Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Starving in a Environment of Abundance, delivered Erev Yom Kippur 5771

The choice to fast. A choice many of us feel compelled to make as we observe this yontif of Yom Kippur. Fasting goes hand in hand with the observance with Yom Kippur, a biblically rooted and weighty expectation of this holiday. The Levitical hand reminds us that this should be a day in which ועניתם את נפשיכם, we practice “self affliction.” (Lev 23:27) According to the Mishnah, fasting is but one of five ways in which we are to practice ‘self-affliction.’ We are also to abstain from bathing, the use of soaps and perfumes, wearing leather shoes, and sexual relations. (M. Yoma 8.1) Yet, for most of us, fasting has become the primary and most identifiable way in which we put ourselves in that temporary state of self denial intended to help us focus our full attention on the task of t’shuvah, of repentence. How fortunate we are to be in such a position that we can choose such self affliction!

Fasting has always been associated with religious expression and can be found as a form of ritual observance in all mainstream religions. In the ancient world, fasting was considered a direct means to spiritual enlightenment -- to God. In his critique of unintentful fasting, the prophet Isaiah (as we will hear tomorrow morning) forwards fasting as a vehicle for self-improvement. It should lift us and propel us towards working for the betterment of the world!

Fasting as a tool for spiritual enlightenment has now become popular outside of mainstream religious life, so popular that it became subject matter for journalist David Rokaff who experimented with fasting for a segment of National Public Radio’s This American Life. Despite its Norman Rockwell-esque title, Baltimore born Ira Glass’ This American Life offers a far more realistic peak into the corners of our American quirks and obsessions.

Fasts are marketed and popularized on the notion that the human body requires detoxification, an eradication of the apparently unavoidable build-up of toxins in our systems. Self improvement perhaps, but far from the type of t’shuvah our Biblical Isaiah envisioned! Many who embark on such fasts are motivated not only by the physical purge, but also by the role that fasting has played in most religions – namely that promise of spiritual enlightenment - that sense of physical and spiritual uplift not so different from what many of us seek over the next 20 hours or so.

Mr. Rokaff’s journey was enlightening for sure. Not in the way in which we might expect, yet in a way that can help us approach our Yom Kippur fasting with appropriate purpose. First, Rokaff noted the narcissistic elements of fasting. “[it] was one of the most self-obsessed things I’ve ever done in my life, and I say that as a first person journalist,” he remarked. This is a man who, as he reminds us, makes his living by being self-obsessed - experiencing life and reporting on it from the vantage point of “I”, the self. For him to acknowledge the potential for self-absorption in the exercise of fasting should serve as warning to us.

His second relevant observation surfaced after encountering a woman begging for food on the subway. Not money, mind you, but specifically food. Mr. Rokaff had no food in his bag; but, as he noted, though he might not have had food on him anyway, "no clarity or serenity in the world gave [him] the chutzpah" to admit why he didn’t have food on that particular day. His encounter underscores how fortunate most of us are that we are indeed in such a position that we can choose such self affliction.

Many are not as lucky; and the irony of the situation is that while some of the wealthiest members of our society are striving for enlightenment through the purposeful avoidance of available and plentiful nutritious offerings, the poorest members of our nation are starving in an environment of incredibly shallow abundance. The US Farm Bill’s over-funding of and prioritizing of certain crops (a result of placing corporate America over and above the needs of the consumer) has created and fostered a market saturated by an over-supply of nutritionally depressed foods in our nation and an abundance of what have been termed ‘food deserts’ in many urban areas including Baltimore.

A ‘food desert’ is a large geographic area with either no or extremely limited access to grocery stores. The residents in these areas generally have an imbalance of food choices available to them due to their dependence upon fast food outlets, convenience and liquor stores for the bulk of their shopping; they have virtually no access to affordable fresh or whole food. Public health studies have documented that residents of such ‘food deserts’ suffer physically and are at significantly increased risk of documentable diet-related health concerns such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and ultimately premature death. And, I’d bet they are as susceptible to a variety of other diet related stresses that are less documentable such as compromised immune systems and depression.

Those of us who have access to and thus can choose to eat, not to eat, and what to eat from a wide-range of options, may not fully comprehend the seriousness of this situation. One can argue that there is no supply in these areas because of a lack of demand. If the residents would buy it, it would be there. Yet despite the seemingly simple logic of this economically grounded argument, there are those who would remind us that the continuous lack of supply of healthy food to these areas has created a situation where the conscious ‘demand’ for anything other than nutritionally compromised foods has been virtually erased.

Anthropologist Sidney Mintz, a research professor at Hopkins who has devoted the bulk of his long career to the study of food systems, notes that we, that is human beings, are the only animal species that no longer naturally knows what to eat and moreover consciously eat foods that have the potential to do us harm. In other words, we are easily susceptible to adapting to changes in what’s offered, what’s supplied. Of course, such ‘food domestication’ as scholars call it – the fact that our mind can trump biology, is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. And for all of its challenges, doubtful any of us would trade in this hallmark of our humanity. We can eat both for survival – for pure nutritional needs; but we can also savor our foods and take delight in them. Who would give up that rich chocolate bar that has little useful value beyond sheer pleasure? Those who are privy to the various chocolate stashes in my office know that I’m no advocate for removing joy from eating. But when offered only certain options, such as inexpensive, overly processed foods saturated with sugar, fat, and salt as the mainstay – what’s offered in the corner markets in these ‘food deserts’, we humans adapt quite quickly to fulfilling our hunger with food that simply won’t sustain us physically or emotionally in the long run. Our urban neighbors dwelling in these food deserts are fasting with no awareness of the magnitude of their hunger.
Awareness is the first step in challenging this complex cycle that dictates the utter lack of wholesome options in these areas and in turn distorts demand for such options. And my goal in this sermon is just that – to raise awareness about this issue, an issue that in my opinion should be on the forefront of our consciousness as liberal Jews. It is not to judge anyone’s dietary habits (I’m certainly in no position to do that: has anyone seen the chocolate stashes in my office?), but rather to help us become aware of the food options being offered to us and to our urban neighbors, the business behind those offerings, and the ultimate impact such offerings make on our society as a whole.

Awareness. “Agribusiness” -- the business behind farming and an extremely powerful lobby that greatly impacts the supply side of our food offerings due to its influence on the Farm Bill an important piece of renewable legislation that dictates government subsidies to US farmers. Under the current Farm Bill, 80% of farm subsidies go to grains that can easily be made into inexpensive, not necessarily healthful, foods; 80% goes there as opposed to fruits and vegetables. It is precisely these unbalanced food subsidies that dictate the relatively high prices of fresh food as opposed to the inexpensive prices of packaged processed food. And it is these unbalanced subsidies (and our demand for inexpensive food) that create an environment where wholesome options become simply too expensive and unavailable to many in our society. Our most nutritious food offerings have become a luxury instead of the necessity that they are.

The impact of agribusiness on the nation’s farm bill ultimately impacts our nation’s health care industry as well. To quote Journalism professor, author, and New York Times Magazine contributor, Michael Pollen, “The American way of eating has become the elephant in the room in the debate over health care.” (NYTimes 9/10/2009) Yes, our first lady has committed herself to planting an extraordinary garden on the property of the White House and to educating our nation’s youth about the importance of whole foods (kol hakavod to her for her efforts), but food system reform has not formally entered the conversation about health care; and it should. The government’s gross subsidy of convenience over whole foods leads to a situation where our tax dollars are in a very real sense contributing to the high costs of health care. As Mr. Pollen writes, there’s a ton of money to be made selling an over abundance of fast food and then treating the resulting disease that this over abundance causes.

Perhaps most frustrating is the historical lack of interest in changing the system. As an older colleague of mine reminded me this past winter when we were studying together, the lack of equitable access to wholesome food is far from a new problem. Certainly the issue gets more publicity than in the past (most likely due to our nation’s gross obsession with diet in general), but it is a problem that dates, as she recalls, at least to 1969 (to put that year into perspective, I was 3 yrs old in 1969!). One would think we’ve made some significant progress by now.

An example of how little progress has been made on the public need for affordable wholesome food? Our public school subsidized meal programs. The ideal behind government sponsored meals in our nation’s public schools can be summarized by Napoleon’s motto, “An army marches on its stomach.” Literally. America’s school lunch program began in 1946 under the tenure of President Truman in response to malnutrition in young people who were enlisting into the armed forces. Paradoxically, today’s subsidized meal programs, which now include breakfast and after school snacks in many schools, might be causing or at least reinforcing malnutrition in many cases.

I had the less than tantalizing experience of sampling a typical subsidized breakfast offered in our Baltimore city schools recently at a study session on this issue in which I participated. Every item made available to us was an example of a pre-sweetened, processed food. Not a single fresh fruit or vegetable– whole or in juice form - was offered. It was all beige: cereal, pre-sweetened waffles, sugary muffins, pop-tarts, and either chocolate or strawberry milk. No white milk. When asked why white milk was not served? We were told there was no demand for it by the students. An example of the complex cycle of supply and demand – which really comes first? And what’s our responsibility to challenging it and making sure there is white milk available to our kids, particularly the very kids who may need it most because they ain't getting it elsewhere?

Poverty is certainly a factor. “There will never cease to be those in need,” the Deuteronomist reminds us. Poverty, however, is not the entire problem, an easy scapegoat perhaps; yet, the biblical text makes it clear that we are not to accept these circumstances as unchangeable. Rather, it is incumbent upon us to identify those in need and to address the situation with an open and generous hand.

The production, preparation, as well as the eating of food is a holy occupation that impacts our very sustainability. It is not enough to approach food solely as consumers. Perhaps the ideal of kashrut can be informative. Few of us give much thought to kashrut – we either routinely accept or more likely dismiss the minutia of the ritual standards, standards codified for the most part in the middle ages and accepted as immutable due to the Orthodox hold on the institution. But the idea of creating a modern expectation of sanctity and wholeness – a sense of kasher, of fitness - surrounding the production and marketing of food is compelling.

To do so, we must recognize the impact of agribusiness and our role as consumers. We must do our part to pressure the food industry towards considering what is best for humanity by demanding healthy, sustainable options that are as available and as inexpensive as those supported by the current Farm Bill. We must support those farmers who remain committed to growing produce not currently valued by our Farm Bill while pushing for changes in future Farm Bills (the current Farm Bill is up for renewal in 2012, by the way). We must celebrate small advances such as the fairly recent innovation which allowed recipients of food vouchers to purchase fresh produce at neighborhood farmer’s markets. We must support local efforts at education and community gardening such as those currently being made in Baltimore by the Food & Faith Project of the Johns Hopkins Center for a livable future.

On this Day of Atonement, a day when so many of us are choosing to fast, let us be sure that our fast not become a narcissistic, self-absorbed occupation. As Isaiah demands, “הלוא זה צום אבחרהו” : “Is not this the fast that I have chosen: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to loosen the ropes of the yoke…” Indeed, let us not take for granted how easy it will be for us to break our fast. Not everyone has that choice. Tzom Kal – an easy -- yet thoughtful & intentful fast to you.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Does the 21st century Synagogue Need God? Delivered Rosh Hashanah morning, 5771 by Rabbi/Cantor Rhoda JH Silverman

A palpable paradox exists in our nation. As the religious right grows more powerful, or at least more vocal, in their desire to impress the masses with their theologically based and often rigid political views (at least IMHO), there is a growing move towards secularism and atheism among many that is often blamed for the lack of religious affiliation among young Americans. Evidence of this trend appeared late last fall in four billboards strategically placed and marketed by the nascent Baltimore Coalition of Reason that read: “Are you good without God? Millions are.” The Baltimore Coalition of Reason is part of a National Coalition of Reason that has sponsored similar marketing campaigns nationwide. This past June, for example, commuters in Austin, TX were treated to this slogan on their ride to work: “Don’t believe in God? Join the club”. Philadelphians and Floridians: “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.”

The existence of non-theists is nothing new – there are and always have been those who actively and publically reject the notion of a God, and there are those who do so even though they are intimately connected to religious organizational life, even synagogue life. As the research of Daniel C. Dennett, a philosophy professor at Tufts University underscores, personal belief does not necessarily go hand in hand with organizational and denominational commitment. In a study summarized in a recent issue of The Wilson Quarterly, Dennett identified and investigated what he calls, “the invisible phenomenon” of non-believing ministers, ministers who expressed skepticism over religious doctrine and at times outright atheism yet who still remain committed to their respective church institutions. Such a coordinated and well-funded organizational attempt (by an anonymous Philadelphia based businessman, by the way) to raise awareness and increase acceptance and visibility of atheism, of non-belief independent of political ideology on such a wide scale perhaps is new. This isn’t Marxism mind you, which demanded liberation from religion as part of its social and political agenda. What is striking to me is this Coalition’s reliance on reason as their mantra – that is, reason replacing God and theology as the movement’s unifying tenet.

As an inheritor of the values of Reform Judaism, a movement birthed in the social and intellectual atmosphere of the European Enlightenment and nurtured during the 19th and early 20th centuries when the critical historical method was first being applied to biblical and liturgical studies, I view reason as central to religion. The application of reason, from the Latin ratio, to judge, to think – understood in its European context as wissenschaft – was and is still critical to discerning the difference between, as well as, the intersection of history and theology. What claims are our religious texts making? What was the agenda of our Biblical writers and editors, and how do we reconcile that agenda, particularly the declaration and promulgation of a singular God, with modernity? These questions require the application of reason.

Despite, however, my rationalistic, academic sensibilities and the fact that as so many in my generation I too vacillate between periods of agnosticism (that is doubt in the ability to understand God), atheism (that is doubt that there even is a God), and theism (faith in a supreme and transcendent God), I view both God and reason as necessary ingredients to religion, particularly Judaism.

Do you? As we embark on a new year, when we are tasked with the introspective work of t’shuvah, how many of us are taken by a billboard that not only reassures us that we are not alone in our theological doubts but more importantly in our frequently all-too-ready desire to shed the burdens of responsibility to our religious faith and institutions? Let’s be honest with ourselves. It isn’t easy to support a synagogue: to make the time and commitment to attend worship services, to prioritize religious instruction in our lives, whether for our children or for ourselves, among all of the other activities available to us, to pay dues and support Temple fundraisers particularly in economically trying times. These tasks require conscious commitment as does carving out the time to gather together here in order to pursue social justice through a Jewish lens. Yet, we do it! Those of us who are present today celebrating the beginning of 5771 within the context and embrace of our synagogue community do it.

Why? Is God part of our motivation? Is God a necessary factor to our commitment to synagogue life? The popular punch line is familiar, shared from this pulpit on a number of occasions: “Max comes to shul to speak with God; Sam comes to speak with Max” Does the synagogue depend on us believing in God, or is being a Beit K’nesset, a place simply to gather enough? No question that the social connections we form within these walls are vital, but I wonder, if that conversation ‘Sam’ seeks to have with ‘Max’ is enough to keep synagogue life thriving well into the 21st century.

According to a study reported a year ago in The New York Times Magazine, a study by the Pew Forum, a non-partisan research think-tank that strives to understand the juncture between religion and public affairs, 75% of Americans report that they pray at least once a week while only 39% attend a worship service on a weekly basis. Now prayer doesn’t necessitate a belief in God; however, arguably this interesting statistic suggests that most Americans believe in something greater than themselves, something toward which to pray. Call it God, a Higher Power, The Divine, Adonai, Elohim, Shechinah, Jesus, Allah – whatever ‘its’ name, there is something towards which prayer can be directed for most Americans. Yet only a minority of those who believe in and actively pray towards some form of deity seem to require an organized communal outlet for this God seeking. At first glance, this study seems to suggest that God trumps the social connections we make within these walls.

It isn’t our lack of faith or our doubts about God, our atheistic and agnostic tendencies if you will, that keep us from connecting more fully, more actively to the synagogue. Clearly, as the Pew Forum’s research indicates, there are many who believe in God but still choose to remain outside the institutional walls of organized religion. And I’d bet, that a number of those who choose to come inside and engage in organized religious practice have a belief in God that is far less secure.

So if it isn’t our theological doubts that prevent us from connecting more fully to religious life, what is preventing so many? One possibility is our insecurity regarding our ability to pray and engage despite theological struggles. Prayer is a skill. As the Rev. Daniel Henderson, a Baptist minister and former head of a suburban mega-church in Minneapolis who now leads a non-profit organization that runs how-to worship seminars, notes “…people just assume they know how to pray. But … Prayer is a lot more than reciting words. It requires a [mastery of] both theory and technique.” Few of us are cognizant of the level of skill development required for prayer which leads us instead to assume that we can’t or don’t want to engage in liturgical recitation. The comparison between prayer skill and physical fitness, one I make often, offers a useful metaphor. One cannot expect to run a 10-mile race without skill and endurance training. The muscles, particularly the brain, need to be prepared for the activity. We know this; we expect to have to work towards physical goals, yet we have difficulty transferring this understanding of preparation to less physically demanding, more mindful goals such as prayer. Instead, we grow quickly impatient and give up assuming there is little or no meaning in the task.

One of the greatest challenges of Reform Judaism, frankly, is our overall liturgical illiteracy. We may balk at the keva, the routine and fixed nature of the traditional liturgy. We liberals emphasize kevanna, that is spontaneity over rigidity, but here is an area in which we could learn a few pointers from our more traditional brethren. It is that adherence to the structure of the siddur that enables Orthodox Jews to at least know what to do when they walk into the doors of their synagogues and to have the endurance to focus on the task at hand for an extended period of time regardless of whether they fully understand what they are saying or why, for that matter. The skill set is in place; it’s rote. Mind you, I wouldn’t trade our tendency toward kevanna or our responsiveness to modernity for that skill set, nor would I relinquish our movement’s commitment to the highest aesthetic expression of worship; yet, it would behoove us to learn from that commitment to skill development by acknowledging that prayer requires a certain level of literacy and skill.

The development of prayer skills need not be all that difficult, but it requires attention and mindfulness. To quote Rabbi Marc Gellman, a Long Island Rabbi made famous by his appearances on ABC’s Good Morning America throughout the 90’s, “when you come right down to it, there are only four basic prayers: Gimme! Thanks! Oops! And, Wow!” “Gimme” - expressions of petition; “Thanks” - expressions of gratitude; “Oops” - requests for forgiveness; “Wow” -- wondrous expressions of praise. I’d bet we all can and have used these expressions of prayer often in our daily lives. The challenge for the modern synagogue is helping each other to recognize and then communicate these colloquial (and comfortable) expressions of prayer through the language of our siddur within the context of our congregational community – a community comprised of many generations with rich yet incredibly diverse backgrounds. Far easier said than done, for sure. Communal prayer requires that we set aside some of the individualism for the sake of communal cohesiveness -- again, no small task, but one that is vital to the sustenance of communal prayer and the synagogue community.

Communal prayer demands a bit of vulnerability and perhaps unreasonableness. To recite prayers that may indeed challenge our own personal theological struggles, and to do so in a public setting among friends and acquaintances, seems counter to our modern desires for individual integrity. Our fear of being vulnerable, our fear that we have to check our reason at the door, these may be more likely factors that keep some from entering those doors than issues of belief. Our fear of fundamentalism on the one hand – unchecked theology that leads to unbridled religious passion; and our resistance to using our reason thoughtfully, that is taking the time and effort to formulate for ourselves a workable and well-reasoned theology on the other (in other words using our brains), both of these extremes can prevent us from taking steps that would connect us to the very community that could support us in so many significant ways through the valleys, heights, and plains of life.

God & Reason – both are necessary for worship and for the sustenance of synagogue life, and both can be found in the sense of community that gathers here whether around Torah, worship, a TESCA event, or even a highway clean up. Perhaps the joke about Sam coming to talk with Max isn’t far off the mark. God isn’t necessarily found in some tightly held theological belief system. God can often be found simply in our presence, our actions, and our willingness to bring our modern sensibilities – including reason – into our religious pursuits.

The Hebrew word for face offers us a beautiful and compelling metaphor. Panim, face – those familiar with the rules of Hebrew grammar will note that it rests in the plural. Indeed, it only appears in the plural form, panim. In theory, it has a singular root ( פ-נ-ה ), though, in practical usage, the singular is non-existent: ‘face’ never appears panah; it always appears as panim – ‘faces’, plural and inclusive. The Hebrew implies that our ‘face’ ceases to exist in the singular. For all our post-Enlightenment interest in the sanctity of the individual, our humanity still requires us to interact with others. Moreover, the Midrashist adds, in a commentary to the Priestly Benediction, that only when we greet each other directly פנים אל פנים ‘face to face’ is God’s countenance lifted upon us (Numbers Rabbah Naso. Accordingly, God becomes present in Sam’s conversations with Max even if, and perhaps all the more so because Sam isn’t consciously seeking God. It is within our effort to connect with others, to honestly engage with each other, what 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber identified as our I-Thou moments, that Divinity, that God, even has a chance of entering.

The rhetoric of the Religious Right in our country gives us plenty of reason to want to avoid God completely. And, there is no question that God without reason has the tendency to lead to fundamentalism on the right and at the same time, untamed mysticism on the left; yet, let us not be so quick to throw out the baby with the bath water. A willingness to at least contemplate God’s existence coupled with the activation of our hearts and minds is required in our modern day synagogues. Recall that in the ancient world the lev, the heart was understood as the seat of our intellect as well. We need both heart and mind to fully activate our intellect, and we need our reasoned intellect in order for us to develop a well-honed and flexible theology, God-system, that can help us navigate through our daily lives.

Israel: Tourist Destination or Homeland, Delivered Erev Rosh Hashanah 5771

play just before sermon:

As long as deep in the heart,
The soul of a Jew yearns
Towards the East
And eye looks to Zion
Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two thousand years
To be a free people in our land
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

‘Our hope – tikvatenu – is not lost!’
Allow me to share a story about which I read recently. Perhaps you’ve heard or read about it too. It’s about two girls who have attended the same school and have become good friends but who are now required by a locally sanctioned order to be separated. In school, they are required to wear uniforms of (to be marked by) different colors, and they have been forbidden to come into contact with each other. In order to make the prohibition concrete, a fence covered with an opaque cloth (a michitza of sorts) has literally been stretched between them. They preserve their friendship by passing notes through a hole in the fence. These girls did nothing wrong. This forced segregation is no punishment for bad behavior; rather, this segregation, which was reported and discussed by Israeli author and civil rights activist Sami Michael in Haaretz this past June in an article entitled “The Colors of Racism,” is one that is now impacting an entire community and perhaps, tikvatenu, our hope as well.

Mind you, Michael was not reporting on the days of South African apartheid, pre-civil rights America, or even the segregation and discrimination pointed directly at the Jewish community throughout much of Europe during World War II. Rather, he was reporting on what is becoming a disturbing trend within Israel today. The two schoolgirls wearing uniforms of different colors are both Jewish girls from the Israeli settlement of Immanuel in the West Bank. Immanuel (spelled w/ an ‘I’ and double ‘m’), a religious settlement populated by both Ashkanic and Sephardi Jews is, as Michael reminds us, flourishing under the Israeli flag and armed protection of the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, and the school these girls attend is a public school. It was at this public school that a significant number of parents of Ashkenazic descent refused to allow their children to attend classes while those of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic descent were allowed to study together. They demanded that the school, a public, government funded school, be completely segregated along these lines, and shockingly, they took the case to the Israeli Supreme Court in an effort to have their 'religious freedom' protected.

A reminder -- the only difference between an Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jew is one of regional descent: Ashkenazi, a term used to refer to those hailing originally from the regions of the German Rhineland that was later extended to those from areas of Eastern and Central Europe as Jews migrated out from Germany after the Medieval period; Sephardi instead refers to those whose ancestry can be traced to countries in and around the Iberian peninsula. Differences in custom and practice have certainly developed over time between these two groups, but let’s be clear, the distinction being made in Israel is ultimately one of race as well as practice.

Thankfully, Israel's highest court did not rule in favor of the parents’ demands and insisted that the integration of Ashkenazi and Sephardic students continue at this school. However, in response to the Supreme Court’s action, not only did the Ashkenazi parents proceed to reject the court’s decision, refusing to allow their children to return to school, but they organized a mass demonstration which, according to Militant Ginger, an admittedly left wing blog…perhaps rant), drew 100,000 supporters of such forced segregation within the Jewish community, that’s a lot of people for this small Jewish state.

I can only imagine the outrage Michael feels, an Israeli whose own grandchildren are both Ashkenazi and Sephardi at the same time, a product of the integration of both of these rich cultures that exist and thrive in Israel. But, we should feel outrage too. Just imagine our reaction if such a large assembly gathered here in defense of any type of formally imposed public school segregation! Would any of us be anything less than appalled?

It might be easy to dismiss the situation in Immanuel – a town whose name is as is ours despite the difference in spelling, inspired by Isaiah’s prophetic imagination: “God is w/ us,” -- as simply a reflection of the geographic hot bed of ultra Orthodox haredi attitudes that have settled into the West Bank; but sadly, Israel is increasingly becoming less welcoming of democracy and more hostile to liberal and pluralistic values. And this should concern us.
Perhaps we should have expected that it would only be a matter of time when the forced segregation of men and women based on a fundamentalist reading of Jewish Law would extend now to the creation of mechitzas, ritual barriers, based on other criteria such as race. As I shared on earlier occasions this year, forced segregation is no new phenomenon in Israel. The government backed expropriation of the Western Wall by the ultra-Orthodox, for example, lead to the arrest of a woman last November whose official crime was wearing a tallit, a not entirely uncommon feature of women choosing to daven together at the Wall but one which violates the Orthodox mandated and government enforced dress code of the Kotel area. Of course, the real issue of contention between the Women of the Wall and the Orthodox establishment is less about clothes and far more about who gets to define the parameters of Jewish expression. But when those in leadership roles call women “stupid” for coming to the wall to pray with a tallit as did Shas party spiritual head, Ovadia Yosef in November, any prospect of open dialogue between liberal and traditionalist factions seems far, far off on the horizon if not sheer fantasy. And, are we surprised then at the level of vitriol Yosef and those of his ilk express towards the Palestinians in his region when he levels such indignations to his fellow Jews.

So far, despite the success of those Ashkenazi parents in the West Bank community of Immanuel to rally support among their own, the government has wisely refused to submit to their pressure. But, with the growing influence of the right wing fundamentalist faction in Israel, can we be so sure that the Israeli government will remain on the one hand, so level headed, but even more importantly, effective in implementing this expectation that the public schools in this Haredi conclave remain integrated?

The case of Israel’s public bus system stands as an uneasy case in point.

Beginning in the 1990s, Egged, Israel’s primary mode of public transportation, began offering segregated bus service to areas heavily populated by Haredim, the most fervently Orthodox, in order to encourage their use of public transportation. What started as a limited practice to accommodate a minority population has expanded to the extent that, according to IRAC, Israel’s Religious Action Center, there is no choice but to use segregated buses on at least 5 intercity routes. Moreover, where there are still options, the segregated alternative is often the cheapest and fastest. As I shared in a sermon on this issue this past February, a trip from Jerusalem to Petach Tikva (a trip I took regularly 20 some odd years ago w/ no challenges) now requires two buses with a 15 minute layouver between and a fare of over 28 shekels, that is unless I don’t mind a segregated bus. The segregated bus still offers a non-stop ride costing under 20 shekels. Travelling from Ashdod to Arad? The segregated choice offers a 2 hour ride for 24 shekels. The non-segregated option demands a 4 hour ride at a fare of 60 shekels! (is that a choice?)

While the High Courts in Israel scolded the transportation minister last February for not following committee recommendations that segregation be fully voluntary and not at all compulsory on any public bus, no attempts have been made by the Israeli government to outlaw or even curb this practice. As long as there are options, the government’s resistance to enforce integration may seem harmless; but, we know better. We’ve experienced segregation in America. A reminder of what a segregated bus looks like: separate entrances in this case for men and women with women seated squarely at the back of the bus. And for those Rosa Parks of Israeli society who resist such degrading treatment, there are those who have taken it upon themselves, using physical force when necessary, to enforce this supposed ‘voluntary’ segregation.

The Israeli government claims to be a democracy and as such has a responsibility to protect the rights of all of its citizens, yet, as in this case, it far too often allows its hand to be forced by the religious right. How can we remain confident that despite official censure, the demands for religious and racial segregation in Immanuel (or elsewhere ba-aretz) won’t succeed in practice? And perhaps a question being pondered by many of us as we sit comfortably in our American, liberal congregations, why should we care? We live here, in America – by choice… the difference in spelling may be no accident: our vision of Emanuel is clearly different than theirs.

The most recent conversion bill raised in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, this past summer by a leader of the right wing Yisrael Beitenu party reminds us that we must care and we must remain full of hope. Such divisive efforts to further empower the Chief Rabbinate in Israel in their attempts to define who is a Jew by their limited yardstick impacts not just Israeli Jews, but American Jews and all of world Jewry and could frankly have disastrous implications for the relationship between Israel and the diaspora. This bill which was actually originally aimed at expanding conversion rights in order to help the multitude of Russian immigrants in Israel gain legitimacy quickly became a political lightening rod with the ultra-Orthodox objecting to any leniency or broadening of power and the American Jewish community then fearing invalidation.

The bill has been tabled until winter – sent to a committee tasked with finding compromise between factions. In the meantime, there has been no dearth of commentary in the dense world of blogosphere. In his anger over the controversy that arose over this bill, for instance, former Knesset member and Israeli peace activist, Avraham Burg, pointed to us, the American Jewish community as having some culpability in the growing authority of the religious right in Israel, a powerful force that is beginning to threaten the values of democracy which we hold dear not only as Americans but as liberal Jews. Burg may often spout seemingly radical ideas –if you’ve read any of his literature: his vision of Zionism involves replacing the ideal of Israel as a “Jewish State” with Israel as a “state for the Jews,” and he is passionate in his concern for the Palestinian agenda (one could argue overly-passionate). However, whether we choose to agree with him on these sensitive hot-button issues or not, we must take significant note of his accurate observation regarding the lack of involvement and concern for the future of Israel among most liberal American Jews. That’s us by the way!

Several studies over the past number of years have revealed that support for Israel is declining among non-Orthodox youth in America. While these studies have generally focused on college age cohorts, I doubt the outcomes would be all that different taking a look at not so youthful non-Orthodox Jews in America. Peter Beinart, a not too young, but not so old (I believe nearing 40 years old) journalist and former editor of The New Republic wrote a compelling analysis of the situation for The New York Review of Books this past June (6/10/2010) noting that “ …fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; [and] fewer and fewer America Jewish Zionists are liberal.” Rather than actively engaging with the many challenges that face Israel – both religious and political – most liberals have opted out thus allowing the Orthodox to define American Zionism. Beinart, himself an Orthodox Jew is, as we should be, gravely concerned about the future if such a trend continues. He imagines all too clearly an American Zionist movement that does not even, in his words, “feign concern” for the for the impact of a fundamentalist religio-political agenda; and, he fears a broader American Jewish population that does not even “feign concern” for Israel.

Certainly, we must not check our modern sensibilities or our liberal values at the door when it comes to supporting Israel. We must demand of her what we expect in our own country namely a fully democratic state that recognizes the validity of Progressive Judaism and the plurality of Jewish life. Religious pluralism has marked Jewish life since its inception and has enriched Judaism leading to the growth of a wealth of literature, differing point of views, and cultural expressions. As Reform Jews in particular, we must, as Rabbi Amy Perlin so eloquently expressed in a recent URJ commentary, “…be the voice of social justice and fairness, [teaching] and [defending] the values of Torah, promoting gender equality and communal civility…" in Israel. At the same time, we cannot simply abandon Israel when it doesn’t meet our ideals and expectations.

Tikvatenu - we must remain hopeful, and we must speak out with the confidence in knowing that our voice matters. Yes, our American Jewish voice matters. As Americans, we may feel un-entitled to a voice when it comes to Israel. True, what happens there doesn’t impact us in nearly the same manner it does to Israelis. We don’t live there. Yet, even as we make our homes here in America, Israel is far more than simply a tourist destination for us. We do have a stake in this land – in part because we are Jews and have an historical connection to (as do others), a covenantal relationship with, the land. In part because we know too well from experience that there is a need for a place that will open its borders to any Jew in need. But also, we must care about Israel because despite Hezbollah’s opinion to the contrary, as Theodore Herzl reminded us in the 19th century, the world benefits from Israel’s participation in international dialogue.

We may not be Israeli citizens. Few of us will ever make aliyah. Yet, still, despite our frustration with much of what we read, we must continue to care and engage. And, we must continually work to remind ourselves of all that this young country has to offer despite its current challenges – all that never makes headline news. Tikvatenu. We must support our Jewish homeland. There are a myriad of ways in which we can support Israel from here. Three stand out:

• First and foremost, remain or if not already, become informed. Read, pay attention – seek out information, take note of what is happening in Israel and form an opinion. Be capable and more importantly willing to speak intelligently and lovingly about Israel even when disagreeing with her actions. Like our own children, we must not abandon Israel when we disagree with decisions and policies made; rather, it is incumbent upon us to work harder at trying to understand so that we can help inspire compassion and change.

• Two: include Israel in your Tzedakah budget - give, generously as able, but wisely. We must do our homework and research the organizations to which we give, so that the monies we send to Israel don’t serve to further a right-wing religious or political agenda. As Reform Jews, we must be careful to support institutions that forward, as oppose to silencing, the progressive voice in Israel.

• Three: support Israel’s economy. Whether through buying Israeli products – of which there are a plethora available in various American retail outlets and on-line - or by picking up and travelling to Israel. Tourism is one of, if not the major, industry in Israel. Israel needs us to visit. But, as importantly, we need to visit. Supporting Israel requires activism on our part. It requires of us – the diaspora Jew, the liberal diaspora Jew – to not just pay lip service to Israel, but to make the commitment – financially and physically to get on a plane, and take advantage of all that this rich country has to offer. It isn’t about making permanent aliyah, but it is all about showing Israel that not just the Orthodox are willing to visit and spend time there. We must also. It is imperative that Israel be more than a region about which we read about in the paper or in textbooks – we must experience the land, taste the food, try out the language, meet those who live there – engage with the land and the people.

I hope there will be enough interest in our congregation so that we can again travel together to Israel in June of 2012. Whether for the first or umpteenth time, visiting Israel is a remarkable experience and to do so in the context of a congregational family trip is nothing short of a treat. There really is no other way to fully appreciate the incredibly rich history and culture of this land that Theodore Herzl dubbed, The Promised Land save by going and experiencing it firsthand among friends and family. I hope you’ll join me in going – please look forward to an informational meeting in early spring and in the meantime, please feel free to talk to me personally about your interest in going or about any questions you may have.

Hope. How fitting that the words penned by Naphtali Herz Imber in the late 19th century in a poem entitled Tikvatenu, our hope, became the foundation for Hatikva, a song universally accepted despite the fact that it has never been officially sanctioned as such by the Knesset, as the national anthem of Israel. Its haunting folk melody and hopeful lyric stirs the heart of almost all who hear it. Though it was originally written and set to music with the ideals of national restoration in mind, on this eve of a new year, 5771, may the lyrical strains of our beloved Hatikva remind us that despite the difficult challenges contemporary Israel presents for the liberal American Jewish community, we must remain committed to the possibility – the Tikva - the hope - that Israel can become an example of a more perfect democratic and pluralist state.