A new group is a safe space for observant Jews who oppose Israel’s war in Gaza

Since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, traditionally observant Jews have often responded to the crisis with prayer — chanting psalms, setting an intention to keep the tragedy in mind or pairing their ritual with activism.

A rally last month in front of the Israeli consulate in Midtown Manhattan mostly followed suit: A man wearing a prayer shawl stood in front of a small crowd and led mincha, the afternoon service, holding a prayer book.

But just feet behind the prayer leader, a sign blared an unusual message: “NOT ONE MORE DROP OF BLOOD.” And the service leader, Netanel Zellis-Paley, said he saw advocating for a ceasefire as part of his religious obligations.

“As an Orthodox person having grown up in an environment where you learn how to read Jewish texts, I see it as [an] obligation or responsibility — just like any other group who objects to what’s going on in Gaza and Israel — to use their voices to come forward and draw from tradition,” said Zellis-Paley, a 29-year-old doctoral student who helped organized the service.

The event, called an “Emergency Prayer Gathering,” was organized by the Halachic Left, a group of observant Jews whose opinions on Israel, contrary to most in the Orthodox community, range from critical of its policies to anti-Zionist. The name of the group refers to halacha, or traditional Jewish law, and the gathering had two goals: to protest Israel’s military operation in Gaza, and to show that doing so was for them an affirmation of religious Jewish values — not a betrayal.

The gathering was advertised as an “Emergency Prayer Service for Gaza and the Hostages.” In addition to praying mincha, the group also suggested members take up a fast, citing an esoteric fast day called “Behav” which was a public fast observed by some Jews during the times of the Talmud. (Gili Getz)

The group is something of an American counterpart to the new Faithful Left movement in Israel, itself a group of Orthodox Israeli Jews that formed in 2023 in response to the country’s right-wing government. A conference held by the group in March included advocacy for a Palestinian state, which is a minority view among Jews in Israel.

Naomi, a 30-year-old Brooklynite who did not share her last name due to fears of personal backlash, said she was shocked when she heard about the New York City event on a listserv for progressive Jews.

“I was just so in awe. I’ve never had this space before — I didn’t know progressive Orthodox Jews even existed,” said Naomi, who attended Jewish day schools and now belongs to a traditional egalitarian congregation.

“A lot of religious spaces are often not progressive, and a lot of progressive spaces often feel incomplete, religiously,” she added. “For me, progressive values are deeply based in halacha, and it is our religious duty to prioritize hostage return and concern for Palestinian life. My progressive views are informed by my religious identity, not in spite of it, and I’ve often felt like I’ve had to sacrifice one identity for the other.”

Broad opposition to Israel’s actions, or existence as a Jewish state, is a minority view in observant Jewish communities, notwithstanding some Hasidic movements that eschew Zionism for theological reasons. Surveys taken both before and after Oct. 7 show that Orthodox as well as Conservative American Jews tend to report the closest emotional attachment to Israel.

A 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center found that around 80% of both groups said they were emotionally attached to Israel. A November survey by the Jewish Electorate Institute, meanwhile, found that more than 90% of Reform and Conservative Jews said they were attached to Israel, and close to 100% supported U.S. aid to Israel.

Mark Trencher, the founder of Nishma Research, which conducts surveys of Orthodox Jews and has found similar results, said  nearly all modern Orthodox Jews “feel very strongly connected or somewhat emotionally connected to Israel,” and that for most, the connection “has gotten stronger since Oct. 7.”

His survey found that 94% of modern Orthodox Jews in the United States described themselves as Zionist, while just 2% called themselves “strongly anti-Zionist.” An additional 3% said they were somewhat anti-Zionist.

He added that some anti-Zionists could still report having an emotional connection to Israel.

“In general, people have displayed a strong emotional feeling towards Israel – even people that later said they are non-Zionist or that they are anti-Zionist,” he said. “They still said, ‘These are our brothers and sisters and I support them as people.’”

Eliana Padwa, right, speaks to a ceasefire protester after delivering food to Columbia University’s pro-Palestinian encampment in April 2024. Padwa is a founder of a new group, Halachic Left, that aims to create space for criticism of Israel in traditionally observant communities. (Philissa Cramer)

The Halachic Left aims to create space in those communities for non-Zionist and anti-Zionist views along with other criticism of Israel. It hopes to push back on “this idea that you can’t say anything bad about Israel, and that every single person here has to be a Zionist and support everything the state does,” said co-founder Eliana Padwa.

“Our goal is to open up the conversation and the narrative around Israel happening in traditionally halachic spaces,” said Padwa, 25, who grew up in a Modern Orthodox community in New York and has lived in Israel for periods of her life. “We don’t need everybody to agree with us — and all of us have different views as well — but our ideological message is that frum [or traditionally observant] spaces need to allow for criticism of Israel and different perspectives on Israel.”

Padwa first formed Halachic Left in January after trying unsuccessfully to organize an event at her Manhattan synagogue that featured criticism of Israel’s conduct in Gaza and the West Bank. She was inspired in part by activist movements she joined while living in Israel that protested the government’s judicial overhaul last year, as well as its policies in the West Bank and Gaza.

Jewish leftist events that specifically cater to observant communities are rare, though not unprecedented. In 2021, an online beit midrash, or Jewish study community, called “Hishbati” featured a series of lessons on Jewish texts from non- and anti-Zionist perspectives. In 2021, a conference panel by the progressive magazine Jewish Currents, which often features anti-Zionist voices, was moved from Saturday to Sunday due to pushback from Shabbat-observant Jews. IfNotNow, a group that since Oct. 7 has accused Israel of “genocide” and frequently partners with anti-Zionist groups, often features Jewish ritual and songs in its protests.

“If you want to build a movement for change inside the American Jewish community, you have to be including Orthodox Jews,” said journalist and activist Peter Beinart, an observant Jew who is one of the most prominent pro-Palestinian Jewish voices and endorses a binational Israeli-Palestinian state.

Attendees held handmade signs, some written with verses from the Talmud and others with phrases like “We’re machmir (the halachic term for ‘strict’) on chillul Hashem (the desecration of God’s name). Most attendees wore black, while some wore shirts of other left-leaning Jewish groups calling for a ceasefire, like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Israelis for Peace and Standing Together. (Gili Getz)

Beinart said Orthodox Jews need to be included by dint of “sheer numbers, but also beyond that, kids who grew up Orthodox are more likely to have a set of skills — textual skills, greater familiarity, perhaps, with religious sources that are extremely important” for building Jewish institutions and organizing places of worship and learning.

Many members of Halachic Left have been active in groups such as IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, but Padwa said that those groups don’t always attend to the needs of observant Jews, who may face harsher personal consequences in their own communities for departing from support for Israel.

“I don’t see other groups that are working on pushing their Jewish community internally as much as they’re working on advocacy in the wider world from a Jewish perspective,” Padwa said.

Halachic Left says its focus is “observant Jewish communities,” a term that connotes adherence to traditional Jewish law and practice. The term can encompass everything from Orthodox to some Conservative Jews to smaller groups — such as Jews who identify as “traditional egalitarian” and adhere to Jewish law alongside gender equality. The mincha service in front of the consulate fell within those bounds: It was a traditional prayer service led by Zellis-Paley, a man, but unlike Orthodox congregations, it did not feature a mechitza, or divider separating men and women. Women gave sermons and led a handful of songs and prayers.

Nor does everyone in the group share the same outlook on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For months, the group has been meeting privately — mostly on Zoom, but also at bars and cafes around the city — to discuss their goals, reflect on their upbringings and share resources about how to be critical of Israel’s actions within their more traditional communities. A total of around 400 people across the country have attended an event or expressed interest in the initiative.

The service included a Torah sermon on the meaning of chillul Hashem, as well as a recitation of the Viddui confession prayer, Mi Sheberach and Mourner’s Kaddish. (Gili Getz)

The service and rally was Halachic Left’s first public-facing gathering.

“The point of it is to give us solidarity, support and tips for navigating and pushing into those Jewish institutions that we still have a vested interest in being part of,” Padwa said. “The more I can talk to people who come from where I’m coming from halachically and are still critical of Israel provides me a sense of safety and security that I’m not going against my community or making myself an outcast.”

Some Jewish pro-Palestinian groups have targeted Jewish organizations for protest. But Padwa emphasized that the group did not want to antagonize the Orthodox institutions many of its members call home.

“We know that picketing outside of our shul’s pro-Israel talks isn’t usually an effective way to move them — that’s not the way our relationships work with these institutions,” she said. “We’re not here trying to push them from the outside. We’re trying to say to them, ‘We’re here, we’re a part of your community and this is a place of deep pain and hurt for us and a place where we feel like we’re being pushed out.’”

Pointing to surveys that show that younger American Jews tend to be more critical of Israel than their older counterparts, Beinart said the Halachic Left may be able to mold traditionally observant spaces where that subset of people feel at home.

“If younger American Jews feel that the only Judaism available to them is a Judaism that requires them to sacrifice their moral instincts, then that will be a calamity for Jewish life in the United States,” he said. “We need institutions that can nurture people and deepen their connection to Judaism and I think that this is one of the places where that’s going to happen.”

For Naomi, regardless of how it might impact the broader Jewish community, the protest at the consulate filled a personal — and religious — need.

“It’s something I’ve been really longing for — I love Jewish ritual. I love davening. I love imbuing ancient rituals into everyday life,” Naomi said. “Though demonstrations have their importance, not every gathering needs to be making as much noise as possible, or drawing as much attention as possible. Sometimes it really is just about praying and being in community and drawing upon liturgy that we’ve been saying for thousands of years and just calling out to Hashem.”

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