I love hearing people from outside the Jewish world affirm what I know to be true about the State of Israel. Just this past week, for example, Rachel Lord, the wife of the outgoing Australian Ambassador to Israel, wrote a farewell letter to Israel that appeared in the Jerusalem Post (June 14, 2017).
I learned about the letter while listening to “The Promised” podcast (TLV1) when Allison Kaplan Sommer, one of its regular commentators, read a portion of Ms. Lord’s words. Rachel Lord is a human rights lawyer.
We leave Israel very different people to those who arrived four years ago.
We arrived in Israel a little under four years ago, a newly minted family of five. We had never visited Israel before and had no idea what to expect. Israel as a posting option was not on our radar – or, more correctly, it was not on my radar. Although Dave’s official story is that he was asked to take the assignment, I suspect he may not have been so surprised by the request. With an impression of Israel based solely on news reporting, I wasn’t excited by the idea of bringing my family somewhere that seemed so unsafe. But as we celebrated my birthday on our second day in Israel, enjoying incredible food as the sun set over the sea, we felt confident we’d made the right decision.
Yet, even after four years here, Israel has proved an elusive friend. I still don’t feel like I completely understand her. The language is an obvious challenge. Our foreign ministry assured us we’d get by fine with English, which of course is true for my husband operating in a professional setting but made things a little challenging for me as I attempted to navigate daily life. We’ve eaten sour cream with our muesli, used buttermilk in our tea and I’ve had a few quiet sobs in the car when things just felt all a bit hard. Israeli culture is unique and a challenge for those of us from Britain’s former empire, where we like our queues and our order, public politeness and personal distance.
And of course, the roads are where I realize I just have no idea how this place works. You all know things would flow much better and you’d all be much happier if everyone stopped jostling for the best position, respected queues, stayed within those white lines on the road, held off the horn, and didn’t hassle the old person crossing the road with a walker, right? And why, in the country that invented Waze and where people are glued to their smartphones, do people always pull over and yell (and I do mean yell) at you for directions?
Despite these challenges, there’s something endearing about Israel. It drives you insane but you can’t help but love it. The goodness at the core is unquestionably the people, who proudly live up to their sabra reputation. No one ever says thanks if you hold a door open for them or offers to help you if you have your hands full with bags and a baby, but the warmth is almost overwhelming when someone opens their heart and their home to you. We’ve been blessed to share meals and traditions with people from all over Israel. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed learning about the different faiths that make this country so rich. The personal histories of the people that call Israel home have left us wide eyed. We’ve relished the centrality of family in Israeli society, where children are welcome everywhere and are valued and treasured.
We leave Israel very different people to those that arrived four years ago. We are richer people with a better understanding of this wonderful country, its people and the leading religions of the world. We know that Israel is a country beyond the conflict that can define it internationally and as a place that is more complex than most will appreciate.”
“It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” (Former Senator and Vice President of the United States, Hubert H. Humphrey)
So – the question is this! Does the Senate’s health care reform bill released yesterday pass this moral test?
Our own Reform movement sharply criticized this Republican Senate bill because it would repeal and replace major parts of the Affordable Care Act, make severe cuts to Medicaid, get rid of the legal requirement that most Americans have health coverage, and remove federal tax credits to aid Americans in paying for health insurance.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. has called this measure “deeply harmful” and yesterday, the RAC made the following statement:
“The Senate bill revealed this morning is a major undermining of American health care that will hurt Americans most in need: the elderly, the poor, children and people with disabilities…Jewish tradition’s emphasis on caring for the sick and lifting up those in need inspires us to call on Senators to reject the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017.”
Here are some of the specifics in the bill’s provisions:
- It enables insurance companies to charge five times the cost of insurance to people over fifty;
- It denies coverage for maternity care, mental health care, and substance abuse to millions of Americans;
- It dramatically cuts treatments for those who have opioid disorders;
- It defunds Planned Parenthood on which 2.4 million people depend for their health care;
- It has dramatic cuts to Medicare effective over time;
- The following categories of people will be affected: 49% of all births – 64% for all nursing home residents – 30% of adults with disabilities – 40% of all poor – 39% of all children – 76% of poor children – 60% of all children with disabilities
This bill is an attack on the weakest Americans in order to give massive tax cuts for the top 1% of the wealthiest of Americans – consequently, it does indeed fail Hubert Humphrey’s moral test of government.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) will issue a cost analysis at the beginning of the week, but Senate Majority Leader Mitchell has insisted that there be a vote before the Fourth of July Congressional recess. For a bill that affects one-sixth of the American economy and impacts negatively the lives of more than 20 million Americans, he refuses to allow time for debate, discussion, or analysis of this bill.
The Affordable Care Act of 2010 took one year to pass with massive amounts of House and Senate discussion and more than 200 amendments. Senator Mitch McConnell thinks that Americans and the Senate have discussed health care enough and it’s time to fulfill the President’s and the Republican promise to repeal and replace Obamacare, though a great majority of the American people don’t want it replaced.
This is not democracy, nor is it reflective of the humane tradition of America.
What ought we to do?
We have a weekend to have our voices be heard and we should make them heard by calling the ten fence-sitting Senators who have not as yet signed onto this Senate bill (per Families USA).
We ought to flood their Washington DC offices with calls and emails to demand that they vote no on this Senate bill.
The ten include Senator Susan Collins (R. Maine), Senator Lisa Murkowski (R. Alaska), Senator Bill Cassidy (R. Louisiana), Senator Jeff Flake (R. AZ), Senator Cory Gardner (R. Colorado), Senator Rob Portman (R. Ohio), Senator Ted Cruz (R. Texas), Senator Rand Paul (R. Kentucky), Senator Mike Lee (R. Utah), and Senator Ben Sasse (R. Nebraska).
We Jews are inspired by the example set over many centuries in Jewish tradition which instructs communities to provide health care to their inhabitants. In RAMBAM’s Mishneh Torah (Hilchot De’ot IV: 23) it’s written:
כל עיר שאין בה עשרה דברים האלו אין תלמיד חכם רשאי לדור בתוכה ואלו הן
“A Torah Sage is not permitted to live in a community which does not have the following: a doctor.”
Please make those calls!
Rabbi Galit Cohen Kedem of Holon, Israel and me
Thankfully, there’s a happy ending to this story.
Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles enjoys a close sister-synagogue relationship with an emerging Israeli Reform synagogue in Holon, Israel, just fifteen minutes drive from Tel Aviv.
Their Rabbi, Galit Cohen Kedem, is a 40 year-old mother of three who was ordained several years ago at the Jerusalem campus of the Hebrew Union College and is one of 100 Israeli ordained Reform Rabbis serving communities in Israel.
Five years ago, Rabbi Galit and her emerging Reform synagogue community created Gan Tarbut Ivrit, a state-funded public school. They did so in full cooperation with the education department at the Holon municipality and with the Israel Ministry of Education. The school received official status and certification from all the relevant local and national authorities.
The concept of a “growing school” is one that begins with kindergarten and adds a new grade level each year. The school is planning to add a 3rd grade class this coming fall and will welcome 100 students. Gan Tarbut Ivrit works in similar ways to North American magnet schools in that it welcomes students from throughout the city of Holon.
Until the beginning of May of this year, the attitude of the Holon Municipality was positive and supportive. All great – so far!
Since it was established, the school program has been held within a hosting school, and it was understood by Rabbi Cohen Kedem and the students’ parents that as the school grew it would require additional classrooms in a different location due to space limitations in the first host school. The congregational leadership began negotiations with the Holon municipality and education department earlier this year to find alternative space. All municipal bodies joined cooperatively in the effort.
As a temporary solution for the coming year, the Director General of the Holon municipality (Yossi Silman) and the city education department offered three additional classrooms to be opened in a different public school in the city. The school would run independently of the host school. However, upon learning of this arrangement, a group of parents from the new hosting school, encouraged by extremist Haredi ultra-Orthodox forces vetoed the plan. In a meeting with the principal of the new host school these parents aggressively and verbally threatened Rabbi Cohen Kedem and, remarkably, they threatened the school’s children of the school. Then they submitted a strongly worded complaint to the education department and municipality.
To the shock and surprise of the Reform synagogue community and school leadership, at a meeting that was held only a few days following this incident, the Holon Municipality Director General rescinded the municipality’s responsibility for the program altogether. The families of these children were told that there would now be no place at all in the entire city of Holon of 200,000 residents for this one school to operate.
Rabbi Cohen Kedem learned from various sources that ultra-Orthodox political representatives in the city from the Shas party pressured the Mayor to close the school for one reason and one reason alone – it is affiliated with the Israeli Reform Movement.
The Israel Movement for Progressive Reform Judaism (IMPJ) jumped into action on behalf of the children and parents of this new school and entered into negotiations with the proper authorities. At the same time, the Israeli Reform leadership called upon ARZA (the Association of Reform Zionists of America – USA and ARZA – Canada) to contact as many Israeli Consuls General as possible and ask them to contact the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Education Ministry to express our support for the Holon Reform movement school. We did so.
I informed our new Consul General representing the Southwestern United States, the Honorable Sam Grundwerg.
Rabbi Mona Alfi of Temple B’nai Israel in Sacramento, California (who also enjoys a sister synagogue relationship with Kehilat Kodesh V’Chol and Rabbi Galit) informed Israel’s Consul General to the Pacific Northwest, the Honorable Dr. Andy David and asked him to send their message of support.
Rabbi Josh Weinberg, President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), and I (as ARZA Chair) briefed the Israeli Consul General in New York, the Honorable Dani Dayan, who communicated to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Education Ministry headed by Naftali Bennet, the Minister of Education in whose party Dani Dayan is a leader. Mr. Dayan also personally called Rabbi Galit to express his support.
Miriam Pearlman, ARZA Canada President, asked the Consul General of Israel in Toronto representing Ontario and the Western Provinces of Canada, the Honorable Galit Baram, to send a message to Israel’s Foreign Ministry to register that community’s concern that the rights of the Reform movement in Holon.
Negotiations have been taking place for the past month between Holon’s Mayor and leaders of the Municipality and Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the Executive Director of the IMPJ as well as Rabbi Galit – and I am thrilled to post this letter sent a few days ago by Gilad and Galit to our Reform movement’s international leadership with their permission to share this with others.
I do so with great personal relief and with the knowledge that not only will those parents and children in Holon, Israel be able to educate their children in the public school system according to their Reform movement values, but that our movement’s success can be a precedent for more such efforts.
It is with great pleasure and relief that we send you this email to update you that a solution has been found for the “Tarbut Ivrit” program in Holon.
As you know, over the past few weeks we had experienced an extreme backlash in the city, whereby both city officials and parents refused to allow us the use of classrooms in one of the city’s schools, in light of our expansion and lack of classrooms at the “Nitzanim” school. At one point in the process the municipality even cancelled our certification. We were prepared to take legal steps and have you engage with us in an international campaign. This backlash reached the level of violent verbal threats and near despair. Finally, a few days ago, with the help and support of the regional superintendent and representatives from the Ministry of Education, we were able to reach a resolution with the municipality, whereby classrooms would be found in the “Nitzanim” school for the coming year. This is the school we’ve been in over the past few years and we are happy to tell you that the parents association and the head of the school is in complete support of our being there. A solution for space for our additional grade level will be found. This was a great relief, especially considering that this was our ideal solution from the beginning.
On a personal note, there is no doubt that we had never experienced such behavior from people we work with on the municipal level before and were taken aback by people’s mere ability to act this way. At the same time, we are grateful to so many friends and partners, as well as parents and congregation activists, who stood by our side throughout this difficult period.
We want to take this opportunity to also thank you for your partnership, friendship and support throughout this struggle, as well as the action that many of you took in contacting local consuls general and other officials and speaking with them on our behalf. There is no question that this helped our struggle because as we reported previously the Foreign Ministry went to the city and told them to find a constructive solution. Our influence in the National Institutions was also a critical factor as both Boogi [Isaac] Hertzog [the leader of the opposition Zionist Union] and Danny Atar [Chairman of the Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael- JNF] intervened with the Mayor of Holon on our behalf.
We head into the summer with a great sigh of relief, ready to take on the new school year and focus on what we do well, pluralistic education and building our congregation. Holon is an incredible success story for our [Reform Israeli] movement and we believe will continue to grow and thrive.
We will of course keep you posted if there are any new developments. Hopefully from now on we will only have good news to report.
Again we can’t say enough how important your support for us was both from a moral point of view and of course for all the concrete things you did on our behalf.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv and Rabbi Galit Cohen Kedem
The debate in the pages of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal between my colleagues Rabbi David Wolpe and Rabbi Rick Jacobs with comments from other colleagues as well about whether it is ever appropriate for rabbis to speak on “politics” from the bimah recalls a blog I wrote some time ago addressing this issue that I present here again with modification.
It’s important, however, before going any further to distinguish between politics, policy, and partisanship. I do not believe it is the rabbi’s place, under almost all circumstances, to ever endorse candidates for political office from the bimah. If they choose to do so as individuals, they have to accept the consequences of alienating members of their communities.
Supporting policy is a different matter, and Rabbi Wolpe believes that we rabbis are not ordained to discuss policy as such, regardless of what we personally believe. He notes as well that in our pews are people who have far more expertise on matters of policy than are we – and he is right.
However, though good people can bring to bear Jewish values and apply them to different policy options on the great moral and ethical challenges we face as a society, if the rabbi can apply Jewish texts and values to a particular policy position while recognizing that there is a legitimate position from Jewish tradition on the other side of the aisle, I see no harm in doing so especially if the rabbi says explicitly that he/she does not claim the last word.
The matter of politics and Judaism is a larger one, and it is that issue that I have written about in a former blog.
Here are the salient points I once wrote that are relevant here:
….Should we [rabbis and synagogues] speak collectively about contemporary issues confronting our nation in particular, such as health care, economic justice, prison reform, the poor, women’s and LGBTQ rights, racism, immigration, religious minorities, civil rights, climate change, war, and peace, etc? Or should we refrain and concentrate purely upon “spiritual” and ritual matters? What, if any, limitations should rabbis and synagogue communities impose upon themselves?
Before I offer a few operating principles that have guided me, it is important to understand what we mean by “politics.” Here is a good operative definition from Wikipedia:
“Politics (from Greek πολιτικός, “of, for, or relating to citizens”), is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs. It also refers to behavior within civil governments. … It consists of “social relations involving authority or power” and refers to the regulation of public affairs within a political unit, and to the methods and tactics used to formulate and apply policy.”
The first question is this – Should rabbis and synagogue communities be “political” in the sense of this definition?
I believe we should and have every right to speak and act in the sense of the meaning above.
There are, of course, limitations. What we Rabbis, Jews, and synagogue communities say must be said on the basis of Jewish religious, ethical and moral principles that promote common decency, equality, justice, compassion, humility, human freedom, and peace as founded upon the values of B’tzelem Elohim (that every man, woman, and child is created in the Divine image and is therefore infinitely worthy and valuable) and Ohavei Am Yisrael (that we share a “love for the people of Israel”).
We need to remember as well when speaking that Jews hold multiple visions and positions on the myriad issues that face our community and society. Rav Shmuel (3rd century C.E. Babylonia) said “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim – These and those are the words of the living God.” In other words, there are many legitimate and authentic religious and moral perspectives within Judaism that must be respected and deemed as Jewish values even when they seem to conflict.
In the realm of partisan politics, the American Jewish community has no unanimous political point of view, though since WWII between 60% and 90% of the American Jewish community has supported moderate and liberal policies and candidates for political office locally, at the state and national levels. We are a politically liberal community, but there are also conservatives among us.
The Reform movement (represented by the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., the social justice arm of the Union for Reform Judaism) has consistently taken moral, ethical, and religious positions on public policy issues that come before our government and in our society as a whole, though the RAC does not endorse candidates nor take positions on nominees for high government positions unless specifically determined conditions are met. The RAC’s positions on policies, however, are taken based on the Reform movement’s understanding of the Jewish mandate L’aken ha-olam b’malchut Shaddai (“To restore the world in the image of the dominion of God, which means for us to adhere to standards of justice, compassion and peace – i.e. Tikun olam).
There are a few operating principles that guide me personally when I speak or write:
I do not publicly endorse candidates for political office and have never done so in my 38 years as a congregational rabbi, except this past year when it was clear to me that the Republican candidate for President’s statements, tweets, and policy recommendations were, in my opinion, contrary to fundamental Jewish ethical principles and common decency. I did publicly endorse the Democratic candidate for President – the first time I have ever done so as a Rabbi;
When I offer divrei Torah, sermons, and blog posts, I do so always from the perspective of what I believe are the Jewish moral, ethical and religious principles and concerns involved. At times those statements are, indeed, “political,” but they are not “partisan.” That is a very big difference.
We as Jews ought never to claim to have the absolute Truth. There are many truths that often conflict with one another. Respect for opposing views is also a fundamental Jewish value. The synagogue ought to be a place where honest civil and respectful debate occurs. We at Temple Israel have invited people to speak in our congregation with whom many of us may not personally agree, I included;
When we speak in the media, we have an obligation explicitly to say that we do not speak for our synagogue community but only as individuals;
The Mishnah (2nd century CE) says “Talmud Torah k’neged kulam – the study of Torah leads to all the other mitzvot.” The Talmud emphasizes that action must proceed from learning.
Plato warned that passivity and withdrawal from the political realm carry terrible risks: “The penalty that good [people] pay for not being interested in politics is to be governed by [people] worse than themselves.”
Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the President of the American Jewish Congress who spoke in Washington, D.C. in August 1963 immediately before Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream speech” said the following:
“When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not ‘the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.
A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.
America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America, but all of America. It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself.
Our children, yours and mine in every school across the land, each morning pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands. They, the children, speak fervently and innocently of this land as the land of “liberty and justice for all.
The time, I believe, has come to work together – for it is not enough to hope together, and it is not enough to pray together, to work together that this children’s oath, pronounced every morning from Maine to California, from North to South, may become. a glorious, unshakeable reality in a morally renewed and united America.”
Rabbi John Rosove
The debate between two colleagues whom I admire deeply, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, is poignant, honest, gracious, and deeply important.
The Los Angeles Jewish Journal has printed Rabbi Wolpe’s initial op-ed and Rabbi Jacob’s response.
I agree with both on a number of points they make, but I side with Rabbi Jacobs.
There is a huge difference between being partisan and political. I do not use my pulpit to preach partisan politics, but I do speak about the great policy issues that have moral and ethical implications. Jewish tradition does indeed say a great deal about those questions and, yes, Rabbi Wolpe is right, there are views that may seem contradictory to each other but are both “Jewish” views.
My friend Yossi Klein Halevy, for example, speaks about Purim Jews and Pesach Jews. The former reminds us not to be naive, that there are enemies out there wishing us ill. The latter reminds us not to be cruel, that we who know the heart of the stranger and have in our history suffered the tyrant’s lash understand the critical importance of our remaining compassionate even in the midst of evil.
See “Why my friend David Wolpe is wrong: A ‘politics free’ pulpit is an empty …”
Few events in Jewish history are as impactful on the character of the Jewish people in Israel and around the world as was the 1967 Israeli-Arab War that was fought exactly 50 years ago (June 5-11, 1967).
The Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) has posted this week its considered Position Paper about that war on the occasion of this 50th Anniversary, and it can be read here:
On the same site, you can read our “Position Paper in Support of a Two-State solution.”
Each of these statements reflects the position of the American Reform Zionist Movement representing 1.5 million American Reform Jews.
ARZA’s website can be found at http://www.arza.org/ –
See the section “Statements and Position Papers” and then scroll down to read each of these positions.
Note: I serve as National Chair of ARZA. Rabbi Joshua Weinberg is President of ARZA.