Shloshim; The Meaning of Thirty
Women of the Wall, March, 2019

This past week I was filled with memories of my first visit to Israel in 1982, just before entering rabbinical school. I spent the summer studying in an Orthodox women’s yeshiva, which reinforced my beliefs and practice as a non-Orthodox Jew. And, while I loved Israel, I also came to certainty that I could not make aliyah. I wanted to be a rabbi and a progressive/observant Jew, which didn’t seem possible in that time in Israel.

It was sad that women in Israel could not fully express their Judaism with equality; and even sadder that it didn’t appear to occur to most Israeli Jewish women to even try. It was a man’s world. That was alienating.

When I returned to Israel after a long hiatus, in 2001, I found a new reality: women rabbis, and an awakening of the need for modern, egalitarian Israeli Judaism. I’ve been back over 30 times since then, immersing ever deeper into life in Israel.

In many visits since, I found a liberating experience as a Jewish feminist: prayers at the Kotel (Western Wall) on Rosh Hodesh (the New Month, a traditional women’ holiday) with Women of the Wall. Women of the Wall has been fighting to liberate the Kotel from the ultra-orthodox control granted by the Israeli government. For thirty years these courageous women have endured violence, arrests, and outrageous restrictions, and they have resiliently endured. They have inspired me to stick with them and do everything I can to support them and be engaged in the struggle for equality for all Jews in Israel.

This fight is not just about the Kotel; far from it. It is about what it means to be a Jewish state and a state for all Jews. It is about government funding for all synagogues and rabbis, not just orthodox. It is about conversion, marriage, divorce and burial. It is about the control of the “official” rabbinate of kashrut supervision (and the cost of food.) It is about compromise and peace. It is about Israel’s very soul.

The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) has been fighting these battles in court and in the Knesset for years — with many important successes and accomplishments. But even those successes have not changed the status of the Kotel as an ultra-Orthodox synagogue ruled by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Rabinowitz, who often disregards even the courts and political victories of WoW. This must change.

For all those reasons I set aside my very busy schedule at Ohavi Zedek to be with Women of the Wall for Rosh Hodesh Adar II at the Kotel. It was to be a very special thirtieth anniversary celebration. I couldn’t imagine not standing with Women of the Wall at this critical moment.

I have been with WoW many times over the years. I was there on occasions when our prayers were truly joyous even as hateful ultra-Orthodox women and men blew whistles to drown out our voices and screamed curses at us. I was there when Anat Hoffman, IRAC Executive Director, was arrested for carrying a Torah in the Kotel plaza, as the police tried to grab the Torah from her arms and she would not let go. I was there when a riot broke out in 2013 as thousands of ultra-Orthodox teens — boys and girls — filled the plaza and surrounded us as a hostile mob. I was there when WoW was forced to gather in the back plaza, far from the Kotel in the women’s section, because thousands of ultra-Orthodox youth had filled the worship space near the Kotel. And I was there when eggs and water bottles were thrown at us, and was hit by an egg. I had heard that metal chairs were thrown at the women in the early days, and my heart goes out to the women who endured that and still didn’t quit.

None of that prepared me for the violence we experienced on Rosh Hodesh Adar II, March 8, 2019. Once again thousands of yeshiva students filled the men’s and women’s sections before we arrived for our 7 am prayers. I was among a few WoW supporters asked in advance to lead a prayer during the service. That meant arriving first and standing in the center, next to the prayer leaders. Small plastic stools were brought in for us to ascend when we were leading. Two small “snack table” size tables came out of a bag and were covered with a cloth, providing a center table for the leaders of the service. I stood alongside that table, next to a colleague and friend from our studies together at the Hartman Institute, and a woman I didn’t know was on my other side. During the hour we were there, we became bonded forever as we held each other, lest we would have crashed to the ground from the force of the pushing and shoving behind us.

First the girls behind me were loudly reciting Psalms to try to drown out our voices. It was nearly impossible to hear ourselves as a group. WoW had been denied in their request for a microphone. It got much worse when Rabbi Rabinowitz allowed the ultra-Orthodox men to use the Kotel’s sound system to loudly broadcast their prayers. We couldn’t hear ourselves at all after that.

Rosh Hodesh Adar II — which is supposed to be a time for gladness and joy, turned into a nightmare at the Kotel. Many thousands of yeshiva students — boys and girl, young men and women—were bused in and filled the Kotel plaza long before our 6 am arrival. They came at their rabbis’ instruction to disrupt what they were taught is unholy — our prayers. Nothing could have been more unholy than their angry, hostile, violent behavior toward us and towards the men who came to daven (pray) in solidarity with us (in the men’s section.)

The aggressive pushing, shoving, spitting and screaming, of the haredi girls was terrifying. The police were nowhere to be found. One of the girls was fiercely pushing me from behind with her leg on my bad left leg (after surgery following a break 3 years ago.) After about half an hour of enormous effort to hold still and not react while trying to pray with WoW, I couldn’t take it anymore and I pushed back with my good leg. That made her push me harder and spend the next half hour screaming in my ear and stepping on my right foot. The muscle aches in my back and my weak leg from the effort it took to not fall remain a reminder of standing for justice.

We had been able to pray together a bit when we started, even as they shouted and pushed. I led one Psalm at the beginning. But it quickly fell apart as they increased their pushing, shoving, kicking and even scratching and spitting, and the sound system began to drown us out. It became impossible to pray. It just fell apart. It took the police a hour to arrive in the Ezrat Nashim (women’s section) to rescue us — literally — and even then there weren’t enough of them and at points we had to push our way out. As we walked through the angry mob, some women in our group were pushed to the ground. Many of our women sustained bruises and other injuries.

We finally found peace in “Ezrat Yisrael,” at the Robinson’s Arch section of the Wall. There we read Torah, sang, danced and rejoiced for Rosh Hodesh Adar. Shaken, we seized a moment for healing and for joy. We still had one more hurdle — walking through the angry mob awaiting us as we exited to our buses on the street. We felt the Shechinah accompany us as we made our way back toward peace.

It was unspeakably sad! The feeling of dread I felt from such sinat hinam (baseless hatred) remains with me. I heard echoes of this very place in the year 70 when Jerusalem was destroyed; the rabbis taught that it happened because of sinat hinam. Heaven help us.

Anat Hoffman remained steady and calm in her leadership. She believes this was a game-changer— that the pressure on the politicians will change everything. May it be so!

Rabbi Rabinowitz, the official government rabbi of the Kotel, is, in my opinion, a cruel, sinful man. His behavior, which created this atmosphere of hostility and violence, is a Hillul Hashem — a desecration of Gd’s name. Even as I understand that these Haredim are reacting out of fear for the crumbling of their power, their behavior is reprehensible.

And – still, being with the Women of the Wall on Thursday night, Friday afternoon, and Motzei Shabbat (Saturday night) was inspiring and uplifting. We learned, prayed, sang and reflected. It was a powerful three days together—masterfully shaped by the amazing WoW staff, under the leadership of Lesley Sachs, Executive Director of Women of the Wall. We are bonded on a sacred mission. And we will yet liberate the Kotel.

The three paratroopers from ‘67 — the iconic photo when they liberated the Kotel— have become major supporters of WoW. They were honored on Thursday night. One said (as I recall it), “We didn’t liberate the wall. We won a war with Jordan. But the wall is not yet liberated. Together, we will liberate it.” Not a dry eye in the house. They came to the Kotel on Friday am and were with other male supporters of WoW — on the men’s side— and were also attacked. Yizhar Hess, Director of the Masorati (Conservative) movement in Israel was attacked by boys who took his kippah and tallit and threw them down.

It is infuriating that the police blamed WoW for provoking the violence. Such a hateful lie! How could it be that the police not only neglected to protect us (though WoW leadership had begged in advance for their protection and to keep the peace), but then they also blamed the victims?

We can hope now that this moves the politicians to change the situation. I pray that all the good and caring and kind people of Israel will awaken to activism and thoughtful political choices when they vote next month. In any case, we are not giving up; not until the Kotel, and Judaism, is liberated from the hands of extremist Jews.

Lesley Sachs shared this poignant poem with us after our gathering:

Our heads were swimming with cacophony.
Yet, we heard you.
Our bodies were swept up in a violent wave of humanity.
Yet, we felt your gentle touch.
Our ribs were elbowed, our toes were stepped on.
Yet, your hands grasped ours with confidence

Thirty — Shloshim: that is how many years Women of the Wall have been praying and fighting for equality. Shloshim is also a significant Jewish number; it marks the conclusion of the first month of mourning after losing a close relative. It signifies a conclusion of one stage and an entry into the next. For Women of the Wall, for all Israelis, for all Jews, we enter a new stage. May this new stage be the conclusion, that there should not, must not be a fortieth anniversary of Women of the Wall, that we will have succeeded in the fight for Jewish equality.

To Read More and View photos:

My first trip to Israel in 1982 was the fulfillment of a dream. As a child I had fallen in love with the idea of Israel. Finally, I could breathe-in the link between all Jews — past, present and future.

I remember standing at the Kotel (Western Wall) and feeling the bond of history and peoplehood course through my veins.  But that summer I also came to realize that something was wrong. I am a progressive Jew, accustomed to egalitarian prayer and ritual. My Judaism was not allowed at the Kotel, and not accommodated in Israeli law or culture. I felt like a Jewish outsider in the Jewish nation. The air of judgment became increasingly alienating.

I believe that my Reconstructionist Jewish views are an authentic expression of Jewish faith and practice. There is a danger in the legal and cultural codification of Orthodoxy as the only authentic Judaism in Israel. Pluralism, which honors the diversity of beliefs and expressions within Judaism, is extremely important in sustaining the health and well being of Jewish civilization.

The Kotel has come to represent a failure of Jewish pluralism and the Jewish-Democratic ideal of the modern State of Israel. This failure alienates many secular Israelis from Judaism, and many American Jews from Israel as our people’s spiritual home.

And so I was drawn to the Women of the Wall, joining them in monthly Rosh Hodesh prayer whenever possible. I have been there to witness the hostility of Haredi men and women, and even the police, whose intense presence has been unfriendly. Still, we sang our hearts out, above the enmity that surrounded us – even as members of the group have recently been arrested with increasing frequency. I witnessed Anat Hoffman’s arrest for carrying a Torah scroll in the Kotel plaza a few years ago, and the arrest of some women wearing a tallit. Each time I davenned with Women of the Wall (wearing tallit and kippah, as is my custom) I was moved by the beauty of the women’s prayer and the pain of the situation.

Rosh Hodesh Sivan, May 10, 2013, was a turning point. Arriving on a van arranged by Women of Wall, we found a new reality at the Kotel plaza. We did not wait in long security lines while guards looked for ritual garb in our bags, as had become standard. They ushered us through quickly. Police officers immediately escorted us through the plaza.

This time, the police were there to protect us, and their demeanor was entirely different. We faced the presence of many thousands of Haredi girls and young men who had come on the orders of their rabbis. Their early arrival succeeded in blocking us from the divided “synagogue” that is the Kotel prayer area. So the police ushered us to the front of the Kotel plaza. Ironically, this effectively created an egalitarian minyan – the men who came to support us, who would have typically been standing on the other side of the barrier, were now standing alongside us. A few ventured into the midst of our tightly assembled group.

While thousands of young men who came to protest shouted loudly and blew whistles, we sang in full voice. The sound of our own prayers filled our ears, and uplifted our souls. With police protection, we prayed freely with our preferred ritual garb — many kippot and tallitot, and some tefillin. We celebrated a young woman’s bat mitzvah and sang and danced with the bat mitzvah family. All of this was not possible just a month ago. The changing air of history was palpable.

Leaving the Kotel plaza, we faced the intense hostility of the surrounding Haredi crowd. As we were hurried onto a waiting bus, the dangers became more evident. When a large rock was thrown at the bus, along with other projectiles, and Haredi young men surrounded and banged on the bus, cursing us, middle fingers pointed our way, I was sickened by fear and grief. With police protection, we rode away to the comfort of Mamilla mall.

In the past two weeks, as the traumas from that morning have subsided, one feeling has emerged prominently. That is the joy from the chorus of our voices and the success of our activism. The prayers of Women of the Wall are an ascendant voice.

Thirty-one years and 26 trips after my first visit to Israel, my feelings of alienation are subsiding. The voices of Women of the Wall have elevated the struggle for Jewish religious freedom in Israel, and I am exhilarated to have the opportunity to be a part of it.







NILI Public Statement – January 2013

Twilight of Hope for Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Twilight has fallen on the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  As Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders committed to peace, we urge immediate, sustained U.S. leadership before darkness falls on the hopes for a peaceful resolution.

We recently witnessed shadows of dusk.  We mourn for the lives lost and shattered during the violence that gripped southern Israel and Gaza. What we have seen, recently and before, will keep happening if movement towards a viable two state-solution continues to stagnate.  The status quo is unsustainable and dangerous to both Israelis and Palestinians.  Now is not the time for another cycle of recriminations.  It is time to break the cycle of violence with bold initiatives for peace.

The current dangerous stalemate, including the legacy of past failed peacemaking efforts, undermines our security and that of others, destabilizes the region, amplifies the voices of extremists vying for power, legitimizes terrorists and extremists, allows continuing Israeli settlement expansion that is making a contiguous Palestinian state increasingly difficult to achieve,  and prolongs Palestinian disunity.    These realities and the absence of negotiations threaten to kill the prospect of a viable two-state peace agreement, the only realistic solution to the conflict.

As people of faith, we proclaim that we should never underestimate what is possible.  Egypt and the United States helped achieve a ceasefire in Gaza. With the support of the international community, Israelis and Palestinians can achieve a lasting peace.  A new dawn is possible.

As members of the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East (NILI), we affirm President Obama’s support for a negotiated two-state peace agreement that provides for a secure and recognized Israel living in peace alongside a viable and independent Palestinian state.

We know the challenges are daunting, but we believe a bold new initiative for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement should be an immediate priority of the new Administration in 2013.  We fear the opportunity for a peaceful resolution is rapidly waning and the current stagnation fuels and legitimizes the rejectionists on both sides. Our nation has unique leverage and credibility in the region.  Indeed, no past progress towards peace has occurred in this conflict without U.S. leadership, facilitation or staunch support.   Once again, we need active, fair and firm U.S. leadership to help break the current deadlock and to achieve a two-state peace agreement now before it is too late.

The Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders of NILI are committed to mobilizing broad public support for U.S. leadership for peace, and, as we have done in the past, will mobilize the strong support that exists in churches, synagogues and mosques across the country to resound in the public square in affirmation of bold leadership.

Twilight is upon us; but the hope for a new dawn remains.  Let us together bring the new light of hope and work for negotiations leading to a final status agreement.

I was raised with pride for the accomplishments of Israel’s chalutzim, pioneers, in building and growing the land our people’s birth and rebirth. I had faith that Israel would live out all the best of what it meant to be a Jew.

On my first trip to Israel in 1982 I learned hard lessons about the divide between secular and religious in Israel. As a progressive Jew, I felt that I didn’t fully belong there, even though I loved the land and the people. I could visit, but I could never live there.

Thirty years later, I am very fortunate to be able to spend time studying in Israel. I now feel so much more that I belong there (though my life is firmly here), having visited many communities that are shaping new types of Israeli Jewish culture. The development of Jewish pluralism and progressive Judaism around Israel is very exciting.

There is a tremendous amount of creativity within Israeli society, as documented, for example, in the book “Start Up Nation.”  Israeli innovation is alive and well and, most importantly, the products of these new ventures are inspiring examples that have the potential to reinvigorate American ideas as well. In our American Jewish communities, there is a lot to be learned from new Jewish creativity within Israel.

I just returned from spending one week on the Metrowest United Jewish Communities Israel Center Experience.  A main goal of this mission was to visit a sampling of the many religious pluralism projects that our Jewish federation supports. Metrowest is a national leader for recognizing and supporting the tremendous importance of religious pluralism within Israel’s Jewish population. We fund a broad range of programs across Israel as a contribution to the Jewish character of the Jewish homeland.

I was like the proverbial “kid in a candy store” as we went from site to site meeting visionary leaders who are cultivating new approaches to Jewish learning and Jewish expression. Everything they do is a lesson to us for reinvigorating our Jewish communities.  Our Israeli counterparts are also eager to learn from our successes in creating adaptive Jewish communities. It is rich dialogue of family learning from family.

At one community we met a group of new “chalutzim“, pioneers, who are creating and guiding Jewish communities of secular Israelis in the heart of secular Israel, the Galilee. We studied this text by famous Zionist thinker, Berl Katznelson:

“A rejuvenating and creative generation does not discard the legacy of generations to the trash heap. It examines and checks, pushes away and brings close. And it holds on to existing tradition and adds to it. And it burrows under the junk heap, exposes that which is forgotten, polishes it from its rust, returns to the beginning of ancient tradition, which can nourish the soul of the rejuvenating generation. If, in the life of a people, there is something very ancient and profound, which can educate a person and immunize him from that which will come, how much can disengaging from it really be revolutionary?”

These chalutzim, pioneers, are searching Jewish tradition and texts to find spiritually rich Jewish expressions. I asked one young chalutz, pioneer, what his community does for bar mitzvah.  He looked at me with some embarrassment, and said, “We don’t know.”  “Wow,” I exclaimed, “how cool it is that you get to imagine what you need and create it using tradition and contemporary values. Wow,” I said, “how totally Reconstructionist!”  He sat up straighter and smiled and then began to share more about what they are considering and how they are experimenting. The exchange was too brief, but it got me thinking about our approaches to bar/bat mitzvah, and how we can learn from each other.

It is nice to have good news from Israel.  These visionary Israelis are creating it for us.  I am proud we support them and grateful that we can learn from each other. I’ll be back to learn from them this summer. More to follow!

National Interreligious Leadership Initiative
for Peace in the Middle East

April 14, 2011

President Barack Obama
The White House
Washington, DC 20270
Dear Mr. President,

The launching of a new peace initiative by a group of former Israeli government, intelligence and security officials prompts us to write to you as leaders of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim national religious organizations who are committed to strong U.S. leadership for Arab-Israeli-Palestinian peace

Given the current stalemate in negotiations, the threat of escalation of violent confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians, and the goal and expectation that peace can be achieved this year,
we believe the Israeli peace initiative, the earlier Arab Peace Initiative, and the Geneva Accord, taken together, offer key principles and ideas for negotiations to achieve comprehensive
Arab-Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The main elements of these peace initiatives reflect years of official and informal, unofficial negotiations and include: creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, based on the 1967 borders with possible limited land swaps as mutually agreed; a fair negotiated resolution of the issue of refugees that does not threaten the demography of Israel; the sharing of Jerusalem by Israel and the Palestinian state with both having their capitals in the city; and Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights as part of a peace agreement with Syria. We believe the United States, in coordination with the Quartet, should support these elements being addressed in negotiations on an urgent basis. In addition, of particular concern to our communities are guarantees for free access to Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy places.

We encourage you to visit Jerusalem and the region soon to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to discuss next steps toward achieving peace based on the principles and ideas in these peace initiatives.

We pledge our prayers and public support for active, fair and firm U.S. leadership in this urgent endeavor. We believe you can count on substantial support from members of churches, synagogues, and mosques across the country.

Sincerely yours,

(List of Endorsers follows)

Cc: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
National Security Advisor Tom Donilon

National Interreligious Leadership Initiative
for Peace in the Middle East
Tel: (425) 327-7545

Letter to President Barack Obama
April 14, 2011
List of Endorsers
Christian Leaders:
His Eminence Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington *
Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, Chairman, Committee on International Justice and Peace, USCCB*
Archbishop Vicken Aykasian, Director, Ecumenical Affairs, Armenia Orthodox Church in America*
Fr. Mark Arey, Director, Office of Ecumenical Affairs, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America*
The Reverend Peg Chemberlin, President, National Council of Churches of Christ USA*
The Reverend Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary, National Council of Churches of Christ USA*
Bishop Mark S. Hanson, Presiding Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America*
The Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop and Primate, Episcopal Church*
The Reverend Geoffrey Black, General Minister & President, United Church of Christ*
The Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, General Minister, President, Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ)*
The Reverend Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk, Presbyterian Church (USA)*
Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader, Council of Bishops, United Methodist Church*
Richard Stearns, President, World Vision United States*
The Reverend Leighton Ford, President, Leighton Ford Ministries, Board Member, World Vision US*
David Neff, Editor in Chief and Vice-President, Christianity Today*
The Reverend John M. Buchanan, Editor and Publisher, Christian Century*

Jewish Leaders:
Rabbi David Saperstein, Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism*
Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, President, Central Conference of American Rabbis*
Rabbi Peter Knobel, Past President, Central Conference of American Rabbis*
Rabbi Paul Menitoff, Executive Vice President Emeritus, Central Conference of American Rabbis*
Rabbi Alvin Sugarman, Vice President, A Different Future*
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Rector, American Jewish University*
Rabbi Burton Visotzky, Professor of Midrash & Interreligious Studies, Jewish Theological Seminary*
Rabbi Amy Small, Past President, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association*
Rabbi Shawn Zevit, Director of Congregational Services, Jewish Reconstructionist Federation*
Dr. Carl Sheingold, Former Executive Vice President, Jewish Reconstructionist Federation*

Muslim Leaders:
Dr. Sayyid Muhammad Syeed, National Director, Islamic Society of North America*
Imam Mohammed ibn Hagmagid, Vice President, Islamic Society of North America*
Naeem Baig, Executive Director, Islamic Circle of North America*
Imam Yahya Hendi, Muslim Chaplain, Georgetown University*
Dawud Assad, President Emeritus, Council of Mosques, USA*
Eide Alawan, Interfaith Office for Outreach, Islamic Center of America*
Iftekhar A. Hai, Founding Director, United Muslims of America*

Organizations for Identification Only

Yom Ha’atzmaut always makes me feel very happy. I am proud to celebrate the flowering of the Israel, alive with creativity, Jewish culture, scientific innovation, outstanding scholarship, and success in building a nation. I think warmly and longingly of my many visits to Israel, walking the streets, breathing the air, surrounded by history, holiness and wonderful Israeli friends.


Yet, Yom Ha’atzmaut also makes me sad.  Our beloved homeland, the only Jewish national home, anticipated so longingly for so many centuries, is not at peace.  The challenge of living in a “hostile neighborhood” continues to strain Israel’s resources — emotionally, spiritually, physically and materially.  As a result, the tensions in Israeli society and the Jewish world are manifold, seeping into our consciousness like an electric current.


A frightening manifestation of this tension is the deepening and widening set of divisions in the Jewish community when we talk about Israel.  Who is a (real) Zionist? (and who is not?) Who is for peace? (and who is not?)  Who is a Jew? (and who is not?)  Who is an Israeli? (and who is not?) Who is our enemy (and who is not?)  In an environment of “us” and “them”, insiders and outsiders, the nuances and complexities of these challenges are too often dismissed in favor of platitudes. Our internal Jewish dialogue is marred by dismissive reactions to those who hold opinions different from our own. These tensions course through the American Jewish community, sometimes with much hostility.


Out of love for Israel, so many of us worry about her future.  We are passionate about contributing to her strength and sustenance. We all want Israel to Israel to thrive as a secure, Jewish democratic nation at peace with her neighbors! Just when we need to share our concerns and ideas, collecting our energies and talents  for mutual strength, we find it is difficult to have civil, respectful and productive conversations about Israel.


Israel’s challenges can surely feel overwhelming to any of us. Try as we might to exert our influence, we can’t control what happens.  But one thing each of us can control, one area where we can have direct and immediate impact, is in the internal relationships within our Jewish community. We can resolve to have difficult conversations together, to respect different views regarding Israel and to hear one another with openness. We can resolve to tolerate alternative narratives, even when we disagree.


Our people have lots of experience with discussion, debate and inclusive discourse. It’s the way of our rabbinic tradition, codified in the Talmud and centuries of commentary on sacred texts. Jewish scholarship has long embraced an appreciation for a variety of views and this has shaped Jewish culture for centuries. “Two Jews, three opinions,” we like to say, with a pride in our multi-voiced communal culture.


There is something very powerful in the Talmudic model, where minority views are preserved and discussed along with what ultimately became majority opinions. The mind sharpening reasoning of the Talmud is empowering. If, instead of acrimonious name-calling, labeling, accusations and dismissal, we choose to honor difference of opinions, we could accomplish so much more — in both focus and internal strength.  We need each other. The key is to facilitate an environment where we can all express our views, while listening and reasoning with each other.


Fortunately, there are good tools to help us conduct these emotionally-charged conversations respectfully in our communities. One example is the Jewish Dialogue Group, which offers training, guides, tools and consultations. Books such as “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most” can offer practical advice.


This Yom Ha’atzmaut, let us resolve to celebrate Israel with a renewed commitment to the Jewish people. Let us reclaim the inclusive spirit of unity that has been such a great source of resilience in challenging times in our past.  In this way, we can strengthen our people and our beloved national homeland.


Master of peace,

Sovereign of peace,

make peace among your people Israel

and increase peace among all

who inhabit the earth

so that there will be no

hatred, jealousy, competition or victory

between individuals,

so that only love and a great peace prevail

among us all.

And may everyone know the love of the other,

so that we can all

join together and gather as one,

each person and his fellow,

and we will all speak to one another

and tell each other the truth.

O God – you are peace

and your name is peace.

Master of peace, bless us with peace.


This prayer is adapted from Nahman of Bratzlav. (From Kehillah Kol Haneshama, Jerusalem)

This column was published in the Orchard, the journal of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federation of North America, Spring 2011

In the week before Purim, the news from Israel of the horrific murders of the Fogel family in the West Bank community of Itamar momentarily transported me back to a visceral sense of sickly terror.  It’s been nearly three decades since I was awakened by a break-in while I was sleeping in my apartment. I was lucky – the intruder had come to steal and not harm, and he fled. But I still seize up with fear when I recall the moment when a strange man began to enter my bedroom.


Tragically, the evil person who entered the Fogel family home came with the most sinister intention. As they slept, the murderer brutally knifed them to death. Mother, father and three children were brutally murdered, leaving two surviving children. I can’t imagine the horror of the scene for those family members that night.


The expressions of unspeakable sorrow across Israel and the Jewish world were immediate and intense. The 20,000 people assembled in sympathy at their funeral gave testimony to the impact of this loss and the flood of grief that overflowed all over Israel and the Jewish world. Our hearts are filled with anguish.


This heart-wrenching loss was exacerbated by the fact that the murder was a political act.

Cruel violence in any circumstance is very traumatic, but this murder was meant to send a message and generate fear. This act of terrorism set off a firestorm of reaction within Israel and the Jewish world. Yet, the nature of that “message” has itself become the source of vigorous debate and disagreement within Israel and the Jewish world.


Some in the Right in Israel and America saw a lesson in this—that this murder was the result of the Left’s demonization of the settlers. They decried the delegitimization of the settlements in the West Bank perpetrated by the rhetoric of the Left. These voices, they claim, have created a climate that made the settlers targets. To their Palestinian adversaries, they countered with the phrase “they kill we build.”


The rhetoric came from the Left, as well. Some have taken this tragedy as an opportunity to drive home their view that the Israeli government’s stance regarding the West Bank and the occupied territories is poisoning the well of peace. They decry the settlements as illegal, and point to the settlers as radical, sometimes even violent, setting the stage for this type of vicious attack.


The recriminations flew wildly back and forth. This is very troubling to me. Here we are, a small, vulnerable people a generation away from the most evil, unspeakable violence brought upon any people, and we are ripping ourselves apart. Why is it so that we feel so weak and endangered that we turn on each other in blame?  Is this response a reflection of our most terrifying fear – that Israel’s future is at risk?  Why can’t we see that we need each other? Why can’t we support each other in our grief and in our fears?  Why are we so afraid to listen to each other’s worries and concerns?


In the zealousness of the Left and the Right, both sides have taken to staking out immutable positions. It’s become a morality battle.  In our pain and fear, we have demonized not only our enemies who harm us, but also our own family.  I was raised on the soothing and fulfilling words of “Am Yisrael Chai,” the “Jewish people lives!” This motto gave a newly empowered generation of Jews a sense of great possibility, courage and hope.  How can we sustain those feelings in an environment of accusations and demonization?


No matter how right one group may perceive their cause to be, resolution may only be attainable when they allow for the complexities to be present between them. Yitzhak Rabin understood this when he offered peace to the Palestinians after decades of violence.  A fanatical rejectionist murdered Rabin for this position. What lessons did we learn from that terrible day?  We should have learned the dangers of rhetoric that assumes absolute rightness and fails to acknowledge complexities. The danger to the Jewish people is that we will tear ourselves apart. How could a severely divided Jewish people have the capacity either to negotiate for peace or to hold the peace in the meantime? We need to foster the type of mutual respect that will strengthen us.


We need each other – we are family.  Let’s take a step back, draw in a deep breath and acknowledge that there is great complexity in Israel’s predicament. With mutual respect, let’s honor each other’s grief and fear. May our unity honor the memory of the righteous and blameless who have died because of cruel violence.









“Israel is the only democracy in the region” – is an oft-repeated trope by those, like me, who were fighting for support for Israel in the face of raising criticism. Even with the uncertainty in Egypt’s unfolding changing political reality, it seems disingenuous to say this anymore. The reality in the region is changing, while the political winds in Israel are blowing in the wrong direction.

JNF is trying to plant forests in the Negev, which in some places has overlaps with Bedouin communities. While the Israel Land Authority provides justification for the destruction of homes and communities, citing land acquisition laws going back to the establishment of Israel, it fails to acknowledge the human toll of its aggressive and destructive actions. The Bedouins, who have been held up as example of “good” Arab citizens of Israel who often serve in the army, are being treated as enemies, or worse, as less-than-human, second-class citizens. The legal arguments are complicated, but the practical realities are not. Creating enemies out of your friends is bad politics, especially in a country that is fighting international criticism and global delegitimization efforts.

The complex realities of the refugees of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence have tested Israel’s strength, resolve and moral fiber.  Prophetic voices from within the Jewish world have been crying for a uniquely Jewish response to these challenges – one that responds to the Torah’s call for justice, compassion and mercy. Pragmatic voices have recognized that true and lasting peace can only come from reconciliation with our enemies. Yitzhak Rabin gave his life in the pursuit of this peace.

Today, opposing forces grip Israel. There are those who are fighting for justice and reconciliation. And there are those, represented, for example by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who view peace differently, through a lens of extreme self-defense. The mentality of the ultra-nationalists – both religious and secular — in Israel today that assumes superiority (we are stronger, smarter, or entitled because we are “chosen”) is a twisted reaction to generations of fear and isolation as Jews. The “ghetto mentality” perceives everyone as our potential or real enemy. It sees the world as continuing to irrationally victimize Jews without justification. It rejects all criticism of Israeli policies as anti-Israel or anti-Jewish. It believes that we, the Jewish people, or the Jewish state, are entitled to do anything and everything to secure our small corner of the world, regardless of what the world thinks, or regardless of the consequences to the “other” who live and among and beside us.  The moral consequences are breathtaking; the political outcomes are no less significant.

While Egypt was convulsing with revolution in late January and early February the Israeli leadership hunkered down. Many of us were worried about what this would mean for the region (and we remain so). But rather than voicing support for democracy, Israeli leadership is quoted as having counseled patience – anything that would keep the ally Mubarak in power and calm their worries. The threat of the Muslim Brotherhood and other virulent anti-Jewish Islamists seizing power and threatening Israel’s peace remains very real. But Israeli leaders may have squandered an opportunity for alliance and partnership with the secular pro-democracy youth who drove this revolution. We can only pray that they can recover while Egypt remains in transition.

A new mentality is needed in the Jewish world and in Israel. We cannot assume international support for Israel as a Jewish state. Tragically, in today’s environment, we may need to assume the opposite. We cannot assume that autocracies (as have been in Egypt and Jordan) will keep the region stable. While the youth of Arab nations struggle for democracy, even with the uncertainties and imperfections of this struggle, Israel would do well to reach a hand out to them.

But we also cannot assume that Israeli democracy will be held up as an example for the region and the world as a beacon of light in a sea of darkness. The situation is far more complex. Israel has work to do to clean up its own. The humanity, the rights and the needs of the “other” cannot be dismissed. Religious rights for all Jews, equal rights for Arabs and compassion for the myriad victims of displacement and conflict should characterize the democracy within Israel. Israel can be the “light unto the nations” that the prophets envisioned, a Jewish state with a moral and spiritual vision that befits our struggle as a people.

The redemptive aspirations of a new Zionism can be a renewed source of purpose for Israel and our people. Then we can speak with pride in the democracy that we have created, uniquely woven out of the fabric of Torah.








The following is a link to a conversation I had with Isaac Luria from JStreet, when he visited Congregation Beth Hatikvah on May 16, with apologies for the background noise.” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”640″ height=”385″

I signed onto the following letter today and want to share it with all of you. The link to the letter is at the bottom of the post.

A Rabbinic Letter, June 11, 2010
from JStreet

The words of Israel’s national anthem speak of hope — a hope that one day the Jewish people would have a national home of our own. However far-off such a dream may have felt in 1878, when the original words of “HaTikvah” were composed, that hope was realized 70 years later. What had been only a poet’s dream became a reality.

Recent events off the coast of Gaza confirm for many the impossibility of speaking of peace, relegating it to nothing more than a poet’s dream. We feel deeply the sense of pain and anguish over the violence and insecurity wrought on Israel by Hamas through rockets and terror, as well as the ongoing suffering of Gilad Shalit and his family.

But we, American rabbis and cantors, assert that we have not lost hope, and that we are steadfast in remaining true to the vision of Israel’s founders in creating a democratic, Jewish state, a nation that upholds the highest human and Jewish values.

The international controversy surrounding the attack on the Gaza flotilla, the tragic loss of life, and the growing isolation of Israel concern us deeply. They reinforce our conviction that immediate efforts to finally resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are urgently needed to ensure Israel’s long-term security and to create a viable, just, and lasting two-state solution.

It is our hope that the rhetoric and actions that feed fear and violence, emanating from both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, will soon give way to bold leadership that makes way for the compromises necessary to bring the violence, despair, and terror to an end.

It is our hope that Israel will bring to an end what has become a counter-productive blockade of Gaza’s citizens, a policy which has only strengthened Hamas, while causing great suffering to many innocent Palestinians. The blockade as currently operated also undermines Israel’s long-term security and interests by increasing international hostility and isolation. We believe it is possible for Israel to ensure that weapons and materials intended for purposes of terror do not enter Gaza by screening humanitarian goods and materials appropriately to ensure they are intended for peaceful purposes.

It is our hope that the American Jewish community will become a positive force for peace, adding our voices to those in Israel calling for compromise and reconciliation.

It is our hope that the Obama administration will take this recent crisis as an opportunity to do all in its power to achieve a viable and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Hope is not lost, and we refuse to give up hope in the possibility of two states, Jewish and Palestinian, living as neighbors, in peace and security.
Od lo avda tikvateinu.

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