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Opinion: Editorial
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A view from the pew

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Interfaith work at the Episcopal church’s triennial

Last week I spent three days in Salt Lake City, Utah, attending the Episcopal church’s triennial convention, as a representative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, where I am honored to sit as a national board member.

While visiting Salt Lake City I also had the opportunity to attend Shabbat morning services at Kol Ami, the local synagogue, and interact with members of the local Jewish community. My “View from the Pew” at both the convention itself, and from Kol Ami, left me inspired by both the challenges and opportunities that we have, in both the areas of intra-Jewish and interfaith relationships.

At the Episcopal church convention, I was welcomed with warmth and appreciation. This church has a strong and sincere commitment to interfaith dialogue and cooperation. The JCPA and the office of the presiding bishop have a longstanding and strong working relationship in confronting issues of social justice, nationally and internationally, as well as a strong commitment to mutual respect. One of the many moving moments for me at this convention was seeing an exhibit of a U.N. refugee tent along with a 3D video of a young Syrian girl who lives in such a tent in a refugee camp in Jordan. My suggestion to church leaders that the Episcopal and Jewish communities, hopefully with other faith community partners, could jointly sponsor the display of this tent this fall at the U.N. was met with enthusiasm. This church is deeply committed to both social justice and the interfaith partnership.

The Episcopal church, whose roots in America go back to colonial days, is part of the worldwide Anglican Church Federation. It is facing many of the same challenges that our Jewish community is confronting in the rapidly changing ways that 21st century Americans relate to and interact with one another. In my three days in Salt Lake City I experienced some truly transformative worship and listened as priests and laity wrestled with issues of liturgical change and questioned their church’s ability to reach their next generation. Their debates sounded strikingly familiar to me, similar to our own internal Jewish struggles.

I also witnessed and shared with them sorrow over Charleston and joy over the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. I was privileged to be a dinner guest at a gathering of 16 religious leaders on Friday night of the church’s presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori. She began the dinner by saying Shabbat shalom to the assembled interfaith representatives from across America and around the world, and then turned to me and asked me to recite the Sabbath kiddush. During her nine-year tenure, Bishop Katherine has been a strong opponent of using BDS to express concern over Israeli policy, and she has led multiple Episcopal and interfaith missions to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Her election was a breakthrough for Episcopalians, whose leaders had been white males for more than two centuries. Last Saturday afternoon, I was present when Bishop Michael Curry, an African American, was elected as the next presiding bishop. After centuries of white male leadership, this church is re-creating itself to reflect the diversity of Christian America.

In addition to its deliberation on internal issues, and its welcoming of interfaith guests, the weeklong convocation was dealing with a large agenda of social concerns, both domestic and international. Irrespective of the warmth and respect with which the representative of the American Jewish Committee and I — and also an amazing young Israeli social entrepreneur — were received, there definitely was a full spectrum of views on the Middle East. Among the seven resolutions that dealt with Israel and Palestine that were up for consideration, one included language calling for divestment from companies that do business in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Along with two young men who lead a program called Shades, which has undertaken a unique dialogue program between Israeli and Palestinian foreign service personal, I had the chance to participate in the church’s social justice and international concerns committee debate on Israel Palestine issue.

This is what I shared with our friends in the church:

“Thank you for the opportunity to sit in on your committee’s discussions this afternoon.

“I want to commend members of this for the civility of your discussion. I also was most impressed by the depth of understanding of the complexity of the Israel-Palestinian conflict that your multiple resolutions under consideration reflect. The contemporary Middle East lives under the clouds of intra-Islamic struggles as well as conflicts between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, that date to the Middle Ages, as well political conflict between Israel and her Arab nation-state neighbors that are a result of the still unsettled issues of WWI.

“As your committee heard from the young Palestinian and Israeli leaders of Shades, a new initiative that promotes dialogue among Israeli and Palestinian young diplomats, there are some very positive though not yet fully illuminated, sparks of hope for intergroup dialogue cooperation, and ultimately mutual acceptance, that is arising among a new generation of Israelis and Palestinians.

“Coupled with the very positive report I heard today, regarding your community’s investment in the Bank of Palestine over the past few years, I would hope that the resolution(s) that ultimately emerge from your deliberations will be positive and proactive and not include divestment language.

“Both from listening to your deliberations today, and to the many one-on-one conversations I have had with delegates, in the hallways, I know that the Episcopal Church community, similar to the majority of the Jewish community believes that ‘two States for two Peoples’ is the only workable solution to the century-long conflict. I want to thank the Episcopal Church for its continuing constructive role in working toward this goal.”

As I write this column the convention is still in session and the committee was in closed session, seeking to rewrite a resolution. Therefore I cannot tell you what resolutions on the Middle East, if any, ultimately will emerge before the conference ends on July 2. I can say that I heard true expressions of support for Israel and for concern for the plight of Palestinians.

I cannot end this column without a word about my Shabbat morning experience.

In my last column I wrote of the need for us to rethink our communal delivery system. In Salt Lake City, Kol Ami is a synagogue that is both Reform and Conservative, and holds parallel services every Shabbat, where both communities come together for the conclusion of the service,  including their rabbi’s sermon, Kaddish, and a kiddish lunch. The synagogue is led by a dynamic young rabbi, who is the daughter of a contemporary of mine, an inspirational cantor, and a large cadre of dedicated and liturgically skilled lay leaders. Last Saturday, like many colleagues across the country, the rabbi spoke about Charleston and its implications. She made the challenging claim that Americans must not use the issue of the Confederate flag as a diversion from facing the real issue of racism that permeates our society and our own communities. She called upon her congregants to join her in outreach to the African American, Native American, and Muslim communities in Salt Lake City.

The lessons I learned in three days in Salt Lake City were that that we are blessed to live in a time and place where Jews and Judaism are far more accepted by our Christian neighbors and their churches than ever before in American history. Interfaith understanding that leads to mutual respect and interfaith action that can lead us to real social change are, as the events in Charleston reminded us all, challenged by the fear of the stranger. In conversation with one of my new Christian friends, a bishop from Maryland, we agreed that our mutual responsibility is to teach and model for others. We realized that the command in Leviticus 19, “love your neighbor as yourself,” must be taken as a serious challenge, not a platitude.

As I look back on last weekend and look forward to July 4th, our American Independence Day , when we coincidentally will read Parshat Balak, where curses are turned into blessings, I see a challenge to both appreciate our blessings as American Jews in the 21st century, and to work together with our fellow Jews, and with our fellow Americans of other faiths, to continue to repair the tears in the fabric of our world.


Toward an end to gun violence

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It is not entirely foreign to Jews to imagine being massacred at prayer.

This is not even a question of historical memory, although our story overflows with such murderous episodes. No, we just have to think back to last November, when assassins burst into a synagogue at Har Nof, in Jerusalem, and butchered four men there as they stood lost in the Amidah, the silent prayer at the heart of the service.

Then the killers slaughtered a Druze policeman who tried to protect the daveners.

Last week, a crazed, racist 21-year-old, a loser with a bowl haircut, dead eyes, and a gun, went into the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston, like Jerusalem, is an old city (although of course here in the New World we measure age in centuries; in Israel it’s in millennia). It’s been at the heart of the slave trade, and so represented evil, but it is also beautiful, graceful, quirky, and a bustling tourist destination.



Thoughts on identity

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This has been a season to think about identity, Jewish and otherwise.

A few weeks ago, we were introduced to Caitlyn Jenner, who has taken up residence in the body formerly belonging to sports-icon-turned-Kardashian Bruce Jenner.

The overwhelmingly vast majority of us feel at home with our genders. We might chafe against some of the assumptions and expectations that come along with them, but we do not question whether we really are girls or boys, women or men. Transgendered people, like Ms. Jenner, however, feel very strongly that their assigned genders do not fit their souls. A transman or woman’s understanding of him or herself, before transition, is wildly at odds with what the world sees. Those of us who are not transgender cannot understand the urge to hack at our bodies to change who we are, but certainly we can believe that the urge must be incredibly strong. The only possible reason to take such a drastic step is if you know, from the bottom of your soul, that your true identity is belied and denied by the body into which you were born.

Do not assume that Jews are immune from the body dysmorphia that drives transgendered people. Consider, among many other less public transpeople, Joy Ladin. Dr. Ladin, who holds the David and Ruth Guttesman Chair in English at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women and is the first open transperson to teach at an Orthodox university, was born Jay. She writes about her transition with great sensitivity in her memoir, “Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders.”

Caitlyn Jenner, who has brought the idea of transgender to popular culture, is an odd and perhaps unfortunate representative. She seems to have shed her old identity so thoroughly that not only is her gender new, but her age is as well. She does not look 65, except perhaps in dog years. She also seems to have decidedly odd ideas of what it means to be a woman — apparently she thinks that it means posing in her underwear. But as a Kardashian, even by marriage, her relationship with privacy is unconventional. Boundaries are not their strong point.

Ms. Jenner was able to change her public identity to make it match her inner one because her identity involved only herself. Her change was not hidden, she did not lie about who she had been, she had to go through all sorts of trials to attain it, and it took a long time.

It is not entirely unlike becoming Jewish.

Next, there is Rachel Dolezal. Her transformation from very white to at least part black is not at all like Caitlyn Jenner’s, because it is based on lies. It is fascinating to see her story continue to unfold, its operatic details sprawling into lurid melodrama. But some facts are clear. You can estrange yourself from your parents, but you cannot rid your body of their DNA. Their genes are your genes. You cannot will yourself into another race. You can color your hair and darken your skin; you can say that you grew up in a teepee in South Africa and were disciplined with an baboon whip. You can say that a random black man is your father. It doesn’t work.

You can change your present and your future, but you cannot change your past.

It is interesting to watch all this as Jews. We are a race but we are also a religion and a people. There is no one definition of a Jew — like blackness, it is often traced through bloodlines. Historically, in the United States, a person was black if he or she had one drop of blood that could be traced to someone of sub-Saharan African descent. That means that people who looked white could pass — they could pretend to be white — but often only if they were willing to cut themselves off from their families. That amputation was painful.

For many of us — from approximately the Conservative movement, or perhaps even the very left wing of the Reform, and then on to the right — Jewishness comes through the mother (or of course through conversion). That means that a family tree that has an unbroken line of Jewish mothers — the mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother was Jewish, traced back to some point where Jewishness was unassailable — results in a Jew, even if no one else on the tree is Jewish.

For a decade or so now we have been faced with a new problem — the problem that Rachel Dolezal now poses to the African-American community.

What do we do when all of a sudden people want to join us?

We have been a socially undesirable group for much of our history. People have wanted to leave Judaism for the wide outside world, just as they have wanted to pass as white, to flee the social bondage that comes with being black.

But now people want to be Jewish. People want to be black. That’s amazing.

Identity comes from within. It comes with birth. It can be rigid. It also can be flexible. Its barriers change — the way to become a Jew now is not what it was during the talmudic period, and nothing like it was during biblical times. As Shulem Deen’s story shows (see page 18), sometimes even changing your identity within the Jewish world is a struggle.

So as we continue to define and redefine ourselves as Jews (modern Orthodox, cultural, yeshivish, traditional egalitarian, chasidic, Reconstructionist, right-wing Reform, bagel-and-lox, just for starters), let’s figure out how to keep our boundaries flexible enough to let in people who truly yearn to join us, but rigid enough to keep us who we really are.—JP


Thank you, Avi

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In our story about Avi Lewinson, we quote many people who have been touched by Avi in some way, but we retain our editorial distance.

Here, in this space, we are able to eliminate that distance and add our feelings to everyone else’s.

Avi Lewinson is a gem of a man. His love for the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, filtered as always through his Jewish heart and soul and his social-worker’s eyes, is pure, unstinting, and unending. Those of us who have had children in JCC programs knew that we’d see him at drop-off or pick-up, and that he’d know our kids’ names. We’d known that although he is a preternaturally gifted fundraiser, his interest in those of us who did not have funds that could be raised was warm and deep and real.

We knew about the programs at the JCC that take care of the most vulnerable among us — the autistic children at the therapeutic nursery school, the cancer-stricken children at Camp Dream Street, the older people who suffer from dementia at adult day care. And then there are the programs that develop talent — the Thurnauer School of Music, the extraordinary drama and musical theater classes that stimulate both children’s and adults’ creativity, their yearning to explore, and their sense of magic. And then there were all the performances, the talks, and the communal responses to joy and tragedy and natural disaster that so mark the JCC.

All of them are either Avi’s brainchildren or the results of his gifted midwifery.

We celebrate Avi’s nearly quarter century at the JCC, we are glad to learn that he will keep his hand in fundraising there, and we hope that he stays in the community as he explores his options. We know that any organization that he chooses as his professional home will be lucky, just as we have been lucky all these years.



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