Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – December, 2012

Every study of Jewish identity demonstrates that immersive Jewish experiences, such as Jewish camps and Israel programs, are linked to increases in positive Jewish behaviors, such as giving to Jewish causes, lighting Shabbat candles, holding a Passover Seder, and fasting on Yom Kippur.

The key word is immersive. Most of our days and weeks are spent interacting with a very secular American or Christian world. Watching television, listening to the radio or to the music on our iPods, conversations with out co-workers or clients or customers or supervisors, all of these things take place outside of Jewish time and space, and with rare exceptions, do not call attention to specifically Jewish values or concerns. This is, of course, a very broad statement that does not apply to everyone. Some of us have Jewish playlists or podcasts on our iPods, or subscribe to RSS feeds from Jewish media sources or stock out netflix queue with Jewish themed or Israeli movies. Nonetheless, when living and working in North America (and even more so in West Michigan), our interpersonal contacts, at the supermarket, the bank, the pharmacy, the bakery, the restaurant, on the phone with DTE, Comcast, AT&T, or the City of Grand Rapids, will rarely end with a “Shabbat Shalom” or a “Hag Sameah!” In our day to day lives, we are decidedly not immersed in the language of Judaism.

An immersive Jewish experience is one which is structured to present us with Jewish opportunities throughout the day. A Jewish camp invites us to wake up surrounded by Jews, engage in prayer, eat breakfast with Jews, go swimming at a waterfront, do art projects, engage in sports or learning activities that explicitly incorporate Hebrew, Jewish texts, Jewish language, and Jewish values into the activity. In an Israel experience, we are surrounded by Hebrew as a living language, and to wish Shabbat Shalom to the bus driver, the bank teller, and the tech support person on the phone is part of the common discourse. The sign on the bus reminding young people to give up their seats to their elders quotes Leviticus 19:32, “You shall rise before the aged.” Such use of Hebrew doesn’t feel like in-your-face Bible thumping, it’s just street language.

In an immersive Jewish experience, in Israel or in a serious Jewish camp program, Jewish identity does not require an active effort … one can relax and simply be Jewish, letting the little bits of a Jewish life flow past as naturally as a scrap of wood sweeping down the Mississippi river.

Ahavas Israel is blessed with a generous scholarship program. We have the Berkowitz Fund and the Ahavas Israel scholarship fund for children, and the Shapiro fund for adults. Their intent is to fund educational camp and Israel program and (for adults) retreats and classes and seminars that provide an immersive Jewish experience. You can find information about the scholarship program elsewhere in the Voice as well as on the AhavasIsrael.org website. I urge you to consider how you might take advantage of it, for your children or for yourself.

An open letter to the Jewish Federations of North America

I am sending the following letter to the leadership of my local Federation. I invite you to do the same.

In the past year, we have seen the tension in Israel between Hareidi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews and everybody else go from bad to worse. We have seen Hareidi campaigns to force women to sit at the back of the bus, signs in some neighborhoods restricting women to sidewalks on one side of the street, a campaign to remove images of women from public spaces, male IDF cadets walking out during ceremonies in which female soldiers were singing, and an eight year old girl from a religious family being harassed and spit upon while walking to school, because some Hareidi Jews didn’t think she was dressed modestly enough.

The non-Orthodox movements still do not receive support from the state, because the ministry of religion is controlled entirely by the Orthodox chief rabbinate. The government of Israel spends at least $450 million a year on Orthodox programs and institutions. There are 3000 Orthodox rabbis on the government payroll. Masorti gets, by comparison, less than $50,000 and no Masorti or Reform rabbi gets government funding. No Masorti or Reform rabbi serves as a rabbi in the IDF, though some have served in combat positions.

It is clear to the leadership of the non-Orthodox movements in Israel that the best thing for Israel and for Judaism would be a separation of religion and State, but the Reform and Masorti (and modern Orthodox) movements simply do not have enough power to move Israel in that direction. There were Masorti services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 64 locations this year, and there is a network of 30 Reform congregations. It is clear there is an openness and interest in non-Orthodox Judaism, but they are limited by a severe lack of funding.

Money alone will not solve this problem, but an infusion of funds into the non-Orthodox movements will help them grow and will fund their campaigns for greater freedom of religion in Israel. I call upon the Federations of North America to take 5% of the money that they would send to National Federation and send it directly to the Masorti and the Reform movement in Israel, with the goal of strengthening freedom of religion in Israel.

Divre Harav – January 2011

It is easy to fall into the trap of negativity.  Recently, after several colleagues shared some of the more discouraging moments of their rabbinate, another colleague responded with some advice from a member of his congregation, an oncologist.  He said that it would be impossible for him to function if he spent too much emotional energy thinking about the majority of his patients who don’t survive. He focuses on the ten percent or so who make a full recovery.

I’m thinking about this now, as our country is welcoming to Washington DC a new set of Representatives and Senators, most of whom gained office because of a general sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo — the pace of recovery from the economic downturn, and a perceived, if not actual, lack of action addressing the high rate of unemployment.

Our politicians talk about reaching across the aisle and working together towards a common goal, but when a compromise is made, many to the left and the right accuse the moderate centrists of selling out to the other side and betraying the values and principles of their party.

I’m thinking about Representative Justin Amash, who has some pretty big shoes to fill as he takes the seat once held by Vern Ehlers, Paul Wolpe and Gerald Ford (although in his day it was the fifth, rather than the third, congressional district).  Some in the Jewish community are concerned that Mr. Amash’s Palestinian roots might affect his support for Israel.  It is in in our interest, however, as Jews, supporters of Israel, and residents of the third congressional district, to cultivate a good relationship with Mr. Amash.

AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is a non-partisan organization devoted to strengthen the United State’s relationship with Israel.  They work with every member of congress, regardless of party affiliation.  They educate on issues relating to the security and development of Israel and encourage visits to Israel.

They understand that antagonizing our elected officials is not a good way to move them to our side.  Rather, like good parenting, it is more effective to focus on the positive, to praise the successes rather than condemn the failures.

As we welcome the 112th Congress to Washington DC, let us resolve to focus on the successes, not the failures.  Let us be slow to condemn, and quick to praise.  Let us not demonize the opposition.  Let us stick to our principles, but respect those who adhere to a conflicting set of principles.  As the Talmud teaches about the academies of Shammai and Hillel, Hillel was honored and praised for teaching the opinions of Shammai before he taught his own.  Let us be like Hillel, embracing the person on the other side of the aisle with love, rather than casting him out with suspicion.

Irrational Hatred, Jew vs. Jew

Two nearly simultaneous events occurred in Israel on Monday, Rosh Hodesh Av, the beginning of the month during which we recall several national tragedy of destructions and exile, most notably the destruction of the Temple (twice) in Jerusalem. The first destruction was attributed by the Talmud to sinat hinam, irrational hatred within the Jewish community, Jew vs. Jew. First, a woman was arrested for carrying a Torah at the Kotel, the Western wall (for an article, click here; for a video, click here). Second, a bill that would formally give complete control over conversion to Judaism to the chief rabbinate in Israel was introduced and passed its first reading.

The executive director of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, my colleague Rabbi Steve Wernick, was in Israel when he along with his Masorti colleagues, learned that MK David Rotem was taking the bill to the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, hoping to have it approved before the end of the Knesset session, which is soon after Tisha B’Av. This was an upsetting surprise; Rabbi Wernick and his colleagues had been assured many times by many officials that no version of the bill would be brought forward at that time and in that way. Rabbi Wernick has done a great deal of lobbying, and has met with former Minister Sharansky (current chairman of the Jewish Agency) and other MKs. Members of the Kadimah party have been supportive, he tells us. There is something that we can do, and we have to do it NOW.

Please click on this link www.masorti.org/email/form-letter.html and fill out the form to send a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu. It is vitally important for all of us – Conservative/Masorti Jews, liberal Jews, and ultimately all Jews – that this bill, which will serve only to divide the Jewish world and subvert the Zionist ideal – not be allowed to pass.

For more information:

Here is a Jerusalem Post editorial strongly against the Rotem bill www.jpost.com/Opinion/Editorials/Article.aspx?id=181271

Update from Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, with President Peres’ Statement

Dear Colleagues,

I am writing to you all now towards the end of yet another day of very significant activity regarding the conversion bill. I’ll try to summarize the latest news here.

As you know, the bill passed its reading in the Law Committee yesterday. The next stage involves three readings in the Knesset plenum. A number of sources have indicated that the bill will not be presented before the Knesset breaks for the summer next Wednesday, but we are not relying on this. In fact, the media has reported that Prime Minister Netanyahu himself will stop the legislation from progressing before the recess, but there have been no public statements to that effect.

Unfortunately, over the last three days, neither Prime Minister Netanyahu nor the Likud Party have issued any statements regarding their position on this issue – but we hope they will do so. The Prime Minister has, in the past, expressed his view that the bill should not be passed in its present form, but he has refrained from commenting in the critical last three days.

I sent a personal and urgent letter to the Prime Minister two days ago. Similarly, our Chair, Kathy Manning, sent a letter to him today. The text of that letter can be found at the end of this update.

In addition, our Campaign Chairs and Directors (CC+D) Mission, currently in Israel, met today with Mark Regev, the Prime Minister’s media advisor. Responding to a question by National Campaign Chair Michael Lebovitz on the conversion issue, Regev stated: “The Prime Minister takes this very seriously. His closest confidante is Natan Sharansky. The Prime Minister will not allow anything to happen that will in any way inhibit the unity of the Jewish people. That’s all I can state publicly.”

I was supposed to return to the United States last night, but have now delayed that trip indefinitely, pending developments. Yesterday we met late in to the night discussing strategy, and we continue to be in constant touch with JAFI Chair Natan Sharansky and the representatives of the religious streams. The relationship and professionalism of working with the streams has truly been a privilege.

In addition, we have been speaking with influential Israeli personalities and politicians to continue to apply pressure. We appreciate the work of our Federation colleagues in North America and our rabbinic colleagues and major organization leaders in reaching influencers to hear their concerns. Similarly, we have given multiple media interviews in both Hebrew and English, including to the BBC, and continue to act wherever possible.

A short time ago, our Senior Vice President Rebecca Caspi and I had a personal, urgent meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres on this issue where we stressed the critical nature of the question to our communities. Following the meeting, Peres met with the entire CC+D Mission where he made the following statement:

“More than half of our people are living in the State of Israel. Almost half of it lives outside of Israel . We should remember that those living outside of Israel are not represented by the Knesset, they have their own communal life. A discussion that bares consequences on the entire Jewish people should include different voices – from within Israel and from without.

The legislative process should include an open public discussion that will lead to an understanding. It should be conducted with tolerance, with open hearts and open minds.

A split in the Jewish life will be catastrophic and totally unnecessary. We bear the responsibility for generations to come we should handle it with care while preserving unity.

In 1988 I could have formed a government under my leadership. The condition was my approval to revise the law of ‘Who is a Jew’. I immediately rejected this offer.

I noticed with appreciation the comments made by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who said that the legislative process will be postponed in order to conduct a serious and inclusive discussion. We have to find a proper solution to enable conversion in Israel but not at the cost of unity with the Jewish community abroad.”

JFNA is closely monitoring developments and we will keep you posted as the events occur.


Jerry Silverman

Update from Natan Sharansky

Jerusalem, 2nd Av התש”ע
July 13, 2010

Dear Friends,

I am writing to bring you up to date on developments over the past 48 hours related to the conversion bill of MK David Rotem. As you may recall from my letter in March, the implications of this bill could be profound for Israel-Diaspora relations.

In a surprise move apparently calculated to enable quick, unopposed passage of his bill, MK David Rotem brought it before the Knesset Law, Constitution and Justice Committee on Monday morning.

After vociferous debate in which many MKs expressed deep-seated opposition to the bill, it nevertheless passed the committee by a vote of 5-4, rallying the support of MKs from Israel Beitenu and the haredi parties Shas and Agudat Yisrael. The bill is expected to go to the Knesset plenum for the three required readings in the coming weeks, though, we hope, not before the Knesset goes into recess in the middle of next week.

When I spoke at the Knesset Law Committee, I explained to the MKs that the passage of this bill would send a loud message to world Jewrythat they had been betrayed and that Israel was questioning the legitimacy of their Judaism. Jerry Silverman, President and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America attended the Knesset Law Committee and explained cogently the implications of this legislation both to Knesset members and the media.

Once the bill passed through the committee, our efforts turned toward thwarting the intention to move the bill forward through the Knesset plenum in the few remaining days before the Knesset goes into its summer recess. That very day I had an urgent meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as well as with Speaker Reuven Rivlin and cabinet ministers, in order to make sure that no additional surprises are in store for us in the days ahead.

In parallel, the Jewish Agency took to the airwaves and spoke to journalists about the urgent need to prevent a needless rift in the world Jewish community. I can assure you that the issue is becoming as important to Israelis as it is to Diaspora communities. In the past 48 hours, this issue has received a prominent place in the pages of Israel ‘s newspapers and in Hebrew-language radio and television broadcasts, nearly all of which carried our message of the importance of unity in these difficult days.

We continue to meet with key players in the political system, as well as to keep up our efforts in the media. We are committed to ensuring that the Diaspora’s position is heard clearly by all members of Knesset and ministers in the government so that they can fully understand the gravity of the consequences of this legislation.

We will continue to update you as this important issue moves forward.

Natan Sharansky

Letter to the Prime Minister

July 13, 2010

His Excellency Mr. Binyamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister of Israel
Jerusalem, Israel

Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

We are writing to you in what we believe are extraordinary circumstances. Indeed it is highly unusual for the entire Coordinating Council of The Jewish Federations of North America to jointly sign a letter, but we feel that this action reflects the depth of feeling and the gravity of the situation regarding the conversion bill currently before the Knesset.

We were certainly encouraged by your earlier statement on the matter and especially by your request to Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to lead efforts to find a formula that is acceptable to all parties.

But we were taken by surprise and deeply disappointed to hear that the bill was passed by the Law Committee before this process reached completion.

We are at a loss to understand how, with the entire Jewish world focused on that committee room, the three Likud members – who could have voted down the bill – were conspicuously absent.

We are of course pleased by what we understand is your position on this issue, but are concerned that neither you nor your party has made a public statement on the matter in the last few critical days.

We don’t need to tell you the depth of feeling and level of concern in our communities at this moment in time. We now await your leadership and action that will reflect your concern for the unity of the Jewish People to ensure that dialogue takes place and that appropriate language is found, acceptable to Jews across the world.

On behalf of The Jewish Federations of North America, we urge you to act decisively to stop this bill from proceeding any further and ensure that the proper discussions that you requested take place.


Kathy E. Manning
Chair of the Board

Jerry Silverman President & CEO
Michael C. Gelman Chair, Executive Committee
Michael I. Lebovitz, National Campaign Chair
Heschel I. Raskas, Treasurer
Linda A. Hurwitz, Chair, National Women’s Philanthropy
Harvey J. Barnett, Secretary
Cheryl Fishbein, Chair, Domestic Affairs Committee
Marc Fisher, Chair, Consulting Committee
Lori Klinghoffer, President, National Women’s Philanthropy
Jerry Levin, Chair, Marketing Committee
Shepard Remis, Chair, Israel & Overseas Coordinating Council
Michele Sackheim Wein, Chair, Jewish Peoplehood & Identity/Chair, OTZMA
Steven Scheck, Co-Chair, National Young Leadership
Alice Viroslav, Co-Chair, National Young Leadership
Toni Young, Immediate Past Chair, Israel & Overseas Coordinating Council

cc: Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Executive, Jewish Agency for Israel
Rebecca Caspi, Senior Vice President, JFNA

Judaism and Zionism

An article in the New York Review of Books by Peter Beinart entitled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” makes a strong case that American Jews are abandoning Zionism in favor of liberal values.

The article alludes to, but doesn’t directly deal with what may be the primary reason for the disconnect between American Jews and Israel.  We are spending far too many resources building Holocaust museums (which are an entirely negative reason to remain Jewish, as in Emil Fackinheim’s 614th mitzvah, “Don’t give Hitler a posthumous victory.”) and birthright trips to Israel.  Birthright has been a wonderful program, but the fact is that you cannot create a bond to Israel in 10 days unless there was something there before the trip.

We have failed to give our young generation a Judaism that is sophisticated and modern, but also maintains a connection to traditional Torah principles.  Reform has embraced liberalism as a religious principle, ignoring the centrality of the practices of Torah as the glue that hold together Jewish community; Orthodoxy ignores modern political realities in favor of a messianic approach nibbling the edges of racism, that if we only hold on long enough God will reward us richly.  I think the Conservative Jewish approach is perfect for finding the middle ground, although I see far too many of my colleagues falling into the sensationalist rhetoric of comparing Obama to Chamberlin, and the Middle East to 1939 Nazi Germany.

Don’t get me wrong — I am not a left wing peacenik.  The security concerns are real – Israel is fighting for its life, and Iran is a dangerous enemy.  The United States is pushing for a peace agreement as if both sides (Israel and Fatah/Hamas) were equally at fault and equally trustworthy.  Israel without Judaism is a state without a moral center.  However, the Judaism that is increasingly found in Israel lacks morality.

I want to see a Judaism deal honestly and openly with the texts of our tradition that disdain the “other,” while at the same time relying up them to do the work of maintaining our State on Shabbat, providing us with organs when we need transplants, and employing them as our menial laborers.  I want to see a Judaism that believes that belief and practice are more central to our identity than genetics; a Judaism that is open to strangers; a Judaism that actively encourages seekers.  This kind of Judaism will be able to speak compassionately to Palestinians while still building a security fence.  This kind of Judaism will be able to treat the Moslem and Christian Arab citizens of Israel with dignity and equality.  This kind of Judaism can teach young people how to be both passionate Jews and passionate Zionists.

I am open to comments, disagreement, questions.  I realize that in a relatively brief essay, I have challenged Reform Jews, Orthodox Jews, Federation Jews, and Jews whose lives are defined by the Shoah to address the hard question of how they would respond to Beinart’s article.  I am not arrogant enough to think that I personally have all or even most of the answers – but I passionately believe that without a compassionate Torah center, the answers are not to be found.