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entries tagged with: Jewish Council For Public Affairs

 

Jewish environmental group increasing efforts as climate debate heats up

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Sybil Sanchez, the new COEJL director, says the group’s focus will be on its Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign seeking increased activism on environmental issues. Courtesy Sybil Sanchez

WASHINGTON – As the debate over how to combat climate change heats up in Copenhagen, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life is ramping up its efforts to help make the Jewish community a key player in the discussion.

Without a full-time director since early 2006, COEJL has secured a half-million dollars in funding for the next two years and hired Sybil Sanchez, executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee, to be its new director.

Sanchez said she sees COEJL helping the Jewish environmental movement transition into a new phase.

For a long time, she said, the goal was to get people to understand such things like “climate change is real” and the negative impact of carbon emissions. But now that “all but the hard core” in the Jewish community are convinced of that, Sanchez said, the question is “how do we integrate that into action as Jewish individuals and activists — move it to the next level and start to be the change we want to see in the world.”

“It’s a challenging and inspiring time,” she said.

Sanchez, who was officially to take over at COEJL on Wednesday, said that while specific plans for the future are still being discussed, the group would likely be hiring a representative in Washington. But the primary focus of the environmental organization’s efforts right now is the Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign. The initiative asks American Jews to pledge that they will act to conserve on the individual level, be part of Jewish communal actions on the environment, and advocate for environmental issues with elected officials and in the media.

She also sees COEJL becoming a clearinghouse of information for synagogues and Jewish organizations, providing best practices and products to help sustainability, providing advice, and making connections between groups working on similar issues. COEJL sponsored a “sustainability” conference earlier this year for representatives of Jewish organizations.

Sanchez said the environment sparks multi-generational interest among Jews because it encompasses a number of different issues — from concern about dependence on foreign oil to protection of nature to worries about the state of the planet for future generations. And Sanchez argues that Judaism is connected to the environment in a number of ways. Major Jewish holidays are timed to the seasons of Israel, she points out, and working “in community and collectively are part of the Jewish and environmental lifestyle.” For example, the requirement to pray in a minyan, she notes, is one example of the “idea that we need each other” in Judaism.

In the absence of a full-time leader in the last few years, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism have stepped in to help out with COEJL, which is a project of JCPA. The Reform center worked on legislative advocacy in Washington, while JCPA — an advocacy umbrella organization bringing together the synagogue movements, national organizations, and local Jewish ommunities — organized grass-roots support and activism throughout the country.

The Reform center’s director, Rabbi David Saperstein, said it was good to have both organizations “more engaged than they might have been otherwise” in the issue and he hopes that intensity continues, but added that COEJL’s re-emergence will help to mobilize further the consciousness of the Jewish community.

“It is crucially important at this moment in history to play a role in the climate change debate,” he said.

“I feel it’s back in the nick of time,” said JCPA’s president, Rabbi Steve Gutow, who hopes to see COEJL become successful enough to eventually spin off into an independent group.

Gutow said the Jewish community has been a “very important leader” on a number of other issues in recent years — from Darfur to Iran to anti-discrimination issues — but has not done the same on energy and the environment.

“I think people look to us for leadership on certain issues,” he said, and “if we decide to lead, I do think we have a particular niche that we are able to help move it forward.”

JTA

 
 

Action needed to combat campaign delegitimizing Israel

 

Presbyterian report threatens coalition

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs did not mince words. In a letter dated March 15 and addressed to its board and member agencies, the group wrote: “The Jewish community finds itself at a crossroad in our relationship with the Presbyterian Church (USA).”

At issue is a report from the church’s Middle East Study Committee. Entitled “Breaking Down the Walls,” the 172-page document — which will be presented at the group’s 219th General Assembly in July — is “an egregious diatribe against Israel,” said Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of North Jersey and head of the regional Community Relations Council.

Kurland and Allyson Gall, New Jersey area director of the American Jewish Committee, spoke with The Jewish Standard on Tuesday to relay their concerns.

This is not the first time the Protestant denomination — with some 10,000 congregations and 2 million to 3 million members — has put forward positions critical of Israel.

But, said Gall, “this is the worst ever,” because rather than just voicing specific concerns or proposals advocating boycotts or divestment, “it’s much more insidious; it’s about delegitimizing Israel as a state.”

In the past, she said, groups such as AJCommittee and JCPA mobilized their local offices to talk to Presbyterian delegates before they went to their biennial conventions, letting them know how their Jewish neighbors felt about anti-Israel proposals. And, in the past, such efforts were generally successful.

This time, however, may be different.

“Regretfully, there is a possibility it will pass,” said Gall, pointing out that while there are certainly a small number of delegates who will be committed to its passage, most — “who will also be considering tons of other stuff” — may simply not understand the implications of the issue and simply let it go through.

In addition, she pointed out, this year’s agenda also contains a report on gay rights, something likely to garner much more attention.

“We as Jews forget that it’s not the most important thing to the average church member,” she said.

Nevertheless, said Kurland, should the measure pass, “We’re going to have to step back and reassess” relations with the Presbyterian Church. Citing coalitions in which Jews and Presbyterians work together on issues such as Darfur and immigration reform, she said that, conceivably, such efforts might not be able to continue.

“The proposal can’t be fixed,” said Gall. “In our estimation, it can’t be tweaked. All the blame for everything is on Israel,” she added, noting that the document refers continually to “occupation, occupation, occupation, and land taken away from the Palestinians.”

“It’s a rewriting of the story,” said Kurland. “The whole piece is a horrific attack against Israel, making use of pieces of text taken completely out of context.”

These include scriptural passages, she said. The March JCPA letter gives examples of “a problematic theology” in the report that negates Jewish claims to the land while simultaneously “holding the modern State of Israel to biblical standards of justice,” standards that are not applied to other countries.

Kurland also pointed out that despite the Presbyterians’ protestations, no mainstream American Jewish organizations were consulted during the preparation of the report. The committee indicated that it had spoken with Jewish Voices for Peace, described by JCPA as an anti-Israel group; B’Tselem, an Israeli group; and J Street.

J Street, however, said later that it was never consulted by the Presbyterian group and that it finds the report “troubling and unfair,” according to JCPA.

Additionally, the report holds “Israeli discrimination” responsible for the declining Christian population in the country, and, said Gall, “One of the authors of the historical analysis sections claims that United States aid to Israel violates domestic and international law.”

While Jews are clearly troubled by the report, they are not alone, said the AJCommittee director.

“It’s not all Presbyterians,” she said. “We’re not talking about demonizing the whole church. Some are very upset and are working to change it.”

To help in this effort, local community relations councils and regional AJCommittee offices are reaching out to their Presbyterian coalition partners, stressing the importance of countering the report, which, if accepted, would result in anti-Israel measures.

Kurland said there are 30 convention delegates from New Jersey.

“We have to try to speak with them and with other Presbyterian ministers who are our friends,” she said. “There are relationships that have been built over the years on the local level, where they don’t march in lockstep with the national body.” People on the local level “have to hear from their Jewish clergy counterparts that these relationships really mean something.”

“We also have to explain to our partners that maybe they haven’t quite understood how important Israel is to us, that it’s part of our identity as American Jews,” said Gall.

“We have a perfect right to try to educate our friends and neighbors” on the importance of Israel, she said. “We think we’ve done so much and we all get along, but we don’t talk about the things that are really important to us. Our neighbors don’t seem to understand that being Jewish is not just about going to synagogue on Saturday; it’s not just a religion.” While Jews may be reluctant to initiate such discussions, “other people need to know,” she said.

Should the report pass, said the two Jewish leaders, the Jewish community will “have to take a deep breath and step back,” though exactly how the repercussions will be felt will differ from town to town. They also agreed that Israel’s recent actions regarding the Gaza aid flotilla will “put a cloud on what we’re trying to do.”

“I’m sure it will have to be addressed,” said Gall. “Maybe we’ll wait a week to make calls.”

Nevertheless, said Kurland, pointing out that task-force meetings have already been held on the subject, action must be taken.

“What’s really troublesome is not only that this issue was visited a few years ago and we thought that things were addressed and rectified, but that this initiative is so egregiously anti-Israel that it can break up a coalition with the Presbyterians.” Coalition partners “must understand what’s at stake here; that we cannot be at the table with people who are working against the welfare and security of the State of Israel.”

 
 

Teaneck religious leaders travel to Birmingham, address poverty

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Rabbi Steven Sirbu, right, and Pastor Keni Ashby in front of a tree in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park. The plaque near the tree includes words written by Anne Frank.

Rabbi Steven Sirbu returned from Birmingham last week with new insights into social injustice, a mandate for change, and a partner to help him carry out that change.

The religious leader of Teaneck’s Temple Emeth — together with Pastor Keni Ashby of the Covenant House of Faith International, also in Teaneck — joined five other “teams” convened by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs to strengthen relationships between the Jewish and African-American communities.

Seeking to develop what a JCPA spokesman called “concrete steps blacks and Jews could jointly implement to help alleviate poverty and promote justice in their local communities,” the teams spent four days in Alabama, hosted by the Birmingham Jewish federation. The initiative was part of the JCPA’s anti-poverty initiative, “There Shall Be No Needy Among You,” launched in 2007.

Participants needed to apply as teams, said Sirbu, noting that he already knew Ashby through involvement in dialogue programs between Jews and Evangelical Christians.

As part of the mission, participants visited sites important to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. These included the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where a bomb killed four little girls in 1963.

“We had the chance to tour the building, including the pulpit where Martin Luther King and every other civil rights leader spoke at one time or another,” said Sirbu.

The group also visited Kelly Ingram Park, a central staging ground for large-scale civil rights demonstrations. A tree was planted there in April in memory of Anne Frank and other victims of the Holocaust.

At the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma — made famous by the march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965— Sirbu and Ashby were called upon to offer reflections and lead prayers.

The focus was not simply historical, said Sirbu, pointing out that the teams also took part in a service project in Birmingham’s West End, where they confronted poverty and discussed its causes. While the immediate focus was Birmingham, “there was the assumption that the same general causes apply nationwide.”

“We were impacted in different ways,” he said, pointing out that the civil rights movement “affected both African Americans and the Jews involved” in that struggle.

Among other issues, the group discussed access to education as well as inequality in the justice system, “something that really resonated with Keni,” said Sirbu.

Sirbu explained to the Standard that in Alabama, young teenagers can be sentenced to life imprisonment, even if they haven’t killed anyone. “Most kids who get sentenced are victims of abuse and neglect,” he said. “It offers no chance for redemption or rehabilitation.”

While New Jersey is not as punitive, he said, “that’s not to say we’re doing everything we can to make sure kids are getting age-appropriate justice.”

Sirbu said he intends to explore this issue, looking for ways to partner with others to bring about needed changes.

He added that while his experience will take some time to fully digest, “I’m sure there will be a sermon in this.”

Calling the mission “absolutely of value,” Sirbu said “there are very few ways to get a good grasp of how poverty affects our communities and the resources available to reverse it.”

Not only did he learn a lot about the juvenile justice system and the Birmingham civil rights movement, but he did “extra research about Abraham Joshua Heschel and the friendship he had with Dr. Martin Luther King and how important that friendship was in maintaining King’s support of the Jewish community and Israel for his entire life.”

He also noted that he was “shocked to see how Alabama’s state constitution was an impediment to social change.”

“It’s an example of how laws written over 100 years ago can tie the hands of people working for change today,” he said. “It was written in 1901 by landholders to protect their interests and has a provision allowing for judicial override.”

That means, he explained, that a judge can override a jury decision sentencing a person to life imprisonment, changing the punishment to the death penalty.

Since judges are elected, he said, “overrides only seem to increase in an election year,” with candidates running on a “law-and-order platform. Tragically, it becomes a campaign tool,” he added, noting that only three states have this kind of override.

“New Jersey isn’t one of them, but there are other aspects of our judicial system that offer inequality,” he said, adding that if we don’t work together with other groups, “we’re missing a huge opportunity. There’s definitely a gap and plenty more to do.”

 
 

Goodbye, AJCongress, and thanks

 

Jewish groups step up efforts to combat anti-Muslim bigotry

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Rabbis Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer and David Saperstein taking part in an interfaith summit in Washington on Sept. 7. Vince Isner

Jewish groups have stepped up efforts to combat anti-Muslim bigotry, with several national initiatives announced this week and supporting statements coming in from a range of Jewish voices.

In Washington, officials from several Jewish organizations took part Tuesday in an emergency summit of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders that denounced anti-Muslim bigotry and called for a united effort by believers of all faiths to reach out to Muslim Americans.

Also Tuesday, the Anti-Defamation League announced the creation of an Interfaith Coalition on Mosques, which will monitor and respond to instances of anti-Muslim bias surrounding attempts to build new mosques in the United States. (A preview of the announcement ran in The Jewish Standard.)

Meanwhile, six rabbis and scholars representing the Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox streams have launched an online campaign urging rabbis to devote part of their sermons this Shabbat to educating their congregations about Islam.

The efforts come in response to what organizers describe as a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment resulting from the impending ninth anniversary of 9/11 and the controversy surrounding efforts to build a Muslim community center and mosque near Ground Zero in Manhattan. Jewish bloggers and pundits, mostly on the right, have become more vocal in opposing the center and calling for greater scrutiny of American mosques.

Among the Jewish leaders at the emergency summit was Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

“As Jews, we could be nowhere else today,” said Saperstein, whose organization co-sponsored Tuesday’s interfaith summit with the Islamic Society of North America.

“We have been the quintessential victims of religious persecution … and we know what happens when people are silent,” he said, explaining why clergy and believers of all faiths need to be more forceful in speaking out against anti-Muslim bigotry. “We have to speak more directly to the anti-Muslim bigotry in America today.”

Leaders of the mainstream Protestant, evangelical Christian, Baptist, and Catholic churches, Muslim organizations, and several Jewish streams issued a joint statement Tuesday after their summit “to denounce categorically the derision, misinformation, and outright bigotry being directed against America’s Muslim community.”

In addition to the Religious Action Center, representatives from the Reconstructionist and Conservative movements, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization of more than 125 Jewish community relations councils and the four major Jewish streams, also attended the summit.

The National Council of Jewish Women released a statement Tuesday denouncing Islamaphobia, decrying anti-Muslim bigotry, and noting that “extremists who use Islam as a justification for their heinous acts of terrorism should not be allowed to dictate the character of the entire religion.”

The group of interfaith leaders met later in the day with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to coordinate parallel efforts with the government to combat anti-Islam sentiment.

The joint statement calls upon clergy of all faiths to denounce anti-Muslim bigotry and hate violence from their pulpits, and asserts that “leaders of local congregations have a special responsibility to teach with accuracy, fairness, and respect about other faith traditions.”

In a similar vein, Jewish interfaith leaders in an online letter called upon pulpit rabbis to use part of their sermons on Saturday to address the need for understanding Islam and perhaps to read from the Koran. Professors and deans of the rabbinical seminaries of the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements, as well as the independent Hebrew College, signed the letter.

“The proposal for the ‘mosque at Ground Zero’ that turns out not to be a mosque and not at Ground Zero has brought to light this simple fact: We Americans need to know a whole lot more about Muslims and their religion,” said Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, director of multifaith studies and initiatives at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and a main organizer of the appeal.

Organizers say a number of rabbis from various streams have indicated they will take part.

The ADL’s initiative underscores the shifting tide within the organized Jewish community.

Several weeks ago the organization generated national headlines when its national director, Abraham Foxman, came out against placing the Islamic center so close to Ground Zero. Foxman said the sensitivities of families who lost loved ones in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks should be respected.

Its new coalition is focused on helping Muslim communities that face bigotry when they attempt to build local mosques.

Foxman told JTA that within two weeks, the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques will begin its work collecting details of incidents in which mosques are being challenged, determining whether bigotry is involved and, if so, whether public or legal responses are warranted. Mosques that are opposed due to zoning problems will be outside its purview.

The coalition’s charter members, the ADL said, will include a diverse collection of religious scholars and leaders, including representatives of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Catholic Church.

Despite creating the coalition, the ADL has not changed its position on the Islamic center near Ground Zero, Foxman told JTA.

“Our position is very clear: They have a legal right, but the location is not sensitive to the victims,” he said, noting that not everyone in the coalition agrees with the ADL position.

One Jewish observer who questions the need for special outreach to Muslims is Steve Emerson, who directs the Investigative Project on Terrorism that tracks radical Islamist groups.

Noting that the most recent FBI list of hate crimes includes many more attacks against Jews than against Muslims, he suggests that talk of anti-Muslim hatred plays into the hands of anti-American radicals.

“Given this significant disparity in real world hate crime incidents, is there truly a ‘surge of Islamaphobia’ occurring, or is it more perception generated in and by certain media in cahoots with the Islamists?” he asked.

Foxman said that defending the rights of Muslims to build mosques “does not obviate” the need to continue to monitor mosques and churches for instances in which they preach hatred.

“We have to do that as well,” he said.

JTA

 
 

America needs a civility campaign

 
 
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