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The Fast That I Desire: Honoring Esther, Seeking Justice

Our world has not been perfect for quite a long time.

In every age, our people have struggled to act in ways that can bring our world as-it-is ever closer to the world we know needs to be.  Two thousand years ago, when facing ravaging drought, plaguing disease, or devastating pestilence, our ancestors would abstain from food and drink.  We read of their reasoning in the Talmud: a fast day is decreed to petition God for compassion and the removal of calamity (Palestinian Talmud, Taanit 4a.  The title of the tractate, Taanit, is the word for “Fast”).   The hope of old was that the community’s choice to deprive itself of basic necessities would arouse Divine Compassion, and change the future for the better.

As we prepare for Purim, we remember how our heroine, Esther, spoke truth to power in Persia.  When Mordechai told her of Haman’s horrendous plot, Esther advised Ahasuerus to alter the royal decree; the story of the Megillah that bears her name testifies that Esther’s bravery and leadership prevented a great calamity from befalling our people.  But if the vivid picture that remains in our mind is of the Queen daring to speak up and challenge the King, often we forget a small detail that precedes this epochal moment.  When Mordechai tells Esther of Haman’s wicked counsel, her response is simple: Esther asks Mordechai to proclaim three days of fasting for the entire Jewish community of Shushan.  Esther hoped that a community united in purpose could not just alter royal rule, but even could help avert an unfortunate Divine Decree.

Our Jewish calendar commemorates Esther’s request by observing Taanit Esther—the Fast of Esther—every year, on the day before Purim.  In my entire life, I must admit, I have never observed this “minor fast” (as our tradition calls it).  But this year is different.  From the evening of March 12th through to sunset on the 13th, I will observe Taanit Esther as I never have before: I will abstain from food and drink.  What make this year different from all other years?

This year, the National Council of Jewish Women has led the charge in organizing Jewish women to fast on Taanit Esther in order to speak truth to power—human and maybe even Divine—in our day.  A national group, We Belong Together, is partnering with SEIU and the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), in leading a month-long, nationwide women’s action involving daily fasts for immigration reform. NCJW is sharing in this project by bringing together Jewish women (and some sympathetic male rabbis, such as myself) in a religious fast on March 13th.  On that day, our community will be united in speaking up for the immigrant women and families in our communities who suffer because of a broken immigration system that divides families and keeps many of our undocumented neighbors fearfully living in the shadows.   In the spirit of Queen Esther, Jewish women will fast on this sacred day in order to rouse compassion—Divine and maybe even human—for the immigrant community in America.

I hope our fast brings not only compassion, but also justice.  Unfortunately, in today’s immigration system, justice is far from achieved. Justice is delayed for the millions of family members who face up to decades-long backlogs in acquiring visas. It is denied to the 11 million undocumented immigrants who must live in the shadows of our society, away from the protective shelter of workplace standards and legal recourse. It is delayed for the 5,000 children who entered the foster care system when their parents were deported. It is denied for the LGBT Americans who cannot sponsor the visa of a spouse or partner the same way that a straight husband or wife can. We as Americans—we as Jews—can no longer delay our own pursuit of justice. The time is now to fix this broken system.

When our ancestors faced the broken systems of winds that brought locusts, or skies that held back the rains, they organized a fast.  They wondered, as Ruth Calderon captures:  What has the power to cause rain to fall?  What can bring the abundance of the heavens down on a parched Earth? What succeeds in piercing the hardened heart of a God who withholds rain? (Ruth Calderon, A Bride for One Night, p. 4).

I wonder in our day: What succeeds in piercing the hardened heart of a Congress, a House of Representatives, the government of the United States of America, who withhold justice? Our current immigration system fails to reflect the values I hold most dear as a Jew and an American. For too long, justice has been denied to 11 million undocumented men, women, and children.  As a Rabbi, I am proud to stand with American Jewish women: united, we have the power to stand together and use the Fast of Esther to demonstrate our resolve to ensure immigration reform remains a top priority in the House of Representatives and becomes a reality for the United States of America.  As happened to our heroic Queen Esther, the time has come for us to speak truth to power.

Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is rabbi of 
Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk, New York.
This post originally appeared on

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In Response to Kansas Bill HB2453

This speech was delivered at the Equality Kansas Rally on February 25, 2014, in opposition to Kansas Bill HB2453, which explicitly protects religious individuals, groups, and businesses that refuse services to same-sex couples.

Look around you! Look where you are standing! You are standing at the State Capitol in Topeka, Kansas. In less than 3 months, on May 17th, it will be exactly 60 years since the Supreme Court of the United States decided that school segregation is illegal and against the Constitution of the United States. 

My God, people: have our legislators learned nothing?  How long will God tolerate our stubborn insistence rebelling against God’s word: Human beings are created, every one of us, in God’s own image?

I am Mark Levin. I am a Jew; I am a rabbi; and I am a founder of the Mainstream Coalition.

I am here today as an American, the land of the free and the home of the brave.  I know what preserves our freedom. It’s the rule of law.

I remember segregated schools. I attended racially segregated schools. How dare people in Topeka, Kansas, 60 years after Brown vs. the Board of Education, argue that religious exclusionists have a right to exclude citizens from equality? Many churches argued that blacks were inferior human beings, and did not have the right to be educated with whites, as the local Westboro Baptist Church argues that God hates gays today.  Really!  Our legislature wants to side with the Westboro Church? 

What protected those African American families, the 13 families and 20 children who sued the Board of Education for equal rights under the law? What integrated our schools and brought African Americans and whites together: equality under the law!

“NO JEWS OR DOGS ALLOWED.” That sign kept my father out of the public swimming pool where I as a child swam 30 years later. My father was routinely called a Christ-killer; only one anonymous phone-caller ever dared call me “a damn Jew.” Between dad’s childhood and mine came the Nazi murder of millions of Jews, gays, lesbians, and Roma. American soldiers fought the Nazis. The Nazis murdered Jews. Therefore suddenly in the public mind Jew-hater meant Nazi. Auschwitz killed the Nazi brand because it taught where hatred leads.

In my father’s childhood, businesses discriminated by religious belief. In Johnson County the City of Leawood excluded Jewish and African American home ownership. Blacks could not swim in my childhood pool in Baltimore because they were considered inferior to whites. All this murder and hatred was religiously justified.

Fashions change. Hatred remains. The Nazis made hating Jews unfashionable, at least overtly in polite society. But the law forbids Americans to turn their religious hatred into refusal to do business. Society demands that if you are open for business to anyone you are open for business to everyone.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 legally ended discrimination in public accommodations against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities, and women. Restaurants had to serve blacks, no matter how much a religion justified hatred. But now, some Kansans again seek to get the law to permit their religious hatred of other Americans. We’ve walked this path before.  Have we learned nothing from hatred and bigotry?

Christians and Jews both believe in a God of love. Genesis teaches that all humans are created in God’s own image. For those who believe that there is to be divine punishment of actions you consider to be a sin, then let God take care of it. God commands God’s people to love the image of God: every human being

We do hold something sacred as a nation and a people: it’s called the Declaration of Independence of the United States of American:  We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

We are the mainstream in Kansas.  We are the truly religious, who value God’s creation.  Let segregation, bigotry, and hatred cease. Let us rise to the love that God commands for all of God’s creatures.

Rabbi Mark H. Levin, DHL, is the Founding Rabbi of Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park, KS.  He was ordained at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati in 1976.


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Judaism and Immigration Reform

Judaism has something to say about Immigration Reform. And, it starts with Welcoming the Stranger, and Protecting the Weak.

Immigration Reform has been a hot issue, these past few months. A Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill has recently passed through the Senate, and the house is now debating what, if any, bill it might pass. What does Judaism have to offer this conversation?

Clearly, there isn’t a single “correct” Jewish position on Immigration Reform. That’s especially true when we’re talking about specific policies or legislation. Judaism doesn’t tell us precisely how long is too long for a path to citizenship to take. Judaism has little if anything to offer in helping us decide what percentage, precisely, of our money should we be spending on border security, as opposed to other aspects of Immigration policy.

But, Judaism does have quite a bit to say about values — which values should be important to us, and which values should undergird our society.

One of the values integral to Judaism is Hachnasot Orchim—welcoming the stranger. Welcoming the stranger has always been part of Judaism. In the Book of Genesis, we hear of Abraham, the first Jew, who was sitting in the entrance of his tent, when three strangers passed by. He immediately invited them in, and treated them like royalty — preparing a meal for them himself, not even letting his servants do it for him. That was probably fairly common and expected — we still see echoes of this kind of behavior in that part of the world. Our people inherited this tradition, and we built it into our theology.

You see, there is a natural, human tendency to favor those to whom we are the closest. We tend to take care of our own, and to be wary or afraid of “the other.” The mitzvah of welcoming the stranger is, in part, a counterbalance to this reflex. It reminds us that this person, whom I do not know is, among other things, a human being. And that means that they were created in the image of God. The moment I encounter him or her, I have an obligation to him or her. There is no one — not a single, solitary person — from whom I can completely turn away, and to whom I have no obligation.

These people — these immigrants — who are not, at least not yet, part of our nation are still people. And we have an obligation towards them. We have to welcome them.

We can’t welcome everyone equally, of course. No one is suggesting that we don’t have any Immigration policy — that we open our borders and make everyone and anyone a citizen. But, our starting place has to be one of care and welcoming. We have to work to figure out how we can bring the greatest number of people possible into our country, and into our lives, rather than starting from a place of rejection and isolationism.

It would be incredibly ironic for us, as Jews, to be less than welcoming when it comes to immigration policy. Because, we’ve often been the victim of it. We’ve been the victims of restrictions on our own migrations for centuries. We’ve fled persecution and been told, time and again, “you’re not welcome here.” Even when others were trying to wipe our people off the map, we’ve been told to go somewhere else. Just not here.

And, in less dramatic times, we still had to leave one home to seek a better life elsewhere. Very few of us in the Jewish community have an American heritage which goes back more than a few generations. We are a people of immigrants in a nation of immigrants. It is our repeated memory of being a stranger in a strange land which is supposed to drive our moral dedication to helping others to never feel like strangers themselves. Or, as it says in Leviticus (19:33-34), “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Because we were strangers, we know how it feels. And so, we are commanded to help other strangers. We have an obligation to immigrants not in spite of the fact that they are strangers, but precisely because of it.

We also have to remember that many immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are among the most vulnerable in our society. And that’s another, perhaps even greater reason that we are obligated to help them. We are told over and over that we are obligated to protect the weak — the Bible commands us to protect the widow and the orphan, because those categories were the weakest, and the most vulnerable, in ancient society.

By contrast, “They’re not my problem” appears exactly never in our text.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the specifics of policy, discussions about “who should get in first” and rhetoric about amnesty and such that we can forget a very basic, fundamental fact: we’re talking about people here. Were talking about people — not “illegals,” but people — who are suffering. People who, perhaps because they came here illegally, are not afforded, or do not know about, the legal protections to which they are entitled. They are exploited and abused, with startling regularity and severity. Even if we hold them accountable for entering this country illegally, it should still shock our moral centers that human beings are treated in this way. Workers are abused physically, and are threatened with deportation should they utter any protest, or seek help. Children are left without their parents, often put in dubious foster care, because their parents were deported, while they weren’t. Husbands and wives are kept apart for years and years because the one who came here, legally or not, doesn’t have the right, or perhaps just the resources, to bring their loved one over. Young women are forced into slavery and the sex trade, because as far as society is concerned, they don’t even exist. It’s an abomination.

As I said, the policy issues are deeply, deeply complicated. And, no one policy, or set of policies, is going to solve all these problems. But, that simply doesn’t give us the right to lose our sense of empathy for people who are suffering. The fact that we can’t make the problem go away in no way diminishes our responsibility to make it better. We have to remember that behind every story, behind every argument, behind every policy debate live real people with real lives. And they’re in real pain.

That, more than anything else, drives my support of Immigration Reform. It is a belief that, flawed, imperfect and incomplete as it will inevitably be, it is a step in the direction of justice, and of mercy. It is a step in the direction of forging a society which more closely holds to the ideals and values set out in our tradition.

Your conscience will tell you how to act, when it comes to laws and policies. Judaism can’t tell you, and neither can I, which candidate to support, or which bill to protest. but, I urge you to do something. Call your Senator, or call your representative. Urge them to act. Urge them to act in a way which will make our country, and our society, a place which welcomes the stranger, protects the weak, and strives to be a shining example of our greatest ideals.

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg is rabbi of Congregation Beth Am in Tampa, Florida.  This is a version of the sermon he gave at Congregation Beth Am on Friday, July 19th.

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Help Needed Now for People with Disabilities Worldwide: UN Disability Treaty

Hillel, asks, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14)

This month’s U.S. legislative agenda will give Americans with disabilities and their supporters (including we Jews) the opportunity to respond fully to the last two of Hillel’s three questions.  We can respond positively –IF we choose to take part in the current Senate debate regarding the ratification of the UN Disability Treaty.

What seems like yesterday to some of us and a world ago to others, the ADA became the law of the land.  Prior to that, we people with disabilities were treated as second class citizens.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, Americans with disabilities and our friends were “for ourselves” when we for the first time in history became an organized political force.  We did not rest until in 1990 we were given the full rights we U.S. citizens deserved.

No one was “for us” had we not been “for ourselves.” How dare we now sit back and be “only for ourselves,” enjoying our public accommodations or basking in our lawful, if not fully implemented, access to opportunity without looking outside of ourselves, beyond our borders.

We need not look far to see that worldwide not only are basic rights denied to people with disabilities but punishment is incurred simply for being born with or acquiring a disability.  It is tragic that throughout the world people with disabilities are denied fundamental rights.

Drafted in 2006, the UN Disability Treaty officially called “The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” or “CRPD” addresses this worldwide concern.  The UN Disability Treaty gives international affirmation to the rights of people with disabilities to equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency.

In 2009 our UN Ambassador signed the UN Disability Treaty on behalf of the U.S.  As per UN requirements, it now must be ratified by the U.S. legislature.  By U.S. law that means it takes a two-thirds majority senate vote.

Last winter, your voices helped bring the CRPD to a vote in the Senate, where it disappointingly failed by just five votes.  This summer, the Disability Treaty is to be considered for ratification once again by the U.S. Senate.

Therefore, we must define Hillel’s “what we are” by once again speaking out loudly – this time for those other than ourselves.  We all must educate our communities to write letters, make calls or actually visit senators and tell them, “You must vote YES to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities!”

We must especially urge all Republicans to vote “yes” and we must communicate our support of the “yes” leanings of Democrats.

We have many Americans who are “for us” now – Americans with and without disabilities. Let us take their hands.  Lead them to do what’s right.

The Disability Treaty is based on U.S. law.  The United States needs to continue to lead this effort on a global scale. According to UN procedure, the U.S. cannot formally have a leadership place at the table if we do not ratify it.

Those forces that oppose the Convention are small but mighty.  Senators are receiving 100 “anti” letters to one “pro” letter.  Many use unfounded religious reasons for opposition so we need to use our religious voices when we urge our senators to vote “Yes.”

And we must all ask ourselves, “If not now, when?”

Here are 3 easy ways you can help pursue justice for the one billion people around the world who live with a disability:

  1. Email your Senators, and urge those in your community to do the same. If you’d like sermon starters or talking points, let the RAC know.
  2. Your Senator will be home this week for the July 4th recess. Set up a meeting to speak with your Senator by calling his/her office.  To find your senators’ local office information, please go to:    This meeting can have exponentially more effect than an email or a phone call. If you’d like talking points or tips for the meeting, the RAC would be happy to help you out!
  3. The press can amplify your voice. Submit a letter to the editor or an op-ed to your local papers. The Religious Action Center has sample language you can use and can help you place the article as well.

Thank you for your continued support towards equal opportunity and full inclusion for all. With your help, we hope to see our country step up once again to its role as a global civil rights leader.

If you have any questions or for more information, please feel free to email RAC Eisendrath Legislative Assistant Raechel Banks at  or call 202.387.2800 to speak with Raechel.

Rabbi Lynne Landsberg is the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s senior adviser on disability issues, co-chair of the Jewish Disability Network and co-chair of the Committee on Disability Awareness and Inclusion of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

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On This Side of History – A Personal Reflection on Marriage Equality

What does it feel like
when a human-made law
tells you your relationship isn’t worth as much as that of others
even when you’ve been together 10 years, 20 years, 60 years?
What does it feel like for your religious marriage ceremony to not be backed by your government?

Before today, I couldn’t tell you, because it was too oppressive,
and I didn’t want to explore the pressures it forced upon my life.

But today, on this side of history, I can say
that the Supreme Court decisions of June 26, 2013
feel like sunshine breaking through the clouds.
That the Creator is shining down
renewing the covenantal promise
that we are indeed created in the Divine image.
It feels like a heavy rush hour traffic suddenly clearing
and all road blocks have been taken away.
It feels like we are 10,000 feet up and now free to move about the cabin.
It feels like news that a disease has gone into remission.

One of life’s major obstacles have been removed
and instead of our government working against our family unit,
it is supporting it, rooting for us.

It feels like we are marching through the parted waters of the Red Sea,
on our way to freedom.

It feels like people have confidence in our ability to make the world a beautiful place,
instead of begrudgingly tolerating us.

It feels like justice.
It feels like intentional, sincere hugs and cheers.
It feels joyous, empowering and deeply affirming.

It feels like we are a true part of the community and that we are blessed.

Rabbi Heather Miller serves several congregational communities in Los Angeles, CA. Prior to ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2008, she majored in Peace and Justice Studies and Africana Studies at Wellesley College in Wellesley, MA. She and her wife, Melissa de la Rama, were named the 2013 Liberty Hill Foundation “Leaders to Watch.” Learn more at

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Lobbying for Immigration in Sacramento: Reform CA in Action

What does it mean to be part of a movement? What could it look like if we actually moved together?

On Thursday May 23rd forty-two Californian Reform Jews answered that question as we gathered in Sacramento for a day of lobbying and learning. A beautiful mix of clergy and community members, we took our message of justice and equality to the State Capitol. Our day was filled with individual lobby visits to thirty Assembly Members and state Senators as well as a meeting with Governor Brown’s office and with Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. That morning, as we stood together on the steps of the Capitol, preparing ourselves for this ambitious day of meetings, we offered words of prayer. Rabbi Jason Gwasdoff from Stockton reminded us that although we pray in separate synagogues, we offer the same words, to the same God, for the same reasons. As we sang Shehecheyanu, we not only thanked God for bringing us to the Capitol to do justice, we thanked God for bringing us together as a movement.

It was the first lobby day of Reform CA, a new initiative for the California Reform Movement to act powerfully together for justice in our state. Over the past 18 months, more than 120 Reform rabbis and communities have come together to create Reform CA with a goal of restoring the California dream.  Once upon a time, California represented openness, fairness, and equality; progressive thought, investment in education and infrastructure, and cutting edge innovation. A family could move to our state, afford a home, send their children to excellent, publicly-funded schools and colleges, and find meaningful, well-paying jobs. Some of us remember living the California dream, while others of us grew up hearing stories of the California that once was. As a project of all the social justice initiatives of the Reform Movement: the Peace and Justice Committee of the CCAR, the Religious Action Center, and the Union for Reform Judaism’s Just Congregations, we feel called to come together as a Movement to play a role in repairing the California dream. We are joining with one another to address systemic issues of injustice that hurt our families and our brothers and sisters across lines of race, class, and faith. As Rabbis who were ordained together and work down the street from one another, it took Reform CA and our collective passion to act for justice to bring us together and reignite within us the that flame of partnership.

We were in Sacramento to press for just immigration reform in our state, specifically passage of the TRUST Act, which would remedy the effect of the Secure Communities program, a federal law which has created a climate of fear in the immigrant community and has adversely affected law enforcement’s ability to make our towns, cities and state safer. Currently, immigrants picked up by police for minor misdemeanors – something as small as a broken taillight – can be held for deportation. The TRUST Act will help address the shortcomings in our current immigration system by permitting deportation holds on undocumented immigrants only if they have a serious or violent felony. This legislation will restore the trust between immigrant communities and local police and aid the continued fighting of crime in California’s towns and cities.

We learn in Pirke Avot, “Do not separate yourself from the community,” but our immigrant brothers and sisters are forced to live in the shadows and separate themselves from the community and the California dream. We hope that we will continue to march together on the path of justice as we exit the walls of our individual institutions and join together as a unified movement.

 Rabbi Rachel Timoner is Associate Rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple, Los Angeles, CA.

Rabbi Joel Thal Simonds is Associate Rabbi at University Synagogue, Los Angeles, CA.


Reform CA Sacramento Lobby Day


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Serve the Eternal With Joy

4583201560_2797e92db7_oThe Psalmist calls to us, “Serve the Eternal with joy!”

For three days, participants of the Consultation on Conscience heard from pollsters about faith and Tikkun Olam; we sat at the feet of US Ambassador Susan Rice, Sister Simone Campbell and “Nuns on the Bus,” and Rabbi Sharon Brous to discuss the role of faith in our pursuit of progressive social change; and we learned from staff at the Religious Action Center about how to lobby more effectively, about outstanding local social justice programs for our communities, and about the energetic Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Campaign for fair and humane immigration reform. We discussed violence against the human spirit, were weighted down with stories of gun violence and human rights abuses, and discussed how to face the obstacles of cynicism, callousness, and despair.

For a group of Balfour Brickner Rabbinic Fellows, we added powerful stories of the moments that called us to social justice; for some it was being bullied and beaten up years ago in high school; for others, it was the recognition we had been that bully. Powerful, prescient, evocative stories about the Divine spark bursting our hearts open and demanding we respond to the great moral injustices of our day with compassion, fortitude, and determination to make tikkun real.

And then, after sowing tears of pain and trauma, we responded to the call to Serve the Eternal with joy:

More than 20 of us went to a local Washington, DC bar where young professionals head after work. Teams of people were engaged in a karaoke competition, the contemporary version of a camp sing down.

What were a bunch of serious, social justice rabbis to do?

With words projected on the screen against the backdrop of contestants adorned in costumes from the fanciful Village People to the absurd Rocky Horry Picture Show to the romantic Dirty Dancing and music blared through the room, we danced.

934150_10151582488811113_1513506451_nIt was powerful, joyous, effervescent. With laughter and movement, humor and a bit of awkward brilliance, we belted out lyrics to Time Warp and Time of My Life; we paused in the midst of our learning and pursuit of social justice to touch a different—and yet vital—part of our souls that longed to soar.

It was funny and fabulous and rejuvenating. And some of our colleagues can dance! For a few hours amidst the sacred work of the Consultation on Conscience, we opened our hearts and joyously sang a new song unto God.

“It’s astounding;
Time is fleeting;
Madness takes its toll.
But listen closely…”

Let’s do the time warp again!

Rabbi Michael Latz is the senior rabbi of Shir Tikvah in Minneapolis, MN.

CCAR on the Road Ethics Israel

Israel: Reaffirming Hope

This past January I had the privilege of serving as the co-chair, along with Arnie Gluck, of the CCAR’s trip to Israel.  One of the foci of the trip was social justice in Israel, and as the trip approached, I grew increasingly concerned that I was about to spend a week hearing about everything that is going wrong in a land I love.  I am delighted that the feeling with which I returned was hope.  And last week, the CCAR Convention’s panel on Israel reaffirmed that hope.   While Israel’s challenges are profound, many of the people in Israel who are working to address them, including our colleagues, are deeply inspiring.

MK Ruth Calderon
MK Ruth Calderon

One of the biggest problems in Israel is the treatment of women.  But panelist David Siegel, who serves as the Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles (serving all of Southwestern USA), delivered a message of careful optimism.  He referred to one of my role models, Dr. Ruth Calderon, whose introductory speech in the Knesset has now been viewed on YouTube almost 225,000 times. If you have not yet watched it, drop everything, and do so now (there are subtitles).

MK Ruth Calderon’s speech demonstrated the power of so many things that I hold dear: Jewish teaching, progressive Judaism, strong female leaders, the ability of words to touch lives.  Her speech was a potent reminder that sometimes strength lies not in physical force, but in being a great teacher.  And that gives me hope.

The international attention to her speech has been analyzed along with the response to the arrests of participants in Women of the Wall (WOW), signaling that there is not only an increased awareness of women’s issues in Israel, but that there is enough momentum for us to engage in a discussion of both values and tactics. Panelist Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, our incoming National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and President’s Scholar at HUC, is a staunch supporter of WOW, and pointed out how their struggle has become a case study in some of the most salient questions facing Israel, including the role of women, the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Judaism, and the relevance of diaspora Jewry.  I am not so naïve as to think that these issues will be quickly and easily resolved, but as women in Israel are standing up in the Knesset and at the Kotel, Jews around the world are paying attention.

It is quite possible that, as Rabbi Gilad Kariv (IMPJ’s Executive Director) suggested at the panel, the increased attention to WOW, which has been active for 25 years, is partly due to

Women of the Wall
Women of the Wall

Jerusalem’s illegally segregated buses.  There is a lot that must be done to combat gender segregation in Israel, but I am encouraged by the work of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), which won the supreme court battle to make segregation on public buses illegal, and has sent hundreds of “Freedom Riders” (including our CCAR group in January) to monitor whether the anti-harassment and anti-segregation laws are being upheld.

Adding to the influence of these politicians, activists, and advocates, are Israeli Reform rabbis serving in congregations, including Rabbi Maya Leibowitz of Kehilat Mevasseret Zion.  She said at the panel that these rabbis “are change agents for the soul of the country.”  As they help their congregants reclaim a Jewish spiritual life, they are also helping them to reclaim a message about social justice that is deeply rooted in our tradition.

Before closing the panel, Rabbi Gluck solicited the panelists’ requests to American Reform Rabbis.  These included:

  • In messaging on Israel, tough love is good, but it can’t always be tough–when we criticize Israel, we also need to say what we’re proud of
  • Engage all levels of government
  • Bring Israel to the pulpit
  • Teach our communities about not just the start-up nation, but the “bottom up״ nation
  • Strengthen the commitment of Reform Jews to Israel, particularly by arranging home hospitality when we bring congregants to Israel
  • Remember that WZO elections are vital in Israel and encourage our congregants to register to vote
  • Send our young adults on Birthright trips
  • Join WOW at the Kotel for Rosh Chodesh
  • Don’t stop asking where the check is for Rabbi Miri Gold, whose historic victory in June 2012 entitled her to government funding for her work that she has not yet received
  • Continue to support Israeli institutions that are doing great work, and invest in the Movement.

David Siegel, Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Gilad Kariv, and Maya Leibowitz each, in their own way, provided sophisticated analysis of Israel’s challenges, but also provided hope, and the inspiration to act on it.

 Rabbi Ariana Silverman serves Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield, MI.

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Immigration Reform: A Renewed Call to Action

potsdam01Immigration is an age old topic that we as Jews have been considering from the beginnings of our history.  Welcoming the stranger is not a new concept for us.  We know that the Torah commands us “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 2:20).  For Jews in particular, we understand and empathize with “welcome the stranger” as we are a people oft denied basic liberties throughout our history in the Diaspora.

Now fast-forward thousands of years.  Many of you, like me, are the children of immigrants who came to this country as strangers.  My parents fled a war-torn Europe that offered them no hope; that sought to take their lives because they were Jews.   America for our parents was the Goldeneh Medina, a place of that offered them a new life with economic and religious opportunity.   Growing up, we always heard the stories that helped us know that the United States was a beacon of light and hope to them, as it was to generations who arrived before them and as it must be in the future.

While the waves of European immigrants faced their own trials immigrating to this country, and far too many have been turned away, there is no doubt how blessed we are that the United States opened its borders to European refugees.   And we remember those who fought the battle to open the doors of immigration which at times were closed, as well as our relatives and others turned away because of quotes and other restrictions

Today, the U.S. immigration system is broken.  We turn away or kick out those who can help build our intellectual, economic and social infrastructure; we IMG_3829criminalize those who seek a better life and deprive them of basic liberties; we subject far too many to policies and enforcement that are unfair and demeaning.  And, bottom line, we do not effectively prevent unauthorized immigration.

Our core values push us to fight for the right of the immigrant to be treated fairly and justly.  The Reform Rabbinate has for years pushed for a comprehensive approach: improve border security and immigration law enforcement, provide for a just and fair path to citizenship for those in the country without legal documentation, provide basic protections for workers, and be inclusive of LGBT families.

These are not new concepts.  For nearly 100 years, the CCAR has “urged our nations to keep the gates of the republic open” (CCAR Resolution, 1920).  In 2006, the Reform Rabbinate again declared that the CCAR:

  • Affirms that the United States is a nation of laws, to be enforced and respected to maintain a civil society. At the same time, we expect that — especially in a Constitutional republic founded on principles of human dignity — the laws must be both just and equitable.
  • Applauds and supports our nation’s leaders who call for comprehensive immigration reform, which would include a guest worker program and a path to earned legalization.
  • Commits itself to advocacy for an immigration law that improves border security, provides for guest workers, and for a “just and fair path to citizenship.”

The time is now for action – a unique opportunity in our society.  This week the Reform Rabbinate is taking concrete steps forward.  In the next few days and weeks, you will hear much more about Immigration Reform from the CCAR as we initiate Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, a joint project of the Reform Movement’s social justice initiatives: the Justice and Peace Committee of the CCAR, the Religious Action Center, and Just Congregations.   Reform Rabbis will receive support so to take action as individuals; involve community members (congregants and other constituents); engage and partner with the broader community; and, lead publicly and support the leadership of others.

The important work of Rabbis Organizing Rabbis offers the opportunity to unite the collective strength of the Reform Rabbinate – and the communities we lead — to unite on this truly important issue. The time has come press President Obama and Congress to pass meaningful immigration reform. I urge you to join in this important cause.


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Israel Blog: Flames of Passion

Reform Mechina Students in Jaffa
Reform Mechina Students in Jaffa

On Rosh Hashanah 2006, following the Second Lebanon War, I spoke about my sense that I could simply stand at the bimah, say “Israel,” sit back in my seat, and we would all witness fireworks as people reacted from all sides with their feelings for, against and about Israel. It’s a sad reality that for so many in our Jewish community, Israel evokes such strong and passionate feelings. For many, there is a sense that we can no longer talk with one another civilly about the subject. In the round of house meetings held throughout my Temple Shalom community two years ago, we learned that one wide-spread concern is that civil discourse is all-too absent in our society these days. In the coming weeks, we will launch a project in which we will have the opportunity to direct our questions, feelings, concerns and passions about Israel into what we hope will be a congregation-wide opportunity for learning and civil discourse. We will have an opportunity to hear the first of a number of incredible speakers who will help us to move beyond headlines and talking heads to learn, and then challenge ourselves to engage one another in facilitated conversation around what we’ve heard and the questions, concerns and passions we each have.

However, as I sit here in Jerusalem, I am drawn to a different sense of the power of passion when it comes to Israel. It is the power of the passions of people I have met over the past week during the CCAR Social Justice and Solidarity Mission in which I was privileged to participate, and in the days since as I have shared coffee, meals and conversation with both friends and strangers from many walks of life in and around Israel, and in more recent days, Jerusalem. There are passions here beyond those found in the political sphere, which came to a head of sorts with last week’s elections. Yes, one can easily tap into abundant passion surrounding discussions of politics. And there is the fever which sweeps Israeli society around its sporting events (I write as the Israel Soccer Cup Final is beginning at Teddy Stadium across the street from where I am sitting and writing these words.) Rather, I am speaking about the passion I encountered in the people, of all ages and of many different backgrounds I have met during the past week.

Some examples: At the beginning of our CCAR Mission we met with the students at our Israel Progressive (Reform) Movement’s Mechina in Jaffa. In Israel, the mechina programs, which abound, are a sort of gap-year for high school graduates, before they begin their military service. The Hebrew word mechina means “preparation,” and the concept behind these programs is to give these young people an opportunity to learn, and do community service, all while maturing a bit before they enter the Army. The Reform Mechina program, has grown from 4 participants in its first year a decade ago, to the 50 students currently in the program. They study Judaism, Jewish texts and explore their Jewish identity, and they spend much of their time volunteering in the Jaffa area — in schools, in community centers, in nursing homes, and in many more settings, working with Jews, Christians and Arabs. These incredibly impressive 18-19 year olds choose to spend a year of social and communal service, for which they pay, while deepening their identity and sense of commitment.

Tira, an Arab-Israeli village in the center of Israel. Dr. Fadila was raised in Tira, one among a number of Arab-Israeli Villages in an area known as “the Triangle,”

Dr. Dalia Fadila
Dr. Dalia Fadila

a wholly Arab area located in the heart of Israel. She received her Masters degree and Doctorate focussing on minority identity and status in society at Bar Ilan University (functionally an Orthodox institution) in Ramat Aviv. Dr. Fadila was the first Arab-Israeli woman to be appointed to a position in higher education in Israel. She has served in various teaching and administrative positions at Al-Qasemi Academy, an Arab College of Education in Bake El-Gharbiya, another Arab village in “the Triangle.” She served for a time as Acting President of the college and currently serves as Provost. An expert on organizational development and a researcher of American literature, women’s literature and ethnic studies, Dr. Fadila is deeply concerned with promoting quality education for Arab students and has established a network of private schools for teaching English called Q Schools – English Language and HR Development which utilizes a unique approach to learning/teaching English suited to Arab students and stemming from the need of these students to develop personally and professionally. The Q stands for quality. Sitting in her school in Tira, we watched and listened to a woman who believes she can changes the lives of young Arab students, and the Arab community through her network of Q Schools which to date has touched the lives of some 2000 students in just a few short years. Listening to Dr. Fadila was like watching flames dance as she captivated us and inspired the members of our group with her passion for education and with her belief that education can change lives and the world. While she is realistic that life for Israeli Arabs has a ways to go, she believes that change will be advanced by instilling a sense of pride, confidence and self-esteem, along with the tools for young Arab students to prepare themselves for life and careers in the 21st century. Dr. Fadila also serves on the faculty at the Israel Defense College in Herzilya. She is a tireless, passionate educator who is changing the world around her one life at a time.

Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz
Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz

There’s also Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, a young modern-Orthodox rabbi who is standing up to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and its Kashrut supervision as he seeks to help shopkeepers and restauranteurs run quality establishments without having to get caught up in the often tangled web of intrigue surrounding kashrut certification in Israel, which is widely known to involve extortion and graft. Or I could write about Elyasaf, a young social entrepreneur who has engaged in creating a number of start-ups in this “Start-Up Nation,” the most recent being Salon Shabazzi in Jerusalem’s Nachlaotneighborhood. The establishment hosts an alternative radio station (a remnant of 2011′s social protest movement); allows local artists and craftspersons to display and sell their wares, provides a cafe for the neighborhood which is also a meeting place for an incredibly diverse range of people; and by the way, has a washer and dryer in the basement, which neighbors are free to use. Elyasaf’s passion is for bringing people together — young and old, gay and straight, men and women, Christians, Muslims and Jews — you get the idea. And it is working!

Elyasaf at Salon Shabazzi with CCAR Mission members
Elyasaf at Salon Shabazzi with CCAR Mission members

We can be passionate about our feelings and concerns surrounding Israel. But this week I learned that there is abundant passion in Israel — for Israel and for change in Israel. These are stories we need to hear. We have to look and listen beyond the headlines and the politics which can all-too-often be discouraging. These are the stories of real people, real Israelis — Jews, Christians, Muslims and others whose passion can light flames in and for us to carry beyond the all-too-frequent challenges that many feel about this neighborhood over here.

More to come . . .

Rabbi Eric Gurvis

Rabbi Eric Gurvis the Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Newton, MA.