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entries tagged with: Rabbi David Seth Kirshner


‘We prayed with our feet’

Member of Knesset Shlomo Molla and Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner at the AIPAC conference. Courtesy Rabbi Kirshner

Mayor Corey Booker of Newark once said, “Democracy is not a sideline sport.” If ever one wanted to prove that statement true, one would only need to spend three days in Washington at the AIPAC Policy Conference.

This week, 76 members of Temple Emanu-El in Closter joined the ranks of 7,724 (close to 200 from Bergen County alone) others — Jews and gentiles, Republicans and Democrats, men and women, old and young — and ran on to the field of the American Israel relationship. Little did we know when we signed up for the policy conference, some as early as 11 months ago, that Israel and America would be embroiled in a public relations mess that would not only take some of the focus off of health care but would also serve as a re-examination and reiteration of the core principles of the 62-year-old partnership. It made for an exciting, engaging, and energetic conference.

First Person

The topnotch speakers included Benjamin Netanyahu, Alan Dershowitz, Tony Blair, Hillary Clinton, members of the Israeli Medical Corps who serviced Haiti, and many more. But perhaps one of the most moving was Member of Knesset Shlomo Molla, who was brought to Israel in the middle of a cold and dark night from somewhere in the desert of Sudan more than 25 years ago. His story of perseverance and determination was powerful.

As a young man living in Ethiopia, he faced a communist regime that did not allow him or his community to practice Judaism. The country continued to enforce more obstacles to normal living and cruelty to the point where Molla and thousands of others had to flee. They escaped, barefoot, with no possessions and little food and water. Their journey eventually led them to the African Sudan. Some 4,000 of their brethren did not make it. The punishing elements took their lives. But Molla and others were airlifted by the Israel Defense Forces to Israel, where they made a home within a homeland and created a family surrounded by new and familiar brothers and sisters.

This story rang the bell of our memories to the Ethiopian children and the Russian grandmothers who walked down the stairs to the tarmac of Ben-Gurion Airport and danced and kissed the ground as our arms opened for their embrace and our collective eyes welled with tears of gratitude. In each of our mind’s tickers ran Theodor Herzl’s words, “If you will it, it is no dream.” The foundation of the state and the spirit of the state was realized; a home for every Jewish person, then and now, will endure.

Today, Molla, a distinguished member of the Kadima Party, spoke to the AIPAC plenary and at various smaller sessions, too. Many were reminded, when we listened to him and his story, why we were in Washington just before Passover — because we are still making the case for Israel to live in peace.

We took the information we learned from our sessions and speakers, along with the words of our political leaders and Molla’s spirit and determination, and we took to the streets. Tuesday morning we realized Booker’s words, and the AIPAC delegates met with representatives in each Senate office and more than 400 offices in the House of Representatives to lobby in support of a strong Israel-America relationship. We underscored basic principles critical for the continued strength of the Jewish state: the need for quickly passing crippling sanctions against Iran, continuing to condemn the flawed and non-factual Goldstone Report, and encouraging the Palestinian Authority to come to a meeting table with the Israeli leadership immediately for discussions followed by negotiations for peace and the creation of a two-state region. It was a life-changing experience for our new participants. As almost every AIPAC rookie said to me, “This is my first AIPAC event, but certainly not my last.”

When Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., Heschel proclaimed that he was praying with his feet. That is how many of us felt as we boarded airplanes and trains back to Bergen County rejuvenated by our time spent in Washington. We prayed with our feet. The foundations of Judaism and the core fundamentals of America are similar; we celebrate our voice and how we share it, our hand and how we and both America and Judaism are as much about our possibilities as they are about our histories and traditions. Those shared values are the reason the Jewish people have thrived in the United States.

On the eve of Passover, may we never take the freedoms of Shlomo Molla and the State of Israel for granted. May we realize the freedoms afforded us as Americans, and may we use our voices, our feet, and our passion to celebrate America’s and Israel’s unbreakable bond.


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Rabbis explore Jewish views of sexuality at Kaplen JCC forum

Rabbi Yosef Adler, who is Orthodox, said he might rejoice if his own child established a loving same-sex relationship, but that the Jewish community at large would not rejoice.

Adler, religious leader of Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, spoke during a forum on sex roles at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly last week. He was answering a challenge from a young gay Orthodox man as to whether Adler would be as pleased as his own rabbi father would be with this son were he in that kind of relationship.

Three rabbis — Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform — spoke during the forum, and while there was disagreement among them about homosexual unions, their tone was civil. And Adler pointed out all of them agreed that bullying in general was to be condemned.

Still, Adler said, homosexual unions are contrary to Jewish law, and he opposes the publication of announcements of engagements between homosexuals, as The Jewish Standard had done in September. He contended that the publication of the announcement was a celebration of the union and suggested that if such announcements were paid advertisements they might be more acceptable to the Orthodox community.

Disagreeing with Adler about homosexual unions was Jordan Millstein, religious leader of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, who had officiated at two same-sex Jewish marriage ceremonies — which did not have legal standing — in the late ‘90s, at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Ill. A Reform rabbi, he asked who has the right to decide that male and female are the only valid categories. As for the biblical injunction against homosexuality, Millstein said that the Bible has diverse views and people “cherry-pick” whatever ones they agree with. The ideal with any relationship, he went on, is that it be fully committed and honest, with trust and exclusivity. He added that homosexuals should feel that they have a place in the Jewish community. Temple Sinai and the Reform movement, he said, are dedicated to this notion.

David-Seth Kirshner, rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, said that whatever people do in private should remain private. Adler agreed, and went further: “If someone desecrates the Sabbath, that doesn’t mean that he has no right to be active in the Jewish community.”

Kirshner said that he had enjoyed the hour’s talk he had with Adler at an earlier date and was pleased to see in how many areas they agreed. He suggested that North Jersey rabbis from the different streams of Judaism communicate with one another more often and that there should be one board of rabbis from all the streams. At present, Orthodox rabbis belong to the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County and Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis belong to the North Jersey Board of Rabbis.

Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey introduced the session, co-sponsored by UJA-NNJ and the Kaplen JCC. The moderator was Rabbi Reuven Kimelman, professor of classical rabbinic literature at Brandeis University. Two more rabbinic forums are scheduled, one at the YM-YWHA in Wayne and the other at the Bergen YJCC in Washington Township.


Obama goes to AIPAC as Bibi goes to Washington

Reaction to Obama’s speech mixed on part of New Jersey’s AIPAC delegates

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El delivers convocation
Rabbi David-Seth Kirschner and the Rev. Oscar King III led the convocation. Photo courtesy AIPAC

Reaction to President Obama’s speech on the part of delegates from Northern New Jersey to the annual AIPAC Policy Conference this week was mixed — but North Jerseyans were united in their approval of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks Monday evening.

About 30 New Jerseyans gathered for drinks in the lobby of the Capital Hilton hotel two blocks north of the White House Sunday evening in what has become a yearly tradition. Many area residents came to the conference as part of a delegation led by Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, religious leader of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, who led the convocation preceding Netanyahu’s remarks Monday night alongside the Rev. Oscar King III, a Baptist minister from Detroit.

The local residents gathered at the Hilton spoke with enthusiasm about the experience of attending the conference along with thousands of Israel-supporters from across the U.S. and the world.

But some seemed troubled by what they view as the heavy nature of the President’s demands on Israel compared to what he is asking of the Palestinians, as reflected in Obama’s Sunday morning address to the conference.

Linda Scherzer of Closter, former CNN correspondent, expressed her concerns to this reporter.

“I appreciated his clarifying the speech he gave [May 19] but I’m still troubled by his failure to demand accountability from the other side,” she said. “Had the speech been made 15 years ago, I would not have had a problem with it as a starting point. I used to work for CNN and I was left-of-center, but watching the way history has unfolded over 15 years makes it difficult to hear these demands being placed on Israel without demanding accountability of Palestinian leadership.”

“He tried to soften the blow [in this speech at AIPAC] by saying we are going to make territorial exchanges, but to say what he did up front gives a lot of ammunition to the Palestinian government,” said Terry Linefsky of Mahwah, a member of Glen Rock Jewish Center.

Several area residents said the president’s speech was eloquent, but questioned whether its vision can be realized without more substantive change in the Arab world.

“Eloquent as Obama is, it doesn’t matter,” said Jill Janowski of Cresskill, who traveled to the conference with her husband Joseph as part of Temple Emanu-El’s group. “The only way you can really effect a long-lasting change is if it comes from the bottom up.… children in Arab countries are being educated to hate. They are repressed, and only when they have an opportunity … will they reach for something more.”

Janowski also expressed doubt about whether moderate Palestinians have the power to execute the president’s vision even if they want to.

“My concerns are that the parties you have to negotiate with can’t execute it,” Janowski said. “Israel is a divided country, and on the other side [Abbas’] government is now aligned with a criminal organization [Hamas].”

Other New Jerseyans, however, reacted positively to the president’s speech.

“I liked it,” said Judy Lebson of Tenafly, who traveled to Washington for the conference with her husband Martin. “He was voicing his support for being there [for Israel] if something happens.” She added that Obama allowed for the possibility of changes on the ground in determining a peace agreement.

“There was a line that said, based on the realities of the situation today, [that] might alter a formal agreement.”

Martin Lebson said he appreciated the president’s clarification of his remarks regarding the 1967 borders.

The Lebsons and others praised Kirshner for building up AIPAC’s northern New Jersey contingent.

“Rabbi Kirshner is a rock star,” said Lee Igel of Edgewater, a professor of management at New York University who traveled to the conference with Temple Emanu-El’s contingent.

“He is young, he is bright, he is like the Pied Piper and we all follow him,” said Judy Lebson of Kirshner, who in his convocation preceding Netanyahu’s speech stood alongside Rev. King. The two clergymen spoke of the “unity of opposites,” a classical ideal that refers to people of different outward appearances who hold congruent beliefs. Together they evoked the memories of slain civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, murdered in 1964 in Mississippi for their efforts to register black voters. They also spoke about the biblical friendships between Jonathan and David and Naomi and Ruth, as well as the friendship between U.S. President Harry Truman and Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.

Together they addressed the conference: “Tonight, 46 years after Selma, this black Baptist minister from Detroit and this not so black Conservative rabbi from New Jersey stand at this podium in full realization of our history and our future.…Whether we are Republican or Democrat, white or black, Jewish or Christian, believers or non-believers, tonight, we in this room are all united by our commitment to this precious land of the United States and the sacred land of Israel.”

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