San Diego’s Jewish Community Seeks Unity Amid Divisions
“So are you nervous?” I asked Hannah Cohen, as she sliced a baguette in the kitchen of her Escondido home.
“No ... no, I’m not nervous,” she replied.
Cohen invited KPBS to a Hanukkah dinner with a few friends from her synagogue. They wanted to talk about divisions in the local Jewish community.
Half of the guests are members of the local chapter of J Street, a pro-Israel organization that’s openly critical of the country’s hawkish government. The other half supports the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, which takes a more aggressive approach to Middle East politics.
Cohen, a J Street supporter, said she’s never seen San Diego’s Jewish community more divided than it is now.
“A lot of it was because of the Iran agreement,” she said. “There were many groups here that really lobbied hard against it. … In certain settings it’s uncomfortable, and you don’t talk about it. And it’s sort of like the elephant in the room.”
After dining on chicken, latkes and applesauce, the group of six friends began to discuss why their local community, which has a long tradition of debate, had ceased to discuss politics.
“My points are not going to change anyone’s mind,” said Fran Goldstein, an AIPAC supporter. “While we’re friends, let’s talk about other things, other aspects of our Judaism, other things in our community.”
Mary Klein, a J Street member, said, “I guess I don’t think that the purpose is necessarily to change people’s minds, as much as to inform people and to get informed from those conversations. I always want to hear what the other side thinks because I don’t have all the information. I mean, it’s impossible for any one person to.”
David Castiglione, the rabbi at Temple Adat Shalom in Poway, described himself as liberal on all issues but Israel. Even so, he agreed the community should have an open dialogue despite its divisions.
“Arguing goes as far back as as Moses and God, Abraham and God. It is part and parcel of who we are,” he said. “To argue, to disagree, that’s all fine and good. But to harbor venom in one’s heart, or to let venom spit from one’s mouth as you’re speaking — that cuts against the grain of Jewish value.”
Throughout the evening, the conversation repeatedly shifted toward exactly what the friends were reluctant to discuss: the politics of Israel. Clearly they wanted to talk about it, and they agreed it wasn’t all that difficult.
“I think it’s easier to talk about because we’re not yelling at each other,” said Bob Goldstein, an AIPAC supporter like the rabbi. “We’re listening to each other.”
Cohen’s husband, Elliott Edelstein, added, “It’s never going to interfere with my feelings for these people. I love them. So we can say things, and we’re not holding any animosity towards one another or anything like that.”
There were moments of tension at the table, but an earlier moment before dinner revealed how the things that unite the group of friends are stronger than the things that divide it. Rabbi Castiglione led them in a song praising God as they lit the menorah.