This is part II of my reporting on the J Street convention of April 2018. The final part will appear next Wednesday.
6. Plenary session: “The American Jewish Relationship with Israel: Crisis Point or Opportunity?”
The session began with a speech by Tzipi Livni, head of the HaTnua party and formerly the foreign minister of Israel. She argued that differing meanings of Judaism and Democracy were tearing Israel apart, with many Israelis succumbing to alienation.
Her principles were:
1) the Jewish state is not a religious state, but is open to all faiths and to those who have converted to Judaism.
2) that as the nation state of the Jewish people, the rights of all citizens, be they Jew or Arab, straight or gay, must be respected not as a favor but as part of the state’s values.
3) that a two-state solution is the only path forward. (However, she noted, these are difficult days for those favoring this path.)
4) new settlements: settlements are the statements of a very different vision, one of a greater Israel; for those who support that dream, democracy is a burden, not an ideal.
5) were Israel to move away from settlements and toward a two-state solution, most Middle Eastern countries, which had for years been harsh adversaries, would accept and welcome Israel into a new Middle East community
5) the current government’s policies of attempting to limit the opposition with onerous rules and regulations is limiting freedom of speech.
It is time, she concluded, to fight for democracy both in Israel and all over the world. “Human rights” and “Peace” are too often dirty words in Israel. It is not enough to speak about shared American-Israeli values, it is more important to keep them.
The panel discussion was moderated by JJ Goldberg, formerly editor of the Forward. He remarked that the left in both Israel and America are seldom united while the right is, creating a serious disadvantage for the left and center. Furthermore, progressives must not allow despair about the current situation to paralyze their efforts for a better future.
Janet Aronson of Brandeis University noted that while 70% of American Jews stated possessed either a strong or moderate attachment to Israel, when that attachment is examined closely, however, American Jews are vague about what it means. The question that she raised is do American Jews know anything besides the myths, are they aware of the nitty gritty of what is happening in Israel, what the controversies there are?
Rabbi Rick Jacobson, head of the Reform Movement in America, said that while attachment of American Jews to Israel is strong, the policies of the current government in Israel are pushing many American Jews away from the Jewish state. The task at hand is encouraging the growth of progressive Zionism, making it a more significant force. Many American Jewish leaders do not have an idea of the fundamental problems that current Israeli policies are creating. We in America must, he argued, help to build a society in Israel that truly reflects the Jewish religious tradition. The army, he argued, is the most progressive part of the Israeli government. He looked to it for support. It can get young Israelis out of their shtetl, provide them with a wider perspective.
Nadav Tamir of the Peres Center for Peace noted that many Israelis see American Jews as a source of money and as an important American lobby. That is not a good development. Israel is the state of American Jews as well as of Israeli Jews. They should be fully engaged in its internal issues. He urged supporters of liberal Zionism to put their money where their mouth is and not to be too polite. Israelis do not respect politeness.
Zoe Goldblum, representing J Street college students, stated that Jewish college students generally support Israel but oppose the policies of the current government. Young Jews no longer accept the sixties’ portrayal of isolated weak Israel or “milk and honey” Israel. They are aware that Israel is a major military power, perhaps the strongest power in the Middle East.
7. “ Iran and the Nuclear Agreement: Can Diplomacy Still Prevail?”
This panel analyzed the Iran Agreement, At the time of the panel it was suspected that President Trump would withdraw from the treaty but no action had been taken. The panel consisted of Emma Ashford from the CATO Institute, Kelsey Davenport Director of Non- Proliferation Policy of the Arms Control Association and journalist Negar Mortazavi of Iran International.
The strong consensus of the panel was that Iran had abided by the agreement to the letter, that this compliance had been carefully verified and that the agreement had prevented Iran for the foreseeable future from becoming a nuclear power. The criticisms about a sunset date, about ballistic missiles were each dealt with in detail and found wanting. (I forego the details.)
There was real concern about the loss of support of the Iranian people if the agreement were to be nullified by the United States and the resulting rise of hardliners in Iran who have never wanted any agreements with Americans. While the other five powers would still support the agreement if the United States withdrew, there were no good options for the Europeans as their companies would have to choose between trading with Iran and trading with the United States or Iran. Few companies would risk American sanctions. The European powers might try blocking legislation but it would be hard to implement. [To now this has been borne out as important contracts with Boeing, Airbus and many other European countries have been suspended.]
Negar Mortsavi stated that with the cessation of Iran’s nuclear program the one existential threat to Israel had cased. Israelis could handle Iran’s movements in Syria and indeed they have, and with no Iranian pushback. The fact is that as Israel is far more powerful than Iran, Iran’s role in Lebanon and Syria and possibly Yemen were a problem but not an existential threat to Israel. There is, he noted, a major struggle in the Middle East between the Sunnis led by Saudi Arabia and the Sunnis led by Iran. Finally, the claim that the Iran deal has led to Iranian aggression is not credible. Noting all the deals Iran hoped to make, buying scores of planes from Boeing and Airbus, he argued that that was where the money was intended to go. Would Iran possibly move closer to the Western orbit if the agreement were to continue? It was a real possibility over time. [This is no longer a possibility. Now Iran is likely to be more isolated from the West. This will likely be a boon to China.]
8. “Tough Neighborhoods: Israel’s Security Challenges in a Tumultuous Middle East”
The panel included Rolly Geuron of Commanders for Israeli Security and Brig. Gen. (ret) Isreala Oron, a security analyst, and MK Merav Michaeli of the Zionist Union.
The consensus of the panel was that Israel had never been in a stronger military or strategic position. It was the only potent force in the area; its traditional rivals, Iraq and Syria were weak; it had military and technological supremacy at a very high level. In his confident position Israel could take risks. Rolly Gueron recommended that to begin the peace process Israel unilaterally withdraw from most of the West Bank to a security border and support an economic basket for the West Bank. And he maintained that Israel should declare that it had no future territorial demands. There are potential threats, the most obvious being Iran’s attempt to establish a position in Syria, but no existential threats.
General Oren said that there was a promising coalition arising between Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia but that Israel was under a delusion if it believed that it could cut a deal with Saudi Arabia without progress with the Palestinians. Most unfortunately, Israel is doing nothing on the Palestinian front. The government’s choice is not to make a choice. The Palestinians as well, he declared, must make a choice.
Regarding Hezbollah he stated that while it has thousands of missiles aimed at Israel, they will not launch because they know that would result in the destruction of their country. The same goes for Iran, which would be the only country that could order Hezbollah to launch. if Iran was to get especially strong and pose a danger, Israel would act preemptively. He also noted that the Israeli security establishment is becoming more and more rightist; that was, however, not true for most military and intelligence retirees who had years of experience in this field.
MK Michaeli said Rabin had made a choice, a choice no longer on the table. He argued that indeed the current government has made a choice: annexation of area C (the area with the most Israeli settlements) with 80,000 Arabs. Netanyahu envisions a state-minus for the rest of the West Bank. Local autonomy but no citizenship, no right to vote beyond local elections, a semi-independent state. He argued that Saudi Arabia would never leave the Palestinians for Israel.
Rolly Gueron said that there are real existential threats to Israel, but they are not military.
The first is the increasing alienation of American Jewry;
the second the major internal rifts in Israeli society;
the third the demographic time bomb with the rapid growth of the Palestinian population;
the fourth the isolationism of the current American administration that will allow the Russians a greater foothold in the Middle East.
General Oren added that another security threat was that half a million Jews cannot get married in Israel, and that Israel is the only country that does not recognize all Jews in the same way.
Finally, MK Michaeli called for a greater international effort to help the situation in Gaza.
J Street Part I (Panels 1-5)
At the invitation of a friend, I attended the J Street convention in Washington from April 14th to April 17th. J Street is a large Zionist organization that believes that the path to peace for Israel is through a two-state solution. While strongly supporting Israel and Zionism it equally strongly opposes the policies of the current government which it believes will lead to the destruction of the Zionist ideal. At the convention there were 1200 college students, many rabbis and cantors, Jewish leaders, and interested Jews (and some non-Jews) from throughout the country.
As I believe that it is important for American Jews to hear different points of view, I will report on the sessions of the conference that I attended. I am acting as a journalist. I, of course, could only capture the very broadest picture. These discussions went on for hours and had many details and descriptions and complex arguments as well as disagreements that are impossible to recapture fully in a report. The opinions and proposals given are those of the speakers and panelists and not necessarily my own, though I am sympathetic to many of J Street’s goals. It should be noted that the conference took place about a month before President Trump withdrew from the Iran Agreement and re-imposed sanctions. At the time the fate of the treaty was in the balance. While the decision has been made, it is too early to know the consequences of that decision. Many speakers touched on this issue which is still very much alive. Iran continues to be perhaps Israel’s most vital concern.
Opening Session: “A Voice for Today, A Vision for Tomorrow”
President Jeremy Ben-Ami opened the proceedings. He declared that there was more than one way to be pro-Israel and that loving Israel does not mean that you must agree with the Israeli government; that you can at the same time be pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian, opposing the occupation of the West Bank and the demolition of houses to make way for new settlements. He noted that as we celebrate the seventieth anniversary of Israel, a miracle that became reality, we must acknowledge that the occupation is now fifty years old as well. He was followed by Eti Livni, an erstwhile MK (Member of the Knesset) and now a leader of Women Wage Peace. She spoke of her efforts to collaborate with women of all backgrounds, Israeli and Palestinian. She spoke with admiration of Palestinian women who refused to get angry despite the arrests and killings that they have witnessed and of the March for Peace organized by her organization and of American Jewish women who joined their March. Ohad Eleho of Our Generation Speaks described her work in Boston bringing Palestinians and Israelis together and training them to do high-tech work in Israel
Remarks followed by Tamar Zandberg, leader of the Meretz party and a Member of the Knesset spoke next. She told of her deep concern for the preservation of civil rights in Israel, and of the current government’s attempt to squelch the NGO, New Israel Fund, for its efforts for African refugees in Israel. She was troubled by what she saw as a growing contempt for civil rights, a danger, she noted, both in America and Israel, both democracies. Zandberg warned that there was a strand of right-wing populism in Israel, as there is in the United States, that was trying to destroy the Iran agreement. The Iranian agreement, she maintained, had made Israel much safer as Iran’s nuclear program had been an existential threat to Israel. The rise of right-wing Populism all over the world was a serious threat to Western democracy, from without and within. Some have called the left wing or progressive parties in Israel anti-patriotic [Meretz is the most progressive party in Israel], but she said the contrary was true: hers was the true patriotism.
Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Techers, delivered the Keynote address. The fight in America, Weingarten proclaimed, was the same as the fight in Israel, and so, she said, we owe a debt of gratitude to Israeli activists. Unfortunately, Netanyahu and Trump are very similar and it is important to ensure that the world understands that they do not speak for all of us. She noted that worldwide America is third in economic inequality and Israel is fifth, not a good record. The age of passive resignation is over, she concluded, as we fight for the soul of Zionism in Israel and for the soul of republicanism in America.
2. “Activist Under Siege: The challenges Facing Israeli Human rights Leaders”
In this session Avner Gvaryahu of Breaking the Silence, speaking of the current Israeli government’s attempt to demolish the Arab town of Susya on the West Bank, described the tensions faced by those in Israel working against the occupation and for human rights. The Israeli government pushes back hard against such organizations. Gvaryahu claimed that the Israeli government focusses carefully on how it speaks to the Israeli public. It argues, often very successfully if falsely, that an Israeli voter can love the occupation without international repercussions. The Israeli government sees human rights activist groups as organizations that have given up on Israel and so makes the lives of its members as difficult as possible, supporting their defunding and ignoring physical attacks on their followers. He also argued that the Gaza policy made no sense, especially orders (or impulses) to shoot to kill. He noted that people on the right complain about using the term “occupation”; in truth annexation is their goal. Another panelist argued that the taking of Palestinian property without consent was a violation of international law and yet it happened regularly. Moreover, in the West Bank, which unlike the settlements is under military and not civil law, an Israeli soldier can enter any Palestinian home any time without a warrant. This creates an atmosphere of fear and resentment.
3. “Polarized or galvanized? Progressives in Israel and America Tackle the Rise of Illiberal Democracy”
The panel included Peter Beinart, an Atlantic contributor, two members of the Knesset, Yoel Hassan of the Zionist Union and Michael Rozin of Meretz, and Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Beinart argued that the American Jewish community needed to be far more vocal in its opposition to current Israeli government policies. He also expressed concern that there was too much anti-Muslim bigotry in the American Jewish community. He was critical of Israeli Gazan policy, arguing that Israel, which had overall control of Gaza, shared responsibility for the dire humanitarian crisis.
Meretz MK Rozin declared that the progressive wing of Israelis must convince the Israeli public that they too are patriotic and are fully engaged in protection of Israel’s security; and that Israel must preserve itself as a democracy. He said that there was a real danger of annexation Area C, where many of the larger settlements are, would end any prospect of peace. Too. It was important that the world be conscious of what is happening on the West Bank, with both land grabs and the humiliation of the Palestinian population. He too feared the government’s attempt to silence Israeli human rights organizations such as Betzelem, Peace Now and others. If it succeeded who would assist those in need? He agreed with Beinart that Israel shared responsibility for turning Gaza into the largest prison in the world.
MK Yoel Hanson of the Zionist Union, who supported the embassy move, warned that extremism is growing in Israel and that on both sides the desire to form two states may soon lose majority support. Unfortunately, he lamented, Netanyahu is not ready to pay the price for peace. That could result in a Jewish state with a non-Jewish majority and the fate of democracy then will be both front and center and at risk.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee declared that the United States was not serious about a two-state solution and that the Israeli government was satisfied with a permanent maintenance of the status quo and will only be moved by nonviolent pressure. It is critically important, she argued, that there be one country devoted to Jewish life, culture and survival, and that that is possible only with two states. Young American Jews, if they become convinced that a two-state solution is impossible, will move toward a one-state solution with equal rights for all, which would mean no Jewish state and the end of Zionism as we know it. We are near, she warned, to that tipping point.
4. “Contested Past, Uncertain Future: A Conversation with Ian Black”
Ian Black is the former Middle east editor of the Manchester Guardian, one of Britain’s most respected newspapers. Black argued that there is a great imbalance of power in Israel between Israelis and Palestinians. Too, most Palestinians by now have known nothing but the occupation. In sum, this appeared to be a non-solution moment. Even so, the only way to approach the crisis was with pragmatic solutions. If a solution was fashioned once at Oslo it could happen again, and this time successfully. There was no point or value to despair or hopelessness.
Black argued that the Second Intifada had killed the Peace Movement; since then the right has consistently prevailed in Israeli elections. This in turn meant that it was impossible to stop the rapid spread of settlements on the West Bank. He also criticized the Israeli Zionist left for failing to make common cause with Palestinian nationalism.
Black concluded that he gained hope from young Israeli veterans who, having seen the occupation close-up, left the army convinced that Israel must pursue a different path. They have spoken strongly about their experiences while enforcing and policing the occupation.
5. “The Path to Power: Strategies for Political change in Israel”
This panel included MK Yoel Hassan, Eti Livni of Women Wage Peace, Mickey Gitzin, executive Director of the New Israel Fund and Daniela Scheindlin, Public Opinion expert for the Tel Aviv Review.
Moderator Yael Patir, J Street’s Israeli Director, stated that the question at issue was whether there was a path to a center-left government coalition, like the Democratic Party in America. A practical problem is that, unlike the right-wing Likud coalition, the left divided its votes. Secondly it was difficult in Israel today to both rally around the slogan of peace with Palestinians and to form a coalition with the religious parties. Eti Livni argued that soon it may be necessary to have a center coalition including the centrist parties and Likud and excluding the hard-right parties. Currently a coalition that included Arab parties, a coalition of both Zionist and non-Zionist parties, is not possible. In the future it might be.
Yoel Hassan recommended talking more on the centrist vision and less about Netanyahu. He argued that the major split among Israeli Jews was not between Ashkenazi and Mizrachi, and not between the less educated and poor and the better off. The greatest division, rather, is between secular and religious Jews. It is splitting Israeli society. Very disappointing is the tendency of the young to disproportionately support the right wing. He sharply criticized PM Netanyahu for seeking to control the press, and Education Minister Naftali Bennet for slanting Israeli education to the ideology of one political party: Likud.
Mickey Gitzin of the NIF argued that the Israeli left is not dead. There is, however, a problem with its leadership and for that think tanks are needed to develop cohesive alternate approaches to the major issues facing the Jewish state. Gitzin believed that something will upset the current political hegemony in Israel and that the center Zionist parties must be ready to seize the moment when that happens.
A Letter from New York II
This past Friday I paid a long awaited visit to Bnai Jeshurun ( BJ, the second oldest synagogue in New York. In 1825 split from Shearith Israel after its adherents, Ashkenazi members of Shearith Israel (SI) who did not feel comfortable with the Sephardic ritual that SI had retained (even after the majority of its membership became Ashkenazi) and were dissatisfied with ritual laxity, as they perceived it. The splinter group, calling itself the Hevra Hinuch Nearim (Society for the Education of Youth) was deeply republican. They had a rotating executive and a strong egalitarian spirit compared to what they saw as the authoritarian spirit of SI.
They first asked for permission to have their own Services. SI responded to their requests negatively saying it would have a “tendency to destroy the well-known and established rules and customs of their ancestors…” The rebellious Ashkenazi, still living in the age of the American Revolution, declared their independence and filed articles of incorporation to form their own congregation with a constitution that praised the “wise and republican laws of this country…based upon universal toleration given to every citizen.” They were no doubt aware of Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence that provided for the right of the people to alter or abolish [in this case an oppressive synagogue government] after they had tried reconciliation and were unsuccessful. “It is their right, it is their duty.”)
SI relented soon after and helped the new congregation, which took on the name Bnai Jeshurun. It grew rapidly into the city’s most prominent synagogue. In 1850 its members erected a new sanctuary for the princely sum of $50,000 in neo-Gothic style with a 56 foot high dome that featured ornamented paintings. Columns and buttresses supported the building. BJ was the first synagogue in New York to hire a prominent rabbi, Morris Raphall of Birmingham England, who had written a number of books of biblical history and was a follower of Moses Mendelssohn.
Raphall gave the congregation unwanted notoriety when in 1860, prior to Lincoln’s inauguration, as the country breathlessly waited to see if peace would be restored with the South, he gave a public address stating that the Bible supported slavery and thus the South was not barbaric but wholly within its rights. “How dare you,” he proclaimed, in the face and sanction and protection afforded to slave property in the Ten Commandments – how dare you denounce slaveholding as a sin?” This caused an uproar, especially with the newly arrived reformers who challenged his biblical interpretation. The pamphlet was widely distributed throughout the country. If a scholarly rabbi said it, it must be true, after all. (After Fort Sumter, Raphall supported the war. He met with Lincoln and his son served in the war, losing an arm. When things were going badly, early in 1864, however, he began to have second thoughts.)
BJ does not include this incident on its website. As conservative as Raphall was, it is now perhaps the most progressive synagogue in the city, a strong congregation of 1600 families on the upper west side. It is known for its lively and crowded services. The night we were there accompanying the service were a guitarist, a cellist, a drummer, and a flutist. The Kabbalat Shabbat proceeded effortlessly as the five hundred members and guests seemed to know many of the prayers and psalms by heart. (BJ considers itself an independent congregation, but it is probably closest to Conservative.) The spirit was amazing. During Lecha Dodi about a hundred members danced around the sanctuary. It was gratifying to see such a knowledgeable and spiritually exciting group of Jews. There were three rabbis and a cantor, and one gave a short talk about the march for gun control the next day – the congregation is very active is both social action and modern spirituality — but the center was clearly the congregation.
There were visitors there from Oklahoma, Virginia and other states. Many synagogues bring their confirmation classes to NY and include BJ on their itinerary.
Inside BJ a visitor is met with a beautiful multi-colored altar, no doubt transferred from an earlier sanctuary. The entrance is equally impressive. However there are no fixed chairs. They are all movable plastic. It was a contrast between the powerful Bima and entranceway and the ordinary egalitarian seating.
For years BJ has been known for its enchanting musical services. Now many other New York congregations, other than the Orthodox, are incorporating music and new melodies, many also with four or five musicians.
New York continues to leave me with a sense of awe. I lived here for five years, but every day is still a new experience. Every block is different, with varying generally impressive architecture. It is truly a treat for those willing to slow down (in a city where few do slow down) and look around. And the museums are so accessible and so filled with the treasures of our civilization. To look at a Picasso at the Museum of Modern Art or a Van Gogh at the Met never cases to send shivers down the spine. And it never ends.
Still, it is okay for me now for a few magical months, but the mountains of western Carolina also afford a great deal of beauty and peace and a lower pulse.
Really, we need it all.
I wish all members of our wonderful Congregation a joyous Passover, and an enhanced sense of the meaning of freedom, both internal and external. We are living in a moment of history where a true understanding of freedom is very needed.
Our congregational Seder this Friday will be as always a very special evening.
March 26, 2018
A Letter from New York, March 2018
New York is an ever fascinating city. It is the nation’s only world-class city, with a population of eight million and a metropolis of over twenty million. It is the hub of American commerce and the center of American culture, especially theater. We are all aware of the multiplex cinemas. New York has multiplex theaters in every kind of building; old churches and garages have been converted to theaters.
Walk down the streets and look at the buildings, Some are new, but many are over one hundred years old and boast varied architectural styles: many of them have gargoyles and columns and elaborate stonework instead of the rectangular boredom of ordinary office buildings.
New York was the site of the nation’s (colony’s) first Jewish immigrants (1654) and the first synagogue in the thirteen colonies. Since 1700 it has always held a substantial Jewish population. At one point it was the city with the largest Jewish population in the world and in the 1950s Jews were the largest minority in a city of minorities. Today it is the city with the second largest Jewish population in the world (1.7m). Only Tel Aviv has more.
New York has many historical synagogues, beginning with Shearith Israel, founded in 1730. Its largest, and the largest Reform synagogue in the United States (and the ninth largest synagogue in the world)is Temple Emanu-El. Eight days ago I had the privilege of speaking there as part of their Jewish book fair. Emanu-El was founded by group pf German immigrants who began meeting in a café in the 1830s. At first it met in rented quarters on Clinton Street, building its first sanctuary in1845 on Chrystie Street and then a few years later purchased a Baptist Church on Twelfth Street converting it into a gothic house of worship. In 1866 it built a Moorish style synagogue on Fifth Avenue at what was then the astonishing sum of $650.000.This congregation had gone from a group of a few committed reformers to become the city ‘s largest and wealthiest synagogue. For many years it was the city’s only reform synagogue, albeit it was enormously influential. It was, along with the Jewish newspaper, the Asmonean, the mouthpiece for the Reform movement that had originated in Germany in the early nineteenth century and that included the Science of Judaism which began to study Judaism’s most holy books including the Torah and the Talmud with modern scholarly tools including philology and archaeology. It also was deeply influenced by the German enlightenment and its Kantian emphasis on the supremacy of reason and science. The synagogue attracted the city’s most wealthy Jews allowing it to build such prominent sanctuaries. In the Civil War its members generally supported Lincoln and the Union cause. Most other Jews voted against Lincoln in both 1860 and 1864.
To visit Temple Emanu-El today, now located on Fifth Avenue and 65th street, is to enter a large complex that includes its sanctuary, six floors of classrooms, a museum, and a large auditorium. It is one of the hearts of the modern Reform movement, a movement that is by far the largest of the four Jewish denominations in America. (The headquarters of Reform, the CCAR (Central Conference of American rabbis) is located nearby, though the main seminary and archives are in Cincinnati. After speaking I walked into the sanctuary. I had never seen such a massive synagogue before. Its resplendent stained glass windows reminded me of trips to European churches and the spaciousness of the sanctuary made me wonder what would it was like to attend services there with, I would imagine, thousands of empty seats. But I don’t know. On Yom Kippur it must be a very moving place with all the seats filled. The wealth of the congregation allows it to bring in prominent figures. I noticed a flyer advertising a coming appearance by President Obama.
I attach a few illustrations. Emanu-El is but one of many noted synagogues in the city. I will discuss another famous one in a few weeks.
I recently received the following communication from Rhonnie Leder:
Please include in recent loss the names of Aaron Feis, Meadow Pollack and Alexander Schacter. Alexander’s Grandparents are 40 year friends of ours…I cannot imagine their pain. Sam and I also lost a dear cousin, Jennifer Helfman last week. Mother of 19 year old Ethan and 16 rear old daughter Ronnie.
We will of course remember them and all of the victims of Parkland this Friday evening.
Parkland represents just a small part of the crisis in which our country finds itself. Thousands, even tens of thousands of Americans are victims of gunshot every year. The numbers in other Western countries like Britain and France are miniscule. We have a long history of violence, but we no longer live in the wild west. Why is nothing done? We have been asking that question now for years.
But that is only part of our problem. We life in a polarized world. Half of the country will not speak to the other half. Our congress is paralyzed and we have no leadership at the top. We have been subjected to a major attack – it was not violent like 9/11– but its intent was equally deadly as it was directed squarely at American democracy. We will never know who actually won the election of 2016. We are unable to set up an equitable immigration policy. Our government appears to be at war with science and the Enlightenment.
We can get depressed, and that is normal;, we can become angry, but that alone is not going to accomplish anything. Our constitution and especially our Bill of Rights gives every citizen and citizen group a voice. We have peaceful and effective means to protest or to support. We have regular elections. A democracy is only as good as its citizens. American Judaism has for the last century become very involved in American affairs and it is often effective. It is not a partisan issue to propose that our country find its bearings rooted in its Constitution and Declaration of Independence and that it live up to its ideals, or at least strive to do so. This is not the only time that we have been so divided, so polarized. But it is by far the most dangerous time. The United States has often been resilient and we can all hope that it will be in this era as well.
(from New York)
Services this week will be at 7:00. Anita Goldschmidt is graciously hosting the Oneg.
Our conversation this week will be about evil. A friend of mine who was a libertarian did not like President Obama’s foreign power, and while admitting his opponent’s would have been worse, still called him a less evil. Why not say a flawed president, as we all are flawed. Evil implies much more. Really it is a religious issue, seen personified in the shape of the devil, but more often a widely used concept. How is it possible to believe in God in the face of evil. The Holocaust is just the most obvious example.
But just what does it mean? Is it a sign of being possessed, is it an act of free will, is it a genetic disposition, is it absolute or relative??? We could go on and on. We will get each person’s opinion during our discussion.
I will be in New York until the last week in April. Henry, our Vice President, along with Norm and Marvin, will handily lead us though Passover. He presided over our most successful Seder last year and he has volunteered to do it again. Mark the date.
Services this week will be at 7:00. Ellen and I are hosting the Oneg.
Our conversation this week will be about freedom. Freedom, of course, has many meanings. Probably the first one that we think of is political freedom and at this moment in our nation’s history many of us believe that our freedom is at risk; moreover throughout the world political freedom is either harshly repressed – assuming that self government is your definition of political freedom – or in great danger.
But there is more than one definition of freedom. For most of us our personal freedom is equally important. That intertwines with political freedom but is not the same. If a man or woman chooses to live in Africa or Europe, if he or she chooses to be a doctor, an actor or a social worker, that is a form of personal freedom. If he or she chooses to give up all personal belongings and becomes a monk or a hermit, are not they free, are not they exercising personal freedom? It might seem odd to think that one who has no material possessions can see him or herself as the freest person on earth, but it is often the case when that choice is voluntary and not forced by poverty. If it is due to poverty there can be no personal freedom.
And there is also religious freedom. The Jewish people were deprived of religious freedom for many centuries along with other peoples. This is also a complex subject.
Freedom can be individualistic. What did the Jefferson mean when he wrote in Declaration of Independence “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness?” Did he mean the liberty propounded by one of his personal heroes, John Locke, the right of an individual to pursue his (and now her) own goals with minimal restraints by the state other than providing a peaceful environment. Or did he mean, as many historians believe, following the Scottish common sense school of thought, that freedom was collective, that it was not a single person that he was referring to when he wrote about the “pursuit of freedom,” but the nation as a whole. It was a collective freedom that could be measured by the presence or absence of war, the rise of agriculture, the common acquisition of property, the growth of population..
How do you see freedom? Collectively, individually or both? What areas of freedom are most critical to your lives? We will give everyone at services this Friday the opportunity to express his or her opinion on this most important subject, one of the most important aspects of our lives.
Torah Study will meet this Saturday at Quotations at noon. A notice will be sent to all regular attendees. If you would like to receive one let me know. All our welcome, of course. this week We are discussing the crossing of the Red Sea.
Yom Kippur 2017 (5778)
A few weeks ago our Torah study group examined Portion Ki Tavoh of Deuteronomy. It includes a famous sermon to the Israelites who were about to end their sojourn in the desert and enter the Promised Land. First Moses tells of the great joys that will befall them if they are faithful to their God:
Blessed you will be in the town and blessed you will be in the field. Blessed the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your soil and the fruit of your beasts…The Lord will open for you His goodly treasure, the heavens to give your lands rain in its season and to bless all your handiwork.
But following these fourteen lines of hopeful blessings they are confronted with 54 verses of the most dreadful curses imaginable; horrendous curses that will overtake them if they do not heed the voice of the Lord. It begins with their crops and quickly passes to bodily harm :
…The Lord will make the plague cling to you until He wipes you out from the face of the soil to which you are coming to take hold of it. The Lord will strike you with consumption and with fever and with inflammation and with burning and with desiccation and with emaciation and with jaundice, and they will pursue you until you perish.
Their women will desert them for their enemies; they will be re-enslaved. They will be so famished that they will turn to cannibalism. Finally, they will be dispersed, never again to know peace:
The Lord will scatter you among all the peoples from one end of the earth to the other, and you will worship other gods that you did not know.. Your life will dangle before you, and you will be afraid night and day….. In the evening you will say, “Would it were morning” and in the morning you will say, would it were evening.”
These passages were written in the seventh or eighth centuries BCE in response to the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests of Israel and Judah to answer the question Why? Because you have forsaken God.
At our study session we read a commentary by Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, He argued that the curse relates to disorder, to a dysfunctional society that has lost its roots, its bearings, that has strayed from its moral and spiritual compass. Eisen asks us recognize that these prophecies may not be irrelevant;, that they, indeed, can speak to our twenty-first century society. He writes:
I walk around shaken by the conviction that the curses that threaten us as a consequence of global warming will surely come to pass, unless humanity acts quickly and decisively to prevent them. These curses will…be more far-reaching than the worst that Deuteronomy imagined, and … will likely prove irreparable
Eisen summarizes findings of climate scientists: that if the global temperature rises significantly, island nations will disappear, African droughts will worsen and more.
Four years have passed since Eisen wrote his commentary.. Look around: we have just had the three warmest years ever recorded, we have just had two of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded. Caribbean islands are nearly in ruins. Houston. Puerto Rico. The Florida Keys. Life destroying monsoons in India and Bangla Desh. Surely Eisen is correct in his statement that however graphic the curses of Deuteronomy, the curses brought by climate change will be much worse. The newly warmed waters add toxic fuel to every storm. And it can be worse; our seaboards, where the bulk of our population resides, are threatened.. Ecological disaster may well lead to political disorder, which could lead to wars.
Our civilization has unwrapped the secrets of the stars, solved many of the mysteries of the brain and the heart and the eye; constructed buildings that reach the clouds, composed masterpieces of art and mystifying music. We have the greatest universities in the world, the greatest scientists. But are we listening? Are we learning? Can we see beyond a year or two? Men and women with great responsibility are denying science, denying truth, dismissing scientific advisory boards and taking down scientific data from government web sites because they do not like what they reveal. We are moving into an age of perilous anti-intellectualism.
And another existential threat faces us today. Splitting the atom has led to nuclear weapons capable of extinguishing human life on Earth.. But our emotional growth has not kept pace with our scientific achievements. Too many world leaders either allow or are incapable of not allowing primitive emotions to dominate their reason.
When John Winthrop arrived in 1630 to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he told his fellow settlers that their new society was to be “a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” Like Moses at the banks of the Jordan, he was thinking in terms of generations, even millennia. And like the Israelites standing at the Jordan, the United States has seen itself as a beacon to the world for both Jew and Gentile. And yet we are the only nation planning to withdraw from the international effort for modest reductions in carbon emissions. If we withdraw we are, by our own choice, an outcast nation.
Where are we headed? Where is our John Winthrop? Where is our Moses? For if we are to survive it will take mature, rational, informed leadership committed to reasoned discourse. We need men and women who have vision, who accept and value science and reason, who think in terms of generations and who possess an even temperament. Are we capable of finding such people? I wish I knew; our fate hangs in the balance.
.Because I do not yet see leaders capable of rationally coping with these imminent threats, men and women who realize that wrong decisions may have fatal consequences, I believe that we are living today at the most precarious moment in the history of human civilization. I have never been more frightened for the future of my children and grandchildren and for all humanity. Our civilization has accomplished so much, but it can disappear in a century or in a moment. The Babylonian Empire fell, the Roman Empire fell, and the British Empire is no more. Germany in the late nineteenth century represented the height of civilization . And yet it collapsed in the 1930s, becoming a beastly primitive society almost overnight. In the past, when we went through dark ages there was recovery. How many of us in this sanctuary have that confidence today? It has been said for many years that civilization hangs by a thread. Has that thread ever been thinner?
Do you remember Shelley’s famous poem “Ozymandias.” In it a traveler in the desert comes across a lonely monument of stone, in which a man , a former king or emperor, sits, his face half sunk in sand though still showing the “wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command.”. On the pedestal is an inscription that reads “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, Look on my Works, ye Mighty and despair!” But in fact “Nothing remains.” The poem ends with the traveler gazing about and saying into the wind:
. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.
But our civilization need not end this way. The Prophet Isaiah had a different vision:
And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
Which will be our fate?
Yom Kippur is a time for solemn reflection to be followed by an active life devoted to personal growth but also to something greater than ourselves. That is our tradition. And in this very critical moment in time we have never needed our tradition, our Isaiahs, more. Let me end by quoting Chapter 30 of Deuteronomy, the famous passage that will be read in tomorrow’s Torah portion, Moses’ final charge to the Israelites.
I call to witness for you today the heavens and the earth. Life and Death I set before you, the blessing and the curse, and you shall choose life so that you may live, you and your seed.
This is a clarion statement of free will. This is our call. We are not helpless and we must not act helplessly. . Passivity and cynicism and lethargy are not what “choose life” means. Maybe one person cannot do much, but we live in a democracy, and much has been accomplished by collective efforts: think of civil rights, the emancipation of women and marriage equality. There is much to do if we and generations to come are to dwell peacefully, Jews, Christians, Muslims, in our promised land. Make your voice heard. Come together.
This Wednesday at 7:30 we usher in the year 5778, the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, a joyous occasion. We eat apples dipped in honey in hope of a sweet new year. I hope that it will also usher in a prosperous and fulfilling new year for each member of the Brevard Jewish Community. Rosh Hashanah also begins a ten day period of reflection on our lives. Is the person that you view in the mirror the person that you are striving to be? I doubt anyone can answer “absolutely, completely,” but I hope that you and I can answer that it is a man or woman who has sought to live a good life and is still making that effort every day. If these holidays are to mean anything, then it is to take a hard look at ourselves, our strengths and weakness, at what we can change and what we cannot, at what we have fulfilled and what we may never fulfill, and, after that, to like what you see. This is the moment in the year to think about the big things in life, its purpose, its meaning. And of course it is a time for New Year’s resolutions, some of which we may live up to, some of which we will not.
The important thing it to use these days for contemplation. And it is not only individual self-evaluation, but a collective one. What are we as a Jewish community, a Jewish people, an American people, as temporary but hopefully responsible inhabitants of one of the very few bodies in the universe that shelter life?
We are not alone. Much of the meaning of our lives is in our social relationships. It is a good time to think about our friends, our siblings, our children. Are we living the life we seek with them? Are there ways to make it better?
All of this is what makes Rosh Hashanah such a meaningful, solemn and joyous holiday.
We are very excited about having brand new prayer books for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The CCAR (the Reform movement), put years of work into replacing their previous books that are now over forty years old, a product of the 70s when most of us were in our twenties and thirties. Times have changed. These books seek to remain true to the holidays but to present it in a fashion that is compatible to the age in which we live. There are many thoughtful readings. There will be much more participation by the congregation, by you, in the service. We have worked very hard to make the few hours you spend at our services a meaningful moment in your lives.
The funds for the new books were raised independently of the BJC’s treasury. Linda and Lowell Steinfeld steadfastly led the campaign. Among the contributors were Sandra Hayward, Roger Davis, Sam Leder, Chuck Walsey, Henry Felt, Chuck Cantor, Marilyn Laken, Howard Rock, David Goodman, Alexandra Burroughs, Mark Weinstein, Howard Friedman and Doris Singer. (If I left anyone out, please accept my apology.) We are grateful to all.
Evening Service Rosh Hashanah (Wednesday September 20) 7:30 P.M.
Morning Rosh Hashanah (Thursday September 21) 10:00 A.M.
The Brevard Jewish Community does not charge dues. Our funding comes from the voluntary contributions of our members. These contributions pay for our events, subsidize our programs (when necessary), pay rent (contribution) to Sacred Heart and allow us to contribute to local charities and events in our name. If you would like to make a contribution please send it to our Treasurer, Ross Lynch. His address is 421 Fox Tower Road, Brevard, NC 28712. Anyone contributing $180 or more will have a bookplate placed in their name in one of our new prayer books.