September 23, 2009
L.A. Rabbis Join Fast for Gaza
The three Los Angeles rabbis were on a sunrise-to-sunset fast, even though Yom Kippur was still 11 days away. And so were rabbis and some congregants in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Philadelphia.
By fasting on the third Thursday of every month, the small, scattered groups are trying to shake the conscience of the American Jewish community about what they see as the inhuman blockade by Israel of Palestinians in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
“The blockade is an act of collective punishment, denying the entire population of Gaza with necessary food, medicine, fuel and other basic necessities. How can we (rabbis, Jews, human beings) be silent?”
Thus declares a statement from the recently founded Jewish Fast for Gaza, or, in Hebrew, Ta’anit Tzedek (Fast for Justice).
“In biblical times, religious leaders called for a public fast in times of crises, such as war or drought. What we are facing now is an intense moral crisis,” said Rabbi Brian Walt of West Tisbury, Mass., a Jewish Fast organizer.
With his co-founder, Rabbi Brant Rosen of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Ill., Walt issued a call in late June for a national minyan of rabbis to go public in their opposition to the Gaza blockade.
Among the first to respond were three Los Angeles Reform rabbis, Leonard Beerman of Leo Baeck Temple, Haim Beliak of Beth Shalom of Whittier, and Steven B. Jacobs of Temple Kol Tikvah, Woodland Hills.
All three are veteran activists in civil rights, peace and numerous liberal causes, and are used to being the voices of a small minority within the Jewish community.
The most recent Jewish Fast for Gaza fell on Sept. 15, and the three rabbis had issued a community appeal to join a one-hour vigil at the Workmen’s Circle building.
When a reporter arrived at the appointed hour, only the three rabbis and two Workmen’s Circle officials were on hand. The hosts blamed the lack of attendance on the late invitation and the priority of their rabbinical colleagues in preparing for the following day’s Rosh Hashanah services.
Another reason, Beliak proposed, is that most rabbis are well to the left of their shul members, but “are afraid of tangling with their congregations,” he said.
Be that as it may, according to Rosen, 71 American rabbis and a sprinkling from other countries, and 600-700 other supporters, including 36 Christian and seven Muslim members of the clergy, are supporters of Jewish Fast for Gaza and of its main platform planks: immediate lifting of the Gaza blockade and humanitarian aid to its 1.5 million residents; negotiations without pre-conditions with all relevant Palestinian parties, including Hamas; and that all nations should work toward a just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The lack of public support at this stage does not discourage the three L.A. rabbis, who are used to making lonely stands for hot-button issues that later may draw wide public support.
One rabbi recalled participating in a silent vigil to protest the Vietnam War in 1966, which drew six participants. At the next meeting, 12 showed up, until eventually the anti-war protests coalesced into a national movement.
Jacobs emphasized that his group in no way condones Hamas-directed missiles launched against Sderot and other civilian targets, but that the “collective punishment” inflicted on Gaza residents went beyond human decency and violated Jewish ethical tradition.
Such leading Israeli writers as Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, who initially supported the Gaza retaliation, have now reversed their stands, Beerman said, but in general, he added, “I don’t look to Israel for moral leadership.”
The day of the September fast coincided with the release of the United Nations-commissioned Goldstone Report on last winter’s three-week fighting in Gaza. It accused both Israel and Hamas of numerous war crimes and human rights violations, but saved its strongest denunciations for the Israeli army.
Rosen described the report as “devastating,” adding, “the response by Israel and American Jewish organizations has been to attack the messenger. I find that profoundly sad, and I am ashamed as a Jew.”
That sadness also pervaded the remarks of the three L.A. rabbis as they traced the perceived moral decline of Israel in recent years.
Beliak, who served as a volunteer in Israel’s 1967 war and lived there for five years, said, “The old Israel doesn’t exist any more,” and he blamed American Jews for their failure to live up to the concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and the biblical injunction of “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.”
Reform congregations, traditionally known for social activism, still conduct social justice projects, but generally shy away from dealing with controversial issues, Beerman said.
Jacobs concluded on a slight note of hope. “What we are doing here, now, can lead to a raised consciousness among American Jews,” he said. “Not all is lost.”
The next fast day is scheduled for Oct. 15. For information, visit www.fastforgaza.net.