In defense of optimism


When I was learning Hebrew, I asked an Israeli friend the word for “optimistic.”

Optimi,” he said.

“There’s no native word?” I asked.

“Well,” he asked back, “why would we need one?”

It doesn’t come easy to us Jews, this thing called optimism. And this year we seem to be in a particularly dark mood. Anti-Semitism is rising in parts of Europe (again). A quarter of America’s Jewish college students report having been harassed because they’re Jewish. Terrorists continue to seek out Jewish targets here and abroad.

So it’s easy to look forward with dread, to gather in our nice homes and fine restaurants, in our safe neighborhoods and ornate banquet halls, and speak to one another about how we’re doomed and it’s all going to hell. 

But our predisposition to pessimism clouds our ability not just to see what is working, but to focus and build on it. You want to know the four words that will get you instantly ostracized from a Jewish conversation? “Things aren’t so bad.”

Go ahead, try saying them one day at your cocktail party or conference. Heads will turn. You’ll hear stifled laughter. People will whisper: “Who let that child out of his room?”

But here’s what you might point out about the year that was, in defense of optimism:

Big oil is hurting

For those of us who have been saying for decades that our dependence on foreign oil is the single greatest threat to our security and environment, this has been a very good year.

A year and a half ago, oil was selling for more than $100 a barrel. Now it is hanging on at $40. That has thrown exporters such as Venezuela, Russia and Saudi Arabia into dire straits, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of countries.

This week, Saudi Arabia released a 2016 budget that showed an $87 billion deficit. At this rate, the country will blow through its foreign currency reserves by 2020. The country that, as columnist Douglas Bloomfield has pointed out, has fewer female drivers than Israel has female fighter pilots, either will have to modernize or go back to the Bronze Age.

Alt energy is booming

One reason for the oil bust is the bull market in domestic production and alternative energy. The Climate Change Agreement signed in December in France by major powers and developing countries — one of the most hopeful stories of the decade, let alone the year — will energize an already flourishing market in wind, solar and other sustainable energy sources. 

Iran is stopped — for now

This week, Iran completed shipping the majority of its enriched uranium stock to Russia, fulfilling the first part of last summer’s historic agreement to deprive the Shiite theocracy of nuclear weapons. That means Iran’s breakout time to a nuke has gone from almost zero to nine months, and is expected to extend further. Yes, it also means Iran will get back $100 billion in frozen assets and can sell oil on the international market, but see No. 1 above.

And true, Iran might still cheat and wreak havoc, but so far we are safer than if the deal had fallen through and Iran raced to the bomb.

ISIS is losing

The publishers of Dabiq magazine were run out of the Iraqi city of Ramadi this week, and experts predict ISIS will not be able to hold on to the larger city of Mosul. Nothing is worse for recruitment than humiliating defeat. That inexorable march to the caliphate? Kaput.

Love is winning

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all states must allow same-sex marriages. From Ireland to Mexico to Japan, something that seemed so unlikely in 1990 has become so inevitable in 2015 (same with legalized pot, just saying). Popular culture has proudly led the way toward greater acceptance. Ten years ago a lesbian kiss on TV was groundbreaking; now television’s best show, “Transparent,” is expanding society’s embrace even more.

Terror is temporary

The year began badly. On Jan. 7, 2015, two Muslim terrorists in Paris killed 12 people and injured 11 others at the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper. The reaction was a display of unity across France and around the world. Terror has never and will never fully go away, but “Je suis Charlie” — “I am Charlie” — proved that societies have the power to survive and face it down.

The gun lobby is on the ropes

Up to and including San Bernardino, there were 57 mass shooting across the United States in 2015, incidents in which three or more people died in a spasm of gun violence. But these mass shootings have also invigorated the long-dormant gun control movement. “We’re seeing much more forceful political mobilization on the gun control issue than we had seen in decades,” Second Amendment expert Adam Winkler told me after the San Bernardino killings.

To recap: Things aren’t all bad. By any objective standard, Israel is stronger militarily and economically, and American Jews are more successful, free and influential today than at any time in our history. So let’s take a breath, relax and recite together in Yiddish:

Ven me zol Got danken far guts, volt nit zein kain tseit tsu baklogen zikh oif shlechts.

“If we thanked God for the good things, there wouldn’t be time to weep over the bad.”

Here’s to 2016.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

Jewish community reacts to the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage


The news Friday that the Supreme Court of the United States had issued a 5-4 ruling making same-sex marriage legal nationwide prompted both tears and enthusiasm from many in the Los Angeles Jewish community.

“Under the Constitution, same-sex couples seek in marriage the same legal treatment as opposite-sex couples, and it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. He was joined in his opinion by the court’s four liberal justices: Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomeyer, and Stephen G. Breyer.

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family,” Kennedy wrote. “It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage.”

The decision marks a decisive victory in the decades-long fight for the rights of gay and lesbian families. When the court last took on the issue of same-sex marriage, in 2013, it decided that a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal recognition of same-sex marriages, was unconstitutional, but declined to rule on a lower-court’s decision to throw out California’s Proposition 8 for procedural reasons, effectively allowing same-sex marriage in the state while leaving the constitutional questions for a later date.

Today’s decision makes same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states, and requires that states recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Among those celebrating in Los Angeles is Rabbi Lisa Edwards, spiritual leader of Beth Chayim Chadashim, a LGBT-friendly congregation in Los Angeles. During a phone interview from her home on Friday morning, shortly after the announcement of the court’s ruling, Edwards said she was “crying” tears of joy due to the decision.

“People often expect voices of faith, on question of marriage, to be in the opposition camp. This is a good time to remind people there have been voices of faith, more and more, who are speaking on the side of love and the human heart,” Edwards said. “I think Judaism and other religious, what they have to say about it, is that this is an affirmation—this is an affirmation of the human heart and of our inclination to love.”

Edwards said her congregation plans to celebrate the decision during its Friday night Shabbat services tonight at Beth Chayim Chadashim. She anticipates the evening to be musical and uplifting.

For the rabbi and many others, it will be a busy night including a rally in West Hollywood that organizers had long been planning to hold on the evening of the court’s decision—even when it was still uncertain when and what the court would decide..

The rally is scheduled to take place at West Hollywood Park at 6 p.m. tonight. Members of Congregation Kol Ami, another LGBT synagogue in Los Angeles, are expected to participate. 

The court’s decision was especially meaningful to Rabbi Denise Eger, spiritual leader of Kol Ami and president of the Central Conference of Reform Rabbis.  In an email, she said that she was “overwhelmed with gratitude for this moment.” She pointed to the historical significance of the date of today’s ruling, one that was a long-time coming. 

“To think that this weekend in 1969 were the Stonewall riots and now within a generation we have this measure of equality is astounding,” she said. “Many of us have worked for many decades for this day and I have to admit I said the Shehekiyanu prayer.”

Eger also issued a statement praising the court’s decision, saying the next struggle is to work toward universal acceptance of the gay community.

“The dream has come true, but there is work to do!” she said. “The United States has taken one more step toward fulfilling the dream of a country where people can live their own lives without fear; but as we celebrate, the SCOTUS [Supreme Court] decision that gives every person the right to marry their beloved, we know the right to live in peace is still a far off dream for too many people.” 

According to a survey from February by the nonprofit Public Religion Research institute, 77 percent of Jewish Americans favor legalizing same-sex marriage; the report said that 53 percent of all American favored allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.

Each of the court’s four conservative justices filed individual dissents to the Court’s gay marriage ruling.

Chief Justice Roberts, in a dissent joined by Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas, wrote: “Many people will rejoice at this decision, and I begrudge none their celebration. But for those who believe in a government of laws, not of men, the majority’s approach is deeply disheartening.”

Roberts took issue with the court making a decision on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. The constitution, he wrote, “does not enact any one theory of marriage.”

Scalia, in a separate dissent, joined by Justice Thomas, more directly took on the constitution question, using scathing language to describe the court’s decision. He called the majority’s opinion “constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine.”

 “The opinion is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic,” he wrote.

To be sure, not everyone lauded the decision; the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America issued a statement Friday that said, in part: “Our religion is emphatic in defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. Our beliefs in this regard are unalterable. At the same time, we note that Judaism teaches respect for others and we condemn discrimination against individuals.”

Conservative author and syndicated columnist Ben Shapiro said the decision did not surprise him. “I am by nature a pessimist and unfortunately in today’s world that makes me a realist.”

Many civic leaders across the Southland, however, expressed immediate and enthusiastic support Friday morning. Los Angeles City Councilmembers Mitch O’Farrell and Mike Bonin, both of whom are openly gay, expressed joy at news of the decision, as did City Attorney Mike Feuer, whose office wrote a brief filed with the Supreme Court on behalf of the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

“Just over a decade ago, marriage equality was legal nowhere in the United States. Today, my husband Sean and I celebrate a breathtaking decision that affirms the right to marry nationwide,” Bonin wrote in a statement. “As we celebrate this historic day, the most important thing I can say is simply, ‘thank you.’”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti tweeted: “Love won.”

If Catholic Ireland said ‘yes’ – could Israel ever do the same?


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

In a few weeks Eli and Ron will celebrate their relationship with a wedding to be held at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. There will be food, friends, music and a ceremony. But as far as the state of Israel is concerned, no marriage will have taken place, because the state does not recognize gay marriage. However, gay couples married outside Israel are registered as married on their return.

So shortly after their wedding, the newlyweds will fly to Denmark in order to hold a second wedding, one that can be registered officially upon their return to Israel. Denmark is the ideal country for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) couples to get married in, Eli Kaplan-Wildmann, told The Media Line. Not only does the Scandinavian country have some of the most progressive recognition of the rights of same-sex people to marry, it also doesn’t have a residency requirement. While most secular Israelis go to Cyprus when they wish to marry outside of Israel’s strict religious marriage laws, gay couples fly to Denmark, Kaplan-Wildmann said, because same-sex marriage is not permitted in Cyprus.

All issues of personal status, including marriage and divorce are under the control of the Orthodox rabbinic authorities in Israel, in a decision that goes back to the creation of the state. There is no civil marriage in Israel, only religious marriage, although civil marriages are retroactively recognized by the government. The issue of gays is especially problematic, as the Bible calls homosexual sex an “abomination” which should be punished with execution.

Kaplan-Wildmann, an Orthodox Jewish theater director, says Israeli society, and even the more liberal parts of the Orthodox world, accept his sexual orientation.

“We hold hands in the street,” he told The Media Line. “Israel is more open to LGBT rights than a lot of other countries. There is a sense that Israel has bigger issues to deal with.”

In fact, Tel Aviv is considered a gay cultural capital to rival the reputations of Berlin or San Francisco, and in 2012 was voted the most popular city in the world by gay travelers.

Yet many gays say they would like to be able to get married in Israel. The issue has come to the fore after Ireland, long considered a conservative Catholic stronghold – so much so that divorce only became legal in 1995 – has become the first ever country to recognize same-sex unions through a referendum. Could a similar popular movement occur in Israel?

“The law has to catch up,” Kaplan-Wildmann explained. “I look forward to more equality but gay marriage is not the main issue,” he said, adding that a change in the legal system to allow civil partnership for all citizens is the priority.

“We don’t focus on (gay) marriage – other issues are focused on, as a more practical (solution),” to inequality, Tom Canning, Director of Development at the Open House for Pride and Tolerance, told The Media Line. The Open House is a LGBT non-governmental organization which has been active in Jerusalem since 1997, campaigning for equality for homosexuals.

Canning said same-sex marriage will never be recognized as long as the rabbinate controls the rules surrounding marriage. The ultra-Orthodox parties are also a key part of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, and all past efforts to legalize civil marriage or gay marriage have failed.

“The connection between (it) and the state is too strong for this to happen,” Canning said. His organization would prefer a more liberal form of Judaism to gain influence in the Rabbinate, one which would benefit the LGBT community, he said.

Everything that has been achieved for LGBT rights has been won through the courts rather than through the political arena, Canning said. Despite popular support for gay rights, politicians do not push for legislation because of strong opposition from the ultra-Orthodox.

Gay couples are not the only people unable to marry under Israel’s marital laws. As religious authorities have control of weddings, marriages must be between two people of the same religion. A Jew cannot legally marry a Muslim or a Christian.

“The state has a long arm that cause a lot of suffering,” Irit Rosenblum, Founder and CEO of New Family, told The Media Line. The problem is the ties between state and religion, Rosenblum said, explaining that she believed that the relationship between two human beings should not be dictated by a government.

A spokesperson for the Orthodox Rabbinate declined to comment in detail, saying simply that if changes were to be made in future they would have to be made in the Knesset.

Other Orthodox representatives said that the law against civil marriage helps guarantee the Jewish future of the state of Israel. The consequences of the law for homosexual couples and others unable to marry are understood and regrettable, Ziv Maor, a former spokesperson for the Rabbinate, told The Media Line, but the law is necessary.

“Throughout history few nations have ceased to exist because of genocide – most nations which ceased to exist, did so because of assimilation,” he said. “The price gay – and some heterosexual – couples pay for not being able to marry is enormous,” Maor conceded, admitting that it was a price that he personally did not have to bear. As the Israeli army protects Israel from violence and anti-Semitism, he said, the country’s religious marital laws protected it from assimilation.

If a referendum, with the same question as Ireland’s – that “marriage may be contracted in accordance with the law by two people without distinction as to their sex” – was called in Israel now it would pass, Canning of the Open House asserts. But legislators would not enable such a debate because of the political turmoil that would ensue if it were to happen, he concludes. Rosenblum of New Family is less convinced. “No – not as long as Binyamin Netanyahu is our Prime Minister,” she said on the question of the possibility of a referendum in Israel. “The government is a reflection of the people and of society,” she added, saying that the citizens of Israel are open minded but that that alone is not enough.

Eli and Ron are less concerned. They have a wedding and the party that goes with it to prepare for – not to mention a trip to Denmark.

“It might be the case that a referendum would pass here,” Kaplan-Wildmann said, “but there is no administrative framework to bring about the process until there is a recognized form of secular marriage.”

It is still good to see the legalization of same-sex matrimony in Ireland, Kaplan-Wildmann said, especially in a country with such a historically strong connection between church and state. Of the global trend towards recognition of LGBT equality Kaplan-Wildmann adds, “It’s heartwarming to see the scale tipping – in the world, country by country, and also in the US, state by state.”

Supreme Court agrees to decide gay marriage question


The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to decide whether states can ban gay marriage, delving into a contentious social issue in what will be one of the most anticipated rulings of the year.

The court, in a brief order, said it would hear cases concerning marriage restrictions in Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee. The ruling, due by the end of June, will determine whether 14 remaining state bans will be struck down.

The court said it will decide two questions: Whether states must allows same-sex couples to marry and whether states must recognize same-sex marriages that take place out-of-state. The court will hear an extended two and a half hours of oral arguments in April.

There has already been a legal sea change on the issue, thanks in large part to the Supreme Court's prompting. It began in earnest in June 2013 when the court struck down a federal law that restricted, for the purpose of federal benefits, the definition of marriage to heterosexual couples.

Judges around the country later seized on the language in the decision, written by swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy, to strike down a series of state bans.

At the time of the 2013 ruling, only 12 states had authorized gay marriage. It is now legal in 36 of the 50 states.

Although the gathering momentum toward gay marriage has been prompted largely by the courts, opinion polls show that support among Americans has been rising in recent years. But many conservative Christians remain steadfastly opposed.

The court's expected ruling in June would come as the field of candidates for the 2016 U.S. presidential election takes shape, and the issue could factor into the race. Democrats are generally in favor of gay marriage while Republicans are divided on the issue.

The primary legal issue is whether the state bans and the refusal to recognize out-of-state marriages violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law.

As recently as October, the court decided not to intervene in the gay marriage issue when seven cases from five states were pending. That decision not to hear the disputes had huge legal implications because it meant that gay marriage went ahead in five states and paved the way for it to begin in several others.

A Nov. 6 decision by the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold marriage restrictions in four states increased pressure on the Supreme Court to take up the matter. It was the first of the nation's regional federal appeals courts to uphold gay marriage prohibitions after the wave of other rulings declaring the bans unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court is divided on gay rights, with Kennedy likely to be the key vote. It is not known how he would rule on gay marriage but he has a history of backing gay rights.

Litigation in other cases continues in lower courts. Last week, a federal appeals court in New Orleans heard oral arguments over gay marriage bans in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Earlier this week, a judge in South Dakota struck down that state's ban.

Justice Kennedy key figure as U.S. top court tackles gay marriage


For nearly two decades, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has been building toward this moment in the history of gay legal rights in America.

In decisions since 1996, Kennedy has broadened the court's view of equality for gays. Now, as the court said on Friday it would consider a constitutional right to gay marriage, Kennedy is likely to be the justice who tips the balance on the nine-member court.

Predictions are risky regarding this sometimes-tentative justice, the member of the court's five-strong conservative wing most likely to join the four liberals in key rulings.

Yet the 78-year-old Californian has already laid the foundation for a possible decision extending gay marriage to all 50 states. Currently, it is legal in 36 states and Washington, D.C.

Kennedy wrote the 1996 opinion in a Colorado dispute over anti-discrimination law, denouncing government moves to make gays “unequal to everyone else.”

In the most recent related ruling, a 2013 rejection of a law defining marriage as between only a man and woman for purposes of federal benefits, Kennedy authored the 5-4 decision, stating the law “writes inequality into the entire United States Code.” He emphasized the “dignity” the Constitution accords gay couples.

Kennedy told Reuters last year he was not closely following the lower court rulings that overwhelmingly interpreted that opinion as an endorsement of gay marriage. This was characteristic of Kennedy, a 1988 appointee of Republican Ronald Reagan who can wax expansively about democracy and large themes but rarely reveals his personal legal views off the bench.

Kennedy, who often arrives at the court before dawn to spacious uncluttered chambers, defies predictions of insiders and outsiders alike.

Last year, liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that as Kennedy's 2013 opinion spoke of dignity for same-sex couples, it also referred to marriage laws as the states' domain. “Those don't point in the same direction,” Ginsburg told Reuters.

It was Kennedy's regard for states' interests that a U.S. appeals court seized upon in November in upholding gay-marriage bans in Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky. Virtually all other lower courts that have struck down state bans have highlighted Kennedy's views on equality for gays.

After the 1996 ruling, Kennedy wrote a 2003 decision invalidating a Texas law criminalizing gay sex. He emphasized gays' rights to set their own boundaries for intimate relationships.

Washington lawyer John Elwood, a former Kennedy law clerk, says the justice has been consistent. “At this point, he's thought through the matter pretty carefully,” Elwood said. “He would probably rule the way you'd expect, for same-sex marriage.”

Orthodox, Reform groups differ on Supreme Court’s gay marriage call


Reform and Orthodox Jewish groups had opposite takes on the Supreme Court decision not to hear gay marriage cases, effectively extending the right to a majority of the states.

“The Supreme Court’s decision to leave in place lower court rulings that have the potential to bring marriage equality to more than half of the states is cause for celebration for those Americans who will now be able to marry the person they love, no matter their gender,” the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement said in a statement Tuesday after the court turned away five appeals of lower court rulings permitting gay marriage.

The effect of the denial was to increase from 19 to 30 the number of states where same-sex marriage is legal.

Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox group, said it remained committed to the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

“Agudath Israel of America remains committed to defending marriage as it has been understood since time immemorial: the sanctioned union of a man and a woman,” the group said in a statement. “We do not believe that the constitution demands an abandonment of history.”

 

Watch: Bar Refaeli speaks out on civil unions


Grab a Hebrew or Russian-speaking friend and check out this sweet video released Sunday by Israeli political party Yesh Atid, promoting their proposed civil unions bill.

You might not be familiar with many of the 20 Israeli celebs who appear on screen answering the question, “Why do I support civil unions?” But surely the face of a certain blonde supermodel will ring a bell.

“Because a loving family is the most important thing,” Bar Refaeli responded.

Other answers, per our translators over at The Times of Israel:

“Because it doesn’t make sense to fly out of the country to get married,” TV personality Yaron Brovinsky stated.

“Because I’m a married man and it’s time the state registered that,” Gal Uchovsky, an openly gay journalist, producer, and screenplay writer replied.

The proposed law, now before the Knesset, would bestow recognition on marriages performed outside the official rabbinate.

Opposing gay marriage is opposing love


One comes to understand many things after 97 years of life. Here’s one: Sex may fade, but love … that’s forever.

So says Issur Danielovitch, the man better known to the world as the nonagenarian actor Kirk Douglas. In an item this week on the Huffington Post, Douglas comes to the defense of his “friend” David Wolpe, the influential Los Angeles rabbi recently the subject of a front-page story in The New York Times describing the blowback in his congregation to his decision to perform gay marriage ceremonies.

Opposing gay marriage, Douglas writes, is opposing love. And who could be against love? Douglas even includes a poem to demonstrate how love can persevere into old age. Here’s the first few stanzas:

    Romance Begins at 80
    And I ought to know.
    I live with a girl
    Who will tell you so.

    I sit by her bath
    As she soaks in the tub.
    Then help her out
    For a strong towel rub.

    She likes that a lot
    But before I tire.
    It’s time to pour the wine
    And start lighting the fire.

    As the fire crackles,
    We talk of the past
    We met over 50 years ago
    Did you think it would last?

Letters to the Editor: Gay marriage


Decision to Perform Gay Marriages Sparks Much Conversation

Susan Freudenheim’s coverage of Rabbi David Wolpe’s decision to marry gay couples described a fascinating evolution in the Sinai Temple community (“The Gay Marriage Debate,” July 5). I want to clarify that my office at Sinai Akiba Academy has not received any threats of families leaving the school in light of the temple’s new policy. I have spoken with several families who expressed concern and wanted to better understand if the policy would change the curriculum at Sinai Akiba Academy (it will not). Although both the Jewish Journal and The New York Times have pointed out that much of the opposition comes from Sinai’s Iranian population, I would note that I have received positive and negative feedback from a culturally diverse cross section of school families, including a warm reception from many Iranian families as well as concern from families of Ashkenazic descent. I am deeply honored to lead Sinai Akiba Academy — which has retained every one of its 480 students over the course of this change — whose families daily demonstrate adaptability, curiosity and a desire to learn and understand how our rabbis believe gay marriage fits within the framework of the teachings and commandments of the Torah.

Sarah Shulkind
Head of School, Sinai Akiba Academy

We need more rabbis like David Wolpe, who will make sure that no Jew will be left behind in his or her search for gladness, joy and happiness.

Ken Lautman
Los Angeles

More Support for Gay Marriage Stand

Thank you once again, Gina Nahai, for an insightful and honest assessment of a situation (“We Have No Homosexuals Here,” July 12). I stand with my colleague Rabbi David Wolpe and ask all of us to remember when being a Jew was an “odorous” thing to many people. Gina, your courage, your spirit and your brilliance shine through.

Rabbi Mark Borovitz
Beit T’Shuvah
via jewishjournal.com

Thank you for Gina Nahai’s article regarding the bigotry of some members of Sinai Temple, members who themselves faced bigotry when they were new to the temple.  Ms. Nahai wrote beautifully. She was concise, specific, angry, knowledgeable — in short, perfect!

Ann Bourman
Los Angeles

Bravo to Gina Nahai!  Thank you for reminding all of us of what Jews have dealt with through the ages — Iranian and non-Iranian alike.

Ruth Merritt
Beverly Hills

Misuse of Torah’s Words

Sometimes the truth hurts, David Suissa (“A Real Gay Marriage Debate,” July 12). If you study our ancient prophets, you will find that most were either ignored or had their lives threatened by the community for rebuking them for their sins and trying to convince them to repent. That came to mind when I read your reaction to the Sinai member who used the Scripture as an argument against institutionalizing a clear violation of the Torah.

Bringing up the death sentence for a Sabbath violator, which ceased to apply after the destruction of the Temple, was not a proper comparison to a law that is still applicable. You should know better than that.

Yes, having an attraction to someone of the same sex may not be a choice. But acting upon it definitely is. The Torah prohibition is against the action. People have all sorts of tendencies. Many of them may not be healthy, for them or society. But we are taught, or should be taught, to control them or channel them in a healthier way.

Referring to a clear Torah prohibition, which applies to non-Jews as well as Jews, as a “tradition” appears to have been used by Wolpe to diminish its importance. And asking where [acceptance of homosexuality] is going seems obvious to any student of history: the same direction as ancient Rome and other civilizations that indulged in excesses and immorality.

You make the claim that there is nothing wrong with uniting two loving souls. Well, that sounds beautiful. But what if those two souls were brother and sister? What if these adult siblings wanted to live as man and wife? Where do we draw the line? Obviously, we can’t count on the ever-changing morals of society to guide us. Fortunately, we were given a guide: the Torah. We just need to have the strength not to be persuaded by the cause du jour and follow the laws that have allowed us to survive for thousands of years.

Daniel de Porto
via jewishjournal.com

David Suissa responds:

Yes, I agree, sometimes the truth hurts. In Mr. de Porto’s case, the truth that obviously hurts is the fact that the homosexuality he abhors has now entered the American mainstream. 

He concedes that homosexuality “may not be a choice,” but he has a solution. His solution is that gays should be “taught” to “control” their urges and tendencies because these are prohibited in the Torah. Well, I guess that settles it.

Mr. de Porto brandishes his point of view and his beloved Torah in such a hurtful and patronizing way as to make any Torah follower look like an intolerant bigot. In the process, he ends up undermining his own case.

As I wrote in my column, if there was ever an issue in our community that called for diplomacy and sensitivity, this one is it. This subject is sensitive and divisive enough as it is. 

The Conservative gay marriage debate


On Rosh Hashanah in 1992, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis stood before his Conservative congregation at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino and declared that despite the words of Leviticus, homosexuality is not an abomination. He argued that the same understanding and compassion Jews afford all human beings should be extended to those attracted to others of their own sex, and he told his congregation: 

“More than compassion is involved. Jewish wisdom and the morality of Jewish law are at stake. … Jews have the right, and the tradition, to interpret the text so that it sanctifies God’s name, our lives and that of our children. This is no heresy.” 

Schulweis spoke long before the arguments over gay marriage became prevalent in public discourse. He spoke well after gay pride had been established, but six years before the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay teenager. It was also a year before the enactment of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which would bar harassment of closeted soldiers serving in the military, while preventing gays and lesbians from being open about their lives. The rabbi had heard many tragic stories from gays in his congregation, but he did not know how his congregants might react to his words. 

They gave him a standing ovation.

Not all congregations, even ones in the same denomination, work according to the same clock. More than two decades later, just one month ago, Rabbi David Wolpe wrote a letter to his Conservative congregation at Sinai Temple, a prominent Westside synagogue less than 10 miles south of VBS, and told them that the rabbis at Sinai had “unanimously decided that it is in accordance with the great halachic [Jewish legal] principle of kavod habriot, honor due all of God’s creation, to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies, once this possibility is afforded by California law.”

[Related:  [Related: editor@jewishjournal.com.  You can follow her on Twitter at 

High fives


Jewish embrace of LGBT people recognizes the dignity of all


Attitudes toward same sex marriage in Judaism have undergone a dramatic change in the last quarter century. The prohibition recorded in Leviticus 18 has been affirmed by some, negated by others and reinterpreted by still others. Did the Torah intend loving same sex relationships? Did it understand homosexuality as a fundamental orientation rather than a choice?

For many traditionalists such questions are essentially irrelevant if not marginally blasphemous. That which God has decreed cannot be set aside. For most Jews however, Judaism is a tradition that is both evolving and eternal. The role of women, to take the most obvious example, has changed in dramatic ways in the past century. A female colleague of mine, rabbi of a synagogue for many years, had a young girl approach her and ask, “Can men be rabbis too?”

If you are a partisan of the infallibility of tradition there is no room for accommodation. There are many, however, who would permit the tradition to change in many other ways but draw the line at LGBT acceptance. The question of same sex marriage is admittedly new: it has been a scant twenty-five years since the first arguments appeared arguing for its recognition. But the velocity of social change reminds us of the comment that Hillel once made on a question of Jewish law — go out and see, he said. Trust the people. If you observe what they are doing, you will know what should be done. The rapid acceptance of same sex marriage affirms an American people with open arms.

Those who argue for civil unions but not religious ceremonies, proposing some ritual short of marriage, often ask why a different sort of ceremony is not sufficient. Clarification comes if we turn the question around: the same reason that opponents wish to call it anything but marriage is why proponents demand it be called marriage. A man in love with another man — or a woman in love with another woman — wants love acknowledged and sanctified, not merely tolerated. For many of us this is new and jarring but underneath is something we all treasure: commitment, passion, love.

As a rabbi I cannot countenance sitting before people who can fully love one another and insisting that the Jewish tradition has no place for them simply because they are of the same sex. Surely no people understands rejection and marginalization better than the Jewish people. The Torah repeatedly advises us to care for the stranger precisely because he is strange — that is, we react with suspicion or distance or uncertainty to one who is not like us. Fight against that feeling, teaches the Torah. All of God’s creation is holy and every human being in God’s image. K’vod Habriot, the dignity of all, is a fundamental Jewish principle.

When I sent a letter to my congregation stating that the clergy had unanimously decided to perform same sex marriages I received a good deal of reaction. Some people were angry, some bewildered, some hurt. The letters I most treasure were those from women and men who had felt marginalized, who were grateful that their home was at last welcoming them home. Reading those letters and having those conversations, witnessing the healing after hiddenness and estrangement I could only recall the reaction of my 16 year old daughter when I told her I was sending the letter: “What took you so long?”

What indeed.

Rabbi: Only messiah can straighten out gay ruling


A few stragglers took a bit longer to formulate their responses to the landmark Supreme Court decision this week on gay marriage.

The National Council of Young Israel wasn’t quite as eloquent as the Orthodox Union, nor as elegiac as Agudath Israel of America, but the essential view is the same.

We oppose homosexual marriage and are disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a decision that strikes down portions of the Defense of Marriage Act. Pursuant to the tenets of the Jewish faith and in accordance with Torah law, we believe that marriage should only be recognized as a union between a man and a woman, just as it always has been throughout history.

Someone also forwarded me the video response below from an unidentified-yet-very-disappointed Orthodox rabbi with a talent for metaphor. After rehearsing the biblical story of Bilaam — the lesson, if I understand correctly, is that if a donkey engages you in conversation, don’t talk back — he gets to the point.

Any carpenter will tell you that if you want to wed two pieces of wood, you take a zachar and a nekeiva, you take a male and a female, and they fit — one couples with the other. And that’s how you fit two pieces of wood together. You have a male and a female board.

OK, fine. But what if those pieces aren’t wood, but metal? What then?

We can’t speak of marriage, of a wedding. We can speak of a welding. You take two pieces and weld them together. Yes, but they’re not wed together.

But all is not lost. This decision, the rabbi says, has brought humanity so low that it can only herald the End of Days. Maybe, the rabbi says — and here I suspect his metaphorical instinct was entirely unintentional — the messiah will soon come and “straighten us out.”

Edie Windsor’s lawyer and the daughters of Zelophehad


Edie Windsor, who brought the lawsuit that this week felled the Defense of Marriage Act, is Jewish. So was her wife, Thea Spyer, who died in 2009.

The federal government’s insistence on ignoring the spousal exemption and taxing Windsor for Spyer’s estate — despite the fact that New York State recognized their Ontario marriage as valid — is what led to this week’s decision.

 

Windsor is a member of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, New York’s gay synagogue. Here she is celebrating the court’s decision with its rabbi, Sharon Kleinbaum, near Stonewall, the New York club where the gay struggle spilled into the streets in the late 1960s:

Here’s Windsor’s statement to the media:

Because of today’s Supreme Court ruling, the federal government can no longer discriminate against the marriages of gay and lesbian Americans. Children born today will grow up in a world without DOMA. And those same children who happen to be gay will be free to love and get married — as Thea and I did — but with the same federal benefits, protections and dignity as everyone else.

Windsor’s lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, is also Jewish and also a member of CBST. When she learned of her client’s victory, Kaplan called her mother, according to the New Yorker. “Total victory, Mom: it couldn’t be better,” she said.

What couldn’t be better? Kaplan will elaborate in the drash she delivers this Shabbat at CBST.

She argues that Judaism, contra its most rigid adherents, is susceptible to change. Her evidence is this week’s parsha, Pinchas, and its narrative of the five daughters of Zelophehad and how they stood up for their inheritance rights — and how God heeded them.

Kaplan suggests she brought the lesson of Zelophehad’s daughter with her into the courtroom, when she pushed back against Roberts’ intimation that politics drove the change she sought. She countered:

What truly has driven the change we have all experienced is not the so-called political power of gay people, but instead “a moral understanding today that gay people are no different, and that gay married couples’ relationships are not significantly different from the relationships of straight married people.

Here’s the whole drash:

Shabbat shalom. If it is OK with you, I would like to spend some time this evening talking about the fundamental change that I believe led to the Supreme Court’s historic ruling in Edie Windsor vs. the United States of America — change at the level of the individual, change within our nation, and change in both secular and Jewish law.

Perhaps the dominant view in our popular culture today is that religion, or belief in God, is inimical to the concept of change. That, after all, is the sense one gets when the media talks about Christian evangelicals – that they preach a vision of life and law that cannot tolerate any deviation from the explicit Biblical text. The same, of course, is true within Judaism as well. Not only do certain groups of ultra Orthodox Jews hold a similar theory about Jewish law, or halachah, but some even refuse to tolerate change in even the most mundane circumstances – for example, by refusing to use the internet or by insisting on wearing a particular type of hat in today’s Jerusalem that their ancestors wore in 17th century Ukraine. The very idea that I, as a woman, not to mention a lesbian, am standing on this bimah talking to you tonight would be utterly inconceivable to them.

But what I hope to be able to demonstrate to you tonight is that that is not the only way to be religious or to believe in God. And it certainly is not the only or even the proper, interpretation of our tradition. Inherent in Jewish belief is the view that people, communities and even the law must and should change when times and ethical circumstances require it. Indeed, both the torah and the rabbis teach that such change is actually a positive value.

Let me start at the level of the individual. That is perhaps the easiest argument to make in the context of Judaism. After all, a mere few weeks from now (on August 7), we will begin the month of Elul, the month leading up to the High Holy days, when positive change and growth, is not only encouraged, but is a positive commandment. During the month of Elul, we blow the shofar each morning. Maimonedes described this custom of blowing the shofar every morning as a wake-up call to sleepers, designed to rouse us from our complacency to grow and to change. It’s a kind of spiritual alarm clock.

And in the context of a certain Jewish lady by the name of Edie Windsor – there is no doubt that the change that she has experienced thus far in her 84 years, from getting married to and then quickly divorced from a male family friend in the early 1950’s, to meeting Thea Spyer in 1963 and falling in love with her, to becoming engaged in 1967, to dealing, as a couple, with Thea’s multiple sclerosis, to ultimately getting married and coming out to everyone in her life in 2007, was and continues to be what has brought her and us to this day. Indeed, without such change, Edie never could have become (and I’m using her words) “the out lesbian who just happens to be suing the United States of America.”

In terms of change at the level of the community, that is also pretty obvious. Every Shabbat, after we read the torah portion, we read the haftorah, which includes the poetry of the prophets encouraging, even demanding, change on the part of the nation of Israel. That, after all, is what the Hebrew prophets like Amos or Isaiah were all about. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has written that “The prophet was an individual who said No to his society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency . . .” It is surely no coincidence that Rabbi Heschel’s book on the prophets inspired Martin Luther King and that they worked closely together during the civil rights movement.

In terms of the LGBT community within Judaism, there can be little question that we have seen such change firsthand in the past year. Among other things, the Jewish Theological Seminary, for the first time in its entire history, submitted an amicus brief in a court case. Which case, one might ask? Edie Windsor vs. the United States, when JTS, along with the entire Conservative movement, joined an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to strike down DOMA as unconstitutional. Think about this for a moment if you will – less than 10 years ago, any gay rabbi ordained at the Jewish Theological had to be in the closet. Today, JTS signed on to a brief at the United States Supreme Court arguing that the marriages of gay people should be respected under the law.

And I certainly don’t have to tell you that we have seen the same kind of dramatic change in our nation as well. According to a Gallup poll last month, 53% of Americans say that same-sex marriages should be recognized. A more recent ABC poll had the number at 58%. The current level of support is essentially double the 27% in Gallup’s initial measurement on gay marriage in 1996, when DOMA was passed. And we are now on the verge of electing an open lesbian to become mayor of the city of New York.

The change that has taken place in the context of Edie Windsor’s court case is illustrative of this phenomenon. When we filed our case in 2009, New York State did not permit gay couples to marry. That is why Edie and Thea had to go to Toronto to get married. In 2011, New York passed its own marriage statute, making it only the sixth state in the country to grant gay people the freedom to marry. This past March, when I argued the case before the Supreme Court, 9 states plus the District of Columbia permitted gay couples to marry. Today, only three months later, 12 states do. And those numbers will only continue to grow.

But where the proverbial rubber hits the road is change in the law. The question of whether and to what extent Jewish law can change is the central debate that divides religious Jews today and in the past. And that brings me to this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Pinchas (Numbers, Chapter 27), which contains the story of the daughters of Zelophehad and thus I believe explicitly makes the case that Jewish law is subject to change in accordance with the dictates of fairness, justice and ethical compassion. Let me explain.

The Daughters of Zelophehad were five sisters whose father died during the 40 years in the wilderness after the escape from Egypt. According to God’s prior decree, the land of Israel was to be apportioned according to the number of names counted in the census. Since only men were counted in that census, Zelophehad’s daughters literally didn’t count and could not receive any inheritance from their father.

As a result, Zelophehad’s daughters “came forward” to petition Moses and the priests for their right to inherit their father’s property. As they explained, “why should our father’s name be eliminated from his family because he has no son?”

Moses then took their case to God who told Moses that the plea of Zelophehad’s daughters was just and that they should receive their inheritance. God also told Moses to change the rule going forward so that “if a man dies and has no son, you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter.”
This legal rule preferring men over women with respect to inheritance was later changed as well. The Book of Job, which dates from the fourth century, states that Job’s daughters were given equal inheritance rights to his sons. By the Middle Ages, the inequality between daughters and sons was avoided through a legal mechanism by which the father claimed that he was indebted to his daughter for a certain sum of money, and that this debt was due by him and his heirs. As a result, the daughter would either gain a share in her father’s estate, or a sum of money equal to its value. There are numerous other examples of the rabbis insisting on an ethical reading of a Biblical proscription when it comes to the actual execution of the law, particularly when dealing with the circumstances of people’s lives

I bet you know where I’m headed with this by now. The notion that Jewish law is fixed in stone, unbending and unyielding and not subject to change is simply not consistent with the story of Zelophehad’s daughters. It is not consistent with the text of the Torah portion, with God’s actions, or with Moses’ words. After all, it is God himself who changed God’s own prior rule when God saw the justice in the daughters’ argument. And it surely isn’t consistent with the actions of the rabbis centuries later, when, recognizing the inherent dignity of women as individuals, they gave them equal inheritance rights under Jewish law.

This same dynamic, but this time in the context of American constitutional law, was at play in my now famous exchange with Chief Justice John Roberts during the oral argument in the Windsor case on March 27. That exchange involved a debate about what really has been driving the dramatic transformation in American attitudes about gay people. The Chief Justice suggested that Americans were following the lead of elected officials. He asked me the following question: “I suppose the sea change has a lot to do with the political . . . effectiveness of people . . . supporting your side of the case?” I responded by explaining my view that the change was instead one of ethical perception, the result of an “understanding that there is no . . . fundamental difference that could justify . . . categorical discrimination between gay couples and straight couples.”

And then the Chief Justice pushed further, noting that “as far as I can tell, political figures are falling over themselves to endorse your side of the case.” My answer then and my answer today is the same — what truly has driven the change we have all experienced is not the so-called political power of gay people, but instead “a moral understanding today that gay people are no different, and that gay married couples’ relationships are not significantly different from the relationships of straight married people.” That is the kind of change, the kind of tikkun olam, or repair of the world, that lies at the heart of our tradition. It is, I believe, what God commands of every individual, every community, even of the law, even of God.

So where does this all leave us? I think the best way for me to sum up on this historic, Pride Shabbat in year 5773 is with Edie’s own words on the steps of the Supreme Court when she was asked to explain why such dramatic change has taken place: “I think what happened is at some point somebody came out and said ‘I’m gay.’ And this gave other people the guts to do it.” Edie observeded.” Amazingly, Rabbi Heschel said almost exactly the same thing years before, when he wrote that: “All it takes is one person… and another… and another… and another… to start a movement.” In the context of our community and our nation, from Selma to Stonewall, from Rosa Parks to Harvey Milk to Edie Windsor, both Rabbi Heschel and Edie Windsor could not have been more correct.

U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Defense Of Marriage Act in win for gays


The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a central portion of a federal law that restricted the definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples in a major victory for the gay rights movement.

The ruling, on a 5-4 vote, means that legally married gay men and women are entitled to claim the same federal benefits that are available to opposite-sex married couples.

The court was due to decide within minutes a second case concerning a California law that bans same-sex marriage in the state.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion that the Defense of Marriage Act violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection.

“The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity,” Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy, often the court's swing vote in close decisions, also said the law imposes “a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the states.”

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia both wrote dissenting opinions.

By striking down Section 3 of the law, the court clears the way to more than 1,100 federal benefits, rights and burdens linked to marriage status.

As a result of Wednesday's ruling, Edith Windsor of New York, who was married to a woman and sued the government to get the federal estate tax deduction available to heterosexuals when their spouses die, will be able to claim a $363,000 tax refund. 

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Will Dunham

Supreme Court issues two major rulings expanding gay rights


The Supreme Court upheld the federal rights of same sex couples in states that allow same sex marriages.

The first of two rulings Wednesday struck down a key part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which mandated that federal laws abide by a definition of marriage as a union between a man and woman. The ruling, a 5-4 split along ideological lines, requires the federal government to abide by the laws of individual states in its dealings with couples from those states.

In a separate ruling, the court ruled that individuals who sought to reverse a California Supreme Court decision that had overturned a ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage had no standing. A number of Jewish groups had filed friends of the court briefs on both sides.

The DOMA lawsuit had been brought by a Jewish woman, Edith Windsor, who was forced to pay federal taxes on the estate of her late wife, Thea Spyer, who was also Jewish, despite the fact that their Canadian marriage was recognized as legal by the state of New York, where they resided.

[From our archives: The queerness of love: A Jewish case for same-sex marriage]

“DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty,” Anthony Kennedy wrote in an opinion joined by the four liberal judges, including the three Jewish justices: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer. “It imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper.”

Liberal Jewish groups were rallied by Wednesday’s decisions, which came a day after the Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which had mandated federal review of any changes in voting laws in areas and states where racial discrimination had been pervasive. Groups like the American Jewish Committee, the Reform movement, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Anti-Defamation League pledged to lobby Congress to reinstate the key language that would reinstate such review.

L.A. Jewish LGBT community reacts to same-sex marriage decisions


Leaders of the area’s Jewish LGBT community rejoiced today after the Supreme Court ruled that part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denied federal benefits to same-sex couples, was unconstitutional. The court also paved the way for a return of same-sex marriage to California in a separate case by dismissing an appeal to Proposition 8 that banned such marriages.

“It’s a historic and wonderful day,” said Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami, a Reform congregation serving gay and lesbian Jews in West Hollywood. “It means marriages are restored in California It means federal protection.”

Kol Ami is a sponsor of a rally tonight in support of the rulings. It will take place at 5:30 p.m. at San Vicente and Santa Monica boulevards.

According to Eger, the ruling gives married LGBT couples 1,138 benefits that were previously denied to them, including Social Security benefits for surviving spouses, the ability to file tax returns together and hospital visiting rights for spouses.

Other examples abound.

“Let’s say there is a binational couple,” Eger said. “A heterosexual couple can apply to have one spouse have permanent residency status in the United States. [LGBT] people were hanging in limbo, where one spouse was forced to live in their country of origin while other, say, finishes school here in America.”

Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim, the world’s oldest gay and lesbian synagogue, pointed out that the court’s rulings do not address prohibitions against gay marriage in other states and that prejudice remains. But, she said, “It will take us a long way.”

Edwards’ congregation on Pico Boulevard has been involved in many of the efforts to bring about marriage equality, including Equality California, GLAAD, and the Courage Campaign.

To celebrate today’s court rulings, BCC has planned two events. On Friday night, a chuppah will be placed on the bimah as a symbol. Two days later on June 30, David Codell, who was involved in the litigation for the 2008 California Supreme Court ruling that struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, will speak from 2-4 p.m. The event will be streamed live on the Web at bcc-la.org.

Codell, who received BCC’s Humanitarian Award this year, is currently the visiting legal director of the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

“These are exciting steps forward. The court’s ruling invalidating DOMA is monumental. It enables same-sex couples to finally experience equality under the law,” Codell told the Journal.

“Exactly 10 years ago today, the Supreme Court ruled that the states could not make it a crime for gay people to have intimate relations. The progress in 10 years is remarkable. Today the court recognized that the families that same-sex couples formed are entitled to the same dignity as other families.”

Codell predicts that it will take some time to determine how today’s ruling will apply to same-sex couples in states that do not currently recognize same-sex marriage. In California, however, same-sex marriages could resume in as little as a month. Even then, there are more important decisions to be made.

“Is the Supreme Court’s decision effective as of now, or is it retroactive to the date a couple was married?” Codell asked. “It will likely take time to sort out these questions.”

Both Eger and Edwards already have begun scheduling same-sex marriages. Edwards says that many people planned their marriages after the election in 2008 and then got “left out.”

Eger said, “The Supreme Court did not give us a sweeping marriage ruling, which means we have to continue to fight for equality… but I believe we will be successful.”

Gay marriage: A matter of conscience


In the sphere of human rights there comes a time when people of conscience are morally required to stand up and declare what they believe is right based on principles of justice and fairness, not for themselves but for others. While this may be especially true for politicians, opinion leaders, parents, religious figures and the like, it doesn’t end there; it is the moral duty of every citizen in a free society, and arguably the duty of every human being in any society, to take a stance on issues of conscience. Being a bystander may be convenient and comfortable, but it doesn’t meet the test. For me, as a prominent publicly identified Republican, the time is now and the issue is same-sex marriage. As the controversy continues to swirl around us and people have begun to take sides, I feel it is time to state my own opinion; that is to declare my support for the right of same-sex couples to marry. 

This, of course, doesn’t take any particular courage on my part. For me personally the stakes are low, but for others the consequences are high. Selfishly, when the history of the consequences of our time is written, I want to be recorded by my friends and family as having been on the right side, on the side of those who seek equal rights for all. In my view, the outcome of this debate is inevitable, but for now the question is how long it will take to get there and at what cost to the American fabric.

There were times before when I wanted to step into this fray, but the point seemed moot. The matter went to the Court; polls began to shift in favor of same sex-marriage; and 131 Republicans activists stepped forward to lend their support in an amicus brief to the court. No less a conservative voice than Ted Olsen has defended the rights of same-sex couples to marry, as have Meg Whitman, David Frum, Ken Mehlman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Rep. Richard Hanna, Sen. Rob Portman and Sen. Mark Kirk. Unfortunately, last Friday the Republican National Committee unanimously passed a resolution reiterating its opposition to same-sex marriage. Therefore, I can no longer be silent on the issue.

The arguments to allow same-sex marriage to proceed and be recognized are many. Even if the Supreme Court finds no constitutional right, Federalism, which Republicans hold dear, would at least allow states to decide the issue for themselves (Proposition 8 aside, it can only be a matter of time before Californians make this choice). From a pure political standpoint, Republicans are playing a losing hand, with public attitudes shifting, especially among young voters (Gallop found that 73 percent of voters aged 18-29 favor legalization). Philosophically, the party that supports individual freedom, commitment and less government intrusion ought to get out of the way of people wanting to express their individual liberties. In another example, the “death tax” that Republicans oppose also falls unfairly on unmarried same-sex couples; for married couples the government doesn’t collect their levy until the second partner dies. Not true for same-sex couples who may own a business or a house together and be forced to sell to pay the taxman when their partner dies.

It is easy to be taken in by some for the arguments against same-sex marriage. Since switching my own thinking on the subject and discussing it with friends — notably both Democrats and Republicans — I hear them all the time: “You can’t redefine a word”; “This will undermine ‘traditional’ marriage”; “I am in favor of civil unions, but not marriage”; and on and on. This is all nonsense; it sounds logical, but is not.

The concept of traditional marriage is a nice fairy tale: Boy meets (virginal) girl; they fall in love; their nuclear families walk them down the aisle; they have children and live together faithfully until death. So this is marriage. Except that it doesn’t always happen that way anymore. People cohabitate before marriage; they get divorced, they remarry (for some this cycle repeats itself over and over — all are called marriage). If a 90-year-old near-senile man marries a 20ish gold-digger, that’s a legally recognized marriage. If two strangers meet at a Las Vegas casino one night and run off half-drunk to the local chapel to get married — that’s a legally recognized marriage. If a high school teacher who goes to jail for having sex with an underage boy marries that boy when she is through serving her term and he has reached adulthood — that’s a legally recognized marriage. If a woman falls in love with a serial killer awaiting execution on death row, corresponds with him and they decide to marry — that’s a legally recognized marriage. But if two men who are committed to each other and live together for 50 years wish to be married, somewhere along the way we can’t call this marriage? 

Fundamentally, we as Americans believe that we are all entitled to be free and to pursue our own dreams and happiness (while we think this is some uniquely American idea, consider that same-sex marriage is already legal in Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and Sweden as well as in some parts of other countries). I do not see how allowing same-sex couples to have the same right that I have to get married will in any way diminish my own freedom or my own happiness. How? Which right will I lose? (Rights, fortunately, are not a zero-sum game.) Why is something that is allowed for me denied to someone else? Where is the concept of fairness in all this?

I am hoping that other Republicans will step forward along with me and tell our party leadership that they are making a mistake. Now is the time to get on the record, one way or the other. Abstaining from an important moral issue is not a choice.

Joel Geiderman is California chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition and former vice chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, appointed by President George W. Bush. The views expressed by the author are his own and do not represent the official views of any organization with which he is currently or was previously affiliated.

The ultimate school test


The political struggle over school governance is now the most significant internal conflict in the Democratic Party, at the city, state and national levels. With gun control, gay marriage and immigration now uniting Democrats as never before, education reform remains a main dividing line.

A reform coalition that includes President Barack Obama, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a number of business leaders has been in conflict with national, state and local teacher unions. Teacher unions have long been a backbone of Democratic national conventions, but education reform created rifts at the quadrennial meeting in 2012. On April 14, delegates to the California Democratic convention in Sacramento condemned the reform coalition. 

This intense conflict may explain the reticence on the subject of schools of L.A.’s two Democratic mayoral candidates. Former Mayor Richard Riordan, one of the earliest reformers, has endorsed Greuel, while Garcetti has the support of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA). But neither candidate is ready to offer full-throated, unvarnished support for one or the other contending sides, and both seem understandably leery of jumping into the boiling pot.

In his final State of the City address, Mayor Villaraigosa challenged the mayoral candidates to speak out on education. The criticism stung, and the candidates started to roll out some of their plans for education. But, after all, what can the mayor actually do about education?

Section 805 of the city charter vests control of the schools in a seven-member board of education, elected by district. In most other big cities, the mayor has a larger formal role. In New York City, the mayor appoints the superintendent. In Chicago, Baltimore and Boston, the mayor is clearly the dominant figure in public education.

Los Angeles voters believe that city leaders can and should do something about the schools. In June 2005, the Los Angeles Times’ exit poll, the last one done in a local election, found that 40 percent of voters ranked education as the No. 1 issue in the mayoral race. Education ranked ahead of the next highest issue, crime, by 10 points.

Yet it is uncertain that voters would give the mayor greater formal authority if asked to do so in a ballot measure. That assumption led Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to sidestep a charter amendment and go directly to the state legislature to get partial authority over the Los Angeles Unified School District — a law that was eventually overturned in court. Eventually, he reached an agreement with LAUSD to create a nonprofit entity under his leadership that would operate several low-performing schools.

Back in the early 1990s, Mayor Richard Riordan challenged the UTLA, which had dominated recent school board elections. Spending his own money and raising additional funds from allies, Riordan helped elect a board majority in favor of his vision of school reform, and strongly supported then-Superintendent Roy Romer. But Riordan lost his board majority near the end of his mayoralty.

Riordan endorsed Villaraigosa for mayor in 2005, and once the new mayor’s legislative strategy for the schools failed, his next steps to exercise influence over the schools resembled Riordan’s. In 2006 and 2007, Villaraigosa supported winning candidates who comprised a majority on the school board for his reform coalition. This year, despite millions of dollars in campaign spending, the reform coalition failed to unseat an incumbent board member. The board is now precariously balanced between the two contending sides.

The real question for the mayoral candidates is not whether they will go down the path that Riordan and Villaraigosa did, of seeking to build working majorities on the school board. The question is whether what the next mayor says or does will make a difference in this political environment. Will he or she be willing to risk political conflict to have an impact on the schools?

The two main forces are not going to go away. Is the mayor going to pick a side or chart a third course? 

There are issues on the table that will require the new mayor to pick a direction: How should we evaluate teacher performance? How many charter schools should we have, and how should they be evaluated? How much should teachers be paid? Should the superintendent be supported or opposed? There is certainly an opening for a mayor who takes on either or both sides when the evidence suggests a better way. The “bully pulpit” is not just a vehicle for good ideas offered by a mayor; its strength reflects the mayor’s ability to generate and use political power to advance those ideas.

We may not get all the answers from the candidates about how they will try to help education. But the real test will come after one or the other takes office on July 1, when they will either stand aside, or wade into a thick environment in a way that makes their impact both forceful and productive. 


Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

Pope praises French rabbi’s essay against gay marriage


In his Christmas address to Vatican officials, Pope Benedict reportedly praised an essay by France’s chief rabbi on the negative effects of gay marriage.

According to Reuters, the Pope called the essay by Rabbi Gilles Bernheim “profoundly moving” during the Pope’s speech in the Clementine Hall of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace on Friday.

In an essay published in October,“Gay Marriage, Parenthood and Adoption: What We Often Forget To Say,” Bernheim argues that plans to legalize gay marriage are being made for “the exclusive profit of a tiny minority” and are often supported because of political correctness.

Homosexual rights groups “will use gay marriage as a Trojan Horse” in a wider campaign to “deny sexual identity and erase sexual differences” and “undermine the heterosexual fundamentals of our society,” Bernheim also wrote.

Last month, France’s Socialist government unveiled a draft law that would allow gay marriage. That same month Spain’s highest court upheld a gay marriage law.

On the morning after, Jewish Republicans advise the party


Think immigration through — again. Forget about gay marriage. And for heaven’s sake, when it comes to rape, shut up!

The Republican Party as a whole is having the morning-afters, reconsidering how it might have done better in an election that saw the party fail to win the White House and suffer modest losses in Congress, and Jewish Republicans and conservatives are coming forward with their own insights.

“There will be a lot of very frank conversations between our organization and its leadership and the leadership within the party,” Matt Brooks, the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said last week in a conference call that otherwise addressed gains that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney appeared to have made among Jewish voters.

A number of Romney’s financial backers — including Fred Zeidman of Texas, Mel Sembler of Florida and Sheldon Adelson — are among the RJC’s leadership, and Brooks made clear that their voices would be heard.

“A lot of the major financial support the candidates received was from the members of this organization,” Brooks said. “There is a lot of weight behind their message on that.”

William Daroff, the Washington director of the Jewish Federations of North America and a former deputy to Brooks at the RJC, said Republican Jews would likely advise the party to moderate.

“The conventional wisdom is that the election will result in the shift of the Republican Party to the center, particularly on issues of immigration,” Daroff said. “To the extent that the party does shift, it would make Republican candidates more appealing to Jewish voters who may be inclined to vote Republican on foreign policy and homeland security issues but who have been turned off by conservative Republicans rigidity on social issues.

Some of the leading voices counseling moderation of hard-line Republican policies have been Jewish conservatives. One of the first post-election posts from Jennifer Rubin, who writes the Right Turn blog for the Washington Post, said it was time to stop opposing gay marriage in the political arena.

“Republicans for national office would do well to recognize reality,” Rubin said. “The American people have changed their minds on the issue and fighting this one is political flat-earthism. As with divorce, one need not favor it, but to run against it is folly, especially for national politicians who need to appeal to a diverse electorate.”

Charles Krauthammer, the syndicated columnist, noted sharp Democratic gains among Hispanic voters and counseled a change in immigration policy, making clear that the current GOP emphasis on securing the borders should be followed by amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the country.

Romney had advocated disincentives, including making it more difficult for illegal immigrants to get jobs and educations, that would push them to leave, or “self deport.”

“Many Hispanics fear that there will be nothing beyond enforcement. So, promise amnesty right up front,” Krauthammer wrote in his Nov. 9 column.  “Secure the border with guaranteed legalization to follow on the day the four border-state governors affirm that illegal immigration has slowed to a trickle.”

Zeidman, the fundraiser, said Jewish Republicans had a special role in making the case for immigration reform.

“The rest of the party has to understand what we as Jews have always understood — that this is a nation of immigrants and to ignore them is to end up losing,” he said.

A number of conservatives have lashed back against calls for policy changes, saying that the party was missing the ideas revolution underpinning the 2010 Tea Party insurgency that propelled Republicans to the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“There's no point in two Democratic parties,” said Jeff Ballabon, a Republican activist from New York. “Any such victory would be pyrrhic.”

Singling out gay marriage or immigration was self-defeating, said Ballabon.

“All the postmortems focus on demographics — that's playing the Democrats' game, that's a loss right there,” he said.

Recalling the drawing power of a figure like Ronald Reagan, Ballabon said positions on hot-button issues matter less than a party leader who can appeal across demographic lines.

“The only chance we have is there's another bold visionary who can attract people not based on divide and conquer, but who can inspire people to core American ideals — liberty, freedom, personal responsibility,” Ballabon said.

Tevi Troy, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, said the problem was not with policies but with how they were presented.

“There are messaging challenges,” he said. ”I don't think any of our candidates should talk about rape.”

GOP Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana — states that otherwise went solidly for Romney — both lost their seats after making controversial marks about rape that were widely reported and derided. Their losses facilitated a net Democratic gain in the body from 53 to 55.

Troy said the Republican Party could learn from its Jewish supporters how to frame its vision of an America of opportunity in ways that would appeal to minorities and immigrants.

“You do have a place in America to succeed,” he said. “Jews are a paradigmatic example of a minority that came to the U.S. and did very well in the American system.”

Troy said also that the party should consider gradual and not radical changes in some areas. For instance, reversing “Obamacare,” the president’s health care reforms mandating universal coverage, was likely no longer an option.

“Repealing Obamacare is not viable right now,” said Troy, an assistant health secretary under President George W. Bush. “I still think the law needs significant reforms, and now is the time to talk about it.”

Noam Neusner, a domestic policy adviser and speechwriter for the George W. Bush administration, said that Jewish Republicans were not necessarily more moderate than other Republicans. Instead, he suggested, the party’s Jews represented a bridge to other communities that tended to perceive Romney as remote.

Neusner noted a secretly recorded fundraiser at which Romney referred to hard-core Obama voters as the 47 percent of the country who saw themselves as victims. The Obama campaign hammered Romney with the remarks, replaying the video in ads in swing states.

“The biggest problem with that 47 percent video is that he portrayed people who don't have wealth as victims,” Neusner said of Romney. “Most Jewish Republicans come from families with no wealth and have seen in America a wonderful place to create wealth, and they want to preserve that for others, especially immigrants.”

Similarly, Neusner said, Jews were well placed to convey the freedoms offered by American religious liberties. He referred specifically to an Obama order this year mandating contraceptives coverage for women who work at religiously affiliated institutions such as hospitals and orphanages.

“Jewish Republicans need to stand with our Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Hindu friends that there's a place in public life for religious institutions, and the government should not impose itself on those institutions,” he said.

Conservative rabbis approve same-sex marriage ceremonies


The Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards—which sets halachic policy for the Conservative movement—has voted unanimously to provide the approximately 1,600 Conservative rabbis with guidelines on performing same-sex marriages.

The move is an official sanction of the ceremonies by the movement.

The CLJS approved the documents Thursday by a 13-0 vote with one abstaining ballot. For years, the Conservative movement has debated how to approach same-sex unions. Traditionalists often opposed such relationships while urging respect as progressives—particularly some rabbinical students—pushed for full equality.

In 2006, the CLJS officially sanctioned gay relationships. At the time, it stressed that rabbis were not obligated to perform such ceremonies, but could do so and not be violating RA standards.

Rabbis Daniel Nevins, Avram Reisner and Elliot Dorff created the new ritual guidelines. They offer two types of gay weddings, as well as gay divorce.

“Both versions are egalitarian,” Nevins told the Forward. “They differ mostly in style—one hews closely to the traditional wedding ceremony while the other departs from it.”

The templates do not include kiddushin, the ceremony in which the groom presents his bride with a ring. However, they do detail a ring exchange that is based on Jewish partnership law, an established halachic concept, Nevins told the Forward.

Jewish groups back Obama on gay marriage


Jewish leaders praised President Barack Obama’s statement that he personally supports gay marriage.

“I am pleased that the President has made a decisive statement in support of marriage equality,” said National Jewish Democratic Council chair Marc R. Stanley in an emailed statement. “President Obama has admirably continued to demonstrate the values of tikkun olam in his work to make America a better place for all Americans.”

For some Jews, the reaction to Obama’s statement was deeply personal.

“Tonight for the first time I’m going to be able to go home to my six month old son and tell him that the president of the United states, Our president, thinks that we’re a family,” said Alan van Capelle, chief executive officer of Bend the Arc. Van Capelle, who is gay, the former executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda.

The president told ABC News that he supports gay marriage in a May 9 interview.

Read more at Forward.com.

Minn. rabbinical group opposes ban on same-sex marriages


Members of the Minnesota Rabbinical Association have signed a statement opposing a state ballot initiative that would ban same-sex marriages.

The group represents rabbis from 15 congregations in the state from the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements. No Orthodox rabbis signed the statement, which was adopted last month.

The statement said the rabbis were unanimous in opposing the amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot recognizing marriage only as a union between a man and a woman.

In their statement, the rabbis said the amendment “seeks to continue the practice of leaving individual families within the LGBT community vulnerable and unprotected by the law. To honor an individual is to fight against discrimination in society for any reason, including race, religion, natural origin, gender, age or sexual orientation.

“Throughout history the Jewish community has faced discrimination, and therefore we will not stand by while others are targeted,” the rabbis said. “The MRA cannot condone using the constitution to deny civil rights. As rabbis, we embrace the diversity of God’s creation.”

The association “urges all Minnesotans of conscience and faith” to vote against the initiative, the statement said.

Some 42,000 Jews live in Minnesota, according to the Star-Tribune.

Jewish groups split on gay marriage ruling


Jewish groups split on a federal appeals court ruling that allows same-sex couples to marry in California.

The 2-1 decision Tuesday by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot measure that said same-sex marriages violated the state constitution. Prop 8 had reversed a decision the same year by the California state Supreme Court that had allowed same-sex marriage.

The National Council of Jewish Women, welcoming the appeals court decision, said it “marks a milestone in the effort to provide full rights to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.”

The Orthodox Union said the decision was disappointing.

“While Judaism also teaches respect for others and condemns discrimination, we, as Orthodox Jewish leaders, oppose any effort to change the definition of marriage to include same-sex unions,” said the umbrella group, adding that it would back an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In an apparent bid to head off just such an appeal, the appellate court’s decision was narrowly cast.

Instead of upholding a right to same-sex marriage, as some experts had anticipated it would do, the decision blasted Proposition 8 as a bid to discriminate against a class otherwise protected by existing California laws and precedents.

“Proposition 8 operates with no apparent purpose but to impose on gays and lesbians, through the public law, a majority’s private disapproval of them and their relationships,” the decision said.

The Reform movement, in praising the decision, noted its narrow scope. 

“While the decision is narrow, it is nonetheless an important step forward in the achievement of marriage equality,” said a statement by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Jonathan Stein, the president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. “As the purveyor of civil marriage, government should embrace an inclusive definition of marriage that establishes equality for all couples, regardless of the sex of the people involved.”

Agudath Israel of America, another Orthodox umbrella, faulted the court for avoiding the constitutional implications of recognizing same-sex marriage.

“The court undid the democratic choice of the voters who passed Proposition 8 without even finding that the constitution requires recognition of same-gender marriage,” it said. “There is something very wrong with this picture.”

Agudah called for an appeal of the decision to a fuller panel of the 9th Circuit or to the U.S. Supreme Court.

California gay marriage ban overturned, appeal planned


A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday found California’s gay marriage ban unconstitutional in a case that is likely to lead to a showdown on the issue in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Proponents of the ban said they would appeal the ruling, and the Protect Marriage coalition that sponsored the ban called the judgment “out of step with every other federal appellate and Supreme Court decision.” The appeal is likely to keep gay marriage on hold pending future proceedings.

But gay marriage supporters celebrated. Outside San Francisco City Hall, Breana Hansen stood smiling by her partner, Monica Chacon. “We’re so happy. It’s a validation for us as a couple,” Hansen said.

The majority in the 2-1 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did not address whether marriage was a fundamental right available to same-sex couples as well as heterosexuals. But the two judges ruled that California’s Proposition 8 ban did not further “responsible procreation,” which was at the heart of the argument by the ban’s supporters.

California joined the vast majority of U.S. states in outlawing same-sex marriage in 2008, when voters passed the ban known as Proposition 8.

That socially conservative vote by a state more known for hippies and Hollywood was seen as a watershed by both sides of the so-called culture wars, and two gay couples responded by filing the legal challenge currently making its way through the federal courts.

A federal judge in San Francisco struck down Proposition 8 in 2010, and gay marriage opponents appealed that ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Opponents and supporters of same-sex marriage both have said they are ready to appeal the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Opponents of gay marriage have not decided whether to ask a larger 9th Circuit panel to hear the matter, or appeal directly to the Supreme Court, Andrew Pugno, general counsel for Protect Marriage and a lawyer on the team defending Prop 8, said by email.

The 9th Circuit’s rules allow at least two weeks before a ruling takes effect, so same sex marriages cannot immediately resume in California, court spokesman Dave Madden said.

BROADER QUESTION NOT AT ISSUE

The 2-1 decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals featured two judges appointed by Democrats ruling against the ban, while a Republican-appointed judge dissented.

In the ruling, Judge Stephen Reinhardt focused on the unique circumstances of Prop 8 in California.

“Although the Constitution permits communities to enact most laws they believe to be desirable,” Reinhardt wrote, “it requires that there be at least a legitimate reason for the passage of a law that treats different classes of people differently.”

“There was no such reason that Proposition 8 could have been enacted,” Reinhardt wrote.

Backers of Prop 8 had said that it would advance better child-rearing, but Reinhardt said the only effect of the measure was to deny same-sex couples the right to describe their relationship as a “marriage.”

“Proposition 8 therefore could not have been enacted to advance California’s interest in childrearing or responsible procreation,” he wrote, “for it had no effect on the rights of same-sex couples to raise children or on the procreative practices of other couples.”

Judge Michael Daly Hawkins joined Reinhardt’s opinion, while Judge N. Randy Smith dissented from the main constitutional findings.

“The optimal parenting rationale could conceivably be a legitimate governmental interest” for passing the gay marriage ban, wrote Smith. “I cannot conclude that Proposition 8 is ‘wholly irrelevant’ to any legitimate governmental interests.”

About 40 of the 50 U.S. states had outlawed gay marriage before a California state court ruled in 2008 that a ban was unconstitutional, leading to a summer of gay marriages. But California voters that November decided to change the state constitution to limit marriage to a man and woman.

It provoked some gay rights activists to take a matter that had been waged on a state-by-state basis to federal court, essentially staking the entire agenda on one case. Republican Ted Olson and Democrat David Boies – attorneys who represented George W. Bush and Al Gore, respectively, in the legal case that decided the 2000 presidential election – joined forces to take on Proposition 8 in court.

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen as a more conservative body than the lower courts that have been considering the case. Should the high court eventually decide to hear the case, much may depend on Anthony Kennedy, a Republican-appointed justice who has written important pro-gay rights decisions but has not explicitly endorsed gay marriage.

Six states – New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Iowa – allow gay marriage, as does Washington, D.C.

In addition, New Jersey and Washington state are considering legislation to legalize same-sex marriage, and gay rights activists in Maine say they plan to bring the issue to voters in a referendum in that state.

Preparing for Same-Gender Weddings


All eyes will still be on New York in the coming weeks as the state prepares for marriage equality. I learned a lot in the run-up to wedding mania here in California in 2008, so I thought I would share some tips with those in New York.

Clergy, officiants and recorders: Meet together with your county registrars, who will issue the licenses. Help form a task force to work out the first days, when the big rush will happen. Help them think through their own bureaucracy and, yes, how the forms should and must change. We did that here in Los Angeles County. Our County Clerk Dean Logan and his team met with us and worked directly with a group of us to help ease the rush of the first weeks.

Clergy and other officiants: Know how you will change or modify the words of the ceremony. Will you say husband and husband? Partners for life? Spouses? Will you keep antiquated vows, like love, honor, cherish and obey? Does anyone really still use obey? I certainly don’t.

Couples who plan to get married: Consult an attorney and a tax professional.  There are many fiscal implications in getting married. Sign a prenuptial agreement; it doesn’t mean you don’t love each other. In fact, just the opposite. It does mean you love one another enough to imagine that if it didn’t work out, you have the basics outlined.

The federal government doesn’t yet recognize our unions, and so while you might be married in New York, your federal income tax is as a single. Being in love and getting married doesn’t mean you have to be financially stupid.

Even if you have been together for a long time, consider some premarital counseling. That piece of paper and that ring change things. Don’t just assume it will all be the same. It won’t! You will see yourselves differently, and others will see you differently.

One of the most interesting phenomena of the marriage ceremony is that it takes two unrelated people and makes them next of kin — like blood family. So, poof! You are related! It is a different way to think about this marriage bond. That is why others see you differently. You are a family in a new way, even if you have been together for decades.

Remember, if you are having a wedding ceremony — complete with flowers and cake and maybe a rented hall and caterer — your officiant should be given an honorarium as well. Don’t just assume the local pastor will be available. He or she will have many weddings to perform. The officiant may have a fee. Be prepared. It is not a free service. This is how people make their living, just like the baker, the travel agent who books your honeymoon and the guy in the tuxedo shop who rented you the tuxedos. There is paperwork that has to be completed.  So don’t bristle if your rabbi, cantor, minister or priest has a financial requirement for this service.

Expect everyone to want to attend! In my almost 25-year experience of being a rabbi and performing hundreds of weddings for gay people (both legally recognized and not), the gay weddings are better attended than the straight weddings. Everyone wants to be there! So plan your numbers and your guest list accordingly!

These are just a few tips. But there are many others. On my blog, which can be found at rabbieger.wordpress.com, I will cover a few more. Happy weddings!

Marty Kaplan: Pessimism is the last taboo


It gets worse. 

If you pay attention to the news, the prospects for the future look grim.  The new normal of high unemployment and stagnant wages will likely not turn out to be just a phase.  The next generations may indeed do worse than the ones before them.  Thanks to the Supreme Court, big money will keep tightening its stranglehold on elections and lawmaking.  Financial reform and consumer protection will never survive the onslaught of lobbyists.  Reckless bankers will go on making out like bandits, and the public will always be forced to rescue them.  The Internet, along with cable and wireless, will be controlled by fewer and more-powerful companies. The world will keep staggering from one economic crisis to another.  We will not have the leadership and citizenship we need to kick our dependence on oil.  We will not even keep up with the Kardashians.

Add your own items to the list.  Whatever global threats scare you – climate change, the Middle East, loose nukes, pandemics – and whatever domestic issues haunt you – failing schools, crumbling infrastructure, rising poverty, obesity – the odds are that the honesty, discipline, resources and burden-sharing required for a happy ending will not, like Elijah, show up at our door.

Sure, there’s some good news around, and there are advances ahead.  Gay marriage is legal in New York, and perhaps one day the resistance to it will seem as unfathomable as the opposition to women’s suffrage.  Technology is growing exponentially, and today’s iGizmos will doubtless seem like steam engines tomorrow.  We will some day actually be gone from Afghanistan.  Justices Scalia and Thomas will eventually retire.  French fries or salami will turn out to be good for us, at least for a while.  Some Wall Street slimeballs will be nailed, some good guys will win elections and some little girl will be rescued from a well. 

But it would pretty much take a miracle for our intractable problems to become tractable.  Without one, political polarization is not about to give way to kumbaya.  Cultural coarsening is not going to reverse course.  The middle class will not be resurgent; the gap between rich and poor will not start closing; the plutocrats calling the shots will not cede their power.  No warning on its way to us – no new BP, no next shooting, no future default – will bring us to our senses about the environment, assault weapons or derivatives for any longer than it takes for the next Casey Anthony or Anthony Weiner to come along. 

Politicians, of course, can never say something like this.  They’re selling progress, greatness, can-do.  The only place for pessimism in the public sphere is as a handy foil.  “There are those who say that we can’t solve our problems, that our best days are behind us, that China is the future.  But I say….”  It’s a surefire applause line.  But it’s also a straw man.  There aren’t “those who say” that.  Americans hate pessimism.  We get discouraged, our hope flags, but predicting defeat is inconceivable.  The comeback kids, the triumphant underdogs, the resilient fighters rising to the challenge: that’s who we see in the mirror. 

We place fatalism beyond the pale.  To give up on the possibility of change, to doubt that we’re up to the task, is socially aberrant.  You may fear that we are doomed to be a nation of big babies: we claim to want leaders who’ll face tough choices, but we punish them for actually making them.  You may despair that the rationality required to face up to reality will never overcome the fundamentalism, know-nothingism and magic thinking that has a hammerlock on our national psyche.  You may believe that big money and big media have become so powerful that our sclerotic democratic institutions are inherently incapable of checking them. 

But you can’t admit any of that.  In public, we never let such darkness prevail.  Instead, we work to improve things.  We organize, rally, blog, join movements, work phone banks, ring doorbells, write checks, sign petitions. 

We are not a tragic nation.  If a leader disappoints us, or breaks our hearts, we say it’s just a setback, not a sign that the system itself manufactures impotence and capitulation.  If a problem festers, we cling to the belief that money, know-how and perhaps some sobering wake-up call are all we need to solve it; we don’t dare entertain the notion that there’s something in human nature that’s causing and protracting it.  If social conflict splits us, we diagnose a communication problem, a semantic setback on the road to common ground, a gap that can be bridged by consensus on facts and deliberation on goals; it’s just too painful to think that tribal values impervious to rationality and insusceptible to compromise are the ineluctable driver of our divisions.

I wish I could declare my confidence in our ability to solve our problems without sounding like some candidate who just wants my vote.  But ironic optimism won’t do.  I’m desperate for evidence that we’re prepared to pay for the services we demand, or to subordinate our desires in order to meet our obligations to one another, or to reform our governance so that special interest money, filibusters and the other Washington diseases didn’t sicken the system.  I just wish it didn’t take drinking the can-do Kool Aid to see the glass as half full.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

In N.Y., debate over religious exemptions at issue in gay marriage bill


When it comes to passing a gay marriage bill in New York State, even many supporters acknowledge that wide-reaching religious exemptions are crucial.

After all, this is the state with the nation’s second-largest number of Catholics and largest number of religiously observant Jews, and many say including exemptions is a legitimate way to address concerns of the religiously observant.

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed that if we’re going to recognize same-sex marriage, we do it in a way that is nuanced,” Robin Fretwell Wilson, a law professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, told JTA.

Though robust protection of religious liberties already exists in both New York and federal law, Wilson said she understands why religious groups are pushing to reiterate and strengthen these guarantees.

“You don’t want to put them through a test of violating their conviction or violating their law,” she said.

Exemptions could protect nonprofit organizations, businesses and individuals from being forced to acknowledge same-sex marriages—perhaps so that, for instance, a kosher catering business or a Catholic florist could refuse to provide services for a same-sex wedding.

But some same-sex marriage supporters argue that specifically including exemptions in the bill isn’t necessary because existing law already makes allowances for religious freedom. They charge that the debate over exemptions really is a smokescreen for those who want to defeat the bill.

Ultimately, New York’s experience may serve as a lesson for other states seeking to legalize same-sex marriage through state legislatures, as opposed to the court mandates in states like Iowa.

The question now is whether the focus on religious exemptions derails the bill or whether it allows the bill to overcome religious objections. Gov. Andrew Cuomo strongly supports same-sex marriage, and he reportedly is just shy of the votes he needs in Albany.

Much of the debate over exemptions has centered around private individuals, like bakers or photographers, and businesses like banquet halls. In other states, businesses or individuals refusing to work at same-sex weddings were sued or lost tax-exempt status, opponents of gay marriage say.

Jennifer Pizer, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and an expert on sexual orientation and discrimination, says that’s par for the course in America: You can’t let religious beliefs affect commercial decisions.

“People are free to hold these views—they’re not just free to hold those views, they’re protected.” But, she said, “the current legal system does not permit people engaged in business to discriminate based on the proprietors’ own religious views.”

Pizer said the New York debate over exemptions hearkens back to a time when religious views were used to justify racial segregation and opposition to equal-pay-for-equal-work legislation.

On the other side, Marc Stern, the associate general counsel for legal advocacy at the American Jewish Committee, which has not taken an official stance on the same-sex marriage bill, said the fight for equality does not trump the right to free exercise of religion.

While some religious groups, including the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America, the Catholic League and others have lobbied against New York’s same-sex marriage bill, Stern says their time would have been better spent pushing for more robust religious protections across the board.

“I think they’ve made a major tactical blunder. The handwriting was on the wall on gay rights,” he said, suggesting that the legalization of same-sex marriage is inevitable. “The thing to do is to give up that fight and fight for a broad religious exemption.”

Strictly religious Jews, however, feel they have an obligation to fight back against a bill that would “promote the notion that all intimate relationships are equally acceptable,” said Avi Shafran, director of public affairs at the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America.

“The Jewish religious tradition is emphatic and unambiguous about the wrongness of same-sex relationships,” Shafran said. “Religious organizations cannot impose their will on society, but neither can they – at least Orthodox Jewish ones – shirk their duty to proclaim what is proper and what is not.”

Jay Michaelson, founder of a gay Jewish spiritual group called Nehirim and author of “God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality,” says the Jewish imperative is to fight the demands of religious lobbyists, not to fight gay marriage.

“As American Jews, I don’t think we want to have the churches calling the shots on what our civil policy should be,” Michaelson said. “Protecting one minority protects all.”

Some Jewish organizations cite civil rights as the basis for their support of the marriage legislation.

“The Reform movement certainly believes that all people were created in the image of God,” said Honey Heller, a co-chairwoman of the Reform Jewish Voice of New York State, part of the Reform movement’s social justice arm. “That’s why I get a little concerned about religious exemptions.”

Michaelson criticized the silence of large Jewish organizations on the issue, saying they shouldn’t leave Jewish gay groups to battle it out alone with Orthodox groups like Agudath Israel.

“It would be more effective to have non-LGBT allies say we support religious freedom, we support separation of church and state,” he said.

With the debate in Albany focused not on the morality of gay marriage but on the practicalities of a bill, ideological opponents of same-sex marriage say guaranteeing religious exemptions is better than nothing.

“We would prefer that it not pass,” said Howie Beigelman, deputy director of public policy for the Orthodox Union. “But if it has the exemptions in it that are robust and that do protect everyone, I wouldn’t call it a win, but I would call it the best we could have gotten.”

The will of the people, the light of Chabad, the gift of ‘The Goldbergs’


Proposition 8

Thank you for printing Supervisor Yaroslavsky’s eloquent piece (“Proposition 8 and ‘The Will of the People,’” Nov. 28). While I fully respect the concept of the will of the people, I understand that America ensures that when the will of the people seeks to discriminate, violate or abrogate rights of some people in the name of others, that we have instituted a court system of judiciary impartiality to safeguard those rights.

If we left it to the will of the people, would we ever have ended segregation in this country? Would women have gained the right to vote?

Of all people, we Jews should understand that the will of the people is not always what is best in any given time. Thankfully, our Constitution established a system of justice that isn’t, or certainly is not supposed to be, driven solely by the will of the people.

Sometimes the will of the people doesn’t know what is best for all people in a given situation. We depend on judges, who, according to the Torah, are not supposed to take bribes and should administer justice fairly and with righteousness. Lets hope that this happens with Proposition 8, as Yaroslavsky says — soon and in our day.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater
Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center

My husband and I picketed the Mormon church on Santa Monica Boulevard 11 days after our legal wedding (Letters, Dec. 5). Our signs said, “I Love My Husband,” and our picture made the L.A. Times.

The Mormon Church chose to make war against our marriage. We were married by a rabbi at our synagogue.

What about our religious rights? I don’t feel sorry for the Mormon Church or for the businesses being boycotted because the owners donated to Proposition 8.

Barry Wendell
West Hollywood

Chabadnik

“I’m a Chabadnik,” Rob Eshman writes in “Open House” (Dec. 5). In sympathy, I davened the last two Shabbats with my Northridge Chabad, where my husband, Marcel, z’l, served as baal korei (master of reading).

I met the Rebbe in 1970, when he gave me a dollar, but I did not know who he was that fall day on Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn. Foolishly, I spent the dollar on gas to get back to Queens.

I then had a Chabad wedding in L.A., and later my daughter, Aviva, met her husband, Brett, at a Chabad Shabbat dinner with Rabbi and Chani Backman in Boston. When my husband had cancer treatments out of town, we called Rabbi Minsk and his wife at the Newport Chabad and they invited us over for Shabbat dinner.

Staying in different hospitals, where I knew no one, there was always a Chabad rabbi that would go with a smile and a bracha to visit Marcel. Chabad Rabbis Schwartzie, Rivkin, Spritzer and Korf visited. Chabad Rabbi Bryski sent Shabbat meals to me via his mother-in-law for the first cancer surgery, and had the Rebbe send us blessings.

I may also be a Renewal Jew, but I sure know where I can find chesed, loving kindness. I’m a Chabadnik.

Joy Krauthammer
Northridge

Thank you for that very touching, moving and powerful editorial.

Rabbi Moshe Bryski
via e-mail

No Money

In “No Money, No Cry” (Nov. 28), David Suissa pointed out that the current economy presents nonprofits an opportunity to explore ways to do more with less.

David cited a hypothetical example of a Holocaust memorial struggling to raise the money to build a new museum.

I’m pleased to point out the extent to which David’s example was, in fact, purely hypothetical. L’havdil, the real Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, successfully meets its benchmarks in its $20 million capital campaign.

Construction continues apace at the site in Pan Pacific Park for the new museum. This construction could not have begun had we not been able to demonstrate to the city of Los Angeles full funding for our construction needs.

We invite David and the entire community to attend the gala awards ceremony and screening on Jan. 29.

Mark A. Rothman
Executive Director
Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust

‘The Goldbergs’

I got such a kick out of the Gertrude Berg TV show on your Web site.

Aunt Tilly, as my mother called her, was my grandpa’s first cousin. Today of all days, I’m wearing a bird pin that Aunt Tilly bought at Tiffany’s as a gift when my mother stayed with her in her Park Avenue apartment.

My great-grandmother was a source of inspiration in creating Molly’s character for the radio show, which, as you probably know, was the original soap opera. Anyway, thanks for the memories.

Bonnie Somers
via e-mail

Dose of Spirituality

Last Friday my family sat in our hotel room in Jerusalem glued to CNN and watching the horror in India. Unfortunately, at 3:45 the bulletin flashing across the screen stating that 5 people were killed at the Chabad House brought total gloom to Jews around the world. Even though it was drizzling, my son suggested that we daven Kabbalat Shabbos at the Kotel. Arriving at the Kotel, I finally realized the feeling that I had hoped for. Soldiers dancing with boys from YULA and Skokie High Schools. Charedim dancing with Chasidim and soldiers singing “AM YISROEL CHAI.” The davening was intense and the dancing invigorating.

As we walked back to the hotel that night I came to two realizations.

The first is that the next time I visit the Kotel, I should bring more shekels. The poverty level being very high in Israel, I should think more of helping these people than them interrupting my davening.

The second realization is that throughout history hate mongers have tried to destroy us. These acts of violence do not make us weaker but in fact make us stronger and more united. These acts show me how resilient we are as a people and giving some like myself an overflowing feel of spirituality.

Richard Katz
Los Angeles