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 next session I opted to attend was BRIT TZEDEK RABBINIC CABINET PRESENTS: Dancing on the Head of a Pin: The Role of Rabbis in the Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace Movement. (It's a pretty natural fit for me, given that I'm in my fifth year of rabbinic school.) The session features Rabbi David J. Cooper, Kehilla Community Congregation, Piedmont, CA;
Rabbi Joshua Levine-Grater, Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, Pasadena, CA;
Rabbi Toba Spitzer, Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, Newton, MA; and
Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller, Congregation Sherith Israel, San Francisco, CA;
Our moderator is Rabbi John Friedman, Judea Reform Congregation, Durham, North Carolina, chair of the Brit Tzedek v'Shalom rabbinic cabbinet.
"The only metaphor I know about dancing on the head of a pin is about angels," says R' Friedman, "so there may be some identity confusion here about what rabbis and cantors are!" There's laughter. "The Brit Tzedek rabbinic cabinet is made up both of rabbis and cantors, rabbinical students and cantorial students, and we number over 1000 nationwide."
"Why is a rabbinic cabinet necessary? What an rabbis do that others perhaps can't do from the same vantage point?" he asks. Rabbis and cantors represent Judaism, our faith, more than any other group can do; "we speak with knowledge of and understanding of Torah and a certain amount of access to our tradition." So when we go to lobby a congressman, "we come with a certain standing," and may garner a greater listening ear as a result. Ditto when we sign a letter that runs in a local or Jewish newspaper, taking a stand together with other rabbis or with our congregants. "And when we speak together in numbers, the power of our voice can't be underestimated."
We can support one another -- and we need to, because speaking our opinions can be risky. It can be dangerous "to speak what's in our hearts, what's in our minds, what's in our Torah about this conflictual and divisive subject." Three rabbis inspired him greatly when he was young: Steve, Sam, and William. "Steve gave a sermon about labor unions to a congregation filled with factory owners, and was almost fired for it. Sam took on the local corrupt political machine and almost got himself killed. And William became a civil rights advocate in the south and got his temple blown up. Their last names were Wise, Mayerberg, and Rothschild." We know who they are, he points out. We remember them for the risk they took took against their congregations' fears, the risk they took for what they believed was the right way." Brit Tzedek rabbis do this today.
Our first speaker is Rabbi David Cooper. He doesn't have time to give us personal background about his Zionist family or his experiences in Israel in 1967, how they rushed to see the West Bank before it was returned to the Palestinians as "a bargaining chip for peace." How the settlements troubled him even then. "Since the early 70s I've been at the center of the covnersation about the conduct of Israeli Arabs. For a short time I lost my faith in the Zionist dream, but as I contemplated what optios were open to us as Jews, I knew that Israel was a necessity and that its spirit pervaded my consciousness."
"My love of Israel and my prayers for its peace were joined by my concern for the Palestinian people and my prayers for the realization of their national aspirations," as long as those aspirations are consonant also with the existence of Israel. He's supported the two-state solution since before that solution had a name. For 40 years he's seen how any dissenting group on Israeli policy has been pilloried as anti-semitic or as furthering the destruction of Israel. "This morning I responded to an email on the Jewish Renewal rabbis' list serv that implied that JStreet should just admit that it's anti-Israel," he says, and the room makes distressed noises. "Even more insidious have been the efforts to contract the Jewish tent, to exclude those who have offered alternatives for Israel's peace and security. The extreme right is often included in the tent while the near left has often been excluded."