Category Archives: Israel

The Call to Bridge the Wall – Judaism in the Jewish State


Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman

Larchmont Temple

The very first picture my son Gabe sent last month from his Birthright trip, undoubtedly the first place they took the group of 40 was, of course, The Wall.

But Gabe didn’t just send us a picture postcard I-Phone snapshot. He wanted us to be there with him, so he sent us a short video, capturing the scene; a panorama of all the people, swaying to the rhythm of their prayers, then panning upwards, scanning the  full length of the top tier of the Wall itself.

And as Gabe’s video spans the 2,000 year old stones, still listening to the sounds of petitioners below, as if those ancient rocks carry the call of generations long gone, we feel their hopes somehow rising…

Watching, the ancient stones calling, I tear up at the transcendent power that iconic place magically holds. Having stood there before—I am there yet again. Touching the Wall, I feel a heartbeat; the lifeblood of our people pulsing… For a moment, my heart beats in sync.

…..But [even with that great I-Phone V video clarity] the emotional high does not last very long…

Whose Wall Is It Anyway?… the headline in both the ‘Jerusalem Post’ and ‘The Jewish Week’ at the start of summer, poses a concern at the heart of our sacred center.  As on numerous previous occasions, trying to gather on the New Moon for prayer, when, observing Rosh Chodesh Av last fall, The Women of the Wall were greeted by busloads of Ultra-Orthodox girls, Brought there to block their way, and crowds of Haredi [Ultra Orthodox] young men,

Hurling words you could hardly believe you were hearing, as the Women of the Wall sang Mah Tovu,  Haredi men actually shouting “Heil Hitler.”

Even more: a couple of months later, as they began their monthly service, Anat Hoffman’s arrest—for wearing a tallit in that public prayer space, was accompanied by a physical roughing up by the police meant for some hardened criminal they are trying to crack.

Just what was Hoffman’s crime? That she had been a 16-year member of the Jerusalem City Council, A lawyer who insisted on pursuing justice for all citizens… Or that as Founder of Women of the Wall, And the head of our movement’s Israel Religious Action Center,

Pioneering the fight for equality, she has advanced the conversation in the public square to a place most Israelis never thought possible?

So, with all of this hullabaloo last Fall, trying to calm the storm, Netanyahu appointed the exemplar of our people’s fight for freedom. And though Natan Sharansky’s proposal is a stroke of political savvy, Even pluralistic ingenuity, it still might be just shy of a sacred affront.

The compromise: to extend the “Western Wall Plaza” all the way through to Robinson’s Arch—the very far right of the Kotel itself, with one entrance for all, but dividing the area, the current “Wall” would remain a prayer space with gender separation, while the newly designated extension would be a place for pluralistic prayer.

Thus, recognizing the divergent ritual paths & maintaining historic diversity, As Sharansky frames it, this would be “One Wall for One People.”

Nice try, but it’s really not…

Two pluralistically minded Zionist thinkers, American born/Israel-dwelling, went toe to toe a number of months back. Their point-counterpoint highlights the much larger implications of the issue at hand.  Just a bit of the back & forth, and you’ll get the gist.

My colleague, VP of HUC-JIR, Rabbi Rachel Sabath-Halachmi:

“Yossi…Women of the Wall has captured the minds & souls of Jews worldwide, because it symbolizes the sacred desire of the entire Jewish people to be equally at home in the Jewish State. It is no wonder that many Jews, both men & women, Do not feel that they can call Israel their homeland precisely because of lack of access to the sacred…”

Great journalist/author/teacher—Yossi Klein-HaLevi:

“Rachel…As the state founded by Zionism, the ideology of Jewish Peoplehood, Israel must not cede Judaism to any one denomination’s control. The ongoing monopoly of Orthodox prayer at the Wall is a painful symbol of Zionism’s failure so far to fulfill its promise of inclusive peoplehood.”

[Both are clearly on the same pluralistic page, but Klein-HaLevi continues:]

“The real question is, how to bring change…”

Seeing the futility of fighting the Ultra-Orthodox establishment, Klein HaLevi suggests the “Extension Option,” insisting:

“Robinson’s Arch is no less the Kotel… Who’s to say their part of the Wall is more sacred?”

But the Rabbi is not satisfied in settling:

“Yossi…It’s not about some political victory, it’s about the capacity to cling to God in the fullest sense of who we are!”

But KH closing critique echoes the greater concern:

“I, too, wish that there were no need to divide the Kotel, that it could be a symbol of our wholeness, rather than our fragmentation. But we have returned from exile shattered, and a wise people knows how to manage its divisions, rather than force an artificial wholeness which would result in even greater devastation.”  [‘The Jewish Week,’ 12.21.12]

The Temple [capital T] was destroyed, the Rabbis teach, due to seven sins, the last two of which were: “failing to settle disputes through compromise and sin’at chi-nam—baseless hatred.”

We know well where divisiveness, a “my-way-or-the-highway” intransigence leads, for such is the way of religious intolerance/extremism.

SO maybe Rachel is right: This is a matter of all the people Israel feeling at home; that they have a sacred space, same as every Jew, in the Jewish State.

AND maybe Yossi is right:  What’s at stake is much more than spatial relations. Our ability to recognize our differing paths, yet respect our peoplehood, will either bind us as Israel, or tear our people apart.

Now, you could pause at the question…

Is it not of greater urgency to explore Israel’s prospects for peace, or, at the least, normalization of relations with the Palestinians, especially when face to face talks, thanks to heavy Kerry arm-twisting,

Are on again/off again—on again?

And with a post-Morsi Egyptian political process imploding, hundreds of protestors dead, a military challenged to keep its power in check…

And with Syria’s intense civil strife, the Assad regime turning on its own people, beyond the bombardments, inhumanely, with chemical weaponry?…

Knowing US military response could further incite Assad, shouldn’t we be dealing with the security implications?

And need I mention that 4-letter word: Iraq?

Much as the pressing political concerns remain critical—our hope for progress on two-state negotiations, and, somehow, for sanity to prevail in Egypt and Syria… The ultimate outcomes are largely beyond our control. External realities notwithstanding, the heart of the matter for us, when it comes to Israel, especially in these days of inner reflection, is the state of being Jewish in the Jewish State.

And that reality not only impacts our personal connections, but is one in which we might actually have a say, and surely have a stake!

…And it’s all about a Wall…

Let’s do some Haredi Meshugas Multiple Choice.

Which of the following actually happened in Israel in the recent past?

  1. Sephardi Chief Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Amar, protesting the Israeli Supreme Court ruling recognizing Reform & Conservative Rabbis serving in rural communities called Reform Jews “enemies of God.”
  1. Commenting on the possibility of recognizing civil marriage in the Jewish State, Rabbi David Stav—the more open-minded candidate for Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi—stated that such a choice “would push them and their descendants out of the Jewish people.”
  2. The heads of “Od Yosef Chai Yeshivah” in Jerusalem authored a Halachic manual, sanctioned by the state Rabbi of Kiryat Arba, called Torat HaMelech, the King’s Torah, approving the killing of non-Jews who might hamper the living of Torah Law.
  3. Walking on their way to school, a group of middle school Ultra-Orthodox girls are spat upon and called dirty whores [because their below the knee length skirts are too short] by a group of Haredi men, tallit bags in hand, themselves returning from morning prayers.
  4. At the funeral of her 86 year-old father, Rosie Davidyan, the deceased’s daughter, herself an observant Jew, is stopped from reciting the Kaddish, or reading the eulogy she stayed up all night writing, by the Haredi rabbi officiating, who instructs her brother: “You read. In our tradition, women are not allowed to speak.”

IF you wisely/sadly guessed all of the above, and then some, you begin to sense the imposing wall of obstructionism, unintentionally enabled by Ben Gurion at the founding of the State, with his acquiescence to maintain the religious status quo; a ‘wall’ keeping mainstream Judaism out, or, keeping the UO in.

SO in this sacred season when the sins of any part of the body of our people, wounds us all, how do we respond?

Hear 3 Visionary Voices turning us around as a people, calling us to bridge that wall and repair Israel’s neshoma—our people’s spirit, from the inside out,  and the outside in.

Voice of Vision 1…

“The Haredi Spring is coming to an end and not a moment too soon.”

Who better to turn to for hope than the leading American Jewish model of religious pluralism, founder of CLAL, pioneering bridge-builder, Modern Orthodox Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. Rav Yitz sees the heart of the problem as an unnatural clash between Torah & Democracy.

“They preach that the laws of God should decide the general law, and even override national law.  They did not internalize that democracy required full respect for others.

Nor do they grasp that democracy gives full rights to woman, to minorities…and is predicated on a fair-sharing of national burdens like taxes and army service.” [J.Wk, 7.5.13]

Rav Yitz has a problem, and rightfully so, with the longstanding Haredi exemption from military service.

The greater problem [however] is exacerbated by Haredi entitlement, so entrenched that—with the Israeli government’s recent plan to begin enlisting young UO men [with a volunteer force of almost 2,000 Haredi men already in the IDF]

A poster campaign appeared in Mea-She’arim, the UO neighborhood in Jerusalem, featuring black & white cartoon caricatures, equating the Israeli soldier to the Nazi storm-trooper, calling those who would enlist Chardakim—a combination of Haredi, God-fearing and Charakim—insects.

Greenberg’s core concern, that among the Haredi community, “universal rights were taking 2nd place to tribal versions of halacha,” has best been countered by what Rav Yitz sees as the wake-up call by Women of the Wall.  “They spoke up and challenged the exclusion of women—and by implication, of all non-Orthodox at the Wall.  And starting from that dream of religious freedom, hopefully the Modern Orthodox community can regain its classic commitment to democracy and religious moderation.”

You could not frame this vision more forcefully than Modern Orthodox Chief Rabbi of Efrat, [Rosh Yeshivah of Ohr Torah]  Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.

“One of the great thrills of living in the State of Israel is the extraordinary mix of Jews from around the world…It’s not only a geographical mix; our country is blessed with Jews from every possibly branch of Jewish philosophy.  And because underlying unity does not insist on uniformity, it permits room for differences of opinion…There are many legitimate, even if differing paths, to approach the Divine.” [Jewish Wk. 8.2.13]

The call to bridge the Wall begins within the world of tradition itself—the balance of an Orthodoxy that is observantly Jewish, and genuinely democratic—self-aware enough to realize, there must be room for both!

Voice of Vision 2…

Repairing the state of religion in the Jewish State requires that the call likewise come from the 80% of non-Orthodox Israelis.  But what could possibly compel steadfastly traditional Jews to listen? What if this visionary was somehow speaking their language!…?

The unexpected win of 19 Knesset seats by a new political player in the most recent elections,  Yesh Atid—[literally, There is a Future] now part of the ruling coalition government, made room for what its leader, popular TV journalist turned MK, Ya’ir Lapid framed as:

Changing the priorities in Israel with emphasis on civil life, economic efficiency, social justice, 2 states for 2 people, and greater religious pluralism…

None of this new party’s members captures the spirit or speaks with a more resonant voice—one that both secular Zionists and observant Jews can relate to—than Ruth Calderon.

Founder of Elul, the first “secular yeshivah” in Israel, where traditional and non-observant, male and female learn side by side, master educator, a self-described ‘non-halachic’ woman with a doctorate in Talmud from the most rigorous Hebrew University, [and, btw, our own Amy Seife’s cousin!] this thoughtful intellectual with outgoing charm understands her new political leadership role uniquely, for she did something unheard of on the K’nesset floor in her opening GA address:

Ruth Calderon taught Talmud!

No party platforms nor political rhetoric, but a tale from Tractate Ketubot; A curious story she magically made into a metaphor for bridging what many regard as impassable walls….

Rabbi Rechumei was constantly before Rava in Mechoza. He would habitually return home every Yom Kippur Eve. One day, the topic of study [in Mechoza] drew him in. His wife anticipated his arrival, saying: Here he comes…Here he comes. [But] he did not come.  She became upset, and shed a tear from her eye. Rechumei was sitting atop the roof. The roof collapsed under his weight, And he died.

Now, you are undoubtedly saying what most uninitiated in the world of Talmudic legends might say: WHAT!?…..But Calderon draws out a message which speaks to the moment.

Here’s what she teaches….

…Rechumei—his name, in Aramaic, means love, and derives from “rechem” Hebrew for “womb”

So he is someone who knows how to make room/accept others. But where does he spend all his time?  Studying with the Rabbi. He would only go home to his wife, however, of all times, on YK eve, which didn’t exactly make for romance, but his wife yearned just the same.

As Calderon describes: “One can hear the aspirant tone of her words.  With every phone call, every footstep, every text-message, every knock, you are certain, it’s him. “Here he comes.”

But he never does….and a single, sad tear falls.”

“Now,” she continues, “imagine a split screen.

On one side the yearning woman; a tear streaming down her cheek.

On the other, Rechumei, dressed all in white, up on the roof, studying Torah, feeling so close on this Day of Awe to Heaven.

And as the tear falls from her face, at that instant, the roof caves in as he falls to the ground.”

Then the crucial question, as Calderon asks:

“What can I learn about this place and my work here from Rechumei & his wife?”

The entire K’nesset is on the edge of their seats; a lesson they can all take to heart.

“First, I learn that one who forgets he is sitting on another’s shoulders will fall.

I learn that being a Tsadik, a virtuous Jew, does not mean following Torah

at the expense of sensitivity to humankind….Then I learn that often, in a dispute,

both sides are right.  And I understand that both my disputant and I feel

they are doing the right & responsible thing, both—that they are safeguarding home.

Sometimes we feel like the woman, waiting, serving in the army, doing all the work

While others sit on rooftops studying Torah.

Sometimes those others feel that they bear the entire weight of tradition,

of our cultural heritage while we go to the beach [a hotspot for many secular Israelis on the Holy Days]…

Both I and my disputant feel solely responsible for home.

Until I understand this, I will not perceive the problem properly,

and will not be able to find a solution.”  Now her powerful bridge the wall call:

“I invite all of us to years of action rooted in thought,

And dispute rooted in mutual respect and understanding.

I aspire to create an Israel where Torah study is the heritage of all Jews,

Where all young citizens take part in civil & military service.

Together let us build this home.”

Then, as Calderon—a woman teaching Talmud on the K’nesset floor,

Finished with a prayer for her and all Israeli leaders to be given strength and integrity,

at peace inside & out, with God’s help…at that moment, Yitschak Vaknin,

a member of Shas, the right-wing religious party, responded with a spirited: AMEN.

The call to bridge the wall means every Israeli reclaiming a heritage the large majority had long-ago ceded to surrogate holy men, recognizing yet again: the ancient text is timeless,

And its story is speaking to our 21st century lives…

Voice of Vision 3…

The third voice is the hardest for us to hear,

For it is too easily drown out by what Peter Beinart’s recent book, The Crisis of Zionism,

terms a dramatic distancing of young American Jews from Israel, largely due to the disconnect between the liberal values they hold and the conflicting political policies of the Jewish State.

Though Beinart softens his disengagement dilemma cry a bit from what he said in his oft-cited NY Review of Books article a few years ago, [in no small part influenced by the reality of over 350, 000 college/post-college kids who’ve bonded meaningfully through Birthright]

There is no denying his thesis: that the “illiberal Zionism” forged by a 40+year occupation

And the role it forces Israel to play Jeopardizes Israel’s democratic integrity.

Beinart sees this great crisis as “the battle for Israel’s soul,” calling for a new generation to

“recalibrate the imbalance, to fuse religious commitment and liberal values.”

Yet his approach is askew.

Where some see a quandary,  others envision a critical reason to act.

Thus, the call meant for us all; to reclaim “Zionism” as it connects to our core identity

as diaspora Jews, and helps determine the Jewish character of the Jewish State.

The voice who, since his days as Executive Director of ARZA [Association of American Reform Zionists]

to his 16-year tenure as President of our movement, has spoken out with compelling clarity of vision is none other than Rabbi Eric Yoffie. So he speaks:

“The time has come to reclaim the term “Zionism” from the political and psychological cobwebs with which it has become entangled.”

Asserting that our link to Israel is neither a question of our alignment—right or left;

That our support for Israel’s continued existence is not contingent on the sometimes unpalatable decisions of its political leadership, Yoffie extends the call:

“Zionism is a movement that was created by the entire Jewish people, is sustained by the entire Jewish people, and belongs to the entire Jewish people.”

Which means that residence is not the determinant—though the Law of Return reminds

any Jew anywhere that homeland is just an El-Al flight away.

If, as Yoffie envisions, “Israel is not primarily the state of Israelis, but the state of the Jewish people, then it invites every diaspora Jew to engage in its affairs and participate in its debates, whether in the form of generating support for its policies or offering criticism.  And though final decisions will be made by the citizens of Israel…if American Jews wish to have their say about Israel, no special permission is required.  The right to do so is inherent in the Zionist mission…Zionism bestows on Jews everywhere a role in determining the Jewish character of the Jewish State.”[Ha’Aretz, Op Ed, 6.28.13]

WHY is Yoffie’s vision a voice we need not alone hear, but take to heart?


If Israel is to remain a Jewish State that is, at one and the same time, a democracy, as it must…

If Israel is to reflect those values—“freedom of religion and conscience” envisioned in its Declaration of Independence, as it daily aspires…

Who better to foster a place where multiple pathways to Jewish peoplehood are affirmed;

A place where justice for all citizens, Jewish or not, is second nature;

A place where the texts of our tradition tell a story that includes us all today…

Who should be more intrinsically motivated—who better equipped, to bridge walls of religious intolerance;

To embrace difference & celebrate diversity…than Zionists like us…?!


Gabe had a great time on Birthright; just ten Days…It was transformational.

I’ve never seen him more engaged in Israel’s daily happenings,

Never felt him more inspired by the tales he heard of Israel’s trials,

Never more ready to connect with other 20-something Reform Jews seeking a community tied by shared values and common purpose.

And it is by no means because he’s an RK [a Rabbi’s Kid]

That’s how nearly every kid walks away from the journey; walls of alienation and unawareness transcended—the relationship is suddenly for real.

But barring a Birthright program for kids in their 40’s or 60’s or 80’s…

We at Larchmont Temple will spend the coming year—our Covenant of Learning, exploring Israel from every which way…Rabbi Nathan & Cantor Scher; both leading specialized missions,  can even help you get there…

Our New Year’s call echoes from the inside out—but must be answered from the outside in.

Do not let a wall…of political differences, of religious injustice, of spiritual indifference;

Of long-distance, haven’t felt close in years relationship keep you from reaching, from struggling, from exploring, from connecting…

Israel’s soul is at stake as never before; the religious core of our peoplehood. The spiritual character the Jewish State carries depends upon us.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel understood:

“Israel is the tree—we are the leaves. It’s the clinging to the stem that keeps us alive.”

So May our concern, our support, our critique, our commitment help to create a Jewish State where every Jew—each of us—has a place…

equal footing in the footsteps of our mothers & fathers; an Israel driven by mutual respect, democratic purpose and diversity of practice, where each of us feels whole enough—holy enough, to call it Home…..

Ken Yehi Ratson…So with the Holy One’s Help….May it Be                                                AMEN

Taking a Stand

Yom Kippur Morning

 September 18, 2010 / 10 Tishrei, 5771

Rabbi Charles K. Briskin


There’s a brief but memorable scene in the 1980 movie comedy, Airplane. The flight attendant, Elaine, asks an elderly woman if she’d like something to read. “Do you have anything light?” the woman asks. Elaine responds, “How about this leaflet; Famous Jewish Sports Legends?

While few of our people—Mark Spitz and Sandy Koufax notwithstanding—are legendary athletes, we do have some talented coaches and successful owners, and to be certain, legions of great fans. I was never able to hit a fastball, dunk a basketball, or toss a football very far but that never stopped me from cheering wildly for the Red Sox, Celtics and Patriots throughout my childhood. I’ve always stood by my teams, through the good years and the bad, and still do to this day.

Had we lived over two thousand years ago in ancient Palestine, we might have spent the afternoon in a Roman style coliseum. The “national pastime” was not baseball, but rather gladiator fighting. Two swordsmen, dressed in the regalia of their sport, one arm supporting a heavy iron shield, the other a sharpened sword, fought—often times to the death. Today’s mixed martial arts pales in comparison. Back and forth these ancient warriors sparred until one was killed or laid down his shield conceding defeat. If the defeated gladiator was still alive, the spectators were asked to judge: Had he fought valiantly?  Did this gladiator deserve mercy?  Did he deserve to live?

If so, the people raised their voices, calling out “release him!” thus sparing the gladiator’s life from the sword of his opponent. If the people thought otherwise, they voted with a quick gesture. . . the downward thumb. This vote of disapproval signaled the victorious warrior to slay his opponent in the presence of all the spectators.

The rabbis who lived in ancient Palestine were appalled by this barbaric sport. In fact, most of them prohibited Jews from attending this spectacle. They strongly believed that Jews—who value life above all and consider each human being to be a gift from God—could not be spectators at an event where life was so callously disregarded.

Rabbi Nathan disagreed. He believed that those in the stands had a critical role to play. Their vote would decide the fate of the defeated gladiator. Rabbi Nathan demanded that Jews be there, in the arena, if only to make their voices heard and save an endangered life.

Rabbi Nathan took a bold and unpopular stand against the prevailing opinion of the day. These gory spectacles were an integral part of Roman culture but sitting in the stands of a coliseum was not quite like watching a game at Dodgers Stadium (except, perhaps in the Top Deck section when the Giants are in town.)  The atmosphere in these death fights was fraught with sheer terror.

Today, when a football player lies injured on the field, the fans are hushed, gravely concerned, until they see the reassuring thumbs up from the fallen athlete. But when a gladiator was stabbed by his opponent, the spectators cheered wildly, calling for more blood. Yet, Rabbi Nathan insisted that Jews be present in these frightening battles because the consequences of their absence would be so devastating.

Two thousand years have passed, and the gladiators have receded into history. But Jews today face a question not unlike the one rabbi Nathan faced long ago. When should we be present and take a stand for something we truly believe in? How loudly should we raise our voices in the arena, with the words of our prophets and sages as our guide?

These should not be difficult questions. After all, Jews have been raising their voices for millennia. Just think of the words that the prophet Isaiah proclaims to us in the haftarah: “Is this the fast that I look for.?  A day of self-affliction?  Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice. . .to let the oppressed go free?” (Isaiah, Ch. 58). The ancient prophets of our tradition spoke the word of God. Their prophecies were often unpopular and often times ignored by the people and the leaders who needed to hear them most. Even so, they took a stand.

The prophetic voice has inspired Jewish leaders since then. Within the last one hundred and fifty years, we’ve heard the contrarian opinion of Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore preaching against slavery from within the slave state of Maryland prior to the Civil War and abolition.

We’ve heard Rabbi Steven S. Wise, a leading Reform rabbi advocating for a Jewish state in Palestine in the 1920s, long before Zionism was normative among Reform Jews. We’ve heard the great and revered Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched with Martin Luther King to bring about full equality between blacks and whites.

There are, however, two crucial differences between the prophets of our tradition and the prophetic voices of our era: First; Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah spoke the word of God. Einhorn, Wise and Heschel interpreted the word of God. They filtered their ideas through the lenses of our entire tradition, including the ancient prophets, and they incorporated their own experiences into their advocacy as well. They rooted their messages in a three-thousand year old tradition of justice, mercy and compassion and applied it to the pressing matters of their day.

Second, when the prophets of our tradition spoke, the message often fell on deaf ears. When these modern-day rabbis spoke, people listened. They filled lecture halls, theaters and even arenas with eager people absorbing every word, ready to act.  They stood for freedom, Zionism, justice, equality and peace, all deeply rooted within a Jewish context.

Einhorn, Wise and Heschel inspired others to stand with them. Who do you stand with today?  And what do you stand for?  This question is important on Yom Kippur as our sacred texts of this day reveal. This afternoon we read the narrative of Jonah who was punished for his failure to raise his voice in the arena. When God told him to warn the people of Nineveh of their impending destruction, he fled. This afternoon’s Torah portion, the Holiness Code of Leviticus reminds us of our sacred responsibility to care for our poor, vulnerable and disenfranchised and to love our neighbor as ourselves. In this morning’s haftarah, Isaiah chastises the people for their lack of business ethics, despite their punctilious ritual observance.

The Torah portion that we will read shortly gathers the entire community of Israelites to enter into the covenant that God is giving to them, and to us. These verses and all of today’s texts inspire us to take a stand and make our voices heard.

Atem Nitzavim Hayom, kulhem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem—You stand here today, all of you, before Adonai your God.”  So begins this morning’s Torah portion. The choice of the Hebrew word for stand, nitzavim, is unusual. The more common form for standing is omeid, which is used a few verses later, as the entire community stands together, eagerly awaiting their charge from Moses. Omeid suggests waiting for something to happen, letting the action come to you. It’s passive. Nitzvaim is active. We see this form in the Book of Genesis too, when Abraham hastens to take care of his three visitors. Nitzavim suggests being prepared, ready to leap into action, being more proactive. It also means standing your ground, remaining strong and resolute.[1]

Omeid and nitzavim. On this Yom Kippur, how do we move from the more passive form of standing, omeid to the more active form, nitzavim?  What do you stand for? I hope you’ll join me in standing for two important values: tolerance and diversity.

Do you stand for tolerance?  I hope so, because we need all the tolerance we can muster. Too many are far less tolerant of other ideas, opinions, and people. We harbor such deeply ingrained stereotypes of others, and others of us that we reduce individuals to caricatures. We attribute negative qualities and prejudicial attitudes that are viewed as acceptable yet seem to justify terrible behavior towards others. We Jews have been the object widespread intolerance. We, too, have objectified others. We’re all guilty of this in some respect. I know that I’ve had to overcome this attitude myself.

One group has helped me is the Peninsula Interfaith Fellowship, a group of clergy and other professionals who work with faith communities. I am one of the leaders of this group. We meet monthly for food, camaraderie and learning. Over the past several years I have developed close relationships with my colleagues including Catholic priests, Presbyterian ministers, a Unitarian pastor and a Sufi Muslim. Conversations about controversial issues that might be difficult to have with others are much easier and more forthright with this group because we know and respect one another, even when we don’t always agree.

Despite some valuable interfaith work, we’ve not yet developed our relationships with local Muslim leaders. So it was with a bit of trepidation that I accepted the invitation of my friend and colleague Reverend Reinhard Kraus to join last week at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church for an hour of Qur’an study with Christians, Muslims, and a few Jews. I had to overcome my misgivings. Reverend Kraus organized this community gathering in response to the Florida Pastor who threatened to burn the Qur’an. Kraus thought that studying the Qur’an was a better choice.

My trepidation quickly vanished once I arrived. It had been quite some time since I was with such a diverse group of people. The Muslims in the room were from Pakistan, India, Syria and Houston. The Christians from Palos Verdes and Rolling Hills Estates. I saw just one other Jew, that I recognized, at least. Some Muslim women covered their heads, others did not. There were young people, older people, American born and immigrants. Men and women studied together and learned from one another.

This one hour of learning reminded me powerfully that dialogue with others creates greater understanding, appreciation and mutual tolerance. It was an important first step especially because too often we treat the entire Muslim community as a single monolith. We base our prejudices on a single caricature that many of us continue to see. We stereotype the entire Muslim community as extremist Arab Wahabis who are out to conquer the West through acts of violence and terror. Unless of course we’re friends with a Muslim; then we see the person, not the caricature. It’s our personal relationships with others that make us more tolerant because it’s harder to demonize a friend.

The Muslims I met at St. Luke’s were born and raised in America, or emigrated from elsewhere. Some were Arabs, most were not. They were all faithful to their tradition yet moderate in their expression of it. I can just about guarantee that no extremists were present because, after all, extremists don’t do interfaith dialogue. Extremists don’t engage; they demonize.

Reinhard Kraus helped us move one step forward in breaking down the barriers that separate our communities. He helped us recognize the diversity of our community which is, in pockets at least, comprised of tolerant people of faith.  Those who gathered want to learn from and better understand one another. We want to reduce our shared suspicions of one another and better appreciate one another’s aspirations. Those who participate in interfaith dialogue know that the conversations are not always easy. We recognize that our disagreements will persist. However, if we can begin first by uncovering shared understandings, then move our conversations forward by discussing our differences openly, safely and face to face, only then can we make progress in building a more sustainable culture of tolerance and mutual respect.

Reinhard Kraus stood up for tolerance. He raised his voice in the arena and fought against intolerance and extremism with words and dialogue. I stood with him because I know and respect him. I’m not sure I would’ve attended had it not been organized by someone else. But my relationship with him helped me overcome some of my own biases, not only what I thought of them, but also what I perceived they thought of me.

Do you stand for ideological diversity?  Can you respect, like or even love people who express ideas that are very different than yours?  Or who make choices for themselves than you may not choose to make for yourself?  Accepting ideological diversity requires patience, a willingness to listen to one another, and a commitment to respect the other person even if your beliefs are fundamentally different.

I have come to understand much about this congregation in the last five years. One is that we express a wide range of values and attitudes. One person shared with me a conversation he had with another congregant at an oneg Shabbat a few years ago. The first was mentioning something he had heard from the conservative talk radio host Dennis Prager. The other congregant looked at the first one and said cautiously, “You listen to Dennis Prager?”  The first congregant braced himself, not sure what the other person was thinking. He was put at ease quickly when the second congregant whispered to him, “I do too. I love him.”

Temple Beth El is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism, the national organization representing Reform congregations. The URJ is known for its historical commitment to liberal and progressive values, born out of its leaders’ interpretation of Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, an increasingly large number of Reform Jews including a significant percentage our congregants do not consider themselves liberal; far from it.

The ideological diversity within our congregation leads to passionate and sometimes heated exchanges. People have been known to get quite upset. Many of you appreciate when I take a stand on a pressing issue of the day whether it is the health care debate, immigration reform, or gay marriage. Nevertheless, I know that many people prefer I just sit down and lower my voice. I’m sorry I can’t do that. I wouldn’t be true to myself or to my rabbinate. Yet, I respect and will listen to the opinions of others who disagree with me. That’s the Jewish way.

I expressed this in a recent e-mail exchange with a congregant. I told this person that one of my many rabbinic responsibilities is to speak publicly to the pressing issues of the day, as viewed through a Jewish lens. It is what rabbis have been doing since the time of the prophets. It’s what Einhorn, Wise and Heschel did. It is what many of my colleagues continue to do. We represent our three thousand year old prophetic tradition to the people we serve. We take a stand and raise our voices in the arena.

I pride myself on being fair and reasonable when I preach on contemporary issues. I ground my teaching within Jewish texts, both ancient and modern. My primary goal is not to convince or convert but rather to initiate a conversation among smart and thoughtful people who don’t often agree, yet are willing to look at a different side of a familiar issue. I don’t imagine I’ll change one’s mind; I just hope to open it a bit more.

We will always have a seat in the arena, raising our voices for the principles and values that matter most to us. It’s what Jews do. We’ve been doing so since the time of Rabbi Nathan. My hope and prayer for our entire community is for us to take a stand, yet to be mindful and tolerant of those who choose not to stand with us. I want us to raise our voices to issues, yet refrain from raising our voices against the individuals with whom we disagree. Our community is big enough to accommodate a variety of opinions and ideas. So, as we move through this new year of 5771, I humbly ask; can we find new and helpful ways to create an environment of tolerance and mutual respect?”  Is that really asking too much?


My thanks and appreciation to my friend, Steve Beitler for his thoughtful analysis, and to my friend and colleague Rabbi Zachary Shapiro of Temple Akiba, Culver City, CA for our fruitful exchange of ideas in the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days.

[1] Thanks to Rabbi Cookie Lea Olshein for sharing this interpretation of nitzavim and omeid in her d’var Torah on Parashat Nitzavim prepared for the American Jewish World Service and referenced on the website,

The News From Israel

JULY 6, 2007

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

Friends, there is so much to tell you about Israel that it will take four weeks and more. I won’t force you to hear everything tonight. By touring the length and breadth of the land it is apparent to all that the economy is booming for many. That is not to say there is not a significant problem of poverty, there is. Still construction is constant in all the cities with cranes all over, and apartment buildings soaring into the sky. The tourists are back, not as many as before 2000, but they are back, especially busloads of Birthright young people.

Tonight, I will limit myself to a review of the major news stories, but from the Israeli perspective. Let me share what we heard from others and read in the daily papers. It makes a big difference in view when you are in the middle of the story, as we well know.

As we left the States, Civil War in Gaza was the major issue. Hamas and Fatah fighting for power is nothing new. The so called unity government between Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and Haniyeh of Hammas was a sham. Each side was literally attempting  to kill the other. Fatah had a superior force militarily and with armaments, but when challenged by Hamas, Fatah officers fled and their soldiers followed. Massacres of Fatah soldiers ensued with disgusting barbarity. This was Palestinians killing Palestinians.

According to the Israeli newspapers, Hamas is as surprised as anyone to be in the position of power in Gaza. They never expected this result, but now have to deal with the responsibility. Essentially we have two Palestinian entities, one in Gaza and the other on the West Bank. Abbas claims both, but his words are empty.

Israeli policy continues to be a mess. The hope of the Gaza pull-out is now in shambles. The goal was that if they unilaterally withdrew, the Palestinians would leave Israel alone. It did not happen. Instead it emboldened Hamas and the foes of Israel.

The newspapers kept referring to the reality of Hamastan, a radical Islamic Taliban style religious government now on Israel’s border, a source of great fear and consternation. There is a recognition that the Palestinian have no unified leadership, not even in Hamas with a variety of factions and militias taking action. While in Israel, we daily read of the the British journalist, Alan Johnston of the BBC, being held captive by what was believed to be a group linked to Al Queda. He was released this week. There seems to be another group holding kidnapped Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, whose story continues in Israel’s news daily along with those held in Lebanon. While in Israel Hamas leaders released a tape of Shalit asking to be free, claiming that he was not well. This was timed to take away the focus of Arab leaders meeting with Prime Minister Olmert in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. We know that Shalit is alive. There are serious doubts about those captured by Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, as a result of the civil war there are starving people in Gaza who need supplies that have to come from and through Israel. Here is the irony. Hamas wants the end of Israel, takes over Gaza, but Israel is criticized for not getting supplies to them fast enough. And still the Kassam rockets continue to fall on Sderot. Damage and death are light; terror and trauma are constant. The community is being strangled. Citizens never know when the next rocket will fall and if it will be deadly. You can imagine the stress.

Following the civil war, the United States has called for support of Abbas, the opening of funds and training his troops, now that his government is no longer linked to Hamas. Ehud Olmert is on board, though many question this policy. The fear is that the same inept, corrupt government that could not rule Gaza will not be any better in the West Bank. Hamas will wind up with the weaponry, just as it now has in Gaza. Newspapers reported that if a vote were taken today in the West Bank, Hamas would still win. Palestinians do not trust Fatah based on decades of arrogance and missed opportunities. They may not support Hamas in its violent positions, but they believe that Hamas can improve their lives more than Fatah.

Israel continues to be living in dangerous times in what seems like a no-win situation. If they retake Gaza, then what? Our guide suggested that for every Kassam rocket fired into Israel, shut off electricity, which Israel supplies for 3 hours…. Do something!!! All of a sudden Fatah is Israel’s friend? (in comparison to Hamas), but Fatah’s track record is not much better.

We know one thing- whatever Israel does to protect its citizens, it will be criticized by the world as wrong; it’s all Israel’s fault! The latest insult came while we were there. Britain’s University and College Union voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions, in spite of attempts to thwart the move by ADL and others. Israel is depicted as the South Africa of the 21st century; of course it is hard for us to see it that way. David Forman, who spoke at Gates of Prayer two years ago and with our group, penned a column in the Jerusalem Post. He points to the hypocrisy of singling out Israel for being an oppressor, for having blood on its hands. As if the United States and the British are not occupying Iraq at this time; as if the division fence in Baghdad and along the Mexican border are somehow different from the defensive fence that Israel has been forced to build; as if the Palestinian Authority is a benevolent haven for academic freedom, while not considering suicide bombers, kidnappings and threats to destroy the country.

Forman is a realist, but also a liberal, part of Rabbis for Human Rights. The world is hypocritical, but he notes a grain of truth. Arabs in the West Bank do not have real democracy, though they are better off than many other Arabs, but we have higher expectations. In the name of security Arabs experience checkpoints, arrests and detention without trial, a security fence in some areas that makes no sense, but creates great hardship and numerous other injustices. Forman expects more of Israel, a society based on prophetic social justice. He does not believe Israel’s critics are justified, but concludes: “We have created a moral morass- and if it takes the hypocritical self-righteousness of some foreign pseudo-intellectuals and pig-headed unionists to open our eyes and alter this unacceptable reality, then something positive will ultimately be served.” We can agree or disagree with him. There is no doubt that similar words will not appear in the Palestinian newspapers or for that matter in most Arab countries.

Israel is a free and open democracy. The new/old leader of the Labor Party was elected- Ehud Barak, now Israel’s Minister of Defense. Ehud Olmert is in big political trouble with very low ratings in opinion polls. If elections were held today, Bibi Netanyahu would probably be the next Prime Minister. It was pointed out to us that a problem of Israel’s political system is that it recycles old leaders and limits upward mobility. We see the same people over and over again.

Shimon Peres finally wins a prestige position, but not Prime Minister, rather the Presidency of Israel- a role of honor, but not much power. He was elected to follow Moshe Katsav, drummed out of office for sexual harassment and charges of rape. Now the controversy is over the lightness of his sentence. Can you imagine a government leader receiving preferential treatment?

One last area arose in the news, which is dear to us as Reform Jews. The Jewish Agency for Israel was meeting in our hotel during our stay. They deal with many issues regarding programs and funding of cultural and humanitarian activities. Leaders from ARZA, including our own Bill Hess, were very much involved. A resolution calling for the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions, followed by an editorial in the Jerusalem Post calling for a severing of the link between the Orthodox political and religious parties from the State became a significant news story. It is one thing for this call to come from Reform and Conservative leaders, another from the Head of the Jewish Agency and others. There is a growing recognition in Israel by so-called secularists, even some religious, that there is a value for non-Orthodox Judaism in the land, that the restrictions upon recognition of our conversions in Israel, (particularly as concerns Russian and Ethiopian Jews) as well as other limitations is ultimately not in the best interest of Israel. We are few in number, but our influence is growing. We can see this by the popularity of the few Reform/Progressive synagogues that are operating in Israel. Parenthetically, one Reform rabbi shared that while we Reform Jews rightfully feel discrimination, there is a certain oppression of the observant by the secularists that is also felt.

Friends, I am glad to be home. I love New Orleans and this country, even with all the flaws of which we are aware. At the same time, as a Jew I have a special link to the land of Israel. We all do. As Yehuda Halevi, the Sephardic Jewish poet of the Golden Age of Spain, put it: “My heart is in the east, while I am in the west.”



Israel Reflections 2011

April 15, 2011

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath prior to Pesach. Its focus is the verse predicting messianic times by the Prophet Malachi, when the hearts of parents and children are at one with each other. Tonight is certainly symbolic of that reality for one family. Another aspect of messianic times is our link to the land of Israel. On Monday we will lift our cup of Elijah in expectation of that promise and conclude our seder with “Next year in Jerusalem.” As opposed to next year, this evening I will focus upon “last week in Jerusalem and Israel.”

As many of you know I am fresh from my most recent Israel sojourn with the New Orleans Kehillah Community Mission, organized by our Jewish Federation, and there is so much to share. Combine that with some of the major addresses I heard at the CCAR Convention the week before my departure, and we could be here all night. But out of great compassion for the Jewish people, who have been known to be long suffering, I will strive to limit myself this evening to a few points.

As always when speaking of Israel, the first focus is the peace process and issues of security. I look forward to the day when that will not be the case. Between the CCAR and the trip, I learned from a variety of experts. Everyone has an opinion and no one can really know what comes next. In recent days we have witnessed regime change in Egypt and Tunisia, civil war in Libya, rioting in Syria, demonstrations in Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen, possible Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon and who knows what in Iran. The whole region is one big question mark. Could this have been anticipated? Former Ambassador to Egypt and Israel, Daniel Kertzer explained it as if all the hard drives of experts have crashed. No one saw this coming in this way. Hindsight can now analyze why it is happening, but still not predict what comes next. Kertzer cautions lest we lump all the countries together, as they have very different histories and societal structure. He is most optimistic on Egypt’s prospects of emerging with democracy and progress, but doubtful that this will be the case elsewhere.

Many argue that this is the optimum time for Israel to offer a bold peace initiative, but the ongoing reality of unstable partners on the other side of the negotiating table results in grave doubts of success. Voices on the left argue that the continuing occupation of the West Bank undermines Israel’s ability to live according to its own basic Jewish, moral and democratic values. Voices on the right argue that security is the only issue. All else is secondary. Previous negotiations provide a blueprint for peace, but finding the political will to execute the plans is another matter.

One looming issue on the horizon will be the attempt to declare an independent Palestinian state unilaterally with the blessing of the U.N. General Assembly in September. It is a foregone conclusion that they have the majority of votes with all the Islamic and third world nations to pass. However this does not mean that they will have the support of the powerful nations of the world. Israel’s diplomatic goal will be to assemble a significant group of nations, who will not support the resolution, thus weakening its impact. The U.S. will play a pivotal role.

I’ve noticed that every time I am in Israel, there are a number of significant news stories or events that emerge. I do not take it personally, but recognize it as a function of the fact that Israel is always in the news. The first major topic on this occasion was the recanting by Judge Richard Goldstone, who was part of a U.N. Committee evaluating Israel’s conduct in Gaza last year. His report charged Israel with purposely targeting civilian populations. Goldstone, a South African Jewish jurist, previously affirmed that report, but now believes it was erroneous. Unfortunately the damage is done and there will be numerous diplomatic hoops to be jumped if it is to be reversed. Like most retractions, it will appear on the back pages of the news and not the front.

Sadly, attacks from Gaza’s militants and counter-attacks by Israel are ongoing. Israel targeted Hamas bomb makers. Then an Israeli school bus was hit with an anti-tank missile, killing at least one student. Israel responded with pin point attacks in Gaza. Hamas continued to launch rockets and mortars into southern parts of Israel, for which Israel’s new anti-missile defense shield was effectively used for the first time. Perhaps this feels like ping pong, but this is no game and lives are at stake. Sadly, I see no end in sight on this front.

My words are ominous, but at the same time, let me share that at no time did I feel unsafe or vulnerable while travelling. In fact, it was just the opposite. The reality of living in Israel is similar to our own, when we wake up each morning to news of a shooting in the 9th Ward or a murder in Marrero. These are all horrible, but we still feel secure, unless we find ourselves in these embattled areas.

Let me shift my focus now a bit, as I bring news that will likely not upset you too much. You will no longer be able to purchase that God awful, sickly sweet, imported, Carmel wine for your Passover seders. If that is your taste, you can still buy domestic. The good news is that Carmel and other Israeli wineries are now producing top quality, international award winning vintages for our seder and year round pleasure. Our group sampled a wide variety providing many a spiritual high.

Let me also tell you that the Israel national bird is no longer the chicken, as in chicken soup. Rather it is the Crane, as in building cranes all over the country. Israel’s economy is booming. Whether in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, Ashdod or our sister city of Rosh Ha’ayin, wherever we were, we witnessed significant economic development. In particular, it seemed as though each community had a high tech industrial zone with all the worldwide labels represented. In the past Israel was known for its produce, especially those Jaffa oranges. Now the oranges come from Spain and the rest of the world is the beneficiary of Israeli creativity and intellect.

One of Israel’s original goals was to be a homeland for the oppressed of our people. We had the opportunity to visit a number of programs, devoted to absorption of new immigrants, funded in part by our donations to Jewish Federation. Historically, Israel has brought in literally millions of Jews from the Arab world and the former Soviet Union. The most recent group adapting to Israeli life are the Ethiopians with 125,000 in the land and approximately 8,700 awaiting rescue. In candor it will require at least a generation before this group will be fully integrated into Israeli life. These programs help to prepare for that eventuality, while providing assistance and support. One cannot expect people to move from rural villages, with no education, modern skills or even exposure to 21st century life and then immediately become part of high tech modern society. Talk about culture shock, especially for those over the age of 40! Still, we can already discern that the children of the immigrants are successfully making the leap. If we reflect upon the Eastern European Jews who came to America from the shtetls in the beginning of the 20th century, we realize the same pattern can be discerned.

In addition to Ethiopia, we were exposed to the trickle of Jews arriving from Venezuela, Argentina, Iran, Turkey and Morocco, as well as the significant numbers coming from France. As anti-Semitism increases in France, so do the numbers of immigrants.

Friends, this was my 9th or 10th trip to Israel with my first visit being for my initial academic year training for the rabbinate in 1972-73. Much has changed in Israel since then. The euphoria of the Six Day War victory, followed by the triumph in 1973 has given way to a political and military stalemate that has ensued for almost 40 years. From an American perspective, Israelis were often known for their arrogance, their attitude that if you do not live in Israel, then you are no longer a real Jew.  To be a Zionist, one had to be totally committed to living in the Jewish State, or short of that being fully supportive of everything that Israel does. During this Israel trip in particular, I sensed a major shift in the thinking of Israelis regarding themselves, their relationship to the rest of the Jewish world and even to history.

Emblematic of that development is a name change. On the campus of Tel Aviv University, you can tour a museum called Bet Hatefutsot, what used to be called, The Diaspora Museum. Its exhibits provide a history of the experience of Jews who have been scattered throughout the world over the centuries. But its subliminal message had always been: “this is where we were; these are the problems we experienced and now the diaspora is over for us. We have Israel,” essentially negating 2000 years of Jewish life.

The institution is still called “Bet Hatefutsot” in Hebrew, but its English name is “The Museum of the Jewish People.” This reflects a greater sense of partnership between Israel’s Jews and world Jewry and diminished superiority and triumphalism. One might conclude that since the name was only changed in the English and not the Hebrew, that there is one message for internal consumption and another for external, but I do not believe that to be the case. Rather there is a greater message of real partnership and mutual respect that has grown between Israel and world Jewry. In addition, there is recognition that many Israelis really do not understand North American Jews. An article in the Jerusalem Post described the establishment of a new committee of the Knesset dedicated to helping members gain a fuller appreciation of the realities of North American Jewish life. Hopefully, this will reduce or eliminate insulting legislation emanating from the Knesset, relating to Jewish status and a greater respect for religious pluralism, which continues to be a bothersome issue.

This was the shortest time I have spent in Israel. But as you can see, even in seven days, there was much to be learned and appreciated. Keep in mind I did not even mention digging for archaeological remnants from the period of the Maccabees, riding all terrain vehicles in the blessed rain in the Galilee or bicycles along the Mediterranean, eating more good food than should be allowed to any human being, remembering the Shoah at Yad Vashem, worshipping at the Western Wall, experiencing Shabbat in Jerusalem, shopping at Kippah Man on Ben Yehuda St. where I restocked my kippah collection, and much more. The bottom line is that I will just have to go back and I hope that many of you will do the same, perhaps travelling with me or another experience.

Friends, I do not view Israel uncritically, but I do look through a prism of  love. It is a struggling democracy with real security issues and numerous challenges. The quality of education has decreased. There are issues regarding the numbers of eligible men and women participating in the work force and troubling gaps in the social fabric between rich and poor; serious identity issues as the younger generation struggles with religious and Zionist identity and problematic divisions between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Maybe we have lessons to teach on that subject. At the same time it has in fact fulfilled the dreams of the earliest Zionists to embrace the oppressed of the Jewish people and to be a cultural and spiritual center for world Jewry. We are not living in messianic times yet, but perhaps we are a little closer than in the past.


What’s Next For Israel

May 27, 2011

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


This past week I have received numerous phone calls and e-mails or have been asked to react or respond to questions: What’s going on in Washington? What is Obama doing? Why is he selling out Israel? Did you hear Netanyahu? What do you think? And so, though I had originally planned to speak about Jewish War Veterans on this Memorial Day Weekend, I feel it is important to address this issue of “What’s next for Israel?”

Many are confused, dismayed, angry and even scared. To the hyperventilators my suggestion is that it is time to step back and breathe. Recognize that this is part of an ongoing attempt to bring about peace in Israel. And there will be upset from all sides, if they are ever to come to an accommodation with one another. That is the essence of compromise. Keep in mind that we only are privy to what is being said publicly, but not privately.

And isn’t it wonderful how everyone has an opinion! We hear from those who wish to exalt the President as the savior, the world leader who will cobble together disparate groups to find a common solution and those who wish to depict him as the newest embodiment of Amalek, the destroyer of the Jews. No one is fully objective. We all have biases. I include myself. But people have asked me what I think, so let me first issue a disclaimer: I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet. I am not a diplomat, nor do I have specific academic credentials that inform my comments. God has not told me how to figure this all out. What I bring to the discussion is insight from having been to Israel, listened to many smart people, read a lot and ahavat Yisrael, love for the State of Israel and the Jewish people. However, I am not so arrogant as to believe that I am right and others are wrong. I can only share my perspective. With that as background what are we talking about?

The latest episode on this subject begins with a series of statements by President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. President Obama’s came in the forms of an address to the world on his views regarding the Middle East, inclusive of thoughts for the next round of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, followed by an address to AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, a major lobbying group for Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu met with President Obama, reacted to his first speech, then made two presentations of his own, first to AIPAC followed by a masterful oration to the United States Congress.

Let me begin with President Obama’s presentations. My analysis is primarily my own, but is also informed by reading the reactions of others. Yesterday I had a unique opportunity, by virtue of the fact that I am currently an officer in the CCAR, to be on a phone call with Dennis Ross, President Obama’s key advisor on the Middle East, as he was to the two previous administrations. Though our focus tonight is primarily Israel, we need to remember that his initial address was to the world and discussion of Israel came in the context of major changes occurring: the death of Osama Bin Laden, the demonstrations and revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and throughout parts of the Arab world.

Israel came at the end of the speech. The President shared what many of us feel, that both sides have contributed to the impasse and that perhaps now IS the time to push the sides to negotiate. The recent rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas is problematic. He clearly expressed great concern about Hamas, which has never accepted Israel. If they are to be party to this, then they must unequivocally renounce violence and reverse their position. Whether they can be trusted is another story, but negotiations can go nowhere otherwise.

I know that in diplomacy, each word and nuance is analyzed and overanalyzed, but what I heard contained much that I’ve heard for years. He called for two states each with clear borders. Those borders would be based on the pre-1967 borders, but with mutually agreed upon land swaps. Much has been made of the Presidents reference to the 1967 borders, as if he was saying that Israel had to return to precisely what was the reality then, untenable, indefensible borders, which would not take into account the almost 650,000 Jews who now live beyond the Green line, the old border. But that was not what was said and was subsequently clarified. Mutually agreed upon land swaps would mean that many, if not most of those living beyond the Green Line, primarily in the suburbs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv would be in Israel, though some of the settlements would not, and in return Palestine would receive other land. From Israel’s perspective I’m guessing this would probably include what they always claimed was not a        de-facto future border, currently outlined by a security fence and wall. Palestinians would attain one of their most basic goals, to have clear territory that is their own. The concept of a contiguous State between the West bank and Gaza is a challenge, but I am aware of discussions regarding a roadway and/or tunnels that might be involved.

What Israel requires is security. In his initial speech, the President said, “Israel must be able to defend itself -– by itself -– against any threat.  Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security.” Its other gain as far as I am concerned is to be relieved of the horrific administration of “occupied territory,” which is not only a financial drain, but has placed Israelis in challenging moral positions, forcing compromise on essential Jewish and democratic values.

Jerusalem and the fate of so-called refugees will come later. This is a change in strategy from previous attempts of settlement. The hope is that by building agreement in the first area, this can then be the basis for moving forward on the other two, which are more emotional, but with creativity can be addressed IF there is a will. What President Obama seeks is “A viable Palestine and a secure Israel.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu reacted to the President’s proposal, first in a meeting at the White House, then at AIPAC and Congress. He was very effective and eloquent. While initially he seemed to bridle at the mention of the ’67 borders in what I believe was a necessary response for the right wing in his own government, his later comments were much more supportive of the proposals, as he staked out his position.

He pointed out that Middle East turmoil has nothing to do with Israel and everything to do with corruption, intolerance and poverty in the Arab world. The shadow of Iran and its influence, not only as it effects Israel but the entire world needs to be confronted. He recognized that freedom may be possible in Egypt and Jordan, the two countries with whom Israel has peace agreements, but only if their economies are supported. He stressed his desire for lasting peace with the Palestinians and his support for a 2 State solution, which he only embraced in recent years. And he repeated his willingness to make painful compromises, reaffirming ancient claims on Judea and Samaria, which might be sacrificed if need be. As a positive harbinger of the future, he cited the growth and modernization of the West Bank Palestinian economy in recent years with Israel removing literal barriers and roadblocks.

Speaking to Congress, he raised the question: “Why has peace eluded Israel?” His answer: “Because so far, the Palestinians have been unwilling to accept a Palestinian state, if it meant accepting a Jewish state alongside it…You see, our conflict has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state. It has always been about the existence of the Jewish state…They were simply unwilling to end the conflict.  And I regret to say this: They continue to educate their children to hate. They continue to name public squares after terrorists.  And worst of all, they continue to perpetuate the fantasy that Israel will one day be flooded by the descendants of Palestinian refugees.”

Just as he has accepted the idea of a Palestinian State, he called upon Mahmoud Abbas to publicly say, “I will accept a Jewish State” and then there can be progress. An obvious challenge for him is that Hamas, as it is currently constituted, is no partner for peace.

To my ears, his comments on the border and the status of those living beyond the Green Line, as well as the absolute need for security did not essentially differ from the President’s. I know, “the devil is in the details.” Though he spoke of his approach to Jerusalem and the refugee issue, he did not say that they had to be on the table as well initially; ultimately, “yes,” but initially, “no.”

Then come all of the analysis by friends and foes alike. The critics of President Obama’s position point out that land for peace has not worked, with Gaza as a prime example. Others argue that not addressing Jerusalem and the refugees is like planting a bomb waiting to go off. And as long as Hamas is involved, there can be no trust or settlement. By accepting the outlines of President Obama’s suggestions, Israel would be putting itself into a weaker position and would have to hope for the best.

Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, highly critical of the President and questioning his basic support of Israel writes, “What, then, would a pro-Israel president do? He would tell Palestinians that there is no right of return. He would make the reform of the Arab mindset toward Israel the centerpiece of his peace efforts. He would outline hard and specific consequences should Hamas join the government. Such a vision could lay the groundwork for peace. What Mr. Obama offered is a formula for war, one that he will pursue in a second term, assuming, of course, that he gets one.”

In an article circulated by “We are for Israel” a centrist group of rabbis, led by our friend Rabbi Micky Boyden in Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress was analyzed. In particular the initial disharmony between the two leaders was bridged, as the Prime Minister acknowledged all of the support the President Obama has provided on multiple levels. He also embraced many of the ideas offered by the President, though offering different approaches and interpretations of the situation. Where he could have been a hawk, he chose not to be.

Listening to Dennis Ross provided insight and context. He stressed that for those worried that President Obama’s proposals might weaken Israel, all was spoken of in the context of an unshakable and iron-clad commitment for Israel. This includes providing Israel with the military edge, such as the new Iron Dome missile system, which has successfully shot down incoming rockets in flight. The President’s comments spoke of security arrangements, no terrorism, no arms, border security and what would be a mutually agreed upon adjustment period. The bottom line U.S. position is that it will not leave Israel vulnerable and must ensure that Israel can defend itself by itself.

Perhaps most significantly, the address was in response to efforts to delegitimize Israel internationally. With no movement on the diplomatic front, there is every reason to believe that European countries will vote in favor of the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian State, which is likely to be proposed and approved at the United Nations this Fall. However, without the support of the European countries, it will be seen merely as an irritant. President Obama made his proposal, not only prior to AIPAC, but also on the eve of his European travel. He is currently garnering support for his position in Europe, which is crucial for Israel.

The new realities of the Middle East also require that the general populations be addressed. In Egypt, as long as Mubarek was willing to support peace, the treaty was strong. I believe the treaty is still secure for the time being, but public opinion has to be wooed. No movement on negotiations is not in Israel’s best interest. This is true in Palestine as well, where their Facebook generation can perhaps be reached. Let the Palestinians be perceived as the intransigents if need be. The recent demonstrators on Israel’s borders could be an omen for the future.

Friends, I wish I could tell you that all will be well, that I have absolute faith in the proposals that have come from Washington. I cannot. But I can tell you that leaving matters as they are is no solution either. I do have faith that this President and the administration and Congress are wholeheartedly supportive of Israel and its security. Nothing else has proven effective so far. Perhaps these new ideas will jump-start the stagnant process. We continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem.