Posted tagged ‘Prejudice’

When Anti Zionism Becomes Antisemitism

July 25, 2014

I am not one of those who labels every criticism of Israel as a manifestation of antisemitism. Indeed, I agreed, and still agree, with Thomas Friedman when he wrote “Criticizing Israel is not antisemitic and saying so is vile; but singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction – out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East – is antisemitic, and not saying so is dishonest.”

That being said, during the course of this current war, it has become increasingly clear to me that the lines between criticizing Israel and antisemitism have become more and more blurred, and in too many cases, completely obliterated.

When anti Israel protesters in Paris decided to besiege and attack a synagogue on Shabbat while Jews were gathered inside, engaged in worship, that was no longer a statement of protest against Israel. That was antisemitism.

When anti Israel protesters in Berlin enthusiastically chanted in German “Jude, Jude, feiges schwein, kom heraus und kampf alein – Jew, Jew, you cowardly pig, come out and fight alone” while the German police stand by and do nothing, even though such hate speech is illegal in Germany, that was no longer a statement of protest against Israel. That was antisemitism.

When Palestinian television broadcasts its version of children’s educational programming and those shows include having children speak of how they need to kill the enemy, and consistently, the term they use for enemy is NOT Yisraeili – Israeli – but rather Yahud – Jew, that is no longer a statement of protest against Israel. That is antisemitism.

Just the other day, on my blog, in response to a posting concerning the war, I received a comment which spoke of the Israelis in these terms, “They are their father’s seed. They are the offspring of Cain”, that is no longer a statement of protest against Israel. That is antisemitism. For those who do not pick up on the reference, it comes out of the rhetoric of one of America’s most virulent hate groups – the Christian Identity group – which perverts the teachings of Christianity and transform them into doctrines of hate. When it comes to the Jews, they claim that all Jews are descended from Cain, and therefore are inherently evil.

War is a very messy business, and out of it there are enough misdeeds to go around on both sides. The causes and issues which have led to the conflict can be argued for quite some time, with each side having at least some truth to their narrative. But these are debates about the right and the wrong of hotly contested political issues. However, when these debates degenerate into diatribes of bigotry and prejudice, we cross a line that once crossed, it is hard to reverse. As for me, I try very hard not to permit my opposition to Hamas to somehow morph into a hatred of the Palestinian people as a whole. Therefore, I will not stand idly by when I witness the opposition of others to the actions of Israel morphing into crass antisemitism. That others accept such a transition, and indeed embrace it, is an abomination.

Politics and Justice: The Foggy Line

May 15, 2013

I tend to be outspoken, both in my synagogue and out in the community, on issues of Tikkun Olam – Social Justice – even when they are controversial; perhaps especially when they are controversial.  Over the years, I have advocated for the hungry, for the homeless, for the newcomers to our shores.  When African American churches were being set on fire in the South, Rabbi Stanley Herman and I organized the Burned Churches Fund.  When local bigots burned crosses in West Davenport, Dan Ebener, who was then the Social Action Director of the Diocese of Davenport, and I organized a Say No to Hate Rally at Sacred Heart Cathedral; a rally which filled the cathedral to overflowing.  When it became apparent that while our community had many wonderful agencies to address the needs of the homeless, they needed help in raising funds of their efforts, I, along with a group of caring citizens, several of them from my congregation, put together a fund raising organization called In From the Cold, which focused its efforts of supporting agencies serving the homeless.  When it became increasingly clear that in my community the primary religious voice that was making itself heard in the publid forum was the voice of conservative Christianity, I joined with Rev. Dan Schmiechen of the United Church of Christ and Rev. Charlotte Saleska of the Unitarian Church in organizing a group called Progressive Clergy, which would serve as the voice of socially liberal religious traditions in our community.  When I became aware of how many of our local school children were without adequate winter wear to fend off the Iowa cold, I got together with the superintendent of the Davenport School District and organized a program called Coats for Kids whose function it was to collect, clean, and distribute gently used winter coats to needy children.  When there were those who were burning the Koran in protest to the proposed opening of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York, I was one of the primary supporters of an interfaith solidarity gathering at the Moline mosque.  I have testified before the city councils of both Davenport and Bettendorf in support of both women’s reproductive choice and extending the categories of groups protected by our civil rights ordinances to include the diversity of sexual orientation.  When John Deere sought to cut the health care benefits of its retirees, I led the clergy in protesting that action.  This list can go on and on.

As a Jew, my passion for Tikkun Olam comes naturally to me.  The Torah continually instructs us to be proactive in matters of social justice.  So many are the times when the Torah calls upon us to pursue this course, reminding us, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”; reminding us that as Jews, we have known what it means to be the victims of injustice and from those experiences, we must take away the lesson of how imperative it is for us to pursue justice for all people – “tzedek, tzedek tirdof! – Justice, justice shall you pursue!”  Where the Torah leaves off, the prophets picked up, for their voices were clarion in the call for the pursuit of justice.  Indeed, when Reform Judaism had turned away from the rigors of ritual mitzvot such as kashrut as the primary expression of our Jewish identity, we turned to focusing on the ethical mitzvot, especially the social justice mitzvot.  And what did we call ourselves?  We called ourselves prophetic Judaism.  Indeed, to this day, across the Judeo-Christian spectrum, when we talk about pursuing social justice, we refer to it as a prophetic mission and the prophetic tradition.

There was a time, really not that long ago, when this was almost expected of faith communities and their religious leaders; when the pursuit of social justice was considered an essential part of the mission of communities of faith.  So we saw wonderful images, such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walking side-by-side with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the cause of civil rights for all people regardless of race.  We saw clergy and congregations across faith lines speaking out and marching in protest to the Viet Nam War.  In my own community, sometimes I would be approached by congregants who would say, “You know, Rabbi, people out in the community tell me how much they respect you for most of the stands that you take, but they are really troubled by your stand on Planned Parenthood…”  In saying that, they were informing me that while there were those who disagree with me, no one was challenging the appropriateness, or legality, of taking a stand on a social issue.

Now you need to understand that for tax exempt not-for-profit organizations like synagogues and churches  there is a very important line that separates social issues advocacy from political advocacy.  While it is perfectly appropriate for organizations like synagogues and churches to take stands on social issues, it is strictly prohibited and jeopardizes their tax exempt status if they advocate for particular political candidates or parties.

For most of my rabbinate, and before, the lines separating those two types of advocacy were pretty clear and such conflicts were easily avoided.  But in the course of time something has changed, and these lines have gotten blurred.  They seem to have gotten so blurred that today there are those who feel that they can claim that advocating for particular social issues is, in effect, advocating for one particular political party over another; one political candidate over another.  Therefore, for a synagogue – and perhaps even its rabbi speaking and acting outside of the synagogue – to advocate for a particular social issue would seem to violate the prohibition against engaging in partisan politics.

In the world of politics, it seems that times have changed.  There was a time when a political figure’s stand on any given social issue was not a function of party politics but rather of personal conscious.  There was a time when our political leaders felt freer to follow their consciences rather than the agenda of their parties.  Anyone who has seen the recent movie “Lincoln” knows from whence I speak.  The 16th amendment passed, granting freedom to African Americans, because there were those in Congress who were willing to vote their conscience rather than their party.  As a youth I recall reading with wrapped attention John F. Kennedy’s book, PROFILES IN COURAGE, in which he raised up 8 U.S. senators who courageously crossed party lines in order to vote their conscience.

But somewhere along the line, the landscape of American politics changed.  I remember first clearly noting that change while watching President Bill Clinton delivering one of his State of the Union addresses.  As I watched, I noticed that when it came to the applause, the members of Clinton’s party applauded every time.  However, the Republicans only applauded when signaled to do so by their Congressional leadership.  The members of both sides never really chose for themselves but rather they stood by their parties.  Once aware of this, of course I needed to test my theory.  So I would continue to watch State of the Union addresses with this in mind, and sure enough, this held true during the presidency of George Bush with the Democrats reserving their applause only to those times when they received the signal.

What I was witnessing is something that we all already know; that our country has become divided along political party lines.  As a manifestation of that political divide, each of the parties has staked its claim on one side or the other of social issues.  Therefore, if you take one side or the other, you can be accused of lining yourself up with one party or the other.  As things have shaken out, the Democrats tend to be more on the left, and the Republicans more on the right.  So no matter which position we as a faith community take – the more liberal or the more conservative – there will be those who accuse us of engaging in partisan politics.

This situation tends to paralyze American congregations and clergy of all faiths.  They so fear becoming identified with one political party or the other, and therefore risking the loss of their tax exempt status, that they choose to refrain from all Tikkun Olam activities or restrict themselves to only the least controversial, or the non-controversial, such as supporting meal sites and hunger programs.  While these are indeed good works, and should be pursued, that is not nearly enough for faith communities, for if faith communities relinquish their role as the guardians of conscience in our society, then who will pick it up?  Regardless of what faith we profess, our faith calls upon us to be courageous in our efforts to care for and protect all of God’s children.  We must be courageous as the prophets were courageous; we must be outspoken as the prophets were outspoken.  Because there are those who accuse us of being partisan in our politics, that does not grant us license to abandon the demands of our conscience.

We must come to recognize that the problem does not reside in our having become partisan in our politics, for we are not.  As long as we focus our words and actions on the issues and not on the political parties or the individual politicians, we are not engaging in partisan politics.  We are engaging in Tikkun Olam.  Where the problem does reside is to be found in what has happened to our political system, where the party line has drowned out the call of conscience.  And that is partly our fault.  It is our fault in that we no longer demand of our political leaders that they be people of conscience; people who are willing to cross party lines to support what they truly believe in; people who are more interested in advancing the interests of the American people than then interests of their particular political party; people who would qualify for inclusion in John F. Kennedy’s book PROFILES IN COURAGE.  We have the power to make that happen, for we have the power of the vote.  We have the power to tell those who aspire to political leadership that our top priority is that they do the right thing – following the dictates of their conscience – even when it is not the party thing.  Then once again, we will find ourselves living in an American where there can be times when Republicans and Democrats stand together to do the right thing.  When standing on one side or another of an issue will no longer be confused with engaging in partisan politics.

The Sin of Standing Idly By

September 28, 2012

It was back on Rosh Hashanah evening of 1999 that I presented to my congregation a very unsettling sermon entitled “Summer of Hate; Winter of Challenge.”  It was all about how the Summer of 1999 was marked by hate crime after hate crime; act of violence after act of violence, many, but not all of which, were targeted at fellow Jews.  The most famous of those acts of violence was the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.  But beside from the Columbine shooting, during that summer there were also synagogue burnings in Sacramento, California, a noted member of a hate group going on a shooting spree in Illinois and Indiana, targeting Jews, African Americans and Asians, and another hate group member entering a Jewish community center in Granada Hills, a suburb of  Los Angeles, in order to shoot Jewish children in a day care program.  It was an extremely violent summer and it was time for us as Americans to put an end to hate and particularly gun violence in our nation.

This coming Spring, my congregation will celebrate with two wonderful young ladies as each will become a Bat Mitzvah.  When I gave that sermon back in 1999, those two young ladies were not yet born.  Yet here they are, each one preparing to become a Bat Mitzvah, and we Americans are still faced with some of the same dreadful problems as confronted us then, gun violence being one such problem; a major problem.

Indeed, the serious concern over this issue in our country even predates the birth of these young ladies.  In my congregation, three years before I gave that sermon, a young man by the name of Daniel Werner made gun violence, in the form of drive-by shootings, the topic of his Bar Mitz­vah speech.

Now it is 2012 and we have just endured another summer of violence; violence pouring out of the barrels of guns.  There was the shooting in the moving theater in Aurora, Colorado.  There was the shooting at the Sikh Temple in Milwaukee.  There was the shooting at the headquarters of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.  There was the shooting in front of the Empire State Building.  This summer’s gun violence was a shocking testimony to how broad based is this problem.  Today, resorting to using firearms as a means of expression is not just to be found in the realm of the political or social radicals.  There are many different kinds of people who pick up guns and pull the trigger as an expression of their own inner turmoil.  The shooter in Colorado used a gun to give expression to his own mental illness.  In Milwaukee, the shooter used it to express his prejudice against minorities.  In Washington, the shooter used it to express his anger at those who promote a conservative social agenda.  In New York, the shooter used it to express his frustration with events in his personal life.  And these only represent the incidents of gun violence that have merited the attention of the national news media.  They are but only the tip of the bloody iceberg of gun violence in America today.

Let me share with you some statistics, and I hope that these statistics disturb you as greatly as they disturb me.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes issues an annual Global Study on Homicide.  In its latest report, issued in 2011, the United States ranked 15th in the world in gun related homicides.  This report is rated by the number of gun related homicides for each 100,000 people in a nation’s population.  For the United States, the number is 4.6 for every 100,000 Americans.  The nations who rank higher than us are to be found primarily in Latin America and the Caribbean, with some in Eastern Europe.  However, when it comes to affluent nations, the United States ranks number 1, with no one else coming close.  In fact, the affluent European nations typically have a rate of 1 per 100,000, if not lower.  For example the rate for France is 1.4; for the United Kingdom, 1.1; for Italy, 1.0; for both Spain and Germany, 0.9; and for Switzerland, 0.7.  We Americans love to brag about our being #1, but this is a first place prize which should shake us to our very core.

While the United Nations report focuses on crime, and in this case homicides, there also has been a study done by the United States Center for Disease Control.  Theirs is a study of shootings in America, criminal and otherwise, fatal or not.  According to their findings, approximately 105,000 Americans are shot every year (104,852 in 2010) with approximately 31,500 of them being killed (31,347 in 2010).  This averages out to 287 Americans shot every day, 86 of them fatally.

When it comes to the number of Americans killed by guns every year, it may surprise you to learn that the number one cause of fatal gun deaths is not homicide.  It is suicide.  In 2010, while 11,493 of our fellow citizens were murdered with guns, 18,735 Americans use guns to kill themselves.  Several years ago, my brother-in-law was one of them.  He was a manic depressive who went off his medication.  He owned a pistol to protect his business.  But in a depressive state, alone in his house, he sat down on the couch in his family room, put the barrel of the pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

The remainder of the annual gun deaths are categorized as either unintentional, undetermined or the result of a legal intervention, which I imagine is their way of saying that these people where shot and killed by law enforcement officers in the performance of their duties.

This study also points out that beside from those Americans who die at the barrel of a gun, every year there also are approximately 73,500 people who are shot but not killed (73,505 in 2010).  When we add up those numbers, we arrive at the devastating annual figure of approximately 105,000 Americans who are either killed or injured with a firearm.  This is nothing less than a profound national tragedy.

When we who live in the Quad Cities watch and read the news reports about all these shootings, we have a tendency to think of them as always happening someplace else, like in Colorado or New York.  Yet we in Iowa and Illinois are not immune to this disease of gun violence.  It touches our states and our communities as well.  According to the FBI’s latest Uniform Crime Report, there were 21 firearms related murders in Iowa in 2010 and 364 in Illinois.  During that year, there were other crimes such as robberies and aggravated assaults in which firearms were used as well.  But we do not need to turn to the statistics com­piled by the FBI to know that guns are killing people – often children – in our community.  All we need do is open the newspaper and watch the TV news.  In fact, just the other day one of my congregants – Linda Golden, who is a high school teacher in Rock Island, Illinois – was telling me about having attended a funeral for a student in her school who had been shot to death.  I would like to say that such shootings are rare in our community, but the fact is that they are happening far more often than we dare to admit.  But since they are not happening to our children, but to other peoples’ children, we tend to pay them scant heed.

Why am I talking to you about gun violence on Yom Kippur?  This is supposed to be a deeply spiritual day during which we plumb the depths of our own souls – when we take inventory of our lives – when we confront our own personal sins and shortcomings, and hopefully resolve to repair and correct them.  Where does gun violence fit into any of that?

The violence born of guns which plagues our nation – which draws our attention and breaks our hearts from time to time over the years, when there is a Columbine or a Granada Hills or a Virginia Tech, or an Aurora, Colorado, or a Sikh Temple shooting – is a corporate, national sin for which there must be both repentance and atonement.  Whether we realize it or not – whether we accept it or not – corporate national sins, especially in this nation which prides itself on being the great democracy, are also personal sins.  They belong to each and every one of us, just as much as all the sins we list in the “Al Chet Shechatanu” prayer; just as much as all those other sins which we may not have found listed in the High Holy Day prayer book but which each of us might have privately listed as we pondered our personal weak­nesses and failings and as we aspired to improve upon those behaviors in the year ahead.  As members of a democracy we do not possess the luxury to be able to say, “That’s the nation’s sin.  It is not mine.”  For they are ours.  For in a democracy, the sins of the nation become the sins of each of its citizens.  Why?  Because we create the nation.  We create it and we recreate it every single election day.  The people who make the decisions and take the actions, or fail to take the actions, which determine the very nature of our nation are the ones who come election day need our votes – our approval and our support – which in turn bestows upon them the power to mold our nation’s present and fashion its future.  So if our elected officials have allowed this nation to wallow in the sin of gun violence, we have no one to blame but ourselves, for we have permitted our elected officials to allow this tragedy to be reenacted time and time again without their making any effort to alter or stop it.  Yes, often they go to the sites of what the media luridly describes as “masacres” and they attend the funerals and they may even wax eloquent in their eulogies, but they do nothing to stop it.  Their tears are crocodile tears, and it is our fault – we, the voters – for we let them get away with it.

The sad reality is that we do not need to dress our young people up in uniforms and send them to foreign soil in order to suffer massive American casualties.   We only need to send them to high schools and colleges and houses of worship and movie theaters, for in our current gun environment they could just as easily fall victim in those places.  My daughter, Helene, and her friends love to go to these midnight movie premieres, like the premiere of the Batman film in Aurora at which that horrible shooting took place.  But as the Aurora shooting shows us, when one goes to such a premiere, one takes one’s life in their hands.  Are any of us so foolish as to believe that while it can happen in Aurora, Colorado it cannot happen in our own community?  Of course it can!  For it is as easy for an unstable person to acquire the firepower in most American communities as it was for James Eagan Holmes to acquire it Aurora, Colorado.  And if that were to happen in our own community, God forbid, then the sin would be upon our heads because we allowed those in power to remain in power while do nothing to protect our children from lunatics with guns.

On Yom Kippur afternoon, in Reform synagogues, we read from the Torah the text commonly called The Holiness Code.  In it there is a verse – Leviticus chapter 19, verse 16 – which states “You shall not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.”  This is the sin for which we must repent and atone; the sin of standing idly by while all our neighbors who have become victims in all of these shootings, time and time and time again have bled and died while we have remained silent.

This past summer, soon after the shootings in Aurora, the members of our new Quad Cities Interfaith Fellowship struggled with the question of how can our community of faiths put our various faiths to work so that as a united faith community we can say, “Enough already!  Too many have died and died need­lessly.”  So we have started to address this issue.  Our first step was to write a letter to our various elected officials, both local and national, expressing our concern.  An edited version of that letter appeared in Sunday’s Quad City Times  But that is not where our efforts will end.  Indeed, in the wake of the Milwaukee shooting we gave our full support to the local Sikh community.  Next month we will be meeting to look at future action steps.  One thing seem certain.  We wish to place a special emphasis on gun deaths in our own community.  As we develop our action plans, I pray that many others will join us in our efforts.

For far too long, we all have known about this blight upon our society.  We have condemned it.  We have mourned it.  But we have not taken sufficient action to alter it.  When you think about it, it is a disgrace that the two young ladies who will celebrate becoming Bat Mitzvah this Spring were born into an America in which we, the people, were aware of and distraught about the loss of life in our society because of the proliferation and accessibility of firearms, yet here it is 13 years later, and nothing has changed.  The killing remains ongoing and indiscriminate.  It is not enough for us to pray that the day will come when a child becomes a Bar or a Bat Mitzvah and does so in an America which knows no gun violence.  We have to work for that goal as well.  We have to make our elected officials understand that we, the citizens of America – that we, the potential victims of future gun violence in our country – will no longer tolerate their empty promises and gross inaction.  Together, may we create an America where we no longer fear that we or our children may be shot and killed simply because we were walking down the street or attending a worship service or going to a movie.

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 7

May 9, 2011

Back in December, when I wrote the last installment in this series of articles, little did I dream that it would be May before I would write the next.  For that, I apologize.  This has not been an easy winter for me.  I underwent major surgery and almost died from post surgical complications.  But now I definitely am on the mend and my return to writing for this series of articles is but one more testimony to my daily improving health.

As I stated at the end of my last article in this series, in this article I wish to turn my attention to the commitment the Reform movement has made to matters of Tikkun Olam or, as we used to call it, Social Action.

I remember as a child being told that Reform Judaism is Prophetic Judaism.  What is Prophetic Judaism?  When we call Reform Judaism Prophetic Judaism we mean that at its heart are the teachings of the biblical prophets, and that those teachings are primarily the teachings of social justice.  Like the biblical prophets, Reform Judaism holds that ritual observance is empty unless it is accompanied by deeds of loving kindness directed toward the less fortunate of society.  I remember, in my childhood congregation, how seriously we took Isaiah’s message of social justice when we read it as the Haftarah on Yom Kippur morning:  “Is such the fast that I have chosen?  The day for a man to afflict his soul?  Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?  Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?  Is not this the fast that I have chosen?  To loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?  Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou shalt bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?  When thou seest the naked, thou shalt cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?  Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the Lord shall be thy rear-guard.”

I also remember that prayer in Shabbat evening service number 3 of the old UNION PRAYER BOOK, which read, “How much we owe to the labors of our brothers!  Day by day they dig far away from the sun that we may be warm.”  When I asked my rabbi to explain what that meant, he told about how our movement supported the efforts of the coal miners in their struggle to earn a living wage and to require their employers to establish safety standards for their working conditions.

I also remember how, when I was in my Confirmation year, the principal of our religious school arranged for our class to attend a weekend retreat with students from an Afro-American church (we called them “Negroes” at that time), co-sponsored by the NAACP and the Nation Conference of Christians and Jews.  Attending a predominantly Jewish public school, this was my first serious encounter with African Americans as a group.  It was on that weekend that I first learned the songs “We Shall Overcome” and “Go Down, Moses.”  It was on that weekend that I first became committed to the Civil Rights Movement.

I remember that it was from the pulpit of the Reform synagogue of my teenage years that I first heard a message opposing the war in Viet Nam; a message lifting up the principle of peace.  I have no doubt that marked the birth of my involvement in the anti-war movement; a movement which would have a serious impact upon my college years, including my decision – much to my parents’ chagrin – to turn in my graduation gown and join others in boycotting our college graduation in protest to the war.

As time marched on, in Reform Judaism, the terms “Social Justice” and “Social Action” were replaced by the Hebrew expression, “Tikkun Olam” meaning “Repair of the World.”  Yet while whatever we called it may have changed, Reform Judaism’s commitment to the values of making our world a better place to live for all people has remained constant for over well over a century.  One need only look at the long list of social justice resolutions passed by both the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis to witness how constant and how broad based was, and is, our commitment to the principle of Tikkun Olam.  Whenever injustice has reared its ugly head, either in our American society or in the world at large, our movement has not hesitated to stand up for what is right and decent.  More often than not, we have been among the first to do so.

Today, the Union for Reform Judaism can justifiably boast that it is the only Jewish congregational organization in North America that has established specific centers dedicated to the advancement of Tikkun Olam, both here in America – the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C. – and in Israel – the Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem.  These two centers labor to keep all Reform Jews aware of the pressing social justice issues of our day and to engage us in the work of addressing those issues and righting those wrongs.

Indeed, I who am a person committed to the pursuit of Tikkun Olam, at times have to admit to feeling overwhelmed by all the issues which the Religious Action Center places before me and calls upon me to address.  There is just so much work to be done and our movement insists that we cannot ignore it.  If one were to go to the website of the Religious Action Center (http://rac.org/index.cfm?), they would find an extensive directory for “Key Topics” which would include issues concerning:  affirmative action, Africa, antisemitism & the Holocaust, arms control, bilingual education, bio-ethics, campaign finance reform, child soldiers, children’s issues, civil liberties, civil rights, conflict diamonds, crime & criminal justice, Darfur, death penalty, debt relief, disability rights, economic justice, education, election reform, environment, fair trade coffee, GLBT equality, global poverty, gun control, hate crimes, health care, HIV/Aids, housing and homelessness, human rights, human trafficking, hunger, immigration, intelligent design & creationism, interfaith affairs, Israel, judicial nominations, labor issues, living wage, mental health, privacy, race relations, religious liberty, religious persecution, reproductive rights, school prayer, school vouchers, separation of church & state, sexuality issues in public school, social security, socially responsible investment, stem cell research, substance abuse, torture, U.S. foreign policy, violence against women, welfare reform, women’s health, and world Jewry.  There is a list of equal length in regards to the work of the Israel Religious Action Center, with its focus being on Tikkun Olam issues particular to the State of Israel.

Orthodox, Conservative, Reform – we all agree that the father of modern Judaism was the great sage, Hillel the Elder, who lived in the first century B.C.E.  One of Hillel’s most famous sayings was:  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?” (PIRKE AVOT 1:14)  Reform Judaism, through its commitment to Tikkun Olam, strives to live up to Hillel’s standards.  As Jews, we are for ourselves, striving to live our Jewish lives more fully.  But if we are only for ourselves, then we are nothing.  Therefore, through our pursuit of Tikkun Olam – by being for others as well – we bring meaning to our Jewish selves.  “If not now, when?”  Our answer is crystal clear.  Now, most assuredly now!  As Reform Jews, we can neither wait to repair the world nor can we expect others to do it for us.  In committing ourselves to the work of Tikkun Olam, we are not only fulfilling ourselves as Jews but are also partnering with God in the ongoing work of perfecting creation.

In part 8, I will reflect upon why it is important for synagogues to band together into an ideological family, and how the Union for Reform Judaism has enabled its member synagogue to maximize their pursuit of living a modern, liberal approach to their Judaism.

Terrorism Today: Up Close and Personal

November 8, 2010

In August of 1970, at Kennedy Airport in New York, I boarded a plane headed for Israel.  I was not alone.  There were about 60 other young men, some with wives, who boarded that plane with me.  All of us were headed to Jerusalem, where we would be the first full class of rabbinic students from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion who would spend their entire first year of study in Israel.  With us as well was a handful of upper classmen who had taken it upon themselves to enhance their own rabbinic studies by spending a year in Israel.

Two of the young men aboard that flight were Lawrence Edwards and Michael Zedek.  After the year in Israel, Larry would be among those who joined me in continuing our rabbinic studies at the New York campus.  After ordination we lost touch with each other until the summer of 2008, when we found ourselves together again in Washington, D.C.; the only rabbis invited to participate in a week-long seminar hosted by the Church Relations Department of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  It was a great feeling to renew our old ties.  Michael was one of those upper classmen I spoke about.  Sunday afternoons in Jerusalem usually found me in the school library, struggling with researching a major theology paper upon which a significant part of my future as a student in the school would hang.  On one such afternoon, I felt the need to have my work reviewed by a neutral but informed party.  I looked around the room in search of one of those upper classmen, and there was Michael.  Up until then, our relationship had been cordial.  Yet in the course of that afternoon it evolved from cordial to friendship. While after Israel, Michael would return to his studies in Cincinnati, our friendship would continue and flourish.

Considering my ties to both of these men, one can imagine how taken aback I was when I read the news of the recent Yemenite terrorist plot to send a mail bomb to a Chicago synagogue, only to learn that the rabbi of the targeted congregation is none other than Rabbi Larry Edwards, and that his congregation, which has no home of its own, is hosted by a larger congregation whose rabbi is none other than Rabbi Michael Zedek.  All this is only compounded by the fact that this might very well be the first time pro-Palestinian terrorists have targeted a Midwest synagogue, nevertheless one that is a mere two and a half hours away from my home.

For many years, I have been one of those who have taken the threat of terrorism to Jewish institutions very seriously.  I believe that there are forces out there that truly have it in for the Jews and that as a result, Jews and Jewish institutions find themselves more at risk than others.  It has been 11 years since the infamous “Summer of Hate” (1999), which saw a string of hate crimes perpetrated by members of white “Christian” supremacist groups, many of them directed against Jews and Jewish institutions.  Much to my chagrin, for the most part, too many of my fellow Jews have chosen to forget that threat.  It was during those days that my own congregation instituted the practice of engaging off duty police officers to patrol our grounds whenever we held a worship service or our religious school was in session.  Now, every so often, we hear voices raised, questioning the need for such protection.  Indeed, there have been times of late when I feel as though there are those who now perceived of me as an alarmist and perhaps somewhat of a crackpot, if not worse, whenever I speak of such dangerous possibilities.  Even when I point out last year’s attempted bombings of two synagogues in Riverdale, New York, the failed Times Square bombing, and the murder of the security guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum by a white supremacist, not to mention the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India of two years ago which included a Chabad center as one of their targets, I am met with the dismissive responses of, “But that could never happen here.  They would never do that to us.”

So often have my concerns been minimized that I have not been able to help but wonder myself whether or not I have gone somewhat over the top on this issue.  But just when I find myself struggling with my own self doubt, there is an account in the news of another attempt to do mayhem to a Jewish institution by those who hate us, with the recent news of the terrorist attempt, so close to my home, targeting the Chicago congregations served by two of my old friends being just one more example.  In this latest attempted attack, the intended victims are not strangers in some distant city.  They are friends who live and work just down the road from where I live.  Indeed the issue of terrorism and Jew hatred has not been as up close & personal for me since 1993 when Neo-Nazis, in response to the release of the film “Schindler’s List.” sent post cards to my congregation, the local Jewish Federation, the Davenport police and the FBI, threatening to blow up both my home and my synagogue, along with the offices of the Jewish Federation.

I suspect that my friends Larry Edwards and Michael Zedek, and their congregations, never seriously believed that their congregations would be the targets of a terrorist attack.  I am sure that while they entertained the possibility, still they felt that the odds were greatly against it.  That is normal.  In fact, that is how I feel.  While I entertain the possibility that my congregation and the other institutions of my Jewish community someday might be targeted by those who hate Jews, still I believe that the odds are greatly against it.  That being said, that chance – that possibility – no matter how remote, still exists.  It is that possibility, no matter how slight, which should inform the decisions and actions of every synagogue and Jewish institution.  While it should not paralyze us Jews with fear, it should motivate all Jews to take such dangers seriously enough so that we take wise steps to prevent them.  For while as Jews, we should not live in fear, neither should we bury our heads in the sand, denying the possibilities of dangers which may confront us.  In all of this, the Jewish attitude should be “hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”  That is the prudent course to take.  That is the responsible course to take.  For if Jewish institutions choose the path of inaction – the path of failing to defend our people either because of a refusal to accept the possible danger, or worse yet, because considering the odds, they do not wish to incur such expenses – then God forbid, should some ill befall such a Jewish institution, bringing injury and perhaps even death in its wake, then some of the burden of guilt will rest upon the shoulders of those who chose to ignore the possibility of danger as well as upon those of the attackers.

It is a sad thing to have to admit that even though we now live in the 21st century, there is still too much truth to the old Yiddish expression, “Schwer zu zein ein Yid! – It is difficult to be a Jew!”

911 Remarks at a Mosque in the Shadow of Hate

September 13, 2010

With the controversy swirling around the building of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City, our entire country has experienced a burgeoning of Islamophobia – hatred directed at all the followers of Islam.  In response to this sorry state of affairs, an interfaith gathering – called a Day of Unity and Healing – was held at the mosque in Moline, Illinois, on September 11th.  It was heartening to see that the room was packed, as was an overflow room.  It was estimated that there were about 400 in attendance.  I was one of those who was invited to offer some brief remarks.  I share them with you here.

First of all, I want to take this opportunity to say that as a Jew and as a rabbi, I am honored to have been invited to speak with you today, here in this mosque. It is no secret that there are serious issues which divide Muslims and Jews these days; issues which each side takes very much to heart. But as bitter as are the challenges which divide us, there is something that we must never forget. We are family. We are cousins. We are both children of Abraham; we Jews by way of Isaac; you Muslims by way of Ishmael. Ishmael and Isaac. They were half brothers. Ishmael was my uncle. Isaac was yours. So we are family, and families can argue. They can battle bitterly. But at the end of the day, family is family, and as such family members stand by each other, especially in times of need. You are my cousins, and I am here. There is no place else I could be. And I speak not only for myself, but for the membership of Temple Emanuel as well.

That being said, I want to express my heartfelt thanks to Pastor Terry Jones and to his followers, the members of the Dove World Outreach Center, in Gainesville, Florida. I know that might sound odd, but I am serious. We owe this man, and so many others like him, a profound debt of gratitude.

Why? Because they have forced the American people to confront the ugly face of vile and virulent hatred. They have forced us to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask, “Is this who we are? Is this who we wish to be?” And the answer has been a resounding “NO!” These extremists do not speak for the vast majority of the American people and their message in no way reflects the ideals of freedom, inclusion, and respect upon which our nation was founded.

America is filled with people of good conscience; people who detest the toxic teachings of fanatics like Terry Jones. Yet we people of good conscience can often demonstrate ourselves to be quite a complacent crew. We poo-poo bigotry and prejudice, but we do so in the comfort of our homes and in our conversations with our friends, and all too often that is where it ends. Privately, we tell others how much we loath such hatred, but rarely do we take the next step and actually do something about it. And through our inaction, we permit this infection of the American soul to fester and spread. As Edmund Burke, the 18th century Irish philosopher so wisely put it, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

But then every once in a while, a fellow like Pastor Jones comes around; someone who is so outlandish in their prejudice that they make it nearly impossible for those who are truly people of good conscience to keep our high ideals to ourselves. They impel us to stand up publicly for that which we believe. The are a wake up call, reminding us that if we truly believe in the dignity of all people – if we truly believe in respecting the diversity of all those who populate our planet – then we need to stand up and be counted. We need to make it clear to the world at large that there is no place for prejudice in our town, our state, our nation, or our world.

Back in 1790, President George Washington wrote the following words to Moses Sexias, the leader of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. “For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.” I am here today, along with all the other non-Muslims who are here today, to assure our Muslim brothers and sisters – my Muslim cousins – that we take very much to heart the words of President Washington – “To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Anyone who attacks your right to worship as you please, where you please – even it it is two blocks from Ground Zero – attacks everyone’s right to worship as well. That you pray to Allah, and I pray to Adonai, and our Christian brothers and sisters pray to, or through, Jesus, and that so many people of so many other faiths each pray in their own way is not a matter of right or wrong. It never has been. Rather, it is a testament to the gift of so many roads which lay before us as personal opportunities for all people to choose how they feel they can best connect with the divinity that is the foundation of the universe. It is at times like these that we are reminded that if we are to travel our own chosen paths to the divine, then we must defend, even with our lives, the rights of others to travel theirs.

Dear Muslim cousins, on this day of September 11th, we reverently remember those who fell victims to the toxins of hatred 9 years ago. We refuse to permit such toxins to poison our community today. In that spirit, please be assured that we stand by you, we stand with you, today and every day.

Our Cousin at the Foot of the Mountain

September 11, 2010

Continuing my series of High Holy Day sermons, here is the sermon on delivered on Rosh Hashanah morning.

Every year, on Rosh Hashanah morning, I turn to the Torah portion, the story of the attempted sacrifice of Isaac, as a source of inspiration for my sermon. This year will be no different. However, before I enter into my remarks, I must tell you that the sermon you are about to hear is not the sermon I originally intended to share with you. That particular sermon will have to wait until next Rosh Hashanah.

In some ways, that is unfortunate because, though its text has not yet been committed to paper (or whatever you commit texts to when you type them into your computer), it was, is, and will be a very nice sermon; one of those thought provoking feel good sermons that people so much like to hear these days. But as I said, it will have to wait.

You may wonder why I felt the need to set that sermon aside. That is a fair enough question. The answer is that there are times when the world takes over and as a result the sermons that clergy plan to deliver are not the ones they wind up delivering. Rather, they find themselves needing to deliver the sermons that the world demands of them. Unfortunately, this is such a time.

With that being said, let me turn to our Torah portion.

Usually, when rabbis discuss this Torah portion, they almost always center their reflections upon Abraham and Isaac, and all that transpired between them in this powerful account. However, when we consider the totality of the story, we need to recognize that Abraham and Isaac were not the only characters present. There were others. The Hebrew text refers to these others as Abraham’s “na’arav” or “sh’nei na’a’rav,” which most translations, including the one in our prayer book, renders as “servants” or “two servants.” However, the typical Hebrew term for servant is not “na’ar” but “eved.” “Na’ar” usually means “youth.” Recognizing this irregularity in the text, the rabbis of the Midrash asked, “Who were these two special youths who accompanied Abraham and Isaac on their journey?” They generally agree upon the answer. One of them was Abraham’s servant, Eliezer; the person who, later in the text, Abraham would send to Aram Naharayim, the town in which Abraham’s brother, Nahor, lived, in order to acquire a bride for Isaac. The other was none other than Ishmael, Abraham’s oldest son, the son of the maid servant Hagar, Isaac’s half brother.

The presence of Ishmael in this seminal story of our people is highly significant. For even here, in the midst of a foundation story of the Jewish people – a story of one of the truly make-or-break moments in the history of our people and our faith; for if Abraham had carried through with his intended sacrifice, then this story would have marked the end of the Jewish people and of Judaism – even here we sense the presence of Ishmael. And who is Ishmael? As Isaac’s half brother, he is our uncle. But he is more than that. For as we Jews trace our lineage back to Isaac, the followers of Islam trace theirs back to Ishmael. With that in mind, we must never forget that the Muslims are our cousins. They are part of our family, and as such, they have been present with us throughout our history, even from our very beginnings. For even in this story, while Isaac the Jew is on top of Mount Moriah – what would become the Temple Mount – with Father Abraham, Ishmael the Muslim is standing at the foot of the mountain, awaiting the outcome. He accompanied us on our journey there, and he will accompany us on our journey back to Beer Sheva.

So the Muslims are our cousins; they are our family. In the light of contemporary history, that is a difficult concept for many to grasp. For we have spent the last 70 years or so contending with them. So much blood has been shed. Jewish blood by Arabs. Arab blood by Jews. Still they are our cousins. How can we reconcile the two? Well, as many of us know, sometimes the most strident conflicts occur within families. Family feuds can be the most bitter and devastating of controversies. Yet even so, in the end, family is family. And while within a family we can engage in the most vicious warfare imaginable, still there is something almost instinctive within us which demands that we set aside our differences and stand by our family members when others endanger them.

I remember an incident from my childhood which testifies to this phenomenon. My sister, of blessed memory, was six years older than I. As children we always fought, and she would never pass up even the slightest opportunity to beat me up. However, one day, standing at the school bus stop, one of the older boys started beating me up. Immediately, she stepped in and started beating him up. “Wait a minute!” he protested. “Why are you hitting me? After all, you beat up Henry all the time.” To this she replied, “He’s my brother, so I can beat him up, but don’t you dare lay a hand upon him!”

So it is, or should be, within the family of Abraham. It is one thing for us to contend with our cousins, the Muslims. It is quite another to stand silently by while others persecute and abuse them. And sad to say, that is exactly what is happening today – not in some far off land but rather here, on our very shores.

What I am referring to is the controversy which has whirled around the proposal to build an Islamic community center two blocks away from Ground Zero, in New York. The debate over this proposed mosque has stirred up some of the ugliest aspects of American culture today. As a result, we have witnessed a burgeoning of virulent hatred and prejudice. As a result, we Jews, as people of conscience, nevertheless cousins to the Muslims, have been handed the challenge of whether we will join in this hate fest, or silently stand by, and by our silence give tacit approval to it, or stand up and stand with our cousins, even though our dispute with them over the future of the Middle East continues to be bitter and bloody.

Personally, I have struggled with this issue. When the question of the mosque first arose, I have to admit that I myself wondered, “Why do they have to build it there? Isn’t that more than a bit insensitive considering the fact that the tragedy of September 11th was perpetrated by Muslims who claimed to be acting in the name of their faith?” I also have to admit that I wondered about where the funds were coming from. It would be one thing if they were being raised from among the American Muslim community, but something else if they were coming out of the Arab world. Yet even as I entertained these questions, my main concern still centered on the principle of freedom of religion. Still, this is America and in this country people of all faiths are supposed to be free to worship according to their faiths wherever they choose to worship; even if they are Muslims who wish to worship at or near Ground Zero.

As I was grappling with my mixed feelings over this issue, one day at lunch I was approached by Rev. Ron Quay of Churches United, who wanted us to get together to discuss whether or not the Quad Cities faith community ought to take a stand in support of the mosque.

When we did hold our meeting, we ultimately decided not to act immediately but rather to wait and see. What were we waiting for? First of all, we feared that by jumping into this controversy, we would actually be causing more harm than good. At that time, all the negativity was centered on the mosque in New York. There had been no expressions of anti-Muslim hostility here in the Quad Cities. So we feared that if we spoke out, we would actually provoke such hostility. We did not want to give this hostility more legs, especially more local legs than it already had. Secondly, we felt that it would be inappropriate for us to step forward without a request to do so coming from our local Muslim community. If they wanted our help and our support, all they needed to do was ask for it. For us to impose it upon them might indeed do them more harm than good.

But as fate would have it, the anger and the prejudice surrounding the proposed New York mosque would not remain in New York. Like the virulent social cancer hate is, it began to metastasize, spreading its toxins across our country. Feeding off the New York controversy, the purveyors of Islamophobia starting peddling their poisonous pellets of prejudice wherever they could.

The New York Times published a feature article about an evangelical pastor in Florida who was organizing a public book burning of the Koran scheduled for September 11th. I know that there are those who are very unhappy with me when I make Holocaust analogies, but how could I, as a Jew, not shiver at the parallel between this man’s intentions and the Nazis’ burning of Jewish sacred books and books by Jewish authors?

In the Washington Post, I read about how the Islamic community of Mufreesboro, Tennessee – a community which lived in peace and harmony with its neighbors for over thirty years – had met with strong opposition when they proposed building their own mosque in their own town. Nor was this opposition made up exclusively of those who spoke out at county board meetings. It also included hundreds who gathered for a large noisy protest rally in the town square and political candidates who made their opposition to this mosque a center piece of their campaigns. Painfully, an article published in the Post one week later, reported that among those who opposed this mosque there were those who had escalated their protests to include acts of violence such as an act of arson at the construction site, along with reports of gunfire there as well.

Rev. Quay and I conferred. We had worried about giving Islamophobia legs. Well, as report after report of anti-Islamic hatred came in, it was becoming abundantly obviously that this hatred was growing legs of its own. It was likewise becoming obvious that sooner or later – sooner rather than later – we would have to take a stand in opposition to it. For as this issue has evolved, it is no longer an issue of whether or not the site of the New York mosque is appropriate. It has become crystal clear that the fundamental issue here is one of protecting religious freedom; one of taking a strong stand against prejudice and bigotry.

Still, on a local level, there were some pieces that were missing for us. First of all, there was the fact that this hatred of Muslims had yet to touch our community. And of course there was the fact that our local Islamic community had yet to express a desire for any public action in this regard.

Well, that too, was soon to end. It ended for me one morning while on the treadmill during a respiratory therapy session. The TV was on in the therapy room, as we patients were watching the Today Show on KWQC as we exercised. And then there it was on the screen before us, being broadcast by our local TV station. It was the most horrible of commercials. I suspect that at least some of you have seen it. It started off with the claim that whenever the Muslims conquered a place, they celebrated their victory by building there a mosque. Images of Jerusalem, Spain, and now Ground Zero. It equated the building of a mosque at Ground Zero with the building of a Japanese temple at Pearl Harbor. It then went on to castigate Congressman Bruce Braley for supporting the building of this mosque and it encouraged our local citizens to call Congressman Braley to express their opposition and discontent. Now this Islamophobia had local legs. This hatred had come to roost in the Quad Cities. The picture was complete. Our community would not be spared the taint of this hatred. The strident voices who strive to provoke fear in the hearts of the American people by invoking that fearful term, “jihad” were now here recruiting our friends and neighbors to join them in their own holy war against anyone who follows the faith of Mohammed.

So Rev. Quay and I contacted the local Islamic community to let them know that if they wanted to take public action in response to such prejudice, we were willing to stand by them and with them, and we would encourage the other members of the Quad Cities faith community to do so as well.

They have taken us up on our offer. So, on Saturday evening, September 11th, starting at 5:00 p.m., the Moline Mosque will be hosting an interfaith gathering; a Day of Unity and Healing. The program will only last an hour but if people of conscience – and I hope that includes everyone in this room and everyone in our Jewish community – if people of conscience come out and support it, the impact of such a gathering on the Quad Cities will have enduring value. It will affirm the living essence of those important words which President George Washington wrote back in 1790 to Moses Seixas, the leader of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island: “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”

Our Muslim cousins residing here in the Quad Cities are good citizens. We most certainly disagree with them strongly about the situation in the Middle East, but still, they are good citizens; as good as we are. We, a people who have suffered centuries of persecution, only to find a haven here in a free America, may very well be the best equipped in our land to appreciate their current situation; to appreciate what it is like to be the target of hatred. If we do not stand up for them now, then we demean the memories of all those Jews of generations past who fell victim to the power of bigotry.

I not only invite you to stand with me on the evening of September 11th, in the mosque in Moline. I implore you. It is the debt we owe to our forebears. It is the debt we owe to our children. It is also a family thing. They are our cousins and they need our support. As Ishmael stood by Isaac. So must we now stand by them.