We were approached via email last week about a controversial figure scheduled to take part at an event on Thursday, June 8 at Temple Beth Elohim (TBE) in Wellesley, as a guest of the Boston-based Israeli Consulate. That the Consulate had earlier this spring arranged with TBE to rent space to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day in the temple’s spacious, 42,000 sq. ft. building was not unusual. The government office had rented TBE space in the past.
However, what the TBE community did not know until several days before the event is that Israel’s Minister of Economy and Industry, Nir Barkat, a polarizing Cabinet member of president Isaac Herzog’s administration, was on the guest list. Our source identified Barkat as a “representative of a corrupt, sexist, anti LGBTQ government, which stands in contrast to the pluralistic values of our local Jewish community and of keeping Israel democratic.”
As the event drew closer, plans for a protest outside the synagogue took shape. Perhaps TBE Rabbi Joel Sisonwine could have canceled the event himself. After all, it’s his synagogue. But TBE isn’t known as a liberal-minded reform congregation for nothing. Rabbi instead turned the kerfuffle into a teaching experience. The event would remain scheduled. But that didn’t mean Rabbi was giving it his stamp of approval.
In a letter to his congregation he said, “It is important to me that the Israel Consulate is able to celebrate Israel’s Independence, while members of the Jewish community can make their voices heard outside of the Temple building. Personally, as long as the protest is peaceful and respectful of our neighbors, I will be outside standing alongside the protesters.”
In one fell swoop, Rabbi Sisonwine turned what could have been perceived as being bossed around his own house by an unwelcome guest, into a flex. Protesters, suddenly left with nothing to protest, made different plans for their evening.
In explaining why Barkat’s presence was at issue, Rabbi said in his letter, “I truly believe that the current judicial reform proposal, as currently stated, is a threat to Israel’s democracy. The current reform takes too much power away from an independent judiciary, something we American Jews have learned to be an important part of the checks and balances of a healthy democratic system. An independent and strong judiciary is necessary to protect the rights of its minorities, whether it be protecting the rights of women or the LGBTQ+ community. Israel’s minorities need to be protected, including its Palestinian citizens and residents, and the members of other religions. The protection for minorities also includes us, the majority of American Jews, who identify with one of the liberal streams of Judaism.”
Temple Beth Elohim serves more than 1,000 Jewish families from 40 area towns.