Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Yom Kippur (morning) Sermon 2017/5778 - Support Progressive Judaism in Israel

             On November 4, 1995, with two bullets, a radical right-wing Orthodox Jewish law school student single-handedly and fundamentally changed the landscape of Israeli life, politics, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the world’s relationship with the modern State of Israel when he murdered Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin.  As we have witnessed over the last 22 years, it is not only the idea of peace between Israel and the Palestinians that has suffered a dramatic reversal, as Rabin was our champion for peace with our Arab neighbors.  But Rabin’s assassination also exposed a violent and horrible episode of Jew killing Jew with the whole world watching. 
            It was clear then, as it is today, that Israel herself was deeply and passionately divided politically, morally, and religiously.  For Pluralistically minded Jews like ourselves, – that is, those of us who believe that there are other ways to be Jewish OUTSIDE of the dogmatic grasp of Orthodoxy – we feel like we’ve been scorned, as if betrayed by our own sibling, like Abel, like Esau, like Joseph.
            This afternoon, we will read from Leviticus 19, also known as “The Holiness Code.”  “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.”[1]  The Torah continues with a series of commandments, instructing us how to be holy, to follow a moral, ethical, and spiritually clean path, beginning with laws instructing us how to treat others.  They include caring for the poor and the refugee and treating them with kindness,[2] dealing fairly and honestly with wages, measures, and debts,[3] treating the disabled with respect,[4] rendering just decisions,[5] and not holding grudges.[6]  At the very center of this portion, and arguably at the heart of the Torah, are the immortal words of verse 18 – a significant number in itself:
וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵֽעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ
Love your fellow as yourself[7]
            These mitzvot are designed to keep humanity on the righteous and honest path.  Sadly, each one of us can identify people with whom we interact in our daily lives, as well as local, national and world leaders who regularly and predictably show contempt for every article on this list of praiseworthy conduct.
Did Rabin’s assassin, an observant Jew, heed the call to not hate another in his heart or to love his fellow as he loved himself?  Does Israel’s current government coalition, including all of the Hareidim – the Ultra-Orthodox parties – and other right wing factions take to heart the sacred words: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him…. [and he] shall be as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt!”[8]  If these politicians could muster an ounce of compassion for anyone outside of their own faction, they would put an immediate freeze on settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza and return to the negotiation table with the Palestinians. 
Curious how Israeli citizens view the current political climate in Israel, I reached out to some of my Israeli contacts.  I first spoke with my colleague, mentor, friend, and fairly recent Oleh – immigrant to Israel – Rabbi Donald Goor, who several of you met via Skype last spring as we began to envision our congregational trip to Israel.
“Your congregation wouldn’t want to hear my pessimism,” was his first response. Yet he continued: “Institutionally things are bad here and I don’t have any hope they’ll get better in future elections.  We have a government that doesn’t believe in democracy and pluralism in the way we [non-Orthodox Jews] do.  If it weren’t for the courts, there would be ho hope, and the government is working to change the court system…. To be very honest, I’m worried that soon Americans will be defending an Israel that is indefensible in terms of the values she upholds, which will be hateful to American Jews.”
For those of us who have followed the news cycles coming out of Israel with some regularity over the past two decades, none of what Rabbi Goor believes should surprise us.  In fact, a simple internet search will yield countless articles with titles like “Israel’s message to US Jews: If you’re against the occupation, you’re not welcome” and “Liberal American Jews’ Feelings Towards Israel Now Include Conspicuous Contempt.”
In this latter editorial, Chemi Shalev, U.S. senior editor for the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, recently published his analysis on OUR feelings towards Israel, using the failed Western Wall deal as his centerpiece:
“It is only now… under the influence of Netanyahu’s shock decision to renege on the Kotel deal, that mainstream American Jews have stopped denying what they’ve been sensing for the past few years: “That Israel has gone off the rails; that it no longer reflects values that American Jews can identify with; … and that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between Israel and other anti-liberal right-wing governments and movements….
“The most recent catalyzer was undoubtedly Netanyahu’s decision to succumb to the ultra-Orthodox demand to cancel the Kotel deal, which took years to achieve and involved painful compromise on the American side as well.  Although American Jewish leaders are well acquainted with Israel’s political system and with the Haredi parties’ immense powers of extortion, they did not anticipate Netanyahu’s swift and utter surrender.  Bibi holds us in such low regard, one American Jewish leader told me this week, he didn’t even bother pretending that he was fighting for the deal he had brokered himself.”[9]
Last month I joined hundreds of rabbis in Washington, D.C. for AIPAC’s National Rabbinic Symposium. AIPAC’s mission as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is to strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel.  As a political lobbyist organization, AIPAC tends to walk a political fine line between the right and the left domestically to achieve the most comprehensive bipartisan level of support for Israel.  This also indicates that AIPAC currently lends support to an Israeli government that shows disdain for the majority of its citizens and Jews throughout the world.  Though I appreciate much of what AIPAC accomplishes for Israel, I am disappointed that this organization, like so many others, turns a blind eye with respect to Pluralism and issues of civil rights, for fear of losing some of its more fundamentalist supporters.
Prior to the conference I participated in a dialogue for Reform Rabbis at the RAC – the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the hub for social justice and legislative activity in our country’s capitol.  In wake of the Charlottesville episode, we reflected upon Jewish values and tradition with respect to issues of civil rights and the pursuit of justice and peace as we studied sacred texts and engaged in meaningful discussion. Led in part by esteemed rabbinic colleagues, including RAC Director and URJ, Union for Reform Judaism, Vice President Rabbi Jonah Pesner, and Rabbi Aaron Panken, President of HUC-JIR, the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, we also reviewed how to address political issues from the pulpit without jeopardizing our institutions’ non-profit status.
Early the next morning I attended a breakfast session hosted by ARZA – the Association of Reform Zionist of America.  ARZA President Rabbi Josh Weinberg focused on two major issues of interest to Pluralistic or Progressive, the non-Orthodox, Jews in Israel and abroad: the stalled “Kotel Deal”, and the status of Reform Judaism in Israel.
Last Yom Kippur I described the ongoing struggle between Progressive Jews like you and me and the Ultra-Orthodox controlled establishment, to build an appropriate egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall; a sacred space where men and women can pray together peacefully and joyfully.  Today, the outlook is bleak.
I need to share with you a horror story.  It is a true story of two young women, HUC students, who were on their way to a Rosh Chodesh prayer service with the Women of the Wall group just last month.  At the Kotel security check point, these young seminary students were told to first remove their sweaters and then to lift up their skirts for an inspection by an Israeli security guard.  Cantorial student Jenna Mark bravely describes her revolting, abusive experience in the Jewish Forward magazine.  She wrote:
It took me several moments to realize that what had happened was, in fact, not okay.  It was only then that I understood that the bodily invasion was not about making sure I was weaponless.  No.  They wanted to be certain that I was not smuggling in a Torah scroll.  The guards had violated me to make sure I wasn’t smuggling in a Torah.  In Jewish-controlled Israel.  In 2017.”[10] 
This is just one of many stories that illustrates the urgent need for the creation of a non-Orthodox controlled, egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.
              URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the chief executive of the Reform Movement, in response to Netanyahu’s address to the United Nations, and more directly, public charges that non-Orthodox Jews used the Western Wall to gain recognition in response to the reneged Kotel deal, penned a New Year’s greeting to the Prime Minister.  Some of the highlights read as follows:
            “Dear Mr. Prime Minister,
“During your recent visit to New York, you tried unsuccessfully to give the impression that no crisis exists between the government of Israel and the majority of North American Jewry.  I was frankly shocked to read news reports quoting you saying that the Reform and Conservative Movements want to get recognition ‘via the backdoor, secretly, under the pretext of a technical clause of joint administration of the Western Wall.’
“The Reform Movement does not clandestinely demand recognition, but we do so openly and publicly.  How can you claim otherwise in light of the record?  It was your government’s agreement – made over four painstaking years of negotiations with our partners in the Conservative Movement, Women of the Wall, the Jewish Federations and the Jewish Agency, together with you – that decided on the specifics of this agreement.
“We did not enter through a back door.  On the contrary.  We sat together in your Prime Minister’s office to hash out the difficult details, everyone losing a bit and everyone winning a bit, as in every successful negotiation.  We have always demanded and continue to demand recognition and full equality.  We will settle for nothing less.
“It is clear to the overwhelming majority of North American Jews, including prominent members of the U.S. Congress who recently spoke out, as the Israeli media reported, that the time is long overdue to seriously address the burning issues of religious pluralism so important to our community and to the integrity of a democratic state. 
“You keep trying to tell us that having a second-rate, hidden, prayer space controlled by the ultra-Orthodox and ultra-hostile Rabbi of the Wall, Rabbi Rabinovitch, is good enough or the best that can be achieved.  But we don’t buy it.  The Jewish people deserve better.  The Jewish people demand better.
“Our love for Israel transcends governments and harsh policies against us.  Our love for Israel transcends the hateful words and actions against us by Jewish religious extremists in Israel.  Your government’s policies limit our religious freedom.  The chief rabbi of Jerusalem – paid by Israeli tax dollars – says we’re worse than Holocaust deniers, yet faces no consequence.
“Your recent actions demonstrate once again, that you are not able and not willing to be in dialogue with us.  We are not giving up on Israel, on equality, or on democracy.  We will continue to insist on our rights.  You may try to avoid us, but we trust that the Supreme Court, the protector of democracy in Israel, will give us a swift decision ensuring equality and freedom of religion for all Jews in Israel.
“The New Year 5778 could be a year of unity amid disagreements, respect undergirding our diversity, and a deep love among the Jewish people. …We will spend the rest of the holidays reflecting on how we can deepen our Jewish community’s love of Zion.  We will pray – but also demand openly and through the front door – that these days lead to a bold and convincing way to affirm the vitality and vibrancy that is the Jewish life that we love and live here in North America and must live, too in Israel: Reform and Orthodox, Conservative and secular, bound together in freedom and diversity.”[11]
Rabbi Jacob’s letter makes two very clear charges:  We will not back down from issues of Religious Equality in Israel, and we will continue to move forward and search for ways to deepen our relationship with Israel.  These echo ARZA President Rabbi Weinberg’s points: The fight for the egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel will continue, as will our support for Pluralistic communities in Israel. 
We know why the Kotel deal is important to us, but what about the other side of the aisle?  Chelsea Feuchs, an ARZA Associate, attempts to offers us some insightful analysis as to why she believes Netanyahu and his Hareidi Knesset members are fighting so hard against the Kotel deal.:
“Why the onslaught of regressive, intolerant and anti-egalitarian actions?  Because we are growing—and they are scared. 
“The fastest-expanding Reform population in the world is in the State of Israel.  The Movement is weeks away from ordaining the 100th Israeli Reform rabbi [which will occur on November 16!].  The number of Reform congregations [in Israel] has doubled in the last fifteen years.  …Progressive Judaism is taking root among native-born Israelis. …the Diaspora [has] created forms of Jewish expression that speak to the needs of Israelis.
            “Progressive Judaism … is adapt[ing] to fit Israeli desires and sensibilities.  …many [Israelis] are discovering egalitarian practice as a resonant form of Judaism.  The Reform and Masorti streams, among others, are providing space for community, learning, celebration, and support in undeniably meaningful ways for hundreds of thousands of Israelis.”[12]
            Rabbi Goor shares Chelsea’s outlook.  He wrote, “The highlight [for me] is the growing Reform Movement [in Israel].  There are rabbis out there starting new communities and doing wonderful things.  And in many places the local government supports (or at least doesn’t get in the way).  So this is uplifting!”
             This is where we, the North American Progressive Jewish community need to focus our energy.  The only way we are going to ensure that Israel is the homeland of ALL Jews is to come together as a Movement and stand up for religious equality in Israel. 
While speaking with Rabbi Weinberg earlier this week, he asked me to share with you “that this is a moment in history when it is often challenging to love or even like Israel.  We have many challenges in the US as well that definitely need our attention (both natural and unnatural disasters), however we are Zionists and that means that when things get tough we step up and raise our voices for Israel and for the Israel we want to see.  That also means supporting and building our Reform movement in Israel, which we are doing through [this] campaign,”[13]: We Support Religious Equality In Israel.
The Israeli Reform Movement is fighting back through protests outside of the Prime Minister’s residence, by ongoing picketing and media work, with a major billboard campaign to raise public awareness, through Rosh Chodesh demonstrations with Women of the Wall, and with an on-the-ground presence at the Supreme Court, the Kotel, at town halls, and wherever they know they can make an impact.
So how do we as Progressive Jews in America fight back?  Personally, we must stay informed.  As a congregation, we must become educated and share our knowledge with the greater community.  We must advocate in the press, with our national representatives, and with the Israeli Consul General.  We must partner with our local Federation, persuading them to prioritize religious equality through grants and matching funds, all the while reminding our Federation leaders that most of its top donors are from Reform and Conservative congregations, if not simply Progressive households. 
We must donate to build the Reform Movement in Israel, either through ARZA, which you can pledge through your dues statement or give more on your own, through the Israel Religious Action Center, or directly to Reform synagogues in Israel.  Imagine the impact we could make if every Reform Jew donated $1 to support the Reform Movement in Israel.  I was told that only $100,000 can fund a congregation in Israel for two to three years.  $50,000 can sustain a rabbi or an Israel Religious Action Center attorney for a year.
Available for you as you leave the sanctuary, I have prepared a packet of materials from ARZA containing much of this information.  I will post links to relevant articles and materials on my Facebook page, R Michael Churgel, which I will link to our Temple Sinai Facebook page, (please “Like” us!)  I will also post articles and links, along with my sermons, to my blog,  All of the ARZA material and campaign information can be accessed at
Also available online – a flyer is available with detailed instructions – is information concerning our congregational trip to Israel from May 6-17, 2018.  Our rich itinerary includes an experience at the Kotel for Rosh Chodesh with Women of the Wall.  It includes a Kabbalat Shabbat experience at a Reform synagogue in Jerusalem, and a Shabbat afternoon study and music session with Rabbi Don Goor and his husband, and longtime friend to both Chazzan Abramson and me, Cantor Evan Kent.  It includes a visit to the Rabin center and the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv.  We will hear from scholars and leaders like my beloved and brilliant history and sociology professor Paul Liptz, and Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center.  Through these experiences and so many more, it is my sincere hope that we will deepen our understanding for and connection to the land and people of Israel, the Israel Reform Movement, and perhaps more importantly, one another, through our shared experiences.
My relationship with Israel began as a young Jewish child in a suburban neighborhood in Southern California.  My love ripened and grew steadily throughout my childhood and adolescence, between my home and synagogue, community-wide events and Jewish camp, as student and teacher.  But witnessing Israel’s beauty, even with all of her flaws, through the lens of another, can never be the same as experiencing Israel firsthand.  Each of my experiences in Israel, memories now firmly impressed upon the very fabric of my soul, have deepened my connection to her.  Though my relationship with Israel is exceptionally complicated, and though I am not currently satisfied with some of the choices being made for her, my passion remains unwavering, and I hold firm to the belief that I – that WE – can make a difference in the battle for religious equality in Israel.
In December we will welcome our Liturgist in Residence, Alden Solovy, Chicago bred Progressive Jew, now an Israeli citizen, who will bring with him here to Temple Sinai, the gift of expression through prayer.  I will conclude my remarks by offering one of his beautiful blessings:
For Jewish Unity
May it be Your will,
Adonai our God,
God of our mothers and fathers,
To restore the Jewish people to each other
In wholeness and love.
May our differences in understanding and practice
Never be a source of sinat chinamchas v’shalom,
Nor physical violence, chas v’shalom.
May our love for Torah and each other shine forth
From Jerusalem to the four corners of the earth,
Speedily, in our days.[14]


Gamar Chatimah Tovah

[1] Leviticus 19:2
[2] Lev. 19:9-10, 33-34
[3] Lev. 19:13, 35-36
[4] Lev. 19:14
[5] Lev. 19:15
[6] Lev. 19:17-18
[7] Lev. 19:18
[8] Lev. 19:33-34
[9] - Shalev, Chemi: “Analysis Liberal American Jews’ Feelings Towards Israel Now Include Conspicuous Contempt” – September 11, 2017
[10] - Mark, Jenna: “I was Forced to Lift My Skirt at the Kotel” – August 25, 2017
[11] - Jacobs, Rabbi Rick: “Opinion Netanyahu Refuses to Talk to Us. But We American Jews Won't Be Silenced” – September 24, 2017
[12] - Feuchs, Chelsea, “Why the Backlash?”
[14] - Solovy, Alden: “For Jewish Unity” – December 11, 2016