On the Kotel Debacle

I was asked by the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles on Monday to react and share my thoughts about the Prime Minister of Israel’s action to reneg on the deal to create egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, known as the Kotel in Hebrew. The Western Wall is one of the few remaining remnants of the Roman era Second Temple. The wall held up the enlarged mountain platform where the temple stood prior to the year 70, when it was destroyed by the Roman army.  It was a terrible blow to the Jewish people and the Israelite nation was destroyed. The Jewish residents of Jerusalem and Israel were ripped from their homeland and sent into exile.  Another Jewish nation would not arise until the modern state of Israel in 1948 on that holy ground.

When Jerusalem was reunified following the Six Day War when Israel was attacked by her Arab neighbors and Israel  recaptured the Old City and the Temple Mount after nearly 2000 years–the Western Wall long a symbol of our people’s agony became a renewed symbol of our endurance.   The Wall and the plaza today have been taken over slowly but surely by the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel and they have created an Orthodox synagogue at the national monument.  Following Orthodox prayer customs there is a separate men’s and women’s section.

After many years of protest by an organization Women of the Wall seeking equality for women’s prayer at the Kotel, and joined by the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism who believe in equal religious rights and rites for women, as well as mixed gender prayer and equality negotiation with the government of Israel began. It took more than four years but a compromise was reached to build an appropriate prayer space of equal beauty and access for liberal Jews who wish to pray in their style at the Kotel.  The Israeli Government dragged its feet this last year-and little progress was made on actually constructing the site. And then out of the blue–the Prime Minister calls the deal off.

Trust has been broken with Jews around the world.

Here is my reaction printed in this week’s Jewish Journal.

L.A. clergy respond to the Kotel controversy


We have seen the selling out of the Jewish people for crass political power.  However, it isn’t usually done by a prime minister of Israel to Jews around the world. Benjamin Netanyahu’s crass political move to renege on the compromise reached with the Reform and Conservative Movements and Women of the Wall on appropriate egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel is alarming and shameful.

The plan to build egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall was negotiated by the prime minister’s own representatives. His representatives Natan Sharansky and now-attorney general Avichai Mendelbilt were the ones who spoke for the Israeli government. It was hailed as an historic agreement by the prime minister’s own office. Netanyahu came to the U.S. and himself addressed American Jewry about the importance of this.

I sat across from the prime minister a year ago February in his office when he assured me and rabbinic leaders of the Reform Movement, “It will happen.”  Following the meeting at the annual convention of the Reform rabbinate in 2016, we held the first services in what was to eventually become the new space. It was a spiritually uplifting and moving experience to pray with my fellow rabbis next to the ancient and historical symbol of our people’s continuity, men and women together as is our authentic Jewish experience.

The prime minister, who claims to speak for all Jews, has betrayed a significant portion of the Jewish people by giving in to Charedi demands.  He is not a man of his word or a man of honor and he is leading the government of Israel to act immorally.

The sacrifices of the ancient Temple were designed to restore wholeness and holiness to individuals who have sinned and to the Jewish people. Prime Minister Netanyahu instead has sacrificed the majority of American Jews on the altar of his political expediency, reinforcing the very sin that destroyed the ancient Temple: sinat chinam, the hatred of Jew against Jew. This is the sin our Talmudic Sages teach destroyed the Temple. Netanyahu’s actions further alienate American Jews from finding a place and connection to the Jewish homeland. As a Reform rabbi I try to build up that connection and help Jews find their way home. The prime minister has increased the distance and removed the welcome mat from the doorway.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger, Congregation Kol Ami

There is a Debate Raging

Here is my sermon: June 23, 2017/1 Tammuz 5777  Shabbat Evening @Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood, CA

There’s  a debate raging.  It’s been going on in the Jewish Journal for the last few weeks.  Rabbi David Wolpe  of Temple Sinai here in Los Angeles wrote an article about why he doesn’t preach politics from the pulpit. He claims that the synagogue should be a politics free zone.  Synagogue in his view is an escape from the worries of the day. A place of prayer and study.  He wrote that the Synagogue should not be divided in these highly contentious times.  Wolpe wrote these words “You can love Torah and vote for Trump. You can love Torah and think Trump is a blot on the American system. What you may not do, if you are intellectually honest, is say that the Torah points in only one political direction”


Our own Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, our denomination wrote,  a reply to Rabbi Wolpe’s article.  He claimed that it is not politics to speak on moral issues of the day. But that our study of Torah and prayer lead us to action and toward shaping our faith. And therefore it was incumbent upon rabbis to use their voice to instruct on moral and ethical ideals as they apply to the issues of our times.  Rabbi Jacobs wrote this: “Sermons that “speak up” on the great moral issues of our world and our lives may address politics and policy as a means of addressing such moral issues but they are not about politics. On the contrary, they are about our Jewish values; the values we teach and the values we pass on to our children; the values that have kept us together as a people for centuries.”


Both are right.


I think you all know I don’t shy away from addressing the moral issues of our times.  Like Rabbi Jacobs I believe the Torah is our guide.  It is not just some ancient book to be read but not lived. For me, the prophets of old, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, and Micah are not just to be read but to be taken seriously. When they call for justice and equity they are speaking not just of their times but of our own.  We assert the timelessness of Torah, the eternal nature of the message of our tradition.  And so when the issues of our times confront us, the poverty, racism, and inequality that are so evident and the corruption that seems ever present in our government and institutions we have to give voice.


That is not politics it’s called morality.


Rabbi Wolpe’s large congregation maybe more diverse in its political outlook than Kol Ami. We are a small congregation in a progressive city of West Hollywood. But to shy away from issues of morality is I believe to put one’s head in the sand about the world around us.  But Rabbi Wolpe makes an important point about divisiveness. And that has no place in the synagogue.  The vitriol that inhabits the public square, the online forums and the media has no place in shul.

As you know I don’t  endorse political candidates. I talk to both sides of the aisle. I meet with Republicans and Democrats and Independents.  And I don’t buy party lines.  Because my line is the Jewish line.


I think the challenge that Rabbi Wolpe and Jacobs should address is  a call for everyone take it down several notches. We can disagree on solutions to large issues but the ad hominem attacks must cease.  All conservatives are not bad.  And all liberals are not bad.  But to read twitter depending on whose tweets you see it will reinforce that message.
The challenge in our day and time is to learn to disagree lovingly.  To honestly care about each other as part of the human family.  To see in each other eyes our humanity.  This is what our great Jewish Philosopher Martin Buber taught us all.  To have I-Thou relationships.  To have real encounters with people rather than use them in some utilitarian way.  What Buber calls the I-It.  You see the incivility, anger, and rage-are symptoms of a greater ill—refusing to see another person’s humanity.

That is the core of the problem.  We dehumanize each other.  Right and left, Republican and Democrat.  This is why it is so painful and hurtful.  We traumatize one another because of the slights and erasing of human dignity.  We denigrate individuals’ experiences in the world.  We imagine that everyone experiences what we do and invalidate someone’s differing perceptions. This transforms itself into policy as well.   And so we can get 12 rich white men locked in a room making health policy-without input from women, or people of color, or poor people because their experiences don’t matter-inconsequential.  And let’s be honest whether it is health care or ensuring the US continue to stand by Israel—the utilitarian mode rather than the human mode remains dominant because money is the God—rather than God being God.


Oh there is a lot of God-Talk.  Lots of self-righteousness on both sides of the aisle.  But in a synagogue our job is to come together to study Torah, discuss it, chew on it, come to some conclusions based on the best in our tradition, the best of our teachers and then to live it out.  And yes that will mean that different people live out their religious ideals differently.


For the Torah is multi-valent; meaning it speaks with many voices.  You can read the Torah literally and come away with the understanding that slavery is allowed and the death penalty is permitted.  But if you only read and study the book of Exodus you are not understanding the force of our teachings.  Both were outlawed by our rabbis.


And that is why deep engagement with Torah study is so necessary.  Most Jews today only know a little bit.  Jewish education is lacking.  We have to as Rabbi Wolpe believes, engage and study more Torah to help shape our moral views.  And it is as Rabbi Jacob’s believes that the Toarh and our tradition’s teaching urge us to speak up and loudly.  Silence is not an option.  Because our tradition does have some important conclusions about how we are to treat one another and the responsibilities of society to help those in the least powerful positions of society.


But most importantly when we disagree with our fellow congregant –we have to take them seriously and not simply write them off.  After all Judaism is a religion of relationships.  We must encounter the other and we are called by God to be part of the community, not separate ourselves out. Al tifrsoh min hatzibut, do not separate yourself from the community the Talmud teaches.


But there is so much incivility in the world around us. And it is built in the idea of that to disagree we must attack one another.  The politics of our times is based on this kind of dehumanizing attack that is I believe the root of our problems.  We have to learn to look in the eyes of one another-see each other’s humanity.


And we have to see our common bond with each other that we are part of each other’s lives.  There is a collective basis for our commonality.  By this I mean that – we are dependent on each other.  Our wellbeing depends on each other.  Not so easy in a society that teaches independence.


I believe this is what we have lost in our political discussions and in our communication with each other whether on line or often in person.  We pull away, and hide behind our screens rather than try to build real relationships in real time with each other.  The Jewish demand to pray with a minyan-to pray in community is designed to help us engage and not isolate from each other.


It forces us to interact with each other and with God.  Praying together in community is a way that we remind ourselves that our collective is a necessary component to our spiritual wellbeing.


It is not the ego driven I that matters –but the “we”. And it is the “we” that can transform our own lives and the life of the world. The collective power of community to engage in tikkun olam.


And so while I applaud Rabbi Wolpe’s reminder of the need for the synagogue to be a safe place, a place of prayer and reflection, a place of sanctity that heals the divisions of the outside world.  I also know that Rabbi Jacob’s vision that the synagogue must be a moral voice for good in our world.


At Kol Ami we believe deeply that all are created in God’s image. That is why we worked so hard for LGBTQ equality in this congregation, why we go to Guatemala to help the impoverished, why we work at Sova, why we partner with our non-Jewish church friends.  When the world and our government policies seem to forget our humanity, women’s humanity we have to speak to that.  God created us not to sit on the side lines but to live.  As our Torah teaches  Chai Bayhem—live by them.  And so it is not politics that we address—but policy and humanity.



This week’s Torah portion is Korach. After the rebellion led by Moses’ and Aaron’s cousin Korach is put down, God instructs Moses to take the staff of leadership from each of the chieftains of the 12 tribes. Each must write the name of their tribe on their staff. Aaron will write the tribe of Levi on his staff.  The 12 staves will then be placed in front of the Holy Ark and left over night.  It is a test of leadership.  God says that staff that blooms will be the head of the tribes.  And so they gather the staves, and the next morning miraculously—the staff of Aaron blooms beautiful almond blossoms!  It is a sign, a miracle that reaffirms Aaron’s leadership and that of the Levites to serve.


We have no Levites that serve in the holy Temple. But our service now is in service of holy relationships with one another and God.  That was in part Aaron and the Levites role—to help ensure our relationships were in balance.  I pray that we continue to blossom as did Aaron’s staff of old-signifying our leadership on these issues of our time.


I pray that our congregation continues to be a place that speaks up together. But also speaks to each other with kindness, humility on our lips engaging in discussion together about how we can live out the Torah and the prophetic ideals of peace, justice and equality.    Ken Yehi Ratzon  So May it be God’s Will


Rabbi Denise L. Eger   1 Tammuz 5777


A Father’s Day Prayer

Father’s Day is Sunday.  Not as popular as Mother’s Day. (More phone calls are made on Mother’s Day than any day of the year!).  But it is a day dedicated to acknowledging and celebrating Dear Old Dad!

For some folks like me, I wish I could celebrate the day with my own father. But he has been dead for nearly 23 years now. But I remember him every single day. His smile. The sparkle in his blue eyes!

Many people have complex relationships with their fathers. Sometimes even painful ones. So I know how blessed and lucky I was to have a father who taught me how to give tzedakah (charity), a great work ethic, the value of family and relationship, and humor!
In advance of Father’s Day here is a prayer for our father’s I would like to share with you.

A Prayer for Father’s day


Tzur Yisrael, Rock of Israel, as Father’s Day nears we take this time to call to our fathers of old, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. We invoke their blessings upon our own fathers who bore us, nurtured us and raised us up.  We give thanks for these men who guided us in Your ways. We pray that if they have already entered the Olam HaBah, the world to come, that their souls be at peace.

Some may have fallen short, were uncomfortable expressing love or worked too many hours but as you teach in our Torah-our mitzvah is Kibud Av v’Em-Honor your father and mother.  And so on this father’s day weekend, we pray  bless all who are fathers  and step fathers, grandfathers and fathers in spirit.  Bless the work of their hands. Give them strength for each day.  Help them to be a blessing to family and community.  And teach us to honor their lives and legacy.  Amen:

Wedding Nightmare

I recently officiated at the wedding of a couple.  Well this is not unusual  I am lucky to help couples begin their married life together under the chupah, the Jewish wedding canopy.  For couples planning their weddings there are lots and lots of details to attend to; photographers, food tastings, venues, what to wear and of course who will actually officiate at the ceremony.

Today more and more couples are inviting beloved friends or family members to officiate at their wedding ceremonies rather than a judge or clergy person.  And of course its easy to get deputized to be able to officiate either with the state or through some online ministerial groups.  And while Aunt Joan, or your friend and study partner from law school might know you and your intended and found some great poetry online to read during your ceremony nothing can replace that serious preparation necessary for getting married and staying married.

One of the problems with Uncle Joe or your friend’s sister who sing pretty officiating at your wedding isn’t the ceremony. There are lots of ceremonies online that can be cribbed by the officiant and he or she can write a beautiful speech to you and your intended that will guarantee that tears will flow. But nothing can replace a trained professional like a clergy person or therapist to help you with the necessary premarital counseling every couple should go through in advance of their marriage.

When your friend from Robotics Camp back in the summer of 1999 with whom you shorted the counselors sheets officiates most likely there will be little or no preparation for your marriage.  And today 1 in every 2 marriages end in divorce.

A clergy person, (in my case, rabbi) is trained to help you and your beloved explore issues of your marriage. Oh yes, they will help you with the ceremony and make your day so special. But most clergy will meet with the couple several times before the wedding to get you and your future spouse to think through issues like finances, sexual compatibility, how you argue, values, child rearing, religion and religious observances, in – laws,  household chore responsibilities, and more.  This is as important as picking the right venue, or bakery to make the cake. And perhaps even more important.  But unfortunately fewer couples think that they need to have those conversations.

Why is this? Plain and simple many couples live together before marriage. And so they have likely worked out some of these things.  Or so they think.  Marriage is actually different than just living together. There are different responsibilities to one another. Different legal relationships with each other and financial obligations dictated by the state.  These have to be talked through and clarified from the beginning.  But most couples think they have mastered these details by living with each other but it can be a nightmare when you don’t.

Marriage can be wonderful.  There is nothing more fulfilling emotionally, spiritually and physically (except maybe parenthood and grandparenthood) than finding the person you want to make a part of your family, your next of kin. But marriage can be painful as well when all you do is fight, argue and make assumptions.  And then it is truly a waking nightmare.

So do you and your beloved a favor. If you are planning on getting married. Pick the right officiant for you.  Find someone trained to help you prepare not just for your wedding day but for your married life together.  If you aren’t going to have a rabbi or cantor other trained clergy person  find a therapist or counselor who can take you through your preparation.  There are also community classes like Making Marriage Work that will also help you prepare not just for your wedding day but for your life together.

But don’t wake up with a wedding nightmare because you spent more time on the cake tasting than on who you are entrusting to help you begin your married life together.

(This is first in a series of blogs about weddings and marriage)

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