Categories
Israel

His Mother Wanted Him to Be a Rabbi, But He Went to Build a Kibbutz

With the World Zionist Congress 2020 elections underway, and a robust slate of Reform candidates on the Reform slate, American Jews have the ability to vote for the Jewish future of Israel and help set policies regarding key institutions that support global Jewish life and which allocate nearly $1 billion annually to support Israel and World Jewry and to invest in a Zionism that sustains an Israel that is Jewish, democratic, and a free society that upholds equality of religion, gender, race, and ethnicity.

Here, we share the thoughts of Matityahu Sperber—one of the many diverse members of the Reform Jewish community in Israel—who shares his desire for liberal Jewish Democratic values to remain at the heart of the Jewish State.

I grew up in and was an active youth member of Temple Israel of Jamaica in Queens, New York.  I was president of the youth group and president of LIFTY, but the most significant experiences of my Jewish/Zionist education were as a camper, staff, and faculty member at Kutz Camp, and the year I spent as a student at the Hebrew University. There, I was profoundly influenced by my studies with a recent new immigrant, Rabbi David Hartman.  It was during that year that I made the decision to make aliyah and to make my contribution to the development of the Jewish Democratic State. I hoped then, and still hope today, that the liberal, progressive Jewish values that were so much a part of my Jewish upbringing would find their place in the developing State of Israel and that I could make a small contribution to that process.

I was privileged to be able to be part of the original settlement group to Kibbutz Yahel: Garin Arava, and arrived there together with my wife Laura in 1977. Together we joined with the Israeli garinim in a bold attempt to create a living and all-encompassing community that would be based on those same Jewish, liberal, democratic, and socialistic values. Add to this the challenges of creating a new, agriculturally-based settlement in the distant Arava desert, and we had clearly signed on for a major challenge.  We are still struggling to grow and to attract people, who share our vision of a modern Reform Jewish Community, but much has been accomplished and we are optimistic regarding Yahel’s future.

Most of my energy has been spent within the Yahel community, developing it both socially, spiritually, and economically. But, I have also found the time and opportunity to make my contribution in the region—the Southern Arava, as well as in JAFI, the JNF, IRAC, and the Israeli Reform Movement. I believe deeply that these organizations represent the best of those same liberal Jewish Democratic values that I want so much to be at the heart of the Jewish State.

In the last year most of my energy in the Reform Movement has been spent leading the Movement’s efforts to create its first permanent summer camp facility with year round programming. I know from experience how much this can contribute to the development of the lay and rabbinic leadership that is needed to strengthen the Israel Reform Movement’s future.

The last five years have found me in the trenches fighting the good fight in the halls and board rooms of the KKL/JNF. From my position as the chair of Himanuta, the company in charge of all land purchasing, the management of $150 million dollars of rental properties, and the development of $1.8 billion dollars of real estate, I have a unique opportunity to bring our Movement’s values to these important activities.

The issues relevant to the Reform Movement that have kept me busy include:

  • Use of properties owned by Himanuta in East Jerusalem and the old city.
  • Properties occupied by Bedouin in the Negev and Galilee.
  • Limiting the purchasing of land to areas that are part of the widest consensus of the Jewish People.
  • Use of Himanuta’s and the KKL’s properties for the benefit of all of Israel’s citizens.

As Israel has continued its movement to the right in the last five years, the battles in the KKL between our center/left coalition, (which has a small majority), and the right wing have become much more intense. Unfortunately, in the last year, rare are the moments when all the representatives function together in the name of all of the Jewish people. I hope and believe that the results of the current election to the World Zionist Congress will leave the Reform Movement in a position to join with the other liberal and progressive political forces to maintain and strengthen Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State that we can all be proud of. 


Matityahu Sperber grew up in the United States and made aliyah more than 40 years ago. He is a founding member of Yahel, the first Reform Kibbutz, in the Arava desert. Learn more about the World Zionist Congress elections, and vote through March 11, 2020.

Categories
Books Israel

Book Excerpt: “Deepening the Dialogue: Jewish-Americans and Israelis Envisioning the Jewish-Democratic State”

CCAR Press is honored to have published Deepening the Dialogue: Jewish-Americans and Israelis Envisioning the Jewish-Democratic State, edited by Rabbi Stanley M. Davids and Rabbi John L. Rosove.

Using the vision embedded in Israel’s Declaration of Independence as a template, this new anthology presents a unique and comprehensive dialogue between North American Jews and Israelis about the present and future of the State of Israel. Deepening the Dialogue is available for purchase from CCAR Press.

Below, read an excerpt by Rabbi Noa Sattath and Rabbi Judith Schindler, the book’s consulting editors.

“Overcoming the Loneliness We Feel: A Way Forward Together”

Rabbi Noa Sattath, Israel

Progressive activists in Israel are facing tremendous challenges—hostile governments, complex bureaucracies, and ongoing conflict.

Over the past decade we have been feeling increasingly isolated. The right wing in Israel receives massive, growing support from Jewish (and Evangelical) constituencies in North America. While this conservative support is growing exponentially, support from American liberals is declining. The majority of the North American Jewish community has liberal political and religious views and  self-identifies as “pro-Israel.”1 Yet American Jewish support for progressive activities in Israel is diminishing. With current extreme anti-democratic trends in Israel,2 many Jews are struggling to balance their liberal political and religious positions with their support for Israel. Too often, this struggle leads to liberals disengaging from Israel and Israeli progressive activists and organizations losing support—moral, political, and financial support.

In order to break the isolation, I believe we need to redefine the meaning of “pro-Israel.” If “pro-Israel” only means embracing every Israeli government policy, too many liberal Jews will not be able to identify themselves as such. We need to define “pro-Israel” as supporting Israel’s Declaration of Independence, supporting the Israel that lives up to the dreams of its founders, and supporting those Israeli organizations and activists that share our progressive values and work to protect them.

Anti-democratic trends around the world use fear to enable national leaders to gain more power, incite people against minorities, and attack gender equality—all in an attempt to sustain or restore a power structure that will preserve the supremacy of old elites. These trends appear not only in Israel, but in North America, Europe, and elsewhere around the world.

Recent years have put extensive demands on us progressives on both sides of the ocean as we have strived to advance our Jewish vision of just societies. Facing tremendous backlash, we have had to work in more focused, strategic, and innovative ways.

In Israel, we have experienced this anti-democratic trend for almost a decade. Our opponents on the Israeli right are working to build an illiberal, racist Israel that continues to occupy land on which millions of Palestinians live. They do so with the support of elements within the North American Jewish community, support of which the progressive camp can only dream. The settlements are backed by North American Jewish donors, and almost no settlement could survive without North American support. With billions of dollars, Sheldon Adelson finances the most widely read newspaper in Israel, which is distributed for free and supports the current government positions. Our political opponents are working in Israel and around the world with North American Jewish support—while portraying and imposing Jewish orthodoxy as the only authentic Jewish religious expression.

The majority of the North American Jewish community, which is liberal both politically and religiously, is increasingly pulling back from Israel. It is quite overwhelming to compare the large impact of right-wing North American groups to the decreasing impact of their liberal counterparts. It is one of the core reasons for the continued decrease of power of the progressive camp. It is a vicious cycle: because significant elements within the North American community increase their support of the anti-democratic camp, the Israeli government takes more positions and actions against the egalitarian, democratic camp. In response, North American liberal Jews withdraw even further, thus strengthening the anti-democratic camp, which then leads to more hawkish Israeli policies, and so on. As progressive activists in Israel, we sometimes feel abandoned by our North American brothers and sisters. We must break this cycle. 

There are two narratives of the situation in Israel and Palestine that dominate the discourse in North America. One is the narrative of Israel’s public diplomacy: Israel can do no wrong; the IDF is the most moral army in the world; there is no solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict; the stagnation of the process toward a two-state solution is the fault of the Palestinians; and the conflict within Israel is either nonexistent or not important. Reform Jews, and especially younger Reform Jews, are buying into this narrative less and less.

The second narrative claims that there is a huge moral problem with Israel’s oppressive treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and that the only appropriate response is boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). Reform Jews, and especially younger Reform Jews, are buying into this narrative more and more.

Our movement works for social justice in North America and Israel. It is up to us to build a third narrative—one that acknowledges the moral challenges, and one that is determined to arrive at a solution building on a more intentional and strategic partnership between North American and Israeli progressive activists.

As liberal Zionists, our goal is for our society to be “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6). We aspire to achieve the prophetic Jewish vision of a repaired world and a just society. We want more than to be measured in comparison to our neighboring countries or to other countries violating human rights.

Discussing social justice questions means to scrutinize and analyze complex power structures, traditions, and belief systems. As demonstrated in the chapters of this book, there are multiple and multilayered social justice questions to be discussed both in and in regard to Israel. Many North American Jews pull away from Israel because they are disappointed by its government policies—and because they shy away from an overwhelmingly complicated issue. Speaking about addressing the social justice questions in Israel, one cannot hope for simple, instant solutions. But this must not discourage us.

Many progressives in North America have a nuanced understanding of gender equality and racial justice and feel a deep commitment to work toward the establishment of these values in Israel. They understand that this will require sustained, long-term efforts. We, together with our North American Reform Movement, are looking at systems of injustice that will take immense labor and time to transform. It will take decades. However, every time we cannot provide any answer to the question “What do we do about Israel?” we feed into a growing sense of frustration and disconnect. We need to find a balance between implementing the necessary short-term fixes and our work toward longer-term structural and institutional change.

Rabbi Judith Schindler, United States

The challenge of Lilla Watson, Aboriginal activist and artist, in doing the work of justice, often echoes in my mind. “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time,” she said. “But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”3 Our redemption as American Jews and as Israelis is tied to one another.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence marked a monumental step toward redemption. After millennia of exile, Jews finally have an internationally recognized home. The Declaration of Independence calls upon the Diaspora to “rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel” in their immigration and upbuilding, and to support them in their struggle to realize that “redemption.”

As American Jews and Israelis, we celebrate that redemption and the greatest political freedom that we have known since our last time of sovereignty almost two thousand years ago. The achievements of our communities inspire awe. Yet we labor tirelessly and continuously to ensure justice, equality, and safety for ourselves and for our neighbors. We do so because the memories of being the oppressed “other”—victims of discrimination and violence—have remained an integral part of the Jewish collective consciousness.

Those of us working for social justice in American cities are confronting a harsh reality of increasing anti-Zionism. As I teach about Judaism and address social issues—from refugees to racism, from countering antisemitism to expanding affordable housing—I have learned to expect questions or comments about Israel and its treatment of Palestinians. Sometimes the inquiry is motivated by a desire to increase understanding and engage in dialogue. Sometimes the remark is accusatory: “How can you stand for justice and stand for Israel?” Sometimes the statement is said on a stage at a rally, vigil, or event and before hundreds or thousands. The phrase “Israel’s oppression of Palestinians” is woven into a litany of other social wrongs, leaving me feeling both defensive and wounded.

As Americans, we regularly face a decontextualized condemnation of Israel in our newspapers, on our social media feeds, and in the streets where we strive to support others. Admired American social justice authors and leaders such as Michelle Alexander, Alice Walker, and Angela Davis publicly decry the Palestinian plight, often based on an unbalanced or one-sided assessment. We struggle to respond effectively.

What can we say to underscore Israel’s complex history and capture our disagreement with some of Israel’s policies, while still supporting the Jewish state we love? What can we do to affirm our commitment to global social justice without fueling the fires of anti-Zionism or antisemitism that threaten us all? Former member of Knesset and famous Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky offered clarity for our dialogue in noting the three d’s of the new antisemitism of which we need to be continually cognizant: demonization, double standards, and delegitimization.4 While criticizing Israel is not in itself antisemitic, antisemitism often uses criticism of the Israeli government as concealment for its true intentions. As liberal Zionists, we see the moral crisis in the ongoing Israeli military presence in the West Bank, and we seek to bring peace and justice to both Israelis and Palestinians. We can hold both these complex truths in our activism.

The attack on equality in Israel is not only aimed at the non-Jew; it is also aimed at non-orthodox Jews. In November 2017, when images of our Reform Jewish American and Israeli leaders being assaulted for carrying Torah scrolls to the Western Wall plaza appeared in our media, a Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter called me for an interview and tried to badger me into saying that Israel’s leaders had gone too far and that there are limits to our relationship and support. My response was the opposite. In those times when Israel’s government devalues us as liberal Jews or promotes policies that contradict the pluralism and equality we demand, we need to double down on our work—amplify our voices, exert our influence, and deepen our Israel-American partnership. Just as we North American Jews support Israel, we appeal to our Israeli sisters and brothers to support us. We need a deep and mutual relationship.

As Rabbi Noa Sattath so beautifully articulated, we need a new narrative—not the right-wing or orthodox narrative of ethnocentrism, and not the BDS narrative of isolation and alienation, but a narrative that acknowledges the moral crisis in Israel and advocates for engagement to create change. Just as social justice activists understand systemic racism and the fact that these structures were created over centuries, the Israeli systems of inequality were created over time. It will take time to dismantle them—policy by policy. We as social activists understand that change starts with story and with relationships.

North American progressive Zionists feel alone in their defense of Israel on our city streets and in our daily encounters. Israeli progressive Zionists feel abandoned by their North American counterparts. We need not feel alone; we can work together in partnership.


Rabbi Noa Sattath is the director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the social justice arm of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ). Rabbi Judith Schindler is the Sklut Professor of Jewish Studies and director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte. They served as consulting editors as well as contributors to the newly released anthology Deepening the Dialogue: Jewish-Americans and Israelis Envisioning the Jewish-Democratic State, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.


Categories
Israel

Reform Judaism in Israel: Great Strides, Great Challenges

Last month, I had the great privilege of worshiping and sharing Shabbat dinner with friends at Congregation Bavat Ayin in Rosh HaAyin, Israel and in the home of Rabbi Ayala and Avi Miron.

This visit was not my first. In the fall of 2016, ARZA World-Daat arranged for members of Congregation B’nai Israel to worship at Bavat Ayin, and enjoy home hospitality for Shabbat dinner, during our congregation’s Israel trip in the fall of 2016. We have continued our relationship in a program called Domim, which means, “similar,” a pairing of Reform congregations in Israel and North America. In the fall of 2017, on the first anniversary of our visit, donors from our congregation sponsored Bavat Ayin’s Selichot program; and I returned to Bavat Ayin in the summers of 2017 and 2018.

In the coming spring, I plan to make a grant from my discretionary fund to sponsor the congregation’s Jerusalem Day celebration, featuring the art of Michal Memit Vorka, who “immigrated to Israel at the tender age of two through Operation Moses.” On Jerusalem Day at Bavat Ayin, “She will introduce her art as well as her story, relate to her Jewish-Ethiopian traditions and discuss the challenges that Ethiopian-Jews are meeting in their encounter with Israeli society. Since 2004[,] Jerusalem Day has also been recognized as a Memorial Day for around 4,000 Ethiopian Jews who tragically perished on their way to Israel, while striving to fulfill their decades long dream to reach [Jerusalem].”[i]

I share these details because we in North America can get the impression that Reform Judaism in Israel consumes all of its energy fighting for its rights in the face of ultra-Orthodox, government-supported discrimination. Those struggles are important. However, the truth about our Israeli Reform partners is much more complex and inspiring. Despite all the challenges they face, the Israel Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism has been growing by leaps and bounds. Just as important, my Israeli colleagues and their partners in lay leadership are laser-focused on creativity and deep meaning. For example, this year, I was privileged to worship from a pilot edition of our Israel Movement’s next prayer book, edited by Professor Dalia Marx and Dr. Alona Lisitsa of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. This prayer book is informed by the deep spirituality of our Movement in Israel and even by some of the stylistic innovations of our own American Reform prayer books.

While many people will tell you that Israeli Jews are either “religious,” meaning Orthodox, or “secular,” the reality is that “[Rabbi Gilad] Kariv, who heads the Israeli Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism,] likes to cite recent surveys that show as many as 12 to 13 percent of Israelis Jews identifying as either Reform or Conservative.”[ii] Perhaps more importantly, “In 2013 36% of Israeli Jews, or nearly 2 million individuals, reported that they had participated in one or more Reform or Conservative events.”[iii] While our Movement hoped to establish fifty congregations in Israel by 2020, its leader, Rabbi Gilad Gariv, celebrates that the goal was accomplished several years earlier.”[iv] Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion has ordained more than 100 rabbis at its Jerusalem campus, by far the largest number of non-Orthodox Jewish clergy in the Jewish State.

Laurence Wolf, who has studied the Reform Movement in Israel, has described participation in ways that will sound familiar to us: “While average attendance for Shabbat evening services is usually modest, … attendance for holidays…is high, as secular [sic] Jews seek more meaningful spiritual experiences. For example, in 2013 over 1000 people participated in Yom Kippur services at Yotzma in Modi’in, [a Jerusalem suburb,] many of them standing outside the small synagogue and participating in the service through loudspeakers in an expansive meadow.”[v]

While we most often hear about the struggle for egalitarian worship at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, which is important, marriage is a more significant flash-point for Israelis. Wolf writes, “Young people are increasingly resisting marriage ceremonies led by Orthodox rabbis. A 2015 survey found that 49% of all Jews (and 80% of secular Jews) did not want Orthodox marriage…17% [wanted] a Reform or Conservative marriage.”[vi] Despite the fact that Israeli law does not recognize the weddings they officiate, Reform rabbis were already officiating at more than 1000 weddings per year in Israel by 2013.[vii]

Funerals in military cemeteries were also at issue until a recent development. Imagine a grieving family, not at all Orthodox, being told that only an Orthodox rabbi may officiate at their loved one’s funeral. Often, these rabbis will not permit women and men to stand together at the funeral as families, allow women to offer a eulogy or even to say Kaddish for an immediate family member. And remember, we’re talking about military funerals, often for young people who have given their lives in the service of the country. Only last month did the Israel Defense Force relent and announce that Reform rabbis may officiate at funerals in Israel’s military cemeteries, a change precipitated by pressure from Israel’s High Court of Justice, thanks to Hiddush, an organization that agitates for religious liberty in the Jewish state.[viii]

As the Israeli Reform Movement’s reach and popularity have grown, its detractors have become more threatened by it. The Orthodox establishment is working harder than ever to curtail our Movement’s rights. The greatest damage would be done by diminishing the authority of Israel’s Supreme Court, as proposed by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his prospective coalition partners, including the ultra-Orthodox parties.

American Jews can make a difference. The representatives of our largest American Jewish organizations – Jewish Federations of North America, the Union for Reform Judaism, and AIPAC – can, often do, and must continue to insist on equal rights for all Israelis. This winter, we shall all have the opportunity to make our voices heard in World Zionist Organization elections, in which each and every adult Jew worldwide has the right to vote.

My synagogue, Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas celebrates that we are domim, similar, and partners of Congregation Bavat Ayin – like us, an isolated, middle-sized Reform congregation – and continue to contribute to that partnership. We can, and we must, remain strong, strengthening one another, across oceans, but very close to our hearts.


Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. 


[i] Kehillat Bavat Ayin, “Recreating Torah: A Program for Jewish-cultural study,” undated document transmitted from Rabbi Ayala Miron to Rabbi Barry Block via email, July 15, 2019.
[ii] Judy Maltz, “The Reform Leader Running to Be Israel’s First non-Orthodox Rabbi in the Knesset,” Ha-aretz, August 8, 2019.
[iii] Laurence Wolf, “The Reform Movement in Israel: Past Present and Future,” The Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, University of Maryland, July 6, 2015, p. 4.
[iv] Rabbi Gilad Kariv, speaking at CCAR-MARAM Yom Iyyun, July 8, 2019.
[v] Wolf, p. 5.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Anna Ahronheim and Ilanit Chernick, “IDF to Allow Reofrm Rabbis to Officiate at Military Funerals,” The Jerusalem Post, July 4, 2019.

Categories
Israel

CCAR Israel Trip – January 2019

I write this as I am returning to Chicago from a week spent with a number of rabbinical colleagues in Israel. The purpose of the trip was to expose our group to the creativity and innovations that are occurring in Israel, as well as to consider the continued societal and political challenges that Israel faces. The trip was sponsored by the Central Conference of American Rabbis and run by the same travel agency I have been using for congregational trips to Israel since 1998, Da’at/Arzaworld Tours. It was led by Rabbi Hara Person and Rabbi Don Goor. Th title was Israel: Innovation, Change and Creativity.

Highlights of the trip included lectures on how Israel is becoming a leader in the field of hi-tech. We also visited hi-tech centers in Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion University in the Negev. We met social entrepreneurial start-ups like Soapy, a company that provides hygienic soap and water to schools in India (and also sells their systems to McDonalds, KFC and Subway in the States). We learned how finally Israel is taking recycling seriously. We visited a program for abandoned children that gives them a beautiful place to live and a second chance at life.

We also met with Rabbi Noa Sattath, the director of the religious action center of Israel, an institution devoted to fighting for the rights of liberal Jews in Israel so that they can enjoy government support as well as the support given to the ultra-orthodox. We met with a West Bank settler and his dialogue partner, a Palestinian, who has suffered greatly from the occupation of the West Bank. These two men, part of a group called Roots, are not meeting to seek peace so much as to seek a way to live without violence and to speak of a new paradigm for achieving a sense of equality in the relationship between Jews and Palestinians.

On a cultural level we enjoyed delicious Israeli cuisine, tasted Israeli wine and even whiskey, visited the newly renovated museum for the Jewish experience in the Diaspora, and enjoyed watching the highly rated Amos Kolben modern dance troupe of Jerusalem.

Unlike my home in Chicago, weather was beautiful and the country was humming with excitement due to the upcoming national elections. While we were there, the former Chief of Staff of the army, Benny Ganz, announced his intention to compete for Prime Minister. His speech was seen as electrifying and game changing.

To sum up, I would say the mood in Israel is generally optimistic. People feel very much alive and excited about the future. The majority would prefer a future without having to police Palestinians and their lands but there is little hope in that regard that such a peace plan will come soon. Indeed, people do not speak of peace. They speak of lack of hostility and making some kind of agreement. Israelis also would like to see the Orthodox establishment be more tolerant of non-Orthodox denominations like Reform Judaism, but the work is slow and will take a lot of money and time to convince the government that liberal voices need to be heard.

On Friday night we visited the amazing Reform synagogue outside of Jerusalem, Mevaseret Zion and their youth group led service (on the topic of feminism) was inspiring and could have fit right at home in NFTY.

Reform Judaism is alive and well in Israel. There are over 100 Reform rabbis practicing. Their jobs are not easy but they are bringing our religious values to a secular public in need of such a spiritual and relevant perspective.

I cannot promise that any trip to January will have such great weather (although I can probably guarantee that the rates will be lower than the summer and the weather better than Chicago). But I can promise you will find in Israel a vibrant, complicated, heterogeneous country that offers experiences for Jews and non-Jews alike that will challenge you, delight you and sustain you. The other rabbis were a joy to be with and our guide, Yishay, was outstanding. I am so grateful to Da’at and the CCAR for offering us this trip.

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Rabbi Edwin Goldberg serves Temple Sholom of Chicago.

Categories
Israel Social Justice

In Solidarity with Our Israeli Colleagues Part 2: The Interrogation of Rabbi Dubi Hayoun

The following is the response of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, issued by our colleague Rabbi Gilad Kariv, after the police interrogation of Rabbi Dubi Hayon of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement. We stand in support of our Reform and Conservative colleagues in Israel against these outrageous and shameful actions, and reaffirm our longstanding belief that the stranglehold of the Orthodox monopoly in Israel must be broken.

At 5:30 am this morning: Rabbi Dubi Hayoun, Rabbi and leader of the Masorti Conservative community in Haifa, woke up to police officers hammering on his front door, questioning him on the “charge” of holding a chuppah (marriage ceremony) based on a complaint filed by the rabbinical court of Haifa. Today, Rabbi Hayoun will speak at the President Rivlin’s event in honor of Tisha b’Av, alongside key figures and leaders from the entire spectrum of Jewish streams. Never before has the battle waged over the spirit of Judaism in Israel been more pronounced.

The Reform Movement in Israel is outraged at the interrogation of Rabbi Hayoun, of the Conservative Movement.

The summons of Rabbi Hayoun to a police investigation is a disgrace! We are certain that this investigation will not bear fruit – Rabbi Hayoun, along with hundreds of other Reform and Conservative Rabbis, hold weddings in Israel every day. However, the very essence of this investigation is crossing a red line! We demand that the Attorney General intervene immediately and order an end to this outrageous investigation which is not only against Rabbi Hayoun, but against hundreds of Conservative and Reform rabbis in Israel, and against the tens of thousands of Israeli couples who chose them to officiate their Jewish ceremony of marriage.

This investigation is yet another expression of the aggressive behavior of the rabbinical establishment in Israel, supported by government authorities, against Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism. We will not be deterred by this behavior, and we believe that we will eventually succeed in breaking up the Orthodox monopoly on religious affairs in Israel.

We will continue to officiate at marriages of marry thousands of couples each year. We will continue to accompany tens of thousands of Israeli families in moments of sorrow and joy. We will continue to fight this ugly wave of fanaticism. And we will continue to fulfill our promise as expressed in Hatikvah our national anthem: “Lihyot Am Hofshi b’Artzenu” – to be a free people in our country.

Later today there will be demonstrations in Jerusalem and Haifa against the Orthodox chief rabbinate monopoly on marriage.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv serves as the Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ)

Categories
Israel News

In Solidarity with Our Israeli Colleagues Part 1: Against the Nation-State Law

We join in solidarity with our Israeli colleagues and with the whole Israeli Reform Movement in opposing the Nation State Law just passed last night. The following is a statement on the law from our Israeli colleagues Rabbi Gilad Kariv and Rabbi Noa Sattath.

Friends and Partners Shalom,

Last night the Knesset passed the final version of the “Nation State” Law.

As all of you are aware, over the past weeks  and especially the last few days we have organized and led the intense public and political “battle” to prevent this law from passing.  Many of you aided us in this effort and we want to express our deepest gratitude. We believe that our efforts put Reform and Progressive Jews in the forefront of the struggle for Israel’s democratic and Jewish values based on our Zionist and Democratic world view.

During this public struggle we stated clearly that the “Nation State” Law can actually help us in legal claims regarding recognition of the non- Orthodox  streams of Judaism from the very fact of the statement in the law that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. At the same time we nonetheless fiercely opposed the law because of the worsening of relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel,  and because the law does not mention Israel’s Declaration of Independence, or the principle of equality and democratic values of the state of Israel.

It is important to note that the version of the law that was ratified by the Knesset is very different from the original versions that were proposed. It does not include any statement in which the Jewish character of the state is more important than the democratic character (the democratic character of Israel is anchored in the Basic Law of Human Dignity and Freedom passed in the 90s). The law also does not include a statement giving an official status of Jewish law (halacha) as a source of inspiration,  nor does the law give itself a higher status than the other Basic Laws. Additionally instead of the original line that stated clearly that people could be prevented from joining community settlements on the basis of religion, ethnicity, or nationality, the law now only makes a general statement in support of Jewish settlement as a national value that the nation should promote.

All of these points reduce the negativity of the original versions, but it’s still important to state that we feel that this is a terrible and unnecessary law which erodes the necessary balances among the core values of the state of Israel.

In the coming days we will distribute a detailed summery regarding the law including the lessons we have learned in the process of the struggle against the law, and thoughts regarding the future. We are convinced that our Zionist, Progressive and Democratic Voice is needed now more than ever to be heard. We believe that even after the law is passed, we should express our disappointment and concern to Israeli ambassadors and representatives throughout the world. It’s very important that Jerusalem be made aware that the passing of the law leaves a heavy burden on Israeli society and world Jewry and that large numbers of the Jewish people in Israel and around the world are deeply worried about erosion of Israel’s core values.

We want to thank all those who helped and continue to participate in the effort, both our professionals and our volunteer leadership in Israel and around the world.

B’vracha,

Rabbi Gilad Kariv and Rabbi Noa Sattath

FAQ: Nation State Law
Rabbi Kariv’s Speech at a Rally Opposing the Law

Categories
interfaith Israel Rabbis

Making Strides for Religious Understanding in the Holy Land

Pastor Todd Buurstra, Dr. Ali Chaudry, and I have been making strides together for some time now. Moved by the travel ban that singled out Muslims for discrimination, we organized a prayer vigil that brought together a community of communities representing nine different religions to stand together against hate. A few months ago, after the president announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Accords on climate change, we held an interfaith teach-in on environmental responsibility that included 10 different religious traditions.

Recently, the three of us were blessed to make pilgrimage to the Holy Land — to walk in the footsteps of the forebears of our three faiths, bear witness to the truths that each of us holds dear, and reflect on the greater truth of the One God that unites us all.

Pastor Todd and I shared our journey with the CCAR Interfaith Clergy Mission to Israel, which included six rabbis, six Christian clergy, and one imam; Dr. Ali joined Rabbi Marc Kline on an Interfaith Clergy Mission with the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ. Though these two missions were organized under different auspices, their itineraries were so similar that it is possible to speak of them as if we had shared the same experience.

Upon reflection, Pastor Todd, Dr. Ali, and I agreed that the most powerful aspects of our journey fell into three categories: Witnessing Faith, Witnessing Hope, and Witnessing Modern Israel — Jews, Arabs, and Palestinians.

Witnessing Faith

I have visited the holy places of other faiths before, but I must confess that such encounters were primarily of academic or historical interest. This time, the experience was remarkably different. Standing side by side with Christian and Muslim friends for whom these sites were part of their living-faith narrative made them come alive with emotion and drama. We were witnessing each other’s faith as we listened to the stories of events that happened in each place and saw them through each other’s eyes.

We spoke openly and soulfully about what these events and places mean to us, how they have shaped us, and also of our struggles to reconcile the contradictions inherent in religious symbolism. I noted the discomfort of my Christian colleagues as they watched coreligionists kissing the burial slab of Jesus. And they saw my distress at how the Western Wall has become a place of exclusion, division, and even violence against those who don’t hew to ultra-Orthodox interpretations. The more we learned and engaged in heartfelt dialogue, the more we returned to the same mantra to describe what we were observing, intoning like a chorus the words, “It’s complicated!” But through all the complexity there was the deep emotion of witnessing each other’s faith that touched our souls. Through the differences we saw an illuminating similarity shining through, and that was the shared experience of God’s presence in the world and in our lives.

Witnessing Hope

News reports from Israel and the Middle East depict a bleak reality of bitter conflict and discord. Rarely do the media offer reason for optimism. But there is much more to the picture than hatred and violent struggle. There is also cooperation, coexistence, understanding, and even loving fellowship between Jews and Arabs, Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It may not make the headlines, but it is there to be seen, and it is cause for hope.

One shining example is the work of an organization called Roots, which was founded by former extremists Rabbi Hannan Schlesinger and Ali Abu Awad. Hannan is a West Bank settler who once believed that the entire Land of Israel was given by God to the Jewish people. He had never met a Palestinian face to face. In fact, he says they were invisible to him. Then, one day, he had a transformational encounter with a Palestinian neighbor that compelled him to understand and embrace the truth that there is another people, the Palestinians, who have a legitimate claim to the same land and a right to their own sovereign state.

We met Hannan along with a young Palestinian man from Bethlehem named Noor Awad. Noor and his family have experienced great hardship under Israeli occupation, and many of his friends have embraced the path of militant resistance. But Noor, too, was moved by a human encounter with his neighbors, Jewish settlers whom he has embraced as partners in the pursuit of peace and reconciliation. At this stage, Roots is promoting dialogue and human understanding, but they realize that this is a precursor to the quest for a political solution that will involve two states that share one homeland.

Witnessing Modern Israel — Jews, Arabs, and Palestinians

From afar, the Middle East takes on a mythic quality. It seems more like a seething cauldron of powerful forces that threatens to overflow and scorch the earth than the actual pastoral landscape of hills and valleys, verdant vineyards, bustling cities, and diverse people living colorful lives day by day. The land of the Bible, the place where Jesus lived and taught and the site of Muhammad’s rise to heaven, is also a thriving modern country inhabited by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It is not a place only of dreams deferred, but also one of dreams fulfilled, though certainly more so for the Jewish people than the Palestinians. But here, too, lies a source of hope. Israel is a model of a people dispersed and despised returning home to build a nation where they can be self-reliant.

That quest has come at a cost. Security is a constant challenge, as we saw when we visited the northern border, where threats loom large from Hezbollah and ISIS in Syria and Lebanon. Standing on the Golan Heights, it was clear to all why Israel had to take control of the hills from which Syrian artillery rained down on Jewish communities in the valley below from 1948-1967.

Similarly, one cannot fully understand what Israel means to the Jewish people unless one goes to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. It brings home with the most painful clarity why the Jewish people believe in the necessity of a sovereign Jewish state. One of the most meaningful moments of our journey was the tearful embrace of a Christian colleague that conveyed to me the depth of that understanding.

Yes, Israel is a complicated reality. Yes, there is so much more to do to realize the promise of peace and dignity for all the people who are destined to share that holy land. But we, three faith leaders from Central New Jersey on a pilgrimage to the roots of our respective faiths, discovered the greater truth of all our faiths that was forged on that sacred soil — that we are all children of the One God, sisters and brothers who must learn to love one another and share the gifts that God has given us.

Rabbi Arnold Gluck serves Temple Beth-El of Hillsborough, New Jersey.

Categories
Convention Israel

Listen to This: Israel is Still A Fragile Dialogue

My wife, Sarah, grew up going to Jewish day school. When I talk about the work I do, she has a very familiar reference point. She has lived it, more or less. I don’t have to explain Jewish ritual to her; more often, she causes me to question and dive deeper into the work that I do. It is a rare opportunity, though, when I get to bring her work into what I do.
A few years ago, she and her colleagues at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, published a paper about what happens in the brain when people with strongly held political believes are presented with challenges to those believes. The paper was eventually turned into an episode of the web comic, “The Oatmeal,” titled, “You’re Not Going To Believe What I’m About To Tell You.” The basic premise, as it relates to this topic, is that when people are presented with a challenge to a belief that is connected to one’s core identity, people tend to dismiss this alternative perspective and dig their heels in deeper to their previously strongly held belief.
One of the reasons why CCAR Press’ recent publication, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism is so poignant is because the Zionist stakes are high. The new voices of liberal Zionism are teaching us that digging into previously held beliefs and narratives sets up a recipe for disaster, or more realistically, disengagement with Israel. At the workshop featuring chapter authors from The Fragile Dialogue, Michael Marmur, Liya Rechtman, and Eric Rosenstein presented diverging narratives of even what it means to be a liberal Zionist today.
Marmur opened with an implicit nod to how we deal with differing narratives, noting, “We create our own myths, which become our facts.” He continued his observation that we try to squeeze each other’s facts into our myths. “Most of us spend a lot of time doing myth preserving, making sure that our myths are neither strengthened nor weakened. This quells creativity around our myths.” This caused me to wonder: the rabbis who created Midrash had no problem getting creative around our foundational myths (Marmur even noted that our tradition has established for us a foundation where “we’re meant to be creatively uncomfortable”) – specifically when it comes to Zionism, why have we shifted so drastically against creativity?
Because it’s a fragile dialogue.
Liya Rechtman presented a narrative which was important for this room to hear, specifically because it was so challenging. “When you have red lines of who you will hear from, you inherently cut people out of the conversation,” she offered. And she’s right. How many times have we not invited — or worse, disinvited — speakers purely because their views crossed a red line for someone in our community? One of my rabbinic mentors has noted, “We spent 2000 years dreaming of having a Jewish parliament, and one of the members of that Jewish parliament wants to speak to us, and we’re saying ‘no’?”
Because it’s a fragile dialogue.
I feared going into this session that if we were to hear, as we did from Liya and Eric, that 21st century Israel narratives are based on the accepting the diversity in our narratives and finding places of mutuality and common ground, whereas 20th century Israel narratives were about the preservation of Jewish life, participants would backfire — digging their heels in, not believing what they were hearing. What gave me hope is that the opposite happened. Yes, assumptions were challenged. Yes, there were disagreements in perspectives. And yes, looking into a mirror of the generational divide on even what it means to be a liberal Zionist was difficult. But we heard each other.
Because we all know it’s a fragile dialogue.
If learning happens through failure, growing at a moment when a premise is challenged, this workshop showed that the future of our leadership and our approach to liberal Zionism is no exception.
Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael – How wonderful are your sessions O Jacob, your dwellings of fragile dialogue, O Israel!
Rabbi Jeremy Gimbel serves Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, CA.
Categories
Israel Rabbis Social Justice

Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Appoint for yourselves cities of refuge’

Jewish history is peppered by tragic events. These are just a few:

1182 – the expulsion of the Jews of France
1290 – the expulsion of the Jews of England
1306 – the great expulsion from France: tens of thousands of Jews infiltrate into Belgium and Spain
1351 – large numbers of Jews infiltrate into Poland
1492 – the expulsion from Spain: tens of thousands of Jews infiltrate into Central Europe, North Africa, and the Ottoman Empire, including my own family, which is scattered in Austria, Italy, and Crete
1507 – the expulsion of the Jews of Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia
1881-1914 – hundreds of thousands of Jews infiltrate into Europe and the United States
1939 – the SS St. Louis, carrying 939 Jewish refugees, sails from country to country begging for asylum

We are all the children, grandchildren, and descendants of asylum seekers and refugees! Refugee-hood is embedded in the Jewish DNA and accordingly we cannot stand by and remain silent in the face of expulsion.

Israel is currently home to 26,563 asylum seekers from Eritrea, 7,624 from Sudan, and 2,638 from various other African countries. Of these, 7,000 are women; approximately 2,000 are victims of torture in Sinai and of trafficking in women; and approximately 1,500 are single men imprisoned at the Holot detention camp. The population of minors is around 5,000 – 7,000.

The Migration Authority is recruiting immigration inspectors who will be responsible for distributing deportation orders, organizing documents for “voluntary departure” and other administrative functions, and examining the RDC applications that have already been submitted. Since January 1, 2018, the authorities are not accepting any new asylum applications. In the present stage, children, women, and parents responsible for their children’s well-being are not to be deported.

When the authorities wish to foment hatred among the majority against a specific group, they accuse the group of constituting a threat to society at large: They are taking our jobs; they are parasites (or worse – a cancer in the back of the nation); they are criminals who are ruining our neighborhoods; they will take over the country; they are the reason for unemployment/crime/diseases, and so forth. Pharaoh made exactly the same allegations against the Children of Israel:

“And he said to his people: ‘See, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, in the event of war, that they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.’” (Exodus 1:9-10)

The State of Israel was one of the sponsors of the UN Refugees Convention at a time when Europe was flooded with Jewish refugees in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Israel defines itself as a “Jewish state.” Yet now Israel intends to deport thousands of asylum seekers from Africa who fled for their lives. By so doing, it is violating the Biblical commandment “Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” (Leviticus 19:16). Israel plans to deport the asylum seekers to countries that are still recovering from bloodbaths and are not capable of absorbing an additional traumatized population.

As we stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai we declared: “We will do and we will understand.” We undertook to observe the constitution that turns us into a nation. At that moment, not knowing that we ourselves would time after time find ourselves strangers in a strange land, we promised that in our own land we would show great love for the stranger.

In Exodus we read: You know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). The word “stranger” appears 92 times in the Bible in various forms, underlining the sensitivity of Jewish tradition to the condition and status of the non-Jew. Now, as a sovereign people in our own land, we have forgotten this!

Some 90 years before Herzl wrote The Old New Land and the Jewish people began to dream of establishing its own state, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch commented: “Therefore beware – so the text warns – of making rights in your own state conditional on anything other than on that pure humanity that dwells in the heart of every human being per se. With any limitation in these human rights, a gate is opened to the whole horror of Egypt.” (Commentary on Exodus 22:20) Violating the rights of asylum seekers and deporting them to the unknown is the “horror of Egypt!”

And so, three Reform rabbis – Rabbi Susan Silverman, Rabbi Nava Hefetz, and Rabbi Tamara Schagas – have launched an initiative called Miklat Israel (“Israel refuge.”) The goal of the initiative is to urge the general public in Israel to defend asylum seekers facing lethal danger.

In just two weeks, 1,000 families and individuals from throughout Israel promised to hide asylum seekers. We also contacted the kibbutz movement and some 1,500 members of kibbutzim across the country have also agreed to help.

We are in regular contact with the leaders of the asylum seekers’ communities and are working in full cooperation with them. Jewish tradition demands that we cherish the sanctity of every human life, created in God’s image – and all the more so the lives of people liable to be deported to uncertainty and danger. We believe that the decision by the Israeli government to deport the asylum seekers is a grossly unlawful one, and that we must struggle to remove this proposal from the agenda of Israeli society.

We urge you, our sisters and brothers in North America and around the world, to join our campaign to defend the asylum seekers in Israel. Make your voices heard loudly and help us avert the evil decree. You can contact us at miklatisrael@gmail.com

“Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness” (Isaiah 1:27)

Rabbi Nava Hefetz serves Miklat Israel, and is the Director of Education at Rabbis for Human Rights

 

Categories
Books Israel

Engaging with Israel on your own Terms

As The Fragile Dialogue explores, Israel has quickly become one of the most polarizing forces in the North American Jewish Community. There are those who remain curious and committed, wanting to remain connected in some meaningful way. There are those who have effected a divorce, asserting Israel has no place in their lives. And there are those who are ambivalent, filled with questions, not sure what they think and feel. Many would consider the last two categories a failure in cultivating a passionate connection to Israel. I disagree. It seems to me that any conversation about Israel that engages people in open, honest exploration of issues and expression of questions and concerns is an educational success.

Our inability to articulate a compelling vision for Israel education may lie in our unwillingness to accept the inherent ambiguity in our stance toward Israel. Rather than embrace this ambiguity, we seek to harmonize and instrumentalize Israel so that it fits with the not-so-hidden curriculum of American Jewish education, which is, in essence, how to function as an American Jew. Inasmuch as Israel education can be used as a way to reinforce American Jewish identity, it is viewed as a positive. This has resulted in a “mythic” representation of Israel that, as Jonathan Sarna pointed out, has, “for well over a century . . . revealed more about American Jewish ideals than about Israeli realities.” Jewish education has reinforced this idealization of Israel to a great extent so that Israel can remain consistent with American conceptions of “Zion as it ought to be.” This means that we keep Israel at a distance through episodic and rather superficial encounters. We teach old conceptions and old narratives about Israel, because they are “safe” and because we don’t know what else to do. Indeed, it seems that a tacit assumption is made that only by first cultivating an uncritical “love of Israel” can we hope to engage American Jews at all.

To be sure, approaches that cultivate love can be effective for some. For increasing numbers, however, such approaches lead to dissonance, alienation, anger, and outright rejection, especially when they come to realize the mythic vision of Israel they were taught is vastly different from the much more complicated and often distressing reality. And, teaching only the “lovable” parts leaves our learners with, at best, a superficial understanding of why Israel is or could be significant in American Jewish life.

I want to propose that we accept the fact that being ambivalent about Israel is a productive educational goal. This may be unsettling for some, but it is far from a novel idea. Almost a century ago, the great Hebrew poet and writer Chaim Nachman Bialik wrote that “the phenomenon of dualism in our psyche [is] a fundamental characteristic of the Jewish people.” This dualism is not a black-and-white choice between opposing forces, but rather a formative tension that allows for productive negotiation and growth. This kind of dualism is woven throughout Jewish life, belief, and practice, with manifold tensions between Zion and Sinai, sacred and profane, Israel and Diaspora, exile and redemption, religion and peoplehood, blessing and curse. Bialik claimed that the desire both to expand from the center and to contract toward it is what has kept Judaism and the Jewish people a dynamic and thriving civilization. “Because the people did not tie its fate to one of these and because they remained in equal power, the rule of this dualism in our group character has survived to this day.”

Translating a “nuanced understanding of Israel” into educational practice is a multilayered process that could start even with how the geography of Israel is taught. What maps are displayed on the walls? Do they mark the Green Line? Do we teach only about Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem, or do we also include units on Kfar Kana, Um el Fahm, and Sakhnin? Do we focus only on the kibbutzim of the north or also teach that 50 percent of the population of the Galilee is Muslim, Christian, or Druze? When we plan a mifgash (encounter) with Israelis, whether virtual or real, do we include meetings with Palestinian citizens of Israel or only Jews? Does our investigation of social justice initiatives in Israel extend only to issues of religious pluralism that pertain directly to Reform Jews, or do we also study about educational and/or social justice organizations that are striving to attain a shared citizenship across religious, ethnic, and political differences?

These are just a few of the questions worth considering when thinking about developing an intentionally ambivalent educational approach to teaching Israel. Embracing this ambivalence does not preclude me, however, from starting with the chutzpadik claim that Israel is integral to Jewish life wherever it is lived. That sets a boundary that is clear but also flexible. For me, Israel is a key dimension of what it means to be a Jew. Like the Psalmist, I believe that forgetting Israel can be likened to losing the use of a limb. One can still live without one’s right hand, but the loss is an attenuation, a diminishment, far from desirable. But, this chutzpah is tempered with a lot of humility. Understanding Israel as integral but not central allows for and even endorses a range of different personal commitments and connections. Israel as integral means that there is no one right way or one right level of intensity to be connected. Just as with every other aspect of Jewish life, Israel education can provide individuals with the resources and experiences to become informed and then make their own choices as to the nature and extent of their involvement. Just as all would agree that God, Torah, and Shabbat are integral to Jewish experience but that different Jews have different beliefs and practices, the same can be said about Israel. There is no one right way to engage with Israel, but engaging is an essential aspect of Jewish experience. Just as educators strive to help Jews find meaning in God, Torah, and Shabbat and cultivate the motivation, knowledge, or skills that enable them to be develop their own set of practices, so should they work to help Jews engage with Israel, each on their own terms, yet as part of the collective Jewish project.

What this means is that we must accept that our communities can and need to welcome a wide range of views, understandings, feelings, and actions about Israel. This seems all the more pressing and essential today in order to build thriving Jewish life and to sustain a relationship with and connection to Israel. It means having faith and hope in the Jewish people, that expressing our differences will help us to listen more carefully to each other with open hearts, knowing that the choices we make build us up, enrich us, and allow Jewish life to continue to thrive in a multiplicity of ways.

Rabbi Lisa D. Grant is Professor of Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.

The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism is now available to pre-order from CCAR Press.