Orthodox rabbi breaks with norm

Times Staff Writer

Breaking a long-standing taboo, a leading Orthodox rabbi in Los Angeles said this week that Israel, and American Jews, must be open to the possibility of dividing Jerusalem to achieve a lasting peace with the Palestinians.

In a thoughtful, often anguished opinion piece in Friday’s Jewish Journal, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai David-Judea in West Los Angeles, wrote that neither Israel nor the Palestinians had been honest in telling the story of their conflict since the 1967 Mideast War. And without such honesty, he said, no meaningful peace talks could occur.

Now, the rabbi wrote, as Israel approaches a possible peace conference with the Palestinians this fall, the Israeli government must be free to discuss the status of Jerusalem, despite the strong opposition of many Orthodox Jewish groups and others.


“It’s not that I would want to see Jerusalem divided,” Kanefsky wrote in the article for the weekly Los Angeles newspaper that chronicles Jewish life and issues. “It’s rather that the time has come for honesty.”

Many of those interviewed, within the Orthodox Jewish community and outside it, said they could not recall another mainstream Orthodox rabbi making a similar statement on the emotionally charged issue of Jerusalem. In addition to his role at B’nai David-Judea, a synagogue of about 300 families, Kanefsky served until recently as president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Since 1967, when Israeli troops captured the eastern sector of Jerusalem from Arab forces, Israel has claimed all of the city as its eternal capital, never to be redivided. The United States does not recognize Israel’s claim and, along with most other nations, has declined to move its embassy to Jerusalem. The Palestinians, meanwhile, want at least part of the city as the capital of their own hoped-for state.

As news of Kanefsky’s statements raced through local and national Jewish circles on Friday, the reaction was swift and often impassioned. Many Orthodox leaders denounced Kanefsky’s call as wrong-headed or even dangerous, with one saying it was akin to “religious suicide” for Jews to discuss any compromise on Jerusalem.

Several liberal rabbis, on the other hand, along with secular Jews active in peace groups, applauded. Some said they had long hoped that an Orthodox rabbi might one day be willing to make such a statement publicly.

And many other Jewish leaders, even those who said they did not agree with every detail of Kanefsky’s article, praised his courage in writing it.


“Very few rabbis, much less Orthodox rabbis, have the courage to touch the third rail, which this is,” said Rabbi Harold M. Shulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, a Conservative congregation. “He has, and it is a mark of courage and conscience. . . . He will be criticized but he has my blessings and he has made the rabbinate proud.”

Shulweis said he hoped Kanefsky’s article would lead to a more open, more robust debate about Jerusalem within the Jewish community, which he said “has understandable difficulty in dealing with a concern that has existential ramifications.”

By Friday afternoon, Rob Eshman, the Jewish Journal’s editor in chief, said he had received more than 100 letters about the article, along with several op-ed pieces already submitted in response. But the editor said Kanefsky did not appear to have changed many minds.

“This is an issue that people feel very strongly about,” Eshman said.

Kanefsky, who has raised Orthodox eyebrows in the past with such decisions as allowing women at his synagogue to read the Torah at women-only services, appeared to be taking the reaction in stride. The 44-year-old rabbi, who has led B’nai David-Judea for 11 years, said he shared his views in a sermon to his congregation last week, then wrote the newspaper article.

In an interview from New York, where he was serving Friday as guest rabbi at a friend’s congregation, Kanefsky said he thought the time might not yet be ripe for an Israeli-Palestinian peace conference, given the weakness of both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

But he said he was moved to speak out by recent calls from several prominent Orthodox organizations that have asked members to urge the Israeli government to refrain from any talks over the status of Jerusalem. Instead, Kanefsky said, he hoped to start a conversation within the Jewish community, one that would be difficult but he believes is desperately needed.

“I have very deep reservations . . . but I believe that if and when the Israeli government feels it can secure a peaceful and durable two-state solution, it must be given all the tools it needs to effect that,” he said.

At the nation’s largest umbrella Orthodox organization, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, an official response to Kanefsky’s statement was being drafted Friday, officials said. The union’s leaders recently wrote to Olmert, urging him not to consider Jerusalem’s division.

But Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the union’s executive vice president, said that while Kanefsky has the right to express his view, “we disagreed with many of his points, if not all.”

“Jerusalem is obviously very special, religiously and historically, and therefore has to be considered in a very special light,” Weinreb said. “At this point in time, it’s not appropriate to make statements about surrendering parts of Jerusalem.”

Other Orthodox leaders were harsher in their assessments. “Rabbi Kanefsky is completely off-base,” said Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, also based in New York. “I think his call for this discussion is ridiculous. It would amount to religious suicide.”

At Sinai Temple, one of the city’s largest Conservative synagogues, Rabbi David Wolpe said he knew and deeply respected Kanefsky but disagreed strongly with his views on any division of Jerusalem.

“The idea of sharing in order to make someone less violent, as opposed to the idea of waiting until someone is nonviolent in order to share, seems a foolish idea,” Wolpe said. “It’s hard for any Jew to consider giving up any part of Jerusalem. To give up Jerusalem to people who want to destroy your country is an emotional high jump you’d have to be better than an Olympic athlete to vault.”

But in the Jewish community’s more liberal circles, many were cheering Kanefsky. Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue in Beverly Hills, called Kanefsky a “visionary leader” and said she hoped his article would lead to a thoughtful debate.

“For an Orthodox rabbi to publicly acknowledge that the way the story has been told is not the fullest version is very, very brave,” she said.

To read Kanefsky’s article on the Jewish Journal website, go to