Illinois lawmakers begin considering approval of same-sex marriage


Illinois lawmakers began considering a measure on Wednesday that would make President Barack Obama's home state the 10th in the nation to legalize gay marriage.

Supporters and opponents furiously lobbied lawmakers as a leading sponsor of the proposal pressed for a quick vote in the state Senate. The “lame duck” session is the final meeting before a newly elected legislature takes office later in January.

Buoyed by November election referendum victories in Maryland, Maine and Washington state, supporters of gay marriage want to make Illinois the first Midwestern legislature to approve it. Iowa's Supreme Court legalized it in 2009.

If approved, Illinois would be the second most populous state to allow gay marriage after New York.

Democrats hold a majority in both chambers of the Illinois legislature. But as in Maryland, Washington state and New York, a few Republican votes may be needed to pass a bill in Illinois.

State Republican party chairman Pat Brady was making calls to Republican lawmakers in support of gay marriage, legislative sources said, which could help win some votes for the measure.

Obama, a former Illinois state senator, publicly endorsed gay marriage in Illinois over the weekend, a rare occasion when he has weighed in on a state matter.

On the other side of the issue, Chicago Cardinal Francis George sent a letter to Catholic parishes saying same sex marriage undermined the “natural family” between a man and a woman.

“The state has no power to create something that nature itself tells us is impossible,” he wrote. The letter, signed by George and six auxiliary bishops, urges Catholics to reach out to their state legislators.

Last week, Senate President John Cullerton's said through a spokeswoman that he was confident of the votes to pass gay marriage.

CIVIL UNIONS ALREADY LEGAL

But a move on Wednesday to speed consideration of the proposal in the Senate narrowly failed, 28 to 24.

It was not clear if the procedural vote was an indication that the proposal was short of the votes needed to pass or if some lawmakers simply wanted to take more time for debate. The Illinois House will convene later in the week.

Even if Illinois lawmakers fail to approve gay marriage before a new legislature takes office, there is a reasonable chance of passage later in the year because Democrats gained seats in the November election and will have super-majorities in both chambers.

In June, 2011, Illinois legalized civil unions, which grant some of the rights of marriage to same-sex partners. But gay rights activists said that did not go far enough.

All prominent Democrats in Illinois have endorsed gay marriage, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Pat Quinn.

A key issue to be resolved is whether Illinois should allow religious groups the option of declining to perform same-sex marriages. New York granted such an exception in 2011 in order to secure the votes to legalize gay marriage there.

A bill introduced in the Illinois House offers such a religious exemption.

Last week, at least 260 Illinois Jewish and Protestant leaders published a letter supporting same-sex marriage.

“There can be no justification for the law treating people differently on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity,” the letter said.

A survey of Illinois voters by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling late last year found 47 percent would allow gay marriage, 42 percent opposed and 11 percent not sure.

The poll of 500 Illinois voters from Nov. 26 to 28 had a margin of error of 4.4 percent.

In addition to the three states which voted in November to legalize gay marriage, six others allow it – Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, Connecticut and New Hampshire, plus the District of Columbia.

Additional reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Todd Eastham

Editorial Cartoon: Interfaith Roundtable


Roundtable

Why the Wiesenthal Center left the interfaith roundtable


This article first appeared in The Jewish Press

Sometimes, only a period of separation will save a troubled marriage. That is why the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other Jewish groups are pulling out of the Christian-Jewish Roundtable. Fifteen liberal Protestant leaders, including those of the Presbyterian, Lutheran and Methodist denominations, chose the Jewish High Holiday season to urge Congress to curtail U.S. aid to Israel.

We were expecting a different initiative from our dialogue partners, one focusing on the tens of millions of Christians under siege from Nigeria to Afghanistan. The oldest Christian communities on earth in the Assyrian Triangle of Iraq have been all but ethnically cleaned. More than ten million Coptic Christians in Egypt live in perpetual fear of a government controlled by the extremist Muslim Brotherhood. Practicing Christians in Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are incarcerated on charges of blasphemy; in North Korea, they languish in huge concentration camps. As for the plight of the Palestinians–more have been killed in Syria in the past few weeks than in almost four years of conflict with Israel, since the end of the Gaza War.

After decades of breaking bread together, we would have expected these church groups to ask us to join with them to shake the rafters with a prophetic scream on behalf of a religious minority under siege – Christians.

Instead, these groups stand mute while their own brothers and sisters are persecuted, and seek to invoke the wrath of Heaven and Congress on the Jewish state.

We’re not happy about the breakup of a relationship forged with optimism and sincerity. After WW 2, many Christians felt some responsibility for the theological anti-Semitism that set the stage for the racial anti-Semitism of Hitler’s Germany. For many, in the wake of images of Auschwitz, building bridges of understanding and respect to the Jewish world became a priority. At the same time, Jews saw the need to begin a new chapter in Jewish history, one in which Christian friends and neighbors were able to look to their own theology to find the dignity and validity of the Jewish experience. Decades of fruitful conversation and education followed.

There were always bumps in the road, particularly regarding the Jewish State. Unlike Evangelicals who were enthusiastic in their support, liberal denominations had a hard time fully accepting Israel and understanding its centrality to Jews. When Arab armies threatened Israel’s existence in 1948, ’67, and ’73, these denominations did not speak up, to the deep consternation of their Jewish partners. Both parties, however, remained in a less-than-perfect relationship, believing that a core mutual understanding could guide future dialogue. In the case of some signatories of the letter,there never was a relationship. The Mennonite “peace” church has never had anything but unvarnished contempt for Israel; the Quakers may be friends tomany, but not to the Jewish people.

Now, with the latest threat to vaporize Israel still ringing in our ears from Ahmadinejad's soon-to-be nuclearized Iran, with millions of Israelis livingwithin the target range of Hamas and Hezbollah rockets—these erstwhile friends choose this moment to call upon the U.S. to cut into Israel’s defensecapabilities.

Why the slap in the face? Thank God, their call to Congress will fall on deaf ears. Americans’ support for Israel remains bipartisan and strong. Did these church elite believe their initiative would lead to more scrutiny of foreign aid? Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt and the Palestinians would likely lose more from calls for greater transparency, not the Jewish state. Israel provides U.S. with vital intelligence, technological and military cooperation, and military aid to Israel creates American jobs.

If peace is these churches’ sole objective, shouldn’t they also criticize the PA’s corruption that led to losing the trust of their own people?

Why else release such a letter? Some suggest that the signatories are seeking to placate the entrenched, vocal anti-Israel extremists in their own churches. Those activists were incensed when the rank and file of several denominations adopted a policy not of divestment but of investment, a strategy that actually produces tangible benefits for the Palestinians.

Alas, we sense there is also a more basic reason at play. Some at this table really don’t like us. How else can we account for such a selective moral outrage, pounding the Jewish State for real and imagined sins, but yet to demand that the U.S. take action when their co-religionists face murder andethnic cleansing? Only a deep-seated hatred could turn these leaders deaf to all the other urgent issues raging around them.

We are in no need of staying in an abusive relationship. There are other voices in the Christian world, and other roundtables – with Catholics, with Evangelicals – that have been productive and mutually satisfying. Moreover, we will maintain our affection for the majority of churchgoers in these very same denominations whose table we are leaving. They, too, are being served poorly by the same people who misuse their mantle of leadership.

Why does it all matter? Because, in the past, Christians and Jews working cooperatively helped change the world. Only a few decades ago, Rev. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walked arm in arm in the Deep South, helping the civil rights struggle to reach new heights. An injured world awaits all the good that could come from the positive power of collective religious conviction. When others are ready for a genuine relationship, we will be there.


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of Interfaith Relations for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

© 2012 JewishPress. All rights reserved.

Jewish groups pull out of interfaith dialogue over Protestants’ letter to Congress


Jewish groups pulled out of an upcoming meeting with Protestant colleagues over a letter from Christian leaders to congressmen calling for a possible suspension of U.S. aid to Israel.

“While we remain committed to continuing our dialogue and our collaboration on the many issues of common concern, the letter represents an escalation in activity that the Jewish participants feel precludes a business-as-usual approach,” stated a letter sent by seven Jewish groups to their Christian counterparts in canceling their participation in the Oct. 22 -23 meeting in New York.

[Related: Christians picking on Israel]

The event, an annual gathering, is known as the Christian-Jewish Roundtable and began in 2004 when the issue of Protestant groups divesting from their financial portfolios operations doing business with Israel rose to prominence. Prior to the Protestants' letter to the lawmakers, participants had pledged to update one another on activities regarding Israel, such as the Palestinians' unilateral statehood push in the United Nations and the upcoming Israeli elections.

The letter by the Jewish representatives was signed by the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. The Anti-Defamation League had announced earlier this week that it would not attend the meeting.

The Jewish groups quit their participation, Ethan Felson, vice president and general counsel of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs umbrella group told JTA, because “There’s been a betrayal of trust. … We have to discern if there’s a positive path forward.”

Signers of the Protestants’ letter to Congress included the heads of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the National Council of Churches USA and the United Church of Christ.

Saying they have “witnessed the pain and suffering” of both Israelis and Palestinians, they implored the lawmakers to launch “an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel” of agreements with Washington for alleged illegal use of U.S.-sold weapons against Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Rachel Lerner, vice president of the J Street Educational Fund, wrote last Friday on the Daily Beast website that her liberal pro-Israel group “opposes proposals to condition or cut security assistance to Israel.” She added, however, that J Street shared the Christian leaders’ “concern that conditions in the region are deteriorating to the point where they `threaten to lead the region further away from the realization of a just peace.’ ”

Lerner called for American Jews to put “at least as much energy and effort” into pushing for a two-state solution as they are putting into fighting such letters, of which she said there would be more.

Also, a dozen Jewish clergy allied with Jewish Voice for Peace praised the Protestants’ leaders call. Many of the organization's members have called for boycotts of Israel.

“It is altogether appropriate — and in fact essential — for Congress to ensure that Israel is not in violation of any U.S. laws or policies that regulate the use of U.S. supplied weapons,” said the statement signed by 10 rabbis, two rabbinical students and a cantor.

Protestant churches’ letter on Israel straining ties with Jews


When 15 prominent American Protestant leaders sent a letter to Congress last week calling for an investigation and possible suspension of U.S. aid to Israel, at least one outcome was certain: The Jews wouldn’t like it.

Already, one major American Jewish group has canceled its participation in an Oct. 22 annual Christian-Jewish roundtable involving representatives from 12 Jewish and 12 Christian groups in New York. And other Jewish groups are expressing consternation.

“We’re not going to sit around the table and say ‘kumbaya,’ ” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which pulled out of the program and urged other Jewish groups to follow suit. “This is the clearest message I know to say, ‘You don’t get it. Maybe think about what you don’t get, and at a later date we’ll sit down and talk.’ ”

The letter, sent to every member of Congress, was signed by leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the National Council of Churches USA and the United Church of Christ.

Saying they have “witnessed the pain and suffering” of Israelis and Palestinians, the signers said that “unconditional U.S. military assistance to Israel has contributed to this deterioration, sustaining the conflict and undermining the long-term security interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.”

The letter called for the launching of “an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel” of agreements with Washington for alleged illegal use of U.S.-sold weapons against Palestinians. The signers also asked for “regular reporting on compliance and the withholding of military aid for non-compliance.”

In the past, many of these same church leaders have sent notes to Congress criticizing specific Israeli efforts, particularly settlement building. However, this is the first salvo against the $3 billion annual U.S. aid package to Israel.

A number of mainline Protestant churches have had fights at recent conventions over boycotting products made in the West Bank, divesting in companies doing business with Israel or harshly criticizing Israel’s rule of the West Bank.

This summer, the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected divestment from companies doing business with Israeli security forces in the West Bank by a 333-331 vote. A similar call was defeated more decisively at a Methodist assembly in May. And in September, the Quaker group Friends Fiduciary Corporation voted to remove a French and an American company from its financial portfolio over what it said was the companies’ involvement with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian areas.

The timing of last week’s letter is further straining ties between American Jewish and Protestant groups. For one thing, it came just weeks before the annual national meeting meant to ensure smoother ties between the two sides. The Christian-Jewish roundtable, as it is known informally, was developed in 2004, when the divestment issue rose in prominence in Protestant circles.

For another, Jewish groups were upset that they had no advance warning of the letter and that it was released on the first day of a two-day Jewish holiday, when most Jewish organizations were closed in observance of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

“Things are not in a good place,” said Ethan Felson, vice president and general counsel of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) umbrella group.

Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, and a co-chair of the roundtable, said boycotting the meeting is not the right response.

“As disheartening as this initiative is, it is critical to continue in our wider commitment to Christian-Jewish dialogue, because it has contributed in a positive way over time to the betterment of the Jewish experience,” Marans said. “After all, until two generations ago, Christian anti-Jewish sentiment was not uncommon, and today it is marginalized within the churches. That’s a very important historic development. We cannot lose perspective.”

Felson said JCPA is considering as a response asking Congress to investigate delegitimizers of Israel and to issue a resolution against their efforts. He said he has not yet decided if he will attend the roundtable.

“We feel strongly that if you want the parties to reconcile, we should model reconciliation,” Felson said. “But that’s difficult to do when we’re up against this brand of antipathy.”

Suggesting that American Jewish groups could retaliate by advocating against U.S. aid to the Palestinians, Felson said the signers of the letter are “opening up a Pandora’s box.”

Marans said Jewish groups should continue pursuing local Christian-Jewish ties in addition to national ones.

“Liberal Protestants live side by side with Jews, and rabbis have relationships with local ministers,” Marans said. “Once the antipathy toward Israel of some national leaders is communicated in the context of these relationships, the local religious leadership is heard from and communicates to their national leadership their concerns.

“The Jewish community understands that the overwhelming majority of Americans and American Christians understand that Israel must defend itself and that Israel is not an aggressor, that Israel is on the front lines of terrorism and has modeled how to create a balance between security and concern for the individual rights of all of the inhabitants.”

Indeed, some Presbyterians are openly angry with their leader, the Rev. Gradye Parsons, who signed the letter.

“We know there’s a very small, very vocal group in the Presbyterian Church that wants to see Israel punished,” said the Rev. John Wimberly, co-moderator of an unofficial group called Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. “We think we represent the 70 percent of Presbyterians polled in 2009 who said that maintaining a strong diplomatic and military relationship with Israel should be a U.S. priority.”

He said Parsons’ signing of the letter “makes a lot of people mad and a larger number of people embarrassed.”

Parsons did not return calls for comment.

David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, a largely evangelical group often billed as the Christian AIPAC, called the move by the mainline Protestant churches to reach out to Congress an “accelerating trend” with a message for the Jewish community.

“This should be a wake-up call,” said Brog, who is Jewish. “Christians will be involved in Israel and the Middle East, whether Jews accept that or not. We cannot take Christian support for Israel for granted. We have to actively engage our Christian neighbors and take the case to them, so that when they are active on this issue, they support Israel.”

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

Why I love Jews by Choice


The first conversion I ever performed as a rabbi was for a 45-year-old father of two who was in the final stages of liver cancer. John, who was born to a Jewish father but raised Protestant by his Christian mother, was so stricken with his disease at this point in our yearlong studies that his eyes could not focus to read, and it was difficult for him to speak more than two or three words at a time. To complete our studies, I would make cassette tapes for him (yes, it was that long ago), which he would listen to between our biweekly visits, and he would slowly write questions and responses for our in-person meetings.

I was a student rabbi, traveling twice a month to a far-off pulpit in rural Central California to lead services, teach religious school and to meet with John. The community had maybe 100 Jewish families and, early on, I asked John, a mathematics professor at the local community college, why he wanted to affirm his Jewish identity, and why now, as he was in the midst of chemotherapy with a bleak prognosis. John pointed to a phrase in the Ve’ahavta, which his daughter Blair had been studying for her bat mitzvah. “V’shinantam l’vanecha” — “and you shall impress these words upon your children,” the passage proclaims. John, who knew he was dying, turned to me and explained, “So they [his children] will never forget how important being Jewish is to me.” John died before he could hear his daughter chant those words at her bat mitzvah, but their memory echoes through his family, community and my rabbinate to this very day.

Every rabbi who has been privileged to study with Jews by Choice has a story like this and many more. At Shavuot, as we remember the story of Ruth, the first convert, we also remember that every student who comes to us for conversion is different and has a unique and very personal story, but three paths to Judaism seem to be the most frequently traveled.

One is that of the spiritual seekers looking to fill a void in their spiritual identity that either their religion of birth or life experience has not satisfied. I witnessed a powerful example of this in Chuck, a hard-nosed Korean War veteran and former POW who came to me determined to become a Jew. 

Chuck was that rare blend of scholar-soldier, an avid reader of philosophy and theology by night, as he trained with his Green Beret unit by day. After being captured behind enemy lines and tortured in a Korean POW camp, from which he later escaped, Chuck found himself pondering why people can be so filled with hatred and violence toward one another. Though not a pacifist, Chuck, like many veterans, saw a pointlessness to war and conflict that was hard to dispute, given all he had been through on the battlefield. It was during his period of attempting to reconcile his experiences that he started to reread the Bible with fresh eyes. He told me the only part that made sense to him was the Old Testament. And so, when he came to me, we started by studying the commentaries and Talmud (Jewish law). One day he turned to me, fixed me with a gaze I am sure he reserved for troops under his command, and said, “This is it, this is the only system that makes sense; this is the path toward peace.”

I didn’t know if I should convert him or salute; I guess in the end I did both.

A second path to becoming Jewish is often blazed by the bar/bat mitzvah-aged child of a non-Jewish parent. As a Reform rabbi, about 30 percent of my congregation at Temple Judea in Tarzana is made up of interfaith families. Many times over the years, the non-Jewish parent of a bar/bat mitzvah student has approached me or my colleagues about conversion as their child prepares to be called to the Torah. 

They are sparked by the warmth of Jewish tradition, the idea of wanting spiritual continuity in their family or, quite powerfully, because they are learning alongside their child about the beauty and relevance of Judaism. Their process reinforces my belief in the progressive Jewish approach to interfaith couples: By holding the door open to chuppah, and participation in synagogue life, we create the possibility that they — through their children’s studies, no less — will find a path to Jewish identity. I cannot begin to describe the feeling of standing on the bimah as the now-Jewish parent chants the Torah blessing for the first time before the child reads his or her bar/bat mitzvah portion.

A third path, which may be viewed by some as prototypical, is when the non-Jewish partner of an engaged couple comes to me for their wedding. While for me, conversion is not a precondition for doing their wedding, I do encourage and promote it. Miraculously, those who choose to enter the Jewish people around the time they enter into marriage often create two Jews, not one, in the process. The Jew by Choice is filled with a passion and need to express his or her new Jewish identity in very religious/symbolic ways, and the spouse who was born Jewish experiences Judaism with a fresh set of eyes. Through the eyes of their beloved, they see things they’ve missed, or never encountered as a child growing up in the religion. Suddenly, it is the Jew by Choice who is insisting they light Shabbat candles, attend services regularly and become involved in the synagogue. Presently, some of the most active couples in our congregation have followed this path.

One of my favorite examples is the story of Joshua and Christina (not their real names). Joshua was born in Israel and raised in the United States; prior to meeting Christina, his bar mitzvah was pretty much the first and last time he stepped foot in a synagogue. When he called looking for a rabbi for his wedding, Joshua proudly identified himself as a cultural Jew and explained that having Jewish wedding was important to him only as a way to honor the memory of his mother.

He gave me clear instructions over the phone before we met not to make the ceremony too Jewish. His fiancee, Christina, was raised Mennonite in the Midwest, and Joshua was one of the few Jewish people she had ever spoken with. She grew up with parents who were devout members of their church, but, from the time she was a teenager, she had always felt something missing in her faith and did not practice their beliefs. 

In our monthly meetings about the wedding, Christina asked more and more questions about Judaism, which, to Joshua’s credit, he did not dismiss. One day, she asked if she could start meeting with me one on one. Those meetings led to her enrolling in an introduction to Judaism class, which Joshua decided to attend with her so they could spend more time together (they were newlyweds, after all). At the end of the course she converted, and now they come together to synagogue nearly every Shabbat. Joshua is part of our weekly Torah study and sits on a number of temple committees, and Christina helps facilitate our young couples group and mentors others in the conversion process. A few months ago, I was privileged to name their daughter in our sanctuary. In her young life, their child has already been to synagogue more than Joshua had been in the 20 years before he met Christina.

It is because of stories like these that rabbis often say that one of the most inspiring and fulfilling aspects of our calling is to work with Jews by Choice. Every student we study with amazes and astounds us because, through their eyes, we see Judaism as something new, full of hope, promise, wonder, fascination and awe.

I did not have to wait to become a rabbi to observe the profound impact that choosing to be Jewish can have on another person. I guess you could say that making Jews is our family business. My maternal grandmother, Vera Kipnis, became the first private conversion tutor in the San Francisco Bay Area, more than 70 years ago. She tutored students for their studies with rabbis from across the movements, and for as long as I can remember, my mom, Patti Moskovitz, continued the work that my grandmother began. My mother tutored students in our home, believing that Judaism was dished out with cookies, soups and sandwiches as much as through Torah, Talmud and tradition. Her students were frequent guests at our Shabbat table and held a place of honor every year at our family seder — where, if our family singing didn’t scare them away, we knew our people had them hooked for good. In any given week, I would come home from school to witness a student crying tears of joy as he or she uncovered a part of the soul that previous religion, faith or lack thereof could not touch.

With every student my family has worked with through the years, the question lay before me: If I were born into another religion, would I have chosen to study and become Jewish? Could I leave behind family heritage and traditions I have known since birth? Could I say to parents and grandparents, as the biblical Ruth does in this week’s reading for Shavuot, “Your people shall be my people, your God shall be my God, where you go I will go”?

Modern life is already so packed with competing priorities and demands, why add to those the problems and challenges of leaving one’s family of faith and tradition to cling to another? And not just any faith, but Judaism — a small, minority community fraught at times with internal tsuris and an external experience of contempt in the eyes of so many. Would I be Jewish if I didn’t have to be?

Yes, even rabbis ponder this existential question — maybe we ponder it even more than others, as daily we see the joys and oys of Jewish life. We wonder about the families that come in and out of synagogue after b’nai mitzvah like it is a revolving door — one day, one generation will they not come back? We look at the survivors and children of survivors who sit uncomfortably in synagogue, who endured horrors we cannot even begin to understand — what is the source of their faith? We counsel the families who use Judaism and Jewish practice as a wedge between them, not eating in one another’s homes or davening in one another’s shuls, or attending one another’s funerals. Then there are the synagogue politics, the high cost of being Jewish and the reality that at any given time in history, someone is out to wipe us off the face of the earth. 

And yet, in the face of all that, in spite of all of that, in walks a successful, accomplished, intelligent and thoughtful adult who says simply but profoundly, “Rabbi, I want to become Jewish.” We should all be so fortunate to see Judaism through the eyes of someone who could chose to be anything else, anything other, but instead chooses this path, this people, this faith.

V’shinantam l’vanecha, indeed! The Jew by Choice impresses in so many ways, on their children for sure, but hopefully on each and every one of us, old and young alike.


Rabbi Dan Moskovitz is a rabbi at Temple Judea (

Protestant leaders call for U.N. endorsement of Palestinian membership


Leaders of four American Protestant denominations issued a statement endorsing the Palestinian U.N. bid for statehood.

“The Palestinians deserve membership in the United Nations—not only on the basis of international law and basic fairness—but to help preserve a multi-religious holy land that includes Christian Palestinians,” said the statement, issued last week.

It was signed by Rev. Sharon Watkins of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Rev. Geoffrey Black of the United Church of Christ and Gradye Parsons of the Presbyterian Church (USA), each the top officials of their denominations, as well as by James Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society.

The signatories said they believe Palestinian membership at the United Nations will further the goal of peace and does not preclude direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to resolve the conflict.

Rabbi Noam Marans, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations, called the statement unhelpful, saying “direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are the only path to sustainable peace.”

“Diverting the drive for Palestinian statehood to the UN without an agreement with Israel will not achieve the aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians for peace and security,” Marans said in a statement.