For the first time in my 38 years as a congregational rabbi during a High Holiday sermon, a visitor to our congregation stood up, yelled out in protest, and slammed the sanctuary door on his way out.
It was Kol Nidre and our Sanctuary was packed with 1200 worshippers. My sermon that so disturbed him is posted on my synagogue website and it can either be read there or watched on Youtube – see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQyxdgcspw0 – I ask only that you read or listen to the entire address, which this man did not do.
As I do for all my High Holiday sermons, I spent a great deal of time over the summer thinking, researching, writing, and rewriting. It is important for me to be as clear and considered as possible while being as edifying and uplifting as I can be in these addresses. In this Kol Nidre sermon (“We the People”) I sought to address issues that transcend the daily politics that have consumed and stunned our nation in the last two years and focus instead on the greater Jewish and American values at stake.
I drew parallels between our liberal Jewish values based on the Biblical prophetic tradition, the ethics and compassion of the rabbis, and the values of American democracy, inclusivity, and exceptionalism. I called out the intolerance, bigotry, extremism, racism, nationalist nativism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia of “American Firsters” and drew parallels to a movement of the same name that was supported by 80% of Americans before World War II.
I offered thoughts about the long generational trend in America that put President Trump in the White House, and noted that he is there in part due to the Balkanization of America, the ignorance of American history so rampant in large portions of the population, the dismissal of the virtues embodied by American exceptionalism, and self-centered “me-ism” that Trump reflects in his own life, stokes and encourages among so many frustrated Americans.
Clearly, I hit the right note in my community resulting in a standing ovation at the conclusion.
The man shouted as he left “This is a house of prayer!”
I returned to the microphone to cite the Talmudic requirement (Berachot 34b) that every synagogue must be built with a window so that those praying inside will never be separated with what is going on in the street. I recalled the example of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who joined with Dr. Martin Luther King in a march from Selma to Montgomery during the civil rights era and who explained that by marching he was “praying with his feet.”
After Yom Kippur, a distinguished member of my community and a Jewish leader in Los Angeles told me in an email that for a rabbi not to address the serious conditions of this country today as I did would be nothing shy of “spiritual malpractice.”
When this man screamed out I thought immediately of President Obama when he addressed a joint session of Congress in 2009 on health care. In the middle of the President’s speech, Republican Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina screamed out “You lie!”
I recalled President Obama’s restraint and dignity. I remembered his refusal to be distracted from his message. Following his example, I ignored the man’s outburst and continue to deliver my sermon.
This man’s behavior on the holiest night in Judaism, just as Representative Wilson’s behavior in a joint session of Congress, is exactly what’s ethically and morally wrong with large portions of our own Jewish community and the American population as a whole. The man’s intolerance, lack of civility, and nasty self-righteousness makes dialogue between people who hold legitimate differences of opinion difficult. Hate and rage replaced love and understanding. The lack of civility has replaced respect for the dignity of the other. That this should occur on the holiest night of the year is particularly disturbing but also revealing about our imperfections and need for moral and ethical improvement.
I wrote to President Obama today to thank him for modeling for me how to handle such a situation as a leader. This is what I said to him:
Dear Mr. President:
I write to thank you for … giving me courage in the middle of my Yom Kippur sermon … as what constitutes dignified behavior as a leader.
A visitor in my congregation stood up as I was speaking before 1200 congregants on Kol Nidre and began shouting at me before walking out and slamming the Sanctuary door behind him.
The episode was shocking not only to me but to our community as a whole much as it was shocking when a congressman called you a “liar” in the middle of your address on health care before both houses of Congress before the ACA became law in 2009.
I remember your dignity then, that you paid him no heed and went on with your speech.
… I decided on Kol Nidre to follow your example…and I write to thank you for this and for so much more.
John L. Rosove, Rabbi
For those interested, the High Holiday sermons for our three rabbis at Temple Israel of Hollywood, Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, Rabbi Jocee Hudson, and me are available on line at http://www.tioh.org/worship/rabbis/clergystudy.
The Themes of our sermons are as follows:
Rabbi John Rosove’s High Holyday Sermons:
- “Hineni-Here I Am” – Ten Life Strategies – Five Jewish Virtues – One Set of Skills – Rosh Hashanah 5778 (Watch on YouTube )
- “We the People” – Kol Nidre 5778 (Watch on YouTube )
- “This Moment of Reunion – Yizkor Yom Kippur 5778 (Watch on YouTube )
Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh’s High Holyday Sermons:
- “Listening Deeply In a Divided Time” – Rosh Hashanah 5778
- “Communicating in a Fractured World” – Yom Kippur 5778 (Watch on YouTube )
Rabbi Jocee Hudson’s High Holyday Sermons:
- “It’s All Interconnected: Intersectionality in Torah and Today’s Times” – Rosh Hashanah 5778
- “Let Me Lie by Still Waters” – Rosh Hashanah 5778
“While Netanyahu cuts us Reform Jews out, he payrolls those who spew hatred towards us. But we won’t give up on Israel, equality or democracy. And we will continue to demand our rights” (Rabbi Rick Jacobs)
In my memory, the non-Orthodox American Jewish community and the Prime Minister of Israel have never been in a greater crisis of trust. This is not good for the Jewish people, said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Jews representing 1.5 million American Jews. Rabbi Jacobs is right and he says so eloquently and forthrightly in an open letter printed in Haaretz this week. (see link below)
As the chairman of the national board of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, the largest Zionist movement in the United States, I stand proudly with Rabbi Jacobs in his call to Prime Minister Netanyahu to heal this terrible breach between the Israeli government and the non-Orthodox American Jewish community.
We American Reform Jews can no more walk away from Israel than we can walk away from our own country when our own political leadership fails us.
Read Rabbi Jacob’s powerful letter here – http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.813840
“Why Judaism Matter – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to His Children and the Millennial Generation” with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove is now available for purchase on Amazon.com (publishing date – October 10). This book is a collection of thirteen letters offering a common sense guide and roadmap for a new generation of young men and women who find Jewish orthodoxy, tradition, issues, and beliefs impenetrable in 21st Century society. It is published by Jewish Lights Publishing, a division of Turner Publishing.
I have addressed this book of letters to millennials specifically, but this volume is also for their parents and grandparents, the younger generation of college-age Jews, and non-Jewish partners and spouses of Jews who are interested in the possibility of living meaningful and vibrant Jewish lives.
I invite you to purchase this book and share it with those you love.
“Rabbi John Rosove addresses his intellectual and well-reasoned investigation of faith to his own sons, which sets this book apart for its candor and its ability to penetrate not only the mind but also the heart.” – Matthew Weiner, creator of the AMC series Mad Men, and writer and producer on the HBO drama series The Sopranos. Matthew has earned nine Primetime Emmy Awards.
“John Rosove does what so many of us have struggled to do, and does it brilliantly: He makes the case for liberal Judaism to his children. As Rosove shows, liberal Judaism is choice-driven, messy, and always evolving, “traditional” in some ways and “radical” in others. It is also optimistic, spiritual, and progressive in both personal and political ethics. Without avoiding the hard stuff, such as intermarriage and Israel, Rabbi Rosove weaves all of these strands together to show the deep satisfactions of living and believing as a liberal Jew. All serious Jews, liberal or otherwise, should read this book.” – Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism and a regular columnist for the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz.
“Rabbi John Rosove has given a gift to all of us who care about engaging the next generation in Jewish life. The letters to his sons are really love-letters from countless voices of Jewish wisdom across history to all those young people who are seeking purpose in their lives. From wrestling with God, to advocating for peace and justice in Israel and at home, and living a life of purpose, this book is a compelling case for the joy of being Jewish.” – Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C.
“Rabbi John Rosove gets it. Here is a religious leader not afraid to tell it like it is, encapsulating for his audience the profound disaffection so many young Jews feel towards their heritage. But instead of letting them walk away, he makes a powerful case for the relevance of tradition in creating meaningful lives. In our technology-saturated, attention-absorbing age, Rosove offers religion-as-reprieve, his fresh vision of a thoroughly modern, politically-engaged and inclusive Judaism.” – Danielle Berrin, columnist and cover-story journalist for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, commentator on CNN and MSNBC, and published work for The Guardian, British Esquire, and The Atlantic.
“Rabbi Rosove’s letters to his sons are full of Talmudic tales and practical parables, ancient wisdom with modern relevance, spiritual comfort, and intellectual provocation. Whether his subject is faith, love, intermarriage, success, Jewish continuity or the creation of a meaningful legacy, you’ll find yourself quoting lines from this beautiful book long after you’ve reached its final blessing.” – Letty Cottin Pogrebin, writer, speaker, social justice activist, author of eleven books including Debora, Gold, and Me: Being Female & Jewish in America, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine, a regular columnist for Moment Magazine, and a contributor of op-eds in the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Toronto Star, and LA Times, among other publications.
“If you’re a fellow Reform millennial, give yourself the gift of John’s insights. This book is written in a breezy, gentle, readable style that is welcoming without losing sharp insight. It was so enjoyable and refreshing to read and persuasive without ever being pushy. Rosove managed to do what only a truly worthy slice of kugel or chance viewing of Fiddler has done for me; reactivate my sense of wonder and gratitude about being Jewish. I’m a huge fan of WJM.” – Jen Spyra, staff comedy writer on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (CBS), former senior writer for The Onion, actress, and stand-up comedian. Jen’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Daily News, and The Daily Beast, and has been featured by The Laugh Factory Chicago’s Best Standup Show Case.
“Rabbi Rosove has written a wonderful book, a love letter to his children, and through them, to all our children. Prodigiously knowledgeable, exceedingly wise, and refreshingly honest, Rabbi Rosove has described why Judaism Matters. It should serve as a touching testament of faith, spanning the generations for generations to come.” – Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, Senior Rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in NYC, former Executive Director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America-World Union for Progressive Judaism, author of One People, Two Worlds: A Reform rabbi and an Orthodox rabbi explore the issues that divide them with Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Reinman.
“Rabbi Rosove has written a book of the utmost importance for our time. It is an imperative read for all those who struggle with the changing and evolving attitudes towards belonging, behavior and belief. His analysis, stemming from deeply personal contemplation and decades of rabbinic experience, offers clear yet sophisticated approaches to tackling the challenges facing this generation and those to come. This book offers a treasure of wisdom through the lens of Jewish texts – both ancient and modern – which help to frame life’s major issues taking the reader from the particular to the universal. Israel is one of the most complicated of issues and he bridges the divide between Israel’s critics and staunch supporters and moves beyond the conversation of crisis for the millennial generation.” – Rabbi Joshua Weinberg, President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America
“John Rosove’s letters to his sons based on his life, philosophy, and rabbinic work address what it means to be a liberal and ethical Jew and a lover of Israel in an era when none are automatic. He writes in an unassuming personal style steeped in traditional texts as he confronts conflicts of faith and objectivity, Zionist pride and loving criticism of the Jewish state, traditional observance and religious innovation. He is never gratuitous and invites his readers into his family conversation because what he says is applicable to us all.” – Susan Freudenheim, Executive Director of Jewish World Watch, journalist, former managing Editor of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, and a former editor at the Los Angeles Times.
In the tumult of the early months of the Trump presidency and in light of the recent natural disasters brought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, many of us have been distracted from Israel’s “matzav – situation” regarding the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Yossi Alpher is a long time security analyst who served as an advisor to Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s delegation at the 2000 Camp David peace effort with President Clinton and PA Chairman Yasser Arafat.
Alpher writes frequently and is always worth reading as he is clear-sighted, pragmatic, and an astute and informed observer of Israel’s security situation.
In this article, Alpher writes:
“Netanyahu….has leveraged Middle East chaos astutely to Israel’s strategic advantage. This is an important contribution to Israel’s overall security. But it is a temporary advantage, bereft of deep roots in any shared vision of Israel’s future. Israel’s Arab friends are all dictators whose lease on power could ultimately go the way of the Shah of Iran, an earlier semi-clandestine ally who was swept away by extremist Islam in 1979. Nor are these Arab neighbors blind to the fact that the same Netanyahu is presiding over the dissolution of the two-state solution. He is engineering Israel’s slow slide down a slippery slope toward a complicated and conflicted one-state reality that will critically weaken its legitimacy. As matters stand, history will probably find far more fault with Netanyahu’s Palestinian policies than benefits to his regional strategy.”
When people ask me what books I think offer the best understanding of what Jews believe and care most about, I’m often stymied because there are so many.
Nevertheless, as an exercise, I tried this week to make a list of my top ten. All of these have moved me, informed me, changed me, and taught me wisdom, inspired me, and given me insight not only into the Jewish heart, mind, and soul, but into what it means to be a human being and a mensch.
Here are my top ten:
- The Five Books of Moses – The Hebrew Bible is the foundational text in Judaism. Among the best modern commentaries that I’ve found is Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, edited by Rabbi David L. Lieber and published by the Conservative movement.
- Covenant & Conversation – Numbers: The Wilderness Years by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is a brilliant commentary and exploration into the fourth of the five books of Moses. Rabbi Sacks brings the Biblical past into the present and shows how the Book of Numbers is among the world’s most important literary works.
- A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson – There are many fine Jewish histories. I chose Johnson’s because it is both descriptive and inspirational. For example, he wrote: “No people has ever insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny … The Jews, therefore, stand right at the center of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose.”
- Pirkei Avot – Sayings of the Sages – An ethical tractate stuck in the middle of a 2nd century legal code, this series of teachings and maxims is a guide to behavior, attitudes, civility, honor, integrity, faith, aspiration, kindness, peace, humility, generosity, patience, fairness, and the proper use of speech. Of the many commentaries, my favorite is one that comes out of the Orthodox world – Pirkei Avot: Ethics of the Fathers – The Sages’ Guide to Living published by Artscroll.
- Sefer Ha-Hinukh – Book of Education is attributed to the 13th century Rabbi Aaron ha-Levi of Barcelona (in 5 volumes). This work explains each of the Torah’s 613 commandments in order of appearance. Intended most likely as a text for students to learn the purpose of the commandments and how to live in line with the spirit and values of Torah, it is a superb introduction to Biblical law.
- Opening The Tanya, Learning the Tanya, and Understanding the Tanya (3 volumes) was written by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Lubavitch Chassidism. This three volume text with commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz explores the complexities, doubts, and drives at the core of the struggle between the Godly and animal souls. Though more than two centuries old, the teachings here are as relevant today as they were when they were written at the end of the eighteenth century.
- Between God and Man – An Interpretation of Judaism is a selection of writings by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, among the greatest Jewish scholars, thinkers, theologians, social activists, teachers, and leaders of the 20th century. Rabbi Heschel is a poet of the soul and this work opens the heart, mind, and soul to the relationship between humankind and God as few great thinkers can do.
- One People, Two Worlds: A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues That Divide Them is by Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch (Reform) and Rabbi Yosef Reinman (Haredi Orthodox). These two rabbis entered into an 18-month email correspondence after being introduced by a mutual friend on the fundamental principles of Jewish faith and practice. What resulted is “an honest, intelligent, no-holds-barred discussion of virtually every hot-button issue on which Reform and Orthodox Jews differ, among them the existence of a Supreme Being, the origins and authenticity of the Bible and the Oral Law, the role of women, assimilation, the value of secular culture, and Israel.” (the publisher) This dialogue is unprecedented. In the end these two rabbis from very different religious streams found that they not only liked each other but respected each other as well.
- Not in God’s Name – Confronting Religious Violence by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explores how religious extremism and violence in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities worldwide are corruptions of our respective religious texts and our shared monotheistic tradition.
- Fragile Dialogue: The New Voices of Liberal Zionism, edited by Rabbis Stanley Davids, Larry Englander, and Hara Person and published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, includes the reflections of close to forty teachers and thinkers who struggle with a variety of approaches to liberal Zionism that are emerging in the 21st century. Israel has become one of the most polarizing forces in the North American Jewish community resulting in a serious challenge to Jewish unity and the alienation of many Jews from the State of Israel and the Jewish people. This work is an attempt to address those tensions within modern Jewish life and bring clarity to the conversation (to be published in early Fall, 2017).
People often ask me where to begin. It really doesn’t matter. Just begin where you are most interested and allow your heart, mind and soul to carry you forward.
Leah Aharoni’s “Undermining unity at the Kotel won’t make Reform great again” (op-ed JJ, July 11) is so riddled with mistakes and faulty metaphors that we are compelled to respond in order to set the record straight. http://jewishjournal.com/opinion/221495/undermining-unity-kotel-wont-make-reform-great/
Ms. Aharoni began her tirade against the international Reform and Conservative movements, the Jewish Federations of North America, and Women of the Wall in our advocacy of an egalitarian and equal prayer space at the holiest site in Judaism by citing a Chassidic tale in which a father tells his son that “If you want to be taller, make yourself a mound and get up on it. But don’t drive your brother into a hole.”
We in the Israeli and international liberal religious community are not trying to knock anyone down. All we are doing is reminding the Prime Minister and his government that the Kotel Agreement that he himself initiated and oversaw negotiations in good faith led by Jewish Agency Director Natan Sharansky is about equal recognition for all Jewish religious streams in Israel and preserving Israeli democracy.
Despite Ms. Aharoni’s false claim that our protest is a way to prop up a failing liberal Judaism, the facts are otherwise. The liberal movements in fact are growing rapidly.
Her claim that Reform and Conservative Judaism represent only a combined 25% of American Jews is wrong according to the Pew Survey that reports that 35% of the American Jewish community is Reform and 18% are Conservative (http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/)
Her statement is pure nonsense that “Outside of North America, in Israel, Europe, Russia, and Australia, when Jews want to pray they go to an Orthodox synagogue, even if they are not observant in their private life. Reform and Conservative movements are negligible there.”
There are, in fact, vibrant Reform and Conservative movements and synagogues in every country in the world where there is a Jewish community.
Ms. Aharoni’s claim that “the main reason the Kotel is run like an Orthodox synagogue [is because for] the overwhelming majority of Jews worldwide, this is the face of Jewish holy places” is also false.
The Kotel became an orthodox “synagogue” after 1967 because the Chief Rabbi of the army was given jurisdiction over the area and because the Israeli government has handed over the official power of religion to the most extreme and fanatical ultra-Orthodox authorities.
The Kotel area is a national site and we in the non-Orthodox world believe it should be open and accessible to all. After the Kotel Agreement was made, Prime Minister Netanyahu said with pride that the agreement now enabled the Kotel to be “one wall for one people.”
Ms. Aharoni wrote: “By creating an alternative at the Kotel, Judaism’s holiest place, the liberal movements had hoped to create legitimacy in the eyes of Israeli and visiting Jews. For if you can pray this way at the Kotel, why not look up (or establish) a liberal community back home. While I disagree with the Reform and Conservative rejection of the Torah, attracting new membership is certainly their prerogative. But tearing the holiest Jewish site apart is not the way to do it. Questioning the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry only hurts all of us. Bashing the Israeli Orthodox community isn’t what’s going to make the liberal movements great again.”
No – Ms. Aharoni. Our idea is to grant equal access to the Kotel as a national site to the majority of Israelis who do not consider themselves Orthodox and who would like to pray there without interference by the extremist Orthodox authorities.
Ms. Aharoni’s most egregious accusation is her assertion that we in the Reform and Conservative movements reject the Torah. To the contrary, we in the liberal streams believe that women ought to have the right and to be able to read and hear the Torah at the Kotel just like men.
We are not bashing Israeli Orthodoxy, though we vehemently disagree with its claim to be the only true and authentic expression of Judaism. Rather, we insist that Orthodoxy and the liberal movements should have equal rights to pray according to our customs and values at the Kotel. We do not at all wish to supplant Orthodoxy.
Ms. Aharoni says that “Maybe they [Reform Jews] should consider what makes traditional Jewish practice attractive to young Jews and do more of that.”
She ought to realize that extremist Orthodox religious claims that there is only one way to practice Judaism is among of the single greatest turn-offs to the younger generation of Diaspora Jews and is one of the reasons that young Jews are turning away from the State of Israel.
In her op-ed, Ms. Aharoni is called the “co-founder of Women For the Wall.” Her organization is to be distinguished from “Women of the Wall” which has been the driving force for equal rights for women at the holiest site in Judaism for more than 25 years. Ms. Aharoni has nothing to do with that large group of Israeli Jewish women.
Rabbi Josh Weinberg, President, Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA)
Rabbi John Rosove, National Chairperson, Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA)
Note: Rabbi Eric Yoffie has written a powerful, cogent, and true message to the non-Orthodox Jewish world that ought to be read by anyone who loves Israel and cares deeply about its future as both a democratic state and the homeland of the entire Jewish people. [Please share this with others]
Several weeks have passed since “Black Sunday,” the day on which Israel’s cabinet decided to suspend the Western Wall agreement and hand total control over conversions in Israel to the ultra-Orthodox forces in the religious establishment. (The conversion decision was later delayed for 6 months.)
In Israel, the attention of the press and public has turned to other things. But in America, an anguished debate continues throughout the Jewish community. Disbelief and dismay remain the dominant sentiments of U.S. Jewish activists. Community leaders who view themselves as Israel’s staunchest defenders now feel dismissed by an oblivious and uncaring Israeli Prime Minister.
Among engaged non-Orthodox Jews – and the non-Orthodox are 90% of the American Jewish community – the anger is virtually universal, but a consensus has not emerged on what to do with that anger.
How should we give expression to the resentment that we feel? How should we convince Israel that there are times when nurturing the Jewish world takes precedence over coalition politics? On these and other questions, there are as yet no clear answers.
Still, if you listen closely, responses are beginning to take shape. Based on conversations I have had and my own sense of the community, I suggest that American Jews have reached three conclusions about their recent trauma.
- American Jews have given up on Benjamin Netanyahu as the leader of world Jewry, a role that usually belongs as a matter of course to Israel’s Prime Minister.
Netanyahu remains his country’s political leader, responsible for Israel’s economy, foreign relations, and defense. Diaspora Jews will recognize that fact whether they agree with him on these matters or not. But that is not true for other things that the prime minister of the Jewish state has always undertaken to do. As spokesman and defender of the Jewish people, unifier of the Jewish world, champion of Jewish interests, and advocate of Jewish values, Netanyahu is finished, forever.
There is a simple explanation for this. Diaspora Jews have concluded that Netanyahu views the Jewish world – or at least the non-Orthodox part of that world – with contempt.
And while the immediate reason is his suspension of the Kotel agreement, this was, in fact, only the last straw. Netanyahu never visits Reform or Conservative synagogues when travelling abroad and shuns Reform and Conservative institutions, rabbinic ordinations and conventions in Israel. And he stays away from major celebratory events that would suggest a public embrace of the Jewish world’s largest religious movements.
Terrified of offending Haredi sensibilities, the Prime Minister has spent four terms distancing himself from millions of Jews who care deeply about Israel and want only a modicum of respect in return. And now, finally, it can be said that his personal credibility on religious matters with those Jews has been dealt a blow from which he will never recover.
- American Jews will not withhold financial donations to Israel as a means of influencing Israel’s government.
This issue has been raised by Daniel Gordis in a widely-discussed blog post. Gordis affirms the right of American Jews to be heard on religious issues and suggests that the time has come to “use the power of their purse” to force the government’s hand. At the same time, he expresses doubts that they will have “the unity and stomach to use it.”
Rabbi Gordis is to be commended for his tough line, which some Diaspora donors have applauded. But most American Jewish leaders do not find it compelling. And it is not because they don’t have the stomach for it but because they know it won’t work.
Gordis talks of Diaspora “leverage,” but it doesn’t exist.
Israel is a rich country, ranked 21st in per capita GDP, between Italy and Spain, on the OECD list. American Jews withholding contributions might hurt some institutions a bit but would cause barely a blip in Israel’s economy. It would also be seen by most Israelis as petulant and patronizing. And this too: Philanthropic giving, wisely done, is one of the few areas that builds real bridges between American and Israeli Jews, creating opportunities for cooperative projects and face-to-face interaction. Why fiddle with that?
Some American Jews will redirect some of their giving and offer greater support to projects that promote religious pluralism in Israel. That will be welcome, but that is as far as the donor rebellion will go.
- American Jews will expect AIPAC to readjust its priorities and become an advocate for religious freedom in Israel.
The only organization in America that has the clout to change religious realities in Israel is AIPAC, and American Jews are beginning to understand that. AIPAC, after all, is responsible not for the relatively piddling sums that are donated by charitable groups to Israel but for the massive amounts of American military aid that are essential for Israel’s survival.
Traditionally, of course, AIPAC steers clear of Israel’s internal concerns. But that is certain to change. Immediately after the Cabinet decisions on the Kotel and conversion, AIPAC leaders arrived in Jerusalem to warn Netanyahu of a “crisis of faith” between Israeli and American Jews. These leaders denied, of course, that they were exerting pressure. They were there, they insisted, only to offer the Prime Minister their “analysis.”
But the fact is that AIPAC was feeling the heat from their grassroots activists, most of whom are non-Orthodox Jews who are as furious as everyone else at decisions that they see as foolish and gratuitous. And not only that. AIPAC’s leaders know that American support for Israel is not automatic but rests on the values that America and Israel are seen to share.
Every religious crisis in Israel strengthens America’s growing sense that Israel is an ultra-religious place, filled with extremists and fanatics. Religious fanatics are in fact a small minority in Israel, but as a recent survey has demonstrated, most Americans do not know that. And when they think of Israel’s brand of Judaism, it is the Ayatollah brand that comes to mind.
This is unfair, but it is the reality of the moment. And it is also very dangerous for Israel’s cause. And AIPAC members, locally and nationally, understand this very well.
Right now, what is going on in AIPAC is mostly behind-the-scenes whispering. But I am betting that the actions of Mr. Netanyahu will change AIPAC’s culture. And the day will come, very soon, when AIPAC leaders will arrive in Jerusalem not with “analysis” but with demands – for religious freedom, religious change and religious sanity.
As a consequence of the cacophony provoked by the President’s tweets coupled with the introduction of the Republican Senate’s “wealth-care” bill that there is another story with major implications for the unity of the Jewish people and the well-being of Israeli democracy about which many American Jews seem to be unaware.
My colleague and the President of Association of Reform Zionists of America (Rabbi Josh Weinberg) in his weekly email to ARZA members got to the heart of the matter on Friday that expresses concisely what is happening and why it’s important for the American Jewish community (regardless of whether one is Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox) to be aware. Rabbi Weinberg wrote:
“In the world of the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel, rarely has there been a week like this.
On Sunday [June 25], the Government of Israel decided to cancel the already-agreed upon deal to build an egalitarian prayer section at the Kotel, with full signage and administrative authority by the liberal movements, JFNA [Jewish Federations of North America] and WoW [Women of the Wall]. In addition it supported the passing of the conversion bill, which would place control of all conversions in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate and could have serious implications for already existing conversion programs as well as implications for Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jews in particular. Fortunately, as of this writing, the vote on the conversion bill has been stayed for 6 months due to significant pressure on the government from all sides and angles. We must acknowledge the tireless work of Rabbis Rick Jacobs [President of the Union for Reform Judaism in the United States and Canada], Gilad Kariv [Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Reform Judaism], Noa Sattat [Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center], Anat Hoffman [Chair of the Women of the Wall] and many more, who ably represent our [Reform] movement in Israel and abroad.
The week continued with the Jewish Agency for Israel, in an unprecedented move, canceling a dinner with the PM [Benjamin Netanyahu] and taking out ads in the Israeli media openly criticizing the decision beginning a wide spread response from mainstream Jewish organizations breaking stride and expressing their outrage to the PM and his government.
We all know that this essentially is about coalition politics. That PM Netanyahu made a calculated decision to renege on his promises to implement the [Western Wall Egalitarian Prayer Space Agreement] deal and at the same time take action that put his support firmly behind his ultra-Orthodox constituency, ensuring that he’ll last another day. This is neither shocking nor surprising, and the uproar is due to the coinciding events (The reneging on the Kotel agreement and the introduction of the Conversion bill into the Knesset) as well as the leadership of the organized Jewish community feeling the sting of this blatant betrayal.
Let’s be clear this is NOT about two things:
- This is not just about the Diaspora. Many headlines read that this is a slap in the face to Diaspora Jews and it is important to note that this is an insult and a complete rejection of the growing trends of Israeli frustration and rejection of the Chief Rabbinate.* This is not only about Reform and Conservative Jewry. The conversion bill was set to transfer power away from a great deal of modern Orthodox (National Religious) rabbis. This is bigger than just angry Reform and Conservative Jews. We are angry. We’re outraged, hurt and betrayed. But this has now risen to the level of a “Gog and Magog” style battle over who holds the keys to Judaism in the Jewish State. Make no mistake, the Haredim [Ultra-Orthodox religious political parties] see the inroads the liberal movements are making [in Israel], and are (justifiably) feeling threatened. The Prime Minister will do everything he can to maintain his coalition even if it means going back on deals and promises (pittance) compared to risking losing his [governing] Our [non-orthodox] movements are gaining strength and building coalitions – including with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman who is also considerably concerned about the conversion issue [Liberman represents a very large Russian Israeli community among whom are roughly 700,000 individuals who are not Jewish by traditional Jewish legal standards], but will unlikely risk his prize position over this issue.
- Many have asked why the Reform and Conservative movements have not expressed equal outrage over the Occupation [of Israel in the West Bank beyond the Green Line], the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Syria, and the list goes on. Those do continue to be ongoing issues that we care deeply about. Each organization, movement and individual has to engage in the struggles that it can and fight the good fights that it can. אלו ואלו דברי אלוהים חיים. “These and Those are words of the living God.” [A famous principle found in the Talmud said by Rav Shmuel who believed that it is important to find truth in all sides to an argument].
We hope you join us in the struggle and work wherever you are for a Jewish and democratic State.