HEALTH CARE DECISION — Jews react: Jewish Family Service CEO

Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles CEO Paul Castro lauded the announcement of the Supreme Court’s decision this morning to uphold President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, saying it will benefit JFS’s target population.

“For our clients, who are on the poorer end, we’re hoping that there is going to be greater accessibility to health coverage,” Castro said.  “We see many clients who have no coverage, and they come to us because they need help trying to get coverage.”

In fact, some of the law’s provisions already are in place in California, he said. “California has already been ahead of the game in terms of state opportunities for coverage, through programs for children and others, and our hope is this will allow it to expand beyond children, to adults who don’t have access to health insurance.”

JFS is already part of the process of moving forward on initiatives spawned by Obama’s health care act, Castro said. The act includes funding for innovations in streamlining care, a process California has already begun.

“With the support of the Federal government, the state has been moving folks out of siloed programs into a more integrated system through Medi-Cal managed care,” Castro said. JFS can help in figuring out how to make that transition in a way that does not outstrip the levels of Federal reimbursement, and has already been working with the managed care plans in Los Angeles County charged with making the transition.

“These are high utilizers of medical care, and if not appropriately managed in the transition to a new system, it can be a large cost item. Not only does JFS know the business, but we know these clients and we know what keeps them out of higher levels of care,” Castro said.

But, he added, “Our major concern is that, in the effort to get streamlined and integrated, our most frail and vulnerable clients are not the casualty of an attempt at efficiency.”

Given that Federal funding and state programs are intricately linked, Castro said he worries about the permanence of the state budget Governor Brown signed this weekPu. JFS programs that serve vulnerable populations –people who are poor, elderly, abused, mentally ill and disabled – were left intact in this budget. But, the new budget relies on voters passing a tax increase in the November elections – an initiative JFS supports.

“If that initiative doesn’t pass, there is immediately an additional hole in the budget, in which case I would suspect the governor would then put the legislature into emergency session and there will be large cuts across the board,” Castro said.

At the same time, he is not fully rejoicing over the Supreme Court’s decision.

“I can already see the opposition lining up with talking points about it being a tax, so I can see how energy is going to coalesce around opposition and an effort in congress to if not repeal it, minimize things that they see as onerous.”

Still, he believes the court’s decision keeps the topic on the table.

“I’m happy the decision was upheld because it keep the whole conversation about having affordable heath care open. We can debate about whether it’s enough, or if it’s too much, but the court has said ‘we’re out of it now,’ and this is your conversation.”

HEALTH CARE DECISION — Jews react: Los Angeles Jewish Home CEO & President

Molly Forrest, CEO and president of the Los Angeles Jewish Home, had surgery to alleviate arthritis in her neck in December 2010.

Stuck in bed for 35 days, she read the entire Affordable Care Act – all 2,080 pages of it. She has since read it again so she knows it well, and she takes it personally.

“If I were unemployed now, I would not be able to get insurance, and I’m not old enough for Medicare,” Forrest remembers thinking after her surgery.

The Supreme Court’s decision today to uphold the law “settles a 100 year debate about whether access to health care is a right that each American has,” Forrest said.

The 1,000 elderly clients who live at the Jewish Home in Reseda, as well as the 1,500 non-residents it serves and the employees the organization insures all will benefit from the law as implementation goes forward, she said.

“Seventy-five percent of our clients rely on welfare programs to support whatever care they receive, and so anything that threatens or affects Medicaid or Medi-Cal dollars is of enormous concern and importance to us,” Forrest said.

Forrest said she supports the one adjustment to the law the court made—prohibiting the Federal government from withholding Medicaid funds from states that do not comply with the Affordable Care Act.

“We already face such enormous challenges with funding programs for the needy in this state, that for us the decisions of the Supreme Court at least removes the threat that the Federal government could penalize the state in any way for not fully complying with the Affordable Care Act,” Forrest said.

Forrest sees many benefits in the law.

Not only will those with preexisting conditions not be denied coverage now, she said, but the law prohibits insurers from charging highly elevated premiums to those with complicated conditions. This will help many disabled adults get private insurance, she said, since previously their pre-existing conditions either shut them out of insurance or made it entirely unaffordable.

She also sees much benefit in removing insurers’ lifetime cap and the annual cap, and in allowing children to stay on parents’ plans through age 26.

“I think there are a lot of good things here,” she said. “I know there is a lot of controversy around this, but this is America, and I think in the end this will work out and American will be better for it. I know the health of American will be better for it.”

Opinion: Supreme Court decides Zivotofsky suit remains viable

On Monday, 9-year-old Menachem Zivotofsky won a resounding, if partial, victory from the Supreme Court in his litigation against the U.S. government. On an 8-1 vote, the Court decided that the courts can decide whether the President must obey a Congressional command to enter “Israel” in the identity papers of Americans born in Jerusalem.

The case stretches back to 2002, when Congress passed section 214(d) of the 2003 Foreign Relations Authorization Act. It states that when a U.S. citizen is born in Jerusalem, “the Secretary [of State] shall, upon the request of the citizen or the citizen’s legal guardian, record the place of birth as Israel.” This was intended to change the practice of the Department of State, which simply records “Jerusalem” as the birthplace, as though the city were floating in the sky, unconnected to any country.

Then-President George W. Bush did two contradictory things. He signed the bill. And he simultaneously wrote in a “signing statement” that he wouldn’t enforce it, because Section 214(d) would “impermissibly interfere with the President’s constitutional authority to formulate the position of the United States, speak for the Nation in international affairs, and determine the terms on which recognition is given to foreign states.” In other words, only the President, not Congress, can decide whether the United States recognizes Jerusalem as being part of Israel. With his signing statement Bush in effect signed the law with one hand while vetoing it with the other.

Shortly thereafter, Menachem was born in Jerusalem to American citizens Rabbi Ari and Naomi Zivotofsky. (Note—Menachem was born in western Jerusalem, which has been Israeli since 1948.) American Consulate officials refused the parents’ request to enter “Israel” on Menachem’s consular report of birth abroad and U.S. passport. “Jerusalem” it must be, the bureaucrats insisted.

The Zivotofskys turned to Naomi’s high school friend, lawyer Alyza Lewin, and her father, constitutional scholar Nat Lewin. (Actually, it was Alyza who had nudged Naomi to test section 214(d).) The Lewins filed suit against the Secretary of State—currently Hillary Clinton, who, ironically, voted for section 214(d) when she was a New York senator.

The District Court dismissed the action on the ground that it presented a “political question.” This somewhat esoteric legal doctrine refers to a quarrel involving the two political branches into which the judiciary won’t intrude. The trial court reasoned that the Constitution commits the conduct of foreign policy, including the recognition of foreign sovereigns, to the executive branch. The court concluded that deciding the case would require it to decide the political status of Jerusalem, which it could not do.

This method of handling the case meant that the court could avoid the fundamental constitutional question at the heart of the case: Does the President or the Congress control American foreign policy? When they disagree, who wins?

On appeal, the Court of Appeals approved of the resolution based on the political question doctrine. But the Supreme Court disagreed.  Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts held that “[t]he courts are fully capable of determining whether this statute may be given effect, or instead must be struck down in light of authority conferred on the Executive by the Constitution.”

The Court found that the lower courts got the wrong answer because they misconstrued the question: “Zivo¬tofsky does not ask the courts to determine whether Jeru¬salem is the capital of Israel. He instead seeks to deter¬mine whether he may vindicate his statutory right, under section 214(d), to choose to have Israel recorded on his passport as his place of birth. . . . To resolve his claim, the Judiciary must decide if Zivotofsky’s interpretation of the statute is correct, and whether the statute is constitutional. This is a familiar judicial exercise.”

Section 214(d) implicates serious constitutional issues. But working out whether a statute is constitutional has long been part of the job description of judges, and does not become a “political question” just because it may have political repercussions.

Justices Sotomayor and Alito wrote concurring opinions in which they agreed with the result but not all of the reasoning in the Roberts opinion. Only Justice Breyer dissented. In his view, the political question doctrine includes prudential reasons to abstain from deciding, and it is imprudent to decide this case, based on “a judicial hesitancy to make decisions that have significant foreign policy implications.”

So is section 214(d) constitutional? Can Congress regulate passports? Does the President have the exclusive recognition power? In the end, which branch of the federal government holds the foreign policy steering wheel? It’s a cliff-hanger—the Court remanded the case back to the Court of Appeals for a further work-up. The Supreme Court doesn’t consider an issue “ripe” until the lower courts have chewed on it first. As Chief Justice Roberts remarked, “Ours is a court of final review and not first view.”

Some conclusions. Those who wanted—or feared—headlines like “Supreme Court decides Jerusalem is part of Israel” are no doubt disappointed—or relieved. But there’s no surprise here. The political question of the status of Jerusalem really was never before the Court.

Those who wanted the constitutional questions of separation of powers determined were also disappointed, but not surprised. It’s standard judicial practice to decide cases on narrow grounds and avoid constitutional issues when practicable. Those issues will now be considered by the Court of Appeals, and may return to the Supreme Court. “May,” not “will,” because the high court decides which cases it wants to hear, and the Justices won’t necessarily choose to finally sort out which branch controls foreign policy. It is, after all, a very difficult constitutional question.

The signing statement issue disappeared from view early on. This is too bad, since using a signing statement as a covert veto is surely unconstitutional. Constitutional law professor Barack Obama came to the White House criticizing Bush’s use of signing statements, but he has taken the same position on Section 214(d) and also refuses to enforce it.

Still, the case will have little to no impact on the 2012 presidential race. If Obama wanted to make a pro-Israel gesture, nothing would be easier than to reject the Bush signing statement, stop fighting the Zivotofskys and enforce Section 214(d). But we can predict that his failure to do so will not harm him politically, since it hasn’t yet.

In the meantime, the Zivotofskys are heading back to court. The end is not in sight. As Alyza Lewin dryly commented, “Menachem Zivotofsky has been our firm’s youngest client for the past nine years—since shortly after he was born. We hope that he will witness a successful conclusion to this litigation by the time he celebrates his Bar-Mitzvah.”

Attorney Paul Kujawsky wrote an amicus curiae brief for members of Congress supporting Zivotofsky in the Supreme Court.

Netanyahu: Israel cannot wait long on Iran

Sanctions and diplomacy have not stopped Iran’s nuclear push, and Israel cannot wait much longer for these efforts to succeed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

“I appreciate President Obama’s recent efforts to impose even tougher sanctions against Iran, and these sanctions are hurting Iran’s economy, but unfortunately Iran’s nuclear program continues to march forward,” Netanyahu said in his address Monday evening to the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual policy conference.

“We’ve waited for diplomacy to work, we’ve waited for sanctions to work, none of us can afford to wait much longer. As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihiliation.”

Netanyahu’s speech came after his meeting earlier in the day with President Obama. In a pre-meeting appearance before reporters with Netanyahu at the White House, Obama said that there was “still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution” to the Iranian nuclear issue.

Israeli leaders have begun to speak openly of the prospect of a military strike to stop Iran’s suspected nuclear program. Obama and his top officials have endeavored to persuade Israel to give U.S.-led efforts to isolate Iran more time.

Tel Aviv Bombing Lets Arafat Off Hook

The bombs that ripped through crowds of Israelis and foreign workers in Tel Aviv this weekend may have saved Yasser Arafat from making some tough decisions.

Internal and external pressures have been building on Arafat to allow comprehensive reforms of the Palestinian Authority — reforms that effectively would undermine the PA president’s grip on power.

But after Sunday’s deadly attack by the Al-Aksa Brigade, a terrorist group from Arafat’s own Fatah movement, Israel refused to allow Palestinian officials to attend a conference on PA reform in London or congregate in Ramallah to consider a draft of a Palestinian constitution.

Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that there is no need for Palestinian officials to travel abroad to conferences when they have the power at home to end terrorist attacks, but don’t use it.

Unintentionally, however, the Israeli moves may have allowed Arafat to dodge a political bullet, at least temporarily.

The PLO Central Council was scheduled to convene Thursday for what Palestinians described as a "key step in reforms," ratifying a Palestinian Authority constitution. The Central Council is made up of 128 members and serves as the bridge between the PLO’s executive branch — chaired by Arafat — and its parliament, the Palestine National Council. It would have been the PLO council’s first meeting in two years. The draft constitution calls for a series of reforms, most notably the appointment of a prime minister to serve alongside the president. The Central Council also was scheduled to study the latest draft of a "road map" toward Israeli-Palestinian peace prepared by the diplomatic "Quartet" of the United States, Russia, United Nations and the European Union.

The plan calls for an independent Palestinian state by 2005 — provided the Palestinians end terrorism and establish an accountable government.

After Sunday’s double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, which killed 23 and wounded more than 100, Israel decided not to allow the PLO members to convene. It also blocked other Palestinian officials from traveling to London for the conference on reform.

So far, Israeli officials have identified 18 of the 23 people killed in the bombing. The officials released the names of 15 victims, 11 of whom are Israelis and four of whom are foreign workers.

The Israelis were identified as Andrei Friedman, 30, of Tel Aviv; Meir Haim, 74, of Azor; Hannah Haimov, 53, of Tel Aviv; Avi Kotzer, 43, of Bat Yam; Ramin Nasibov, 25, of Tel Aviv; Staff Sgt. Mazal Orkobi, 20, of Azor; Victor Shobayev, 62, of Holon; Boris Tepelshvili, 51, of Yehud; Sapira Shoshana Yulzari-Yaffe, 46, of Bat Yam; Lilia Zibstein, 33, of Haifa; and Amiram Zamoura, 55, of Holon.

The foreign workers were identified as Steven Cromwell, of Ghana; Nicolai Ion, 35, of Romania; Anglov Kosamov, 33, of Bulgaria; and Sabao Miahai, 39, of Romania.

The message was clear: Israel will not allow normal political life to continue in the Palestinian Authority when terrorism disrupts normal life in the heart of Tel Aviv.

Yet the postponement was only temporary.

"Sooner or later the council will convene and deliberate," said Res. Col. Shalom Harari, a research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliyah. "The question will be, of course, what kind of decisions it will reach, and how they will be implemented."

The draft of the constitution largely is the product of Nabil Sha’ath, the Palestinian Authority minister of planning. Sha’ath heads a committee that has been working on a Palestinian constitution for three years, with little result until now. The current draft was prepared under heavy international pressure for reform, primarily from the United States.

Though Arafat says he supports reform, he has been eager to stall the appointment of a prime minister, which could leave Arafat as a figurehead president.

The Palestinian Authority also indefinitely postponed presidential and parliamentary elections set for Jan. 20, saying it was impossible to conduct a vote while Israeli troops occupy West Bank cities and enforce curfews.

Arafat also faced a challenge over his appointment of a new prosecutor-general. The Palestinian Lawyers Union was incensed by Arafat’s decision to appoint his crony Khaled Qidra by presidential decree. Al-Kidreh was the chief prosecutor in the Palestinian Authority’s state security court, which has passed several death sentences on Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel. Many of the trials began and ended within several hours, without proper defense for the accused and no right of appeal, according to human rights groups. Palestinian lawyers struggling to set up a proper legal process in the Palestinian Authority say Al-Kidreh is one of the officials largely responsible for the legal chaos apparent even before the outbreak of the intifada two years ago.

"The appointment is a flagrant constitutional violation," the lawyers wrote to Arafat in late December. The lawyers resolved to fight the appointment, warning that Palestinian society was being destroyed because it lacked an authentic judicial system.

The internal political struggle finds Arafat already busy on two other fronts. One is a fragile dialogue in Cairo among representatives of Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Some statements have said the talks are aimed at temporarily halting terrorist attacks against Israelis or at least limiting them geographically, while others have said the aim is to improve coordination among the various terrorist groups. The talks, which were scheduled to resume Thursday after a break of several days, have been tendentious.

But even if they were meant to achieve a temporary cease-fire — bolstering the Labor Party’s chances in Israel’s Jan. 28 elections, as several Arab politicians have urged — terrorist attacks and attempted attacks are only escalating, Israeli security sources say. Israel has accused Arafat of sabotaging previous attempts at a cease-fire. This time, though, he would seem to have a vested interest in preventing attacks: Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna has declared that if Labor wins the elections he will negotiate with the Palestinians "without preconditions." For Arafat, who has been completely boycotted by Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon, a Labor win could be a new lease on life.

Indeed, the Palestinian Authority condemned Sunday’s attack in unusually harsh terms. The fact that his own group carried out the bombing doesn’t necessarily mean Arafat was behind it, Israeli officials say, but rather shows the extent of his impotence: He can’t enforce his will on his own people in Ramallah and Gaza, let alone on his negotiating partners in Cairo.

But Israeli military restraint right now might help the Palestinian groups agree to at least scale back their attacks, Ziad Abu Ziad, a member of the Palestinain Authority’s legislative council, told JTA this week.

"Cairo could lead to a positive result, if the Israelis contribute to calming down the atmosphere," he said. "The Israelis have an influence on our politics, just like we influence your politics."

What now? Suppose the PLO Central Council does eventually convene? Abu Ziad estimated that it would take at least several weeks before the draft constitution would move on to its next destination, as the Palestinian political community is divided over whether the final draft should be ratified by the parliament or by a popular plebiscite.

But Harari was skeptical.

"Had they really wanted a constitution, they would have passed one a long time ago," he said. "It’s simply that so far Arafat managed to prevent the reform." Besides, he added, "the question is not what will be decided, but whether it will be implemented."

Hahn’s Most Important Choice

The Hahn administration, whose tenure has been marked by an often unnecessarily divisive campaign against secession, now faces a far more important decision: the choice of a new police chief. Nothing the mayor and his advisers do in the next three years will be more important to both the Jewish community and all of Los Angeles.

By choosing a strong, respected chief, our mayor could finally show that he has the moxie and vision to address what has been the most serious challenge to Los Angeles for the past half-century. With crime on the rise, and the department seriously understaffed, strong remedial action needs to be taken.

If there’s ever been a time for a “top-of-the-line” choice for LAPD chief, this is the time. It’s not just that homicides are up in Los Angeles, including the Valley. The terrorist challenge — not just Sept. 11 but the continuing assaults on cities in Israel, Europe and Asia — represents an attack on the very sense of security that underpins urbanity, and is critical to the survival of cosmopolitan minorities, such as Jews.

The terrorist assault has made the police function, in Los Angeles and other cities, even more important. Rather than simply a mission for Washington, municipal governments and most particularly police departments are actually in the front lines against terror, noted Matt Walton, founder of e-Team, a Canoga Park-based security consultancy.

Among the measures being taken, said Walton, whose firm is advising eight of the nation’s 10 largest cities, has been a strong attempt to break down the “departmental silos” that hampered both intelligence collection and response to catastrophes, such as the Sept. 11 attacks. New computerized tracking systems must make it easier to keep tabs on potentially dangerous residents.

To lead this effort, Los Angeles needs an effective and aggressive police chief. Traditional obsessions with race, union privileges and political correctness — long important to Los Angeles’ liberal Jewish elites — must be superseded by the priority of finding not the most acceptable chief, but the best chief.

Our memories of unjust, repressive regimes, most notably the czarist police and the Nazis, make us understandably wary of strong police figures. Yet historically, Jews — as an urban people — have always depended on strong security. Without this, cities cannot function, and chaos ensues, a situation extremely dangerous for exposed minorities.

From the earliest times, dating back to at least 3000 B.C.E., cities have been places with special meaning — places sacred and busy with commerce. But often overlooked is the fact that in order to enjoy the creative, openness and intense economic activity that is an age-old joy of urban life, they must also be safe.

“Throughout history, it’s not just that it’s ‘the city that sets you free.’ It’s also the city that makes you safe from the depredations of the barbarians,” observed John Kasarda, a long-time student of urban issues at the Kenan Institute at the University of North Carolina.

It is indeed no exaggeration that without providing basic security, cities would likely never have come into existence at all, or would today be the centers of our global civilization. This is particularly true for Jewish culture, which, despite its pastoral mythic origins, has, for most of its history, flourished within the relative comfort of cities.

Security was the critical element that, along with religion and commerce, created the urban culture of Mesopotamia, out of which the Hebrews emerged. In the earliest Mesopotamian settlement, temples and palaces alike stood within the inner walls; trade and commerce stayed close by in adjacent districts.

“The first buildings erected by man,” said Henri Pirenne, the great French scholar of the Middle Ages, “seem, indeed, to have been protecting walls.”

It was in Babylon, with its 11 miles of defensive ramparts, that Jews in exile developed their sophistication and much of their written culture. The idea of the codification of laws, critical to the Jewish ethic, derives as well from ancient Iraq. The code of Hammurabi–written well before the scriptures — was devised in part because an increasingly complex urban society required clear rules and regulations, and citizens willing to submit to them.

This need for security was also manifest in the choice by King David of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The walled city of the Jebusites provided the young and vulnerable Jewish state with a strategic, defensible capital.

In the Diaspora, the need for security also was manifest. Stateless and largely defenseless, Jews were particularly vulnerable to criminal bands, and required the protection of a strong state, such as that provided by the Hellenistic princes in Alexandria, or later under the Romans. Although the heroic, insurrectionary tradition often paints these rulers as villains, Jewish culture and population grew most in the strongest, most secure cities, such as Antioch, Rome and, most of all, Alexandria.

As the Pax Romana expanded, so too did the Jewish global presence. By the third century C.E., the Eternal City had become a multiethnic, million-person behemoth, complete with huge expanses of multistory apartments, complex traffic patterns and numerous, highly specialized markets — and a flourishing Jewish community.

“Rome,” wrote Emperor Marcus Aurelius, “is the citadel that has all the people of the world as its villagers.”

When this greatest of imperial cities could no longer protect its citizens from barbarian invaders or maintain order at home, it, too, eventually collapsed. Those Jews who remained in Europe clung increasingly to the small, secure castle towns that still provided a role for a minority increasingly dependent on artisanry, trade and commerce.

Ironically, arguably the greatest urban system of control and the safest haven for Jews between antiquity and modern times derived from the Islamic heartland itself. One often underestimated contribution of the Prophet Mohammed, himself a merchant from a city built on trade, and his successors, lay in their successful imposition of both peace and legal order on what had been a chaotic, violence-prone region of the world. Jews flourished throughout the Islamic empires from Spain to Persia.

Only after the 16th century, when most Islamic and Asian cultures began to stagnate, did the European, and later American, cities begin establishing themselves as the world’s uncontested centers of commerce, trade, art and finance. Jewish history — particularly with the eradication of the shtetl culture by Hitler and Stalin — now almost entirely takes place within cities, whether Paris, New York, London, Los Angeles or those in Israel.

Today, the terrorist threat threatens the primacy of these cities more than anything since World War II. Only determined vigilance can assure the essential well-being of urban areas.

The crime waves of the 1970s and 1980s pushed Jews further out of the cities; the sharp decline in crime during the mid- to late 1990s helped bring more back into the urban centers, and helped preserve existing communities from the East Valley to Fairfax.

Today, Jews from around the world migrate to places like Los Angeles, which seems a lot safer for families and commerce than Paris, London and, sadly, Tel Aviv. Our future as one of the Jewish capitals of the world rests fundamentally on having an efficient, tough and fair Police Department. No city function is more important.

This is why it is critical that Mayor Hahn step outside his usual prosaic approach and reach out for the best possible candidate. The Jewish community, which now stands as one of the critical swing groups in the city’s polity, should pressure him to do nothing less.

Condemning the Vote

It’s bad for Jewish unity, but not as bad as the decision to recognize the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as Jews.

That’s how Orthodox and Conservative rabbis are viewing the Reform movement’s recent decision last week to affirm the right of its rabbis to officiate at gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies.

But even though the leaders of Judaism’s more traditional movements say the Reform rabbis’ decision is less divisive than the 1984 move on patrilineal descent, Orthodox leaders are harshly condemning the vote.

The criticism of Conservative leaders is more subdued.

Also, those active in promoting Reform Judaism in Israel insist that because the resolution recognizes the diversity of views on same-sex unions and does not use the words “marriage” or “wedding,” it will not pose a serious obstacle to attracting Israelis to the movement. The Israeli Reform movement has generally taken a more cautious approach to controversial issues because it does not want to give the Orthodox establishment ammunition.

Not surprisingly, leaders in the Reconstructionist movement — which recognizes patrilineal descent and in 1993 supported same-sex commitment ceremonies — backed the Reform decision.

Other movements, though, predict it will undermine Jewish unity.

While the Reform resolution means the movement will now develop and circulate ketubot — or Jewish marriage contracts — and liturgy for same-sex ceremonies to its 1,700 rabbis, the resolution does not require rabbis to officiate at same-sex unions. Many Reform rabbis had officiated at same-sex ceremonies even before the resolution was passed.

Rabbi Richard Hirsh, executive director of the 200-member Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, speculated that the resolution’s passage will encourage Reform rabbis who do not yet officiate at same-sex unions to consider doing so. He said his movement’s 1993 resolution “started what became a significant shift in Reconstructionist rabbis.”

Public discussion of the issue “made it less possible for individual rabbis to avoid the issue,” said Hirsh, who began officiating at gay and lesbian ceremonies after 1993.

“Having support of the rabbinic group makes it easier for you to make a stand in your own congregation,” he said.

The executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents 1,500 Conservative rabbis, said that while his movement supports civil rights for gays, it does not approve of its rabbis officiating at same-sex ceremonies.

Rabbi Joel Meyers acknowledged that despite this position, some Conservative rabbis officiate at same-sex ceremonies and — unlike Conservative rabbis who officiate at intermarriages — they are allowed to remain in the Rabbinical Assembly.

Meyers does not expect Reform’s move to strain Conservative-Reform relations, and he predicted it would have less of an impact than the patrilineal descent issue, which he said “goes to the heart of defining who’s Jewish and who’s not and that’s a more serious question.”

The Rabbinical Council of America, the organization representing 1,100 Orthodox rabbis, issued a statement that said, “Conferring legitimacy upon relationships which our Torah and tradition specifically prohibit is beyond the pale of acceptable Jewish teaching and practice.”

“It’s another step of fragmentation and disunification of the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Steven Dworken, the RCA’s executive vice president. “First they did it with patrilineal descent, and now this.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, was even more outspoken in his criticism, saying it should “convince all Jews that anything goes in Reform leadership.

“Even the prohibition against incest could go,” he said.

But Shafran did say that unlike the patrilineal descent issue, the new resolution would not “split the Jewish people in two.”

Meanwhile, Reform and Conservative leaders say they will continue to work together, despite their differences on the same-sex issue.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, said he supported the resolution and was particularly happy about its compromise language.

“I imagine there’ll be some attacks from various quarters, mostly Orthodox, and I think it will be used from time to time by those who have an ax to grind against us,” he said.

However, he noted that he “could care less what the ultra-Orthodox say about us,” and is far more concerned about Reform’s image among its “target audience — all those people between Orthodox and nothing.”

The leader of Israel’s Conservative counterpart, Rabbi Ehud Bandel, said he does not agree with the resolution, which he thinks will undermine both movements’ efforts in Israel, but said it will not affect his willingness to work with the Reform movement in efforts to gain recognition for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

“It will make our position hard — we’re always associated with Reform, and Israelis don’t always differentiate between Masorti and Reform. But I think it will create more understanding to the fact that these are distinct movements.”

Yolanda Potasinski, left, and her partner under the chuppah. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum officiated at the 1997 commitment ceremony.

A Step Forward

Gay Jews say Reform vote is

a step toward acceptance.

By Julie Wiener, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Steven Fruh, 56, grew up thinking homosexuality and religion were incompatible.

So, when he realized he was gay, he abandoned Judaism. But 11 years ago when he discovered Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, it was a “revelation” to him that one could be “observant and gay.”

The feeling of acceptance Fruh found upon discovering the world’s oldest and largest gay synagogue was experienced by other gay Jews last week when Reform rabbis overwhelmingly approved a resolution affirming that “the relationship of a Jewish, same gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.”

In Los Angeles, the only city in the world with two synagogues serving primarily gay, lesbian, and bisexual Jews, Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) lauded the Reform movement for “taking a leading role” in the inclusion of gay and lesbian Jews. Some date Reform’s historic path toward the recent vote to 1972, when it formally accepted BCC as a member in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood credited the Women’s Reform Network, the national organization of Reform women rabbis, with pushing the issue of gay marriage before the plenum. “We feel the vote of the Reform rabbis is in keeping with the views of the liberal Jews of California,” she said.

Back at Manhattan’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah — where the rabbis already officiate at gay and lesbian weddings — the bimah features two rainbow-colored gay liberation flags alongside the United States and Israeli flags. During a recent Hebrew class, Fruh and his classmates said the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ resolution was an important step toward greater acceptance for gays and lesbians.

“It’s important from a symbolic point of view,” said Fruh, who was seated next to his partner, Paul Marsolini. “The largest Jewish organization has said our relationships have just as much validity” as the relationships of heterosexual couples, he said.

The resolution, which does not use the words “marriage” or “wedding” and which was modified shortly before the vote to emphasize that not all Reform rabbis agree on same-sex unions, does not make as strong a statement as the Beth Simchat Torah students would have liked. Rachel Gartner, a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, who was teaching the Hebrew class that night. “I would’ve liked to see kiddushin,” she said, referring to the Hebrew word for marriage. “But as a general broad statement, it’s thrilling.”

Modifications or not, Marsolini said the resolution is still a “tremendous step forward.”

Another st
udent, Marsha Cohen, who introduced herself as the “straight mother of a gay son,” said she was excited about the resolution, which she called “a step.”

“It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good, and the more people get used to it, the better,” she said.

“Why shouldn’t my one son have the same rights and privileges as the other son?” Cohen added.

Class members said they hope the resolution would influence other religious movements.

“May the Conservative movement be next!” Fruh exclaimed.

The Wiesenthal Center’s $1 Million Problem

Though it may seem otherwise, we are not picking on the Simon Wiesenthal Center. In general, we admire the center, its founder and dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier, its staff and their fine work. The center is innovative, responsive and highly effective — qualities lacking in many major Jewish organizations, here and elsewhere.

The Wiesenthal Center is the focus of our cover story, however, because of its decision to scrap a documentary on Israel that took a year to make and cost as much as $1 million. The filmmakers, one of whom has won an Academy Award, claim that their project was spiked because it presented a more truthful, though less flattering, version of Israel. The center’s officers — who have also garnered two Oscars — maintain that the commissioned film was just too dull and uninvolving.

It just might be. But we’ll never know, and neither will you. The Wiesenthal Center has said it won’t release the film. That’s their right, though one obvious question for center donors is why the organization dropped so much money into a project it will not release. The center approved the script and gave the filmmakers a green light every step of the way, then pulled the plug. Sure, it happens every day in Hollywood. But at a donor-funded nonprofit institution?

Beyond that issue lies the deeper question of whether American Jewish organizations spoon-feed their constituents only the most easily digestible, over-simplified and uplifting story of Israel, past and present. Many Israelis and American Jews will tell you the answer is yes, as our stories on pages 22 and 23 intimate.

If so, it’s time to change the approach. A new generation of potential donors, weaned on Watergate, tuned to “Geraldo,”and “Dateline NBC,” is unlikely to buy Israel-as-fairy tale. They are prepared to understand the country at its most miraculous and its most despicable, and still care about it.

The Wiesenthal Center is working on another film. Rabbi Hier says that it will be more engaging than the first, while still not sugar-coating Israel.

We look forward to it. By trying to quietly toss aside the first project, the organization has opened itself to charges that will only be answered when Documentary II finally screens. — Rob Eshman, Managing Editor