WINNIPEG – Lex Rofeberg, who was supposed to be the keynote speaker at the annual Shabbat Across Winnipeg dinner on March 1, was disinvited just two days before the event, due to his ties to the IfNotNow movement, which is against Israel’s presence in the Palestinian territories.
Shabbat Across Winnipeg is organized by the community’s two largest synagogues, Shaarey Zedek and Etz Chayim, along with Temple Shalom. The decision to drop Rofeberg as the speaker came in the wake of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg cancelling its sponsorship of the Friday night dinner because of Rofeberg’s presence.
In a press release dated Feb. 26, the Federation noted that “we have been contacted by several community members regarding a speaker with controversial ties who will be speaking at Shabbat Across Winnipeg this Friday night. When Federation was approached to be an event sponsor, we were unaware of these associations, which have now been brought to our attention.
“After careful and thoughtful deliberation, we have decided to withdraw our support from the Shabbat Across Winnipeg event. The values of the speaker are not in-line with ours, as the representative body of Winnipeg’s organized Jewish community.”
Responding for the three synagogues, Ian Staniloff, Shaarey Zedek’s executive director, noted in a press release that “as part of the Shabbat experience, we also want to be engaged and had arranged for a young rabbinic intern (Rofeberg) to speak on digital Judaism, a topic of growing interest in our community. Over the last week our community has been inundated with messages and social media commentary, decrying our decision to invite this speaker, specifically as it relates to the beliefs and political positions of an organization with which he is affiliated.
“While we strongly believe that engaging in open dialogue and challenging assumptions is healthy and valuable, and indeed inherently Jewish, the objective of this Shabbat is to be a peaceful, thoughtful and engaging evening where we celebrate and break bread together as a community.…
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“To that end, and in the overall spirit of shalom, we have withdrawn our invitation to our speaker.”
Rofeberg is a Jewish educator and activist who works at the U.S.-based Institute for the Next Jewish Future, where he works on strategic initiatives and co-hosts its Judaism Unbound podcast. He is in his fourth year of rabbinic school at Aleph-Alliance for Jewish Renewal. He is also an active member of IfNotNow.
Founded in the wake of Israel’s war with Hamas in 2014, IfNotNow is dedicated to ending what it believes is Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. “As a movement,” the IfNotNow website states, “we understand the occupation as the military rule over Palestinians in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza. We also know that the discrimination and displacement inside Israel’s 1948 borders are connected to its rule in those occupied territories. This system of violence deprives all Palestinians of civil, political and economic rights.”
Rofeberg’s principal purpose for being in Winnipeg was as a presenter at Limmud Winnipeg, which ran from March 2-3. His affiliation with IfNotNow was brought to the public’s attention by another scheduled Limmud speaker, Ron East, who pulled out of Limmud to protest Rofeberg’s presence.
In an online posting, East argued that IfNotNow has a history of “harassing pro-Israel organizations and events like Birthright and Ramah summer camps.” He also criticized IfNotNow for holding meetings with two newly elected Muslim congresswomen in the United States – Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar – both of whom support the BDS movement and have been in the news recently for making what many perceive as anti-Israel comments.
In an online letter to individuals planning to attend Limmud, Judi Shuster, one of the festival’s organizers, acknowledged that “there has been some concern from several community members regarding a presenter this year who has some controversial ties to groups whose views and actions related to Israel are not considered mainstream.…
My hope for the Jewish present and future is that events like these will be open to contributions from the full spectrum of Jewish theology, practice and political belief.– Lex Rofeberg
“Our decision to allow him to present at Limmud 2019 is in no way an endorsement of his political views. Any sponsorships or organizational affiliations with Limmud are not an endorsement of the content or discussions which are presented. This reflects the Limmud approach to building unity from diversity.”
Rofeberg told The CJN that he is saddened that the synagogues chose to withdraw their invitation for him to speak, due to his political affiliations. “Neither my proposed devar Torah nor my presentations at Limmud Winnipeg will relate to the topic of Israel. My sessions at Limmud Winnipeg are entitled, ‘Winnipeg Jets or Winnipeg Jews,’ on the intersection of Judaism and sports, and ‘Your Podcast is My Synagogue,’ on the ever-growing world of digital Judaism,” he said.
“My hope for the Jewish present and future is that events like these will be open to contributions from the full spectrum of Jewish theology, practice and political belief. I have been, and continue to be, excited to engage in conversation with anyone whose perspective is different from my own in any of those realms.”