Striking at Holy Rocks: On Chicago and Israel

This was my sermon from Friday night June 30, 2017. Many of you have asked for a copy. Here it is.

 

Shabbat Shalom

Tonight I had a different sermon.  A sermon to celebrate our 25 years of our Congregation and to imagine together the next 25 years.  But that will wait for another Shabbat because the events of the past week cry out to us. Affect us.  Right in our kishkes—at our core.  Two pivotal events one in Chicago and one in Israel speak to the nature of our communal identities and also to the core of what our congregation values are all about.

For 25 years Kol Ami has given voice to values of inclusion and diversity. Long before it was fashionable. Before even Macy’s changed their logo for June to a rainbow.  Long before any other synagogues marched in pride events, Kol Ami stood for LGBTQ Equality.  Our original vision of our congregation was to be a place truly where gay and straight people together could create a dynamic Jewish home. 25 years ago most synagogues had no real place for Gay people –even Temple Israel up the street—wouldn’t let gay people have a commitment ceremony in their sanctuary.  I know I officiated at the first one there for our temple members.  Same thing at Steven S. Wise synagogue.  I officiated there for two of our members.  The rabbis didn’t or wouldn’t back then.  Many day schools were not prepared to handle the children of Lesbian and Gay parents. And the larger Jewish world, Federation, AJC, Jewish National Fund wouldn’t touch gay equality issues.

Even in our own Reform Movement 25 years ago- better than Conservative Judaism and of course Orthodox Judaism each who were anti-gay at the time, our own Reform Movement wasn’t always so embracing.

But this congregation and our work together helped make that change.

Lots of change. Quickly. Because we together imagined a synagogue where we could let all the different parts of who we were come together.  Gay and Jewish. Straight Ally, Lover of Israel, Lesbian parent, Person with HIV, intermarried husband and wife, Single parent, single person, married, long term relationships, whatever your status in the safety of Kol Ami we created a synagogue a Jewish place of meeting, study, spiritual celebration, arts and social justice that helped us bring all of the parts of our identity together under one banner.—The Kol Ami banner.

And we have had a false sense of security in some ways.  But this week was a wake- up call.

First in the Midwest- when Jews went to celebrate Pride.  Nothing remarkable in 2017 that a Jewish lesbian should want to march in the Dyke March in Chicago.  Nothing remarkable that they should march with a pride flag with a Magen David in the middle.  Simply a lesbian Jew displaying her pride at bringing all of her identities together.  And evidently something that she has done in previous years.  But this year prior to the parade a woman who works for the organization A Wider Bridge—which brings together the gay community in the US and the Israeli gay community (and who we have hosted and worked closely with at Kol Ami) was asked to leave and remove her flag because it was making others uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable because it was a symbol of “Zionist oppression”.  “The star of David was a Zionist symbol,” they say –“like the Israeli flag.”

Make no mistake this is a familiar trope.  Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israeli hatred all wrapped into one.   The Magen David, yes appears on the Israeli flag—but as you and I know was a symbol of Jews and Judaism long before the creation of the modern state of Israel.  The Yellow Star was the ultimate symbol of oppression by the Nazi of the Jews. The organizers were striking out at the Rock identity, the Jewish foundation of their core.

The Organizers of the Dyke March believe they acted justly.  After all their official position supposedly is anti-Israel anti-Zionist.  They claim they are pro-Palestinian.   But not anti- Jewish.

They like many gay organizations are being held ransom by the far left.  By those who so believe in an idea called intersectionality that they have lost their ability to think.

Intersectionality is an idea invented by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw an important civil rights advocate to describe overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression.  This can include gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, nationality, sexual orientation among others. And asks that a person is linked with all the other oppressions throughout society.

Thus the difficulties the Palestinians experience become the same oppression that Gay people suffer.  But here is the problem with that thinking and in the Chicago case in particular—they believe Jews aren’t oppressed but rather do the oppressing.  Israel is described as the white, European power mongers- which I might add is an old Anti-Semitic canard—of Jews and power.  In some places this is expressed as Jews controlling money and media.  And it confuses things in the world of identity politics.

The actions of the Chicago Dyke March are inexcusable essentially denying a person legitimate right to express all of their identity.  Let alone the fact that dykes marching down the streets of Ramallah would be murdered. There is no free expression of LGBTQ identity in Palestine or anywhere else in the Arab world.  Iran throws us off of roofs.Egypt gay men are rounded up and shot. Saudi Arabia lesbians are raped; Turkey we are imprisoned.  Yes, Dyke March Chicago-you have lost your minds.  The ability to think.  And the only place in the Middle East where LGBT people can celebrate, and have their marriages recognized—yes-Israel. One of the largest Pride celebrations in the world.  But when we mention things like this… we are all accused of Pink washing—meaning trying to negate Israel’s evil status as colonial oppressor by uplifting the safety and security of the LGBTQ community in Israel.  This is another problem with intersectionality.

But this isn’t new in the LGBT world.  It was only last year at Creating Change—the signature conference of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force that a riot ensued when a group of far left anti-Israel queer people shut down a Shabbat oneg reception hosted by A Wider Bridge. Again under the so called banner of anti-Zionism the rioters chanted “Death to the Jews”.  “From the River to the Sea Set Palestine Free”,—which of course means destroying Israel.

This is common in the LGBT world in San Francisco, New York and other places that it is no longer safe to be pro-Israel and gay.  And we have seen it in Chicago now.  (A place where there no longer is a gay synagogue I might add)

Here in Los Angeles we have avoided this by the work of our synagogue. I have built strong relationships with our LGBT leaders and elected officials Our synagogue and you our members have in your work in other parts of the community proudly shown your love of Israel.  We as a congregation in our mission statement say that we love and are committed to Israel.  And we work toward and support an Israel that we dream of –a strong and democratic Jewish state. We believe that An that we don’t have to turn a deaf ear to the pleas of the Palestinian people either. We together with others can be proud of Israel’s achievements while holding in tension the parts of Israel we saddened by. And we can work to support and change our homeland –through the organizations we support—working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

But the far left can’t seem to hold two complex thoughts together. Hence a Jewish Dyke is asked to not march with her Jewish pride flag.  Because someone might mistake the symbolism.  Excuse the treifa comment, this is hog wash.

The problem with any idea that becomes so rigid is that you lose your ability to discern reasonably or to exert judgement and as a result you oppress others.  And that is what the Dyke March did-oppress Jews from expressing their true selves.

Empathy is what we all need. The ability to see the human being across from us.  That is how we know racism is wrong.  That is how we know Islamaphobia should be stamped out.  And yes we need to work for the day when Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in peace.  But the dangers of Intersectionality is that it can be just as intolerant. And that is as bad as the oppression it seeks to mitigate.

Which leads me to the second problem this week—and that was from Israel itself.  From the Prime Minister and the Cabinet who voted to quash the compromise deal that was negotiated to create egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, the Western Wall.  The Prime Minister gave this bone to the Charedim, the black hats to keep them in his government and to stay in power as they have threated to withdraw from the very fragile coalition that is the current government of Israel.

Even as we love Israel and work to defend her right to exist we also see that it isn’t all roses.  Our identities as Reform Jews were attacked again. The compromise plan negotiated over 5 years, was reached between the Israeli government, the Reform and Conservative movements and the group the Women of the Wall which for more than 20 years has sought to have women’s public prayer at the Kotel.  The compromise reached last year was to build out a section of the Kotel near the Robinson’s arch area—which would connect to the current Kotel Plaza which has become an Orthodox synagogue.  But most importantly and this is the main sticking point, where the PM is backtracking in his bow to the Charedi right wing, is that it scrapped a commission that would oversee the newly built area that included representatives from our movement and Conservative Judaism and Women of the Wall.  And this is really what the Charedim objected to.  Because in their minds it means de facto recognition by the Israeli government of other streams of Judaism.  Never mind that this was court ordered.  The Israeli Supreme Court ordered the government to find a solution.  Never mind that the deadline was approaching because the Netanyahu government has literally dragged its feet and purposely delayed over the last year so he can keep his grip on power and the PM’s office.

 

There is a fundamental problem.  The betrayal of the PM to Diaspora Jewry with this decision is of crisis proportions.  And here is why.  The Kotel is not just Israeli—it is Jewish.  It was for generations the symbol of our longing to return to the land—an expression of our Jewish yearning. It is why it used to be called the Wailing Wall because we still mourn the destruction of the Temple and our sovereignty as a nation. And in 1967 when Israel unified Jerusalem and captured the Old City and the Temple Moun and the cry came – “Har Ha Bayit b’yadenu-the Temple Mount is in our hands”,  the whole Jewish world rejoiced. Jerusalem was one and the Kotel—the place of our collective longing. symbol of our people was in Jewish hands for the first time since the year 70.

Yes, you heard that—since the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70.

Reform and Conservative Judaism are second class citizens in Israel.  The corrupt Chief Rabbinate in Israel excludes Reform and Conservative rabbis from marrying people, converting people, burying people. Our synagogues receive no state funding in Israel as do Orthodox ones. Our schools do not receive funding as do orthodox schools.

And for decades we have worked to change the status quo-growing our movement without the government.  Suing in the courts when necessary.  Seeking change through the political system. And the Kotel compromise was a significant and symbolic change.

In February 2016 at the CCAR convention in Israel during my presidency we held the first service at the site of the egalitarian prayer space.  It was the first service following the agreement. 350 Reform rabbis davened the morning service and we read Torah there.  I will admit most of the time the Kotel has left me cold.  I was always uncomfortable in the women’s section. Trying to pray. It felt unfamiliar when I was separated from other members of my family.  It felt inauthentic when the guards would look at me in pants with a disapproving eye.  But that service with my colleagues brought tears to my eyes and joy to my heart-to pray our melodies, aloud, men and women together next to the Kotel—next to the symbol of our people’s journey and history was a spiritual highlight I will cherish.  This is what should be available to anyone who comes to the Kotel; To pray as a Jew with their authentic identity.
Whether from the Right or left of the political spectrum—orthodoxies and rigidity create problems because human beings smother if held too tightly.  Judaism knows this. It is unfortunate the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate doesn’t.  It instead, like the PM, is desperate to hold on to power in a changing world.

The outrage in the Diaspora world has been swift.  Our own Rabbi Rick Jacobs and the Conservative movement leaders were on the ground in Israel.  For the first time in 30 years AIPAC leaders went to Israel to meet with the PM in an emergency meeting to tell him the fallout from this was too much and to reverse course.  American Jewish Committee condemned the PM’s action as well as the powerful Jewish Federations of North America.   The Orthodox former chief rabbi of England condemned it,Lord Jonathan Sacks. Even a group of 200 Modern Orthodox rabbis here in the US condemned this.  The holy rocks of the Kotel carved and placed so long ago must continue to be a place of gathering for ALL THE JEWISH PEOPLE  to pray, not just some.

Symbols do matter. They speak to us of who we are and what we stand for as individuals and the community. The Pride flag, the Magen David, The Kotel, Kol Ami, not the building but our congregation. Each of you -the people are the symbol of a set of values that we cherish.

Those values include being all of who we are-Jewish and proud of all our identities.  Comfortable in our own shoes.  Gay and Straight, Queer and Bi and Trans, Jewish, Lovers of Israel, lovers of our non-Jewish family and friends, committed to erasing, racism, and Islamophobia, and most of all doing what we Jews believe—Seeing everyone as created in God’s image.  B’tzelem Elohim.

This week’s Torah portion is Chukat in the book of numbers. Moses has encounter with a different set of holy rocks.  He is to speak to the rock to quench the thirst of the Israelites in the desert.  In his frustration he strikes the rock.  Waters come gushing forth—but as the Torah describes it—they are like flood waters—overwhelming.  The PM is no Moses, but he too has struck out at the holy rocks of the Kotel.  And he will not be able to stop the copious waters of outrage, and protest around the world from his action. Already he is backtracking. And the brief filed in the Israeli Supreme Court will be heard July 30.  But striking out at holy rocks doesn’t work.  And in fact it didn’t end well for Moses who as a result of his actions, disobeying God’s request that he speak to the rock—not hit it, he is not allowed to finish his mission to cross over into the Promised land.  Perhaps the PM should have paid attention.

I hope that soon-we together as a congregation can stand at the Kotel together—in the newly refurbished egalitarian prayer space and sing out together just as we do here on Shabbat. And sing of our joy and love of being Jewish. And sing of our joy and love of being all of who we are.

Then we will know a taste of that true freedom that God has given to each of us.  Ken Yehi Ratzon.

 

Letter to the THE TASK FORCE

(I haven’t written yet about the fiasco at the NGLTF’s Creating Change ’16 Conference in Chicago last week). I am frankly still processing the outrageous Antisemitism displayed there and the lack of The Task Force’s ability to create safe space.  There is much to be said about what happened. But here is a letter sent today to the Executive Director, Rea Carey from many leaders of the Jewish and many from the LGBTQA community.)

January 27, 2016

TO: Rea Carey, Executive Director, National LGBTQ Task Force

We send this letter as members and leaders of the LGBTQ community. Some of us are Jewish; some of us are not. Some of us have spent time visiting or living in the State of Israel; some have not. Indeed, like the population of Israel itself, we have diverse, and often sharply conflicting, views about the difficult issues raised by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the best way to resolve them.
What we all do share is our history and experience in connection with the struggle for LGBTQ equality in the United States and elsewhere. Many of us have not only contributed significantly to the enormous strides that have been made towards LGBTQ equality in recent years, but have devoted our lives and careers to that cause. The purpose of this letter is to unequivocally express our collective and deep concern about what transpired at the Task Force’s 2016 Creating Change Conference in Chicago, Illinois (CC16) on Friday, January 22, 2016 with respect to A Wider Bridge, an organization that fosters relationships between Israel and the LGBT community (AWB), and the Jerusalem Open House of Pride and Tolerance (JOH).
While some of us were at the conference to witness the events of January 22, there were also a number of published reports. More than one hundred protesters succeeded in physically intimidating and ultimately shutting down a reception organized by AWB featuring Israeli speakers from JOH. It has been reported — and videos taken contemporaneously confirm — that the protesters chanted slogans like “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea,” which necessarily suggests that the State of Israel should no longer exist. Another protester shouted, “We are going to challenge these Zionist racist motherfuckers.” There were also reports of altercations between the protesters and the reception guests. Witnesses saw a man get into a scuffle with the protesters and have his yarmulke knocked off his head. In a separate incident, there is a report of an individual who was called “kike.”
We applaud the fact that the initial decision by Task Force staff to stop AWB and JOH from hosting a reception in the CC16 was reversed by the Task Force. We are aware that the 100–200 protesters were among a conference of 4,000 participants and have no reason to believe that what transpired outside the reception on January 22 reflects the views or experiences of the majority of the 4000 conference goers. We also know that there is a Jewish Movement Building Working Group as part of the Task Force’s Creating Change conference, which has, for many years, done important work ensuring Jewish voices are an integral part of the conference and conversation.
Nevertheless, the events of January 22 in Chicago were unacceptable and not in accord with the Task Force’s values of pluralism, inclusivity and thoughtful debate. The targeted organizations’ reception was disrupted and shut down by protesters (including people not attending the conference) with such hostility and aggression that speakers and attendees at the event were justifiably terrified and felt physically threatened. We are united in our belief that what transpired at CC16 was dangerous, deeply disturbing, and given the use of epithets like “kike,” clearly anti-Semitic.
The larger question posed by all of this is where do we as a progressive social movement go from here? What is the Task Force’s responsibility in this situation? What values does the Task Force wish to embody? We understand that the Task Force has undertaken to conduct a review of its policies in this regard and we congratulate that decision. We believe that the review should be conducted by an outside, independent party charged with determining what happened, how it happened, and what will be done to ensure that it will not happen again.
We also believe that the Task Force as well as all other LGBTQ organizations need to consider and adopt some form of an “active pluralism” policy with respect to these issues. Such a policy, while respecting the free speech rights of individuals and groups, would not allow protesters to effectively censor the speech of other groups, much less threaten the physical well-being and safety of those with whom they do not agree, including Jewish and Israeli LGBTQ groups. Given the concentrated and organized hostility that is so often displayed against Jewish and Israeli LGBTQ groups, and the stark rise in global anti-Semitism, it is even more important that we as a community promote civil and respectful debate. It is intellectually, politically and morally dishonest to claim that in the name of freedom, liberation, or some other progressive ideal, there is a right to target and exclude Jewish/Israeli groups, to foment physical intimidation and harassment, and to encourage anti-Semitism.
There is a long and ugly history of this kind of censorship where individuals with controversial ideas and viewpoints have been silenced in the name of the “greater good.” We should know by now that such censorship results in fewer (not more) good ideas and greater (not lesser) oppression of us all. Indeed, given that we come from a movement where LGBTQ people were effectively shut out from participation in the public discourse for so many years, what happened at CC16 was extremely dangerous. If we as a movement really believe in the values we profess to hold dear, then it is time to put an end to this.
Sincerely,
Aaron Belkin, Founding Director, Palm Center & Professor, San Francisco State University
Dana Beyer, Executive Director, Gender Rights Maryland
The Reverend Dr. Neil G. Cazares-Thomas, Senior Pastor, Cathedral of Hope
Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Ph.D., Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim
Rabbi Denise Eger, Congregation Kol Ami & President, Central Conference of American Rabbis of the Union of Reform Judaism
Lillian Faderman, Author and Professor, California State University— Fresno
The Honorable Barney Frank, Former Member, U.S. House of Representatives
Frank Giaou, President, World Congress of GLBT Jews
The Honorable Deborah Glick, Member, New York State Assembly
Emily Hecht-McGowan, Interim Executive Director, Equality Council
The Honorable Brad Hoylman, Member, New York State Senate
The Honorable Corey Johnson, Member, New York City Council
Alex Halpern Levy, Former LGBT adviser to U.S. Senator Charles Schumer
The Reverend Susan Hrostowski, Ph.D., LMSW, Vicar, St. Elizabeth Episcopal Church & Associate Professor, and Chair, Institutional Diversity Committee, University of Southern Mississippi
Vincent Jones, LGBT Activist and Philanthropist
Miryam Kabakov, Executive Director, Eshel
Roberta A. Kaplan, Partner, Paul Weiss LLP & Lead Counsel, U.S. vs. Windsor
Idit Klein, Executive Director, Keshet
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah
Rabbi Michael A. Latz, Congregation Shir Tikvah
Arthur Leonard, Professor, New York Law School & Editor, LGBT Law Notes
The Honorable Mark Leno, Member, California State Senate
Rabbi Joshua Lesser, Congregation Bet Haverim
Amichai Lau-Levie, Spiritual Leader, Lab/Shul NYC
Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, Kolot Chayeinu/Voices of Our Lives: Building a Progressive Jewish Community in Brooklyn
Seth Madnick Marin, Associate Director, ADL Legal Affairs & Civil Rights Regional Counsel
Melanie Nathan, Executive Director, Africa Human Rights Coalition
Reverend Elder Troy D. Perry, Founder, Metropolitan Community Church
The Honorable Christine Quinn, Former Speaker, New York City Council & CEO, Women in Need
Nicole Murray-Ramirez, Chair/ Executive Director, International Imperial Court Council of USA, Canada and Mexico
Lee Rubin, Former Board Chair, NGLTF
Steven Rudner, Chair, Board of Directors, Equality Texas
Robert Saferstein, Founder, Eighteen:22, A Global Network for Change. The Next Chapter of LGBTQ Jewish Life
Andrea Shorter, Co-Founder, Bayard Rustin LGBTQ Coalition
Melissa Sklarz, Former Co-Chair, National Stonewall Democrats
Andrew Tobias, Treasurer, Democratic National Committee
Rabbi Rachel Timoner, Congregation Beth Elohim
Robin Tyler, Executive Director, The Equality Campaign
Alan Van Capelle, Former Executive Director, Empire State Pride Agenda
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D, President, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College/Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
The Honorable Scott Weiner, Member, San Francisco Board of Supervisors
Edie Windsor, Plaintiff, United States v. Windsor
Evan Wolfson, Former Executive Director, Freedom to Marry
Organizational Affiliations Listed for Identification Purposes Only
List in Formation

This to Prime Minister Netanyahu

Reform Movement Leaders to PM Netanyahu: Help End Incitement
12/18/2015
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Contact: Max Rosenblum or Jacob Kraus
202.387.2800 | news@rac.org

Today, leaders of the Reform Jewish Movement addressed the following letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu,

In these troubling and difficult times, we have witnessed a worrying escalation of incitement targeting both the Israeli President and human rights NGOs in Israel. We write both to express our concern about the violent and personal nature of these verbal attacks and to call on you to publically and privately use your power to change the tone of the conversation.

At its best, the presidency itself serves as a unifier for the state of Israel and all of its citizens, as well as for the Jewish people worldwide. The president’s personal commitment to the values of democracy and Judaism are a source of strength for Israel. Similarly, the work of human rights NGOs are an essential component of Israeli democracy, contributing to improving the morality of all Israeli institutions.

Israel faces unquestionable dangers and challenges regionally and in the broader international community. Yet meeting those challenges can only be rooted in strengthening the national commitment to democracy. Those who seek to curtail essential human rights will only serve to weaken the state, not strengthen it.

A particular concern is that the violent rhetoric doesn’t come only from the extremes, but is echoed by public figures, members of your government, and the media. That is why it is essential that you exercise your leadership to set the tone of civil discourse – preventing incitement and violence – regardless of any disagreements you may have with the views of the human rights NGOs. We have seen the horrors that occur when words of incitement turn to acts of violence; such incitement cannot go unchecked.

We look forward to your strong defense of the role of NGOs and Israeli presidency generally and a condemnation of incitement against President Rivlin specifically. Your leadership can change the direction of Israeli discourse and history.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Denise L. Eger, President, Central Conference of American Rabbis
Rabbi Steve A. Fox, CEO, Central Conference of American Rabbis
Anat Hoffman, Executive Director, Israel Religious Action Center
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President, Union for Reform Judaism
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Executive Director, Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism
Daryl Messinger, Chairman, Union for Reform Judaism Board of Trustees
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Director, Religious Action Center
Rabbi Noa Sattath, Director, Israel Religious Action Center

– See more at: http://www.rac.org/reform-movement-leaders-pm-netanyahu-help-end-incitement#sthash.LxfxOo5d.dpuf

Anti-Muslim Bigotry

We released this statement on behalf of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the oldest and largest rabbinical organization in North American which I have the privilege of serving as President) today in response to the despicable and deplorable statements made by a political candidate.

CCAR Statement Condemning Anti-Muslim Bigotry

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Central Conference of American Rabbis condemns anti-Muslim bigotry worldwide, in America, and in the campaign for President of the United States. Specifically, we are horrified by Donald J. Trump’s proposal that all Muslims be barred even from visiting the United States, let alone immigrating, especially as refugees are escaping persecution by the very forces that threaten the western world.

Discrimination on the basis of religion is un-American, unconstitutional, and dangerous. Jewish history has taught us that those who will discriminate on the basis of religion threaten the lives and well-being of countless human beings. As Jews, we know the heart of the stranger, and we will not stand idly by when members of another religious group are singled out as strangers.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger       Rabbi Steven A. Fox
President                        Chief Executive

Central Conference of American Rabbis

On America’s Journey for Justice with Glory/Oseh Shalom

My Kol Nidre sermon from 5776 on Racism, White Privilege, America’s Journey for Justice.