Rabbi Rachel Mikva

rachel-mikva-profile

“We might hear that we have no right as Diaspora Jews…to tell Israel it needs to take risks for peace.” Yet, the Israeli Declaration of Independence calls on all Jews to “help build up” and “redeem the Jewish home.” We have the right and the responsibility to be a part of building a home “that lives up to Judaism’s highest ideals.”

Peace Activism
1985 - present
J Street

Interview Date
July 30, 2015

Interviewer
Aliza Becker

The Interview

Rabbi Rachel Mikva shares wisdom she has gleaned through her efforts to create caring and self-critical discourse on Israel among Jews and progressive Christians as a congregational rabbi and a professor at a progressive Christian theological seminary. Mikva’s primary interest is to expose Americans to the multi-layered narratives of Israelis and Palestinians and to strengthen their work in peace and other civil society initiatives through partnership with the peoples who live in the land who are working for the same goals.

Mikva first experienced controversy regarding her political sympathies in 1985. As a rabbinical student, she was criticized for her attitude following a sermon at the Jerusalem campus of HUC-JIR saying that “Israel would have to speak to the PLO and work toward a two-state solution.”

After being ordained in 1990, Mikva became the assistant rabbi at KAM-Isaiah Israel in Chicago, where the senior rabbi was Arnold Jacob Wolf, the founding chair of Breira. The two rabbis largely shared a political perspective and a passionate commitment to Zionism, but disagreed on strategies for expressing these within the congregation. Mikva felt that Wolf’s persistent critique of Israel tended to produce either anger at him or, more often, apathy regarding Israel. She believed that, without sharing also the depth of his love and commitment to Zionism, he could not “bring people to care about making change in the state.”

 Later, Mikva had a very different experience in a congregation with a profound and relatively noncritical commitment to Israel. She saw her role as educating the community to view the situation in more complex terms. On synagogue trips to Israel, in sermons and classes, Mikva exposed congregants to the realities of occupation. While the process led to some conflict, “the congregation also had deep and rich capacities to grow and the discourse began to change.”

Learning about the dark side of Israel’s story entails a process of grieving, according to Mikva. One goes through stages that include pain, denial, anger, and rebuilding. “When we first discover the hard stories, we may go through denial. You can live in denial and say, ‘No, Israel is still perfect and wonderful.’ Or you can abandon it entirely and say, ‘I want nothing to do with Israel because it is this flawed nation’ (like every other nation). Or you can reimagine and reengage” and ask, ‘What is my relationship with this place? What kind of state might it yet become?’ You can rewrite that story, preferably with others who are also struggling.”

As a professor at the Chicago Theological Seminary, Mikva’s students are predominantly progressive Christians. Many have a default David and Goliath narrative in which Israel is the powerful Goliath against the poor and righteous Palestinian David. “The power dynamics of the relationship are tremendously imbalanced,” Mikva asserts, but “that’s not all there is to the story.” If there were a simple answer to solve the problem, “Israelis and Palestinians would have already achieved peace and justice.”

Mikva takes her seminary students on immersion study experiences in Israel and Palestine. They listen to the stories of Israelis and Palestinians who work towards peaceful coexistence, and those organizing around issues such as gender, LGBTQ rights, and the environment. She believes every effort to create civil society creates “the building blocks for what will be communities that know how to live together.”

Mikva deems the decision to learn from and support the work of Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers, as more important than taking sides. Genuine peace requires a transcendence of the narrative of grievances and historical claims. To do this, one must first allow the emotional power of their stories to humanize the conflict.

An important task for progressive Christians, Mikva believes, is to challenge evangelical Christians who provide financial support for the settlements and give Israel’s right-wing disproportionate power.  

Mikva shares some of her reflections for current activists.

  • “Build partnerships because it can be lonely work and you need a lot of company on the journey.” 
  • “It's going to be a long haul and you won’t always see the impact of your actions.”
  • Some may question why you have chosen to work on this issue, when there are problems that are far worse. “Any activist has to make choices. You can't address all the problems of the world or you'll be paralyzed and completely ineffective in any of it.”
  • “We might hear that we have no right as Diaspora Jews…to tell Israel it needs to take risks for peace.” Yet, the Israeli Declaration of Independence calls on all Jews to “help build up” and “redeem the Jewish home.” We have the right and the responsibility to be a part of building a home “that lives up to Judaism’s highest ideals.”

Biography

Rabbi Rachel Mikva was born in 1960 and grew up in the Chicago area in a politically active family. Her father, Hon. Abner J. Mikva (retired), served in Congress and later as a federal judge. She has a large family in Israel including founders of Kibbutz Ramat HaShofet.

After winning a study scholarship from her synagogue in 1976, Mikva first traveled to Israel. She returned as a rabbinical student in 1985-86, where her experience tutoring high school students in the Israeli Arab town of Beit Safafa raised her awareness of multiple narratives.

Mikva did her undergraduate studies at Stanford, was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and received her doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She has served three congregations: KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago from 1990-94, Congregation Hakafa in Glencoe, Illinois from 1994-97 and Community Synagogue in Rye, New York from 1997-2003. Since 2009, Mikva has been the Herman Schaalman Chair in Jewish Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary and director of the Center for Jewish Christian and Islamic Studies at the Chicago Theological Seminary in Chicago.

At J Street, Mikva is both a member of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet and the Leadership Circle. 

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