Yesterday I met a Hero

Yesterday I met a hero.  I had coffee with my friend Alden Solovy who is a poet and liturgest from Jerusalem.  You can read his work on his website  We had this meeting set up to discuss a workshop he will lead for my temple group in Israel this summer.  But who knew that I would be meeting with a person the Haredim (the fantical religious Orthodox) in Israel called “a man of wickedness”?  Alden is not wicked at all but my hero.  IMG_2454

On Rosh Chodesh Iyar on Monday Alden helped defend the Torah at the Kotel. The Western Wall in Jerusalem. As usual on the first day of the new month Alden and many others go early in the morning with Nashot HaKotel Women of the Wall to celebrate the new month.  Nashot HaKotel, Women of the Wall led by the amazing Anat Hoffman has been working for more than 2 decades to create women’s equal prayer space at the Kotel.  The Kotel through the years has become an Orthodox synagogue. There is a mechitza, a dividing wall separating men and women worshippers and over the years the women’s side has gotten smaller and smaller.  Egalitarian prayer and women’s prayer leadership-hallmarks of Reform and Conservative Judaism isn’t allowed but Nashot HaKotel has been trying to institute that. Women led prayer including reading from a Torah scroll has been forbidden even by the Supreme Court.  But a few years ago-a Jerusalem judge ruled that women must by allowed equal access.  The Women of the Wall have been sneaking in a small mini-Torah at times.

But on Rosh Chodesh earlier in the week, a group of supportive men passed a full size Torah (one of the 100 state owned Torah scrolls at the Kotel) to the women’s side. There Nashot HaKotel danced and prayed with the Scroll.  But as the gate pass through opened several of the state-paid ushers and few Haredi men rushed the men’s group.  My friend Alden and another man Charlie Kalech who was also part of the supporters were beaten by thugs.  Both sustained injuries and rather than arresting the thugs at the Wall, Charlie was arrested.

These men and the men who supported the Women of the Wall are heros! They believe in the equality of men and women in spiritual Jewish life and became warriors for Torah.  Sometimes in civil disobedience there is violence, even when we try to live by the code of non-violence. It certainly wasn’t the Women of the Wall or their supporters that engaged in violence. They just wanted to read from and pray from and dance with the Torah.  But rather the so-called Orthodox who threw punches, and stomped on others. This kind of Jew against Jew brought our Temple down according to the Talmud.  As another great Jewish thinker, Bob Dylan said: “When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?”

But I got to have coffee with a hero yesterday. Thank you for taking a punch for Torah, justice, equality and women’s prayer.  May you heal quickly from the bruises to your body and your soul and may you never know violence again.alden on the ground

Central Conference of American Rabbis Condemns Attacks on Egged Buses Featuring Women of the Wall

The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) condemns Monday’s attacks on Egged
buses carrying advertisements of Women of the Wall in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem
neighborhood, Mea Shearim. These buses were apparently targeted for violence because they
feature advertisements placed by Women of the Wall, inviting young women becoming Bat
Mitzvah to read from the Torah at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Jerusalem Temple Mount,
Judaism’s holiest site.
The vandalism of advertisements of Women of the Wall on Egged buses is evidence of
groundless hatred of the perpetrators’ fellow Jews. Moreover, the violence perpetrated against the
advertisements desecrates the Divine Name by defacing a photograph of our sacred Torah that
appears in the ad. According to Ha’aretz, “Police were called in after a group of ultra-Orthodox
men threw paint on the signs and attempted to slash the tires of the buses.”
The CCAR calls upon rabbis of all Jewish religious movements to condemn this ongoing battle
against women’s right to pray at Judaism’s holy site, and to speak out against these violent
crimes. In particular, rabbis who oppose the Women of the Wall — especially Rabbi Shmuel
Rabinowitz, who heads The Western Wall Heritage Foundation — are obliged to call on their
supporters to respond with civility.
The CCAR remains unwavering in support of Women of the Wall and its aim to secure equal
rights for men and women of every stream of Judaism at our tradition’s most sacred place.
The CCAR wishes a Chodesh Tov to all who celebrated Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan with Women
of the Wall this morning, whether in person at the Kotel or in spirit from afar. The CCAR
wishes a hearty mazal tov to Sasha Lutt, one of the girls featured in the bus advertisements, who
became a Bat Mitzvah as she reads from a Torah Scroll at the Kotel this Rosh Chodesh.
Rabbi Richard A. Block
President, Central Conference of American Rabbis
Rabbi Steven A. Fox
Chief Executive, Central Conference of American Rabbis

Reflections of Israel on the 40th Anniversary of the Yom Kippur War

Yom Kippur Morning – Reflection of Israel on the 40 Anniversary of the Yom Kippur War

Boker Tov, Good Morning.Gmar Chatimah Tovah. May you all be sealed in the Book of life.

As many of you know this summer I completed my Shalom Hartman Institute Rabbinic Leadership Initiative and graduated as a Sr. Rabbinic Fellow of the Jerusalem based Institute.  The Shalom Hartman Institute is a place of higher learning, teacher training; it is a Jewish think tank and research institute, a place of rabbinic leadership and Jewish communal lay leadership training. It is a place where academics from all nations gather to discuss Israel, Judaism and modernity, and religious ethics.  The Hartman Institute runs two Orthodox High School one for boys and one for girls, trains IDF, Israeli Defense Force officers in Jewish ethics and the ethics of warfare, and provides an opportunity for North American Rabbis of all denominations to gather to study in a free-wheeling Yeshiva setting, encountering the texts and philosophies of our Tradition and apply them to the contemporary world.
It is important that you know my three years there were sponsored by the Los Angeles Jewish Federation.  They underwrote my learning and travel to Israel for the last three and half years.  I would be remiss if I didn’t give a public thank you to the leaders of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, the Shalom Hartman Institute and all of you who continue to support the Jewish Federation Council.   I would also be remiss if I didn’t thank you, our congregation and our staff for supporting me in this opportunity to broaden my learning and vision and engagement with Israel and the texts of our tradition.

My encounters in Israel these last 3 ½ years have only made my love for our ancient land grow deeper. I have learned to see a different Israel; a more complex and mature Israel than the naïve Zionism of my childhood. And it has changed my heart. As the medieval poet Judah HaLevi wrote  “My heart is in the east, but I am on the edge of the west.”   This morning, as we commemorate 40 years since the Yom Kippur war, my heart is turned eastward to Eretz Yisrael and her neighbors.

I don’t know about you, but in 1973 I still remember as we exited the grand sanctuary of TempleIsrael in Memphis, TN. (after counting the pipes of the organ all morning) everyone was standing on the steps outside and the foyer worrying and talking.  The Rabbi had announced at the conclusion of the morning service that Israel had been attacked that day.  Everyone was so upset.  I remember the following days as the casualties grew and the fierceness of fighting continued as Egypt and Syria kept making incursions into Israeli held territory. It would be almost three whole days until Israel could muster enough of its forces to begin to hold off the combined Arab armies.

Somehow this war would be a different war than 1967’s six day rout by Israel.  Fierce fighting continued for three weeks.  Ending only by diplomatic cease-fire and when Israeli troops had made their way within 25 miles from Damascus in Syria and crossed the Suez Canal encircling the city of Suez and Egypt’s entire Third Army and the Israeli army was only 63 miles from Cairo.  Despite the UN Ceasefire there were skirmishes between the Egyptian army and Israel until January of 1974 and on the northern front with Syria until May 1974.

But the 1973 war was different.  Despite many warnings as early as Rosh Hashanah that both the Syrian army and Egyptian army were amassing troops and tanks, the high level military commanders in Israel did not believe that the Arab armies would strike out against Israel post 1967.  And in papers recently released then Prime Minister Golda Meir, admitted she knew war was imminent but could not call a preemptive strike. This left the Israeli army very unprepared for the attacks on Yom Kippur Day 1973.  They were taken by surprise.

That war also almost led to a real confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviets.  In those years Egypt and Syria were client states of the former Soviet Union. Both were armed by the Soviets and its officers trained by the Soviets.  Throughout the war as tension increased the US and the Soviets almost entered the war. In one naval battle, Israeli and Soviet gun ships exchanged fire off the coast of Syria.  Luckily Henry Kissinger’s brilliance saw this encounter as a way to woo Egypt from the Soviet sphere. And today Egypt still receives serious financial and military aid from the U.S.

Five years later-the Camp David Accord of 1978 would bring peace between Egypt and Israel and the price was the return of the Sinai Peninsula.  But the Yom Kippur war changed something in Israel and her soldiers and the country.  For the first time they were defending the territories captured in 1967.  And Israel came within hours of losing the entire country and using nuclear weapons.  The losses were great for Israel during that war 40 years ago today.  And for the first time Israelis began to question their own governmental and military tactics in a new way.

And that questioning that began there 40 years ago today-is never more apparent than in Israel than now.   What kind of state should Israel be?  As it in now 65 years old, what kind of Jewish Democratic Israel should unfold?

Israelis have had enough.  There is an important debate that is going on in Israel about the role of public and governmental Judaism.  As the Haredim, the ultra Orthodox communities continue to grow through tremendous birth rates, traditional and secular communities in Israel have become embittered at the public control of the Chief Rabbinate over daily life and the lack of involvement in the State by the Haredi communities by paying taxes, and being part of the workforce.  Hence the recent law that passed the Knesset requiring Haredi Ultra Orthodox men to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.  I have to admit when I spent a day at the officers training headquarters this summer I was stunned by the number of Hareidi Jews black hats, knee briches and arba kanfot flying as they walked briskly through the corridors on their way to army offices.  This is a definite change. While not all Hareidim are supporting this change and several Haredi soldiers have been beaten up as the came home on the weekend to their ultra-observant neighborhoods, increasingly this compulsory service will indeed change the Hareidim-it will help them adjust to modernity and force them to learn a trade and it will change the Army and all of Israel as secular Israelis and Hareidim meet and must work side by side.

This questioning and protests within in Israel has been a fascinating progression in the life of the Jewish state. Just a couple of months ago –there were elections for the New Chief, Ashekenazi and Sephardic rabbis of Israel.  For the first time ever, more moderate Religious Orthodox Jews ran against the Haredi rabbis.  While they didn’t win this time they came very close.  There have been many reports and questions even asking why there still is a chief rabbiniate in Israel controlling such areas of life, including marriage, birth and death and conversion and Kashrut.  These have been questions Reform and Masoriti communities have long asked and fought for, now it is being asked in many other corners of Israel and within the Israeli government itself!  In Jerusalem in Machne Yehuda, the large central market, a group of restaurateurs have gathered to create their own certificate of kashrut, rejecting the Jerusalem Chief rabbinates’ certification and the fees and often outrageous rules they must follow. This is but one example of the pendulum swinging and people asking for themselves: “What kind of Israel do we want?”

And many of you no doubt have followed the news stories about the Western Wall and the efforts of Women of the Wall to organize its monthly women’s prayer service there.  I have spoken about it before on the High Holy Days.  Again this summer I went in July for Rosh Chodesh Av to pray in the early morning service at the Kotel.  It was really different than previous summers, because this year group leader Anat Hoffman recently named Person of the Year by Haaretz Newspaper in Israel and the Women of the Wall group sought a new court ruling from Jerusalem District Court about the ability to pray at the Kotel.  It used to be that the police would arrest the Women of the Wall for praying there. Now the police have been charged with protecting the Women of the Wall in prayer.

We gathered at 6:30 am at Gan Hapamon, Near the Inbal hotel 350 women and 100 men boarded buses and were now escorted by police into the OldCity. Now the police was protecting us from the angry crowds of Haredim.  When we arrived we were ushered into the KotelPlaza without a hassle but we didn’t make it very far.  For the Heads of the Right Wing Yeshivas had called on the young women age 12-17 to arise even earlier and more than 5000 young girls blocked our way by filling the women’s side of the Kotel.  And stuck in the upper plaza we faced a line of young Charedi teenagers in their streimels and payot yelling obscenities at us while old women blew whistles.  The police would not let us try to push forward near the Kotel and so we led our joyous Rosh Chodesh service in the back of the plaza-with the Charedim, screaming at us, and throwing water bottles and eggs and the many us who had gathered. There were lots of N.American women rabbis in this gathering in July because all of us who were at the Hartman Institute this summer had joined together in solidarity for these Rosh Chodesh prayers. One young pregnant rabbi was hit by a water bottle.  Luckily she was okay. But it was disheartening. The man was arrested.  Here we had changed the way the police acted toward Women of the Wall but we were outnumbered and outgunned by the Yeshiva students.

Last November, the story and the momentum began to change-when the police arrested Anat for wearing a tallit during prayer at the wall.  They arrested her as they have before. But this time they stripped searched the former city council woman, and threw her in a cell with several prostitutes naked until the next morning.  Usually she would be charged and released in several hours.  After the outcry from within Israel and from liberal Judaism here in North America the Israeli government officials had to take note.  They were embarrassed but still the following months the police under orders of the Kotel rabbi arrested several prominent Reform women rabbis as well for carrying their talitot into the KotelPlaza.

Again the cry of Diaspora Jews was beginning to be heard.  I worked closely here in Los Angeles with our Counsel General here in Los Angeles to create a Rabbinic Task Force.   I knew that we had a unique opportunity to influence Israel and to convey the urgency to the Israeli government that squelching the prayers of women dedicated to prayer, and continuing to empower Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz the rabbi of the Kotel to have the police act like thugs would only aver to damage Israel further in the larger Jewish community outside of Israel.  On that task force are Rabbi Laura Geller and I,  Rabbi David Wolpe, Rabbi Eddie Feinstien,  Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David Judea,Rabbi Kalman Topp modern Orthodox rabbi of Beth Jacob, Rabbi Eleazar Muskin Modern Orthodox rabbi of Agudath Yisrael of Century City,  Rabbi Yitzhok Adlerstein of the Wiesenthal Center-who represented even more right wing Orthodox movements, Rabbi David Eliezeri of Chabad of Orange County, and Rabbi Judith HaLevy and Rabbi Steve Carr Reuben of the Reconstructionist movement.  It was a group that never had sat down before. We began to talk about the Kotel and what does it mean for the State of Israel to discriminate against some Jews.  It has been an interesting roundtable.  Not that we always agree. But unlike the Board of Rabbis where some of these further to the right rabbis won’t participate, they all do care about Israel, and what kind of Israel is going to exist!

Over the last year, we have met several times. Including a private meeting with Ambassador Michael Oren, scholar Michah Goodman, Rabbi Rick Jacobs,  the president of our Union for Reform Judaism and of course Natan Shransky who was charged with solving the situation at the Western Wall and the ability of WOW to be able to pray and the issue of egalitarian prayer.—Men and women together.

There have been ongoing negotiations at the highest level. In Jerusalem, in Washington, D.C. and New York, leaders of the Reform and Conservative movement and Modern Orthodox movements here in the Diaspora have been heard. And when recently the Minister of Religious Services and head of the Israel Beytanu Party, Naftali Bennett  tried to do an end run around the compromise that has been reached, again the voices of North American Jewry spoke out and were heard.

But the compromise that has been reached is as follows: Women of the Wall are allowed to pray with their tallitot, in the manner of their custom, with their prayerbook at the Kotel, but also eventually there will be adequate facilities in another area of the Kotel, near Robinson’s Arch that will be open 24/7, and that will be entitled for liberal prayer, including Reform and Conservative prayer of men and women together.  There are more than 100 torah scrolls owned by the State of Israel at the Kotel, but so far Rabbi Rabinowitz has refused WOW access.  The new compromise will allow access to the Torah scrolls and prayer books.  But this plan will take time to make happen.  And much remains to be seen as to how the interim is handled!  Women of the Wall had a beautiful and successful Selichot service at the Kotel including the sounding of the Shofar on Sept. 1.  So it remains to be seen how on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan the story will unfold.

But a significant part of the compromise is that for the first time Reform and Conservative Rabbis will be recognized by the State and there will be a new configuration of the foundation that controls the Western Wall Heritage Site, including liberal Jews and women who will make up the group!

Israel is changing in many positive ways.

But Israel won’t change if we just walk away.  If we simply opt out and say we don’t care.  We American Jews, we have a stake in Israel. Even if we don’t make aliyah, move to Israel.  Israel is our homeland. It is the land of our heritage, our roots as a people.  Even if you as a Jew have yet to visit there, Israel belongs not just to Israeli citizens, but to the Jewish people. The land of Israel is a pillar of our faith, God Torah, and Israel.  The land and the people of Israel-the People of Israel is not a political message but a spiritual one and include each of us here.  We are Am Yisrael. I want to encourage each of you-to visit Israel. To understand the place you have there, can only be if you visit there. And revisit there.  Going to Israel is even if it is your vacation-is different than a trip to China, or Greece, France or a Caribbean Cruise. A trip to Israel is a spiritual pilgrimage because it is a visit to the land of your ancestors.

The conversation in our country these last few weeks of the horrors endured by the Syrian people, and the potential for strikes against Israel by chemical weapons of Syria or the nuclear weapons of Iran should give us all pause.  It is not if Iran might make a nuclear bomb it is only when.  And the brilliant tactics that they have used agreeing to engage in talks and disarmament only to ramp up their spinning centrifuges should make us wonder at this new offer by Russian and Syria to engage in disarmament of chemical weapons when we have been trying for years to have this happen, only to be blocked at the UN Security Council by Russian and China!

We Jews have strived to learn from our history.  We Jews have said “Never Again”. Never again will we let a Dictator round us up and gas our people.  What about our obligation to other people? Will we stand silently by? As our Torah portion this afternoon asks of us?   Will we stand silently as Israel faces a chemical and nuclear threat? Or a barrage of rockets from Hizbollah or Hamas?

Will we stand silent when we seek an Israel that is more just and more democratic, when it fails to be? Will we stand silent or will be as members of the Jewish world, be willing to raise our voices for Israel?  In good times and in bad? We can argue Israeli politics, just like we argue politics here in the states.  But Israel is more than its politics. It is a place of complexities, and irony. It is a place of contradictions, and history, the home of many peoples and our Jewish home as well.

My experiences at the Shalom Hartman Institute have taught me this: We Jews are all a part of Israel.  We have a stake not only in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel but whether we live in the modern state of Israel or not, we Jews around the world have a stake in the success of the nation of Israel and we have a voice there as well.

In November I will return to Israel to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Women at the Wall along with a number of women rabbis. We will help usher in Rosh Chodesh Kislev. While we are there we hope to continue to uplift our voices that Israel matters not just to Israelis but to give evidence that Israel matters to all Jews everywhere and the right to pray and to practice Judaism in our custom is a powerful testament to our Jewish values and faith.  Israel is a precious place not just for Israelis but for you and me.  Use your voice as a voice for Israel, now and always. Use your miles to get there.  It is making a difference both here and there.

May Israel continue to flourish in this New Year.  And may we help to bring the bonds of friendship between America and Israel even closer in this year ahead.  Protect her and all its residents.  And let the gift of peace flow upon Israel as a nation as she seeks peace with the Palestinians and all of her neighbors.

Reform Movement Responds to Kotel Plan – URJ

This is very important.  Sunday word of the Mandelblit Commission’s plan was leaked to the press. This was a commission appointed by PM Netanyahu in Israel to follow up on the grand compromise arrived at by Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency and Diaspora Jewish leaders on prayer at the Kotel, the symbol of Jewish Unity.  But the Mandelblit plan pushed forward by Cabinet member Naftali Bennett would decimate the grand Compromise achieved and the delicate balance.  Click below to see the unified Reform Movement Response… As a result of Reform Movement outcry and other groups-the Prime Minister announced that no conclusions have been reached.  Seems like a slight delay in announcing their plan.


Reform Movement Responds to Kotel Plan – URJ.

Anat Hoffman arrested again

My friend and colleague Anat Hoffman director of the Israel Religious Action Center and one of the founder of Women of the Wall ( was arrested last night at a Rosh Chodesh celebration with the Hadassah Women from around the world. The women of Hadassah are in Israel celebrating their 100 year anniversary of this wonderful Jewish women’s organization known for its philanthropy  in the United States and in Israel.   Anat has been arrested at the Kotel before.  The Women of the Wall group gathers each Rosh Chodesh at the Western Wall for a morning service to celebrate the new month. This half holy day associated with women is a time for women of all denominations to come together to pray and read Torah.  But they are not allowed to read the Torah in the Kotel Plaza area.  The Rosh Chodesh group continues to point out the inequities at the Wall.  Men have most of the area near the wall for prayer and meditation and reflection and the women’s section is small. An Israeli Supreme Court ruling said that they could gather but this group had to read Torah in a different section near the southern part of the wall.  Not in the main prayer place.  They also arrest members of the group and detain them for wearing a tallit which is common among women in Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism.  Tallito have to wrapped around like a scarf not in the traditional manner of wearing a prayer shawl.

Anat was arrested for reciting the Shema-the prayer that unifies the Jewish people world wide.  She was detained overnight and although a familiar site to the police who guard and protect the wall was evidently treated very poorly by the police.  Now is our time to strengthen our support for Women of the Wall and the values of equality-even in Israel.   We must stand for our place and our Jewish ideals too.

Take some time to donate. To visit their website.  And the next time  you are in Israel at Rosh Chodesh go and take part in the service.  Men stand on the men’s side near the divider to protect the group of women praying from flying objects on the men’s side over the Mechitza and pray together with the women and then all proceed with the Torah to the site for reading of the Torah.  This is for equality for all people and all who believe that the Holy Sites of Judaism should be open and available to all Jews.

The More Torah The More Life

Once again the Women of the Wall gathered this week for Rosh Chodesh prayers at the Kotel.  Once again approximately 100 women of all denominations who gathered to pray were taunted and cursed by traditional Jews on both sides of the divider.  The police filmed.  And it was hard to believe that last year at Rosh Chodesh Kislev, prayer leader, Nofrat Frenkel was arrested for leading the prayers and wearing a tallit.

According to all the reports I’ve read and reports from friends this Rosh Chodesh Kislev did not have any “incidents” other than the taunts and angry rants that seem ever present.

The absolute absurdity of the traditionalists and the Israeli government in regard to women’s prayer groups and in particular to Women of the Wall is baffling.  One of the things that Judaism professes is “The More Torah the More Life”  words from the Talmud.  But when Women of the Wall put forward more Torah, and reading Torah, they are called whores.

How horrifying.  How sad.

Religious thugs do not represent Judaism.  They are intimidating brutes who use religion to bully and to play power games. And the Israeli government that continues to condone such thuggery ought to put an end to this.
It is the 21st century not 16th century Poland.
But the true spirit of holiness resides with the Women of the Wall. In their efforts to bring more Torah into the world and yes, indeed More Life!  May they go from strength to strength.