Categories
Israel

CCAR Israel Leadership Trip

Greetings from Eretz Yisrael, where I’m privileged to be studying and traveling with a group of CCAR colleagues.  What distinguishes this journey from previous ones: an opportunity for us to reflect on “using” Israel as educators —  both in terms of intentionally creating meaningful itineraries as we lead groups (of congregants) here, and in terms of bringing this week’s experience back to our respective communities.

The beautiful lunch that the Druze community served us.

Our itinerary has been chock-full of the pressing issues of the day.  We had mifgashim that have touched on the ongoing Arab-Israel question, gender, LGBTQ inclusion, and the list goes on.  But for the moment, I find myself holding on to the interaction we had with the Druze outside of Haifa.  Many of us (myself included) have encountered the Druze, and their world famous hospitality, in previous visits to Israel.  We have heard of their vaunted sense of service in contributing to the Jewish State (as Arabs) by serving in the Army, often volunteering for combat roles.

This week’s encounter went deeper.  We were privileged to hear from Reda Mansour, a prominent Israeli Druze who holds the distinction of being the youngest Israeli ever appointed as an Ambassador in the Diplomatic Corps.

Mansour was teaching us about the Druze and their desire to be an active part of the communities they are living in.  Beyond their noted IDF service, he talked about the Druze’s longstanding commitment to building institutional relationships with the synagogue and church communities that are their neighbors.  The Druze embrace the notion of surrounding themselves with those who are different from them.

Mansour went so far as to suggest a strong similarity between the Druze of Israel, and the Jews of America.  Both communities, he noted with pride, have long records of engagement in the surrounding world.

Mansour also reminded us that the Druze have a very strict policy: a Druze cannot marry a non-Druze and remain in the community.  Period.  And they do not have a mechanism that would be analogous to our sense of conversion.

A speaker from the Druze community shares his experiences with us.

This seemed paradoxical.  On the one hand Mansour’s community was open to assimilation.  Young people are not required to dress traditionally.  Everyone is expected to engage with the non-Druze community.  And yet, their tradition does not seem to be equipped to deal with the social ramifications of that assimilation.

As Mansour repeatedly invoked his assertion that American Jews and Druze were similar, I couldn’t help but think that in one respect he was incorrect.  We liberal Jews have worked hard to adapt (and we continue to adapt) our Judaism so that it fully engages with modernity.  Our ritual practice has evolved.  And the definition of a Jewish family has evolved with it.  We’ve made room in our homes, synagogues, and communities for significant others who are not Jewish by birth – regardless of whether they are moved to formally convert.  We’ve embraced this willingness to regularly reform our sense of (communal) self, because we recognize that the survival of a meaningful contemporary Judaism depends on it.

I’m grateful for the Druze for the warm hospitality they extended to our group.  And I’m grateful for their devoted service to the State of Israel.  But most of all, I’m grateful that our encounter reminded me how proud I am to be part of a tradition that has the capacity to grow, change, and thrive over time.

Rabbi Jeffrey Brown serves Scarsdale Synagogue Temples Tremont and Emanu-El in Scarsdale, New York.

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Israel News

The Mistaken Equivalency of Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism

Earlier this year I had occasion to speak at a synagogue in Johannesburg, South Africa. The subject was my motivation and experience as an American Jew who made aliya to Israel more than thirty years ago. The presentation included a description of my Jewish and Zionist education and concluded with an explanation that my primary motivation was a personal desire to be a participant in the making of modern Jewish history. What better place could I do so, I concluded, than by living with my family in the State of Israel.

Immediately following my presentation the hands went up. One after another of the participants in the audience challenged me with biting comments and striking allegations all of which I thought were both surprising and of course incongruous. How could I possibly call myself a Zionist when to do so is to embrace an ideology advocating apartheid? How can I identify with a regime which is oppressive and dismissive of the human rights of the Palestinians? Is not Judaism and Zionism incompatible? Are not Zionists acting just like the white nationalists did in apartheid South Africa?

The people asking the questions seemed sincere. It appeared to me that they were genuinely struggling with themselves both intellectually and spiritually. On the one hand they were trying to find an acceptable way to identify as Jews. On the other hand they could not reconcile their identification with a Jewish State that in their minds, no less than in official political circles, was perceived as the very incarnation of evil. No doubt, there are growing numbers of Jews in other diaspora countries who share the same dilemma which may not be the case with many non-Jewish critics of Israeli policy.

It is true that many non-Jews throughout the world are bitter critics of Israeli policy. As such, many exaggerate and generalize about Jews and what they believe to be normative Zionist ideology. Their conviction is that Zionism is a racist ideology and the plight of the Palestinian people is proof positive of this fact. Thus, it is a short distance between identifying Jews as a group with the Jewish state and ergo their presumed support for the oppressive policies of the state. In their minds this legitimizes their struggle in support of the long suffering Palestinians.

As Jews we may prefer drawing a distinction between our religious or ethnic identity and the specific political policy of any given government of Israel. Nonetheless, such efforts are judged to be ingenuous by our critics. This is hardly surprising considering the fact that Israeli policy today is defined by right wing revisionists who have perpetuated the occupation of the Palestinian people for the most part of nearly 50 years. For the greater part of this half century, they have successfully advanced their ultra-nationalist and irredentist vision of Zionism. Sadly too, the contours of this policy have increasingly resulted in a growing number of separatist realities.

In spite of the aforementioned, I do not accept the idea that being critical of, or opposed to, Israeli policy, automatically makes one an anti-Semite. I would suggest that taking such a position is incorrect as it feeds the illusory idea that what is being alleged about Jews and Zionism has credence. After all, there are Jews who are Zionists and Israeli, like myself, who are strongly opposed to the principles and policies of the current Israeli government. We are in fact, passionate critics. I explained these positions to my South African Jewish interlocutors. I spoke about how I became a Zionist in the tradition of the Labor Zionist Movement. Our ideological vision is rooted in the principles of social and economic justice, liberal democracy and the pursuit of a just peace. I am opposed to the occupation and consider the settlement program to be destructive of our vital interests and threatening to our security. And of course I acknowledge the fact that settling Jews in occupied territories is in contradiction of international law as defined by the Geneva Conventions. For me and a not inconsequential percentage of Israelis and Jews worldwide, progressive Zionism is as legitimate and normative as Revisionism is for others.

Perhaps if Israel’s Jewish and non-Jewish critics were better educated about the differing streams of Zionism, they would be less inclined to generalize based on the policies of Israel’s current government.

Perhaps too, they would begin to understand the differences by learning about the accusations made by our right wing critics here in Israel. Among other allegations they assert that we are self-hating anti-Zionists and anti-Semites! It is likely that they make these charges because we expose their activities and reject their views as submissive to the ideological fantasies of intolerant political and theological extremists.

There is a profound distinction to be made between anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and criticism of the policies of a particular Israeli government.

Rabbi Stanley Ringler is an Israeli Reform Rabbi and Social and Political Activist.

Categories
Israel Reform Judaism

My Recent Visit to Israel

When I first attended HUC-JIR in Cincinnati back in 1959, Reform rabbis were still divided in their commitment to the new Jewish state. In the 60s and 70s, we became solidly united in our support of the homeland of the Jewish people. While we are yet to become fully recognized by the state, we have been sparing no effort standing by her side no matter what. As a native of Israel whose parents were among the founders of the state, and as someone who was there at the birth, to me Israel is a gift from God to the martyrized Jewish people. Since 1970, when the CCAR held its first conference in Jerusalem, I’ve been back nearly every year, and even went back to do military service. In recent years, as I did this year, I’ve been going there strictly to visit family.

In late August my wife and I spent ten days at a nice resort hotel in north Tel Aviv, minutes from my two sisters’ homes in Ramat Aviv. My children and grandchildren are very attached to their Israeli nephews and nieces, and my oldest granddaughter was just there with her camp group for a month as part of her CIT experience, and got to spend one evening with the family. My oldest Israeli grandniece just turned eighteen and was proud of her acceptance to the ranks of Israel’s military intelligence.

It is hard for me to believe that in a few short decades Israel went from a community of half a million Jews with a ragtag army to a nation of over six million Jews with a mighty military and a world leader in high tech. But at the same time I find myself bemoaning the fact that what started out in my day as a socialist Utopian dream of an egalitarian society reaching out a hand of peace to its neighbors, has become a materialistic, intolerant and aggressive society with a growing gap between rich and poor and a societal code of conduct which reminds one more of third world countries than a progressive democracy, what with a former prime minister and a former president serving jail terms.

Where do progressive Jewish movements like Reform Judaism fit in this contemporary picture of social decline?

To start with, it is paramount that we become fully recognized Jews in our own right, and not lapsed Jews who need the imprimatur of Orthodoxy to be accepted into the fold. The Orthodox minority in Israel has political power far exceeding its numbers and its contribution to society, making life difficult not only for us but for the majority of Israelis, like my own relatives. This has become an intolerable situation which corrodes the institutions of the state.

Second, we need representation in the Knesset. While in the Diaspora we are not a political movement, unfortunately in Israel all groups, from Orthodox to Russians, have their own political parties, which is the only way to have a voice in Israeli society. We could also become part of an existing liberal party, which would provide us with a voice.

Third, we should rally around the cause of peace. It should be clear to any thinking person that Israel cannot go on forever as a military fortress. The peace with Egypt and Jordan needs to become a productive force, rather than merely a formal relation. There are great benefits here to all parties. But even more important, the two-state solution must become a reality. We did not establish the State of Israel to occupy another people. We Reform rabbis need to work not only with our fellow Jews in Israel but also with the Palestinians, to promote the cause of peaceful coexistence. In the 60s in the United States we took the lead in the struggle for social justice for people of color, and we need to do the same in Israel. Much good work has been done already by our colleagues in Israel, but have only just begun.

Rabbi Mordecai Schreiber, a member of Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, Florida, is celebrating 50 years as a CCAR rabbi.

Categories
Israel News

A National Tragedy of our Own Making?

Recently Ha’aretz columnist Ari Shavit published an essay in which he called upon the rational Israeli majority to join forces. He is convinced that our political and national future as a Jewish democratic and peace loving state is not lost. All that we need do is to reach out to one another and join hands politically, affirming the moderate center, in a new national movement of reconciliation and constructive policy advocacy. Unfortunately I think Ari Shavit, expresses wishful thinking about what he would like the basic mind set and aspirations of the Israeli people to be. I think his assumptions are incorrect and his proposals are, at this time, painfully unrealistic.

Yes of course I would like to believe that he is correct that most Israeli Jews do aspire after the idea of a Jewish democratic and just state. Yes of course I would like to believe that ours is an enlightened nation-state that does not harbor ill will towards our neighboring states; nor toward our own minority population groups. But unfortunately this is not the case. Our political and military policy of occupation and articulated viral hatred and distrust of our presumed Arab antagonists, domestic and foreign, has defined our vision as myopic and our role as self defeating.

For all intents and purposes, it appears that the Israeli majority has fallen victim to the forces of psychological terrorism, racism and nationalistic extremism. Our political leaders justify our policies by asserting the need to protect us from certain destruction at the hands of radical extremists near and far. Lest we are unable to see clearly, they tell us, we are surrounded and threatened not only by Islamic fundamentalists from without but equally so by their coreligionists within. Promoting fear is an effective way to divert the popular mind from rational discourse and analysis. The consequence is that we are less what people like Ari Shavit would like us to be than what we have become. And this is a savagely divisive society defined by narrow sectarian, political and ideological interests.

Characteristically, following the terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, our right wing coalition government effectively punished several hundred thousand Palestinians for the outrageous acts of two independent killers. Ten of thousands of entry permits to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque now, during the holy month of Ramadan, were cancelled; permits to work in Israel were permanently cancelled for all residents of the village where the terrorists lived and other repressive measures as well. The lead editorial in Ha’aretz on the following day declared “The Only Solution to Palestinian terrorism is the end of the Occupation.” These “acts of collective punishment” the editorial asserted, “will just increase the frustration and hatred among those forced to live under Israeli occupation…The only way to deal with terrorism is by freeing the Palestinian people from the occupation.”

All this is against a background of an obvious increase in frustration with and disbelief in Israeli policies on the part of the international community. Nonetheless our people appear to be nonplussed.They accept as credible the claims of our leaders, that our problems are a consequence of a plot hatched by unrepentant European and American anti-Semites and Islamic fanatics. All we need to do is destroy the BDS movement and we will relieve ourselves of the need to reconsider the wisdom of our policies. How sad it is that we have allowed ourselves to be led by a class of political leaders who in recent weeks in particular have demonstrated just how arrogant, egotistical and self-assured they have become. The very idea that Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman think that they will win the support and confidence of the European community, the United States and the U.N. et.al, simply by saying that they support the two state solution and consider the Arab League peace proposal to be constructive is astounding. Indeed now, just a week or so later the news here headlines the fact that the Prime Minister announced at a meeting of his Likud Party Knesset faction that “Israel will never agree to the Arab Peace Initiative.”

Of course, our right wing government coalition, has good reason to want to promote the myth that Israeli policy is rational and responsible. Would that this were more than a proven tactic of diversion and political obfuscation. There is small reason to believe that our ruling revisionist leaders are ready to amend their irredentist policies and thinking to allow for an end to our settlement program and a readiness for genuine territorial compromise. They have confirmed this in their own words and actions. Nonetheless, if does seem that they are successful in convincing the Israeli silent majority of their good intentions. Our people are simply too unnerved and verbally abused by our leaders to think otherwise.

No, I do not believe that there is a silent majority of rational people who have the capacity to transform reality. Our silent majority gives quiet support to our right wing ruling coalition.

In the end, I am now convinced, that the consequence of advancing policies based on irredentist and racist programs will result in our undoing. Our “leaders” continue to act blindly without concern for the implications of their actions. They appear to be convinced of their ability to achieve their objectives, regardless of world opinion and reactive policies. In the end, hopefully sooner than later, they will be proven wrong. Let us hope and pray that in the process, we will not be the victims of another historical tragedy. This time it may be one of our own making.

 

Rabbi Stanley Ringler is an Israeli Reform Rabbi and Social and Political Activist

Categories
Israel

Yom HaAtzmaut, One Family’s Home-Based Practice

Congratulations! You made it through all of the big feelings of Yom HaZikaron, and emerged into one of the best days of any small child’s life – a birthday! It’s Israel’s birthday! Let’s throw Israel a party! And the best part of any birthday is cake. Obviously.

However, thanks to two of your four of small children developing nightmares, REM sleep is now only a thing that other people do. Survival mode it is!

Ingredients:

  • A box of cake mix, Funfetti recommended for extra awesomeness
  • Duncan Hines white icing
  • Sprinkles, ideally in blue and yellow
  • Festive cupcake papers, because asking the children to share cake decorating duties is for people who love unnecessary arguments

Instructions:

  • Spend 20 minutes and what you are sure is half of the Earth’s clean water supply washing hands before you cook.
  • Follow directions on the box, making sure to keep the babies from eating too much raw egg.
  • Feed the children what you hope will be a lovely, balanced lunch that inevitably devolves into their exclusive diet of yogurt and cheddar bunnies while the cupcakes bake.
  • Wait for cupcakes to cool because last year you ignored this advice and burned everyone’s fingers. Just to enhance your already blossoming Jewish parental guilt, the children still talk about the time we all touched the “too hot cake.”
  • Have the children first apply white icing, then decorate with sprinkles. Extra points for encouraging the kids to practice lines and shapes by making a Star of David from two triangles.
  • Enjoy the cupcakes with your sweet and beloved children. Allow the sugar high to wash over you, hopefully carrying you through the next thirty minutes, when you will permit yourself to have a fourth cup of coffee for the day.

Rabbi Lauren Ben-Shoshan, M.A.R.E., resides in Palo Alto, California with her energetic husband and their four very small perpetual motion machines children. 

 

Categories
Israel

The New Zionism

Suddenly, it all started to make sense as we were enjoying dinner at a tasty Ethiopian restaurant in the center of Tel Aviv with a long-time friend from Westfield and his companion, Rachel. As a teenager, Rachel had made aliyah with her family from Canada to Israel.

A light flicked on in my brain as she announced: “When I made aliyah to Israel 35 years ago, I was a Zionist. Then I lost my Zionism and now…I have found it again.”

“Where did you find it?” I asked.

Her response:  “In the high tech, start-up companies that I work for.”

My wife and I had just completed a week of study, prayer, dialogue, and exploration with 330 Reform rabbis.  The Central Conference of American Rabbis gathers in Israel every seven years to learn, to engage, and to reaffirm our commitment to the Jewish State.

This was perhaps my 35th visit. (My first was three years after the State was established and I’ve long since lost count.)  This time I knew something was different, but I couldn’t put my finger on it until that moment.

A new Zionism has emerged. It is taking many forms, but most dramatically I discovered it in the start up companies that are transforming Israel into a high tech powerhouse and an engine for improving the quality of life for millions of people worldwide.

The most dramatic example we learned about is ReWalk, a commercial bionic walking-assistance system that uses powered leg attachments to enable paraplegics to stand upright, walk and climb stairs.  ReWalk is transforming the lives of those paralyzed by stroke, falls, and spinal cord injuries.

Steak TzarTzar is a start-up that delivers affordable and sustainable grasshopper (yes, grasshopper!) protein. Their goal is to enable populations globally to enjoy high quality, environmentally friendly nutrients that can substitute for animal source protein.

Start-ups become global powerhouses. Consider waste-water reclamation. Israel is today a water and irrigation superpower, No. 1 in the world in recycling waste-water.  Israel partners with Kenya to develop desalination on Kenya’s 500 km. coast along the Indian Ocean, and to support Kenya’s new Water for Schools Program to connect all its public schools to water.  It all began with a start-up from the old Zionism days in the Negev. Netafim, the Israeli-developed drip-system, enables underdeveloped countries worldwide to irrigate fields with a fraction of the water normally used.

Old Zionism was built on an agriculture driven, kibbutz-based model that attracted pioneers who reclaimed the land and supplied Israel’s population with tomatoes, oranges, and cucumbers. Those early settlements provided a refuge for Jews persecuted in other lands and a security buffer against Israel’s regional enemies.

What motivated Rachel’s family and most olim (immigrants) from the West to settle in Israel has disappeared. Israel no longer secures her borders with settlements, no longer absorbs large numbers of olim, and no longer propels its economy with agriculture.

New Zionism is based on a global economy that rewards innovation in technology, especially in health care, environment, security, and communication (software for your voicemail was developed in Israel).  Israeli brainpower and entrepreneurial spirit provide a new foundation for building a prosperous and hopefully secure Israel.

But two clouds hang heavy over this New Zionism and the  Jewish State. One is the continuing occupation of the West Bank. The enduring conflict between Jews and Palestinians, and the failure to progress toward a two-state solution is a threat to the stability  and democratic character of Israel. The other threat is the disproportionate leverage which the ultra-Orthodox exert in the government coalition resulting in relentless attacks on human values, pluralism, and progressive Judaism in Israel.  These are the flaws in Israeli society which lead Israelis like Rachel to wonder if they can still embrace Zionism and which discourage American Jews – especially those under age 45 – from enthusiastic support of the Jewish State.

But here too, there is hope in the form of a New Zionism. Sixty-five percent of Israelis support a two-state solution and a whopping 86% support freedom of religion.  This is reflected in the Israelis we spoke with who are committed to strengthening the state by curtailing settlement expansion and aggressively working for peace. Theirs is a vision which aligns with the democratic, pluralistic values of most American Jews.

In recent years, Reform Judaism has made enormous progress in Israel.  Since 2009, our congregations have doubled to nearly 50. In November, Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem will ordain its one hundredth Israeli Reform rabbi. In a recent survey, 34% of Israeli Jews said that the Progressive movement is the Jewish movement they most identify with. (23% stated that they identify most with Orthodox Judaism).

At our convention, Reform rabbis prayed shacharit at the area of the Kotel which the Israeli government has officially designated to be operated by progressive Jews for egalitarian and pluralistic prayer. The Supreme Court has ruled that every public mikvah must be open to non-Orthodox Jews. A handful of Reform rabbis and synagogues now receive financial support from the government.  These breakthroughs were unimaginable 20 years ago. Even civil marriage is a realistic possibility in the near future.

My friend Rachel is once again a Zionist. She can see that a growing number of Israelis are committed to democratic values, the end of the occupation, and pluralistic Judaism. She recognizes that with courageous, enlightened leadership, Israel can once again be a beacon of hope not only for its citizens, but for people in need throughout the world. She senses that most American Jews share her vision.  She hopes – and so do I — that we will make our voices heard.

Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff is Rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, New Jersey, and past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Categories
Convention Reform Judaism

Reform Rabbis Worldwide Renew and Recommit to a Jewish Democratic Pluralistic Israel

Over 300 Reform Rabbis – North American, Israeli, European, Australian, Russian and from elsewhere – gathered in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for the CCAR Israel convention. With renewed vigor, we speak in a clear voice, about our commitment to Israel, Judaism, Israeli democracy, Jewish pluralism and peace. Our resolutions expressing love and support for Israel and condemning the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel, make it clear that we are ohavei Yisrael (lovers of Israel), Zionist, passionate and pluralistic, realist pursuers of peace.FullSizeRender-6-1-300x151

As Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, I arrived in Israel with an expansive mission:  To paraphrase the words of the Ahavah Rabbahprayer, we Reform Rabbis gathered in Israel l’havin ul’haskil, lishmo-a, lilmod ul’lameid, lishmor v’laasot ul’kayeim – to understand and discern, to heed, learn, and teach, and, lovingly, to observe, perform, and fulfill our eternal commitment to this Jewish state.

egalitarian_kotelTogether and in smaller groups, we traveled yamah v’kedmah tzafonah v’negbah (west, east, north and south) to explore, understand and advocate. We prayed together – men and women, in tallit, kipah and for some, with tefillin – at the Kotel’s newly designated Ezrat Yisrael, an egalitarian space. We studied together with some of Israel’s greatest thinkers. We marched in support of a tolerance, embracing the gifts of each religion. We spoke with Jews, Christians, Muslims, and other religious and secular Israelis. With the disenfranchised and the disillusioned. With people of all political persuasions, who live all over Israel and on both sides of the Green line. With Palestinians whose messages were sharp and unwavering.

Our hearts were filled with Ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel), and with Tikvah (hope) for Israel’s vibrant future.

Beyond the listening and learning, we shared clear messages:

We are ohavei Yisrael (lovers of Israel) and our support for Israel is unconditioned and unconditional.

We are Zionists, committed to nurturing a vibrant, Jewish democratic state that lives up to the highest ideals of democracy and social justice.

We are passionate Jews, staking out claim to a pluralistic vision of an Israel where there is more than one way of being Jewish.

We are politically active Jews, prepared to open our mouths, flex out muscles, and commit our money to further the dream of a democratic Jewish pluralistic socially just state for all its citizens.

We are realists, recognizing that a strong secure Israel, while living in a very dangerous neighborhood, can nonetheless work diligently and forthrightly toward helping effectuate the dream of Palestinians for a separate state alongside the Jewish state.

Yes, with undying devotion, we Reform Jews love Israel. We oppose BDS. We support the right of women to pray and practice in a non-coercive Judaism. We oppose the coercive control of the Rabbinate over Jewish life. We discern that Jewish democracy is the way forward. We embrace the humanity of Palestinians and believe in peace.

We return home – until our next trip – passionately rejuvenated in our passion for this beautiful Jewish homeland.

And we pray:

Oseh shalom bimromav hu yaaseh shalom aleinu v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei teivel, v’imru amen. 

May the One who brings peace to the High Heavens, bring peace to us, to all Israel, to all who dwell on this earth. And let us say… Amen. 

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.

Categories
Israel News

If I am a Clown and Mentally Ill, So Be It

The articulated reaction of the Haredi Orthodox rabbinical establishment to the recent symbolic achievements of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel are angry and pejorative in the extreme. Lest we forget the vituperative character of the comments made about us, mark the following for reference:

  1. The Council of the Chief Rabbinate issued a statement saying it was “against bodies that are called ‘liberals’ or ‘progressive’ that have engraved on their shield the uprooting of the Jewish people from its essence and uniqueness.”
  2.  M.K. Moshe Gafni stated that “Reform Jews are a group of clowns who stab the Holy Torah.”
  3. Rabbi David Yosef alleged that the Reform movement “is not Jewish” and its members are “literally idolaters.”
  4.  M.K. Yisrael Eichler compared the Reform Movement ”to someone who is mentally ill”.

Now, while the stream of insulting allegations have seemingly subsided, these same haredi religious and political leaders have mounted a coordinated legislative and political effort to cancel the modest concessions won by the non-Orthodox movements. Thus, in response to haredi political pressure against the agreement to create a pluralist prayer section at the southern end of the kotel in the Robinson’s Arch area, Prime Minister Netanyahu has invited the United Torah Judaism and the Shas Party leaders to prepare an alternate proposal for consideration. This followed the refusal of the Religious Services Minister, David Azouly to sign off on the government’s agreement with the Reform and Conservative movements. This was hardly surprising given the fact that Azouly is known to believe that Reform and Conservative Jews are not Jewish. And now, Haredi Ministers Yaakov Litzman and David Azouly along with M.K. Moshe Gafni, and with the support of Likud Minister Yariv Levin, have collaborated in proposing a law to enable the Chief Rabbinate to assume administrative control of state funded mikvehs. If passed, this law will enable them to circumvent the Supreme Court decision to allow non-Orthodox religious groups use of local mikvoth for conversion purposes.

In light of the political machinations and religious zealotry of our adversaries, one wonders how members of our movement throughout the diaspora, view these developments.? Do they perceive the conflict as threatening and perhaps even correctly dismissive of their identity as progressive Jews?  Have they accepted the thinking of the Orthodox as representative of the Jewish state and concluded that they have no stake in Israel’s future?

How does one explain to our own people the sociological and theological differences which define our legitimate belief system and theirs? Can we describe ourselves in ways which are no less authentic than the way in which the haredim define as their historically correct understanding of Judaism?  Is not our Jewish mindset and lifestyle at least as accurate an expression of Jewish principles of belief and practice?

Let’s remind our people that Haredi Judaism is in large part a result of the reaction to the threatening influence of the European Emancipation on Jewish life. The fundamentalism of haredi Jews expresses itself in what they believe to be the unchanging character of Jewish thought and life. Rather than change in ways which might have challenged their faith and traditions, they took refuge behind the psychological walls of resistance to new ideas and modern thought. First and foremost is their claim to the unchanging and universal truths of the biblical text. Needless to say their fundamentalism expresses itself in their conviction that Jewish law, halacha, as codified in the 16th century Shulchan Aruch, must be fully observed and recognized as the expression of  the true character of Jewish thought and life.

The religious principles of Haredi Orthodoxy are defined therein as binding rules of Jewish observance and practice. The fact that the Shulchan Aruch is stifling and anachronistic for most modern Jews is of little concern to the Orthodox Haredi believer. But to imagine, as they do, that all Jews must live an insular existence in the 21st century is to propose that proper Jewish life can only be expressed in medieval terms. It is as if nothing has changed in the last several hundred years, not to mention in the last millennium since our ancestors received the Torah on Mount Sinai.

How else can one describe this reality than as one of the great tragedies of modern Jewish life? Moreover, the fact that in Israel it is this minority community of faith which controls contemporary Jewish life is restrictive of the forces of normal social evolution. The consequence is that the non-Orthodox majority Israeli Jewish population is subjected to the invective and authoritarian control of the Haredi rabbinate. And when it comes to matters of identity, conversion, marriage, divorce, death and burial rights, etc., Israelis are compelled to function in the shadow of a form of spiritual terrorism. Conformance to the rules and demands of this Rabbinate is obligatory. There are consequences, enforced by law, to rejection of the Orthodox Rabbinate’s authority.

The fact that for many Israeli Jews, particularly those who are secular, Judaism is what the haredim define it to be, is to accept as normative an intellectual distortion of fact.

Contrary to their uncompromising assertions, as we well know, Jewish thought and religious principles have not been frozen in the canons of Orthodox rabbinic literature. To the contrary, the fact that the vast majority of Jews in the world define themselves as non-Orthodox speaks volumes about the evolution of Jewish life.  Reform and Conservative religious Jews in particular define our faith and practice not only in modern terms of reference but substantively with a more comprehensive appreciation of classical Jewish thought and principles.

The fundamental difference between Orthodox Judaism and the modern streams of Judaism can be explained in the difference between living an insular life of religious observance, what moderns refer to as priestly practice as compared to an integrated life of the priestly and prophetic.

In modern Jewish thought the prophetic narrative is accentuated by affirming the moral and ethical principles articulated by Hosea, Amos, Isaiah and other major and minor biblical prophets. For modern progressive Jews, to be Jewish is to strive to live a moral life. To work towards a more just and ethical society. To condemn economic and social inequalities. To fight against racism and intolerance. To affirm the inherent right of all people to life and to help create the conditions which are necessary to ensure social justice. And above all else it is to work to create a world of peace.

We do not reject the tradition, we incorporate it, all of it into our understanding of Judaism and Jewish life. We are religiously observant but we recognize that our symbols and practices carry a profound message of human responsibility and commitment beyond our own community. Although it is rarely acknowledged, the rabbinic tradition does speak to a reality beyond that of our own.

“I call heaven and earth to witness that whether one be Gentile or Jew, man or woman, slave or free, the divine spirit rests on each in accordance with his deeds.” Yalkut Shimeoni in Judges, Section 42.

 

“Upon three things the world rests, upon justice, upon truth and upon peace. And the three are one, for when justice is done, truth prevails and peace is established.”  Jerusalem Talmud, Ta’anit 4:2

As an Israeli Reform Rabbi I recognize my responsibility to act out the principles of my faith in religious observance and social engagement. This is what distinguishes me from Orthodox rabbis. My horizon of responsibility goes beyond the narrow confines of the Jewish community. It encompasses all who live in Israel, Jew and non-Jew alike. And it reaches beyond our own country into the troubled world in which we all live.

In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Heschel also explained that, “to us, a single act of injustice is a slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.”

If believing and living as I do makes me a “clown” or “mentally ill” so be it. Would that there were many others like me and my colleagues.

Stanley Ringler is an Israeli reform rabbi and social activist.

 

 

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Convention Israel

An Eternal Optimist in the Land of Israel

What a powerful week of study, friendship, camaraderie and spirituality.  During the CCAR convention this week, over 300 rabbis, spouses and friends gathered together to learn, pray and (re)experience the joys of Israel.  In our final day, we traveled to the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya.   We began the morning with a panel moderated by Rabbi Rick Block.  This panel, in which we were able to learn from Professor Uriel Reichman, IDC Herzliya President and founder and Amnon Rubinstein, former Minister of Justice and Education, discussed 10 questions facing Israel today, focusing on Israel and Democracy. Shortly after the panel, we were addressed by Ron Prosor, the Permanent Israeli Ambassador to the UN, who gave us an overview of some of the challenges of being an Ambassador for Israel to the UN.  These morning sessions really helped to give an “inside look” not only at the political situation Israel finds herself in, but also to the positive possibilities that lie ahead for Israel and her neighbors.

After a short coffee break, we were broken up into 3 tracks: 1) Start Up Nation and the Israeli Entrepreneurship Spirit, 2) The Crisis of Governance in the Middle East: Implications for Israel and 3) Between Positive Psychology and Education.  As I am really interested in how Israel is able to maneuver as the only Democracy in the Middle East, I chose to go to the section option: looking at the Crisis of Governance in the Middle East.  The presenter, Amichai Magen, is a senior lecturer at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya.  In his lecture, Magen began by presenting a triangle of the Modern International Order.  This triangle, with Peace in the middle, had as its three points: International Organizations, Economic Interdependence and Democracy, with arrows going from every point to every other point.  According to Magen, true peace can only be obtained when the governance structures really do have relationships that lead to and depend on each other.IMG_0606

Israel, a very young country, is actually one of the oldest Democracies on Earth.  This is significant, as she is surrounded in Northern Africa and the rest of the Middle East by nations that are neither democratic and are not served by major world institutions such as the Euro League.  The situation really does begin to fall apart and becomes extremely fragile when those institutions that are specifically created to help to proctor peace are either not in existence or under-utilized, whichever the case may be.  There are major consequences of this crisis of governance in the MENA (Middle East and Northern Africa) region which include conditions of instability, understated uncertainty in the area regarding diplomacy among others, threats to regional security, and of course humanitarian problems.

While this area of the world does seem to be in a constant state of flux and can sometimes be scary and/or at least frustrating for Israelis, there are also some areas of good, some areas of hope.  To start with, there is some room for alignment (even it is luke-warm at best) of key interests between Israel and the pragmatic Arab states of Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia towards an “Axis of Stability” in the region.  With the rise of Kurdish autonomy and possible statehood, there is a chance for Turkish-Israeli rapprochement.  This would certainly give Israel another potential partner in the region– a plus for anyone who supports and loves Israel.

This convention challenged each and every one of us in so many ways, and I leave Israel to head back to my community with more knowledge – with lots of ideas and ways to help educate and inform my congregation.  Israel is not perfect; however, she is a beacon of hope in a region that unfortunately has very little hope.  As the only democracy in the region, Israel must continue to lead the way in so many areas – in her democracy and human rights to begin with.  While I believe this region has a long road ahead, I do believe that peace will come…with God’s help, sooner or later.  Dr. Magen ended his presentation with the following quote, “Anyone who doesn’t believe in miracles is not a realist,” by David Ben-Gurion.  Yes, this is why Dr. Magen, and I as well, remain an eternal optimist with respects to Israel and her neighbors.

Rabbi Erin Boxt  serves Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta, Georgia.  This is his third time at a CCAR Convention.

Categories
Convention Israel

The Orchard of Abraham’s Children

There is only one nursery school in all of Israel that has Jewish and Muslim children enrolled together. It’s in Jaffa, a mixed Arab-Jewish town, alongside Tel Aviv.

One day this past week, I went to visit along with 30 American and Canadian Reform Rabbis as part of our CCAR annual meeting in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. We gathered in the school’s backyard garden and playground near a chicken coop with very raucous roosters. The school is aptly called “The Orchard of Abraham’s Children.”

Ihab Balha is the school manager, and he greeted us warmly. He’s in his early 40s, is tall with cascading long black-gray hair framing his handsome olive-colored face. He wore the long white robe of a Sufi mystic. He speaks beautiful Hebrew and he told us his unusual story about how this school came to be created.

Ihab grew up in the house in which the school welcomes the children each day. He is one of four or five children of a loving Palestinian Arab Muslim family. However, his father’s love only went so far. He hated Jews with an uncommon passion, and he taught his children to hate Jews as well.

When Ihab was 16, he attempted to fire-bomb a synagogue. When he was 20, he encountered Jews for the first time with a group of Palestinian friends. Each side took the opportunity to release their pent-up venom and rage toward the other. Something strange happened, however, in the verbal assaults. Ihab and the others (Jews and Arabs both) wanted more opportunities to be heard and to listen. Soon, they realized that their bigotry was not rationally based, that there was humanity in the other and that they shared far more than they had ever imagined. That realization launched them into a dialogue series that transformed them.

Ihab didn’t initially confide with his parents that he was participating in these conversations nor that his attitudes about Jews were changing. At long last he told his parents, but there was a serious fall-out with his father. They did not speak nor see one another for the next five years, a painful time for the entire family. For comfort and wisdom, Ihab turned to Islam and the Quran, and he became a Sufi mystic.

After the 2nd Intifada in 2002, Ihab attended a discussion between an Imam and a Rabbi, both of whom had lost children because of the violence. In 2006, Ihab helped to organize a conference of Muslims and Jews that was attended by 5000 Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews at Latrun on the road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the site of an historic battle in the War of Independence. Around that time, Ihab reconciled with his parents. In 2008, his family made pilgrimage to Mecca.

At the age of 35, Ihab met and fell madly in love with Ora, an Israeli Jewish woman. They married two days after they met, and he struggled with how to tell his parents. Because Jaffa is a small town and his family is well known, everyone knew that he had married but no one knew who was his bride.

Ihab and Ora decided to introduce her to the family without revealing that they were, in truth, married. He brought her home along with a group of Jewish and Palestinian Arab “friends,” the first time Jews had ever set foot in the Balha home. Ihab’s father told Ora and the other Jews how he hated and resented Jews who he believed had stolen so much from the Palestinians during the 1948 War. He did like Ora – a lot.

His parents kept asking Ihab why they had not yet met his bride and when that would happen. At last, when cousins came to visit from Holland, using them as a buffer, one of the cousins told his parents: “You have met Ihab’s wife. She is there (pointing at Ora)!”

Ihab’s father exploded: “You Jews have stolen everything from us, and now you steal from me my son!?”

Ora said, “I love your son.”

Ora was soon pregnant with their first child, and she and Ihab decided that they wanted to raise their son with Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslim Arabs. They envisioned starting a nursery school but needed a building. Ihab’s parents volunteered their house. Today, the school has 200 children who come every day . They call the school “The Orchard Of Abraham’s Children.” Ora is the Director and Ihab is the Manager. Ihab’s father visits the kids each day and is a loving “grandfather” to them all, Arab and Jew.

This story is remarkable in so many ways, most especially because it shows the transformation that can be experienced by enemies, and about what happens when we listen and seek to understand the “other.” It’s about learning the other’s narrative, and how empathy and compassion are critical in the building of friendship, community and a shared society.

After Ihab shared his remarkable story, I said to him: “Ihab – You have experienced great pain!”

“Yes,” he said, “but also great joy!”

Rabbi John Rosove serves Temple Israel of Hollywood, California.