“I do my best to defend Israel’s interests by speaking up for them when I’m able to, in speech or in writing, and simply to be the best informal ambassador I am able to be.“
The Interviewee – Rabbi Justin Kerber (Born 1969), BCC, Chaplain. I grew up in Iowa City, Iowa, now living in St. Louis, Missouri. BA Columbia University, NY 1991; JD Boston College Law School, MA 1996; Ordained rabbi Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, OH 2007. Married 16 years, 2 sons. Served Hillel, Congregation, and Hospital Chaplain. Board Certified by Neshamah Association of Jewish Chaplains, 2016.
In your opinion, what importance, if any, does the existence of a Jewish state have to you personally and to Jewish people in general?
“I have personally lived in Israel twice, from 1992-1993 and again from 2005-2006. These were two of the best, most memorable experiences of my life, although both were challenging (and living in Jerusalem for a year of rabbinical school, the second time, was difficult too).
“I identify with Israel, feel proud of its successes, discouraged by some of its policies. I personally feel much safer and prouder as a Jew because of Israel, and I think we, the Jewish people, are safer, prouder, and more culturally and religiously vibrant because of it.
“I have relatives in Rehovot who I love, and recently have discovered a branch of the family directly descended from my great-grandmother’s brother. One member of that family survived the Holocaust and found safe haven in Israel. I look forward to meeting them — they are living reminders of the meaning of the existence of the Jewish state.”
Do you feel committed in some way to defend the future existence of Israel?
“Yes. I considered attempting to join or volunteer for the IDF but decided against it for a number of reasons. So I do my best to defend Israel’s interests by speaking up for Israel and its people when I’m able to, in speech or in writing, and simply by being the best informal ambassador I am able to be.”
Do you affiliate yourself with a specific denomination in Judaism? What is your view regarding the dominance of the Orthodox denomination in Israel religious establishment?
“I am a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the rabbinical arm of Reform Judaism. I attend both a Reform congregation and an Orthodox shul when I go to services, but since I work as a chaplain I don’t attend services as regularly as when I served a congregation. I miss it, though.
“I love and respect Orthodox Judaism but I wish it could show more love and respect for progressive movements within Judaism. I think that greater separation of synagogue and state would probably be better for all of Judaism in Israel and beyond it but rather than pushing from the Diaspora for policy change, I think the best thing to do is to cheer and support the growing Reform presence in Israel. (I will be delighted when we have more Reform rabbis who are not fluent in English.)“
Do you feel morally responsible for Israel’s actions (such as its management of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict)?
“Yes. See above – Israel represents me, too. I’m terribly saddened by Israel’s use of force and violence against Palestinian civilians and by ongoing military occupation and armed conflict.”
In your opinion, what is the main thing Israelis fail to understand about the reality of being Jewish outside of Israel?
“See above: Israel represents us, too, and Israel’s behavior is offering up a terrible opportunity to make excuses for resurgent anti-Semitism far beyond Israel, both on the political Left and on the Right, among Muslims, Christians, Middle Easterners, Europeans, Americans, etc. It’s not that Antisemites need any excuse, but that’s no reason to give them one.”
How would you describe Israel’s policy (formally and in practice) regarding its relationship with the Diaspora?
“Not sure — formally, Israel has strong relationships with Western democracies and just formalized an enormous foreign military aid package with the United States. Informally, Israel has a strong relationship with diaspora Jewish communities which is a huge asset in diplomatic relations with these countries, but which can also be a source of tension — as in the recent negotiations over the nuclear deal with Iran. (I was concerned about how the debate might affect the relationship among Israel, the United States, and the American Jewish community.)”
In your opinion, does Israel have an obligation to defend and help Jewish communities in need?
“Maybe? Sometimes? I think of some of Israel’s greatest moments — like Operation Magic Carpet or Operation Moses, bringing the Yemenite and Ethiopian Jewish communities to Israel, or the Entebbe hostage rescue. But if so, did that mean Israel had an obligation to protect the Jewish community in Crown Heights during the riots there in the early 90s?
Maybe it isn’t an obligation but some responsibility?”
Have you ever been to Israel? if you have, can you summarize your impressions from Israel?
“See above. It’s hard to summarize — but I just love the attempt to re-create a viable Jewish commonwealth for the first time since ancient times. It’s exciting, wonderful, frustrating, absurd, scary, weird, beautiful, flawed, annoying and just plain different.“
Can you tell us a bit about the Jewish community in your hometown?
““St. Louis, MO is very unusual; both politically liberal yet socially conservative. Just so, its Jewish community is out of the ordinary. For one thing, this is a majority Reform town. In other words, Reform Judaism as practiced here often feels set in its own ways and resistant to change. One Reform congregation, Central Reform Congregation, led by Rabbis Susan Talve and Randy Fleisher, models great creativity and wonderful commitment to kavanah in prayer, makes good use of Hebrew and Jewish ritual, and shows incredible commitment to social justice in a city that has been in national news around issues of policing and race.
“There’s also a progressive yet Orthodox shul, Bais Abraham (“Bais Abe”) led by Rabbi Hyim Shafner, MSW. Our strong Jewish Community Relations Council is now led by Maharat Rori Picker-Neiss, the closest thing there is to a woman Orthodox rabbi. I believe most of us are concerned about our demographics and our ability to support our institutions. Two Conservative congregations have merged, two Reform congregations and our Jewish bookstore have closed. But we also have a vibrant Jewish community with a wonderful JCC, federation, and Holocaust Museum. Most of the congregations that remain seem to be surviving and some seem to be thriving.”
If you could ask the Israeli readers of this project a question, what would it be?
“What’s your biggest surprise from reading this project? OR, what do you think is going to happen in the Palestinian conflict in the next 5, 10, 15, 20 or 50 years if Israel continues its current policies with regard to relations with Palestinians and settlement of Yehudah and Shomron?”