Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
In October I joined with 28 members of my congregation in a “humanitarian mission” to the Cuban Jewish community (meaning, we took goods and cash as gifts to support the Jewish community there). There are about 1000+ Cuban Jews living today in Havana, Santiago and Guantanamo, and we visited 3 of the 4 synagogue communities on the island. We were deeply moved by these people. They hosted us for Shabbat in Santiago (41 Jews) and welcomed us in Guantanamo (75 Jews) for lunch with an Israeli folk dance performance by 7 of its young people.
There is no Rabbi or Jewish school on the island to teach adults about Judaism and Jewish practice. Cubans generally have no access to the Internet, and so one would think that assimilation would be the greatest threat to the continued existence of their Jewish community. Yet, despite much intermarriage (by some estimates only 25 individuals have two Jewish parents) their Jewish identity is strong and their longing for all things Jewish compelling.
In Santiago I was asked to name a 10 day-old baby girl. In Guantanamo, we were shown the pride and joy of that community, a brand new Torah scroll contributed a few years ago by the Canadian Jewish Congress. It had never been read, which brings me to the purpose in this blog.
A study was recently published called “American Jewish Secularism: Jewish Life Beyond the Synagogue” by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar in which the authors discuss our changing American Jewish identity. Though 40% of the American Jewish community (by some estimates) is affiliated with synagogues, and among them a portion do believe in God, study Torah regularly and do Jewish good works in the interest of tikun olam (repair of the world), most American Jews are not synagogue-affiliated, and an even greater number consider themselves atheist or agnostic, are unlearned in Judaism, and do not lead lives that are particularly Jewish, though they may very well self-identify as Jewish.
Many so-called “secular” Jews, instead of being involved in religious communities, are instead drawn as Jews to Jewish culture and politics such as Church-State issues, Israel, Yiddish and modern Hebrew study, Klezmer and Jewish music, Jewish photography and art exhibits, Israeli film, and Jewish book festivals. All this is well and good. Indeed, what the study indicates is that there is developing a rich secular Jewish culture in America that engages many.
My question is this: Just as the Cuban Jewish community relishes in the celebration of Jewish holidays, Israeli music, and Jewish communal life (with an obvious lack of exposure to American Jewish cultural opportunities), their knowledge base in Judaism is paper-thin.
Let me not be misunderstood. What the Cuban Jews have managed to create with no rabbis and no serious Jewish educational institutions is nothing less than heroic. But, I and my traveling companions worried about the survival of the Cuban Jewish community.
I also worry about the nature of the American Jewish community going forward. Will it survive, or will it morph into something unrecognizable by today’s standards?
I take the position that every door needs to be kept open, and new doors need to be opened, to welcome Jews and their families into Jewish communal life. I am well aware that not all these doors will necessarily lead people to an enriched Jewish faith, experience of God and the holy, or to greater Jewish learning. Yet those doors (be they children’s education, Purim Shpiels and carnivals, social justice work, trips to Israel and Jewish communities around the world, and Jewish cultural events), I would hope, will be stepping stones leading our people to deeper Jewish knowledge and engagement in the covenant of the Jewish people with God.
Many American secular Jews confess that that they do not need synagogues in order to be Jewish. That may be true, but for our community to maintain our Jewish identity and secure some measure of Jewish continuity, no other institution in Jewish life has ever been able to bring Jews together in all the dimensions of life as has the synagogue, except perhaps the State of Israel.
The synagogue has been the Diaspora’s laboratory of Jewish living for two millennia. It is where Jews experience the holy and engage in tikun olam.
What will the next generation of American Jews be like? Will our American Judaism look more like that of our Cuban Jewish brothers and sisters, or will we discover a more enriched Jewish identity and life?
The Talmud (Shabbat 127a) reminds us of the truth that Talmud Torah k’neged kulam (“The study of Torah is equal to all the commandments”).
To secure Jewish life, Jews have had to be learned and committed to the building of community. It is from this base that we have survived, and this alone.
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February 13, 2013 | 8:36 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
What follows is my response to a flurry of letters posted by Reform Rabbis on our List Serve (RAVKAV) critical of J Street. Many of my colleagues charge that J Street ignores hostility to Israel throughout the Middle East, the growing influence and threat of Hamas in the Palestinian community, that Israel has no real partner to peace in Mahmud Abbas, and that J Street is constantly critiquing Israeli policies and not the Palestinians.
Note: I serve as the National co-chair of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet with close to 700 rabbis of all religious streams - see J Street's website for all policy positions - www.jstreet.org.
In response to [the above] challenges to J Street, I want to offer J Street's stated position on a number of issues as well as its reasoning for a number of its positions.
Re: the issue of "calling for concessions by the Palestinians" - I would make two points:
(1) J Street has always made clear such views as
(a) the Palestinians have to give up the right of return;
(b) the Palestinian state has to be demilitarized;
(c) the Palestinians must cease the rhetoric and actions that incite violence and hatred of Jews; and
(d) that any Palestinian entity/party that hopes to be part of the political process has to renounce violence/terror, recognize Israel and agree to abide by past agreements.
Those views are all in J Street's policy papers and on the J Street website – but not too much discussion or debate is ever generated by them because they are consensus points. There would be no need to set up a J Street in the first place if those were the thrust of our points – every Jewish organization agrees with and makes those points. That's why 2% of the ink spilled about J Street addresses or acknowledges these points;
(2) The reason why it seems to those who follow us/read about us that we are 98% of the time talking about what we are calling on Israel to do is that that's what there's an argument. Those who choose to argue/debate don't raise the issues on which we agree, they raise the issues on which we disagree. So that's why one hears a lot more about our belief that Israel should stop expanding settlements, or that the US should play a more active role in leading the peace effort, and that such parameters as the borders need to be based on the '67 lines with swaps or that both countries should have a capital in Jerusalem should be put forward by the US.
On the issue of primarily focusing on Israel – it's hard not to disagree with the theory that, even though we're Jews and we engage in this issue (as opposed to peace in Mali) because we care so deeply about Israel and the Jewish people, we somehow shouldn't be more focused on the Jewish side of the equation. The entirety of this debate actually is about what it means to be pro-Israel – not what it means to be pro-Palestinian. We believe it is pro-Israel to advocate for Israelis to stop building settlements. We believe it is pro-Israel to advocate for US leadership in getting a deal. Of course it's pro-Israel to advocate that the Palestinians should stop incitement and fight terror – but we're going to have little impact on the internal Palestinian debate on how best to gain their freedom (even though we have made statements precisely on those points). We are going to have an impact on the Jewish debate over what it means to be pro-Israel.
On the Palestinian partner question, J Street obviously just disagrees. Abbas, Fayyad and this PLO/PA leadership ARE a partner for peace despite Abbas' rhetoric at the UN, about which I was sickened. However, their being considered partners in peace is not just in J Street's opinion but in the opinion of such Israeli leaders as former Prime Ministers, the President of Israel, former heads of the Israeli security services. No, Mahmoud Abbas is not a Zionist. That's no surprise. When, as the leader of the Palestinian people, he addresses the international community directly he will be – as we would expect our leaders to be – a fierce advocate for the rights of his people, which we have to acknowledge are in conflict with the rights of our people. If he were to do less, he would be completely abdicating his role and he would sacrifice the last shred of legitimacy and credibility that he has. For anyone to simply state that "it is a reality" that Abbas and the PLO are "not yet committed to offering themselves as serious partners in the peace process" is simply an opinion that is out of step with the moderate mainstream of Israeli policy makers and analysts. It's such a person’s right to hold that opinion and it's J Street's right to believe that s/he is wrong. If one is waiting for Abbas to come to Israel and announce up front that the Palestinian people renounce their right to the land as "theirs," s/he will sadly watch a bloody, violent struggle continue for the rest of his/her life, and the state of Israel gradually will become more and more internationally isolated and shunned. If one is willing to recognize that peace will be made between two leaders/people who fiercely believe they are "in the right" but are willing to compromise at the end of the day to achieve peace and end bloodshed, then maybe there's hope.
Let me say one more thing. I deeply appreciate the civility with which those who have posted are writing. That is a win for everyone. I would hope that those who hold views that presume J Street is one-sided will take a second look at J Street's positions and approach to a two-state solution. It is, in my view, the only way forward. I am well-aware of the risks. I understand that Israelis are the ones on the front lines and that we in Galut have only a secondary right to speak. But, I also know that so many hundreds of thousands of Israelis agree with J Street's position, or should I say, that J Street agrees with their position.
February 11, 2013 | 9:49 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Recent surveys conducted by Hiddush, an organization committed to freedom of religion for Israel, show clearly that the vast majority of Israelis want “freedom of religion and equality in shouldering civic burdens, equal military service for all, the implementation of core curricular studies, civil marriage, public transportation on Shabbat, a decrease in subsidies for yeshiva students, and action against public discrimination of women. Instead the public suffers from the government’s repeated surrender to the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism.” (Rabbi Uri Regev, President of Hiddush).
This conclusion is drawn from surveys conducted before and after the recent Israeli elections by the Rafi Smith Research Institute. Here are some of its findings:
There are a number of conclusions to be drawn from these surveys:
The ultra-Orthodox community of Israel, represents only 9% of Israeli society. Modern Orthodox Jews are far more in number but work and serve in the Israeli military as do all Israeli citizens. The Israeli public clearly has voiced its opposition to the unfair influence of the ultra-Orthodox parties over Israel’s civil community. It is hoped that the next government will reflect the true desires of the Israeli public.
The particulars of Hiddush surveys can be found on the Hiddush web-site.
February 4, 2013 | 10:16 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
This morning I spoke by phone to Jerusalem with Felice Friedson (The Media Line's - TML - co-founder and its current President and CEO) about a new U.S. State Department-funded study on Israeli and Palestinian textbooks that soon will be released.
The article “Text-Book Study Sparks Controversy,” co-written by Felice Friedson and Linda Gradstein of NPR News, covers a study conducted over the last three years of how Israeli and Palestinian school textbooks treat the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the images these textbooks create of the other population. Felice, who has read the entire study, reports that:
A U.S. State Department-funded study on Israeli and Palestinian textbooks released in Jerusalem has set-off a wave of insults, charges and counter-charges. Israel’s Ministry of Education called the detailed report “biased and unprofessional” while the International Society for Political Psychology called the Israeli government’s description “highly distressing.”
Education is a key element in a future two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is clear that there is a long way to go before the two enemy populations know and understand each other. Organizations such as Seeds for Peace have sought to defuse conflict through face to face encounters, camps and projects in which Israeli and Palestinian youth come to actually know one another, but not nearly enough people on each side have had such opportunities. This is why this text-book study is so revealing as a gauge for the state of understanding of each population towards the other. This story will have legs for some time. It is worth following:
See the Media Line Story here.
Note: The Media Line is a “non-profit news organization established to enhance and balance media coverage in the Middle East.” It delivers its in-house news and programming via multiple media – radio, television content, Internet news and features, and written stories for the print media. Media outlets using The Media Line as a source include the BBC World Service; National Public Radio; ABC, CBS affiliates; Al-Quds (Palestinian) newspaper; Y-Net (Israel); Ma’an (Palestinian) Television Network; Atlanta Journal-Constitution; India Today; IRN (UK Radio). Media Line may also soon be picked up by The Huffington Post .
February 3, 2013 | 8:49 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
This little volume reminds me of a conversation once between Picasso and an art critique who asked the Master how long it took him to draw a piece that had only a few lines evoking the image of a man. Picasso said, “A life-time.”
So too is Elie Wiesel’s new book in which he reflects on the meaning of his life following emergency open heart surgery on June 16, 2011.
The volume is vintage Elie Wiesel. The writing is simple, the scope sweeping.
Upon awakening from the anesthetic he remembers thinking “…I am not dead yet. What does being resuscitated mean if not rediscovering one’s future?”
The book is a positive, optimistic expression of a grateful man. Eighty two years have not nearly been enough. He admits to having more words to write and teach, more to learn, and more love to share.
For me, Elie’s most moving passage is his description of what happened when his five year old grandson, Elijah, came to pay him a visit during his recovery: “I hug him and tell him, ‘Every time I see you, my life becomes a gift.’”