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
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.
My book “Why Judaism Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to His Children and the Millennial Generation” is a common sense guide and road map for a generation of young men and women who find Jewish orthodoxy, tradition, issues, and beliefs impenetrable in 21st Century society. By illustrating how the tenets of Judaism still apply in our modern world, I offer direction not only to my own sons but to the sons and daughters of Reform Jews everywhere. My sons, Daniel and David, have written the Afterword. The book will be published on September 26 by Jewish Lights Publishing (a division of Turner Publishing).
Why Judaism Matters -Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation
Rabbi John Rosove
6 x 9, 240 pp, Paperback, 978-1-68336-705-5
Why Judaism Matters: Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation – Kindle edition by Rabbi John Rosove.
Jared Kushner was raised in a traditional Jewish home with, allegedly, traditional Jewish values. However, as this exhaustive article reveals (it was written by Alec MacGillis and co-published with the New York Times Magazine), Jared never understood that among the most important purposes of Torah law and rabbinic legal tradition is to curb the acquisitive instinct and to instill a sense of justice and compassion in every Jew and in the Jewish community as a whole.
I suggest that whatever Jewish education Jared received, he learned little despite being observant today, and his teachers, despite what I would imagine were noble efforts, failed to instill in him the moral and ethical spirit of Judaism and the Jewish people.
As someone who takes seriously the rabbinic principle Kol Yisrael acharei zeh la-zeh (Jews are responsible for one another), when learning of stories like this one I feel enormous shame.
The article focuses on the following story line:
Tenants in more than a dozen Baltimore-area rental complexes complain about a property owner who they say leaves their homes in disrepair, humiliates late-paying renters and often sues them when they try to move out. Few of them know that their landlord is the president’s son-in-law.
As we walked the halls of the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Jerusalem School for students grades kindergarten through 12th grade (the school was founded in 1998 with 20 students and today has 696 students enrolled), the students were passing together between classes, laughing and talking as one might expect in any high school in Israel or America. But this is a different kind of school and there was much more than meets the eye here.
The students all appeared alike, but this is not a normal secular Israeli high school. It is a bi-lingual school, an experiment in bringing the diversity of students that live in Jerusalem together to learn about each other, to hear each other’s narratives, to discover the beauty in each other’s respective cultures, to work through stereotypes and prejudices, and to become friends and partners in a shared society.
The school is a microcosm of Jerusalem’s urban diversity and has students coming from Jewish and Arab neighborhoods all over East and West Jerusalem and includes Arab Christian, Muslim, Armenian Christian, Druze, Mizrahi, Ashkenazi, and Ethiopian Jews, and increasingly more religiously observant Jewish students.
The high school is like all good academic Israeli secular high schools, but Yad b’Yad includes what the directors describe as “a unique and supportive environment as our students become teenagers and prepare for life as adults after school, with dialogue groups, expressive arts, volunteering, and extensive civic studies.”
In the elementary school, all classes are taught by one Jewish and one Arab teacher. The kids learn Hebrew and Arabic, and the reality of racism and violence that characterize so much of the contact between Israelis and Palestinians does not exist here. It is what Mohammed Darawshe, the Director of Givat Haviva, told us is “a perfect model of a school in a shared society.”
Yes, Palestinian Arab citizens and Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have different perspectives and experiences than do Israeli Jewish citizens. But they talk and argue and listen and become friends.
I was moved deeply when I heard that during tense times such as the recent knife terror and the crossing points between East and West Jerusalem closed, Palestinian students living in East Jerusalem could not get home from school that is located in the southern area of West Jerusalem within sight of the Israeli neighborhood of Gilo beyond which is Bethlehem. So, what did they do? The Israeli Jewish students invited the East Jerusalem Palestinian students to stay in their homes until the checkpoints opened again. This could last days to weeks.
The school’s founders and leadership describe its mission as follows:
“Our Mission at Hand in Hand is to create a strong, inclusive, shared society in Israel through a network of Jewish-Arab integrated bilingual schools and organized communities. We currently operate integrated schools and communities in six locations with 1,578 Jewish and Arab students and more than 8000 community members. Over the next ten years, we aim to create a network of 10-15 schools supported and enhanced by community activities, altogether involving more than 20,000 Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens. Jews and Arabs – learning together, living together – and inspiring broad support for social inclusion and civic equality in Israel.”
Yad b’Yad is yet another grassroots effort to bring peace to the land of Israel/Palestine. Truly a bright light in our journey as a Temple Israel of Hollywood Leadership mission to Israel.
See the Yad b’Yad website for more information – https://www.handinhandk12.org/inform/why-we-exist
Note: To see the art I describe below, go to my Facebook page –
It isn’t graffiti. It’s street art, and there’s a lot of it in Tel Aviv’s Florentine neighborhood, a run-down transitional section of the seaside city that attracts hipsters, art lovers, and Israelis of every background and origin.
The art is painted liberally on the sides of buildings, in doorways, on lampposts, and on virtually anything stable in the street. This art tells many stories. Most of it is unsigned.
Niro Taub, an artist, and a graduate of the Faculty of Visual Communications at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design was our guide. As we walked the streets, he spoke of the combined currents of history, culture and society, the symbols that are uniquely Israeli and part of western popular culture.
Below are three examples:
The first is a Hebrew inscription over an apartment building door that contains the first three words of Psalms 137:5 (“Im esh’ka-chech Yerushalayim… – Should I forget you, Jerusalem,…”).
The Biblical verse continues (vs 5 and 6): “…May my right hand wither. May my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not recall you if I do not set Jerusalem above my chief joy.” (Translation by Robert Alter)
The second line reads “Zeh big’lal Tel Aviv” (It’s because of Tel Aviv).
Together, the Hebrew (written in a Biblical font) is this: “Should I forget you, Jerusalem, it’s because of Tel Aviv!”
The calligrapher/artist simply and poignantly focused on the wide chasm between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The ancient and holy city of Jerusalem is inherently conservative, constrained and fraught with tension between Haredi and non-traditional Jews, between Palestinian Arabs and Israelis, political right and political left. The modern largely secular Jewish city of Tel Aviv is far more laid back. It is alive with art, music, restaurants, galleries, cafes, high-rise coastal hotels stretching from Jaffa to the Tel Aviv port, and a beach community that draws thousands of runners, bicyclists, and strollers, young, middle age and old, every day of the year.
The second photo is a mural of a huge black horse (notice the small car at its base on the street) that was painted by an unknown artist on the side of this large building in the middle of one night. How he/she did it is a curiosity. We wondered what it might mean, but that is part of the appeal. The art is meant to engage the viewer to muse in one’s own thoughts and come to one’s own conclusions.
The third mural depicts seven internationally famed musicians, songwriters and singers who died from a drug overdose at age 27. Included in this rendering is Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Amy Winehouse. The rubbed-out figure at the far right is the mural’s artist.
This street art creativity is, in my view, an Israeli bright light that’s not widely known or appreciated in the west, and it ought to be.