Divre Harav – Summer, 2023

Supporting Christian Zionists and Evangelicals for Israel

Many Jews, especially liberal Jews, have a hard time accepting the friendship of evangelical Christians. The two communities disagree on so much – abortion, public education, gender issues, appropriate books for libraries and school, the role of public prayer; and perhaps also guns. But in general, we do agree on one issue that is important to the majority of Jews, and that issue is Zionism, the importance of the existence of the State of Israel. That issue alone makes friendly relations with our neighborhood evangelical church and associated organizations worthwhile.

When asked about their support of Israel, evangelicals often quote Genesis 12:3, God’s blessing of Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you,” believing that if they support Israel, God will bless them. But there is a common belief in the Jewish community that evangelical support of Israel is really based on an idea that Jesus won’t return until Jews reestablish a State of Israel according to Biblical prophecies. Or that some evangelicals support Israel because they believe that in the end times, all of the Jews will die in the apocalypse. But many evangelicals support Israel because God’s promise to Israel is eternal and therefore Israel will be saved. And whether that future salvation means that they believe someday all Jews will become Christian or that Jews will persist as Jews is a question for some future messianic era. And the world needs Israel today. So I won’t sacrifice support for Israel today just because I disagree with a theology that I don’t believe in anyway.

In a world in which real antisemitism is increasing and anti-Zionism has a strong presence in liberal and academic circles, Israel needs supporters. Jews needs friends who do not think that we are trying to control the world through Hollywood or a shadow cabal of political domination. Christian evangelicals love the idea of Jews, and for the most part, even when real Jews fail to live up to their fantasy picture of what a Jew is, they love Jews as well.

Granted, their idea of Jews only vaguely resembles the reality of Jews. They tend to imagine Jews as a monolithic people, beloved by God, who have memorized the Bible and walk closely in the footsteps of Abraham and Moses. Their picture of a Jew is influenced by the dress of Orthodox Jews, especially women in skirts and headscarfs. I’m not sure I look entirely authentic to them, except that I do wear a black (leather) kippah.

So I’ll take evangelical support of Israel, even though Christian Zionists tend to hold hard right political positions on Israel. Some object to this, saying that such positions push our American government to be more right wing than the right wing Israelis, and ultimately that is damaging to Israel’s future survival. I reject this argument for two reasons: First, despite evangelical pressure, because of our government’s strict separation of religion from state, they have mostly resisted the pressure to become a mouthpiece for the religious right wing of the Israeli government. And second, Israel is pretty good about ignoring the United States (and anyone else) who is trying to push them into making decisions that they don’t want to make, so they aren’t going to fall in line with an evangelical political position unless a majority of the Israeli public believes in it as well.

That is why I have spoken at Cornerstone University and Seminary, Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids Puritan Seminary, Western Theological Seminary, among others, and taught at Kuyper College. It is why I have participated in the Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry’s Honor Israel night and Israel programming at Resurrection Life Church. We can nurture relationships and build alliances based on issues on which we agree, even when we might profoundly disagree on other issues.

Hebrew Phrase of the Month:

  • • Yeshua – salvation (not only a Christian concept!)
  • • ge’ulah – redemption

Divre Harav – May, 2023

I have devoted my Rabbinic career to the advancement of small congregations, and hope to do so here in Grand Rapids until I retire. Small congregations are not just miniature versions of big congregations. We are a different sort of entity entirely. True, large congregations have numbers and budgets exceeding our capacity, but we have strengths and potential not found in large congregations. We have the potential to know and value each member of the congregation. We rely on each member to step up financially to the best of their ability and also participate in multiple other ways. Shabbat and holiday services, programming, committee work, and building management, happens because of lay leadership supported by paid staff, rather than the other way around.

Congregation Ahavas Israel is a small congregation and we need to be thinking like a small congregation. Small congregations are lay led. Small congregations develop resources from within. Small congregations are resourceful, without a tremendous amount of resources. We are creative. We take advantage of opportunities. And we understand that the landscape is always shifting, so we adapt. Small congregations have small budgets. No organizations has unlimited financial resources, but small congregations need to be mindful of overreaching. We cannot act like a large congregation. We cannot buy all of the services we would like, so we need to cultivate them from within.

While we value independence, we know that we have to make all of our assets work for us. Renting our building to the Children’s Workshop preschool, All Souls Community Church, and the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids has provided a critical source of income.  Along the way, it has allowed us to form good relationship and partnerships that benefit the synagogue. All Souls has helped us create a Sacred Ground Native Pollinator garden on the back patio. All Souls and Temple Emanuel help us grow food in our Corners of the Field garden. We have partnered with Trinity Lutheran Church and Family Promise of West Michigan to help feed families who are housed in the church, several times a year.

Small congregations need to form partnerships to leverage limited resources. Partnerships are not necessarily permanent relationships. They might work well for a while, but as circumstances change, they might dissolve. Our partnership with Temple Emanuel to run a joint Beit Sefer B’yahad/United Jewish School is strong. Our partnership with Temple Emanuel and the Jewish Federation for a yearly scholar in residence weekend is ending because Temple and the Federation are no longer interested in the weekend format. It may evolve into a different format or we may seek a different kind of partnership. Temple Emanuel has ended our partnership to supply us with the services of a Cantor. We understand that nothing lasts forever and we need to be nimble and adaptable.

In a small congregation, each person is important. We need you to pitch in. Opportunities abound. Speak to me or the president, Ann Berman, and we can find a way for you to add your strength to Congregation Ahavas Israel.

Hebrew Phrase of the Month:

  • • Kehillah ketanah – a small congregation

Divre Harav – April, 2023

Growing up, celebrating Israel’s birthday was always a community event. I remember walks for Israel, in which we would solicit pledges for every kilometer we walked to celebrate Israel’s birthday. I remember concerts of Israeli music, Israeli food, a celebration of Hebrew words and a glimpse into life in various cities in Israel.

We will be celebrating Israel’s 75th birthday on Wednesday, April 26, 6:00 p.m., at Garfield Park with a free barbecue (donations welcomed!). I hope you’ll join us. You can find more information elsewhere in the Voice and on the events page of the website.

My memories are post-1967. The victory of the Six Day War was as much a miracle as the proclamation of the State followed by the Israeli victory in the War of Independence. The Yom Kippur war in 1973 was a scary moment, but the 1978 Camp David Accords in which Prime Minister Menachem Begin and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt joined hands gave us hope that peace was possible. And indeed, despite massive inflation in the 1980’s, Israel’s economy took off and Israel became a Start-Up Nation and a center of cutting edge research and innovation. Israel’s absorption of one million Soviet Jews and their families following glasnost along with the more than 160,000 Ethiopian Jews in the decade or so of the 1980’s cemented its role as the place where persecuted Jews around the world could find refuge. In 1994 a JCC in Buenos Aires was destroyed by a suicidal attack, and as antisemitic hatred continue to increase, and as the economy of Argentina was in crisis in the early 2000’s, 10,000 Jews made aliyah.

Israel today is one of the first nations in the world to send disaster recovery support around the world after an earthquake, a tsunami, or a hurricane. It shares its expertise on security and fighting terrorism and water management and renewable energy. It is a thriving and vibrant center of Jewish culture. It’s 75th birthday is worth celebrating.

You may have read lately a serious controversy about legislation which could endanger the balance of power between the judiciary and the legislative branches of government. The proposed legislation would allow the Knesset to override a supreme court nullification of a law which they determine to violate a fundamental protection of a “Basic Law,” the Israeli equivalent of a fundamental right. There is wide agreement among experts in the legal world that this would cause serious harm to the separation of powers of the legislative and judicial branches of government, a core principle of a democratic government.

My colleague Rabbi Miriam Spitzer wrote in the Scranton Times Tribune:

“ … hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been demonstrating on the streets against proposed changes to Israel’s laws of judicial review. Americans should be in awe of the numbers and the percentages of the citizenry who are coming out and saying that they object to what is happening.

“Israel’s past and present attorney generals have issued warnings against these proposed changes. Israel’s Supreme Court justices have spoken out. Some former Prime Ministers have spoken out. Isaac Herzog, the President of Israel, has issued pleas for compromise. Academics have spoken out. The Jewish Federations of North American has expressed concern and its own plea that the coalition listen to Isaac Herzog as well as recognize that a majority of 61 is insufficient to override a decision of the Supreme Court. The Rabbinical Assembly, together with the Conservative/Masorti Movement issued a strong “Leadership Statement on legislation that threatens Israel’s democratic character;” other Jewish movements have issued similar statements.” 

Israel is in crisis now and more than ever, needs the friendship and attention of the United States government and the worldwide Jewish community. It needs to hear from us that preserving democracy, diversity, protecting minorities, religious freedom, need to remain at the center of what the State of Israel is.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Yom Ha’atzma’ut – Day of Independence, 5 Iyar 5708, May 14, 1948.
  • Yom Hazikaron – Day of Remembrance, Israel’s Memorial Day, commemorated on 4 Iyar.

Divre Harav – March, 2023

Back in December, I set a goal for myself to meet with the superintendents of the eight largest school districts in the Grand Rapids area, plus East Grand Rapids and Holland, to talk about the issue of antisemitism. We’ve been hearing reports in the religious school of antisemitic incidents or micro-aggressions from our middle school and high school students. Because of the rise of antisemitism locally and nationally, I thought it would be important to introduce myself to the superintendents, open up a channel of communication if and when incidents occur, and find out what they are doing to track incidents, to react to incidents, and to prevent incidents proactively. I also believe that a district which has a plan for handling antisemitic incidents will also be well equipped to handle other forms of racism or attacks against LGBTQ students or staff.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. So far, I have met with the superintendents of Kentwood, Forest Hills, Rockford, Hudsonville, West Ottawa, Grandville, Jenison, and EGR Public Schools. Most districts realize that there is a problem and have a clear system in place to track incidents. Of the three districts with the least diversity, one has been actively working with their board to put diversity training programs in place. This involved convincing the board that incidents of aggression towards religious, ethnic, and racial minorities do exist and need to be addressed. Another has programs to increase diversity and works with the Urban League, the ADL, Grand Valley, and the Jewish Federation to develop curricula. The third relies on state-mandated curriculum to teach history, holocaust, and world culture.

All districts track major incidents, although several said that unless the incident gets referred to a school administrator or counselor, it would not be entered into the system. Many incidents go unreported because the students don’t want to put themselves in the spotlight, so they are handled quietly, if they are reported at all. We have suggested to our students that it is very important that they take a public stand and report incidents. It is in the only way that they will be taken seriously, district-wide.

Two superintendents reach out proactively to groups of students selected or self-selected to represent the diversity from each of the schools in district. They meet regularly with these groups of students to hear about what is happening and what they need to address. I found this to be the most positive, proactive, statement of support for their students.

One superintendent talked about how they address all incidents whether or not they occur inside a school or during school hours. This district believes that any act of racism or aggression involving its students affects its school, no matter where or when it occurs. I found this to be a strong statement of support for a welcoming and safe school environment. Another district addresses only major incidents that happened outside of school, but this, too, represents a strong statement against aggression.

The districts with more diversity seem to have fewer problems, but one district of about 50% Latinx, 50% middle – upper class white, is aware that such a sharp divide creates problems. The superintendent previously worked in the Detroit area and has drawn on the Holocaust Museum Center of Farmington Hills and the ADL for help in addressing incidents.

This is a quick summary of my impressions. All of the districts that I have met with know that I am available to meet with students, faculty, or staff for proactive education or to help them unpack and respond after an incident occurs. Please contact me if you are interested in the specific details of my conversation with your school district.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Shem, Ham, and Yafet – Noah’s sons. Shem is considered to be the ancestor of middle eastern peoples. In 1770, Scholars of the German Göttingen School of History, who history as an academic discipline, coined the term ‘Semite’ along with other terms to categorize people by race. About 100 years later, an Austrian Jewish scholar, Moritz Steinschneider, coined the term antisemitism specifically to refer to anti-Jewish prejudice.

A response to the tragedy at MSU

The best short term response to the tragic shooting at MSU this week is to go to your house of worship this Saturday or Sunday. To find out why, read on:

Ford produces cars. Microsoft produces software for presenting ideas. Apple produces hardware on which we produce or consume content. AT&T and Comcast and Verizon and T-Mobile create networks for connecting and sharing content. Walmart and Amazon sell virtually everything. Chase manages and produces money. Exxon Mobil produces petroleum products. Consumer’s Energy produces electricity. Hilton creates places for travelers to gather.

Every business and non-profit produces or creates something. Every organization has a purpose. The role of synagogues, churches, houses of worship is unique – our mission and our product is goodness in the best and broadest sense. We teach people how to be good, we encourage people to be good. We are the only institution with this mission. There are many other organizations and businesses which do good things, like providing food, shelter, clothing, protection from harm, medical care, education, and more. But the core mission of an institution of religion is to transform and shape the human animal into a better human being.

Most, but not all, houses of worship advance their mission by invoking God. Teaching and scripture invoking a transcendent Divine are a powerful way to encourage people to live up to a high set of ideals and behavior. But strictly speaking, I’m not arguing here that belief in God makes people better. I’m arguing that gathering together regularly in a religious community makes people better.

If you don’t gather regularly in a house of worship, where do you learn what goodness is? Where is your impulse to be a good person reinforced and encouraged? Not on social media, not by consuming media content, not in the workplace, or in the sports arena or the gym or at the theater or in the classroom or in any other place, real or virtual, where people regularly gather.

On Tuesday, the morning after the tragic shooting at MSU resulting in the death of three people and the injury of five others, I shared the following at our morning service:

Near the end of our weekday morning service we read Psalm 20, including the verse, “They call on chariots, they call on horses, but we call on the name of Adonai our God.” Chariots and horses were the technology and the heavy weapons of their day. Ultimately, reliance on the technology of weapons brings death. The antidote to reliance on instruments of war and destruction is to gather in places focused on transcendent behavior, on goodness.

It is possible, but unlikely, that the MSU shooter or any of the previous 66 mass shooters so far this year went to church or to any other house of worship regularly. Attending worship regularly does not guarantee that there will be no tragic shootings. But if houses of worship do their job of producing goodness well and if more people committed to attending, it’s hard to imagine that it would not have a positive effect. And stronger background checks, gun safety laws such trigger lock or gun safe requirements, and extreme risk protection laws could also help.

If you are part of the Ahavas Israel community, please join me this Shabbat. If you are a part of another religious community, here or elsewhere, please join your community this weekend. And if you are not part of a religious community, please consider finding one in your area and making a commitment to grow goodness.