I woke up on June 2 to the realization that my synagogue, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, had attained a unique distinction: the new president and the next prime minister of the State of Israel were both former congregants. The new president, Isaac Herzog, had been a congregant from 1975-1978, while his father, Chaim, was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations; and he attended our sister institution, the Ramaz School, of which he is a graduate. (Herzog was, fittingly enough, elected president of the Ramaz GO in his senior year.) As a teenager, he was very involved in the synagogue and is remembered for being an exceptional reader of the Torah and megillot. Herzog has remained close to the community, and was honored at the 2015 Ramaz dinner. Naftali Bennett, who is slated to be the next prime minister, was a regular attendee of the KJ Beginner’s Service from 2004-2006, when he and his wife, Gilat, lived on the Upper East Side. He was extremely engaged in the lively study discussions at the service, and Rabbi Elie Weinstock, who was then the congregation’s associate rabbi, recalls the Yom Kippur when Naftali and Gilat sang the moving Kibbutz Beit Hashita melody for Unetaneh Tokef during the afternoon break at the Beginner’s Service. Bennett has also remained close to the community and spoke at last year’s KJ dinner.
The fact that one synagogue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan can claim both the president and prime minister of Israel as alumni might be a coincidence. Even so, it is not a random one. For nearly 150 years, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun has placed ahavat Yisrael, the love of the Jewish people, at the center of its mission; and its distinguished rabbinic leadership, Rabbi Moshe Zevulun Margolies, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein and Rabbi Haskel Lookstein emphasized three aspects of this mission. The first is an unconditional support for Zionism and the State of Israel. Rabbi Moshe Zevulun Margolies was a pioneering Zionist at the turn of the century. From 1946-1948, the president of the KJ Men’s Club was a leading fundraiser for underground arms smuggling to the Haganah. On June 3, 1967, two days before the Six Day War, a Shabbat morning appeal at KJ raised a staggering $3,000,000 for a joint UJA/Israel Bonds campaign on behalf of Israel. During the intifada, when all other tourism had dried up, KJ shopping missions to Israel helped local merchants; several have said the congregation’s visits saved their businesses.
The second aspect is to embrace klal Yisrael, the totality of the Jewish world. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein played a critical role in the Soviet Jewry movement and made that activism part of the community’s DNA; as Natan Sharansky put it: “Demonstrations were part of the Ramaz curriculum.” This emphasis on klal Yisrael is all embracing and includes putting ideology aside to work together with rabbis and synagogues from other denominations.
The final aspect is an openness to people of any background. The Men’s Club president who smuggled weapons to the Haganah was not observant, and would ordinarily not have joined an Orthodox synagogue. The Beginner’s Service, which reaches out to those with little or no previous knowledge of Judaism, attracted the Bennetts to KJ; they came after they saw a flyer on a neighborhood telephone pole advertising an introductory Shabbat morning service that was “better than tennis, better than shopping, better than sleeping in.” The non-judgmental nature of the community made a profound impact on Gilat, who was raised in a secular home.
This open, embracing, and activist form of ahavat Yisrael influenced Herzog and Bennett. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein recalls that Isaac Herzog has often said “that his years at Ramaz set him on his life’s path of ahavat Yisrael.” George Rohr, who founded and led the KJ Beginner’s Service, recalls that Naftali Bennett often remarked that “we needed to come from Israel to the Upper East Side of Manhattan to be taught that we have to love every Jew.”
Even when it was unpopular, KJ has stood up for its vision of community. In a 1976 article, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein wrote about preserving the ever-fragile unity of the American Jewish community. He concluded the article with these words:
Rabbi Elazar Azkiri wrote a… passage from which we all can benefit.
“When all Jews live in peace with each other, Satan cannot affect them, and the Divine presence is with them even if they are not observant.”
These words are not an encouragement for non-observance. They are a plea for tolerance and understanding. In days of dissension and upheaval these words can be our guide and comfort.
This is a passionate appeal for ahavat Yisrael, one that is all the more important today, in a time of frightening polarization. And this passion for unity and community drew in two visitors from Israel, and influenced their world view as well.
Chaim Steinmetz is senior rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City. Rabbi Steinmetz has been a congregational rabbi for over 20 years, and has previously served pulpits in Montreal, Quebec, and Mount Vernon, New York.