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Israel News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Note from Israel: A Rabbi Reflects on a Difficult Week

It has been a difficult time in Israel. I have been here in Eretz Yisrael for more than a week now. Arriving just before they found the bodies of Eyal,Gilad and Naftali. When the news of the discovery of their bodies came over the news I was with several colleagues and it was a palpable moment that took our breath away. Israel went into mourning. Jews from the right or left cried with their families. I was surprised how few cars were out in the streets. I was glued to watching the funeral and crying too. And then in the midst of mourning, a young Arab teen burned alive. Retribution by a gang of Jewish thugs; it was cold-blooded murder.

A country and a Jewish people that prides itself on the value “choose life” has within it such depravity – it shocks the nation. The burnt body of Muhammed Abu Khadeir gave Israel another blow and made many realize that the rhetoric that they have espoused has consequences. Words matter and the words of revenge, the cycle of violence represented by this has given Israel pause. This was a reason for more tears for Muhammed, his family and for my Israel who is so conflicted and so battered from every side, even as the Army went door to door on the West Bank searching for the 2 murderers of Eyal, Naftali and Gilad.

IMG_4124But these deeply saddening events have taken place against a background of a barrage of rocket and missile fire from Hamas. Since the agreement of Fatah and Hamas to create their “unity” government, the rockets have fallen through the south with increasing volume. And then yesterday, as Israel called up reservists and gathered at the border of Gaza the rockets reigned down on an ever increasing circle of Israel. Sderot, Beersheva, Ashkelon, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Last night it took me a minute. I heard the sirens. But it didn’t compute. The TV was on. I was watching it and hearing it as if numb and realized this wasn’t just far away but overhead.   Hurriedly I found the safety of the shelter with others in the hotel. Shaken and realizing that Israel has entered a new and frightening phase it was a night of little sleep. All of Israel is vulnerable to the missiles.

Even though I have had many tears this week, I am strengthened in my commitment to Israel by being here. By sharing in the Israel experience, not just in times of quiet and celebration, but in these extraordinarily difficult times. And I know our rabbinic presence in Israel bring strength to Medinat Yisrael.

May Israel be kept in our prayers. For peace outside and within.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA and is President Elect of the CCAR. You can follow her travels this week in Israel @deniseeger #rabbinicmission2Israel. Or @AIPAC

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News Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

Joining the North Carolina Marriage Equality Lawsuit: Living Up to Our Values

I am proud to be a Reform Rabbi.  This week the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) has joined the marriage equality lawsuit in North Carolina.  This past week the CCAR joined the United Church of Christ (UCC) as a plaintiff in overturning the same-sex marriage ban in North Carolina.  This is significant in several ways.

First, the CCAR has supported marriage equality for many years. As early as 1996 the Conference is on record as supporting Civil Marriage Equality. And then again in the year 2000 in at our convention in Greensboro, North Carolina the CCAR went on record to endorse officiation of rabbis at Jewish and civil marriages.  So it is fitting that we join this lawsuit in North Carolina.

Secondly, the CCAR and our Pacific region (PARR) have been involved in marriage equality cases in California, Washington, New Mexico, Massachusetts and the Windsor case at the Federal level. However, we have not been the plaintiffs in these cases.  Instead we filed friend of the court briefs as a religious group whose religious rights were being denied.

But with the case in North Carolina we are actually suing the state as the co-plaintiff.  This is taking an important step forward in our advocacy and support for marriage equality.  One of the things that makes this case so unique among the marriage equality lawsuits that have been filed around the country is that this one hinges on the rights of clergy to perform gay and lesbian weddings.  The North Carolina law specifically forbids clergy from performing even a commitment ceremony let alone a legal wedding, and imposes penalties on clergy who do so.

Sacred Encounter Cover 3Many Reform rabbis have led their communities to embrace and welcome LGBTQ Jews into their communities and have been proud to perform the first weddings in their states as marriage equality has become legal.  I had the honor in California in June of 2008 when I performed the first wedding of plaintiffs on the steps of the Beverly Hills Court House. And this past week, our colleagues, Jonathan Biatch and Dan Danson had the honor of performing some of the first lesbian and gay weddings in Wisconsin, the newest state to welcome marriage equality!

I rejoice that the Reform Rabbinate is taking a lead in this case, supporting our North Carolina rabbis, and living up to our stated values of full equality, justice and inclusion of the LGBT community!  And you should be too!

If you want to read more about the history of the LGBT equality and Reform Judaism, read further in the new offering from CCAR PRESS,  The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality,  ed. Rabbi Lisa Gruschow, Ph.D.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami and serves as President Elect of the CCAR.

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CCAR Convention Rabbis

The Leaders of Leaders

Rabbi Harry Danziger

L’dor vador.  Generation to generation.  I never understood the opening of Pirki Avot more than when we honor and celebrate our colleagues who have been 50 years in the rabbinate.

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the  elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.

At the Shacharit services the first morning of our conference, we honor those who have reached the milestone moment of 50 years in the rabbinate.  I always tear up as they are called to Torah along with their spouses as we honor theses rabbinic families. The rabbis and their spouses, these leaders have given of themselves to bring Torah to the world.  They have taught and comforted and lifted up the Jewish people and built bridges to the non-Jewish world.

This year “my rabbi” was celebrated for his 50 years as a rabbi. Rabbi D, as I always still lovingly call him, read Torah this year for his classmates ordained by the College-Institute in 1964.  Rabbi Harry Danziger, rabbi emeritus of Temple Israel in Memphis, TN taught me, encouraged me, helped me, and mentored me to become the rabbi I am today.  Always embracing me with motivation was his beloved partner in life, Jeanne Danziger. It was their direct encouragement that helped nurture me through my teens and college years to consider becoming a rabbi and urging me to apply to the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

The HUC-JIR Class of 1964 at #CCAR14
The HUC-JIR Class of 1964 at #CCAR14

Rabbi Danziger’s leadership of our congregation and the Memphis Jewish community and his work on interfaith relationships was always a model for me of the possibilities that would be available. His leadership of our Conference as president of the CCAR also showed me the absolute necessity of rabbis supporting rabbis.  His care and leadership led our Conference through a critical period with his usual deliberate judgement and diligence and menschlikite, which to me always beams through his bright smile and open heart.

As President-Elect of the Conference, Rabbi D continues to model for me the best of being a leader, a rabbi, and a caring spouse and parent.  I am grateful for his many kindnesses to me.  And that here in the safe and supportive space of our CCAR Convention, we can honor those rabbis who came before us, who raised up many disciples and taught us to protect and uplift the Torah.

Rabbi Denise Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami and is President-Elect of the CCAR.

Read Rabbi Harry Danziger’s reflections on his 50 years in the rabbinate.

Categories
Ethics General CCAR Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

An Historic Day for Equality

Today is a true historic day! A moment when you can feel the chains of bondage breaking. The Supreme Court has ruled that DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, is dead. The Gay and Lesbian married couples cannot be denied federal rights and benefits. And Proposition 8, the hateful ballot proposition in California that went into affect in November 2008 taking away the right to marry is also history. The court ruled that the people who sponsored Prop 8 who took the case to court when the State of California Governor and Attorney General refused to sponsor the court case, had no standing to do so. Thus Prop 8 which was declared void and unconstitutional by a lower court ruling is just that unconstitutional.

While the Supreme Court avoided ruling on a sweeping marriage equality platform across the United States, the ruling means that now in 13 states (including CA) and the District of Columbia where marriage is legal, the Feds must recognize that marriage in the over 1138 rights and benefits and privileges at the Federal level.

The marriage equality fight isn’t over in the United States. There are many places where gay men and lesbians cannot legally wed. And there are 33 states in the US where you can still be fired for being gay! That is why it is time for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to pass the House and Senate. The marriage equality and adoption rights must still be fought state by state.

We aren’t full citizens yet. But today for sure… a little more.

I am grateful to God for this day. A day of blessing for sure. A day where we feel God’s justice showering down upon us and encouraging each of to continue the work of Tikkun Olam-repairing a broken world.

Rabbi Denise Eger is Vice President and President Elect of CCAR.  She is the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami of West Hollywood, CA.  

This blog originally appeared on walking humbly. seeking justice. living with hope.

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General CCAR Passover Pesach Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism

A Real Passover Journey: The Road to Marriage Equality

Rabbi Denise Eger speaking at the rally in Washington, DC.
Rabbi Denise Eger speaking at the rally in Washington, DC.

I just returned from three days in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the beginning of Passover and an important crossroads on the road to freedom for the LGBT community.  The first two days of Passover were momentous because this year’s story outlined in the Haggadah was more personal than ever before.   The Haggadah reminds us to imagine that we went forth out of Egypt ourselves. As I stood on the steps of the Supreme Court on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, the first two mornings of Passover, surrounded many dressed in red  worn for LGBT equality, I knew I was marching out of Egypt.

This year the Supreme Court of the United States heard two important cases about the freedom to marry for gay men and lesbians in our country. On the first morning of Passover, California’s Prop 8 case was heard. This case concerns whether or not Proposition 8 that was passed in November 2008 is legal. In other words, can a majority of voters take away rights from a minority!  Marriage equality was legal in California from June 2008 until the proposition passed in November 2008.  More than 18,000 couples married during that time.  I had the privilege of performing the first marriage in Los Angeles County.

On Wednesday the Court heard Windsor v the United States.  Edie Windsor sued the US for not recognizing her marriage to Thea Speyer. Upon Thea’s death Edie had to pay $363,000 of federal estate tax because the Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA would not recognize her as the legal spouse. Edie knew this was an injustice and wanted to do something about it. She and her partner of over 40 years were married in Canada but the federal government did not recognize their marriage when Thea died.

Our Reform movement has long been an advocate for equal rights for the LGBT community.  The first resolution of support came in 1964 by the then National Federation of Sisterhoods now Women of Reform Judaism, who called for the decriminalization of consensual sexual relations between adults!  In 1984 our then UAHC in a biennial resolution called for federal recognition of domestic partnerships for gay and lesbian couples and equal federal benefits to marriage! And our own CCAR endorsed civil marriage for gay men and lesbians early on in the marriage equality movement in 1996!

But on Tuesday morning as I prepared to speak at the rally on the day the California Prop 8 case was being heard I could feel the wheels of history literally turning.  You could feel it in the young people who turned out to support marriage equality. You could feel it in the older lesbian couples who flew in from Ohio just to be there.  You could feel in the gay dads schlepping their two young children to meet other families just like theirs!  Even when the opposition marched toward the several thousand gathered to support marriage equality-the opposition didn’t stay long.  The National Organization for Marriage and the Catholic Church bused in lots of Catholic high school students to march against marriage equality, many of whom were told they had to go or lose class credit! But the opposition marched toward us and was peaceably turned around by pro-marriage equality activists and the Capitol police. They marched back to their gathering place chanting, “One man, One Woman-only That’s what the Bible says!” I guess they haven’t read the story of Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah!

908758_10151519110782487_2128985697_nAs I took the podium to speak, I looked out on a sea of American flags and rainbow flags and people adorned in red it gave new meaning to the Red Sea! The crowd was so diverse, every race and ethnic group seemed present.  The signs people held aloft –included children of gay and lesbian parents who had homemade signs that proclaimed “Let my moms get married.”  One of my favorites was “Bigotry is not very Christian.”  Other couples had signs proclaiming how long they have been together 7 years-to 40 years to two older gentleman clearly in their 80’s who had been together nearly 60 years. It was very inspiring to be with Americans of every stripe who simply wanted their rights and responsibilities to care for their spouses.   I met a couple one in a wheelchair who had been the first to marry in the West Point Chapel.  Of course one was Jewish!

The scene outside as I spoke was different than the highly structured form and format of a Supreme Court hearing.  Even as some of the conservative justices wondered aloud if our country was ready for marriage equality, calling “it an experiment that hasn’t been around as long as the internet” it was clear from the number of years many of the couples has been together that gay “marriage” has been around forever. What hasn’t been around is the legal recognition and the protections embedded in the legal definition of marriage.

As I spoke about the Passover story and the themes of the holiday from degradation to dignity, from oppression to freedom the crowd understood that it was their story too.  Nine justices were deciding at the very moment and all were wondering if their hearts would be hardened to the arguments or whether finally LGBT couples who wish to marry will be able to do so.  In June we will find out how the Court will rule. So I am counting the days along with counting the omer.

Tuesday evening I had the privilege of co-leading a Prop 8 Passover Seder at the Equality Center at the Human Rights Campaign building. Formerly the B’nai Brith headquarters it was a poetic spatial affirmation between the Jewish commitment to tikkun olam that used to take place in those very rooms and the continuing work for equality and justice that is done now in the same space! The Passover Seder was organized by a former Religious Action Center Legislative Assistant, Joanna Blotner who now works for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights.  Joanna grew up in our movement. She worked at HRC for several years after her time at the RAC. She is a straight ally. But she and a group of friends organized an amazing Seder with an inspiring Haggadah dedicated to equality for LGBT people and intertwined with the story of our Exodus from slavery!   More than 115 primarily young people in their 20’s and 30’s celebrated Passover together and talked about the meaning of equality, the meaning of liberty and the meaning of tikkun olam in the context of the Passover story.  I don’t know whether I was more moved by leading the Seder or being with these inspiring young leaders like Joanna!

There is no stopping now.  Whatever way the court rules (and pundits are having a field day trying to figure out from the questions how they will decide) the arc of justice is bending rapidly.  Just see the cover of the recent Time magazine. Watch the push for marriage equality in places like Minnesota, Rhode Island and Illinois.

And yet there are plenty of places where the LGBT community faced continued bigotry in the form of legislation. You can still be fired in 33 states in the United States for simply being gay. And in Arizona there is a terribly hateful “bathroom bill” aimed at transgender people.  And of course young people are still being bullied for perceived sexual orientation on school yards everywhere.

I have hope. This Passover gave me hope that we are on our way to the Promised Land. I have hope that the court will restore marriage equality in California. I have hope that DOMA will be declared unconstitutional. I have hope that the march to full equality is in full swing.  And I hope you all will actively work toward these freedoms in your community and work to actively help your young people learn how they can make a difference too.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood’s Reform Synagogue. She is currently President Elect of the CCAR.

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Ethics Israel News

And Let Them Make a Sanctuary: Remembering Rabbi David Hartman

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This week we have buried a giant of Judaism.  Rabbi David Hartman, z”l, died on Rosh Chodesh Adar and was buried in Jerusalem.  Rabbi Hartman was my teacher and the founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute where I have been privileged to study over the last number of years.  Rabbi Hartman was a firebrand! An Orthodox rabbi who was anything but orthodox in his thought and deeds.  He challenged your mind and the status quo. He was passionate about learning and critical thinking.  He was demanding of his students and often said provocative things to rile up the conversation. He demanded excellence. He was a force to be reckoned with.

Rabbi Hartman had made aliyah to Israel in 1971 with his wife and five children.  He had been a pulpit rabbi in Montreal and the Bronx.  He had attended Yeshiva University, been ordained a rabbi and had a Ph.D. in philosophy.  He was a prolific writer including works of philosophy and theology such as his book about his teacher and philosopher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik; Hartman’s own theology in “A Living Covenant” and two important works about the great philosopher and legalist, Maimonides.  His latest books,  The God Who Hate Lies, and From Defender to Critic: The Search for a New Jewish Self show his own increasing impatience with the Orthodox status quo and its increasing hostility to change and innovation that Hartman found among the rabbis of the Talmud!

Perhaps some of Rabbi’s Hartman’s greatest gifts were his daring in creating an Institute that helped rabbis of all denominations become better rabbis, educators become better educators and creating a space for scholars to explore their learning by writing and research. Studying at his feet a Reform Rabbi like me was able to encounter an Orthodox colleague and share a page of Talmud together while he challenged us to think critically of our past and prepare for a Jewish future.  The Shalom Hartman Institute is a special kind of sanctuary. It is a place of true learning and encounter with God and our tradition.

David Hartman loved rabbis.  He loved rabbis of all sorts.  But he had no time for rabbinic pomposities. Instead he tried to make Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon as well as Rambam engage in a dialogue with each of his students.  As a Reform rabbi I always was amazed that Rabbi Hartman eventually adopted a position long held by our movement-whether it was his growing appreciation for the contributions of women to the tradition or his demand that all Jews matter and the chief rabbinate of Israel had it completely wrong to exclude Reform and Conservative Jews.  Hartman was ortho-prax but Reform in his outlook as Judaism lived in the 21st century.

He was an ardent Zionist who loved Israel and understood that it like all nations are a work in progress.  He conveyed that to us his students whether we were Jewish or of other faiths.  Remarkably, Hartman encouraged not only intra-faith dialogue but interfaith dialogue in the land of Israel.  Perhaps more common in North America but a rarity in Israel.

Philosophers and teachers are not usually institution builders.  But Rabbi David Hartman did so and his son Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman leads and builds the imagesinstitution his father began.  The Shalom Hartman Institute is a special place of Jewish learning and life that has changed my rabbinate but more importantly changed me as a Jew. My learning there has deepened my own faith in these troubling times. It has made me a more ardent Zionist, even with Israel’s challenges, successes and failures. My studies at the Machon has deepened my love for the experiment we call the Jewish Democratic State of Israel and allowed me the opportunity to see it in its fullness.  My studies at the Machon have widened my circle of rabbinic colleagues and challenged me to think more openly about the  idea that the Jewish people has always had many different kind of Jews.  There are many voices and many paths through and to Torah.  This is a message of my teacher Rabbi Hartman and the influence that he has had on so many. He built a unique kind of sanctuary, a place where regardless of denominational ties, we could be in concert with one another.

This week’s Torah portion is T’rumah in the book of Exodus.  It describes the instructions for building the Tabernacle in the desert. God instructs Moses to tell the children of Israel to bring their gifts forward so they can build a sanctuary for God.  The Torah portion outlines the many kind of gifts, gold and silver, yarn and fabrics that are the materials that will make up the Tent that will be the place of Divine dwelling.  The sacrifices will be eventually be made there. The ark of the covenant which will be fashioned from all of the materials donated will hold the recently given Ten Commandments. And it is this exact space between the cherubim that God’s presence will dwell and speak to Moses, Aaron and the Children of Israel.

This Tent of Meeting is in some ways like the Machon that Rabbi David Hartman built.  It is a place to encounter God and our tradition. It is a place made up of the many gifts of its scholars and teachers and students.  It is a place to have an encounter with the Divine Holy One through our texts and our colleagues and Eretz Yisrael.  The Shalom Hartman Institute has become truly an Ohel Mo’ed-a Tent of Meeting, a place to meet with teachers, Talmud and Torah and theology and a place where the disciples of Rabbi David Hartman gather to engage with each other.  I am proud to be one of those students who is a disciple of Hartman- never satisfied with the status quo, ready to challenge any kind of orthodoxy, even my own. May Rabbi David Hartman’s memory and teachings continue to inspire us and may his work continue to be a blessing to us and to our world.