1. Shabbat Shalom
2. This week, we will observe the great black fast of Tisha B’Av. It is not only the day we commemorate the destruction of the Temple, but the day we commemorate many disasters which befell our people at this time of the year. The Midrash traces the beginning of this infamous day as the date that the spies returned to our ancestors in the wilderness, telling them that the land was a good land but that the Canaanites were too strong for Israel to be able to defeat them. That night, says the Midrash, the people cried because they would never be able to enter the Promised Land. God was said to reply to their wailing, “If you cry tonight without reason, I will give you a reason to cry on this day.”
3. It has always surprised me that many of the disasters that befell our people in ancient times on this day were attributed by our Sages to our own faults. We cried without reason, so God gave us a reason to cry. The first Temple was destroyed because of injustice, robbery and disrespect. The second Temple was destroyed by causeless hatred between Jews. To be sure, there are many troubles that we remember on this day that were not the fault of the Jewish People. We did not cause the Spanish Inquisition. We did not cause the Talmud to be burned in Europe. We did not cause blood libels, we did not poison wells and we did nothing to cause our people to be locked up in ghettos in Europe.
4. But the first three things that we commemorate on the fast of Tisha B’Av are disasters of our own making. The way we treated each other brought destruction to our nation and to our people. We often have to admit that sometimes, we are our own worst enemy. Our own cleverness and deceptions often backfire into disasters for our people.
5. If you don’t have a computer, you may not know that as Tisha B’Av approaches this year, we may yet have reason to cry again on this day. A disaster that once again will be brought about by our own people. Just a few weeks ago, I spoke about how the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox in Israel are trying to force their own brand of Judaism on everyone, no matter if they believe in this extreme form of Judaism or not. This week may yet see the next disaster for Israel, one that Israel will bring upon herself.
6. Late last year, Member of Knesset, David Rotem drafted a bill for consideration by Israel’s Parliament that he hoped would help the Russian immigrants to Israel, who have been in limbo for decades, once and for all, resolve the issues of their Jewish status. They pay taxes in Israel, they serve in Israel’s army. They are an important part of Israel’s economy. But they have questionable ancestry to the Haredim of the Chief Rabbinate so they need to be converted to resolve these questions. There are tens of thousands of Russian Jews who are waiting for the Rabbinical Courts to formally convert them. Only a thousand a year ever get to the courts and this past year, in a dispute with the court, the Chief Rabbis revoked thousands of conversions because they felt that these converts were not observant enough to have a valid conversion.
7. To resolve this, MK Rotem, a member of Yisrael Beiteinu, the party that represents Russian Jews, introduced legislation late last year that would open more courts, so that the process of conversion would go faster and more Russians would have their Jewish status confirmed. The problem with the bill was that it put the final decision back into the hands of the Chief Rabbinate, the place where all this trouble started! In addition, it would mean that anyone converted outside of the State of Israel, would no longer be considered Jewish if they were to immigrate to Israel. This was a great change in the Law of Return and it basically was directed at the Conservative and Reform movements. It said to us that our conversions were not considered to be valid and our converts were not welcome in Israel.
8. Our movement protested this change as did the Jewish Agency in Israel as well as the Federations of North America. David Rotem came to the United States to talk with our leadership and to see if there could be a compromise on the issue. We made many recommendations but when Rotem returned to Israel, he reintroduced the bill without any changes at all! He not only did not hear our concerns, he clearly did not care about our feelings either. Only when we protested again, did Prime Minister Netenyahu pull the bill from consideration and assured American leaders as well as the Jewish Agency, that the bill would not be introduced again until there were serious negotiations and compromises that would address our needs.
9. This past week, out of the blue, Rotem again introduced this bill, this time with an amendment added by the Shas party that would make all conversions pass through the Rabbinical courts of the Chief Rabbinate and be subject to their “halachic observance” tests to confirm the validity of the conversion. Instead of helping the Russian immigrants who have been waiting so long, this would make their wait longer and much less fruitful. Rotem it seems does not think that there are enough non-orthodox Jews to really make a difference to him and to Israel. The real nasty part of this, though, is when the bill came up in committee, there were not enough Orthodox votes to pass the bill on to the Knesset floor. But Likud, the party of the Prime Minister, walked out of the room before the vote. This left the Orthodox with a majority and they voted and passed the bill with the tacit consent of Likud and apparently the Prime Minister as well.
10. Word went out and in an hour, 500 e-mails were sent to Prime Minister Netenyahu. Within 24 hours he had 8000 e-mails protesting the bill. Conservative and Reform Jews are not the only ones outraged by this bill. Natan Sharansky, the founder of the Yisrael Beiteinu party and the current chairman of the Jewish Agency demanded that it be removed from consideration. The Federations of North America is sending thousands of their own messages to Netenyahu demanding that the bill be killed. The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, the Jewish Week and many other newspapers have denounced this political move to appease the Orthodox parties at the expense of the unity of world Jewry. Our representatives have met with the leaders of other parties, like Labor and Kadima and have received much support and promises of action. We also met with the leadership of Yisrael Beiteinu but they don’t appear to care at all about our concerns and our anger.
11. Silent in all of this has been Prime Minister Netenyahu. Rabbi Steven Wernick, the Executive Director of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, our parent organization, wrote to us just two days ago, saying, “The primary focus of our efforts must be on Prime Minister Netenyahu. Because he is the leader of the government a clear and public statement by him in opposition to this bill is essential. His continuing to avoid a position amounts to tacit approval. Therefore all our efforts to contact him directly through key supporters and to email petitions and letters must continue through Wednesday evening.” Wednesday is the end of the current session of the Knesset. After that we will have time to do more to gather support to overcome this outrageous bill.
12. Rabbi Julie Schoenfield, the Executive Director of the Rabbinical Assembly wrote to Prime Minister Netenyahu and said, “Members of Knesset tell me this bill is too little too late. In Israel’s free and open society where extremists have given Jewish religion a bad image, many young Israelis don’t care whether a potential spouse is halakhically Jewish. The coercive ultra religious system is a total failure that spends tens of millions of NIS to yield only 1500 converts per year. Of those, 200 are Masorti, who receive no funding. The way to really “solve this problem,” is to have options for multiple streams and for the indigenous Israeli expressions that will only flower in a non-coercive system.” In other words, the conversion courts are an expensive waste of time and money for the State of Israel; what Israel really needs is a system that is open to the many streams of Judaism that exist all over the world.
13. In the long term, we have a lot of work to do within the political system in Israel. Rabbi Wernick noted, “Teaching Israeli leaders about Diaspora Jewry, and about Conservative Judaism in particular, must be a long-term goal. I am shocked by how little so many of them know about us.” It is one thing to want to serve the Israeli constituents who elected these leaders into the Knesset. But these leaders must not forget the rest of world Jewry, Jews who protect and defend the Jewish State from political enemies that exist in countries all over the world. Jewish Senators and Members of Congress have expressed to the Prime Minister their shock over this bill which could make support for Israel much harder in the US Congress if Israel should disenfranchise Israel’s supporters among non-orthodox Jews.
14. An editorial in the Jerusalem Post this week said, “ ‘Occupation’, Arab inequality, hateful infighting between secular and religious and even the gap between rich and poor in Israel have disenchanted many liberal Diaspora Jews, who feel that to blindly support Israel they must, as Peter Beinart recently put it, “check their liberalism at Zionism’s door.” Many are instead checking their Zionism. Now Rotem is offering another reason for Diaspora Jewry to feel estranged from the Jewish state.”
15. We all need to get involved in this affront to world Jewry and to Conservative/Masorti Judaism. What we are asking every Jews in America to do is to send an email to Prime Minister Netenyahu asking him to step in and kill this bill in the Knesset. If his party, Likud, does not support it, then it will be voted down. He appointed Natan Sharansky and the Jewish Agency to meet with Rotem and with world Jewish leadership to find a compromise on this bill. If it is to really help those who need it, these meetings should happen as soon as possible. The longer it waits, the more likely that Rotem will introduce the bill again, this time with even worse language.
16. If you are on the Temple Emeth email list, you should have gotten an email from us with a link to help you send a message to the Prime Minister. If you have email but are not on our list, go to our website, send your email address to our Administrator, Mariyln Mishkin and she will forward to you the link. It is important that you do this as soon as Shabbat is over. We need to let the Prime Minister know that there are hundreds of thousands of Jews around the world who are appalled by the Rotem conversion bill.
17. If you do not have email, or you do not have a computer, there is not enough time to send a letter. I suggest you go to the Library and ask to use the library computer and send your email from there. You can go to the Masorti website, http://www.Masorti.org and there is a link right at the top of their page. Click on the link and fill out the form so that your voice can join the thousands of others protesting this bill. There are cards in the Lobby with the web address of Masorti. If you don’t know how to do this, just ask the people at the Library to help you find the site and find the link.
18. This will be another disaster connected to Tisha B’Av if we don’t act to end this unnecessary bill that will cause a rift between American and Israeli Jews. The link between the United States and Israel must be strong and enduring. This bill will drive a wedge between Jews and make Israel’s political connections to the rest of the world dangerously frayed. Call your children and grandchildren. This is important. If we can flood the Prime Minister’s office with our protests, then this will be not a day of disaster but a new beginning as Israel will finally begin to understand the deep love we have for Israel that must not be neglected. All of our voices are needed. I ask you, on behalf of Jews all over the world, make your voice heard in Israel. Send your Email. Tell others to stand up and email Prime Minister Netenyahu. This week does not have to be the time of weeping and disaster. It can be the beginning of the redemption, the birth-pangs of the Messiah
19. The future of Israel and the fate of Israel truly rests in our hands. Speak up and let Israel know who we are and where we stand. May God be with us and with Israel in these days of danger and uncertainty and may we find reason to rejoice at this normally sad time of year … as we say AMEN AND SHABBAT SHALOM