ARZA Statement on the Kotel Crisis and Conversion Bill: Two Attempts to Disenfranchise Non-Orthodox Jews

On June 25, the Israeli cabinet capitulated to extremist pressure and froze its agreed-upon plan to develop an egalitarian worship space at the Western Wall (Ha-Kotel Ha-Ma’aravi). On the same day, it advanced a bill that would grant the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate exclusive control over conversions in Israel. 
 
ARZA condemns both of these outrageous actions which, if allowed to stand, will cement the power of the ultra-Orthodox minority in Israel at the expense of Jewish unity and pluralism, undermine religious freedom in the State of Israel, and open a schism between Israel and world Jewry.
 
ARZA and the Reform Jewish movement celebrated the January 2016 agreement that promised investing in and constructing an egalitarian prayer space at Robinson’s Arch, just south of the existing Western Wall plaza, that would be equal in size and significance to the traditional Kotel prayer space. This was a milestone for compromise and unity; in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s words, it endorsed “One Wall for One People.”
 
Unfortunately, the compromise (that included the ultra-Orthodox Administrator of the Western Wall Plaza) was rejected by other religious extremists, who opposed any proposal that legitimates non-Orthodox Judaism. In the days following the agreement, extremist officials and the publicly funded Office of the Chief Rabbinate littered Jerusalem with placards calling for the “liberation” of the Kotel from the “demonic” machinations of liberal Jews, and threatened a coalition crisis for the government.
 
Prime Minister Netanyahu and his ruling coalition government’s succumbing to ultra-Orthodox pressure by halting the implementation of the Western Wall compromise is a tragic selling-out and betrayal of non-Orthodox Jews for the sake of political expedience, as vocal critics on the right and left have maintained. Reneging on the Kotel compromise is an abandonment of the principle of klal yisrael (Jewish unity) and a denial of the legitimacy of the majority of American Jews’ religious expression.
 
It is also a rejection of Zionism itself, which is premised on the idea of collective Jewish peoplehood as expressed by the Jewish state. These two decisions give preference to one extremist interpretation of Judaism over that of the majority, exacerbating a disturbing antidemocratic movement in Israel where religious freedom is endangered.
 
Some commentators have called these bills the trigger for American Jewry to abandon Israel. As the voice of Reform Zionism in America, we refuse this option: In fact, the reason for our outrage is precisely because of our movement’s deep and unending commitment to Israel. We fear that the extremist ideology expressed in the government’s action against the Kotel compromise and the conversion bill will drive Jews—especially the younger generation—away from Israel. We will continue to express our Zionist love for Israel by working for an Israel that reflects the vibrant tapestry of Jewish expression, free from religious coercion.
 
We call upon the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resume their commitment to establishing a Kotel for all, and to reject the conversion bill that would hand more unfettered powered to the ultra-Orthodox political parties and Chief Rabbinate. We call upon synagogues in every religious stream, Federations, and all Jews to demand that Israel enact measures to be open and inclusive to all forms of Jewish expression in the face of antidemocratic forces from within the government and society at large.
 
Israel must remain true to its founding Zionist vision expressed in its Declaration of Independence:  “[Israel] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”
 
It is a sad irony that in the 21st century, Israel remains one of the few remaining places where Jews cannot express their religious freedom. For the sake of Zion, we cannot remain silent; even in the face of this betrayal, we remain committed in love to building Israel based on our people’s ideals of freedom, inclusion, and democracy.                  
Rabbi John Rosove                                      Rabbi Josh Weinberg
ARZA Board Chair                                        ARZA President        

Statement by Jewish Agency Chairman Sharansky on the Suspension of the Western Wall Agreement

Note: Unfortunately, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has caved in to the Ultra-Religious Political parties that are part of his ruling government coalition. It is now up to world Jewry in support of Women of the Wall, the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities, and the Jewish Federations of North America all of which were engaged in good faith with Natan Sharansky, a hero of the Jewish people, to find a way to unify the Jewish people at the holiest site in Judaism, the Western Wall (i.e. The Kotel). The Ultra-Orthodox parties wishes cannot stand.
The following is Natan Sharansky’s statement from Jerusalem this morning:
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL – Chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel Natan Sharansky has released the following statement:
 
“As Chairman of The Jewish Agency for Israel, and on behalf of our partners, I must express my deep disappointment at today’s decision by the Government of Israel to suspend the implementation of its own decision to establish a dignified space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.
 
“Five years ago, the Prime Minister asked me to lead a joint effort to bring about a workable formula that would transform the Western Wall into, in his own words, ‘one wall for one people.’
 
“After four years of intense negotiations, we reached a solution that was accepted by all major denominations and was then adopted by the government and embraced by the world’s Jewish communities.
 
“Today’s decision signifies a retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult.
 
“The Jewish Agency nevertheless remains staunchly committed to that work and to the principle of one wall for one people.”
 

For my congregation and me this is personal

Galit and Me

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.

Dear Friends,

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.

Yours,

Rabbi Gilad Kariv and  Rabbi Galit Cohen Kedem

 

 

The Torah is Political – Rabbis, Jews and Synagogues ought to be too – Follow-up

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.”

Respectfully,

Rabbi John Rosove

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Proud to be Zionists

The Board of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) representing 1.5 million American Reform Jews met this week in Brooklyn, New York for our Annual Board meeting.
 
One of our chief strategic concerns is to embrace as Reform and Progressive Zionists the values articulated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence:
 
“The State of Israel will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants;…based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel… ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex, guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture, safeguard the Holy Places of all religions and be faithful to the principles of the charter of the United Nations.”
 
ARZA supports towards this end a negotiated two-states for two peoples resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and our Israeli Reform organizational counterparts (The Israel Movement for Reform Judaism and the Israel Religious Action Center) advocates in the Knesset, the courts, and in the public domain religious pluralism, diversity, and equality for all Israeli citizens, Jewish or Arab.
 
See our ARZA Website for our positions and rapid responses to recent developments in Israel – http://www.arza.org
 
Rabbi Josh Weinberg (President of ARZA) and I (Chairman of the National ARZA Board) and our Board representing American Progressive Zionist Reform leadership across the country are proud to be Zionists.