Thursday, January 28, 2010

A British Rabbi reflects on the State of the Union & the political engagement of Reform Jews

Last night I sat and watched the State of the Union address, along with millions of others in the USA and beyond.  As I listened to what was surely an impressive speech - a call to action, a call to unity, outlining so many specifics with clarity, passion and care, I found myself reflecting on the nature of political discourse in the USA and contrasting it with my experience back in the UK.  There isn't really an equivalent in the UK - the closest might be Queen Elizabeth's speech to Parliament upon its opening.  Culturally, it could not be more different.  Take a look at this youtube of the address in November 2009 (and if you'd like to enjoy the pomp and circumstance of the ritual surrounding the opening of Parliament, you can click on the option to watch direct on the Youtube site, and then look at some of the related links):

In truth, I do not remember a year when I lived in the UK when I actually watched this.  It certainly was not a family affair; we did not sit and discuss, or listen to TV pundits dissecting the speech, or the response to the speech in the chamber (as you can see, there would be little to discuss on this latter point).

But it is the engagement with the political process, the amount of commentary and response to the content of the State of the Union speech, both immediately after and today in newspapers, blogs, and online magazines throughout today that, as an 'import' from the UK I find so engaging and interesting.  While there are times when I find the degree of political parsing here over-the-top and a barrier to good common sense where the priority is to get things done (which I was pleased to hear President Obama call attention to last night), the level of political engagement in this country is, by and large, quite remarkable.

I do not plan to offer my own thoughts on the specifics of last night's address - there are many others far better qualified to do so.  But I would commend listening to a selection of some of our leading Jewish activists respond by watching the youtube below - among them Rabbi Jonah Pesner of Just Congregations, and Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center.

Tomorrow, I leave with a group of this year's Confirmation class to our annual L'Taken Social Justice Seminar with the Religious Action Center in Washington D.C.  It is an exciting time to go, so close to the State of the Union speech.  Our teens will learn about some of the social justice issues that Reform Judaism engages with as we seek, as Jews, to improve our world, and how they take form in the political arena through the legislative process.  They will learn why Reform Judaism teaches about these issues, and how we read Jewish sources to create our visions, and they will learn how to lobby their Representatives in ways that demonstrate why we care about their votes on a variety of upcoming legislation.

Again, reflecting on my UK experience, such a program would have been unheard of when I lived there.  Jewish communities would speak out on issues that directly affected specifically Jewish things, but rarely would you see a community or a Jewish denomination speak on an issue that went beyond that narrow remit.  We might teach about the issues in general, but making a direct connection to the legislative agenda of Parliament at any particular time was rare.  But look at the issues that our students will have a chance to learn about this weekend:
Homelessness, Environmental issues, inequality for low-income households, reproductive rights, health care reform, GLBT equality in the workplace, immigration reform, and international relations.

All of these issues effect our lives, the lives of those in the communities where we live, our futures, and our world.  As Reform Jews in the USA, one of the strengths of our movement is our ability to speak with relevance on all matters that affect our lives, and we are called to do justice, inspired by the prophetic tradition, for all in the society we live in - especially the weakest and the poorest.  We want our students to grow up to be good citizens as well as good Jews.  We want them to be educated and empowered to take their place among those who were engaged in debate and analysis after hearing the State of the Union address last night, ready to respond to the President's charge: 'Let's get it done!'
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The face of the IDF and Israel in Haiti

The week's news coverage of the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti (and the subsequent aftershocks) has been in turn devastating (as we begin to contemplate the scale of the humanitarian disaster), inspiring (as we see aid workers and soldiers working tirelessly to help), frustrating (as the infrastructure imposes limits on the ability of the world to deliver and distribute resources), and motivational (inspiring us to dig deeply into our pockets and offer financial support for the aid efforts).

Every news channel in every country has a tendency to highlight the contributions of its own people - its own aid workers, soldiers, etc.  Of course, the bottom line is that lives are saved and people are sustained and supported, but it is natural for us to notice how well the representatives of 'our people' are doing on the ground.  For American Jews, that means noticing what our US troops and aid workers are doing, and also what those of Israel are doing.

The fact is that, in the aftermath of these kind of humanitarian disasters, Israel is often one of the very first responders - they have the experience, the skills, the technology and equipment to mobilize very quickly with experts who are adept at rescue and emergency medical support.  After the first few days of news coverage in the USA which, rightly, focused on assessing the scale of the devastation and the urgent task of recovering and saving as many lives as possible of those trapped under rubble, the past couple of days have seen a turn to other stories, including the remarkable work of the IDF hospital that arrived and was set up with lightening speed, and has impressed so many American journalists with the equipment, use of technology, and overall competency displayed.

Here, Jewish values and global humanitarian values intertwine.  The goal of every doctor, every soldier and every aid worker in Haiti right now is to save lives.  But I couldn't help but be moved to hear that expressed by an IDF soldier at the end of one of the media interviews thus: 'Every time we save a life here it is like we save a world.'  This is, of course, the citation of a teaching that has been part of Jewish wisdom for over 1,500 years:

  • Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:8 (37a)
I heard from family in the UK that the perception among the Jewish community there is that the remarkable contribution of the IDF and the IDF hospital has not had the coverage it deserved in the UK television media. [update: @Israeliaid tweeted me with a link to two examples of UK coverage, so there has been some.  See here] For their benefit, and for all those who might have missed the coverage, below are embedded excerpts of several news reports that I hope will inform and inspire.  A summary of all activity by the IDF in Haiti as of today can be found here.
CNN reporting on the difference between IDF Field hospital and US resources in place:

IDF Hospital featured on Fox news, January 17

Link to CBS news coverage of patients being moved from a UN facility to the IDF hospital for treatment:

CBS- “Life-Saving Efforts Continue”, 17 January
These are just a selection of some of the news reporting on the role of the IDF and the IDF hospital over the past few days on US Television.  To keep up-to-date with reports from the IDF, you can check in with this blog.  If you are a Twitter user there are a number of tweets you can follow for up-to-the-minute information, new photos, video coverage, etc. Follow the hashtags #idf #haiti and twitter accounts like @idfspokesperson @idfinhaiti @israeliaid @yaelbt

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Extending a helping hand to Haiti

Image from National Geographic
Our hearts and prayers go out to all who have lost loved ones and are suffering in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti.  Word has quickly spread on a variety of charities that are collecting funds that will be directed at aid and follow-up efforts that will be needed in coming weeks and months.
There are many ways to direct financial aid to help in the aftermath of this natural disaster.  The URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) has set up a fund, and you can donate here.
American Jewish World Service (AJWS) also has a fund, and you can go direct to their donation page here.

If you are looking for other Jewish organizations who are directing funds to help, the AJC and B'nai Brith are both directing funds to IsraAID, an Israeli non-governmental relief agency that brings humanitarian medical assistance to disaster areas.  You can send support via these groups by clicking on the organizational names above.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Video - Anat Hoffman interviewed about her arrest by JTA news

I wanted to share this additional piece after last night's blog, which was brought to my attention via a tweet from @religion_state who provide a really invaluable resource on all Religion-State issues in Israel via their blog (which I have now added to our blogroll on the list in the right column).

JTA news posted a video interview with Anat Hoffman after her arrest.  Please take a look at it here:

What can you do?  Call to Action from Women of the Wall

Batya Betsy Kallus sent a message to the members of Women of the Wall Nashot HaKotel. (You can join this group on Facebook for continued updates)

Subject: Protest letter following interrogration of WOW chairperson Anat Hoffman: circulate and send onl

Dear Facebook supporters of WOW,
As you can see from the posting to the site today, Anat Hoffman, the chairperson of WOW was detained and interrogated today, and threatened with a felony offence for praying with a tallit at the Kotel. This appalling and disgraceful action must be protested in every possible way. Thanks to International Committee of WOW member Shulamit Magnus, below is a draft protest letter that can be sent to ambassadors, diplomats, politicians, etc. Please feel free to amend, revise, and change but please send it onward to whomever you think should receive it, and please, send a copy to the Facebook page or to

Thank you for your support and commitment to the right of Jewish women to pray at the Kotel in our own voices.
Batya Kallus
Women of the Wall

This particular letter was written to Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to USA.
To: info@washington.;; dpaofficer@washington.;
Subject: For Ambassador Oren URGENT

Dear Ambassador Oren,

I read with shock and disbelief that Anat Hoffman, a founding member of the
Women of the Wall, past member of the Jerusalem City Council and participant in many efforts to improve civil and consumers' rights in Israel, was detained by the Jerusalem police, interrogated, finger-printed, and threatened with prosecution for felony for her leadership role in the Women of the Wall.

This is a terribly shocking new chapter in the sad history of this affair.
At stake is Israel's very character as a democratic state that respects
human rights, including freedom of expression and worship, and abjures
discrimination on the basis of gender in its founding Declaration of
Independence. The State and Municipality of Jerusalem have proceeded down a very ominous, regrettable path in this gratuitous escalation, which if
allowed to proceed, will do terrible damage to the fabric of Israeli
democracy and to its reputation abroad.

The Women of the Wall are an independent group of religious women from all
walks of Jewish life who seek the opportunity of women's group prayer at the
Western Wall, with talit and sefer torah; that is, Jewish prayer, as is
practiced day and night at that site, 24/7.

Can anyone in their right mind begin to comprehend why pursuit of these
goals would constitute a FELONY? Have the Municipality of Jerusalem and the State of Israel no more important issues to pursue than the suppression of this group; no more dangerous individuals to pursue than a group of mothers and grandmothers seeking to pray at Judaism's holiest site? Are women at prayer to be prosecuted as felons while thugs who attack them physically and verbally, including with threats of violence and antisemitic defamation, to be coddled; the holiest site to all Jews left to their vigilante actions?

We ask you to convey to the Government of Israel our strongest protest against these absurd and dangerous actions.

Yours truly,

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Women of the Wall update - Anat Hoffman interrogated by police

It was reported today in The Forward that Anat Hoffman, founding member of Women of the Wall and Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, was interrogated by police in relation to the group's prayer gathering at the Kotel in December for Rosh Chodesh Tevet, the month after Nofrat Frankel had been arrested at the wall.  The article begins:

The leader of Women of the Wall, a group of women who gather monthly to pray at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, was questioned by police, fingerprinted, and told that she may be charged with a felony for violating the rules of conduct at what is considered Judaism’s most sacred site.
Inked: On January 5, Israeli police interrogated and fingerprinted Anat Hoffman.
Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, said that police interrogated her for more than an hour on January 5 about her activities during Women of the Wall’s last monthly service in December. Speaking by phone from Jerusalem, Hoffman said she did nothing differently that day than she had for the 21 years of her group’s existence... (continue reading here)
Apparently the crime being investigated was the wearing of tallitot by some women while praying (something which some women do beneath their jackets in a way that is not visible to others).  When the Supreme Court ruled a number of years ago that Women of the Wall must move to Robinson's Arch for their Torah service each Rosh Chodesh, they also ruled that women could not been seen wearing tallitot at the Kotel.
This police action is outrageous and quite clearly intended to intimidate the leadership of Women of the Wall.  After the arrest of Nofrat Frankel there were calls for events around the world to demonstrate Jews standing in solidarity with Women of the Wall.  At B'nai Israel our Rosh Chodesh group responded with and evening of study which led to 8 blogs in solidarity with Women of the Wall, published here at the end of December. 
In light of this ongoing intimidation, we must voice our disgust at the treatment of these women and call for action to be taken to ensure that the Kotel - a holy site and heritage for all Jews - does not continue to be controlled in its use as an ultra-Orthodox synagogue.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz