Last night I appeared on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight” with my friend and colleague Rabbi Andrea London to discuss the issue of Israel/Palestine in the wake of Netanyahu’s re-election. Andrea spoke to the J Street position while I represented the Jewish Voice for Peace point of view. Although the station tried repeatedly to find a local rabbi to represent the AIPAC line, none were willing to participate. I’m sad to report that several of the rabbis contacted cited my presence on the panel as the reason for their refusal.
On the other hand, I was so heartened that Andrea and I were able to model a principled and respectful Jewish communal debate on this issue and I was so grateful for her willingness to engage. Click here to watch.
I’d like to begin my remarks this morning with a verse from the Torah – it’s one of the central lessons at the heart of the Exodus story. It comes from the Burning Bush episode, when God reveals God’s self to Moses and tells him, “Now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen how the Egyptians are oppressing them.” (Exodus 3:9)
Now regardless of your theology – or even if you have a theology at all – I think there is a very profound lesson being taught to us by this verse. In a way, it provides us with a kind of physics approach to understanding liberation. Throughout human history, we have seen these moments – the moments when the experience of a community’s oppression reaches a tipping point. They invariably come when a community’s oppression becomes impossible to ignore, when the cry and the outrage becomes too great; when it becomes impossible to look away. It is at these critical moments in which the process of liberation inevitably begins.
I think of this lesson often when I think about the growth of Jewish Voice for Peace and the Palestinian solidarity movement over the past few years. It is sobering to contemplate, but it’s true: most of the significant periods of growth of our organization have occurred as responses to devastating human tragedy. We all know how JVP has grown so dramatically in the wake of the tragedy of this past summer. I myself became actively involved in JVP following Israel’s military assault on Gaza in 2009-09. In truth, the growth of our movement has been exponentially linked to the cries of the oppressed. Perhaps it has ever been thus.
During my remarks to you this morning, I’d like to offer a few brief meditations on how we at JVP might take advantage of this moment – this time which is clearly so critical in the movement for justice in Israel/Palestine. Specifically speaking, I want to take my cue from JVP’s recent strategic plan, in which our leadership set our organizational goals for the next 3 to 5 years. I’d like to use two of these formal goals in particular as a frame; and use them to offer you a few thoughts on this critical time for our organization and our movement – and where the journey might lead form here.
I’ll start with Goal #4: “Shifting Culture and Public Discourse:”
Changing the public discourse and shifting cultural understandings of what is happening in Israel/Palestine is a prerequisite for changing policy.
In short, we are attempting to change the narrative on Israel/Palestine. I think we all know how central narrative change is to the process of political transformation. Speaking personally, I know how transformative it was for me to embrace a new narrative on Israel/Palestine – and how absolutely key it was to my participation in this movement. It represented a fundamental shift – it meant abandoning, painfully, the liberal Zionist narrative that had been at the center of my Jewish identity for my entire life.
I’d like to read to you now from a blog post that I wrote on December 28, 2009 – exactly one year after the onset of Israel’s so-called “Operation Cast Lead.” Though I don’t know that I fully appreciated it at the time, this post was ultimately about the transformative power of narrative change:
As I read this post one year later, I remember well the emotions I felt as I wrote it. I also realize what a critical turning point that moment represented for me.
As a Jew, I’ve identified deeply with Israel for my entire life. I first visited the country as a young child and since then I’ve been there more times that I can count. Family members and some of my dearest friends in the world live in Israel.
Ideologically speaking, I’ve regarded Zionism with great pride as the “national liberation movement of the Jewish people.” Of course I didn’t deny that this rebirth had come at the expense of another. Of course I recognized that Israel’s creation was bound up with the suffering of the Palestinian people. The situation was, well, it was “complicated.”
Last year, however, I reacted differently. I read of Apache helicopters dropping hundreds of tons of bombs on 1.5 million people crowded into a 140 square mile patch of land with nowhere to run. In the coming days, I would read about the bombing of schools, whole families being blown to bits, children literally burned to the bone with white phosphorous. Somehow, it didn’t seem so complicated at all any more. At long last, it felt as if I was viewing the conflict with something approaching clarity.
Of course I think we’d all agree that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is technically complicated. But at the same time I think we all know that at the end of the day, there is nothing complicated about persecution. The political situation in Darfur, for instance, is enormously complicated – but these complications certainly haven’t stopped scores of Jews across North America from protesting the human rights injustices being committed there. We do so because we know that underneath all of the geopolitical complexities, oppression is oppression. And as Jews, we know instinctively that our sacred tradition and own tragic history require us to speak out against all oppression committed in our midst.
I’d suggest that if there is anything complicated for us here, it is in possibility that we might in fact have become oppressors ourselves. That is painfully complicated. After all, our Jewish identity has been bound up with the memory of our own persecution for centuries. How on earth can we respond – let alone comprehend – the suggestion that we’ve become our own worst nightmare?
More than anything else, this is was what I was trying to say in that anguished, emotional blog post one year ago: is this what it has come to? Have we come to the point in which Israel can wipe out hundreds of people, whole families, whole neighborhoods and our response as Jews will be to simply rationalize it away? At the very least will we able to stop and question what has brought us to this terrifying point? Have we become unable to recognize persecution for what it really and truly is?
Those who know me (or read my blog) surely know that it has been a painfully challenging year for me. My own relationship to Israel is changing in ways I never could have predicted. Since I started raising questions like those above, I’ve lost some friends and, yes, my congregation has lost some members. If Zionism is the unofficial religion of the contemporary Jewish community then I’m sure there are many who consider me something of an apostate.
But at the same time, I’ve been surprised and encouraged by the large number of people I’ve met who’ve been able to engage with these questions openly and honestly, even if they don’t always agree with me. I suppose this is what I decided to do one year ago: to put my faith in our ability to stand down the paralyzing “complexities,” no matter how painful the prospect.
One year later, I still hold tight to this faith.
When I wrote back then that my relationship to Israel had changed in ways I could never have predicted, I was openly acknowledging that my accepted narrative had shifted – and it led to life changes that are still ongoing for me. It certainly transformed the way I saw myself as a Jew and how I would do my work as a congregational rabbi.
But on a deeper sense, I think this narrative change transformed me on what I can only call a spiritually cellular level. It challenged me to reckon with the meaning of solidarity in its truest, most universal form. It reaffirmed that lesson that comes straight from the heart of the Exodus story; the story that teaches God hearkens to the cries of the oppressed and demands that we do the same. And it empowered me to speak my truth in unprecedented ways – as I put it in that blog post, “to stand down the paralyzing ‘complexities,’ now matter how painful the prospect.
I’ve also come to believe that narrative change is not only true on the personal, but on the political level as well. We know from experience that narratives which were formerly unthinkable can eventually become all too politically real. A big part of the challenge is learning how best to articulate our discourse; understanding when, where and in what ways it can be most effective.
The most challenging place to do this narrative changing work, I think we all agree, is within the mainstream Jewish community. And that brings me to Goal #1: “Challenging institutional Jewish communities.” Again I’ll quote:
We are challenging institutional Jewish communities to act on values of justice, and we are paving the path toward justice-centered Jewish communities.
Having made a home in the institutional Jewish community for my entire adult life, I will say that I do believe there is important work to be done in engaging the Jewish establishment on this issue. When I started doing Palestinian solidarity work openly and unabashedly, I had been working in my congregation in Evanston for 10 years. And I take great heart in the fact that for the next 10 years, I was supported by my congregational leadership and by the majority of my congregants, even when many didn’t agree with me.
So yes, I believe there are indeed signs that we are seeing a nascent paradigm shift beginning in the Jewish community on this issue. Open Hillel is providing us with an inspiring important model of how to fight for a wide Jewish communal tent. This past summer, “If Not Now, When” showed us magnificently what principled Jewish communal dissent might look like. I don’t think it is a coincidence that both of these initiatives have been organized and led by young people – and this should give us very real hope for the future of this discourse in the American Jewish community.
At the same time, however, I don’t have any illusions about the ability of the Jewish establishment to be pushed to act on values of justice when it comes to Israel/Palestine. I have many rabbinical and Jewish professional colleagues who must remain in the closet about their work with JVP – because to make their affiliation would constitute a very real professional risk. There are actually JVP members at this very gathering who have to wear stickers on their name plates that say “no photos please” for fear that they might endanger or lose their jobs – a reality that should rightly appall each and every one of us.
So at the end of the day, I think we need to be realistic about the challenge before us when we talk about engaging the mainstream Jewish community on the issue of Israel/Palestine. It is and will continue to be a daunting and perilous task. And frankly: on a strategic level we need to be honest about how much time, energy and resources we need to spend trying to engage the Jewish institutional community on this issue.
Actually, when it comes right down to it, I’m much more excited by the second half of this Goal #1: we are paving the path toward justice-centered Jewish communities.
In this regard, I was so pleased and excited to hear Rebecca Vilkomerson talk during the opening plenum – and Cecile Surasky last night – about the ways JVP is creating a new and unprecedented form of Jewish community. For the remainder of my remarks, then, I’d like to explore what a justice-centered Jewish community might actually look like. I’d like to suggest a vision that is fundamentally, perhaps radically different than our customary notions of Jewish community.
I’d like to read an excerpt to you now from a Rosh Hashanah sermon I gave three years ago entitled, “Judaism With Tribalism.” Although I did not specifically intend it so at the time, I believe it promotes a vision I believe is deeply relevant to the kind of community we are trying to create here at JVP:
I know personally how hard it is for many of us to challenge our tribal Jewish legacy. But as for me, I believe to my very core that whether we like it or not, our collective future will depend upon building more bridges, and not more walls, between peoples and nations. I believe the most effective way for us to survive – the only way we will bequeath our traditions to the next generation – is to affirm a Judaism that finds sacred meaning in our connection to kol yoshvei tevel – all who dwell on earth.
I also believe this because I know that while Judaism certainly contains tribal and parochial teachings, it also has also a strong tradition of religious humanism – mitzvot that demand we love all our neighbors as ourselves. After all, one of the first – and most powerful – teachings in the Torah is that human beings are created B’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. From the outset we learn that all human beings are equally worthy of respect, dignity and love – and, I would add, equally worthy of one another’s allegiance and loyalty. Moreover, a key rabbinic concept, Kavod HaBriyot, demands that we ensure all people are treated with honor and dignity. In a famous verse from the classic rabbinic text Pirke Avot, Rabbi Ben Zoma teaches: “Who is honored? The one who honors all human beings.”
All are created in God’s image. Honor comes to the one who honors all people. To my mind, these are the strands of Judaism we must seek out and affirm in no uncertain terms. In this day and age, when the fates of all peoples are becoming so very deeply intertwined, I believe we must consider values such as B’tzelem Elohim and Kevod HaBriyot to be among the most sacred of our tradition.
Perhaps we can also take our cue from these values in order to affirm a new kind of tribalism. To forge “tribal” connections with others not simply because they happen to be Jews, but because they share our values of justice and equity. In other words, I believe our ultimate loyalties should lay with the powerless, the vulnerable, the marginalized – and all who fight on their behalf. Whether they happen to be Jewish or not – why shouldn’t we consider these to be the members of our most cherished tribe?
Here’s a personal example. As a rabbi, I do a great deal of work with clergy, both inside and outside the Jewish community. And over the years I’ve come to notice that the most meaningful and important community work I do is not necessarily exclusively with other rabbis. When it comes to the values I hold most sacred, values of social justice, human rights, community service, I find myself working and finding common cause with clergy of many different faiths. Some may be Jewish, some not, but it in the end it doesn’t really matter. These are the ones I consider to be my primary faith colleagues – my primary clergy community.
In one sense, then, perhaps our most sacred religious values actually compel us to look past the feelings of tribal loyalty. Needless to say, if we are going to do this on a communal scale, it’s going to take a radical shift in consciousness. We’re going to have to step out from behind the walls we’ve built and understand many of our real sisters and brothers have been there all along. And we will have to recognize that in the end, their hopes, their dreams and their suffering are irrevocably connected to ours.
I have no illusions that it would be a simple matter for the Jewish community to heed such a call. Having only recently emerged from the ghetto, still living with a collective memory of antisemitism, still reeling from the trauma of the Holocaust, it is no small matter to go beyond our own fears and feel the pain of the other as our pain as well.
To do this, I believe, we’ll have to construct a distinctly 21st century Torah – one that reflects a world in which the Jewish community has become inter-dependent with other peoples in profound and unprecedented ways. One that lets go of old tribal assumptions and widens the boundaries of our tent in new and creative ways.
Perhaps we can start here: with a reconsideration of the Jewish value Ahavat Yisrael – Love of the Jewish People. What do we really mean when we use this term? Certainly it might mean an abstract sense of connection and kinship with other Jews throughout history and around the world. And it’s true – we do feel a special connection to Jews we meet in unlikely places throughout the world. It is also quite powerful to know that the words we pray and study are the same words have Jews prayed and studied for centuries. But beyond this, what do we mean by Ahavat Yisrael? What does it mean to love a culturally constructed community that includes people with whom we may or may not share basic, fundamental values?
In truth, the definition of who is a Jew has always been disputed – and what we call “the Jewish community” is more diverse and dynamic today than ever before. It is also being increasingly enriched by the participation of many non-Jews who are marrying into the community. So what do we mean when we talk about “Love of the Jewish People” when the very truth of our “peoplehood” is so complex and ever–changing?
I’d like to suggest that a deeper understanding of this value shouldn’t stop at love for just fellow Jews. After all, while the word “Yisrael” does refer to the Jewish People, it also literally means “Wrestles With God.” Seen thus, we might render “Ahavat Yisrael” as “Love for All Who Struggle.” To love all who fight, as we have, for freedom and justice and tolerance in the world. To stand in solidarity with those who struggle against tyranny and are beaten, imprisoned, tortured or killed for doing so. To throw our allegiance to those who wrestle deeply for meaning in their lives; who seek to tear down the limits of religious dogma or ideological coercion. These are the members of our tribe – perhaps our most sacred tribe. And whenever we reach out to them and celebrate our inherent connection with one another here, around the world, or throughout history – that is truly when we fulfill the mitzvah of Ahavat Yisrael.
I realize that this new understanding might seem like radical change to many. But in truth, the Jewish world is changing, as it has from time immemorial. The only question before us is: will we have the courage to recognize these changes – and to see in them as a precious opportunity rather than as a threat to be fought at all costs.
Since I am no longer working a congregational rabbi, I am more mindful than ever that JVP is now my primary Jewish community. It is, truly, an unprecedented form of Jewish community: one that is based on the universal ethics of justice and liberation for all, not on the tired tribal boundaries of the past. If we are members of any tribe, it is the one that extends to include those who seek a better and more just world and are willing to work together to make it a reality.
This past summer, like so many of you, I was in deep anguish over the carnage Israel was inflicting on the people of Gaza. My anguish was all the deeper as I realized I was self-censoring my public voice due to the turmoil in my congregation. But if there was one redemptive Jewish moment for me last summer, it was thanks to JVP, when I participated in a Chicago chapter action that disrupted a Jewish Federation fundraiser in support of Israel’s war effort. Similar JVP actions were occurring around the country: which for so many represented critical Jewish voices of conscience during that dark, dark time.
While I did not participate in the actual disruptions, I was present in the hotel ballroom to give my fellow protesters support, to film the action taking place and tweet pictures of the disruptions as they unfolded. I will say that attending this event was beyond painful – to witness firsthand an organization that purported to represent my community cheering on Israel’s sickening violence as it was still ongoing. But when my friends finally stood up, pointed their fingers at Rahm Emanuel and Michael Oren and shouted, “We are Jews – Shame on You!” – at those moments, I truly felt that my Jewish soul had been given back to me.
I submit it is moments like these – and so many more – that demonstrate why we are all so proud to be part of this movement. I am so very proud to be standing here with you all. Now let us go together from strength to strength.
Please read this important statement just released by Jewish Voice for Peace. I strongly second its conclusion that “addressing anti-Semitism must go hand in hand with addressing all forms of racism.”
Jewish Voice for Peace welcomes the commitment of the UCLA Undergraduate Student Association Council (USAC) to addressing issues of anti-Semitism on campus. We recognize that a recent series of troubling incidents, including anti-Semitic graffiti and inappropriate questioning of a Jewish student, have raised concerns about rising anti-Semitism on campus, which we condemn in the strongest terms. However, we are also deeply concerned that the resolution passed by the USAC on March 10, 2015 further enshrines long-standing political efforts to silence legitimate criticism of the state of Israel by codifying its inclusion in the definition of anti-Semitism.
The resolution draws on the “State Department Definition of Anti-Semitism,” (sometimes referred to as the “3 D’s”). However, this definition has no legal standing in the US and was actually removed as a working definition by the European body where it originated. The ‘3Ds’ included in this definition (“demonization, delegitimization and applying a double-standard” to the state of Israel) are so vague that they could be, and have been, construed to silence any criticism of Israeli policies. This ‘working definition’ is in fact the product of long-term lobbying efforts by Israel advocacy groups who seek to codify criticism of the State of Israel as anti-Semitic. This is a deeply dangerous assertion that conflates Israel with Jewish people around the world.
“Classifying criticism of the state of Israel as ‘anti-Semitic’ curtails freedom of speech and dilutes the power of the term, which should be reserved for hatred, violence, intimidation or discrimination targeting Jews because of their ethnic and religious identity,” stated Rabbi Alissa Wise, Director of Organizing, Jewish Voice for Peace. “This resolution therefore dangerously silences legitimate criticism of Israel’s human rights abuses and violations of international law that urgently need to be addressed and remedied.” The United States Department of Education’s (DOE) Office for Civil Rights has emphatically affirmed that criticism of the state of Israel is protected speech on campus.
“The enforcement of this definition of anti-Semitism is part of long-term efforts on the part of Israel advocates to silence and intimidate supporters of Palestinian human rights,” stated Jacob Manheim, JVP-UCLA organizer. “The resolution, which states that only the self-appointed “organized Jewish community’ can define anti-Semitism, marginalizes the growing number of Jews like me who support nonviolent efforts to hold Israel accountable for human rights violations. We are frequently excluded from Jewish institutions, including UCLA Hillel, who barred our chapter from inclusion as a Hillel organization last spring.”
Efforts by Israel lobby groups to expand the definition of anti-Semitism to include criticism of Israeli policies have had the adverse impact of weakening the meaning of the term when actual cases of anti-Jewish hate are reported. For example, the much-cited recent Brandeis Center survey on the rise of anti-Semitism on campuses was methodologically flawed in that it left the definition of anti-Semitism to the respondents. Simultaneously, while there has been a media attention given to reports of a rise in anti-Semitism, there has been nearly no attention given to rising Islamophobia on campuses. For example, in recent weeks there was an Islamophobic smear campaign against Palestinian rights activists at UCLA and prominent US campuses promoted by the right-wing David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Addressing anti-Semitism must go hand in hand with addressing all forms of racism. We at Jewish Voice for Peace are committed to addressing anti-Semitism in the context of other systems of oppression, including, for example, racism and Islamophobia.
Here’s their description of our conversation:
After 17 years as the rabbi and spiritual leader at JRC-The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston–Rabbi Brant Rosen conducted his last service on December 19th. His views, work, and words on the Israel/Palestine issue caused deep rifts among the members at JRC, and Rosen ultimately believed it was best for himself and the community that he resign. Rosen joins us to talk about the decision, the controversies, and his new job with the American Friends Service Committee.
Click here to give a listen.
I am devastated to learn of the passing of my dear friend and mentor, Rabbi Leonard Beerman z”l, who died early this morning at the age of 93. His death comes as a profound shock to those of us who knew and loved him. Despite his advanced age, Leonard maintained his extraordinary vigor and energy until very recent days.
Readers of this blog may recall my post on our joint speaking presentation in Los Angeles last February. It was such a tremendous honor for me hold this open conversation with him, in which we mutually explored the subject of “Progressive Politics from the Pulpit.”
Here’s what I wrote at the time:
As Rabbi Beerman has been one of my true rabbinical heroes for so many years, it was truly a thrill for me to share a podium with him as we shared our thoughts on the challenges facing congregational rabbis who engage in progressive social justice activism.
As a Los Angeles native myself, I’ve long known of Rabbi Beerman’s inspired work during the years he served as the Senior Rabbi of LA’s Leo Baeck Temple. He was the founding rabbi of Leo Baeck in 1949 and stayed there for the next 37 years until his retirement in 1986. During that time, he challenged his congregants – and the Jewish community at large – to awaken to some of the most critical socio-political issues of the late 20th century.
Rabbi Beerman was a maverick in his day – and in many ways still is. He is a self-described pacifist who came by his stance honestly, after serving in the Marines in World War II and in the Haganah in 1947 while attending the newly founded Hebrew University. He was a student of Rabbi Judah Magnes, the great Reform leader who advocated for a bi-national state for Jews and Arabs – and he remains a passionate advocate for a just peace in Israel/Palestine to this day.
Rabbi Beerman came to Leo Baeck fresh from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati during the height of the Cold War and quickly became an outspoken and visionary peace activist. In one of my very favorite stories, he described his anguish at the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which took place on a Friday afternoon in 1953. During Shabbat services that evening, he decided to add their names to the end of the yahrtzeit list (the list of names read before the recitation of the Kaddish) much to the dismay of some of his congregants.
Rabbi Beerman was also one of the first rabbis in the country to publicly condemn the US war in Vietnam and later instituted draft counseling in his congregation. He invited such figures as Daniel Ellsberg (who spoke on Yom Kippur afternoon while he was awaiting trial) and Cesar Chavez to speak at his synagogue. Rabbi Beerman was also a visionary leader for civil rights and worker justice and during the nuclear arms race was one of the leading Jewish voices in the disarmament movement.
I’ve particularly admired Rabbi Beerman’s fearlessness when it came to the subject of Israel/Palestine – clearly the issue that has earned him the angriest criticism from the Jewish establishment. He was a consistent and faithful advocate for justice for the Palestinian people long before such a thing was even countenanced in the Jewish community. Literally going where few other rabbis would dare to tread, he met with Palestinian leaders such as Yasser Arafat and Fatah founder Abu Jihad. That he was able to do all of this while serving a large, established Los Angeles synagogue speaks volumes about his integrity – and the abiding trust he was able to maintain with the members of his congregation.
Now in his 90s, Rabbi Beerman is still deeply engaged in the issues of our day. During our conversation together, we spoke about the current state of the Israel/Palestine conflict, the languishing peace process and the rise of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. I mentioned to those present that in 2008, during the height of Operation Cast Lead, when Rabbi Brian Walt and I were calling rabbinical colleagues to sign on to a Jewish Fast for Gaza, Rabbi Beerman was one of the first to sign on without hesitation. He did the same when we were forming the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council and his presence there is truly an inspiration to our members.
Little did I know, as I wrote these words, that I would be posting them again in less than a year’s time, as a tribute to his memory. And little did I know last February, as I openly shared my open admiration for Leonard as a congregational rabbinical role model, that in only a few months I would be find myself unable to continue combining radical political activism with a congregational rabbinate. I am all the more in awe of what Leonard was able to achieve, serving as the rabbi for Leo Baeck Temple for 37 years as he bravely spoke out on important and controversial issues of his day. We will not soon see the likes of him again.
I encourage you to read this wonderful LA Times profile of Rabbi Beerman that was published just last month. You can see our presentation in its entirety below.
May his memory be a blessing forever.
I had planned to write this post several months ago, but when circumstances in my personal/professional life recently took a dramatic turn, I took an extended hiatus from blogging. I’m happy to say I’m finally coming up for air – and that readers of this blog can fully expect to see increasing posts in the near future. I’m leading with one that deals with an event from this past summer. Although it deals with news that are now a few months old, I believe it is a story that remains tragically relevant.
Back on August 21, I participated with a small group of activists from Jewish Voice for Peace – Chicago that disrupted a fundraiser sponsored by the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF). At the time, Israel’s military onslaught on Gaza was in full swing and the JUF, like many Jewish Federations across the country, was actively raising funds for the war effort.
It is important to note that Jewish Federations are more than merely a network of social service agencies; they seek to serve as the official face of the Jewish community. Given their prominence as community spokespeople, their unquestioning, knee-jerk support of Israel’s policies and actions has been painfully problematic – particularly when it comes to a war as controversial as Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” this past summer.
It is safe to say that increasing numbers of us in the Jewish community were morally repulsed by Israel’s actions during the months of July and August. We understood full well that this military onslaught was a war of choice, not self-defense. We watched as the Israeli military killed 2,100 Palestinians in two months, the overwhelming majority of whom were civilians – including 500 children. We listened over and over as the Israeli government and its apologists justified its bloodshed by claiming that Hamas used its civilian population as “human shields” – a false claim that has been repeatedly disproved by human rights observers.
While JUF Chairman Bill Silverstein made the claim at the fund raiser that “world Jewry is standing behind (Israel),” there were, in fact, a myriad of public Jewish protests against Operation Protective Edge throughout the US. In addition to Chicago, Jewish Voice for Peace chapters organized protests in New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Boston, San Francisco, Detroit, Raleigh/Durham, St. Louis, and San Diego, among others. In a protest against one prominent corporate enabler of Israel’s war machine, the Seattle chapter of JVP staged a “die in” at Boeing headquarters in Tukwila, WA, temporarily closing the entrance to their facility. Here in Chicago, JVP staged an act of nonviolent civil disobedience inside Boeing’s corporate office, resulting in the arrest of five activists (video here).
In addition, “If Not Now When?,” an inspirational new grassroots initiative spearheaded by young Jews, held public prayer vigils at Jewish communal institutions across the country. INNW’s dramatic inaugural vigil in New York City was held on July 28 in front of the offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. After a statement was read, memorial candles) were lit and placed on the ground. Nine activists were arrested during this prayerful act of Jewish civil disobedience (video here). It was my honor to participate in such a vigil here in Chicago, which took place on August 7 in front of the JUF offices downtown (see pic above).
While all these actions differed in approach and tone, together they provide evidence of a growing movement of Jewish conscience against Israeli militarism and the devastating human toll it has exacted in Israel/Palestine. During Israel’s similar military onslaught on Gaza in 2009/09, this movement was barely in its nascent stages; by the summer of 2014 I think it safe to say it found its voice in an immensely powerful way. It was particularly notable that many of them were organized by young Jews in their 20s, reinforcing the findings of an August Gallup poll that found a majority of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 considered Israel’s actions in Gaza to be “unjustified.”
It is also important to note that these protests have been deeply rooted in Jewish values, symbols and liturgy. The JVP Chicago members who organized and carried out the disruption at the JUF fundraiser were most certainly motivated by the sacred Jewish imperatives that exhort us not to stand idly by, to pursue justice, to not follow the multitude to do wrong. And I was particularly proud that our group was multi-generational, ranging in age from 20s to 60s.
While I did not participate in the actual disruptions, I was present in the Hilton Towers ballroom to give my fellow protesters support, to film the action taking place and tweet pictures of the disruptions as they unfolded. As you can see from the video clip at the top of this post, there were a series of five disruptions during the course of the evening. The first occurred as Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel was speaking; two members of our group stood up, held up a banner that read “Shame on Israel,” and repeatedly chanted, “We are Jews, shame on you. Stop killing children now!”
Security grabbed their banner away immediately and they continued chanting as they were escorted from the room. Three other pairs of protesters and an Israeli-American also disrupted speakers at various points during the program. Each time time, the response of the crowd grew angrier – the final pair of activists were physically struck and had water thrown in their faces by attendees. (I myself was eventually asked to leave and was also escorted from the room by security. I can only assume someone from JUF recognized me and outed me to the program staff).
Speaking personally, I will say without hesitation that my participation in this action was a profound, even sacred experience. It took place during a terrible, tragic time in which I, as a Jew, was being implicated in crimes that were being committed by a state purporting to act on behalf of the Jewish people. In my hometown of Chicago, the organization that claimed to represent my community was openly urging on the war effort and was publicly raising funds to support it.
It is difficult to describe the sense of anguish and alienation I felt as I sat in that room, listening to speaker after speaker urge on the war effort without expressing an iota of concern over the scores of innocents that Israel was killing daily. The only mention of the Gazan dead arose when speakers defensively and cynically wielded the canard of “human shields.”
I was sitting directly behind the first pair of disrupters. They stood up just as Rahm Emanuel had announced that he and his wife were pledging $5,000.00 to the JUF’s Israel Emergency Campaign. (Why exactly the mayor of Chicago was so publicly and dramatically taking sides in a international conflict is another troubling question for us to ponder). I must say that when I saw my friends stand up, point their fingers at Emanuel and exclaim “Shame on you!” it truly felt like a redemptive moment. It was if my own soul as a Jew – indeed, as a human being of conscience – had finally been given back its voice.
Following the action, I heard criticisms from some that our disruption ran counter “to the values of dialogue.” If we were looking for convince members of the Jewish community of the worthiness of our cause, we were told, this kind of jingoistic, disruptive sloganeering was just not the way to do it.
Of course such a critique utterly misses the point of our protest. We were not seeking “dialogue” with members of our community; on the contrary, we were protesting war crimes being committed in our name. We certainly did not have any illusions that our action would convert anyone in that ballroom to our cause. Our target audience was not the attendees of the JUF fundraiser – rather, we sought to send a message to the world at large. To state loudly and openly that the entire Jewish community is not, in fact, marching lock step in support of Israel’s war effort.
We also heard the critique that our actions was just downright rude: rude to our civic leaders, rude to the speakers and guests, rude to decorum of this function and rude to the JUF as a whole.
Yes, our action was disruptive – that was, in fact, its point. But if these disruptions felt rude and impolitic, the discomfort felt in that room was beyond miniscule in comparison to the horrors that were being inflicted at that very moment on the people of Gaza. Our protest was at its very core, an act of tochechah (“reproof”), hearkening back to the Biblical dictum “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor and incur no sin because of that person” (Leviticus 19:17).
When I think of this kind of criticism, I can’t help but think back to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he addressed a very similar critique leveled at him by liberal clergy who urged him not to “cause tension” through public acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in their city.
As King wrote to his Birmingham colleagues:
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
It is now three months since the ceasefire that ended the carnage of that terrible summer. And of course, we have already forgotten about Gaza. With the increasing shortness of our news cycles and attention spans, it has all but disappeared from our view.
But of course, the tragedy continues on. The death and destruction inflicted on the people of that tiny strip of land still reverberates: through pain and agony of the injured and the traumatized and through the grief of so many who lost parents, siblings, children and friends. As a Gazan friend recently told me, no one – no one – in Gaza is untouched by the pain of grief.
As a Jew I will never forget the tragedy of those two months, nor will I remain silent over the crimes that continue to be committed in my name. But I am heartened by those in my community who are increasingly finding the courage of their convictions. It is truly my honor to be counted with the disrupters, the “nonviolent gadflies” who seek to “dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored.”
This past year marked an important milestone for our congregation – our 50th anniversary, JRC’s Jubilee Year. During the course of the year, we celebrated in a variety of different ways at events organized by our inspired Jubilee Year Committee. Among the most memorable for me were a series of Friday night services held throughout the year to honor the various generations of our congregation. At each service, we highlighted a different group of members, from longtime to the most recent. And at each service, I invited them to share their memories of JRC with one another: an anecdote, a story, an event that still remained significant to them.
I found these remembrances to be enormously, often unexpectedly powerful. In particular, it was humbling to consider how far our congregation had come since its founding. The cumulative effect of these services drove home for me just how far JRC has traveled in its first 50 years.
Congregants shared about the early days, in which JRC first met, originally as a Reconstructionist study group founded by Anshe Emet members. We heard about the so-called “Shlep-a-Shul” days, when JRC met in members’ homes and later in churches and Chute Middle School. We heard about the hiring of JRC’s first full time rabbi, Arnie Rachlis, and the purchase of our first permanent home at 303 Dodge. Members shared their memories of our fateful decision to start our first Capital Campaign, the construction of our new synagogue facility and the day we learned it had been awarded LEED Platinum status, making it the greenest house of worship in the country.
As I listened to these memories, it occurred to me that one secret to JRC’s success has always been its fearlessness – its culture of openness to change. Not simply change for change’s sake, but rather the kind of change that exemplified the philosophy of Reconstructionist Judaism. Change that stems from the understanding that Jewish civilization has always been a dynamic and evolving organism – and that successful congregations are the ones that are willing to make the changes necessary to remain relevant to ever new generations of Jews.
I remember first learning about JRC when I was in rabbinical school in the late 1980s. I actually visited here as a student intern in 1991 to lead programs at JRC’s annual Memorial Day retreat, or Kallah. It was Rabbi Rachlis’ last Kallah as rabbi, and the beginning of a new chapter at JRC. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was the beginning of a new one in my own life as well.
I know I’ve shared with some of you that when I was in rabbinical school I consistently swore up and down that I had no intention of being a congregational rabbi. I was pretty cynical about congregations and believed them to be more akin to middle class membership organizations than spiritual communities. But in my final year as a rabbinical student, I had some wonderful experiences with congregations that knocked me right off my cynical high horse – and my weekend at the JRC Kallah was certainly one of them. I was so deeply impressed by the seriousness of its members, its experimental spirit, its openness to embrace new ideas and ways of experiencing Jewish tradition.
As it turned out, I became a congregational rabbi immediately upon graduation from rabbinical school – and to date it’s the only kind of rabbi I’ve ever been. I’ve been a congregational rabbi for over 20 years – most of them here at JRC. And while I’m still critical of congregational Judaism in many ways, I also know from first-hand experience that congregations do have the potential be places of spiritual inspiration, of transformation and change.
First and foremost, until I started to serve at congregations, I never fully understood the power of Jewish community and Jewish tradition to change lives. As congregational rabbis, we are let into people’s lives in a way that I can only describe as “spiritually intimate.” We’re invited into our families’ joys and sorrows and everything in between – and in so doing we bear witness to the ways Jewish tradition represents a spiritual roadmap for the most profoundly charged moments in our lives.
Words cannot do justice to the honor I have felt to have shared such moments with you in so many ways over the years. To put it simply, we have been through so much together. When I think back on my years at JRC, I know that my first memories will invariably be these myriad of life moments: B’nai Mitzvah, funerals and shiva calls, weddings and baby namings and the countless simple moments when I was able, in some measure, to be part of your lives on behalf of your spiritual community. It has enriched my life immeasurably and for it all I will be forever grateful.
And when I think of these past seventeen years in the collective sense, I am struck by the numerous ways JRC has shown me how congregations can become Jewish laboratories for the work of Tikkun Olam – for social justice at home and around the world. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times rabbinical colleagues have approached me over the years to tell me how much they admire our congregation in this regard. I’ve been asked by countless rabbis and lay people about the secret of our success, and how they might plant the same kind of passion for Tikkun Olam in their own synagogues.
And while I’d love to claim the credit, the real truth is that this passion has always been an indelible part of JRC’s culture. Here’s a little bit of history from the early days of my tenure here. I do believe it’s a piece of congregational history that deserves to be honored and remembered:
Shortly after I arrived, I heard in no uncertain terms from a number of members that JRC’s social action programming had been languishing in recent years. Other than our participation in the monthly soup kitchen, there was really no ongoing Tikkun Olam activity in our congregation to speak of. From the very beginning of my tenure here, I sensed a deep and palpable desire to revitalize JRC’s involvement in the arena of social justice.
So with the help of some inspired JRC members led by Gail Brodsky and Reggi Marder, of blessed memory, we decided to rebuild JRC’s social action program from scratch. We started by dissolving the social action committee. We did away with the common congregational system that delegates social action priorities to one relatively small group of congregants – and in its place we created a more grassroots approach – one that was grounded in the ideals of community organizing rather than organizational programming.
We designated members as Tikkun Olam coordinators, who then put out a call to the congregation, announcing that JRC would now support any social action initiatives that congregants saw fit to organize. We reached out to members who had passion, experience, or skills in any particular field of social justice work and gave them the wherewithal to do it Jewishly, under the auspices of their congregation. Our members responded to this call almost immediately. And it’s not an exaggeration to say our new system had a transformative effect on our congregation.
Here are two examples: One of JRC’s very first initiatives was our Environmental Task Force. When it began, it concentrated largely on internal policy issues, congregational education, consciousness-raising about JRC’s use of recyclables, etc. However, when JRC started to explore the prospect of building a new facility for our congregation, the Environmental Task Force broadened its vision. It met with our Board and proposed that we build our new home as a green building.
Now this was back around the year 2002 or so, when environmental consciousness was not yet so firmly planted on our national radar screen. Many of us had only the vaguest notion of what a green building even was. But to their credit, our leaders educated themselves and our community about and sustainable construction and energy efficiency – and about the very complicated LEED certification process. Then we took the leap and committed to building a new building at the highest LEED status feasible. At that time, none of us had any notion what that might mean. We certainly didn’t dream we would eventually achieve a Platinum rating – the highest rating possible.
While today JRC has a well-deserved reputation as a green congregation, it’s important to keep in mind that our congregation didn’t have a long history of environmental activism. Our accomplishments were a direct product of our new culture of Tikkun Olam – an approach that invited our members themselves to take ownership of our congregation’s social justice values and priorities.
Here’s another example. Another one of our earliest task forces was our Global AIDS Task Force. When it began, it was also largely educational in orientation – it sponsored an annual World AIDS Day program and helped raise funds and awareness about the efforts to fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic at home and abroad. But after a few years of this work within our congregation, the leaders of this task force decided it was time to take things to the next level – and organized a service trip to Africa.
Again, up until this point, JRC did not have a history of organizing international service trips. I certainly never dreamed that as a rabbi, I would some day accompany my congregants to work with NGOs in rural Africa to serve communities ravaged by AIDS. To date, JRC has now visited Uganda and Rwanda three times and has created lasting relationships with courageous important NGOs such as Rwanda’s We-Act and CHABHA. But again, we were only able to accomplish all of this when we made the decision to give Tikkun Olam back to our members themselves.
When I look back over the most recent chapter of JRC’s life, I personally believe this will be its most important legacy: the creation of this new congregational culture for the work of Tikkun Olam. And as JRC enters its next chapter, I encourage you to continue to nurture it – and build upon it. Despite what JRC has already accomplished, I can’t help but think we’ve only just scratched the surface. Learn more about these initiatives and support them. If any of you who may have passions or experience or skills in a particular aspect of Tikkun Olam, please know that this congregation can be your laboratory for doing this sacred work. I can tell you from first-hand experience these initiatives have the potential to make a very real difference in the life of our congregation – and more importantly, in the world around us.
I’d like to address another aspect of JRC’s Tikkun Olam work that I believe has been crucial in its most recent chapter – and it is one I believe will only become even more critical in the years ahead. And that is, namely, the issue of Israel/Palestine. This is, of course, not just any other Tikkun Olam issue; in so many ways it is the issue for the Jewish community. Last night I spoke about the ways I have evolved on this issue – and how my evolution has impacted on our congregation. And while I know it has been painful – and that this issue was eventually instrumental in my decision to leave JRC, I do believe it has also led our congregation to respond and grow in courageous ways.
Another bit of history: several years ago, in response to the growing tensions caused by my Palestinian solidarity activism, the JRC Board reached out to consultants to help us to create a process for civil discourse on this issue; to build a culture of openness to all views and the development of safe spaces for conversation and programming on Israel/Palestine that truly reflected the range of our members’ views and concerns. This work resulted in what we eventually called the “Sicha Project,” in which we trained JRC members to become group facilitators to be used whenever we addressed difficult or potentially controversial aspects of the Israel/Palestine issue together as a community. At the same time, we created an Israel Program Committee charged with the creation of a wide variety of programs on this issue.
The Sicha Project was, I believe, a truly courageous approach to a deeply difficult issue that most congregations generally deal with in one of two ways: monolithically or through abject avoidance. And for a time, at least, I do believe JRC’s approach provided an important model for a new kind of congregational engagement on Israel/Palestine.
I’m sorry to say that this initiative broke down over the last few years. There are many reasons for this. I believe we failed to remain as vigilant as we should have been in bringing new leadership aboard and I believe the work of our first Israel Program Committee became paralyzed and left to languish. But whatever the specific causes of this breakdown, I don’t believe for a second that it was due to anything inherent to the model itself. Now more than ever, our congregation needs to come together to discuss this issue openly and I do have faith that we have the wherewithal to make it succeed.
Over the past year, a new Israel Program Task Force has been hard at work revitalizing and rebooting this process. It has created a new policy for inclusive Israel programming that has been presented to and approved by the Board. And we are now poised to restart the Sicha Project once more. Despite the immense challenges of such an initiative, I believe this is still the model of how congregations can respond to this difficult issue with sensitivity and courage.
I would also suggest that if JRC wants to remain on the leading edge of trends in American Jewish life, it would do well to face this issue head on. There is every indication that attitudes about Israel in the Jewish community are widening. Studies show us over and over that the younger Jewish generation is questioning the role of Israel in their Jewish identity in fundamental ways. We can ignore or fight against this phenomenon – or we can face it head on. This is our Jewish future – and unless congregations create communities in which all views can be included and respected, I believe they will soon find themselves on the road to irrelevancy.
One of the most important bellwethers of this phenomenon is the Open Hillel movement – a grassroots initiative of university students who have organized in response to Hillel International’s very narrow guidelines for what they consider to be appropriate Israel student programming on campus. Over the last few years, this movement has exploded in Jewish student communities across the country. Individual Hillels have been declaring themselves to be “Open Hillels” that allow a wide tent of points of view on Israel – next month it will be holding its first national conference at Harvard.
In its mission statement, Open Hillel says the following (listen to the young people now):
Open discussion and debate is a Jewish value, and we are proud of our culture’s long tradition of encouraging the expression of multiple, even contradictory, views and arguments. However, Hillel International’s current guidelines encourage Jewish students to avoid seriously engaging with Palestinian students or other students on campus with differing views on Israel-Palestine. This is detrimental to the goal of encouraging mutual understanding, cooperation, and peace. Thus, we believe it is essential that Hillel-affiliated groups be able to partner with other campus groups in order to share perspectives, cooperate in those areas where we agree, and respectfully debate in those areas where we disagree.
Our congregations would do well to develop this kind of manifesto. Perhaps it could provide us with the nucleus of a nascent Open Congregations movement, in which Jewish congregations openly declare their willingness to create a safe and wide tent for all points of view on this issue within their congregations.
Although I’ve personally made the decision to leave congregational life professionally, I still do believe in congregations. And I’ll admit, I say this selfishly: quite frankly, Hallie and I would love to find a congregation in which we ourselves can make a comfortable Jewish home. But even more than this, I do know from over 20 years of first-hand experience, that congregations can be exciting, relevant places that don’t just hold on to a Jewish past but mold the Jewish future. I know it can be done.
But we if we do decide to throw our weight behind congregational Judaism, we should have no illusions about the challenges this will entail. To put it bluntly, liberal Jewish congregations are not a growth industry in America. Every Jewish community-sponsored study tells us the same thing over and over: the overwhelming majority of American Jews do not affiliate with congregations. Synagogue membership is shrinking considerably, and increasing numbers of congregations are closing their doors. And while I know that there are many complex reasons for this, I am convinced that the only way we can respond is to take a good hard look at the reality of the Jewish community – and to create congregations of relevance and meaning that will lead us into our Jewish future.
I know for a fact that JRC can be one of those congregations. It’s been doing it for the past 50 years and I’ve seen it with my own eyes for the past 17. I thank you for providing me and my family with such an exciting and vibrant Jewish home. I have no doubt you will go from strength to strength and I look forward to watching it happen.
Shanah Tovah to you all.