Thursday, October 22, 2015

Rabbi Weiner in Jerusalem-World Zionist Congress Day 3

Va’yahee erev, va’yahee voker, yom shleeshee! And there was evening, and there was morning, the third day! (Gen. 1:13)

Yesterday, Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to us, as I wrote. In my post, I said there were a few points where we outright disagreed – truly, I thought that if I brought his Holocaust comments into the post, some would think that I was trying to smear the PM and that others would think that I either misheard, miswrote or both. Surely, by now, you have heard that one of the PM’s 10 “truths” was that Hitler didn’t want to murder Jews, just expel them. That is, until he met the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. Without getting into the whole parashah (yes, that’s modern Hebrew for a scandal), let’s just say that was not historically accurate.

While I thought this week was filled to brim already with the Artzeinu pre-conference, the WZO conference and terrorism afoot, now we have a full-blown (inter)national scandal while I am in town. It seems Israel has pulled all the stops out for me. I say it is a big scandal because it isn’t every day that the German government has to come to the aid of the despicable Mufti’s reputation (he instigated pogroms here in Palestine) by making it very clear that only Hitler and the Germans were to blame for the Holocaust. Everywhere I went today, people were talking about it: soldiers in the elevator, the doorman of the hotel, friends at dinner and pretty much everyone else I saw today. I even got texts from Israeli friends saying how “lucky” I was there to see it in person!

The comment was also a topic of discussion for MK Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, the leader of the Knesset opposition, who addressed the WZO this morning as the first official business of the day. While he had prepared comments about Zionism, returning to Israel’s founders’ ideals and living up to Jewish values, he couldn’t begin without addressing the issue. Bougie, as everyone here calls him (a nickname his mom gave as a mash-up of “doll” from French and Hebrew), said that the PM’s comments were the worst kind of incitement – by putting the Mufti on the same level as Hitler, it put Palestinians on the same level as Germans during the Holocaust, knowing full well that every Israeli is raised with the ethos that Israelis will do anything to prevent such a thing from happening again. His criticism of the PM had serious zing in it, for sure. While not directly attacking the PM on the political grounds, he did highlight a vision for future that would, as he put it, reground Israel in its values. One Orthodox man jumped up and yelled at the Labor MK, akin to Rep. Joe Wilson yelling at President Obama at the State of the Union. It was the only public disrespect, to that point, in two days of meetings of people with sharp disagreements, both between the PM and Bougie and the delegates themselves.

Next, we went into our first session where committees of the convention went through the first round of vetting, passing, amending and rejecting various resolutions. Every one of the more than 500 delegates was assigned to one of eight committees; I was assigned to the committee on constitutional amendments. This is where the nitty gritty work of WZO policy gets done. It isn’t exciting, sort of like watching Congress on C-SPAN, but it is where the real stuff happens. In my committee, most of the amendments had to do with making the WZO fairer in how delegates are elected or appointed and governance policies. It wasn’t exhilarating work, but it was important as these amendments would affect the fairness of the WZO, whether or not the smaller parties and Jewish communities get a voice and whether the oversight of the WZO would keep the organization on the straight and narrow.

While one would think that all parties would be interested in such things, this is not the case. Most of the defeated amendments were blatant attempts by small groups to get more leverage in the WZO than they deserved, gave financial decision making powers to cronies and took the rights of small communities away by larger groups that try to suppress their voices. Almost every one of those amendments (except one about an appeals process, that is so filled with minutiae, that I will not even explain) was defeated by our coalition, working with others from varying delegations that also opposed them. There were two galling proposals that were defeated that are worth mentioning. Both were proposed by the Orthodox parties and supported by the Likud party. The first tried to eliminate language from the WZO constitution which stated that no delegate or organization can be discriminated against “based on origin, nationality, race or gender.” After we defeated it (I was the leader of our faction dealing with this amendment), we succeeded in getting that section of the constitution amended to also include sexuality and religious streams to the list of things for which one cannot be discriminated against in the WZO. The other, tried to make it “kosher” to call any group of Jews a Jewish community worthy of sending delegates to the WZO. For example, this would allow Chabad, who sends emissaries all over the globe, to be able to claim that one Chabadnik living in a hut in the jungle is a Jewish community and therefore his Zionist party could claim more communal delegates. It was kind of humorous; kind of not so funny!

We finished our three hour session on this with three minutes to spare and without the kind of yelling and screaming (and we’ve been told about past furniture throwing) that these sessions are reputed to have been like in the past (we certainly heard much more yelling form other meeting rooms). Then all the delegated were sent on mini afternoon-long missions in Israel to scout the land, so to speak. Our delegation’s first stop was to a school that the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, picked for us – in East Jerusalem. It was an Arab, all girls, high school. The school was in good condition and the girls all wear uniforms, most had their heads covered a few had makeup on and they seemed like typical teenage girls, giggling with friends in the halls and being shy towards strangers like us. We were asked to teach them about MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Even though they get instruction in English, they didn’t speak enough English to really grasp the text without the teacher translating it for them. What was shocking was that their Hebrew, having lived in Jerusalem all of their lives, wasn’t up to the task either. We later learned that the girls learn from a curriculum from the Israeli Ministry of Education specifically for Palestinians, which differs from the curriculum at both Jewish public schools and Israeli Arab public schools. By contrast, no Israeli teen (these girls are not Israeli citizens even though they have lived their whole lives in Israel’s capitol city) speaks English as poorly as these girls. The mifgash, or interaction, was still upbeat and once outside of the classroom in the front yard of the school they seemed a little freer to be themselves and even asked me to be in a selfie! It was odd to see the girls, at their age being dismissed in groups instead of just heading home. When we inquired as to why, we were told that a student was shot last week, a girl, whom a Jewish man on the street accused of threatening him. He shot her in the arm 12 times. He fled and is unidentified and she has been at Hadassah Hospital where she has already undergone two surgeries. It was a good meeting, but reminded us all of the tense situation right now.

Next, we went to the ancient Dormition Abbey church, where the Virgin Mary died according to Christian tradition. We met the priest, who is a German national. He began by saying how pleased he was that we were there and said that he was sorry for what his people had done to ours throughout history and the Holocaust in particular. He then told us about the church and about how in each of the last three years, the church has been vandalized by Jewish extremists, who graffitied in Hebrew words from the Aleinu (traditionally understood as saying that Jews are better than all other peoples) and tried to burn down the church each time. Another time the graffiti likened Christians to monkeys. All told, millions of dollars of damage was done to one of the oldest historical sites in Jerusalem in what are known as “Price Tag” attacks – exerting a price for a perceived wrong, or to trying to get people to leave. The priest chanted a Psalm of peace, we sang a peace song. He said he took great solace from our group because Orthodox rabbis will never come to meet with him, and because our fellow Reform congregations in Israel send letters of support and comfort every time the church is attacked. It gives him hope to continue with his ministry in Israel.

Our last stop was at the Kotel, the Western Wall, in two stages. First, we went to the Azarat Yisrael, the egalitarian section at the Wall. There, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Reform Movement, addressed us and informed us of the progress to have a real egalitarian section at the Wall. You see, the existing section is hidden away where no one can find it, below ground level and, where the plaza meets the wall, it is so small that you cannot have more than 10 people there at a time. Our Temple Israel Mission went there this summer and took advantage of the moving ability to be together as families, but our group couldn’t get to the wall at the same time. Part of the group had to wait at the upper platform for the others to finish before getting a turn. Rabbi Jacobs assured us that the work continues and that the government is trying to find a solution to this issue. From there, we went to the Kotel Plaza, and where we are forced to separate men and women, we held a service – men and women together. It was a moving service, led by Rabbi Jacobs and musician Peri Smilow. It was emotional for our group to pray at the holiest spot in Judaism, trying to connect with the divine, where Jews have prayed for thousands of years, but being worried that we might be arrested by the police of the Jewish people or be spat upon by the ultra-Orthodox, or maybe even worse.

In the beginning, we were praying with our eyes moving side to side, making sure we were safe. But, as we sang out our prayers, we became more and more comfortable – even with the eyes of Haredi children on us like animals in the zoo, even with some Haredi men yelling at us, even with the lackey of the rabbi in charge of the Kotel trying to get the police to arrest us. In the end, Anat Hoffman, Director of the Israel Religious Action Center and a leader of Women of the Wall (who has been spat upon, beaten, arrested and harassed for praying at the Wall for more than 25 years), convinced the police officer in charge that it wouldn’t be a great idea to arrest the global Reform delegation, here in town for the World Zionist Congress, including our “chief rabbi.” No policeman wants to wind up on the front page of a newspaper. So, knowing that our prayers would soon end, he looked the other way.

We finished with the singing of Hatikva. That Hatikva rang as true as ever and reflected exactly why we are here in Jerusalem: the hope of what Zionism can be has not yet been realized. The “hope” of Hatikva was to be “a free people in our own land.” We certainly have achieved our own land, but if Jews are afraid of arrest or bodily harm for praying in Israel the way we would in any other civilized country, we are not yet free. Our work at the Congress has been focused on this very issue. In the last day of the Congress, this is where the work of all of our supporters, all those votes, will come to fruition – we will use our rights to move Israel and the National Institutions towards a freer, more egalitarian future. It might seem cliché to quote Theodore Herzl at the WZO, but “if we will it, it is no dream!” If we will a better Israel and are willing to do the hard work to achieve it, we will. And we will it with all our hearts!

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither and may my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth; If I do not remember you, If I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy! Psalm 137:5-6


Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Rabbi Weiner in Jerusalem-World Zionist Congress Day 2

Va’yahee erev, va’yahee voker, yom shaynee! And there was evening, and there was morning, the second day! (Gen. 1:8)

Today, the business of the World Zionist Congress itself began. Actually, before it began, the negotiations had to be finished. And it was, about 3 feet from my breakfast table in the hotel dining room. You see, the Congress is kind of a misnomer, it is more like a parliament where parties make agreements to have coalitions (here they call them factions) and, in the process, you agree to use the collective votes of the faction to get as much control for the parties making up your faction over whatever is at stake. In a government, like the Knesset or the British Parliament, that means as many ministerships as your and coalition can get. Here, it means getting as many positions within what are known as the three National Institutions, both paid and unpaid (like chairman of the board): The JNF (think land, planting trees and blue boxes for tzedakah), the Jewish Agency (think shaliachs or emissaries to Jewish communities around the world and immigrant absorption) and the WZO itself which controls certain things like Zionist education programs around the world among others.

The ink was hardly dry two tables over as the parties in our faction decided how we would use our collective votes in this manner. The Reform Movement delegations from around the world put our votes in with the Labor party (Israel’s and their global partners), the Meretz Party and Zionist Youth Movement (HaNoar HaTzioni). Together, we make up the largest faction in the entire WZO. Because of that, we will have leaders that share our values and ideology leading the boards and departments in part or in the whole at each of the three organizations. All of that was before the opening gavel!

Once we began and voted (rubber stamped) those new appointees, we heard from former Supreme Court Justice Tova Strassberg-Cohen who warned of a crumbling of the unity of the State of Israel as more and more Israelis did not fully participate in the shared discourse of society.

This was followed by the main event of the day – an address by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As with any head of state, there was a lot of security before-hand, a lot fanfare during and a lot of chatter afterwards. From the get-go it seemed that the PM wasn’t there to actually address the WZO, rather, his remarks were targeted at the media. How do we know this? Well, at the WZO, the largest gathering of Zionist officials (half of whom are Israeli and the other half comprising a large group of fluent Hebrew speaking non-Israelis), the PM spoke in English – not the language of Zionism! I don’t recall the PM even using the world Zionist (if he did it was in reference to his grandparents making aliyah in 1920). Instead of addressing issues of Zionism in the year 2015 and the years to come, he focused solely on the current wave of violence. He enumerated ten myths being circulated and then debunked them on by one. The first was the libel that the Israeli government is trying to undermine Islamic sites (particularly the Mosques on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem). Israel is doing no such thing – I agree totally with the PM, as I did on 5 other of his points. Two others, I think that the PM was fudging or obfuscating the truth, he is, after all, a politician! As an example, the PM said that Palestinian violence could not be caused by the settlement issue. He proudly claimed that in his first term as PM he built more than 5,000 units a year in the West Bank and now he’s only building 1,500 units a year, so the Palestinians couldn’t be more angry now, they should be less. What the PM didn’t mention, regardless of how you feel about the Occupied Territories, is the fact that the Palestinians don’t want any new units in the West Bank, nor did he mention the cumulative effect of going from zero settlers to more than half a million during the years of the occupation is not producing an anger free environment. There were two others that where I disagreed, but they were on small matters, semantics really about the use of force and how every country would react the same way as Israel. I don't think that is true in both good and bad ways. Other countries would be far harsher than Israel has been, and others would not use as much deadly force as Israel has lately. In the end, the PM was kind of lifeless, which is unusual for him. Usually, no matter what the subject, there is humor, fists pounding the lectern and raised voices. But, there was none of that today. I think he was tired, due to the situation, I am sure he’s short on sleep. More than that, however, he was treating his speech more like a press conference and I think that’s what it really was we delegates just happened to be there!

After that, it was a day of panel discussions on various topics related to the conference theme of “Non-Stop Zionism.” The first dealt with the connection between Judaism and Zionism. Professor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary summed it up best by saying once cannot exist without the other. Today, world Jewry would suffer without the State of Israel and the State of Israel would suffer without world Jewry and its religious people (meaning all kinds of Jews no matter what the denomination). Later, there was a discussion on religious freedom in Israel and how the liberal streams of Judaism are second class citizens, how secular Jews are forced to interact with the ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement by the State and how, in the long run, it is Israel and all Jews, who will lose out because of this. Rabbi Chaya Baker, a Conservative Rabbi from Jerusalem was so amazing in how she dealt with a fellow panelist, a secular professor who was, more or less saying that Reform and Conservative Jews should stop whining about equal rights and just take what you get and wait and see if things will change on their own. She ran so many circles around him and beat him up with is own words so many times that he might as well have been gagged and bound by the end – he was motionless and speechless!

The last was a panel on how to combat the global BDS movement. The panel was very interesting in that even the most ardent anti-BDS person on the panel (they were all against it) said that we are overdoing the issue. As a researcher, she said that isn’t one country in the world where anti-Israel sentiments are more than 50% when real research is done (except in the Arab world), meaning that we have more allies than those who are against us. She also told us that while there is a tough atmosphere on US campuses, Americans have the most favorable views of Israel in the entire world! One of the PM’s former media aides was also on the panel and felt that much of Israel’s dealing with BDS is misguided because it fundamentally doesn’t understand how to combat BDS among non-dyed in the wool anti-Semites/anti-Israel camps. The terms we use don’t work because we try to tell them our story from our point of view and not their own. We shouldn’t tell Americans to love Israel because it is a “democracy just like Israel,” because even the most unlearned American knows that Israel has an official religion and therefore is, in the most fundamental way, not a democracy in the way Americans understand it. Instead, the message should be that we share the story of liberating the oppressed and downtrodden to give them freedoms to pursue life, liberty and happiness in the same ways, we’re both melting pots, we thrive on immigration generation after generation and so on. A last example was of a failure to understand the nature of media in today’s battle to thwart anti-Israel movements. Israel tries over and over to combat images with words – from Op-Eds to the PM’s speeches all over the globe, to eloquent diplomats dispatched to every country. Israel doesn’t realize that no one is listening and they certainly aren’t reading. Everything today is about images in the Internet/FB/Instagram/Snapchat world. The powerful example is that every defense of Israel seems to come down to the David versus Goliath story, one that is well known around the world in almost every culture (small David with just some rocks and his slingshot versus Goliath with armor, a helmet and real weapons). Israel is always shouting from the rooftops that they are little David (small little country) versus Goliath (the whole Arab world). Since, no one is listening, they rely on images to vet this account of things. And what do they see? Israeli soldiers, all over the media, with weapons, helmets and body armor fighting people who are armed with rocks. The very invocation of the David story bolsters the Palestinians and lowers the credibility of Israel. This isn’t about just use of force or not, merely about perception of the situation. To combat BDS, it is very clear, Israel and her advocates, like all of us at the WZO, need a new arsenal of terms and images to fight in a new way in the modern era.

Since I have done little more than sit, since I boarded my El Al flight, in the two and half days since I was here, I decided to skip lunch and have a run instead. I ran down and back up the mountain that houses Israel’s national governmental institutions: the Knesset, the Supreme Court, the Israel Museum (and the ministries of Finance, Immigrant Absorption and a few other unsightly government buildings) – the view was just spectacular and I just had to get my feet onto the holy soil of Israel. I also couldn’t abide just being holed up in a hotel or a conference center during the current violence, I had to be out among the people – our people – it was a great run.

I learned so much today, it was a very good day!

P.S. Another Israel first - today I met up with a former bar mitzvah student who is now a first year cantorial student at HUC Israel!

Shomer, shomer Yisrael, shmor shayreet Yisrael…am echad goy echad – Guardian and Protector of Israel, protect the remnant of Israel…one people, one nation – Jewish Hymn (based on the Psalms)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Rabbi Weiner in Jerusalem-World Zionist Congress Day 1

Va’yahee erev, va’yahee voker, yom echad! And there was evening, and there was morning, the first day! (Gen. 1:5)  

It is hard to believe that I only arrived here in Israel 24 hours ago as we have packed in so much already! While I am here for the World Zionist Congress (what people like to call the parliament of the Jewish people as it brings representatives form almost every Jewish community in the world), our delegation is Artzenu (Our Land), which is the global partnership of all the Reform Zionist organizations from around globe. ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America) is not only the largest group in Arztenu, but the largest single group in the world. Artzeinu has been in meetings since I arrived to prepare us for the work of the Congress, which begins tomorrow morning with an address from Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Last night, we began by hearing from Orthodox Rabbi Michael Melchoir. The black suited, long bearded rabbi is a bit of an enigma in Israeli circles. He not only served as a minister in the government and member of Knesset, he did so as a part of the liberal Labor party. The Holocaust survivor, while still living in Israel, is also the Chief Rabbi of Sweden! He brings a hopeful message at time where hope seems, at times, in short supply. He summed up the current situation in Israel, in general, by saying that “Fear and despair is not a good policy to run a country!” He feels that what Israel is lacking is enough pluralism and that the country is becoming more and more factionalized because of this lack in pluralism. “We’ve created a situation where Judaism and democracy are seen as opposites,” and that the state was created to bring the two together. How much pluralism does he believe we need? Well, he has had private meetings with the Waqf (the Muslim authorities that rule their holy sites), the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad to try and reach peace on shared religious beliefs and he believes that it is possible! (I said he was an enigmatic Orthodox Rabbi).

This morning, we heard from the head of the Israeli Reform Movement, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who taught us about the interesting demographic shifts in the air here. Just to name a few, that in recent surveys, 8% of the country identifies as Reform or Conservative; that’s about 500,000 self-identified non-Orthodox religious people. Another interesting datum: 25% of Reform Jews here are Sephardic. More Sephardic Torah scrolls were donated here this year to Reform congregations than Ashkenazi ones (many even pulled by families who own them from the Orthodox synagogues that have housed them for two generations). Lastly, 95% of Israeli boys have a Bar Mitzvah – only 2% of girls have bat mitzvahs that have any Jewish content at all (the rest are more like 12 year old sweet sixteens). Of those, almost all are Reform and that number is growing rapidly and bringing in new families in droves!

Then, we moved over to the Knesset where we met with five MKs (Members of Knesset), each from a different political party and position on the spectrum of ideas: Michal Biran (Labor), Michael Oren (Kulanu), Ayman Odeh (Arab List), Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) and Benny Begin (Likud – and son of the former Prime Minister). I learned too much from each of them to share here, but it was an incredible session that lasted for many hours. Our leaders at the Israel Religious Action Center, run by the Reform Movement, put the whole day together and they are to be commended. The IRAC (bad name in English!), is led by not one, but two outstanding women, both of whom have met with Temple Israel in the past: Anat Hoffman and Rabbi Noa Sattah.

Our day ended with a dinner honoring some great Reform Zionists as they retire after a life-time of service, most notably Rabbi Stanley Davids and Menachem Leibovich who is finishing his term as the Vice Chairman of the Board of JNF, and who happens to be the husband of our good friend, Rabbi Maya Leibovich from our partner congregation in Mevasseret Tzion.
And yes, and it rained today (twice). That’s not big news at home, but it was the first time since March here in Israel! I guess our special prayer for rain at the end of Sukkot worked!

Sha’alu shalom yerushalayeem – pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6)

Monday, October 5, 2015

Temple Israel Serving the Community! You can too!

This fall, book-ended by Sukkot and Thanksgiving, reminds us to take notice of God’s creation, be grateful for what we have, and help those around us. Our Temple Israel community is engaged in a number of activities that foster these values of awareness, gratitude and generosity. If you are not already involved in one of these projects, we hope the beauty of fall will inspire you to join in.

  • Farmigo – Temple Israel is partnering with Farmigo, an online farmers market, to bring fresh, local food to our members. In addition to promoting sustainable agriculture, Farmigo shares part of the profits with Temple Israel. To learn more about this “farm-to-neighborhood” movement, come to our Food for Thought lecture on Wednesday, October 14. Farmigo Educator Alissa Stoltz will be speaking on “Connecting Food, Nourishment and Jewish Values." Click here to join the Food for Thought lecture. To find out how to order food for your family, go to

  • Temple Israel Feeds the Hungry in Two Ways! – We continue to partner with HOPE Community Services to provide food for their food pantry. While our High Holiday food drive is complete, we continue to collect food all year long. If you did not get a reusable shopping bag at the High Holidays, pick one up in the lobby. (These reusable shopping bags are not for your own groceries, but serve as a reminder to fill a bag with food to donate.) When you drop off a full bag, take another one so that you will always have a reminder that people in our community are in need. Also, the Social Action Committee is helping to feed the hungry through their "Cook for a Cause" effort, so please help them out as well! Temple Israel makes and serves dinners for the Community Service Associates in Mount Vernon. The next two dates are Wednesdays, October 21 and November 18. Nanette Sacks is the contact and lead on this, and very often handles this on her own. Please help her out! Email Nanette Sacks and let her know you will volunteer your time. Look for future monthly dates in this ongoing effort in Temple Topic and weekly eblasts.

  • Pet Blessing – Celebrate our animal friends on the weekend we read Noah’s Ark in the Torah! On Sunday, October 18 we will gather in front of the Temple at 12:15 p.m. to bless our pets. Callie Nichols looks forward to seeing you! 

Rabbi Beth Nichols