RJC, ECI demand removal of ‘radical’ rabbi from Obama list

Two conservative groups called on the Obama campaign to sever ties with a “radical” on its newly-released list of more than 600 rabbis who support the president’s reelection.

The campaign rejected the demand.

The Republican Jewish Coalition on Thursday “expressed profound outrage” that Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, a Renewal rabbi from California that the RJC described as a “radical rabbi”, is part of Rabbis for Obama, which was launched Tuesday.

Gottlieb sits on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that is active in the campaign to use boycott, divestment and sanctions to pressure Israel into ending the occupation of the West Bank, and that has no official position on whether Israel should exist as a Jewish state.

In September 2008, she was part of a coalition of religious groups that spoke about the Holocaust and Palestinian rights with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a New York hotel. At that event, she said she favored face-to-face reconciliation, and asked Ahmadinejad, who has denied the Holocaust, to “change the way you speak about the Holocaust.”

Gottlieb is one of eight Jewish Voice for Peace members on the list.

“By promoting and showcasing Rabbi Gottlieb as one of Pres. Obama’s supporters, the Obama campaign lends legitimacy and credibility to a rabbi whose extreme views are well beyond the mainstream of the Jewish community and the mainstream of America,” the RJC wrote in a statement to JTA.

Joining the RJC in calling on Obama to distance itself from the eight JVP members was the Emergency Committee for Israel, a group that has backed Republican candidates for Congress.

“It was particularly shocking to see that your campaign had recruited, and was touting the support of, rabbis who have no commitment to Israel’s security, and whose values are representative of a small and extreme group of anti-Israel activists – and certainly not of the pro-Israel community,” William Kristol, ECI’s founder, wrote in a letter to Obama.

The Obama campaign dismissed the call to remove anyone from the list.

“The President’s strong support of Israel and toughest-ever actions against Iran has led rabbis from across the political spectrum to express their support for the president and have committed to seeing him reelected,” a campaign official told JTA. “The President obviously does not endorse or embrace their every affiliation, action or utterance.”

Rabbi Sam Gordon of Illinois, one of three co-chairs of Rabbis for Obama, criticized the RJC. “I think picking out one rabbi out of 613 is missing the point and continuing to demonize those who disagree with a specific position of certain people within the Jewish community.”

He praised Obama’s “desire to bring about a lasting peace with security for Israel.”

Madoff’s Redemption

If you’re an active member of the Jewish community — and perhaps even if you’re not — there’s almost no way to properly digest the Bernie Madoff scandal. It’slike a quadruple shot of cheap vodka that you drink quickly on an empty stomach. You feel disgusted and drunk at the same time.

First, of course, there’s the alleged scale of the swindle. Fifty billion? You can cut that by 80 percent and it would still be an obscene number.

More than dry numbers, though, there’s the sadness we all feel for the tens of thousands of disadvantaged people — Jews and non-Jews — who will now suffer because the organizations that usually help them have been ruined, not to mention the many individuals and families who have lost their life’s savings overnight.

Then there’s the fear of the uncertain — what all this will mean for the future of fundraising and Jewish philanthropy in an already depressed economy, and to what extent the scandal will fuel the fires of anti-Semitism, as well as turn off many Jews to their faith.

Finally, just to add a touch of the surreal, we have a suspect who apparently immediately confessed to his crime. How often does a white-collar criminal who can afford the best legal advice tell the authorities who have come to arrest him that his financial empire is all “one big lie” — and that he has been engaged for years in a fraudulent Ponzi scheme to the tune of $50 billion?

Well, never.

Put all this nasty brew together, and you have a Jewish community that’s reeling with anger, shock, sadness and shame. We can’t speak fast enough to catch up with our emotions. We almost wish the guy would have kept his mouth shut and had his $900-an-hour lawyer give us the usual “my client will vigorously defend himself from these outrageous charges” response — so that at least we would have been broken in gently.

Instead, we got mugged with a sledgehammer.

One of the dangers of being overwhelmed with so much criminal havoc is that we will lose all perspective when trying to draw conclusions. We may feel, for example, that because the crime is so big, our conclusions must also be big.

But let’s remember that there are many things in this story that are not so big.

Bernie Madoff, for one. Here is a gonif who preyed on the weaknesses of his own people and stole money not just from the wealthy, but from charitable organizations. How much smaller can you get?

How many Bernie Madoffs are there in the Jewish community? The truth is, for every Madoff we hear about, there are probably a million honest Jews we never hear about. Madoff may be a disease, but he’s not an epidemic.

Every day, thousands of deals are made in our community, one Jew trusting another Jew and no one getting ripped off. We don’t hear about these, precisely because no one gets ripped off. There’s no doubt we ought to do more due diligence at all levels of Jewish philanthropy, and I’m sure that as a result of this scandal, we will. But let’s not kid ourselves: For as long as there are human beings, trust will play a central role in the affairs of men.

Trust serves as a convenient shortcut for making decisions, but it also serves a deeper human purpose — it strengthens our emotional bonds. It gives us a chance to show loyalty and faith in other people, and when it is reciprocated, we feel a deeper connection.

Complete Madoff CoverageFrankly, what worries me most is not that we will see more Madoff-level crimes of betrayal in our community, but that we so easily ignore the millions of little offenses we regularly inflict on each other. Those little offenses may not rise to the level of illegal behavior, but they have the cumulative power to corrode the human bonds that tie our families and communities together.

I’m talking about the little lies, the hurtful gossip, the verbal abuse, the arrogant looks, the inconsiderate gestures. How many thousands of instances are there every day when one of us will hurt someone — maybe by using hurtful language or breaking a promise or giving a family member the silent treatment? How many numerous opportunities are missed every day to help another person — maybe by bringing soup to a sick neighbor or simply saying something nice to our mothers?

Madoff’s “swindle of the century” is a tragic ethical breakdown for our community, and we should all help to pick up the pieces. At the same time, the scandal can also serve as a wake-up call to remind us of the myriad ethical obligations we have in our own lives and within our own communities.

Our rabbis and educators can lead the way in answering this call. They can start by making it clear to their congregants and students — many of whom will become our future leaders and financiers — that nothing is more important in Judaism than the way we treat one another. Yes, God loves it when we go to shul or study the Talmud or have a “spiritual experience” or contribute to the shul’s building fund. But God loves it even more when we make it our priority to follow the Jewish laws and principles of how we should properly interact with other people.

This is the Judaism of ethics — the only Judaism that every Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Conservative, Humanist, Chasidic, Renewal, Egalitarian, Ultra-Orthodox and gay rabbi on the planet will unite behind.

It’s the Judaism that Bernie Madoff shunned, but that the aftermath of his scandal may reawaken.

Imagine that. Instead of the Messiah coming down to redeem us, a sleazy villain shows up on Chanukah and shocks us into reasserting that great Jewish ideal of learning how to live an ethical life.

If you ask me, that sounds a lot easier to digest.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine, Meals4Israel.com and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

This Week – Carnival Time

We arrived early for the Purim carnival last Sunday. The giant bounce house still lay in a wrinkled, uninflated wad on a corner of the parking lot. The only children around were, like our son, middle school volunteers, corralling the puppies for the puppy-petting booth, lining up bottles for the ring toss.

The temple brotherhood had sponsored a Red Cross Blood Drive van, so, with some time to kill, I signed up and sat in line.

A man from the temple stepped out of the donor van, rolling his sleeve back down over his arm.

“Remember,” he said, “When they ask you if you paid for sex in the past 12 months, ask them, ‘Does jewelry count?'”

Next to me, an elderly member of the Temple Brotherhood laughed, leaned over and offered his own topper, a kind of dirty-joke midrash. It involves a mother and her daughter and — it’s not for a family paper.

It was a cool, beautiful morning, and there I was on a sidewalk on La Cienega Boulevard, with a stranger telling me a foul, funny joke as if we’ve known each other all our lives. And I thought: I ought to go to shul more often.

When I do go, I’m always struck not by what happens in the sanctuary, but by the buzz of life and activity in the halls and lobbies and reception rooms.

On Purim, Temple Beth Am is a Brueghel painting come to life: Men, women and children in bright clothes, racing here and there, greeting each other, laughing, arguing, weeping in every corner of the frame.

No, it’s Brueghel plus a soundtrack. Man, it’s noisy. When it’s your kid beside you doing the yelling and tugging, you hardly notice. Now we buy our son and daughter a pack of tickets and they run off with friends. A new generation of 3-foot Esthers and 2-foot Mordecais are screaming for the mini-Ferris Wheel and squealing on the Whirl-a-Gig.

In another part of the carnival, I overhear a recently divorced man baring his soul to a friend, shedding tears on a stairwell. A single mom arranges a week’s worth of play dates for her son, so she can get in more overtime hours. Two friends trade news on a third friend’s cancer treatments. Their conversation quickly moves on to arranging meals and carpools for the ailing woman. Downstairs, in the deafening conviviality of the food room, a group of men discusses Hamas and the new school building project.

“Rabbi Malkus is in the dunk booth!” a day school father calls out to me. He gives it the import of a late-breaking news story and makes a beeline to take in the sight.

I saw the rabbi get dunked last year, as dozens of Pressman Academy students cheered. We’ve come a long way as a people, indeed, from Moses, to Hillel, to Maimonides, to Kook, to a rabbi in a skin-tight wet suit, shivering on a plank above some murky water. But the kids are having fun.

If “Crash,” this year’s Oscar winner for best picture, was about a Los Angeles where people needed to ram their cars together just to have human contact, the synagogue is the “anti-Crash.” It is the public square in the midst of the city; the village green in the midst of the country; the shtetl in the midst of the 21st century.

What confounded me at the carnival was how the vibrancy of synagogue playgrounds and pews — whether at Beth Am or Adat Ari El or Valley Beth Shalom or Sinai or dozens of other congregations in the region — contrasts with the portents of doom and gloom coming, as David Letterman might say, from the main office.

The Conservative movement is in a state of well-documented flux. Once America’s largest Jewish denomination, it has been superseded by the more liberal Reform movement. At the other end of the spectrum, the Orthodox movement has fewer adherents but a faster growth rate.

And although synagogues with successful day schools, like Beth Am, have many young families, the Conservative movement overall is aging faster than the others.

Conservative rabbis from around the world will meet next week in Mexico City at the Rabbinical Assembly convention to hash out future policy in the face of this numerical decline.

Many observers say the fall-off reflects a larger cultural shift. Conservative Judaism developed a century ago as a backlash against both Reform innovation and Orthodox stasis. It flourished in the postwar years, when all America wanted to have its change and retreat from it too.

But — so goes this analysis — in a polarized era of red versus blue states, secular versus religious, it’s not surprising that Judaism’s middle cannot hold. Conservative liturgy and law is too constricting for most Jews, too liberal for others. So the number of Jewish Goldilocks — for whom warm porridge is just right — is dwindling.

The problem with this explanation is that Conservative doctrine worked to keep many Goldilocks from getting any porridge, period. It excluded many of the Jews who would otherwise have been drawn to synagogue life. It was late in ordaining women, it is still dithering over ordaining gays — the issue will be a major source of contention in Mexico City — and it has been sluggish about welcoming and including converts and the spouses of intermarried Jews.

Without working to develop more welcoming standards, the Conservative movement will regain its primacy about when Dwight D. Eisenhower regains the presidency.

The impetus for its renewal, if it arrives at all, won’t likely come from seminarians and lawgivers, but from congregants and pulpit rabbis, camp counselors and school teachers. They’re the ones who understand that what a successful movement needs is less doctrine, and more dunk tanks.