Rabbi Miriam Grossman of the Kolot Chayeinu/Voices of Our Lives congregation in Brooklyn, New York, is an educator and organizer who leads through Jewish ritual. She teaches that following a Jewish theology means protecting the human rights of all people, including Palestinians.
“I am a Rabbi. I love my people, fiercely, all day, relentlessly. But as long as Palestinian lives are treated as disposable, as long as Palestinian families in East Jerusalem face ongoing ethnic cleansing, as long as Palestinian children fear for their lives, and as long as Gaza remains an open-air prison, our house as a people is not in order.”
Growing Up Jewish and Zionist in America
Like many American Jews, Rabbi Grossman grew up amongst a Jewish community that prioritized the state of Israel. Centering Israel meant decentering opposing voices. She shared: “I was really specifically taught not to trust or empathize with Palestinians and… to dismiss charges of anti-Zionism or criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism.”
Researchers of K-12 Jewish Americans’ Israel education have found that Jewish institutions teach about Israel but omit negative aspects of the founding of the state. For example, the Contemporary Jewry journal published a study in 2016 by Dr. Jonah Hassenfeld, alumnus of Stanford University’s Taube Center for Jewish Studies, which analyzed 438 short narratives of the history of Israel written by Jewish American students attending Jewish high schools. Hassenfeld found a pattern that reflected a normative understanding of the creation of the Israeli state, which largely left out critical issues, such as the capture of Deir Yassin or the Haganah war plans that called for expulsion of the entire population of Palestinian villages.
American Jewish Students’ Perspectives
“[we were taught] that defending Israel as a nation state is important… regardless of what its politics are at any given moment, who its leaders are etcetera, our role as American Jews was understood to be supporting it, sending it money, advocating for it.”
Another study published in The Social Studies journal by Dr. Matt Reingold, a Jewish educator in Jewish day school settings and alumnus of York University, demonstrated how curriculums about Israel expressed distinct nationalist favoritism and overwhelmingly relied on Jewish Israeli voices while omitting Palestinian sources. A growing number of Jewish students seem to resent their curriculum’s “overly romanticized” Israel education for leaving them unprepared to engage with the difficult realities of occupation.
Shifting Jewish Perspectives
Rabbi Grossman emerged from what she called her “really beautiful Jewish childhood” a Zionist. However, after working to protect sacred sites at Standing Rock Reservation and considering indigeneity in community with friends, Grossman’s political beliefs shifted.
It was there that her Native American friend shared her appreciation for Grossman’s Jewish culture while also expressing her own commonalities with Palestinians who experience displacement and settler colonialism. “I could see in that moment that [sympathizing with Palestinians] did not feel like anti-Semitism,” Grossman said.
Over the last few decades, both academics and activists have forged and theorized solidarities between Palestinians and American Indians. Both groups have and continue to experience ethnic cleansing by the settler colonial nation-states of Israel, the United States, and Canada. The recent uncovering of mass graves outside residential schools in Canada and at an Israeli beach drive home Palestinian and American Indian shared struggles.
Moving Forward Together
Miriam Grossman isn’t the only rabbi in her family—her father was an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) rabbi, on the opposite end of the political spectrum from his daughter. She shared that opening up to her father about questioning Zionism was more difficult than coming out as queer. Even though he did not agree with her perspective on Israel, he validated her right to her own judgment, telling her: “You have to be a rabbi who can wake up every morning and look at themself in the mirror with integrity. And so I love you, and I’m proud of you.”
The same love is reproduced in her Brooklyn congregation. Rabbi Grossman is proud of her congregation for welcoming diversity of thought: “My community is not a monolith. And we have liberal Zionist, anti-Zionist, non-Zionist, people who don’t identify. [And we] are able to stay in conversation, stay in relationship, love one another, listen to each other’s differences and different stories and just remain a really tight-knit community.”
Making a Change for Hope
Rabbi Grossman believes that American Jews — Zionist or not — most urgently need to address ending the occupation, the siege on Gaza, and the continued displacement and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
She’s not alone in this fight. A group of rabbinical and cantorial students studying and working in Jerusalem wrote in a letter about the “blood” they witnessed “flowing in the streets of the Holy Land” and appealed to the Zionist Jewish community to make a change: “For those of us for whom Israel has represented hope and justice, we need to give ourselves permission to watch, to acknowledge what we see, to mourn, and to cry. And then, to change our behavior and demand better.”
More About Rabbi Miriam Grossman
Rabbi Miriam Grossman is currently a leader of the Kolot Chayeinu/Voices of Our Lives congregation in Brooklyn, New York. She also previously served Kolot as a Rabbinic Fellow and Student Rabbi.
Grossman was the Program Director of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps in Chicago and was the Jewish Community Organizer focused on educational programs for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. She won the 20/20 Award from the Jewish Educators Assembly for her work educating Jewish youths in Chicago about racial and economic injustice.
She studied Creative Writing at Oberlin and was a contributing author and Editorial Intern for the National Jewish Book Award nominated anthology Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning. She was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania.