Christians picking on Israel


With Christians being persecuted and threatened across much of the Middle East, guess which country the leaders of several major U.S. Christian denominations have decided to pick on?

That’s right, the country where Christians are safest: Israel.

In case you missed it, in a letter dated Oct. 5, leaders of 15 Christian denominations — including Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans and Methodists — asked members of Congress to reconsider U.S. aid to Israel in light of “widespread Israeli human rights violations.”

The signatories say “unconditional U.S. military assistance” to Israel is a factor in “deteriorating conditions in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories” that threaten the “realization of a just peace.”

The letter makes no mention of reconsidering U.S. aid to countries such as Egypt, where many Christians fear for their lives and where Coptic Christian families have fled their homes in the Sinai Peninsula after receiving death threats.

As Elliott Abrams writes in National Review Online, the letter is utterly silent on the “deteriorating and truly dangerous conditions for Christians in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.”

Meanwhile, in contrast to the dramatic dwindling of the Christian population in the Arab world, in Israel the number of Christians has grown from 34,000 in 1948 to 155,000 today.

The initiative reeks of hypocrisy: Although they purport to care for Palestinian rights, the Christian leaders ignore the misery of Palestinian refugees being oppressed in countries such as Lebanon and Jordan. 

Although they attack the “restrictions on movement” in the West Bank, they fail to mention, as Abrams notes, “the many ways in which the Netanyahu government in recent years has loosened those restrictions … [or] the recent steps by the government of Israel to assist the Palestinian Authority as it faces a financial crisis.”

And, of course, the signatories ignore all context. They say nothing of Israel’s many attempts over the years to make peace with the Palestinians and end the occupation, or of the teaching of Jew-hatred and incitement in Palestinian society, or of Israel’s evacuation of Gaza seven years ago that was rewarded with thousands of terror rockets still raining down today on Israeli civilians.

Even if you count yourself as an unabashed critic of Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians, it’s hard not to see this single-minded invective against the Jewish state as unfair and hypocritical.

Ironically (or stupidly), the letter was sent a few weeks before a scheduled interfaith conference that included many of the signatories, prompting the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to pull out. 

“It is outrageous that mere days after the Iranian president repeated his call for Israel’s elimination,” ADL director Abraham Foxman said in a press release, “these American Protestant leaders would launch a biased attack against the Jewish state. … It is striking that their letter fails to also call for an investigation of Palestinian use of U.S. foreign aid, thus once again placing the blame entirely on Israel.”

Many other Jewish groups, such as the American Jewish Committee (AJC), have expressed outrage.

“When religious liberty and safety of Christians across the Middle East are threatened by the repercussions of the Arab Spring,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations, “these Christian leaders have chosen to initiate a polemic against Israel, a country that protects religious freedom and expression for Christians, Muslims and others.”

Why would Christian leaders initiate such an obviously biased attack against Israel, a country that already has more than its fair share of internal criticism and dissent?

Who knows, maybe they’re trying to boost declining attendance at their churches. It’s always a safe bet to follow the global herd and pick on Israel, one of the world’s favorite punching bags.

But it’s possible there’s something deeper going on — like an irrational obsession with the Jews.

Maybe it all goes back to that fateful moment at Sinai some 3,300 years ago, when Jews received God’s Torah and became His first witnesses. Ever since, it seems as if the “chosen people” have attracted an inordinate amount of attention — mostly for the worse — as they have stubbornly refused to abandon their faith. The rebirth of Israel after centuries of exile seems only to have amplified this attention.

This phenomenon of irrational obsession is complex and can be studied at length, but it’s worth noting here that in the case of Israel and Christian America, the obsession has two sides.

Just as you have Christian denominations that are obsessed with rebuking the Jewish state, there are plenty of other Christian groups — such as Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel — that are emotionally bonded with Israel and are obsessed with defending the Jewish state.

I won’t lie to you: I have a decided preference for the latter groups.

As far as those 15 church leaders who’d rather pick on Israel than on the intolerant regimes that are oppressing their Christian brethren, all I can say is: Are you sure this is what Jesus would do?


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com

Methodists reject divestment motion


The general conference of the United Methodist Church voted not to divest from three companies that trade with Israel.

Two-thirds of the approximately 1,000 delegates to the conference voted Wednesday in Tampa, Fla., against a motion to divest from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard.

Divestment advocates claim that products manufactured by these companies are used to repress Palestinians.

The conference passed motions opposing Jewish settlements in the West Bank, recommending the boycott of products manufactured in settlements and eastern Jerusalem, and investment in the Palestinian economy.

Language that would have affirmed the Kairos Document prepared by Palestinian Christians endorsing divestment and boycotts, and upholding armed resistance was removed from the list of resolutions before reaching the floor.

Calif. Methodist seminary to train rabbis, imams


The Claremont School of Theology, a Christian divinity school in Los Angeles, will use a $40 million gift to begin training Jewish and Muslim clergy.

The gift from David and Joan Lincoln of Arizona, which was announced Monday, will help Claremont transform itself into a multifaith institution offering interfaith degree programs as well as training for rabbis, imams and ministers, The Los Angeles Times reported.

The Claremont Lincoln University, as the new school will be called, will be the first U.S. school to offer clerical degrees in all three religions, according to Tamar Frankiel, dean of academic affairs for the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles. The academy, which is not affiliated with a particular Jewish stream, will provide the Jewish clerical training.

The academy has 60 students enrolled in its rabbinic, cantorial and chaplaincy programs. It plans to institute distance learning as early as this fall to help students not located in Los Angeles, Frankiel told JTA.

The Islamic Center of Southern California will train the Muslim clerics. The Claremont School of Theology, which has about 240 students enrolled in master’s and doctorate programs in religion and counseling, and is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, will continue to educate Christian ministers.

All three institutions will remain in their existing locations, with degree programs and courses coordinated through the new university.

The Los Angeles Times reported that a plan announced last year to train clergy for all three faiths in one college upset the United Methodist Church, which has funded the seminary since its creation. The three-part structure for the new university was developed so that only the Christian program will receive church monies.

Claremont officials are hailing the interfaith initiative as unique.

Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn., a nondenominational theological institution founded as a training school for Congregationalist ministers, also offers a degree program in Islamic chaplaincy, as well as a graduate certificate in education for imams, a school spokesman told JTA.  But it does not train imams or rabbis.

Neither that spokesman nor Frankiel were aware of other similar programs in the United States.

Interfaith Dialogue Can Bring Change


Teshuvah,” turning, repentance, reconciliation, is a gift given to all people. People change, institutions change, policies change.

Consider the largely unreported and unheralded change in the Presbyterian Church (USA). By a vote of 431 to 62 in July 2004, the church voted to begin selective divestment in multinational corporations in Israel. The design was to punish Israel for its alleged mistreatment of Palestinians.

Three other churches, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the United Methodist Church and the Episcopalian Church all set up committees to consider divestment as a punitive measure against Israel.

But — and this is a most consequential but — as a result of serious interfaith dialogue and serious encounters resulting in an interfaith mission to Israel, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Episcopalian Church of America rejected their earlier resolutions for divestment. Their one-sided disposition against Israel was repudiated without loss of their sympathy for the Palestinian condition.

This church reversal did not take place in a vacuum. The Protestant leaders who went to Israel witnessed the precarious situation of Israel and heard from Supreme Court Justice Dorit Beinisch the need for Israel to strike a balance between national security and civil liberties.

The next day, the interfaith group learned that a panel of Israeli justices had ruled for the second time that the government must reroute a section of the security barrier that, in the court's view, imposed a new hardship on Palestinians living in the area. They learned first hand of the role of the Israeli Supreme Court to limit and restrain torture of detainees.

Institutions change. Change is not spontaneous, easy or automatic. It requires face-to-face encounters and a determination to dialogue. As Martin Buber famously put it, “All real life is meeting.” Absent dialogue, the vacuum creates disinformation and resentment.

We must not belittle interfaith meeting, no matter its frustration, or allow our disappointments to silence dialogue.

All honor to the American Jewish Committee and the National Council of Christ for convening an interfaith meeting in May 2004 to discuss peace in the Middle East. All honor to the Jewish Council of Public Affairs for planning and arranging the interfaith mission to Israel.

Dialogue is the language of godliness and extends the promise of teshuvah.

Harold M. Schulweis is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Symphony to Debut Fiery ‘Soul’ Music


 

Wayne Hinton is a Methodist, and he understands what Jewish audiences will feel when they hear a performance by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony.

“It’s like when you hear a Frenchman conducting French music,” said Hinton, the symphony’s executive director. “It’s akin to their soul.”

The soul, or more specifically the soul aflame, will anchor the symphony’s Dec. 19 performance at Temple Israel of Hollywood, where the shul’s Nimoy Concert Series will host the West Coast premiere of “Souls on Fire,” an oratorio based on Elie Wiesel’s book on centuries of Chasidic leaders.

The concert series’ namesake, actor and philanthropist Leonard Nimoy, will narrate the piece. He will be joined on stage by almost 100 performers, including four soloists, actress Laraine Newman and the 45-member choir of Valley Beth Shalom, plus the 45-member Jewish Symphony and its artistic director, Noreen Green. Before the “Souls” piece begins, violinist Lindsay Deutsch will open the concert by performing Ernst Block’s “Baal Shem” suite.

The concert will be a classic merging of Jewish sensibilities and irony: a Reform shul hosting a Conservative choir singing a piece about Chasidim that no Chasidic man would see, because the choir includes women.

“Unfortunately, that’s absolutely right,” Nimoy said. “There’s a loss in there somewhere.”

Nimoy said that when he first narrated the “Souls” musical piece a few years ago in a studio isolation booth, “I had a sense even then it was a very powerful and inspiring piece of work. It humanizes the major leaders of the Chasidic movement, and it takes some of the mystery out of some of them. Some were great mystics, others were great organizers.”

While the concert will be the piece’s West Coast premiere, Nimoy has narrated “Souls” in Detroit, Philadelphia, New York’s Lincoln Center and Boston.

“That’s my hometown, and there was a homecoming feeling,” Nimoy told The Journal. “The theater where we played in Boston was within walking distance to what had been my home.”

Nimoy’s 3-year-old Temple Israel concert series (the shul’s Rabbi John Rosove is the cousin of Nimoy’s wife) has twice as many subscribers now as a year ago.

“This concert will by far be the largest,” he said, adding that the series in February will host Michigan’s Envision orchestra of young musicians, then an Arab-Israel orchestra in June, plus Chicago’s Sephardic cantor Alberto Mizrahi next fall.

Green, the Jewish Symphony conductor and artistic director, as well as Valley Beth Shalom’s choral director, said the post-Chanukah, Dec. 19 date gave event organizers some unusual freedom for a Jewish event in December.

“This really has nothing to do with Chanukah; it’s around Chanukah time,” Green said. “If you do the concert during the eight days of Chanukah, you’re kind of locked into doing a Chanukah program, but Leonard has been championing this particular piece of music. How do you say no to Leonard Nimoy?”

The 70-minute “Souls on Fire” stands out because it is based on a book by a writer so heavily identified with his Nobel Prize-winning Holocaust writings. But here, Green said, “I don’t relate this work to him as a survivor.”

“When you use music to highlight text, it brings another dimension to the word,” she said, “Music gives it an emotional impact that you wouldn’t have without the music.”

Green also believes the 12-year-old L.A. Jewish Symphony has earned Jewish communal respect and also the respect of its classical music peers.

“People now trust my selection of music,” the conductor said. “I try to make it fun; I’m entertaining up there. We started this off not really knowing where it was going to lead or what we wanted to perform.”

The “Soul on Fire” concert will be Sunday, Dec. 19, at 3 p.m. at Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd. For tickets, contact the Nimoy Concert Series , (213) 805-4261 or e-mail nimoyconcertseries@earthlink.net.

 

Put Mitzvah in Bar Mitzvah for non-Jews


On Jan. 14, you could hear the wake-up call sounding for Jews all across America.

Perhaps you noticed the article by reporter Elizabeth Bernstein in that morning’s Wall Street Journal. Perhaps someone e-mailed it to you. Perhaps numerous someones emailed it to you.

It appeared in my "inbox" three times before noon. Titled "You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Want a Bar Mitzvah," Bernstein’s piece opened with the story of a 13-year-old Methodist girl in Dallas who told her parents that she wanted to be a bat mitzvah. Mom and Dad understood just what she was requesting. They planned an elaborate country-club party, replete with 125 of their daughter’s closest "friends" and a professional dancer who had become a familiar face from other bat mitzvah celebrations. No Torah required.

"I wanted to be Jewish so I could have a bat mitzvah," the youngster said. "Having the party fulfilled that."

Apparently, increasing numbers of non-Jewish children now fulfill their wishes "to be Jewish" by hosting such affairs. Bernstein’s article quotes a party planner in Woodland Hills who indicates that she organized more than a dozen bar mitzvah "look-alikes" for non-Jews in the past year. In the social consciousness of 21st-century America, it seems that a lavish party is what a bar mitzvah looks like.

Said Danielle Davis, a Catholic girl from Malibu, in making her bat mitzvah case to her parents, "I’m growing up and becoming a teenager. I should have a party to celebrate."

This is the definition of "bat mitzvah" that Danielle has internalized after celebrating with her many Jewish friends. No leading worship. No teaching from the Torah. No moments of profound spiritual uplift. No accepting responsibility for fulfilling the religious commandments of an adult, just a Hawaiian-themed beachfront blowout in honor of becoming an adolescent.

As a rabbi with a fascination in sociology, I am curious about so many facets of this phenomenon.

I am dismayed by the growing disconnect between the experience on the bimah and the experience of the bar or bat mitzvah party.

I am stunned by the total comfort of so many non-Jewish children in requesting a Jewish seudat mitzvah (festive meal of ritual celebration) without the ritual — and by their parents’ willingness to imitate even a facile and empty representation of a religious rite that is not their own.

I am distressed by the massive social pressure that such requests surely reflect (that is to say, both Jewish and non-Jewish kids clearly crave the social status that extravagant bar and bat mitzvah celebrations now afford).

However, most of all, I am intrigued by the capacity that Jews now possess to impact mainstream America. Generations ago, our parents and grandparents pored over every aspect of non-Jewish America in an effort to conform to their surrounding culture. Now, our non-Jewish neighbors are watching us, and they are just as willing to follow our lead.

This development represents an unprecedented opportunity for today’s American Jews. The prophet Isaiah once spoke of our people becoming a "light unto the nations." For most of Jewish history, that was an impossibility, given our powerlessness in the places where we have lived. Then we wielded but a dim candle to light the way. Now we hold a beacon in our hands. Non-Jewish Americans have taken notice of one of Judaism’s most glorious rituals. Why don’t we seize the moment and give them something truly glorious to notice?

A small number of my bar and bat mitzvah students have done just that. They have passed on the five-figure party, choosing instead to invest in restoring the definition of "bar/bat mitzvah." Some have orchestrated giant "mitzvah projects" for their friends, such as building a new house for the needy or refurbishing a shelter for the homeless. Some have flown a small group of close friends or family to Israel. Some have given every dollar of their gift money away to philanthropies, recognizing that their parents are able to provide them with everything they need.

Can you imagine what might happen to the perception of Jews and Judaism in America if these images became the norm for celebrating a young Jewish adult’s acceptance of religious responsibility? Can you imagine what we might succeed in modeling for the world if this were to appear in the Wall Street Journal?

If there is one thing that Bernstein’s article confirms, it is that we Jews are a light unto the nations, whether we like it or not. Our neighbors — both in this country and around the world — are watching us, and they are reaching their conclusions about our religious tradition and us. Let’s not miss the wake-up call.


Ken Chasen is senior rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple.