critical of the state during her time at Kolot.
“My own position has evolved,” she said. “I might have been an Israel right-or-wronger. I can’t be that anymore.”