Celebrating marriage

538802-silver-wedding-ringsSometimes I think about what might surprise Drew, later in his life, when we tell him stories about before he was born or about his early years. The first time we ever did a video-skype call with my mother in Texas, she told him a story about being a little girl on a party line, and I thought: wow, we have come an incredibly long way, technologically speaking, since his grandma was a girl. To Drew, the fact that we sometimes "have dinner with" his Texas grandparents via Skype is entirely ordinary. He's never lived in a world where that wasn't possible.

Drew isn't old enough to know what a President is, but someday he'll learn that his parents voted in the historic election in which we elected our first African-American president. (I even wrote a Torah poem about it.) Drew has a deck of Presidential cards (like baseball cards, but featuring Presidents; picked up in the dollar bin at Target, I think) and when he scatters them on the floor, they are a sea of white faces -- all except for one. But maybe by the time my grandchildren are ready to vote, it won't be so remarkable anymore to think that this nation could (begin to) overcome its legacy of racism in this way.

Drew also isn't old enough to know what marriage is, though I'm grateful that he's growing up in a state in which gays and lesbians have the same right to marry as male-female couples do. His lesbian aunties on his dad's side were married here some years ago. His mama the rabbi officiates at gay weddings with great delight. And now we have a President who has openly affirmed his support for gay marriage, too.

I hope that by the time Drew is old enough to understand, the notion of a state passing a law against gay marriage will seem as misguided, plainly hurtful, and outdated as the notion of a state passing a law against someone of one race marrying someone of another. (I'm far from the first to note the painful similarities there.) I don't know who Drew will love; right now I'm pretty sure he loves his family and his friends and Thomas the Tank Engine, and that's as it should be. But I hope and pray that by the time he's ready to marry, if and when that day comes, he (and his generation) will have the right to marry, period. And not just in a handful of states, but anywhere in this country.

Because marriage is awesome. Getting married means standing up beside someone you love and speaking words which change your relationship to one another in a magical, powerful, and honest-to-God holy way. And after you get married, you get to be married, which is even better. Being married means loving someone, growing and changing along with someone, meeting the highs and the lows of a lifetime along with someone, navigating the bills and the laundry and the household chores with someone, discovering how lovemaking changes after ten and fifteen and fifty years with someone, learning from someone, giving to someone, for as much of a lifetime as you can manage.

Of course people can do those things without being married. But being married is is one of humanity's most time-honored ways to do them. And I'm grateful to have a President who supports the ability of my queer friends and loved ones to enjoy the same rights and privileges that my husband and I are blessed to receive. Shehecheyanu, v'kiyimanu, v'higianu lazman hazeh!

A rabbinic conference call with President Obama

I participated today in a rabbinic conference call with President Obama, organized by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. President Obama asked for an opportunity to chat with rabbis about the new year ahead, at this moment which comes shortly before Rosh Hashanah and also as events are unfolding at the UN around the Palestinian statehood vote. (On that vote, by the by: I recommend Roi Maor's Don't blame Obama for impasse on Palestine in +972. Also interesting is Hussein Ibish's Obama at the UN on Israel-Palestine: Good Politics, Poor Diplomacy in The Atlantic.)

Beforehand, we were told that there might be time for some questions, and we were invited to submit questions in advance. Here's what I asked:

At this holy time of new beginnings, how can we best help Israel and the Palestinians (perhaps: Israel and the UN-recognized state of Palestine) achieve a true new beginning? How can we change the paradigm to one which will yield peace?

Our host told us that nearly 900 rabbis participated in the call, which is pretty amazing to me. Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of the CCAR, introduced President Obama; then the President spoke; then 2 questions, out of the hundreds which were submitted, were asked. (Alas, mine was not one of them.)

The President began by saying "Thank you for everything you guys do every single day in your communities," and continued, "I want to be sure to wish each and every one of you, from Michelle and me, a sweet and happy new year. Rosh Hashanah offers us this extraordinary sense of possibility because it offers the chance to shape our world for the better." He offered prepared remarks, first about the economy and then about the international scene:

Last week I sent Congress the American Jobs act, a plan to lead to new jobs for teachers, construction workers, veterans, the unemployed; it cuts taxes for small business owners, virtually every working man and woman in America; it is critical in part because of world events which have weakened our recovery.

All of us see in our congregations and neighborhoods that folks are hurting out there. It would be nice if things mended themselves, but given what's happening in Europe and the volatility of world financial markets, we're confronting some significant headwinds in terms of putting people back to work. Our prosperity also depends on our ability to pay down the massive debt we've accumulated over the last decade.

I also put forward a plan that not only pays for the American Jobs Act, but also makes sure we're moving debt and deficits down to a sustainable level...We can't redeuce the budget by denying health care for poor children or for those with disabilities...we need to live up to our obligations to those who are vulnerable.

This isn't about figures on a spreadsheet; it's about who we are as a people, it's abut the economic future of this country...whether we're laying a strong foundation for the next generation. The Talmud teaches us that as parents planted for me, so do I plant for my children. This is about what we're planting.

It's also about fairness. About whether we're in this together, looking out for one another; about whether those of us who've been most blessed materially are willing to do our fair share along with everybody else.

From there, he segued into talking about foreign policy -- which is to say, the issue of Israel and Palestine and this week's UN vote on Palestinian statehood. (I'll offer his remarks here first, and will share my own response to them at the end of the post.)

Continue reading "A rabbinic conference call with President Obama" »

Family (a poem about being stuck, for Big Tent Poetry)





We're stuck with each other:
the woman in patchwork crochet
with her picket sign
and the man whose fury
fills an emailed cascade

the students who say
give us a seat at the table
and the ones who say
you are beyond the pale
go have dinner somewhere else

everyone heartsick and weary
and everyone hopeful
and everyone who wishes
they could elide
the entire conversation

each of us, wherever we are
bound by this thin filament
which does not care
whether we like each other
or how passionately we disagree

This week's Big Tent Poetry prompt invites us to write a poem about being stuck somewhere. I took that in a slightly different direction, reflecting on my sense that -- as this poem's first line indicates -- we're all "stuck" with each other.

Some of the things I was thinking about as I wrote this poem include the story of ideological clashes between students at Brandeis (see JTA's Brandeis Hillel excludes a controversial group on Israel, generating debate and the Globe's Brandeis groups clash over stance on Israel) and the killings in the settlement of Itamar about which I wrote a few days ago. But the poem arises out of a bigger sense of connectedness beyond our disagreements.

My dear friend Rhonda spoke in an email this week (quoted with permission) about modeling that we are all responsible for each other... about making Shabbos with people you seriously disagree with, and realizing that we are all part of Clal Yisrael. I wish I could feel, right now, that more of us were interested in seeing one another as family despite our differences. In the Jewish community, or in the world at large.

Here's a link to this week's Come One, Come All post so you can see how others responded to this poetry prompt. Shabbat shalom.


On Egypt, protest, and liberation

It's been amazing to watch from afar as recent events have unfolded in Egypt. (For more on that subject, check out the Global Voices "Egypt Protests 2011" page; Marc Lynch is always worth reading; Ethan wrote an interesting post a few days ago; and I also enjoyed The poetry of revolt, about the poetry of the slogans and signs and about what changes when words are spoken in verse. What -- I'm a poet; how could I not find that compelling?)

When I was fourteen, I visited Egypt with my parents and sister. I remember the stunning spectacle of the temples at Karnak and Luxor, the story of the temple moved on account of the Aswan Dam (and my amazement at the precision with which it was originally built, which allowed sun and stars to shine in particular ways at particular moments on the liturgical calendar), a madcap horseback ride in the stony desert not far from the pyramids, the glorious bustle of my first souq (marketplace.) In more recent years my familiarity with Egypt has largely been through the lens of story -- Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, Jo Graham's fabulous "Numinous World" books Hand of Isis and Stealing Fire.

But what's awe-inspiring about the protests in Egypt goes well beyond my own familiarity (or lack thereof) with Egypt or Egyptian history. Egypt has been under a state of emergency since 1967, and in that state of emergency "police powers are extended, constitutional rights suspended and censorship is legalized." (That's according to Wikipedia.) I can't imagine life under that kind of regime. It's inspiring to watch the Egyptian people taking to the streets -- largely peacefully -- and demanding change.

Continue reading "On Egypt, protest, and liberation" »

We are family

Emily Hauser's recent post The problem begins with a statement of plain fact: she has family in a West Bank settlement. And then she goes on:

Everyone on that side of the family — all modern Orthodox, all parents of many children — has never been anything but kind and welcoming to me...But the truth is that it matters not in the least that they are kind, or warm, or gentle. Because they are the problem.

They — in the broadest sense: they, and their friends, and their beautiful houses, and their armed guards, and their by-pass roads — are what stands in the way of peace and security for 7.3 million Israelis and 4 million Palestinians.

Living in Jerusalem for a summer gave me the opportunity to learn more about how settlements work and what their implications are. To be clear: I'm no expert here. But I understand enough to be a lot more distressed than I used to be. (If this issue matters to you, I recommend reading Land Expropriation and Settlements, a report published by Israeli human rights organization B'tselem. There are also several links featured at the bottom of Emily's post which offer context on the issue of settlements, among them Bradley Burston's Confessions of an Israeli anti-settler bigot, which is also well worth a read.)

In my understanding, the settlements are a large part of what's preventing the possibility of peace. But the people who share that understanding are often not very compassionate toward the settlers -- and the people who disagree with my assessment are often not very kind to those of us who share it. I disagree with the settlers in pretty much every way; I think what they're doing has disastrous repercussions not only for them but for my Israeli friends and family who are forced to protect them. But that doesn't give us on the pro-Israel pro-peace left the right to slam them as human beings. (Neither, for the record, does it give those on the "other side" the right to slam us.) Would we relate to each other differently if we had family on the other side, whatever that other side may be?

Continue reading "We are family" »

[JStreet] Plenary session: View from the Hill

I'm blogging this week from Driving Change, Securing Peace, the first JStreet conference in Washington, DC. You can follow my conference posts via the JStreet category

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy -- please read it, especially if this is your first time here. Enjoy the conference posts! And regular readers, have no fear: I'll return to my more usual balance of blogging fare in a few days.

The last formal session of my day is a plenary session entitled View from the Hill: Congress and the US-Israel Relationship, featuring Representatives Jan Schakowski (IL), Bob Filner (CA), Jared Polis (CO), and Charles Boustany (LA), moderated by former CNN correspondent Bob Franken. Big plenary sessions aren't usually my cup of tea; I tend to be more interested in smaller conversations, but since this was the only thing on the agenda at this hour (and I was actually able to get a seat in the room along with the other 1500 people here today), I figured it was worth a try.

Photo of Rep. Filner & Rep. Polis by Dan Sieradski, used with permission.

Bob Franken notes that he's here as a journalist -- "not to take one side or the other... what I want to be able to do is stand for an open airing of ideas from valid parties, which is what we journalists are supposed to be all about.

Representative Schakowsky begins by mentioning her support for a "secure and Jewish" state of Israel, and giving a shout-out to her rabbi. "From the earliest moment of her founding, the US has supported Israel," she says; a strong Israel is in US interest, as is peace in the region. Congressional support for Israel has been nearly universal over the years, even when the politics of various representatives differ. "After 61 years, Israelis live in a state of perpetual danger with only intermittent respite from deadly conflict. As Israel's best friend in the world, it is only natural that we would be debating how best to work toward longterm security." Her belief is that this involves a negotiated two-state solution. "The United States can, should, and must play a role." Also security means averting a nuclear arms race and bringing about a peaceful resolution to the problems caused by Iran's nuclear program.

"The obstacles to peace have been festering for a long time," she says, "but perpetual war is not the answer." President Obama enjoyed 79% of the Jewish vote, and has appointed George Mitchell as a special envoy to the region -- these are signs of his commitment to this cause. "The administration, and many of us, feel a sense of urgency," she tells us. "I am hopeful that the debate on what to do can be conducted within the Jewish community and within our country in a matter that acknowledges that differences of opinion do not reflect a difference of commitment to Israel."

Not surprisingly, this feels to me like grandstanding. She's a good speaker, but her remarks feel awfully "safe" to me. But part of what's fascinating is that these four speakers give me four different vibes, so read on:

Continue reading "[JStreet] Plenary session: View from the Hill" »

This week's portion: milk


God has never told me to write a poem
or spoken to me from within a cloud
or led me into the land, goat's milk
and date honey mingling in my mouth.
That crackly old-time connection is lost
and I don't know that it will return.

This time of year, everything's about return:
yellow schoolbuses inscribing their poem
on curving roads, one sandal lost
and forlorn on the beach, wisps of cloud
racing across the sky. In our mouths
honey gilds apple wedges pale as milk.

When the baby cries, the mother's milk
descends. Both yearn to return
to connection. But what if his mouth
doesn't know how to suck, if her poem
has nowhere to flow? Don't let my pregnancy cloud
the issue: I'm talking about us, lost

and wailing for God in the night, lost
and fearful that the source of milk
has dried up and disappeared. The cloud
of unknowing offers no comfort. Return
to Me
the shofar demands, a poem
without words to carry in our mouths.

Torah isn't over the sea, it's in our mouths
and our hearts -- so why do we feel so lost?
Have we forgotten Moshe's poem
and its endless reprises? We milk
our alienation for all it's worth; return
seems as implausible as walking on cloud.

But God is never just in the fire, the cloud:
God is as near as our heartbeats, our mouths
and our hands. Elul's waning moon says "return
to your source; all who wander are not lost --
we'll leave the light on for you, milk
and cookies and a bedside poem..."

Even in the cloud, you're never lost.
Let your mouth taste the milk of repentance
and return, bearing your poem in your hands.

This week we're reading parashat Nitzavim- Vayelekh -- a double Torah portion, almost at the very end of the book of D'varim.

I haven't been linking to last year's Torah poems (you can find all of them linked in my Divrei Torah index) but rereading these portions this year, I remembered that the Torah poem I wrote for Vayelekh last year is one of my favorites, so I'll point to it again: This poem (Vayelekh).

It's been a while since I've written a sestina, and the repeated words and concepts in this double Torah portion seemed like a good fit for the form. (Alas, I wasn't able to make this week's ReadWritePoem prompt fit with this week's Torah portion. You can still read other participants' responses at the get your poem on #91 post.)

I'm trying to remember where I first heard the notion that "when the baby cries, the mother's milk descends" applied to our relationship with God; I think it was probably at DLTI, though I don't seem to have blogged about it. It's certainly central to the way I've been taught to understand prayer. Not surprisingly, it's a resonant metaphor for me these days.

The idea that Torah isn't over the sea, but is in our mouths and hearts, comes from the first half of this week's Torah portion. The idea that God instructed Moshe to write a poem and teach it to the children of Israel comes from the second half of the Torah portion. Both are powerful for me during this season of teshuvah, as Rosh Hashanah draws ever-closer.


On divisions in the J-blogosphere, and President Obama's Cairo speech

1. About Haveil Havalim

Most weeks I try to submit something to Haveil Havalim, the Jewish blog carnival. (I hosted Haveil Havalim #36 back in 2005; it's been ongoing since 2004.) It's always interesting to see what is happening in certain corners of the Jewish blogosphere.

I say "certain corners" because it has always seemed to me that Haveil Havalim skews to the right. The Jewish blogs that I read -- Jewschool, South Jerusalem, A Big Jewish Blog, Judaism Without Borders, Mah Rabu, On Chanting, Every Day and Every Night, The Jew and the Carrot, Sustainable Judaism, JSpot, Shalom Rav, Rabbis for Human Rights North America -- don't tend to be represented there. The blog carnival is opt-in only; I guess progressive Jewish thinkers don't tend to submit posts. I don't know why that is: do progressive J-bloggers not know that the carnival is there? Do we not feel represented by it, and therefore not feel inclined to join in? Do we feel awkward about self-promotion? Do we feel uncomfortable expressing our political views in a space which tends not to include the voices of progressive Jews? (That last resonates for me. I only rarely submit political posts to the carnival; mostly I submit Torah posts, because those seem less likely to spark confrontation.)

Anyway, the most recent edition, hosted by Esser Agaroth, dedicated a whole section to "The Big Speech" -- President Obama's recent remarks in Cairo -- which made me realize again that I'm coming from a very different place than the majority of the folks who submit their material to Havel Havalim. Ben Yehuda framed this section of the carnival by comparing the President to Pee-Wee Herman, and suggesting that Pee-Wee knew more about his chosen subject than President Obama does about his. As I browsed the links in that section of the post, I was amazed by how foreign I found most of the responses to the President's speech. Our perspectives differ so strongly that we don't seem to have heard the same words. 

Continue reading "On divisions in the J-blogosphere, and President Obama's Cairo speech" »

Praise, poetry, and prayer at the inauguration

That's a YouTube video of the prayer offered by the Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, at the beginning of the inauguration festivities on Sunday. From his prayer on Sunday to today's inaugural poem, it's been an amazing few days for me as someone who cherishes the transformative potential of language. In this post I want to explore the poetry and prayer of the various invocations and benedictions, President Obama's inaugural address, and Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem.

Continue reading "Praise, poetry, and prayer at the inauguration" »

Terra Nova

A while back the Best American Poetry folks staged an Inaugural Ode contest. To be eligible, a poem had to consist of four quatrains, include at least three words from a prescribed list (honor, integrity, faith, hope, change, power), and make use of a line from one of the poems in The Best American Poetry 2008.

The BAP post Inaugural Poems in the News tells me that the Associated Press invited ten poets to write and record their own inaugural poems. Those poems are here, some accompanied by little recorded videos of the poets reading their own work. I especially like David Lehman's poem, and Yosef Komunyakaa's -- maybe especially because Komunyakaa ends his poem with an arctic image, and my submission to the Inaugural Ode contest takes its imagery from polar exploration.

I do feel like the United States under an Obama presidency has the potential to be a kind of terra nova: rife with unexplored potential and new possibilities. May we have the courage and the perseverance to embody those possibilities in the years to come.


For the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

As this cold day dawns you stand at the prow
gazing over the ice. It creaks and groans
but your sixth sense will tell us where the floes
will let us through. Terra incognita awaits

and bright sundogs gamboling across the sky
and nightfall, though who wants
to think about that now? I have faith
you'll read the compass even when the needle wobbles.

I see you in profile as if sharpened and stenciled.
If you ask us to trudge until the sennegrass
rubs our chapped feet raw, if you tell us change
can be found just over the next jumbled ridge

we will walk. And what we find there will warm us
like a primus lamp in a reindeer-hide tent
because of how you gently, seriously reach
to hold our frozen hands to your beating heart.

"I see you in profile as if sharpened and stenciled," from "Faithful" by Dara Wier.


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RHR 2008: Beyond Guantanamo: Ending U.S.-Sponsored Torture

The conference's last formal session, Beyond Guantanamo: Ending U.S.-Sponsored Torture, featured Gita Gutierrez of the Center for Constitutional Rights alongside attorney Tom Wilner (read his essay A Righteous Indignation in US News and World Report.) Both of them work to defend prisoners who are imprisoned at Guantanamo. It was an unbelievable presentation, and by the end of Gita's remarks I was weeping uncontrollably. I know I've been asking you to wade through a lot of text, but even if you don't read anything else I've posted from the conference, I hope you'll read this.

Tom Wilner talked about how when he speaks alongside Gita, he speaks "as an American about what it means to me to be American." Listening to us, he said, he realizes that he needs to study how his Jewishness has shaped his commitment to the cause.

"I believe passionately in America, which is one of the reasons I've fought so hard in Guantanamo. It is said in our family, my great-great-grandfather was a rabbi in Vilna, and in the 1870s he read the Gettysburg Address and said, if there is such a country in the world, I want my children to live there."

"My father used to tell a story, how my grandfather would take them to Gettysburg and recite the address and also the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. There would be tears in his eyes. My father would say, it was like a prayer."

"Growing up in America, beliefs of freedom and liberty and rule of law were our religion. My father was one of four boys; only two of them came home from World War II. I think that put a special obligation on us." Wilner spoke about the fight to get habeas corpus rights for Guantanamo detainees. "All these cases have ever been about has been the right to a fair hearing, the right for an incarcerated person to defend themselves," he said.

Continue reading "RHR 2008: Beyond Guantanamo: Ending U.S.-Sponsored Torture" »

This week's portion: first step



It's not going to be easy.
All of your roadmaps are wrong.

That was another country:
those lakes have dried up

and new groundwater is welling
in places you won't expect.

You'll begin the journey in fog
destination unknown, impossible.

Don't be surprised by tears.
This right here is holy ground.

Take a deep breath and turn away
from cynicism and despair

listen to the voice from on high
and deep within, the one that says

I'm calling you to a place
which I will show you

and take the first small step
into the surprising sun.


November 4, 2008

In this week's portion, Lech Lecha, God tells Abram to go forth from his native land and his father's house to the land which God will show him. It's a story about setting out on an unimaginable journey. Abram's road won't be easy; he doesn't know where he's going; he's doing something almost unthinkable, leaving everything that's familiar to him on levels both physical and metaphysical. But he has faith that God is leading him to a good destination, and he trusts that the journey will bring blessings.

I wrote this poem yesterday, in a kind of anticipatory fugue state that already feels like a dream. As I wrote it, I wondered how posting it today would feel. I couldn't have imagined what it would really feel like to watch Barack Obama win the presidency of the United States. Today I am so filled with hope, so overflowing with joy -- and the message in this week's parsha rings even more true for me.

Some commentors translate the first phrase of this week's portion, lech-lecha, not as "go forth (from your native land)" but "go forth from yourself." Extend yourself, reach beyond yourself. Strive for something greater than yourself. Take the risk of opening yourself to change. Reading these lines this week, I feel like my entire nation is recapitulating this first step on Abraham's journey. We're going forth from our origins to a land which the Holy Blessed One will help us find...or shape, right here at home.

Because lech-lecha doesn't have to refer to a physical journey. It can mean the journey we're all taking, singly and together, toward a place of plenty; a place of prosperity; a place of hope. The historic change we witnessed (we co-created) yesterday is the first step on a journey toward an America which says Yes we can to justice and equality. Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity. Yes we can heal this nation. Yes we can repair this world. Yes we can.

May we be blessed in this journey, and may the journey itself be a blessing.


Edited to add: this poem is now available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.


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Protecting the right to vote

In my judgment, the presidential campaign is over; the American people has made its decision.

But the election itself is NOT over – and no matter what our own individual judgment about the candidates is, we can gird ourselves as citizens and as people of religious and ethical commitment to justice to make sure "Thou Shalt Not Steal" applies to this election.

That's Rabbi Arthur Waskow (who I recently profiled in Zeek!), writing in a recent Shalom Report email. (And this is a rare political post for me, because this is more important than my general feeling that y'all don't come here for my political opinions.)

The chairman of the Republican Party in Macomb County, Michigan, a key swing county in a key swing state, is planning to use a list of foreclosed homes to block people from voting in the upcoming election as part of the state GOP's effort to challenge some voters on Election Day.

That's from an article in the Michigan Messenger last month. During Sukkot we talk a lot about what it means to "dwell" in sukkot. We build, and inhabit, these flimsy, temporary little houses -- but we know we're (most of us) speaking metaphorically about the impermanence of our dwellings. A lot of people are losing their homes in this economic climate, and for those who are enduring the foreclosure process to be intimidated away from voting adds injustice to injury, both for them and for the country.

Republicans in Michigan are training volunteers to challenge voters at the polls. (Learn more about voter challenges, deceptive practices & voter intimidation at 866ourvote.org.)  Ugly shenanigans are afoot in Pennsylvania, too, like this spurious flyer circulating in African-American neighborhoods stating that voters who are facing outstanding arrest warrants or who have unpaid traffic tickets may be arrested at the polls on Election Day. (If you're interested, you can listen to that story at NPR.org, which also recently aired the related Worries about voter intimidation run high.)

Four years ago, the Onion ran a piece called U.S. Inspires World With Attempt At Democratic Election. It's funny and it's painful -- and it's going to be a lot more painful if the coming US Presidential election is marred by votes not being counted, or people being dissuaded from voting because they're harassed at the polls or incorrectly informed that they're not eligible to vote when they actually are.

If you're a lawyer or law student, please consider doing voter protection to ensure that people who are entitled to vote are able to do so, especially if you are in a battleground state. (It's my understanding that Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan top that list, though obviously this is important work everywhere.) You can sign up here.

Herein endeth the PSA. Thanks for reading, y'all.

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Rabbinic conference call with Senator Obama

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg just posted her liveblogging of a conference call in which Senator Barack Obama spoke to 900 rabbis. (Holy wow.) Here's a taste of Danya's report from the call:

[Senator Obama] quotes Rabbi Tarfon (not by name), "You are not free to complete the work, but neither may you desist from it." He talks about restoring America’s promise to care for the vulnerable, provide health care, care for children and aging, invest in alternate energy sources and create green jobs, to create an economy for all, not just for the rich. He wants to get back to "I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper" as a value in the country...

He talks about how the new year is a time not just for celebration but for reflection and hard work. "I think it's time for us all to turn the page... and complete the work of Creation." He talks about the shofar as a way to rouse us from our slumber and help us repent for our misdeeds, chart a better path, as a call to action.

After Obama's opening remarks, four rabbis, one from each of the major denominations, got to ask him a question. Danya reports his responses to those, too.

Full disclosure: if it weren't obvious from what y'all know of me after reading my blog all these years (or from the photo of the bumper sticker that adorns my car), I strongly support Senator Obama's bid for the presidency. If Rabbis for Obama had made the decision to accept rabbinic students into their ranks, I'd be a founding member! But I think the notes from this call are worth reading regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum. If you're interested in US politics and the coming election (and who among us isn't, these days?), pop over to Rabbi Ruttenberg's blog and read.

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Guest post at God's Politics

The folks at God's Politics, a blog by Jim Wallis and friends (presented by Beliefnet and Sojourners), asked me to write a guest post for them about the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel and how I wrestle with it as an American Jew. The post I wrote took the form of a letter to Israel on the occasion of her sixtieth birthday. It's here: The Velveteen Rabbi's Birthday Card to Israel.

Reb Zalman reminds us frequently that we should speak not only about God but also to God. So when the editors at God's Politics asked me to write this post, I decided to take that same tack, talking to Israel rather than merely about it. Writing the post as a direct address was both difficult and fruitful for me, and it made me realize that I'd love to see what others would do with the same assignment. If anyone else out there feels inclined to follow suit, drop a comment here and link to your post?

Thanks to the folks at God's Politics for the opportunity to send a guest post their way.

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Super Tuesday Eve

Tomorrow is Super Tuesday, and for once it feels to me that voting in my party's primary is actually a relevant act. (For me as a liberal here in blue-state Massachusetts, most years it's easy to imagine that my vote doesn't make much difference; but this year I think it does, and that's exciting.) According to the Jewish way of measuring time, tomorrow begins this evening at sundown; so it's erev Super Tuesday now, "Super Tuesday Eve."

Talking with my friends about the candidates, I've been struck by the extent to which each of us tends to have a few issues that we really care about, and how we each tend to evaluate candidates through the lens of those issues. For me, one of those issues is the place where politics and faith meet; I want a candidate who has faith in our ability to create a better world, and who genuinely respects this nation's range of beliefs and practices. Another of those issues is internationalism; I want a candidate who feels called to restore America's relationships with the rest of the world, and who thinks in international terms. On both of those fronts, I'm drawn to Barack Obama.

For many of you who read this blog, that litmus test issue may be Israel. Which is why I wanted to point my readers toward Why Obama is good for Israel, an editorial by Jay Michaelson (yes, the very same one whose collection of poetry I just reviewed.) Jay writes, "an Obama presidency would be of enormous benefit to a 21st century Israel, not because Clinton is dangerous in some way, but because Obama could reverse eight years of deepening hatred of America." Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, the article is worth reading, and I recommend it highly.

I want to mention one more reason that I'm drawn to Obama: he fills me with hope. I feel called, even commanded, to relate to the world from a position of hope. Jewish tradition teaches me that the work of perfecting creation is work we are all obligated to do, and hope for a better future is a necessary prerequisite for that. The last seven years of American politics have not made that hope easy for me, and I've succumbed to cynicism and despair more often than I would like. The prospect of an Obama presidency gives me hope. To think that we could have a president who would say, and mean, things like this:

I'm hopeful because I think there's an awakening taking place in America. People are coming together around a simple truth - that we are all connected, that I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper. And that it's not enough to just believe this - we have to do our part to make it a reality...

We can recognize the truth that... [t]he conversation is not over; that our roles are not defined; that through ancient texts and modern voices, God is still speaking, challenging us to change not just our own lives, but the world around us. [source]

AMEN! So, for those who'll be casting votes tomorrow, I offer the one-line blessing for voting that I posted on the cusp of the last Presidential election:

ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם, אשר חונן לאדם דעת להבין ולבחור

Baruch atah Hashem eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher chonein l'adam da'at l'havin v'livchor.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being, who fills human beings with insight and knowledge, enabling us to understand and to choose.

And here's Rabbi David Seidenberg's beautiful prayer for voting (link goes to English text; you can also download a Hebrew .pdf from that site.) May we who are casting votes tomorrow be blessed to approach voting as a holy act -- and may we all do our part toward co-creating a healed and transformed world, now and always.

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Domestic Jewish agenda: candidates respond

A while back, the good folks at Jewish FundS for Justice asked the Jewish netroots to weigh in on the domestic agenda issues that matter most to us. (I first posted about that here.) Once our answers had been tallied, JFSJ sent a questionnaire to the current Presidential candidates to see what those folks had to say about the issues that matter most to us, including health care, the environment, education, and civil rights.

As of today, Senator Biden, Senator Edwards, Senator Obama, and Governor Richardson have answered, and all of their responses are available for download here (in .pdf form.) Some of what each man said is interesting and compelling to me; all of their responses are worth reading.

It's easy to grouse that all we hear from our Presidential candidates are soundbytes. Reading their responses to our questions is a good way to begin getting a more nuanced picture of who these men are and what they have to say about the issues we care about. Thanks for making this happen, JFSJ, and three cheers for the J-blogosphere.

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Domestic agenda results are in

Remember that domestic Jewish agenda poll I linked to a while back, inviting readers to select the domestic agenda issues that matter most to us? My friend Mik over at JSpot announced yesterday that the results are in. More than 8600 people have voted so far, and the top four issues are health care (87%), the environment (84%), education (68%) and civil rights (57%).

I'm intrigued by his point that the percentages remained remarkably consistent throughout. In other words, health care was at the top of the list from the start, and stayed that way. (Ditto for the other top issues.)

Mik has interesting things to say about the connections between Judaism and the environment, and between Judaism and civil rights. Of course, he also notes that the priorities expressed in this (unscientific, but intriguing) poll are not the priorities promoted by most mainstream American Jewish organizations, and he has smart things to say about that, too.

I don't have dazzling new insights about this, but I think it's worth paying attention to. In light of that, let me also point you to the Washington Post's story Promoting a Domestic Jewish Agenda, by Michelle Boorstein, which went live yesterday. Boorstein writes:

The groups' premise is that the large, older, established Jewish advocacy groups -- that have more clout on Capitol Hill -- focus too much on foreign issues and don't speak accurately for the majority of American Jews, who care as much about health care and the environment as anti-Semitism in Europe or Israeli politics...

Thanks to the folks at JSpot for orchestrating this poll. I'm looking forward to seeing how presidential candidates respond to this assertion of American Jewish priorities.

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Toward a new Jewish domestic agenda

If you could talk to the presidential candidates, what would you tell them?

That's the question my friends at JSpot are asking today:

Seventeen men and one woman are seeking the nomination of their parties for President of the United States. In the coming months, they will develop and present their platforms and priorities.

Many Jewish organizations are taking advantage of this opportunity to present their agenda on behalf of the Jewish community. But is their agenda also your agenda?

As American Jews, we have a broad range of priorities. Child Care. Civil Rights. Education. Environment. Health Care. Housing. Immigration. Katrina/Rita. Seniors. Wages...

The plan is simple. Thousands of Jews come together to create a domestic agenda that represents our interests. We send this agenda to every presidential candidate and request a written response. As candidates reply we publicize their views on our websites, via email, and through the press.

If you want to see a presidential campaign where the candidates address your concerns, you have to tell them what you think. Interested? Click here to add your vote.

As American Jews we need to tell our political candidates what matters to us: not just where they stand on "the Israel question," but what stands they're willing to take on critical issues like education, civil rights, the environment, and health care. It's easy to speak out: just click here, select the 5 issues that matter most to you, and provide your name and contact information.

Once the community has had a chance to vote on the issues that matter to us, all seventeen presidential candidates will be sent a copy of the petition, showing what we care about. As candidates reply, we'll keep you posted on what they say.

Think it's time to let our presidential candidates know that American Jews care deeply about domestic issues? Click over and make your voice heard. (And if you have a blog of your own, feel free to reprint some or all of this post. The more, the merrier!)

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Words from Rabbi Arik Ascherman

"Rabbi Arik is always there with his hands in the earth, doing the work, being part of the action, with the people, in relationship," said Rabbi Joshua Boettiger in his introduction to a talk by Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights, who spoke in the Jewish Religious Center at Williams College last night. What follows is an imperfect transcription of Rabbi Arik's remarks. It's long (about 4000 words!) but worthwhile, especially for those interested in human rights, justice, and the Middle East.

In the Jewish calendar we're in the midst of sefirat Omer, counting from Passover to Shavuot. Many reasons and explanations are given for this counting -- among them that we're counting the days toward Sinai. Liberation is not complete without Sinai.

What was that revelation about, what was being said to us? The midrash tells us many people heard many different voices, everyone heard it in their own way. But when I think about that, about the way that I grew up -- in Erie, Pennsylvania -- what was taught to me by my rabbis, parents, teachers, community, was that a basic part of what it means to be a Jew is to be concerned about universal human rights and social justice.

When I first spent time in Israel, my first big shock was to find out that bagels were not readily available -- what kind of Jewish state was this, that you couldn't get bagels? It's not a problem anymore, but it was at the time. But the more profound shock was when I discovered that these values that were axiomatic on my part were not necessarily shared by all Israelis, particularly religious Israelis. For a variety of historical and sociological reasons that community has increasingly been socialized into a volatile mixture of extreme nationalism and particularism. Most secular Jews believe that this is the true religious Judaism because that's what they see reflected by the "authentic" representatives of Judaism!

At Rabbis for Human Rights, if our first mandate is to rectify human rights abuses, then our second and no less important mandate is to try to introduce into people's intellectual universe that there is an equally authentic, equally textually-based, equally Jewish humanistic understanding of Torah.

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