Israel News Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism

Listening, and Praying for Peace


The word occurs over and over again. “Listen to me”, “I heard that”, “Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu, Adonai echad.”

The portion tells us to listen. But how do we listen when we ourselves need to be heard?

Moses recounts the story of Meribah and shares his truth, that he is punished on account of the people, Lmanchem– because of you. That is not the story we read in Exodus. But that is how Moses remembers, and that is how he shares. That is Moses’ story. So how do we reconcile two different recounting of the same events?

This is the story currently underway in Israel. Our narrative is of a proud miraculous nation forged against all odds. Theirs is a very different story. Both share many of the same facts. How do we hear a truth that is so different than the one we know? How can we hear the truth of another, if we are caught up in our own narrative and our own need to be heard?

If we are to someday reconcile and create an opportunity for two people to coexist, we must listen. We must try to understand the retelling of the story in a different way while maintaining and building story.

Once again the fragile truce has been shattered. And it is all but impossible to step back enough to gain the perspective that is needed to move beyond this time of war. But somewhere down the line, as we insist that “they” must listen to us, we too must somehow also listen to “them.”

Let us continue to work for a day when peace may come.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi David Levin serves the Union for Reform Judaism in the Congregational Network as a Rabbinical Director for the East Coast congregations.


Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

What’s wrong with ethnic jokes?

When I was an undergraduate, I spent a semester abroad in Germany. I was there, of course, to learn German: that was the express purpose of the trip. But I also had felt a need to go there to find out whether Germans were a different kind of people. I wanted to see if there was some kind of obvious reason for the Holocaust.

And what I found was that Germans are not particularly different. The German university students I met were much like the students I met in the U.S. Maybe they were a little more focused, on the account of the fact that they were older. The German university system is organized a bit differently than ours. But otherwise they were thoroughly normal. You might even say: depressingly so.

The Holocaust would be easier to fathom if the Germans appeared to be a different kind of human, wholly unlike us.

While I was living there, I hung out with a group of students from a diverse list of nations: some Americans, a Spaniard, some Brits, and a German. One night we’d had dinner together and were hanging out in the dorm kitchen telling jokes in English. And so one of the students made a tasteless ethnic joke, the kind of joke that starts: “A Jew, a Frenchman and an Arab…”

So he told the joke and almost everyone laughed — or at least groaned — except for Bernd, the German man in our group. He was very quiet, and very still. Thinking that Bernd did not understand the joke – for humor is indeed difficult to translate – the joke-teller proceeded to tell the joke again. This time, Bernd slammed his fist down on the table: “I understood it the first time.”

We were stunned: where was his anger coming from?

He calmed himself and explained: “In Germany, we have a saying. Asylanten, as you know, are asylum-seekers, refugees. Ausländer are foreigners. And a Witz is a joke. So this is the saying: Asylantenwitz… Ausländerwitz… Auschwitz.

I learned something that day.

Words matter. The names we use when we talk about each other matter. Our jokes matter. We should be careful not to hurt one another, and careful to avoid marginalizing each other.

There is, as you know, a backlash in this country to the whole concept of ‘political correctness.’ It has become popular to express disdain for those who would ask that we modify our language. Political correctness is perceived as a form of whiny victimhood.

But I disagree. To the contrary: I think, for example, that the Redskins should change their name, in deference to the repeated requests by Native American groups, because ‘Redskin’ is not meant as a compliment.

I object to the Redskin name for the same reason I object to the misuse of Holocaust imagery. I object to the Redskin name for the same reason I object to ethnic jokes.

Atrocities happen in places where it is acceptable to marginalize the other. If you can joke about a group as being stupid, foolish, or undeserving, they will be treated as such. Yes, there is a major difference between naming your sports team after an ethnic slur and committing atrocities on the basis of that slur. But, as the German example shows, it’s nonetheless entirely too close for comfort.

In other words, when it comes to hurting others, I really don’t have much of a sense of humor. We can and should do better.

On this Shabbat before Yom Hashoah, I’d like to share with you the reflection I delivered at the Days of Remembrance program in the Feinberg Library at SUNY Plattsburgh:

We approach the enormity of the Holocaust with a sense of rupture. We have this sense of rupture because the Holocaust alters our view of what can possibly happen.

Even a nation as cultured as Germany can descend into brutality, and even a people as acculturated as the German Jews can be targeted for genocide.

In confronting the Holocaust, then, we find that we have to let go of the sense that culture will serve as a brake against the worst in human nature.

Speaking from the Jewish perspective, I can tell you this: the Holocaust has forced us to reconsider our theology and worldview. What is and is not preventable? What can and cannot happen? What might we reasonably expect from God?

On the other hand, I also can tell you this: the Holocaust is not the first time that we have had to reconsider our God-concept in the face of tragedy. The destruction of the Second Temple, for example, created a similar difficulty of how to relate to God in the absence of the Temple cult.

In that context, the question was not merely the ritual problem but also a theological problem: won’t the world come apart if the sacrifices are not offered on time and in the right manner?

And the answer is no. The world won’t come apart if we don’t offer the sacrifices on time and in the right manner. The world shrugs and continues, even after tragedy, and the sun dawns again.

Yet we simply cannot abandon the project. We cannot leave the past in a clean break without finding points of continuity. We are still very much a part and product of our world. We must mourn and we must build again.

So, in the wake of the Holocaust, that means that we live with the awareness that our narrow range of experience does not predict the full range of what is possible. Humans are infinitely clever.

In the negative sense, that awareness means that we must acknowledge that the world can slip into unimaginable brutality in the course of a generation. Let me say that again: the world can slip into unimaginable brutality in the course of a generation.

In the positive sense, however, the reverse is also true.

What is needed, therefore, is a cautious but tenacious idealism: we should not let what ‘is’ eclipse the view of what ‘ought’ to be.

Blessed is the Lord, our God, who gives us the power to transcend ourselves.

Rabbi Kari Tuling is the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel, in Plattsburgh, NY. This was originally published on her blog, Godtalk: Judaism as a Theological Adventure.

General CCAR Israel News Rabbis

More Than One Way: A Father and Son on Israel

We represent two generations of rabbis, five decades of love for the State of Israel and advocacy for its security and wellbeing. We recall anxious moments that we have shared together as father and son. There was a crisp fall morning in 1973.  As we drove to synagogue on that Yom Kippur morning, our heavy hearts were at one with Israel as we learned of its battle against a devastating Arab onslaught on this holiest of days.

In 2002 we joined rabbinic colleagues for a conference in Jerusalem.  In this City of Peace we experienced first hand horrific attacks on coffee shops and clubs that took the lives of many innocent souls.  We can never forget the wail of sirens and the roar of helicopters overhead.

And now, though the prospects for peace, reconciliation and agreement seem distant amidst a tumultuous middle east, we reaffirm a traditional affirmation of faith:  Anu ma’aminim/We still believe that there is hope for the future.

But faith and hope, while critical, are not enough to resolve intractable problems. While the issues are difficult, the frustrations innumerable, and the intentions of all parties often unclear, the ultimate outcome is unmistakable:  A two state solution, essentially along the 1967 lines, with modifications and exchanges reflecting Israel’s defense requirements and the evolving facts on the ground in the West Bank.  The chilling, fateful question is: Will it take 3 or 30 years to achieve the inevitable, 300 or 3000 more lives lost? We pray that the current  Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will be successful.

How can we as American Jews be supportive of this effort to achieve peace?   We often respond to this question by joining worthy organizations that are committed to Israel’s security and survival.  Sometimes we do this with a sense that the group we support has all the answers, and “those other groups” are weak or blind to the dangers Israel faces.  At times we even demonize those Jewish organizations whose approach may be different from ours.  We find this to be counterproductive at best, devastating and diluting of Israel’s best interests at worst.  A committed and thoughtful American Jew who loves and advocates for Israel can support several different worthy groups who are working to fulfill the dream of a strong and secure Israel living at peace with its neighbors.

IMG_3497One of the oldest and most influential organizations is AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. For nearly half a century, AIPAC has worked diligently to insure support for Israel by American Presidents and the U.S. Congress.  That very special partnership continues to this day, as President Barack Obama has continually affirmed.

For more than a century the American Jewish Committee has defended the rights of Jews throughout the world.  In our own day the AJC has developed incredibly valuable diplomatic programs that build support for Israel among dozens of nations around the globe.  In addition, AJC programs bring non-Jewish American community leaders—mayors, legislators, academics, and union leaders–to Israel to foster greater understanding of the achievements and challenges confronting the Jewish state.  And as one of the pioneer Jewish Defense agencies, the Anti-Defamation League does similar valuable work on behalf of the American-Israeli relationship and is worthy of our support.

Finally, we would mention J-Street, the most recent of the Israel advocacy organizations.  J Street has gathered significant support within the American Jewish community by emphasizing the critical need for greater effort to find a Two-State solution.  Most studies indicate that a solid majority of American and Israeli Jews favor a two state solution reached by a negotiated settlement between the parties.   J Street focuses its efforts in Israel and with America’s political leadership to fulfill this goal.

Many of these pro-Israel organizations have an outreach to Jewish college students and young adults. J Street’s work in this area has uniquely engaged a growing generation of young American Jews. In a time of increasing apathy amongst young Jews toward their faith and their communities, and growing ambivalence towards some of Israel’s policies, J Street is the voice of a new generation of American Jews inspired by a renewed vision for peace.

If we step back for a moment to consider the broader challenges and stratospheric stakes, we can see that each of these pro-Israel organizations offers unique and helpful support to Israel.  An American Jew who is concerned about Israel’s future could whole-heartedly support any or all of these groups. In an era of increasing polarization and diminishing civility in the public discourse, we hope that those who zealously support one or the other group will tone down their negative comments and accusations, and respect the work being done by others.

Sadly, we saw last year how an extreme pro-Israel/anti-Obama position can lead to madness.   The entire American Jewish Community condemned the comments of Andrew Adler, the editor of the Atlanta Jewish Weekly, who suggested in his column that Israel should consider sending an assassin to kill the President of the United States.   This was a complete desecration of Jewish values.  It carried to the ultimate a campaign of falsehoods about the President’s support for Israel that some politicians were using to attract Jewish votes.  Let us hope that our community has learned something from this experience.

We all have the same ultimate goal:  a strong and secure Israel. To slightly modify rabbinic tradition:  The time is short, the task is great and we are accountable.

 Rabbi Daniel Weiner is the Senior Rabbi of Temple De Hirsch-Sinai of Seattle Washington.

Rabbi Martin Weiner is the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Sherith Israel of San Francisco and a past president of the Central Conference of America Rabbis.

General CCAR News Reform Judaism

To the City of Boston

in the light of day
darkness was revealed.
We are in shock. Stupefied. Angry.

If the heart of every living being is good,
and if the soul you have given us is pure,
how does evil appear?

Hear our prayer!

Help us to have faith when there is doubt.
Bring healing to those in pain.
Comfort us in our grief.
Give us courage in our confusion.
Grant us strength
to look straight into the darkness,
defiant and determined
to pursue peace and establish safety
in our fractured world.

Oseh shalom bimromav
You who make peace in the high heavens
Help us find the way to make peace here on earth.

Rabbi Karyn Kedar is senior rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, IL.

Israel News Rabbis

Obama’s Trip to Israel: A Rabbi’s Perspective

obama speechI’ve had a running dialogue with a friend in my congregation over the past four plus years.  I know I’m not the only one to have experienced this exchange (or something akin to it.)  My friend, let’s call him “Sam,” will approach me – at the Oneg Shabbat, at other congregational events, when we meet elsewhere in the community, and quite often during our recent congregational trip to Israel (in late December) when Sam joined the group for his first-ever trip to Israel.  The conversation often starts with something like, “So Eric,  “Is Obama good for Israel?”  Sometimes it’s “Don’t you realize that Obama is no friend of Israel?”  Once in a while it’s been, “Don’t you think that deep-down Obama is not only really anti-Israel but perhaps a bit anti-Semitic?”  Recently – every week in the past month plus, it’s been, “So what do you think about Obama’s upcoming trip to Israel?”

Some of you are smiling because you, too, have either been asked, or have yourselves asked some of these questions.  My reply to that last one over the past weeks, not uniquely my own, has been “there are those who’ve been angry with the President for not visiting Israel during his first term in office.  Now they’re angry that he’s going.”

Let me admit, I, too wish our President had visited Israel, as President of the United States during his first term in office.  I don’t know if it would have changed much on the ground – and we’ll never know. But I also remind myself, this was not Barack Obama’s first visit to Israel.  It was President Barack Obama’s first visit to Israel.  We can’t change the past.  “Should have,” “would have,” “wish he would have” don’t help us going forward.  And now, our President has visited Israel.  In fact, he’s only just left on Air Force One for the next stop on his trip.

Like many, I followed the news of the President’s visit to Israel.  I’ve read the various commentaries.  Courtesy of YouTube early this morning I listened to the President’s address at IMG_4022
Binyanei Ha-uma
– the Convention Center in Jerusalem.  It would have taken less time to read the transcript, but I wanted to hear his voice, see his face and hear his interaction with those seated in that hall where I myself have sat at many a performance and conference over the years. I sat down, imagined myself in the audience – both within the hall and beyond – and listened to the President of the United States address those assembled “around me” and those listening in from around the world.  Thus far, I’ve tried to steer clear of the commentary on his speech.  I wanted first to reflect on my own kishkes, my own gut and how I am feeling about what I heard.

I am proud of my President for the message he delivered yesterday in Jerusalem.  Do I agree with 100% of what he said?  Not quite.  But I found his message powerful, honest (and I do believe that he honestly spoke what is in his kishkes).  I also found his message to be respectful of our Jewish heritage, our Jewish past, of Israel’s history, her leaders in generations gone by, and her peoples’ existential realities.  I also found his message to be clear and forthright when it comes to the need for Israel – and others – to not “give up” on peace, no matter how hard the road to peace may be.  I found his call for justice to be consonant with what I believe is at the heart of our Jewish tradition’s value system.  I found his clear-throated call for “two states for two peoples,” and his acknowledgement that this is about the young people, the children and their future to be spot on.

I would like to believe him when he identifies Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad as Israel’s true partners for peace.  I would.  But my kishkes are in a knot on that question.  President Obama’s clear denunciation of Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, Assad and his acknowledgment of the challenges of Israel’s difficult neighborhood and the events of the past two years in that neighborhood are realistic, not starry-eyed.

I applaud President Obama for his repeated reprise of the unbreakable bonds between Israel and the United States. I believe he means it.  But I also applaud him for acknowledging that the easy road would be unqualified and uncritical support for whatever Israel’s leaders and people do.  Again and again, he noted that ultimately it is for Israel and the Palestinians to resolve their differences and to choose their paths. At the same time, he called for sanity and responsibility as he called for justice and the pursuit of peace – not with blindness, but with open eyes, and a sense of reality to what actions create obstacles that prevent any progress towards what most Israelis and most Palestinians ultimately want – to live their lives.

148591_455673200821_6598853_nDuring our congregational trip to Israel in December we visited a school in the Arab Israeli village of Nahaf, near Carmiel in the Galilee.  We met with Rabbi Mark Rosenstein, who lives in the nearby community of Moshav Shorashim, a small community in the central Galilee, founded in the early 1980’s by a group of young American immigrants. Mark has worked as director of the Makom ba-Galil, a seminar center at Shorashim that engages in programming to foster pluralism and coexistence.   After speaking to our group about the challenges between Israeli Jews and Israel Arabs, he introduced us to a group of Israeli Arab high school students from the village who sat with us, first in small groups, and then in one larger circle to talk about their lives, their hopes and their dreams.  I will never forget “Sam’s” words to me as we boarded the bus after our time with the students which went something like this: “These are wonderful kids.  They deserve a wonderful future. I hope that we can make that happen.”  So today I say to Sam: “How do I feel about President’s visit to Israel?  I feel very good about it.  He called Israel – and the Palestinians — to work towards the same future you spoke of as we boarded our bus that day in December.”

These past few days have been about words, photos, symbolism and yes, politics.  President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem yesterday was also about the affirmation of the enduring and unbreakable bond between our two nations, about the acknowledgment of the enduring thirst for security and freedom which we Jews will celebrate and study in the coming days of Pesach. They were also an straight-forward call to pursue justice and peace that we needed to hear. Bechol dor vador—“in each and every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as having gone forth from Mitzrayim – from Egypt.  May these past few days, and the reflection both here and in Israel, upon what we both have seen and heard be part of our reflection of what it means to us in this Pesach celebration to go forth from our MItzrayim.  Some read Mitzrayim as the “narrow places.” We all have our “Egypt” from which we want to move towards greater freedom and security.  May these days – their images, the words spoken, the symbols – inspire and infiltrate our recounting of the ancient tale as we find our generation place in the “obligation to see ourselves as having gone forth from Mitzrayim.”

Mr. President – perhaps we’ll see you yet again – “Next Year in Jerusalem” – in a city moving closer to that dream we all hold – Ir Shalom – a city of peace. A big dream?  You bet.  But when have we Jews not been dreamers at the same time as we are realists?

(Now I’ll go see what all the talking heads are thinking!)

Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom of Newton, Massachusetts