Rabbi Jonah Pesner speaking at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund 27th Annual Awards Gala at the Washington Hilton, Nov. 16, 2015. Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

NAACP names Reform movement’s Religious Action Center head to its board

The NAACP named the director of the Reform movement’s Religion Action Center, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, to its board.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People announced on Tuesday that it was appointing Pesner, who has led the RAC since 2015 and served as senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism since 2011, along with the appointments of five other new board members, including three Christian pastors.

“Eliminating racism and expanding civil rights are intrinsic Jewish values,” Pesner said in a statement. “I could not be more proud to join the board of the NAACP to help advance those goals.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, Pesner’s predecessor at the RAC — the Reform movement’s legislative advocacy arm — also served on the NAACP board.

NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks praised the new appointments.

“These new board members bring an amazing wealth of achievement, accomplishment and influence on issues from civil rights to religion to community-building and leadership,” he said Tuesday in a statement. “We are honored by their presence and welcome them into the inner family of the nation’s oldest, largest and boldest civil rights organization.”

The Religion Action Center and the Reform movement have a history of working with the NAACP and other civil rights groups. From 1966 to 1975, Kivie Kaplan, a vice chairman of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations — which later became the Union for Reform Judaism — served as the national president of the NAACP. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both landmark civil rights legislations, were drafted in the RAC building.

David Friedman, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to Israel, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Feb. 16. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Reform movement opposes David Friedman as US envoy to Israel

The Reform movement became the largest Jewish body to oppose the nomination of David Friedman as United States ambassador to Israel.
The Reform movement became the largest Jewish body to oppose the nomination of David Friedman as United States ambassador to Israel.

In a statement released Friday, one day after the launch of Senate hearings to confirm Friedman, Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs released a statement saying Friedman is “the wrong person for this essential job at this critical time.”

The statement says President Donald Trump’s longtime bankruptcy lawyer lacks the qualifications for the position, noting he has never been involved in professional foreign policy issues “other than as a zealous partisan and financial supporter of settlement activity.”

Friedman serves as president of American Friends of Bet El Institutions, which supports a large West Bank settlement. He has expressed skepticism about the two-state solution and harsh criticism of left-wing pro-Israel groups in a series of op-eds in Arutz Sheva, a news site serving Israel’s settlement movement.

“Mr. Friedman’s views on key issues suggest he will not be able to play a constructive role,” said the URJ statement, which was signed by the leaders of its main clergy as well as congregational and membership bodies. “The U.S. Ambassador to Israel has the important responsibility of advising, shaping, and helping implement the President’s foreign policy goals. Indeed, it appears that Mr. Friedman’s extreme views on key issues related to the two-state solution, Israel’s borders, settlements, and the location of the U.S. Embassy are already reflected in the White House. Such positions are detrimental to peace and a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.”

The statement also made note of Thursday’s confirmation hearing, during which Friedman said there was “no excuse” for his past rhetoric targeting liberal Jews, and which was interrupted at least three times by protesters.

“Just as we are critical of Mr. Friedman’s lack of diplomatic temperament, we wish to distance ourselves from the protesters who repeatedly interrupted his hearing,” the URJ statement said.

The Reform movement, representing the largest and most liberal of the major denominations, has long been a proponent of a two-state solution. It has never opposed a nomination for the ambassadorship.

Friedman’s nomination has already divided Jewish groups along ideological lines, with centrist and left-leaning groups expressing concerns and right-leaning groups urging his confirmation.

On Friday, following the release of a letter from five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel urging the Senate to reject Friedman’s nomination, the Zionist Organization of America released a long statement accusing the former envoys of being “hostile to Israel.”

The five signatories – Thomas Pickering, Daniel Kurtzer, Edward Walker, Jr., James Cunningham and William Harrop – damaged U.S.-Israel relations and exacerbated the situation in the Middle East,” the ZOA said in its statement.
In a statement released Friday, one day after the launch of Senate hearings to confirm Friedman, Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs released a statement saying Friedman is “the wrong person for this essential job at this critical time.”

The statement says President Donald Trump’s longtime bankruptcy lawyer lacks the qualifications for the position, noting he has never been involved in professional foreign policy issues “other than as a zealous partisan and financial supporter of settlement activity.”

Friedman serves as president of American Friends of Bet El Institutions, which supports a large West Bank settlement. He has expressed skepticism about the two-state solution and harsh criticism of left-wing pro-Israel groups in a series of op-eds in Arutz Sheva, a news site serving Israel’s settlement movement.

“Mr. Friedman’s views on key issues suggest he will not be able to play a constructive role,” said the URJ statement, which was signed by the leaders of its main clergy as well as congregational and membership bodies. “The U.S. Ambassador to Israel has the important responsibility of advising, shaping, and helping implement the President’s foreign policy goals. Indeed, it appears that Mr. Friedman’s extreme views on key issues related to the two-state solution, Israel’s borders, settlements, and the location of the U.S. Embassy are already reflected in the White House. Such positions are detrimental to peace and a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.”

The statement also made note of Thursday’s confirmation hearing, during which Friedman said there was “no excuse” for his past rhetoric targeting liberal Jews, and which was interrupted at least three times by protesters.

“Just as we are critical of Mr. Friedman’s lack of diplomatic temperament, we wish to distance ourselves from the protesters who repeatedly interrupted his hearing,” the URJ statement said.

The Reform movement, representing the largest and most liberal of the major denominations, has long been a proponent of a two-state solution. It has never opposed a nomination for the ambassadorship.

Friedman’s nomination has already divided Jewish groups along ideological lines, with centrist and left-leaning groups expressing concerns and right-leaning groups urging his confirmation.

On Friday, following the release of a letter from five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel urging the Senate to reject Friedman’s nomination, the Zionist Organization of America released a long statement accusing the former envoys of being “hostile to Israel.”

The five signatories – Thomas Pickering, Daniel Kurtzer, Edward Walker, Jr., James Cunningham and William Harrop – damaged U.S.-Israel relations and exacerbated the situation in the Middle East,” the ZOA said in its statement.

Vaccines and Jewish camps: What parents need to know

“All of a sudden, bottles of hand sanitizer appeared all over,” said Rabbi Jason Miller, looking back at 2009, when the swine flu craze reached Camp Maas, a Jewish summer camp in Ortonville, Michigan.

“Staff members would stand outside the dining hall with bottles,” he told JTA.

Aside from constant reminders about handwashing, the swine flu didn’t leave much of a mark on the camp. And now, similar worries about contagious diseases may soon be a distant memory.

Seven years later — in a time that has seen a reinvigorated debate over the validity and efficacy of vaccines — Tamarack Camps, one of the largest and oldest Jewish camp systems in the country (of which Camp Maas, Miller’s former employer, is a part), now has a formalized vaccine policy.

“Given the overriding value of Pikuach Nefesh (saving a life) … we are requiring that all campers, staff, artists-in-residence, volunteers, doctors, nurses and their families planning to attend/participate in any Tamarack Camps programs be immunized as outlined,” according to an email sent Dec. 30 and signed by multiple Tamarack program directors.

The announcement stipulated that the camp’s attendees must receive the standard list of vaccines recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control, which includes shots for chicken pox, meningitis and several others. The policy will be phased in over two years beginning this summer.

Through the email, Tamarack Camps — comprised of a main campus and Camp Maas, along with a few “outpost” camps and travel programs — joined other Jewish camps across the country that have formalized vaccine policies requiring staff and campers to be immunized according to state requirements. The policies only allow campers to forego the vaccines for medical reasons (such as an allergy).

Other Jewish camps with such policies include all those under the auspices of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Conservative movement’s Ramah umbrella, as well as many independent and specialized camps.

Some Jewish camps, however, stick to state vaccination laws, many allowing for personal or religious exemptions. California, which experienced a widely publicized measles outbreak at Disneyland in early 2015, joined West Virginia and Mississippi as one of only three states that outlaw personal or religious vaccine exemptions after passing a contested bill last summer. The vaccination rate among children in California hasalready risen even though the new law does not go into effect until July.

Vaccines are generally accepted as a common-sense medical practice across most of the spectrum of religious affiliation in the Jewish community. However, some Orthodox communities have experienced outbreaks of preventable diseases, such as the whooping cough, in recent years. In 2014, the prominent Orthodox Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky called vaccines a “hoax.” JTA found last year that a range of private Jewish day schools had low student vaccination rates due to the personal or religious exemption loopholes.

Cliff Nerwen, chair of the National Ramah Medical Committee, estimates that at least one family each year tries to send an unvaccinated camper to each of Ramah’s nine sleepaway camps.

“I graciously tell them I respect their opinions, but in the light of the larger public health community, it’s a risk we’re not willing to take,” Nerwen said.

In a sign of the times, Tamarack Camps’ announcement immediately started an online dispute. Dr. David Brownstein, the medical director of the Center for Holistic Medicine in West Bloomfield, Michigan — the upscale heart of Detroit’s Jewish community  — called the policy “draconian” in a blog post the next day.

“Perhaps Camp Tamarack is unaware that over $3 billion has been awarded by the Federal Government to children and adults injured by vaccines,” Brownstein wrote. “I would like to see where Jewish law says it is safe to inject a neurotoxin into a baby or any living being.”

Two days later, Dr. Peter Lipson, an internal medicine specialist who also practices in the West Bloomfield area, called Brownstein’s post “dangerous” in a Forbes article.

“Dr. Brownstein is wrong on the facts. That’s not my opinion,” Lipson wrote. “What is my opinion is that doctors like him are a threat to public health.”

Tamarack Camps’ decision also caused a bit of a stir in and around the metro Detroit Jewish community. Dr. Kathy Erlich, a Jewish pediatrician against strict vaccine laws who worked in the camp’s medical clinic, resigned. And Miller, who wrote about Tamarack’s decision for Time, said at least one family left the camp over the policy.

“Of course there are parents out there that have chosen not to vaccinate their children, and I think they always assume that either their personal or their religious reasons for not vaccinating will be accepted,” said Paul Reichenbach, the Union of Reform Judaism’s director of camp and Israel programs.

The URJ camp system issued a formalized vaccine policy in 2008.

“It came as a surprise to some people,” Reichenbach said.

Still, Lipson, who covers science and medicine for Forbes, told JTA that parents of prospective campers should not lose sleep over the medical exemption rule. Some children have legitimate medical reasons to skip a certain vaccine — and they depend on the immunity of the other campers around them even more.

As to whether or not parents should scrutinize camps that allow non-medical exemptions, Lipson said the issue is worth talking about.

“Because this is such a new question, I’m just starting to ask [it] myself,” he said. “Personal belief exemptions are a nightmare.”

Lipson pointed out that it can be tough for camps to hold their ground against parents on the vaccine issue because, while everyone has to go to school, they’re not required to attend summer camp.

That’s partly why he was impressed with Tamarack Camps’ decision to publicly state a formal position. At Camp Tamakwa in Ontario, where Lipson volunteers, campers must hand in immunization forms, but he isn’t aware of a formal written camp policy.

“I was actually kind of surprised that [Tamarack] did it,” Lipson said. “You put a bunch of Jews in a room, and what are the odds you’re going to get a consensus?”

URJ and NFTY sued over sand fly bites on Israel youth trip

Parents of four Jewish high school students in Los Angeles County filed a lawsuit on May 4 alleging that the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and its youth movement, the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), did not adequately warn and protect their children from infected sand flies during a 2014 group trip to Israel.

The complaint filed in Los Angeles Superior Court states that the four high school students each were bitten multiple times by the sand flies and as a result contracted leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease that, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), often causes painful skin ulcers, swollen glands, and, in serious cases. swelling of the spleen and liver, as well as low red and white blood-cell counts. Some sores can take months or years to heal and can leave behind “ugly scars”, according to the CDC’s website. The CDC estimates that between 900,000 and 1.6 million people contract leishmaniasis every year. It’s known to exist in parts of the Far East, the Middle East, Africa, Mexico and Central and South America.

The suit lists only the students’ initials and the parents’ first name and last initial, does not name any of the NFTY staff members on the trip to Israel, and does not detail the injuries suffered by the students. The plaintiffs argue that the defendants were negligent in not warning the students or their families about the possible presence of infected sand flies in some places they visited in Israel, and also in failing to provide the students with insect repellant or bed nets. The four families also allege that the teenagers were sleeping on “bug infested bedding”.

The attorney representing the plaintiffs, John C. Taylor of Taylor & Ring, LLP, did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and a spokeswoman for the URJ did not provide comment before this story went to press. Taylor, though, previously told the Los Angeles Times the students have had “ongoing medical treatment with little success” to treat the leishmaniasis and that the URJ and NFTY “had previous problems” with sand flies but still didn’t warn the students or their parents.

Although there are no vaccines that can prevent the contraction of leishmaniasis, the CDC recommends avoiding overnight outdoor activities where sand flies are present, applying insecticide, and, if not sleeping in a well-screened indoor area, sleeping in a bed protected by a bed net.

Reform movement wants Presidents Conf. overhaul in wake of J Street rejection

The Union for Reform Judaism is seeking an overhaul of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in the wake of its rejection of J Street’s bid for membership.

The Reform group in a statement posted Thursday on its website said leaving the Presidents Conference, an umbrella body, is an option.

“As of yesterday, it is clear that the Conference of Presidents, as currently constituted and governed, no longer serves its vital purpose of providing a collective voice for the entire American Jewish pro-Israel community,” URJ President Rick Jacobs said in the statement.

“In the days ahead, Reform movement leaders will be consulting with our partners within the Conference of Presidents to decide what our next steps will be. We may choose to advocate for a significant overhaul of the Conference of Presidents’ processes. We may choose to simply leave the Conference of Presidents. But this much is certain: We will no longer acquiesce to simply maintaining the facade that the Conference of Presidents represents or reflects the views of all of American Jewry.”

The departure of the umbrella body for Reform movement congregations, which bills itself as the largest single Jewish organization in the United States with 900 congregations representing 1.5 million Jews, could undercut the Presidents Conference’s claim to speak for the community on foreign policy.

On Wednesday, Presidents Conference members voted 22-17 with three abstentions against admitting J Street, a Jewish group that calls itself “pro-peace and pro-Israel.” J Street has criticized Israeli government policies on peace and backed the Obama administration’s nuclear talks with Iran that many Jewish groups have opposed.

Separately, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said her group also would seek an overhaul.

“The Conference of Presidents has 50 or so organizations, each one has one vote, the majority of those organizations are quite tiny,” she told JTA. “The fact that J Street did not pass today’s vote is reflective of structural anomalies of the conference.”

A source close to the Presidents Conference said it was not clear from the secret ballot that J Street’s rejection was driven by the smaller groups, and that previous attempts to change the system failed in part because members could not agree on criteria that would determine the proportional weight of a member organization.

Rabbi Stephanie Kolin finds her strength in superheroes, from Moses to the X-Men

On a brisk December evening, Rabbi Stephanie Kolin stepped up to a microphone to address some 50 immigrants and advocates from a cross-section of civil rights organizations, including Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. They’d come together to celebrate at the UCLA Downtown Labor Center near MacArthur Park after three years working side by side, petitioning lawmakers to support the Trust Act. 

The new California law, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in October, will curtail deportations of undocumented immigrants throughout the state. Kolin, 35, a rising leader of the Reform movement, came to the event as part of Reform CA, one of the newest Trust Act coalition members; since last spring, she had been working tirelessly with more than 125 Reform rabbis from across California to build Jewish support for the measure and to help push the bill through the state government.

“Many in this room have been working for years … to make sure that today’s aspiring Americans can breathe the breath of dignity and fairness, and experience freedom from the fear that comes when one is treated as the enemy in one’s own home,” Kolin said, as a translator repeated her words in Spanish.

“There’s a phrase we say that I want us to be able to share,” she continued, spreading her arms. And despite the language differences in the room, despite vast cultural differences, her message came through, and the entire audience joined her in chanting the Hebrew words: “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek.” Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened by one another. 

“May our communities continue to join together to address the vast issues of our broken society,” said Kolin, whose voice and enthusiasm filled the room, “to build the power that it takes to make real change, and to strengthen one another to do what is right and good in our world.” 

A rabbi by training, Kolin’s passion is community organizing, and she has blended her twin callings as co-director of Just Congregations, the community-organizing program of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). There, she has taken the role of lead organizer of Reform CA, a statewide campaign for political change (see accompanying story). More than 250 Reform congregations across the United States are now engaged in community organizing, along with other kinds of social justice work, fueling a growing demand for organizers and rabbis fluent in the language of organizing within mainstream Jewish institutions. Since relocating to the West Coast in 2010, Kolin has dedicated her energy to the pursuit of tikkun olam, compassion and connection in both the Jewish and public sphere. In 2013, she was named to Newsweek/The Daily Beast’s “Rabbis to Watch” list for her work. 

“What I’m called to is the fundamental tools of organizing — story sharing, systemic change, collaborating with others, interfaith work, moving the world toward greater justice and compassion,” she said. “You know you have the right job when it doesn’t feel like you’re working.” 

[Related: Jewish values at heart of immigration reform]

Kolin’s enthusiasm is always apparent; even though she maintains an almost dizzying schedule of meetings, conferences and responsibilities around the state and country, she approaches each task with humor and zest.

“She’s a rock star,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ. “She is gifted in everything that a rabbi of the 21st century needs to be gifted in: She’s really smart, she’s a phenomenal communicator, and she has the ability to galvanize people around things that really matter. And she’s got a great sense of humor — she’s the kind of person you love hanging around with.”

Those social skills come in handy, because much of Kolin’s job entails spending time with a lot of people in a lot of places. She divides her time between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, with a constant string of conferences from San Diego to Chicago sprinkled into the mix. (She mentioned in an interview that she doesn’t like to fly, but when she does, she wears Superman socks outfitted with tiny red capes.)

Kolin and her older brother, Ben, grew up at East End Temple in Manhattan, N.Y., a Reform synagogue where their parents helped found the religious school. The siblings always sat in the front row for Friday night Shabbat services.

Kolin clearly remembers the day she first considered becoming a rabbi. It was Purim, and Kolin, then in seventh grade, was “goofing off” on the bimah with her rabbi. At one point, the rabbi, Deborah Hirsch, turned to Kolin and motioned to her chair on the bimah. “Do you want to sit there?” Hirsch asked.

“Why?” Kolin inquired.

“I just have a feeling,” the rabbi answered.

“That was the first moment that my eyes were shifted to this possible path, and they never moved from that path,” Kolin said.

In high school, she immersed herself in the Reform youth group North American Federation of Temple Youth, where she got her first taste for leadership. But her social justice muscle was still developing. “I was never a very political person,” she said. “I grew up with incredible values, and was always deeply affected by suffering. But I didn’t know there were ways to enact change. I just knew people were hurting, and as Jews it was our job to address that somehow.”

It was while double-majoring in sociology and Near Eastern Judaic studies at Brandeis University that Kolin found structure for her natural empathy. In a class she took with sociologist Maury Stein, students engaged in weekly meditation in pairs. The experience was “incredibly transformative,” she said, and altered her view of what it meant to relate to others. “It taught me a new way to listen, to look at people, to express my own story and to understand that if we are to be present with each other’s pain, maybe we can create a different kind of world.” 

Kolin went straight from college to rabbinical school; there was no question it would be her next step. While attending Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York, she volunteered as coordinator of the campus soup kitchen. Every Monday night, she would listen to the guests’ personal narratives of powerlessness and hardship. “The more I heard the stories, the more hopeless things felt,” she said, until a colleague introduced her to someone she thought might offer solace: a community organizer. 

Jeannie Appleman worked with Interfaith Funders, a grant-making network that supports congregation-based community organizing, and she sent Kolin to a 10-day summer training course with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the first and largest community-organizing network in the country, founded by Saul Alinsky, in Chicago. There, Kolin saw how the conversations that had troubled her could be harnessed as more than fleeting exchanges; they became the basis of community organizing, which she soon recognized as her calling. 

“These things that I thought were just values, it turns out that they were also tools,” she said. “That’s when I learned that the awakening experience I’d had in college was something to not only feel and notice, but also act on.”

That fall, when she returned to rabbinical school, she knew she wanted to find a way to share the lessons that had inspired her. So she worked with Appleman and a fellow student — Rabbi Noah Farkas, now at Valley Beth Shalom — to create a course in community organizing and leadership at HUC-JIR. (At the New York campus, the course is taught today by Kolin’s personal mentor, Meir Lakein, director of organizing at the nonprofit JOIN for Justice. In Los Angeles, Kolin herself co-teaches the class with members of OneLA-IAF, a nonprofit community-organizing group.)

After her ordination in 2006, Kolin worked for four years as a congregational rabbi at Temple Israel of Boston, a large Reform synagogue. Among her roles was participating on the strategy team of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, which helped with campaigns on issues of health care and public education; there, she witnessed the clout of community organizing firsthand. In 2010, she clinched the opportunity to apply her skills full time: The URJ hired her to establish the West Coast office of Just Congregations in Los Angeles. 

Kolin captured attention almost immediately: She was named to The Jewish Daily Forward’s Sisterhood 50: America’s Influential Women Rabbis in 2010, and that same year, she was honored as a Woman of Valor by Jewish Funds for Justice (now Bend the Arc).

“[Kolin] has played an important role in putting social justice on the Jewish communal agenda,” said Gabrielle Birkner, the writer who edited the Sisterhood 50 list and the “Rabbis to Watch” list last year. “Through her community organizing work, she has been instrumental in making a case rooted in Jewish values for improving education and health care access, for same-sex marriage legislation and for reforming immigration policy, among other progressive causes.”

Locally, Kolin works with congregations including Leo Baeck Temple, Stephen S. Wise Temple and Temple Isaiah to help them institute social justice campaigns. She also spends time planning next steps with the rabbis and lay leaders of the Reform CA leadership team, which is “some of the most fun work that I get to do,” she said. “These are my friends, but they are my rabbis, too. There is so much joy in working with this team and learning from them.”

Kolin also mentors four rabbinical interns from HUC-JIR — a mentor, she believes, is a crucial guide who can “push and challenge you, teach you, coach you, think with you, and ask you the hardest questions” — and she serves as fundraiser to grow the Just Congregations program. She and fiancée Jocelyn Berger, Los Angeles program officer of American Jewish World Service, are planning their  wedding for next Sukkot. 

From left: Rabbi Stephanie Kolin and her fiancée, Jocelyn Berger, Los Angeles program officer of American Jewish World Service. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Stephanie Kolin

Kolin often finds inspiration in the story of Moses standing at the shore of the Red Sea, the waters yet unparted, waiting to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses first tells his followers to wait and watch while God protects them from the approaching Egyptian army. But God speaks up: “Why are you talking to me? Tell the people to go forward.”

It’s a world Kolin craves — one “where we work in partnership with God, and it’s up to us to take each other’s hands, take a step into the sea, and forge our way toward redemption,” she said. “It sounds highfalutin, but it’s really gritty in the everyday practicing of it.”

Kolin also draws strength from returning to the tales of some of her most cherished role models: Superman, Spider-Man and the rest of the superhero pantheon. 

“When I started doing community organizing, I actually transferred a lot of my loyalty to the X-Men,” she admitted — a troupe of mutants born with supernatural powers, often ostracized, who band together to fight for justice. 

She doesn’t view these stories as mere comic book capers. Instead, she sees in their narratives fundamental human questions — specifically Jewish ones: How should we respond to discrimination in the world? How can we direct our talents for the greater good? Can we use oppression as fuel for positive change?

“Superhero stories paint a picture of a world that’s broken, like ours in many ways,” Kolin said, and their protagonists show us how to respond. “They say, ‘Not only can this change, but I’m going to change it, and I have a responsibility to change it.’ ”

At the heart of her efforts is sharing with others how they can help themselves. “What I really care about is making sure that the power is in the hands of the people,” she said. “People often ask, ‘What is the main issue you care about?’ I care about building the mechanism to make change. What I want is to build a base of communities and people who can take action on the issues that matter most to us and our neighbors. All of these issues are so intertwined with each other. It’s the systemic problems that we have to address, that are related to race, class, privilege — all of the structures that we live inside of. I think we are on a really good path — and it’s going to take a lot of work, but I feel optimistic.”

Adds good friend Rabbi Dara Frimmer of Temple Isaiah, who has known Kolin since they were classmates in rabbinical school: “Stephanie has a really incredible gift to preach and teach the Jewish tradition of justice — to inspire almost everyone she meets to want to do this work with her.” 

To sustain that contagious zeal, Kolin looks to her superheroes. 

“We could make the world a better place when we work together,” she said. “Alone, we’re vulnerable, but together, we’re the X-Men.”

6 Points Sci-Tech Academy combines science, shabbos

The traditional Jewish summer camp experience isn’t for every kid. While some children thrive on outdoor activities, athletics, and arts and crafts, others have specialized interests that don’t often show up in the program of a typical sleep-away camp. 

That’s the conclusion the Golland family of L.A.’s Larchmont neighborhood arrived at after sending their son, Asher, to generalized Jewish and non-Jewish camps for the past few summers. Now 13 years old, Asher has a passion for science and computers, his mother, Michelle Golland, said. But there was little to pique his interest in the sports-centered camps they found for him in California.

So, this summer, the Gollands — members of Temple Israel of Hollywood — are betting on a different experience for their son. They’ve signed him up for 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, the new science and technology camp being launched this year by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). 

The camp, open to students entering grades five through nine, provides children with hands-on scientific learning in fields such as robotics and digital media. It’s also on the other side of the country — in Byfield, Mass., just outside of Boston — but the Gollands say they believe it’s perfect for Asher. They hope it will give him not only the opportunity to learn more about science and meet like-minded kids, but also become immersed in Jewish traditions.

“I found [the camp] on Facebook. Somebody posted it on my wall because they knew our son was a big gamer, robot and chess guy. As soon as I started reading it, I just found it to be exactly something Asher would be into,” Michelle Golland said. “He’ll be with a bunch of kids that are very similar, with similar interests, which we feel is going to be really wonderful for him.” 

Greg Kellner, camp director, said the URJ’s new camp is generating a great deal of interest from parents, including some in California. Although science-focused summer camps are nothing new, this camp is the first to combine both science and Judaism, he said. 

“We felt that was a niche we could really fill,” said Kellner, an audio engineer whose previous positions include running a music program at Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps in Malibu and serving as senior assistant director of the URJ Crane Lake Camp in Massachusetts. “Parents, when they call me, they say: ‘Wow, this is perfect. This is exactly what we were looking for.’ ” 

The cost of the two-week camp is $2,850. Discounts are available to first-time campers.

The 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy (scitech.urjcamps.org) is one of four camps that make up the second cohort of the Specialty Camps Incubator, a program of the Foundation for  Jewish Camp that launches new camps in order to encourage more children to attend Jewish camp by providing specialty options. The other camps focus on business and entrepreneurship, sports, and health and wellness. The initiative is funded by an $8.6 million grant jointly provided by the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Avi Chai Foundation. 

The specialty nature of the camp is one reason Kellner expects 6 Points to be successful. Another is its relatively short duration, which may make some children more comfortable with it, Kellner explained. The camp is just two weeks long — there will be three sessions held throughout the summer. Between 50 and 70 children from across the country are expected to attend each camp, Kellner said.

Children attending the Sci-Tech Academy focus on one of four specialty areas while at camp: environmental science, digital media, robotics and video game design. Each day, the campers will spend two and a half hours working as a group on a project in their chosen field. For the remainder of the day, they’ll learn about other applications of science, such as catapult building or flight technology, Kellner said. All of the camp counselors have a science and technology background.

Jewish learning at the camp is values-based, Kellner explained. Rabbis, cantors and educators will work with the children to share their knowledge of both science and Judaism. These could include initiating ethics discussions, such as the implications of creating a violent video game. Campers will also sing Hebrew songs in the morning and before bedtime, and celebrate Shabbat.

“The most important thing is they will really leave … being more self-confident of their Jewish identity and knowing that Judaism and science are not exclusive of one another, that I can live a life where I love Judaism and science,” he said.

Reform Biennial reveals movement’s strengths, challenges

At the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Biennial conference last week, Erev Shabbat offered a study in contrasts that perfectly illustrated the movement’s promise — and its problems.

Just before 6 p.m., as the sun sank into San Diego Bay, nearly 5,000 conference attendees from around the country poured into the San Diego Convention Center for Kabbalat Shabbat. From the back of the hall, a sea of heads sat quietly facing the bimah, where four clergy from Boston’s Temple Beth Elohim were leading the service. Tightly scripted, the worship was abridged, musically mellifluous and mellow. Then, at around the halfway point, a lively rendition of the Mi Chamocha sparked a sudden surge in the audience. People rushed into the aisles, eager to dance. 

It was a moment of inspired worship. And it was about to transform the sterile air of the convention center into a raucous parting of the Red Sea, when — the prayer leaders ended the song. 

Fast-forward three hours to the late-night “song session,” a Biennial favorite. Led by a star-studded cast of Jewish musicians — including Josh Nelson, Doug Cotler, Julie Silver, Beth Schafer and Leo Baeck’s Rabbi Ken Chasen rockin’ the keyboard — it looked like the Jewish version of a Rolling Stones concert. It was a wild, uninhibited scene: thousands of people, arms in the air, jumping up and down, chanting, clapping, dancing horahs. Young and old, rabbi and congregant, lay leader and camp counselor all clustering together as transliterated Hebrew lyrics flashed on three giant screens and live tweets with the hashtag #Biennial13 practically shouted spiritual ecstasy into the digital beyond. 

“This is why I love being a Reform Jew,” Karen Sobel, a Jewish educator from Temple Beth Am in Miami, leaned over and said to me (full disclosure: I grew up at Beth Am). That’s when I turned toward her and asked, “Why doesn’t the prayer service look like this?”

These two Biennial events captured the strengths and weaknesses of the Reform movement as it tries to reinvent itself for the 21st century. On the one hand, last week’s five-day fest of community building, learning and forward thinking showcased the best the movement has to offer: creativity, flexibility, spirituality and soul. But, at the same time, difficult realities like the hard math of the Pew poll, which earlier this year revealed steep declines in membership — or simply, institutional blindness to spontaneity during prayer — reveal deeper anxieties about breaking script. Both poles were on full display last week at what has become one of the largest Jewish religious gatherings in North America, and highlighted that both this movement and much of American Judaism are at a crossroads.

“Synagogue Judaism as a whole is facing a challenge,” Leo Baeck Temple’s Rabbi Chasen said during an interview. “Younger generations are somewhat affiliation averse. Millennials are more skeptical of membership organizations and are not necessarily given to a lot of the institutional staples that synagogue life is about.”

Judging by this Biennial, the URJ appears willing to confront this challenge by catering to a diverse palette of tastes and interests. Attendees were treated to an ample “buffet” of learning sessions, as Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ Rabbi Laura Geller described it, from a four-hour seminar on Mussar, to “The Torah of Pluralism” and “Harnessing the Power of Social Media.” Speakers came from near and far, including Israel’s top brass: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (by video); rising star Knesset Member Ruth Calderon; Women of the Wall superhero Anat Hoffman, who heads the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center; and Modern Orthodox educator Rabbi Donniel Hartman, who flew in to accept an award on behalf of his late father, Rabbi David Hartman. 

“There’s an awful lot of inspiration that takes place here,” Chasen added, explaining why 38 of his congregants had accompanied him to San Diego. “The [URJ] does a very good job of bringing in everything from agitators to inspirers. This is a place where you can hear from the greatest rabbis, and also from Julian Bond.”

Bond, the former NAACP chairman, was one of many headliners, including New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, who spoke about food justice, and American Jewish World Service president Ruth Messinger. For the first time in its history, the URJ invited non-Reform participants to the conference, among them L.A.’s Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, an independent, progressive congregation, who spoke on the future of synagogues. 

 The inclusion of more outside voices was seen by some within the movement as a risky move (and according to one insider, “unbelievably debated”), but it proved the movement is willing to engage in the “big tent” Judaism they preach, welcoming independent communities as partners rather than alienating them as rivals.  

Radical inclusion was the theme of the day. In his 16-page, hour-plus state-of-the-union address Thursday night, Rabbi Rick Jacobs propounded a policy of “audacious hospitality,” echoing the movement’s longtime raison d’être

Bereisheit bara Elohim,” Jacobs said. 

“In the beginning, God didn’t create synagogues or rabbis or denominations or even Jewish people. No, God created a wondrous universe teeming with beauty, complexity and possibility.”

But the notion of audacious hospitality is nothing new. As far back as the 1970s, when intermarriage was considered a curse word to most American Jews, the URJ led the way in welcoming the stranger by embracing interfaith families and Jews by Choice. Also in the 1970s, the movement became the first to ordain women rabbis, with the Conservative movement following suit a decade later. And in March 2000, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the organizing body of Reform rabbis in North America and Canada, became the first major religious group to officially sanction gay marriage. 

This time, Jacobs again singled out interfaith families, adding in people with disabilities as deserving of better treatment. “Being ‘against’ intermarriage is like being ‘against’ gravity,” he said. “You can say it all you want, but it’s a fact of life.” Indeed, the Pew study found that half of those who identify as Reform Jews are married to a non-Jewish spouse.

On that point, Jacobs was quick to point out a biblical precedent with Moses: The most important leader in Jewish history, he reminded, was “a Hebrew child, raised by Egyptians who married a non-Jewish woman of color.”

The movement’s aim at broadening its reach is admirable, but the Pew study tests the notion that inclusion can sustain Reform Judaism.

“The Reform movement needs to remember that no matter how much programming you have, some people just won’t walk through that door,” said Rabbi Elka Abramson, president of the Wexner Foundation, in a plenary panel on the implications of the Pew results.

Abramson pointed out that the movement’s ideological obsession with being a “big tent” will not solve all of its problems. “Bigger doesn’t mean better,” she said. “If the Pew study tells us anything, it’s that we’re in the era of radical risk.”

But, she warned, “If we change the way our congregations function, there’s a loss for those of us who love the way things are.”

One longtime URJ board member I spoke to, who requested anonymity, said he is doubtful that the promises made at the Biennial will come to pass. 

“I call it the Obama Syndrome,” he said of Jacobs’ address. “You tell a viable story, and you deliver crap. You sell hope but deliver sand.” 

Dara Frimmer, associate rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, is more optimistic. “I heard that the Reform movement is in a position to be the most influential group of people and institutions to help shape the next generation of Jews,” she said of Jacobs’ speech. Frimmer came to San Diego with more than 20 congregants and 10 temple staff, adding that their “enthusiasm for Reform Judaism and for Temple Isaiah skyrocket as a result of the [Biennial] environment.” 

Whatever challenges the movement faces nationally, Frimmer said her congregation is thriving: “We are overwhelmed with people in their 20s and 30s,” she said. “We are full. Are we the exception? I don’t know, because I have peers who are also actually in synagogues that are thriving.”

 But from his perch, Jacobs said he sees the movement approaching a “dramatic juncture.” 

“You can’t have your eyes open and look at what’s going on in Jewish life if you don’t have deep concern — I do,” he said during an interview. “But I like to channel worry into constructive, productive action. The people who sit around and worry, ‘Why don’t young people care about being Jewish?’ — I don’t want to spend five minutes thinking about that. I interact everyday with people who do care, and I think our job is to help them discover how we could all care more.”  

Israeli Rabbi Donniel Hartman pointed to the Biennial itself as demonstrating great promise and possibility: “Five thousand people came. Is the cup half-full or half-empty?” he asked. “Something meaningful and important is happening here. Why because something isn’t everything does it mean it’s not enough?”

“We’re a people who live by Dayenu,” Hartman added. “That’s our national anthem. Five thousand came. They care about their synagogues; they care about Judaism; they care about their religious life.”

David Suissa: Why won’t liberals defend Israel?

As I was reading about “engagement” — the new buzzword regarding Israel that came out of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial this past weekend in San Diego — I wondered: Did anyone at the convention notice the other hot word circulating regarding the Jewish state?

This one would be the all-too familiar “B” word: Boycott.

While America’s largest Jewish denomination was discussing its engagement with Israel, the American Studies Association (ASA) became the country’s largest academic group to endorse an academic boycott of Israeli colleges and universities. This comes on the heels of a similar boycott last April, by the Association for Asian American Studies.

These nasty assaults on Israel don’t just violate the spirit of academia; more importantly, they discriminate against the Jewish state. If you don’t believe me, just listen to the ASA president himself, Curtis Marez, who admitted to The New York Times that there are plenty of nations in the world with a worse human rights record than Israel’s.

So, he was asked, why pick on Israel?

In a statement that might well enter the anti-Semitic Hall of Fame, Marez replied, “One has to start somewhere.”

Forget about starting with nations where women are stoned to death, gays are lynched and children are murdered. 

No, Marez has to start somewhere — so why not start with the Jews?

Activist lawyer Alan Dershowitz issued a clever challenge to Marez’s group while they were considering the boycott: “I asked them to name a single country in the history of the world faced with threats comparable to those Israel faces that has had a better record of human rights, a higher degree of compliance with the rule of law, a more demanding judiciary, more concern for the lives of enemy civilians, or more freedom to criticize the government than the State of Israel.”

As Dershowitz writes in Haaretz, “Not a single member of the association came up with a name of a single country. That is because there are none. Israel is not perfect, but neither is any other country, and Israel is far better than most.”

Here’s the point: You can be the biggest peacenik in the world and criticize Israeli settlements all day long and still be completely justified in expressing revulsion at the blatant discrimination routinely inflicted on Israel.

Which brings me to the new buzzword on Israel for the URJ — engagement — which Allison Kaplan Sommer describes in Haaretz as “the trendy umbrella term that both acknowledges the existence of disagreement in the relationship, and endorses using any avenue of interest to get Reform Jews more involved with Israel.”

These disagreements, which include the need for greater respect within Israel for non-Orthodox streams, are genuine and should not be downplayed.

But here’s my question for URJ head Rabbi Rick Jacobs: You spoke eloquently at the biennial about your deep love for Israel and the need to engage Israel, but why did you not speak about the need to defend Israel against unfair and discriminatory attacks?

Why did you not call on your movement to fight and expose the global lies that have soiled the name of Israel?

Why did you not call on your movement to fight and expose the hypocrisy of the United Nations, where Israel gets condemned more than the top 16 violators of human rights combined?

Why did you not call on your movement to fight and expose the anti-Zionist BDS movement that aims only to delegitimize the Jewish state you so love? 

I get that the focus of your movement’s relationship with Israel is based around a healthy and honest engagement of issues, with some “tough love” thrown in, just as one would do with family.

But there’s something else one does with family: One defends it when it is unfairly attacked.

One thing I admire about Rabbi Jacobs is how he jumps over the walls that often divide the Jewish family, as when he recently attended the annual gathering of the Chabad movement. I’ve heard him talk of how we can all learn from one another.

So, next time the rabbi is in Tel Aviv, I have an idea for another wall he can jump: Visit the offices of Shurat HaDin (the Israel Law Center), and hear from legal expert Nitsana Darshan-Leitner how the ASA boycott violates international, federal and state law in the United States, and how her group plans to defend Israel against this illegal and unconscionable assault.

Also, hear about the group’s track record of bringing lawyers from across the world to prosecute institutions, governments and private companies that discriminate against Israel. If you like what you hear, find out how your movement can help.

Fighting discrimination — whether against Israel or any other country — should be a proud liberal cause. One can engage and even criticize Israel and also fight to defend it against unfair attacks. Liberal icon Dershowitz, who criticizes Israeli settlements, is a rare case of a liberal lover of Israel who’s not afraid to take the gloves off to defend the Jewish state.

He should be the keynote speaker at the next Reform convention.

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

Reform biennial opens to outsiders

First there was the Conservative movement’s October biennial conference, billed as “the conversation of the century” and opened up to presenters from outside the movement.

Then came the November General Assembly of The Jewish Federations of North America, which featured a “Global Jewish shuk: a marketplace of dialogue and debate” led by young Israelis and Americans from outside the federation world.

Now comes the biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism, which will be distinguished from past years by — you guessed it — opening up to outsiders.

For the first time, the conference, to be held Dec. 11-15 in San Diego, will be open to participants who are not members of Reform congregations. Learning sessions, which in past years were run almost exclusively by Reform staff, will be led in many cases by presenters from outside the movement. The Friday night prayer service will be open to all, not just conference registrants. And the night before the service, performers from the conference — from musicians to comedians — will go out to venues in the surrounding neighborhood to share Reform Judaism’s good cheer with greater San Diego.

Reform leaders say they’re not trying to be trendy; they want to bring the conference in line with the movement’s philosophy.

“We have opened the biennial as a symbol of where we are as the Reform movement,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the union’s president, said in an interview in his New York office. “Openness is our practice. It is not just a technique, a thing to do. It is who we are. It is theology. It is commitment.”

Jacobs said he wants visitors from outside the movement to “experience the incredible vitality and depth and openness of Reform Judaism in the 21st century.”

For Jacobs, the biennial will be the first he is running. The last one, held near Washington and featuring President Barack Obama as a speaker, was the movement’s largest conference ever and marked the transition from the leadership of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, Jacobs’ predecessor.

This year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is slated to address the conference — a first for a sitting Israeli prime minister, though he’ll probably deliver the address via video rather than in person.

Other presenters include New York Times food writer Mark Bittman; Donniel Hartman, an Orthodox rabbi who heads the Shalom Hartman Institute; Ron Wolfson, a star of the Conservative movement and a professor at the American Jewish University; Israeli Knesset member Ruth Calderon; and Sharon Brous, a Conservative-ordained rabbi who leads the popular IKAR community in Los Angeles.

For the Reform movement, the question isn’t so much whether the four-day conference is a success but whether Reform Judaism can tackle the growing disaffiliation and disengagement in its ranks.

The recent Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews found that while Reform remains the largest American Jewish denomination, with 35 percent of American Jews, it ranks lowest of the three major movements on some key metrics of Jewish engagement.

Reform Jews are the most likely of the denominations to leave the Jewish fold. According to Pew, 28 percent of Jews born Reform no longer consider themselves Jewish by religion, compared to 17 percent of Conservative and 11 percent of Orthodox. Half of married Reform Jews have a non-Jewish spouse. Just 43 percent of Reform Jews say being Jewish is very important to them, and only 16 percent say religion is very important in their lives.

At 1.7 children per couple, the birth rate of Reform Jews is the lowest of the three major U.S. Jewish denominations and well below the replacement rate. Fewer than half of those children are enrolled in any kind of formal Jewish educational or youth program. The median age of Reform Jews is 54.

It is in this context, Jacobs said, that he was brought on a year-and-a-half ago as president to re-examine everything the movement does. He has articulated three strategic priorities for the movement: catalyze congregational change, engage young Jews and expand the movement’s reach beyond synagogue walls. Some programmatic changes along those lines are under way.

Next summer, the movement will open two new summer camps. The 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, a science and technology camp outside of Boston, will be its 14th overnight camp, and the movement’s first summer day camp, Camp Harlam, will open near Philadelphia.

Since May 2012, a pilot group of more than a dozen synagogues has been working to overhaul the movement’s approach to bar mitzvahs as part of a program called the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution. The effort, the movement says, is intended “to reduce the staggering rates of post-b’nai mitzvah dropout.”

On the table is everything from how to make bar mitzvah preparation more engaging to making the celebrations themselves more traditional and meaningful. Dozens more synagogues are in the process of joining the program and adopting some of the more successful efforts.

Like its counterpart in the Conservative movement, the Union for Reform Judaism also is under pressure to demonstrate to its 871 member congregations that they are getting their money’s worth for the dues they pay.

The union now has a resource desk and hosts an online forum for congregational leaders to share ideas and resources. Consultants are available to provide congregations with strategic expertise. Congregational “network teams” work with synagogue leaders to figure out ways the union can be more helpful.

An initiative called Communities of Practice brings together like-minded congregations to work on strategies for programming for young adults, engaging young families, improving early childhood offerings and figuring out how to stabilize synagogue finances.

The union itself has shrunk slightly since Jacobs took over. Thirty employees were laid off in May 2012 as part of a general restructuring; the union now has about 350 employees. (Because it is a religious organization, the union is exempt from filing the 990 IRS tax forms that disclose detailed financial information, including Jacobs’ salary.)

For Reform Judaism to thrive, Jacobs says, everything needs to be reconsidered.

“When I was hired, that was the job description: Challenge everything, question everything, and make us stronger, make us more effective, make us more filled with the core meaning of the Jewish tradition,” Jacobs said.

“It’s not enough just to keep doing the same things with more vigor. You have to say: Is it effective? That’s exactly what is needed in every part of Jewish life. This is not a business-as-usual kind of moment.”

Moving and Shaking: Stuart Leviton named MRJ president and TEBH holds gala

Stuart Leviton, a member of West Hollywood’s Congregation Kol Ami, was recently installed as president of Men of Reform Judaism (MRJ), the umbrella organization for brotherhoods and men’s clubs throughout Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) congregations in North America.

His election marks the first time in the organization’s 90-year history that an openly gay man was named its president. As president, Leviton’s goals will include finding lay leadership for the organization, determining and fulfilling the needs of its members and more.

“What we are trying to do is better engage and connect the men of Reform Judaism, organizationally and programmatically, so that we can be more effective in creating ultimately a more cohesive movement,” Leviton said.

The MRJ executive council elected Leviton, who previously served as the organization’s first vice president, as its new leader during the MRJ Biennual convention last June. The vote was unanimous, Leviton said.

The founder of law firm Leviton Law Group, Leviton is a frequent lecturer in business law and business ethics at American Jewish University. He also is a former co-president of Kol Ami and sits on the board at the URJ.

MRJ is responsible for overseeing affiliates that organize events that blend socializing and worship and that provide community service opportunities for Reform men, among other duties.

From left: Temple Emanuel’s Cantor Yonah Kliger, Rabbi Laura Geller and Rabbi Jonathan Aaron.

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (TEBH) held a festive gala on Oct. 8 in celebration of its 75th anniversary.

More than 200 attendees turned out for a night of music, dancing and drinks at the synagogue’s Greer Social Hall. Longtime members of the synagogue shared brief vignettes of their memories, and state Assemblyman Richard Bloom presented a resolution of congratulations to the congregation.

Founded in 1938 and led by Rabbi Laura Geller, Rabbi Jonathan Aaron and Cantor Yonah Kliger, TEBH is one of the largest Reform communities in Southern California, with approximately 800 member-families. Recently, the synagogue completed an expansive renovation of its campus — including its auditorium and classrooms — following a full remodeling of the Corwin Family Sanctuary and the debut of the Greer Social Hall in 2011.

Event co-chair Toni Corwin and her husband, Bruce. Photos by Aaron Epstein

Chairing the gala were Toni Corwin, Lisa Bochner and Lisa Kay Schwartz, who also is also serving as the synagogue’s 75th anniversary chair. The event, which unveiled a temporary exhibition of memorabilia of objects and icons dating back to Temple Emanuel’s founding, kicked off a yearlong celebration.

From left: Attorney Roger Sullivan; honoree Monsignor Royale Vadakin; Curtis Sandberg, son of honoree Neil Sandberg and former Journal publisher Richard Volpert. Photo by Steven Douglas.

American Jewish Committee of Los Angeles (AJC) and Loyola Marymount University (LMU) recently named community leaders Neil Sandberg and Monsignor Royale Vadakin as the recipients of the Martin Gang Visionary Award, in recognition of their build-bridging efforts among different faith and ethnic groups. A ceremony honoring the pair took place on Oct. 10 at the LMU campus. 

Sandberg previously served as a longtime AJC regional director and is a former adjunct professor of sociology at LMU’s Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts. His accomplishments include founding AJC’s Asia Pacific Institute and co-founding the Martin Gang Institute, a partnership between AJC and LMU Extension that promotes understanding between religious and ethnic communities in California. 

Vadakin, a priest and vicar general emeritus of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, has devoted more than 45 years to ecumenical and interreligious service in Los Angeles. Working with late Rabbi Alfred Wolf, a pioneer of the interfaith movement on the West Coast, he helped establish the Interreligious Council of Southern California in the wake of the 1965 Watts Riots.

Richard Volpert, founding publisher of the Jewish Journal and past AJC honoree, and Roger Sullivan, an attorney and alumnus of Loyola Law School, served as the evening’s presenters. Sandberg’s son, Curtis Sandberg, accepted the award on his father’s behalf. 

The approximately 100 attendees included Hollywood lawyer and former AJC national president Bruce Ramer; AJC national governor Marcia Burnam; Robert Hurteau, director of LMU Center for Religion and Spirituality; LMU provost and executive vice president Joseph Hellige ;and several officials from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Among the evening’s speakers were Clifford Goldstein, AJC Los Angeles regional president; Rabbi Mark Diamond, director of the local AJC; and Archdiocese of Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Alexander Salazar.  

Moving and Shaking acknowledges accomplishments by members of the local Jewish community, including people who start new jobs, leave jobs, win awards and more, as well as local events that featured leaders from the Jewish and Israeli communities. Got a tip? E-mail it to ryant@jewishjournal.com.

High Holy Days Q&A with Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Upon his installation as president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) last year, Rabbi Rick Jacobs promised to work toward reimagining and renovating the Reform movement by focusing on engaging young adults in Jewish life, by working with other arms of the movement in seeking out great ideas and by continuing support for Israel’s security.

The former longtime spiritual leader at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., who has a background in modern Jewish dance, is the fourth president of the URJ. As such, he now leads a network of Reform congregations, clergy and professionals across North America. 

Before he appeared as the keynote speaker at the Board of Rabbis of Southern California’s annual High Holy Days conference at Stephen S. Wise Temple on Aug. 13, Jacobs sat down for an interview with the Journal. The 30-minute discussion covered a wide range of topics, from what he has achieved during his time as leader of the Reform movement, to the financial standing of the URJ, to his take on the shopping mall of Jewish life. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

Jewish Journal: Given that we’re approaching the High Holy Days, let’s begin there. If you were to give a High Holy Days sermon this year, what would you talk about?

Rabbi Rick Jacobs: I can’t imagine this High Holy Days not giving a sermon that touches on Israel — deeply and constructively and affirmatively. How we resolve some of the pluralism issues in Israel is deeply affecting the Jewish community here and there, and everywhere around the globe. 

JJ: In June 2012, you were installed as the president of the URJ. So it’s been a little more than year. Looking back on this year, what do you think you’ve accomplished? 

RJ: We actually had to identify three core strategic priorities, and they weren’t just out of my head — they were from conversations with lots of folks. … We have lots of synagogues that are literally going under, and they just can’t imagine how to do their work effectively. So we’ve created ways for synagogues to re-imagine and reboot themselves. …

Catalyzing congregational change is key. This is not hierarchical, but the three [core principles] are: catalyzing congregational change, expanding our reach beyond the [synagogue] walls … and engaging the next generation. We don’t have a shot if we don’t get teens, college students, the 20s and 30s crowd — that’s the big waterfront of possibility.

We are literally about to announce in the coming six weeks an entire reframe of everything we do in our movement that touches youth: how we train youth professionals, how we integrate camp and youth groups and congregations and Israel and create a much more serious, integrated web. 

JJ: What’s happening with the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution [an initiative led by the URJ and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion to radically alter the ritual]? 

RJ: It’s pretty far along, and Bradley Solmsen, who is our director of youth engagement, and Isa Aron [of HUC-JIR], are doing quite interesting things. And the L.A. Federation is about to launch its own cohort here in Los Angeles of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution.

JJ: Are you optimistic that the URJ and Hebrew Union College will, with this initiative, revamp b’nai mitzvah and bring new energy into them, new life into them and find meaning in them?

RJ: The answer is absolutely, because if we tell the truth about what’s happening today, we have to wake up and say: It may be sustaining itself for a little longer, but we have an institution that’s right now one of the largest magnets of families to synagogue life, and at the end of the day, we’re not holding many of these families [for] long after it’s over. 

So you have to ask the questions of, “What did those kids get nourished with, and what did their families get nourished with?” And if you tell the truth, most of our congregations across North America, there’s a whole lot of disengagement that goes on.

It’s a peak moment for many families, even if they are going to drop out. But what is sustaining about that inauguration into Jewish life? What is it that will be the linchpin or the beginning connector? If you really tell the truth, it’s pretty hard to say in the current structure that bar and bat mitzvah is achieving what Jewish life needs it to achieve.

JJ: What are other hard truths that people in leadership positions, such as rabbis, might not want to acknowledge but are self-evident? 

RJ: There’s something changing right now in Jewish life, and it’s not just Jewish life, it’s religious life. There’s a real disconnect to institutions; there’s a big disconnect to religious institutions. I don’t think it’s simply a little phase. I think it may be one of those things that’s part of the evolution of North American religious consciousness. 

People like [Harvard political scientist and “Bowling Alone” author] Robert Putnam … [he] does a lot of analysis of what is a member, what does it mean to belong, what does it mean to be part of this community — I don’t believe we’re at a tweaking moment, we’re seeing tectonic plates shifting. 

And it doesn’t, to me, feel ominous; it feels that those are things to duly note and to demand a response. I think there’s also a huge hunger for religious meaning and religious community. It just may not come in the forms that we’re used to delivering on.

JJ: What are your thoughts about synagogues where people are not necessarily attracted to it because it’s Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, but because they’re attracted to the personality of the rabbi? 

RJ: Does any of those have a one-word Hebrew name for their congregation? [He is referring to IKAR in Los Angeles, led by Rabbi Sharon Brous.]  Would that be one of them? 

JJ: [Laughs] Yes, maybe. What are your thoughts on that phenomenon? 

RJ: I think people are hungry for something that is meaningful, and I don’t think they’re hung up on what the name is. It can have the name Chabad, it can have the name “unaffiliated.” It can be a congregation that is just a startup. But if what is going on there is engaging, I think that’s what matters most. Certainly the younger people — their parents, when they join, it’s, “What’s the quality of the place?”

You’ll have people who are joining Reform congregations where they love the vitality, they love the learning, they love the openness, and some people are joining Reconstructionist or some traditional synagogues — it’s more the substance than the name or the brand, which I don’t think is a bad thing. I think it means that people are discerning … 

In Judaism, people are asking, “Would I want to be in a long-term relationship with that community?” Potentially it’s liberating, and at the same time, I think it challenges everyone to be real clear about what is their unique value.

 JJ: What kind of financial standing is URJ on at the moment? I know there are synagogues that can’t pay their dues to the URJ because they can’t afford it and are opting out of the movement. What does that mean for the URJ’s future? 

RJ: First of all, we don’t have very many synagogues that are opting out. Our job is to take care of congregations when they are doing well and when they are not doing well. So if a congregation is really struggling heavily, that’s like an individual at a congregation who comes to you and says, “Rabbi, I just lost my job. I’m having a really hard time. So we’re not going to be members this year.” The rabbi would say, “Now is when you really need to be part of our congregation.”

So we’re seeing many congregations are struggling, and we’re helping them and working with them to figure out what they need to be strengthened. And sometimes it’s financial, sometimes it’s actually to help them really address some of the changes that have not been addressed. We’re certainly seeing a mix of congregations who are in great financial health, others that are more challenged. But we see ourselves as being partners with congregations, bringing them new ways of practicing synagogue life and helping them through the difficult time so we can be part of something larger than even a great congregation in a local community. … 

I think sometimes movements have been very parochial in their own needs, as opposed to seeing the world through the eyes of congregations. So, we see ourselves as partners with those organizations, but there have been hardly any congregations that have left the URJ. 

JJ: What kind of presence does URJ have, in terms of staff and office space, in Los Angeles nowadays? 

RJ: We have a number of really key leaders here from URJ, including Rabbi Janet Offel [rabbinic director for the URJ congregational network on the West Coast] and Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, the co-director of our Just Congregations project [the URJ community-organizing arm], which includes over 160 of our congregations in North America. 

We have office space at the Hebrew Union College downtown, which is also a great model. Because you have Hebrew Union College, which is a great academic institution, and URJ not just sharing space but really thinking about the opportunities. 

And we have staff members who work with our [educational course] “Intro to Judaism.” … We have a web of people who are here. 

 JJ: Going back to the High Holy Days, there are plenty who have mixed feelings about their synagogue. What do you say to the congregant who wants to have a great High Holy Days experience but is ambivalent about his or her shul? 

RJ: A lot of times, it’s not really the rabbi who can automatically create by him- or herself a dynamic engaged community, and sometimes it’s the community that actually needs to be changed.

Sometimes, I hear from my colleagues that they would love to do different things, but they have a leadership that says, “You can’t,” and, “This is what we’ve done. This is what we always do.” So, I don’t think it’s just about going into the mall of Jewish life and running over to Nordstrom and then leaving and going to Macy’s. 

I also think it calls upon congregations to not take their memberships for granted. They will not come for two years or 10 years or 20 years unless there is something there that’s really [keeping them engaged]. 

JJ: So it’s up to the community as much as it up to the rabbi to make the synagogue a place worthwhile? 

RJ: I think we need to tap the talent and the vision of a community as well as the rabbi bringing his own.

High Holy Days: Seminar offers a day of learning for SoCal rabbis

“Are we in a post-denominational world?” the rabbi asked. “That’s above my pay grade.”

But the speaker, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said one thing is for sure during his keynote address at the annual seminar held by the transdenominational Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

“The brand loyalty is not what connects people to life or disconnects people from Jewish life,” he said. “People want the real embers of our tradition.”

Jacobs shared his thoughts with more than 150 rabbis and rabbinical students of all denominations who convened for a day of learning and networking at the pre-High Holy Days conference. The event took place Aug. 13 at Stephen S. Wise Temple.

Stressing the need for unity within the Jewish community during his keynote, “Leading Change at the Crossroads of Jewish Life,” Jacobs’ appearance was a highlight of an event that has become a rare opportunity for rabbis of different denominations to mix and mingle and learn from their peers.

One session, “Gun Violence Prevention: A Public Health Approach,” featured a panel with Rabbi Aaron Alexander, associate dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University; Loren Lieb, a Los Angeles County Department of Public Health worker; and UCLA School of Law student Charles Sarosy exploring the issue of gun violence through religious, public health and legal lenses.

[Related: Q&A with Rabbi Rick Jacobs]

During the 55-minute session that was moderated by Rabbi Jonathan Hanish, of Reform synagogue Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, Alexander said it is important for rabbis, in their High Holy Days sermons, to acknowledge recent mass shootings at places like Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. 

“I honestly don’t think we can go through a High Holy Days season [without addressing gun violence],” he said. “There’s a way to do it without congregants feeling we’re being too political.” 

Other sessions at the event included “Non-Kosher Meat, Self-Esteem and Yom Kippur,” “Texts From Tradition — Preparing Ourselves to Lead Our People in Prayer” and “The Purpose and History of Childhood in Judaism.” They were led by Rabbi Jason Weiner of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and Rabbi Zoë Klein of Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles, respectively.

Additional speakers over the course of the day included David Siegel, consul general of Israel in Los Angeles, and Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. David Suissa and Rob Eshman, the Journal’s president and editor-in-chief/publisher, respectively, presented on GeneTestNow.com, a local initiative for universal Jewish genetic screening.

Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard, president of the Board of Rabbis and spiritual leader at Conservative shul Adat Ari El in Valley Village, gave closing remarks. 

A number of attendees expressed excitement about the opportunity to get out and learn from their peers. 

“It’s all the rabbis from different traditions and streams of life coming together studying, arguing, sometimes challenging each other, and hopefully sparking ideas for sermons and messages that seem meaningful for the High Holy Days,” Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, senior rabbi at Reconstructionist synagogue Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, told the Journal.

Despite the wide variety of topics available, one was noticeably absent from this year’s event: sermon writing. It’s no easy task at any time, let alone during the High Holy Days. That’s why, for the past two years, the conference has provided the opportunity for clergy to sit down with pros — Hollywood screenwriters — and workshop their sermons. 

This year, however, it was too “time consuming” to put together the session, known as “Punching Up Your Holiday Sermons,” and so it was left out of the agenda, said Jonathan Freund, interim executive director of the Board of Rabbis and conference organizer. But the Board of Rabbis is “interested in bringing it back” at some point,  he said. 

While praising the diversity of rabbis that the conference draws every year from its 300 members, Freund acknowledged that more Reform rabbis attended than from any other denomination. This reflects the makeup of the organization’s membership, which could include more clergy from other denominations, particularly Orthodox, he said.  

“We have a mix of gender balance, as best we can, and also denominational balance and subject or content balance [at the conference]. We’re not always perfect on all of those, but we do our best to really show the pluralistic range of the Board of Rabbis,” Freund said.

Even without getting to hang out with Hollywood writers, there was still plenty for people like Gregory Metzger, a rabbinical student at the Academy of Jewish Religion, California, to enjoy.

 “I come to the conference every year to meet amazing people and to learn beautiful things,” he said.

Oklahoma tornado: How you can help

Jewish groups are joining the effort to help those displaced by the tornado in suburban Oklahoma City.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, announced Tuesday that his organization will collect donations and distribute them to the American Red Cross and others on the ground in Oklahoma.

“We are numb with grief, and yet inspired by the heroic resilience of the people of Oklahoma,” Jacobs said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those impacted by this horrific tragedy.

“As other needs arise, perhaps including volunteers to assist with the clean-up and rebuilding, we stand ready to help in any way possible.”

The Jewish Federations of North America also has started a fund to aid the relief effort of the Jewish Federation of Greater Oklahoma City.

[Know of other Jewish relief efforts? Please comment below with information]

“Our hearts go out to all those who were in the path of this disaster and who are grieving the loss of their loved ones,” said Michael Siegal, chair of the JFNA Board of Trustees. “This was a terrible tragedy. The destruction of an elementary school filled with students and teachers was especially painful.”

B’nai B’rith International has opened its Flood, Tornado and Hurricane Disaster Relief Fund.

Meanwhile, the Chabad Community Center of Southern Oklahoma has opened its building as a shelter and is collecting supplies for those displaced by the tornado that hit Moore.

Jewish conversion 101

Conversion to Judaism is not easy. It requires a change in beliefs, actions and lifestyle. It involves extensive study, practice, a leap of faith, a shift in perception and some sacrifice. However, for those who feel it’s the right decision, it can be an exciting and rewarding experience. 

Before stepping into the mikveh — the ritual of immersion in water that is the culmination of the conversion process — prospective converts to Judaism must choose a movement, which will determine what kind of observance they want to follow and how they want to live their life as a Jew. 

“It’s cliché, but it’s true that converts make the very best Jews, because they are people that have chosen to be Jewish,” said Rabbi Adam Greenwald, executive director of the Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU). “It wasn’t an accident of birth.”

Most prospective Jews by Choice go through a Reform, Conservative or Orthodox conversion, and the rules vary for each. Anyone considering conversion must find a sponsoring rabbi as the first step, then participate in a period of study, which might mean organized classes or individual study with a rabbi or tutor. Who guides the convert will determine which beit din — a rabbinical court consisting of three rabbis — is the best one to complete the conversion. 

AJU offers an 18-week course for those considering conversion — as well as anyone wanting to learn more about the faith — that takes place at venues throughout Los Angeles. Students at AJU’s program learn about Jewish values, traditions and history, including Conservative traditions and observance. The Reconstructionist and Reform movements also approve these classes.

In addition to the classes, a Holocaust survivor speaks to the students. All candidates learn to read prayers in Hebrew and participate in a Shabbaton and in a scavenger hunt at Whole Foods for kosher products. Since the program got its start in 1986, more than 4,000 participants have converted to Judaism, Greenwald said. 

Although Greenwald does not himself give approval for prospective converts to go before the beit din, he said he meets with all of his students and helps them to connect with a sponsoring rabbi: “It’s a great challenge to give a person the tools and information that they need in only a few months to be able to feel genuinely a part of the Jewish community,” he said. 

“It’s cliché, but it’s true that converts make the very best Jews, because they are people that have chosen to be Jewish.” — Rabbi Adam Greenwald, executive director of the Louis and Judith Miller, Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU)

Rabbi Neal Weinberg, the former director of the AJU program, has led Judaism by Choice, another educational offering for those wishing to convert, since 2009. Weinberg’s classes include about 300 students each year and cover Jewish history, holidays, rituals, Zionism and the Torah. Classes, which instruct students for a Conservative conversion (see sidebar for more on Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program), are offered either once or twice per week, for an average of three months. 

Since most students have busy lives, Weinberg acknowledged, he said he tries to make his classes entertaining. He demonstrates a brit milah (ritual circumcision) using a Cabbage Patch doll, holds a mock wedding with a chuppah (wedding canopy) and goes over the prayers. His classes are offered at synagogues in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Venice and the San Fernando Valley. “Anybody can take the program,” said Miri Weinberg, the rabbi’s wife, who helps run Judaism by Choice. “We don’t turn anyone away.”

The Weinbergs’ program includes Shabbat dinners and holiday-themed events for both current students and program graduates. He said that he expects students wishing to convert to attend synagogue consistently and keep a level of kosher. “I think there has to be a certain behavior,” Neal said. “I’d rather I be the one [teaching them] than having them go through the beit din and not passing. That could be painful. I’m a coach that prepares people for it.”

Most of the time, the participants in the Judaism by Choice classes undergo either a Conservative conversion or go before the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, a pluralistic beit din that is endorsed by Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis. 

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) also offers an 18-week Introduction to Judaism course for prospective converts. This class, too, covers lifecycle events, history, holidays, prayer, Israel and theology. Many of the URJ’s candidates end up going through the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, as well.

Rabbi Sabine Meyer, director of the URJ’s conversion program, said about 15 classes per year are offered throughout Los Angeles, all of them both rigorous and comprehensive. “Reform conversion is not conversion light. We do not convert people to Reform Judaism. We convert them to Judaism,” she said.

URJ has offered its introduction class for more than three decades, and Meyer has seen classes where up to 80 percent of the people have continued on to convert, but she emphasized that the class is not meant just for prospective Jews by Choice. “It’s for anybody who is interested in learning more about Judaism and the important tools that they need [to practice], if that’s what they want to do.”

Candidates for conversion in Los Angeles who would like to connect to a more traditional lifestyle can also prepare to go before an Orthodox beit din. The requirements for an Orthodox conversion typically require that the candidate observe kosher laws both inside and outside of the home, live within an Orthodox community, observe the Sabbath and study with a tutor. 

Rabbi Avrohom Union, the rabbinic administrator of the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), which features an Orthodox beit din, said candidates must be sincere and “want to be part of the [Orthodox] community and adopt that lifestyle. We look to see that people approach this with a certain maturity and a solid [reason as to] why they want to do this.”

Applicants accepted to the RCC’s program are assigned a private tutor, and a candidate should expect to spend 18 to 24 months studying and participating fully in Jewish life before the process of conversion is complete, Union said. The most important aspect of the conversion, he said, is establishing oneself in a community. “Orthodox Jewish life tends to revolve around Shabbat. We want people working with us to be a part of that community. We don’t want them to feel different from someone who was born Jewish.”

Since entering into an Orthodox lifestyle can be a huge change for most candidates, Union said that he and the rabbis on his beit din “want people to get personal attention. For someone to make a transition from gentile to Orthodox Jew is a significant transition, and it’s not like a university course, where you simply learn the material, take the test and pass. It’s a process of personal growth.”

Any candidate who chooses to convert — whether through an Orthodox, Reform or Conservative program — should know their goals and understand the process as they enter into it. They also need to realize that being immersed in the mikveh is not the culmination of the learning — it’s just the beginning. 

“Becoming a Jew is not an event,” Miri Weinberg said. “It’s a process.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs installed as URJ president

Rabbi Rick Jacobs in his formal installation as president of the Union for Reform Judaism called on the movement to “chart a new course.”

Saturday’s installation took place at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Jacobs, 56, in his prepared remarks also urged the movement to “create a robust presence in digital media, on campus, across town and around the world, so that all who are hungry for inspiring spirituality, passionate prayer, probing study and social justice can find their way to us.”

He noted two things he shares with President Abraham Lincoln: “He dedicated himself to the preservation of the Union, and I have dedicated myself to the preservation of the Union. And we are both inclined to invoke Scripture on occasions such as this.”

In addition, Jacobs said that like Lincoln, he stands 6 feet, 4 inches. “He’s still on record as the tallest president in U.S. history,” the rabbi said, and “I’m the tallest president in URJ history.”

Jacobs, the rabbi emeritus at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., was elected in June 2011 to succeed Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who held the position since 1996 and whose term officially ends June 30.

The service included an intergenerational Torah procession of former chairs of the URJ board of trustees accompanied by teen members of the North American Federation of Temple Youth. It featured performances by the Greater Centennial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Mass Choir of Mount Vernon, N.Y., neighbors of Westchester Reform Temple, and musicians Josh Nelson and Michelle Citrin.

Union for Reform Judaism fires 30 employees

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) laid off about 30 employees as part of a general restructuring of the organization.

The reorganization is part of a series of changes being ushered in by the new president of the URJ, Rabbi Richard Jacobs, who took over at the beginning of January. The layoffs were announced March 26.

“We’re trying to organize in a way that’s going to allow us to move forward and advance Rabbi Jacobs’ priorities and relate to congregations in more ways than we’ve been able to in the past,” said Mark Pelavin, a senior adviser to Jacobs. “What’s different is we’re focusing on Rabbi Jacobs’ priorities: youth engagement, this notion of working outside the walls of the congregation, and trying to find multiple ways of relating to congregations.”

The URJ’s overall budget will stay about the same, but many full-time employees will be replaced by part-time employees and outside consultants, Pelavin said. The net change in full-time equivalent employees will be a drop of about seven or eight positions, according to Pelavin. Overall, the URJ has approximately 370 employees, mostly in New York.

Among the changes planned are refocusing staff who work outside New York on convening congregations and helping them build relationships with each other; building a “URJ knowledge network” that will collect and organize information in the URJ system; building up a “faculty of thought leaders,” including “congregational consultants,” who will serve as resources for Reform shuls; and establishing “communities of practice” in which the URJ will work closely with congregations focused on specific areas such as the youth initiative campaign.

Cantor, Ehud Barak to address Reform biennial

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will address the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial.

The URJ announced plans for Cantor (R-Va.), the highest-ranking Jewish member of Congress in history, and Barak, a former prime minister, on Tuesday.

President Obama already is slated to speak during the biennial taking place Dec. 14-18 in the Washington suburbs.

An extremist coup at the Union for Reform Judaism

The nomination of Rabbi Richard Jacobs to head the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) is the latest coup for J Street. Less than three years after its founding,  a member of J Street’s Rabbinic Cabinet is being appointed to head the largest branch of American Judaism. With the nominee to head the Reform movement proudly declaring, ” I support the goals and visions of J Street,” it will be impossible for mainstream American Jewry to continue to marginalize J Street and its profoundly anti-Israel positions. The appointment of Rabbi Jacobs threatens to drive the remaining Zionist Jews out of the Reform movement and to create an unbridgeable schism with the rest of American Jewry.

In choosing Rabbi Jacobs, the URJ was strangely silent about his activities vis-a-vis Israel. It was as if Israel did not matter. The URJ announcement focused on Rabbi Jacob’s creativity, on his skills as a congregational rabbi and on his leadership in calling for changes in the administration of the URJ itself.

Even Rabbi Jacobs omitted from his resume that he is a member of the Rabbinic Cabinet of J Street and that he signed a J Street letter for the 2010 High Holy Days which concluded: ” …we encourage others to join us in backing J Street and its efforts to achieve peace and security for the state of Israel and her neighbors.” J street’s efforts include opposing stronger sanctions against Iran, supporting Richard Goldstone’s defamatory Gaza report (now repudiated by Goldstone himself), and opposing the US veto of the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel, to name just a few of its efforts to disparage and delegitimize Israel. To show just how far Rabbi Jacobs’ appointment moves Reform Judaism from its traditional support of Israel, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the current president of the URJ and its president for the past 16 years, called J Street’s position on the Gaza offensive “morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naive.”

Rabbi Jacobs aggressively embraces J Street’s push for a two state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. His ideas on this are expressed in his hostility towards the “settlers”, the people who in a different age were called Halutzim.  Rabbi Jacobs took part last summer in one of the weekly Friday demonstrations in Jerusalem orchestrated by the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement,  a group which describes its own actions as victories against the ‘‘cowardly Zionists’ perpetrating an ‘apartheid state’ and ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem.’ ” Rabbi Jacobs, of course, does not subscribe to their hateful venom, so why did he participate in the demonstration? He told New York newspaper, The Jewish Week,” I take issue with residents of east Jerusalem [being] taken out of their homes to make room for Jewish settlers.”  He said that he disagreed with 99% of what the Sheikh Jarrah movement stood for, but he was willing to stand there with demonstrators screaming at a Jewish family preparing for the Sabbath. Was Rabbi Jacobs aware that the Israeli Supreme court had issued an eviction notice for these ‘residents of east Jerusalem’ because they refused to pay rent to their Sephardic Jewish landlord who has owned the property since the 1920’s? What was the 1% he agreed with that was so important that it overroad his judgment on the other 99%?

Rabbi Jacobs says he does not support the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, but thinks that selective BDS campaigns against the settlements are different. Here again, his thinking is a profound change from the current Reform movement’s position, articulated by the URJ’s current president, Eric Yoffie, who in criticizing the boycott of Ariel, which is over the Green line, said, “But, please, no boycotts. Israel’s enemies don’t need any help.” ARZA, the Zionist arm of the Reform movement, has started a campaign to educate Reform Jews about the BDS movement’s attempt to delegitimize and brand Israel an apartheid state. Will Rabbi Jacobs be able to support ARZA’s program or will he portray the Jewish state as divided between good Jews and bad Jews,  with the latter depicted as obstacles to peace and, therefore, as appropriate targets for castigation and exclusion.

This past Yom Kippur, Rabbi Jacobs gave a sermon called “Standing together for Israel” in which he calls J Street “pro-Israel, pro-peace” and quotes approvingly Peter Beinart’s critique that young people don’t support Israel because it is becoming theocratic and antidemocratic and does not see Arabs as human beings. Should a man who believes these things really be given the responsibility to lead a major branch of American Jewry? Is this just another example of the elite Jewish leadership being profoundly out of touch with the feelings of the its mainstream constituency.

The Reform movement has always leaned toward the political Left, but Rabbi Jacobs’ appointment has the potential to drive Zionist Jews out of the Reform movement and to create a schism with mainstream Jewry, much as J street has set itself in opposition to AIPAC, the Jewish organization long recognized by all religious branches of the Jewish community as representing their pro-Israel views to the Congress.  Has Reform Judaism reverted to the anti-Zionist stance it held in the first half of the twentieth century, or have the extremists at J Street staged a coup? In either case, where are the rank and file members who understand Israel’s fight for survival and its extraordinary efforts to achieve peace to speak out against such a disastrous course?

Survey says Reform rabbis don’t know what members want

Leaders of Reform synagogues don’t quite get their members, according to a new study by the movement.

The study shows a marked disconnect between what the leaders think their members are looking for and what the members say they actually want.

In general, the synagogue leaders seem to underestimate their members’ interest in Jewish practice and worship. And they overestimate the synagogue’s importance in the religious lives of their families.

The two-year study, to be released at the Reform movement’s upcoming biennial, suggests that synagogue leaders better focus more on building warm, welcoming communities if they want to have and hold their members.

Questions addressed by the study — Why do people join Reform congregations? Why do they leave? And what can synagogues do to make themselves into warm, welcoming communities? — will be a major focus of the 69th biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) set for Dec. 12-16 in San Diego.

A week ahead of the conference, 3,200 people had registered for what generally proves to be the largest national gathering of any Jewish stream. That includes a higher number of international delegates than usual, according to conference organizers, as well as a strong showing of high school and college students.

In addition to unveiling the survey on membership, highlights of the five-day biennial will include:

  • URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s announcement of a movement-wide initiative to increase the personal observance of Shabbat by Reform Jews;
  • The first large-scale use of Mishkan Tefilla, the movement’s long awaited new prayer book that has begun arriving in synagogues this past month. Copies will be given to every participant and it will be used at worship services during the biennial;
  • Release of three new URJ Press publications — “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary” and two books on men’s programming — as part of an exploration of gender differences kicked off by a two-day pre-conference symposium;
  • A closing-day plenary address by Ingrid Mattson, the president of the Islamic Society of North America — the same group Yoffie addressed over the summer.
    Of the many topics to be addressed at the biennial, the most popular are turning out to be those sessions on outreach and membership.

Conference organizers report that hundreds have signed up for workshops on those issues, as well as intermarriage and conversion — more than for any other topic, and significantly more than those who enrolled for workshops on those issues in previous years.

Movement leaders attribute the spike in interest to a generally positive response to Yoffie’s 2005 biennial initiative. In his Shabbat morning sermon that year, he urged Reform congregations to honor their non-Jewish members, to invite those non-Jewish members to convert and to focus on how to remake their congregations so members stay throughout their lifetime rather than quitting after their children become b’nai mitzvah.

Those initiatives “clearly resonated” among Reform Jews, said Kathy Kahn, the union’s director of outreach and membership.

Now the Reform movement has some data with which to frame its outreach and membership discussions.

The new membership study involved two years of phone interviews, online surveys, case studies and undercover visits by “mystery shoppers” to Reform services in four cities — Cleveland, Seattle, Springfield, Mass. and Boca Raton, Fla.

Results showed that current and former members of Reform synagogues mostly join for reasons of community, not for “services” provided.

“Congregations that work go out of their way to integrate new members, inviting them to Shabbat dinner rather than just putting them on committees,” said Emily Grotta, URJ’s communications director, who conducted many of the study’s phone interviews.

Grotta points to one Cleveland congregation that created small chavurot, or prayer fellowships, of members with similar interests, and successfully built a sense of community that permeated the larger congregation.

“You could hear it in people’s voices, the difference,” she said.

The survey found that synagogue leaders misunderstood members’ interest in spirituality and worship.

It included interviews with 910 former members of Reform congregations to find out why they joined and why they eventually left.

Whereas 50 percent said they joined because they wanted a place to worship, synagogue leaders thought worship was important to just 5 percent of those former members.

Synagogue leaders also overestimated the importance of their institutions in the religious lives of their members.

Fifty-eight percent of former members said they “were able to be Jewish without a congregation,” a factor that didn’t show up on the leadership’s radar. Also, 18 percent said they filled their Jewish needs “elsewhere,” again a factor the leadership failed to recognize.

That should serve “as a wake-up call to all the denominations,” Grotta said.

Interest in worship and spirituality is pronounced among newer as well as former members of Reform congregations, she said.

“What jumped out at us was the number of new people who join for worship, for spirituality, to learn how to become better Jews,” Grotta said. “The leaders didn’t get that at all.”

Money is also important, or rather the perceived value of what members get for their dues: 40 percent of former members of Reform congregations said they withdrew because membership was too expensive. Just 9 percent of the leadership thought cost was an issue.

Overall, the study shows that Reform Jews remain synagogue members if their congregation becomes their community, the place where their friends and family are.

Thirty-five percent of those who left Reform congregations said they “didn’t find community” at the synagogue, and 33 percent said it was because their “children didn’t connect” after they became b’nai mitzvah.

“If we don’t build a sense of community,” movement leaders warn in the study’s conclusion, then members of Reform congregations “will leave when they have received the services they want.”

I am ashamed of the URJ’s Iraq resolution

I don’t embarrass easily. But the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) recent resolution calling for an “expeditious withdrawal of United States troops from Iraq” did the trick.

Personally, I would have preferred the URJ to stay out of the Iraq debate, beyond urging each and every Jew to become well educated about the war and to use his or her vote wisely. Anything more is a crapshoot.

The situation in Iraq is so complex that the margin for error in implementing the URJ resolution is huge. The URJ Executive Committee is made up of business people, lawyers, housewives, rabbis and bureaucrats. Why not leave U.S. Foreign policy to people who actually know something about it?

According to the leading Israeli paper Haaretz, “Last Thursday Israeli Prime Minister Olmert urged a visiting delegation of leaders of the Reform Movement to reconsider their resolution. He reiterated his argument that a hasty withdrawal could endanger Israel’s security as well as efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program.”

Olmert further argued, “Given the present state of affairs in Iraq, if America were to leave now, it would lose its authority throughout the Middle East.”

A few days before, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said, “In a region where impressions are important, countries must be careful not to demonstrate weakness and surrender to extremists … it is [also] true for Iraq.”

Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who met in Washington this past week with U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates “expressed a similar view.” Guess what? “The Reform leaders refused Olmert’s request to reconsider the resolution, saying they believe a rapid withdrawal would serve Israeli and Western interests better.”

Why am I ashamed? Because the leadership of the URJ believes it knows what is in Israel’s best interest and that Israel’s defense minister, foreign minister and prime minister don’t.

Let’s assume I am wrong and the URJ ought to speak out against the war. I have it on good authority that this very point was made by an old-time political activist at the URJ Executive Committee meeting where the resolution was passed.

He reminisced about the good old days, longing for the courage of civil rights movement and Vietnam-era liberal politics, and urged the Executive Committee not to fear alienating the movement’s membership by, as he was later quoted in the press, “Stepping up to the plate on the tough issues.”

Maybe he’s right. But if you’re going to step up to the plate you ought to be sure you’re batting for the right team.

In 2002, the URJ Executive Committee determined the effort to remove Saddam Hussein by force met “just cause” criteria. Saddam was brutal. Saddam gassed his people. Saddam paid people to murder Jews. Saddam had to go.

There is no doubt that the United States has made many mistakes prosecuting the war. But the fact is that the URJ agreed with going in; now we are there, we are in deep and we ought to be responsible for correcting as many of those mistakes as possible. Even a 5-year-old knows that when you make a mess the right thing to do is clean it up. You don’t just get to walk out of the room and pretend it didn’t happen.

If we walk away from the mess we helped create in Iraq the likely result of that “expeditious” withdrawal will be the massacre of the Sunni minority by the Shiite majority. Despite their public protestations, Arab leaders in the region are privately begging the president to reject the Baker/Hamilton Report and to keep our troops in Iraq in order to prevent this bloodbath. If the URJ resolution influences U.S. policy, if we withdraw and tens or hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs are massacred, what moral high ground will our movement have claimed?

In 2004, the URJ passed a resolution calling for troops to be sent to Darfur to stop a massacre. Last week they passed a resolution calling for the removal of troops from Iraq, which will cause a massacre.

Why am I ashamed? Because apparently, to the leadership of the URJ, Sunni Arab lives are less precious than those in Darfur. God chastised Jonah for not caring about the pending destruction of the non-Jewish residents of Nineveh. The URJ Executive Board needs to hear the same chastisements now.

In the background material provided with its resolution on Iraq the URJ points to one poll indicating 77 percent of American Jews believe sending troops into Iraq was a mistake.

The material also claims the recent elections were a clear sign that Americans want U.S. troops out now. I am in the minority. Most American Reform Jews probably do want out now.

But what if leaving now means even greater bloodshed for the innocent people of Iraq?

Is the URJ willing to risk alienating the many in our movement in order to step up to the plate and do what’s right?

I am ashamed to say the answer is no.

Where are the other Jewish anti-war voices?

On March 12, by action of its Executive Committee, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) became the first national Jewish organization to take more than a tongue-clucking position
on the Iraq war.

It did what the United States Senate has been unable to do: It voted overwhelmingly to oppose President Bush’s “surge” of new troops and it called on the president to set and announce a specific timetable for the phased withdrawal of troops. Alas, the URJ decision is very much nonbinding.

What’s surprising, bordering on astonishing, is that the URJ is the only major national Jewish organization to have spoken out so decisively on this misbegotten and misconducted war. I say “astonishing” because the American Jewish public, which is represented by a broad array of organizations, has very clear views on the war. At the end of February, just weeks ago, the Gallup organization conducted a poll of more than 12,000 Americans. Overall, it found that 52 percent of Americans think the war a mistake, while 46 percent do not.

When the numbers are broken down, we find that white Protestants favor the war (that is, do not think it was a mistake to have launched it) by 55 percent to 42 percent; black Protestants differ sharply, splitting 78 percent to 18 percent against the war. Catholics divide 53 percent to 46 percent against, while Mormons are 72 percent to 17 percent in favor.

But ah, the Jews: 77 percent of us call the war a mistake; 21 percent of us do not. And the data strongly suggest that it’s not just Jewish liberalism or the Jewish preference for the Democratic Party that prompts the response. The fact is that 65 percent of Jewish non-Democrats oppose the war (as compared to 38 percent of non-Democrats of other faiths). As to Jewish Democrats, they break 89 percent to 11 percent, compared to 78 percent to 22 percent for non-Jewish Democrats.

It was a strange week for Jews to express themselves quite so decisively. It was, after all, the same week in which Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking at the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), said, “My friends, it is simply not consistent for anyone to demand aggressive action against the menace posed by the Iranian regime while at the same time acquiescing in a retreat from Iraq that would leave our worst enemies dramatically emboldened, and Israel’s best friend, the United States, dangerously weakened.”

Though the message was delivered, all reports indicate that it was received with considerably less than the enthusiasm Cheney is accustomed to when he addresses AIPAC. Perhaps what the AIPAC people now know is that it is exactly because of the wicked policies of President Bush and Vice President Cheney that America has already been dangerously weakened.

Not to be outdone, Prime Minister Olmert also weighed in on the subject last week. He, too, addressed AIPAC, albeit via a video link from Jerusalem: “Those who are concerned for Israel’s security, for the security of the Gulf States and for the stability of the entire Middle East should recognize the need for American success in Iraq and responsible exit.”

No serious person can take pleasure from the very sour pickle in which the United States now finds itself. Never mind that Bush et al. have mixed the brine themselves; their comeuppance is hardly adequate compensation, not for the dead, not for the wounded, not for the chaos, not for the cost to America’s treasury and America’s dignity. All that’s left these days are bad choices. Very bad choices. Among those bad choices, President Bush has, predictably, seen fit to pick the very worst — a creeping open-ended escalation (first 21,500 more, now another 8,400) that resolves nothing. Among all the bad choices, the major American Jewish organizations, save only the URJ, take a pass.

One can — I would — quibble with the final form of the URJ resolution. But I have only praise for the wonderfully open and thoughtful way it was reached — not in cantankerous sloganeering but through a process of encouraging congregational debate and discussion and soliciting responses and suggestions from every member congregation of the Reform movement.

Questions of war and peace are properly the provenance of religious institutions. In the case at hand, because Israel’s security is so directly at stake, America’s Iraq policy would seem to be of immediate interest to all the single-issue pro-Israel organizations in the Jewish firmament, as also to all those — American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Jewish Council for Public Affairs and others — that so often opine on matters of less immediate Jewish relevance as well.

What can account for the organizational timidity? Some organizational leaders likely support the war; roughly 10 percent of Jews are of the Republican pro-war persuasion and we may surmise that these, typically wealthier, are disproportionately represented in the ranks of Jewish leadership. In the case at hand, however, they are leaders without followers; the two are on different paths, leaders to the right, followers to the left. But more prevalently, I believe, and more poignantly, many “leaders” are curled up in a little ball in the corner, seeking to hide from the headache of taking a stand.

Tomorrow, many of them will once again fret out loud about Jewish continuity, about their own failure to attract young Jews to their ranks. Might it, this time around, occur to them that it is they who have opted for the irrelevance to which growing numbers of Jews consign them?

Tomorrow, they will again flood their fundraising appeals with talk of the imminent threat from Iran; now more than ever, and all that.

But what of the war that is being waged today?

Silence: a feckless evasion of responsibility.

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

New commentary looks at Torah from woman’s point of view

How many people know that when the Torah describes Abraham mourning the death of Sarah, it’s the only time in the entire text that a man mourns a woman? Or that Adam and Eve were equal partners in crime? Or that women most likely were instrumental in constructing the Temple?

Too few. That’s why the Reform movement will soon publish a commentary on the Torah that gives the woman’s perspective.

“The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,” a project of Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ), the movement’s women’s division, is a collaboration of 80 biblical scholars, archaeologists, rabbis, cantors, theologians and poets from across the religious spectrum — all of them women who came together to present a new perspective on the Bible.

“The goal of this is to bring women’s voices to the forefront,” said Shelley Lindauer, WRJ’s executive director. “History has been written by men; men were the ones who wrote the history of the Torah, and women’s voices got pushed to the background. We want to hear more about what the matriarchs said, some more about the women characters in the Torah.”

The volume won’t be released until the WRJ Assembly and the Union of Reform Judiasm (URJ) Biennial conferences in San Diego in December 2007. However, the Reform movement will introduce a chapter from the book next month. During the week of Nov. 18, when Parshat Chayei Sarah is read, about 250 Reform congregations — approximately 5,000 people in all — will participate in a study program based on the “Women’s Commentary.”

WRJ and URJ Press, which is publishing the book, have released the chapter from the 1,500-page volume for congregations to use during Shabbat services or other study sessions, along with a list of suggested talking points, to give a taste of what the commentary will offer, said Rabbi Hara Person, URJ Press’ managing editor.

The commentary will be laid out differently than many others. Each chapter will offer an overview, followed by Hebrew text and a linear translation, along with a central commentary from one of the 80 contributors.

After the central commentary, another woman will give a short countercommentary, offering a different viewpoint on each chapter. Then another woman will give a post-biblical interpretation and another a contemporary reflection on the parshah or weekly portion. Each parshah also will be followed by a selection of creative writing, most often poetry, that reflects the themes that were just read.

More than traditional commentaries, the new volume will focus on women when they’re in the text of the Torah — and also when they’re glaringly absent, editor Tamara Cohn Eskenazi said.

For instance, Chayei Sarah deals with the death of Sarah and the courting of Rebecca. Abraham’s slave finds Rebecca at a well, where she offers him water, and he asks her family if he can take her back to Canaan to wed Abraham’s son.

The women’s commentary is careful to point out that Rebecca gives her consent. Rebecca is an active, not passive, character from her very introduction in the Torah, the commentary says.

Though he hasn’t seen excerpts of the book, the notion of a women’s commentary garnered praise from Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

“Commentators have traditionally been male, so I think the women’s voice and perspective certainly can help to add and interpret and bring the message of the Torah in a way that may be different than a male’s voice,” Epstein said.

But he was a little wary of an exclusively female commentary, just as he said he would be wary of an exclusively male commentary in this day and age.

“We need commentaries that speak to all people and that have male and female voices blended together,” he said.

Differences between the women’s commentary and traditional commentaries start at the very beginning, with the story of creation.

The creation of woman is one of the most misinterpreted passages in the Bible and is fraught with cultural bias, Eskenazi explains in her interpretation, which will be published in the “Women’s Commentary.”

While the description of Eve being created from Adam’s rib is commonly taken as a sign of Eve’s inferiority, it’s more a statement of their equality, she says. They’re described in Genesis 1:26-28 as being of the same flesh, both “created in God’s image and blessed with fertility and power.”

They later are described as partners. And when they sin by eating the apple, they do so together — yet it is Eve who often is perceived as the evildoer and the one who was the impetus for the expulsion from Eden.

An essay by Elizabeth Bloch-Smith in the volume discusses Parshat Trumah, which describes the building of the Mishkan, the portable temple the Jews built in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. Although the gender of the artisans who built the Mishkan isn’t clear, it’s often assumed that they were male.

But based on archaeological evidence from the time that shows women heavily involved in weaving and spinning, Bloch-Smith suggests it was women who provided the yarn for the temple’s Tent of Meeting, according to Rabbi Andrea Weiss, the commentary’s associate editor.

Weiss, an assistant professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, said she’s now teaching a class based on the “Women’s Commentary.”

The volume has been in the works for 13 years, since Sarah Sager, a cantor, challenged the movement to undertake the project in a speech to the WRJ assembly in 1993.

“We’re not trying to make this midrash. We’re not trying to make the text say something that it didn’t say,” Weiss said. “We’re trying to read it closely and to pay more attention to parts not found in other texts.”

Reform Body Rejects Science Distortion

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the largest body of religious Jews in the nation, has forcefully come out against the “politicization” of science at a time when the issue is boiling over in state legislatures, churches and classrooms.

The strong statement came as delegates to last month’s URJ biennial gathering in Houston voted on a handful of controversial resolutions. The media focused on two: a groundbreaking resolution on the Iraq War and another rejecting Judge Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

However, one of the most significant proposals got scant attention. In an overwhelming show of unity, delegates voted to oppose the misuse of science to serve religious or ideological ends.

And just in case anybody missed the point, the body unanimously adopted an amendment on the floor singling out one target: Kansas, the home of the “Wizard of Oz” and now, just as improbably, of a growing movement to redefine science to conform to the religious views of its conservative leaders.

Last month, the Kansas Board of Education approved new public school science guidelines intended to boost the intelligent design movement and discourage the teaching of evolution.

Science is once again at the heart of the intensifying church-state wars, and it’s not just evolution. More and more, religious right activists are distorting the notion of scientific inquiry as they pursue their social and political aims. And, as Kansas demonstrated, an increasingly sophisticated, well-financed and well-connected religious right is having an impact.

The results could be devastating, starting with a further loss of U.S. preeminence in science and technology, and filtering right down to deteriorating medical care — even for those ideological conservatives who self-righteously suggest modern science is a farce and a failure that only their religion-based answers can fix.

The fight over science is hardly new.

Since the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1925, which involved criminal charges against a teacher accused of violating Tennessee’s law against teaching evolution, religious conservatives have been trying to develop scientific rationales for their religious convictions.

Dinosaurs in museums, many still argue, are elaborate tricks of secularists to promote the view that the earth is billions of years old, not the thousands claimed by literal interpreters of scripture. Many go further than just asserting that religious doctrine.

Countering scientific dating evidence, they cite their own scientists who offer elaborate “proofs” that carbon-14 dating is a fraud. They say that their own “research” shows dinosaurs and humans appeared on earth at the same time, a mere 6,000 years ago.

The goal isn’t just to promote their faith by promulgating religious doctrine. They are trying to distort and discredit science, using scientists with academic credentials but driven by faith, not proof, to advance their views.

Part of their motivation is to find “scientific” explanations to reinforce their own faith. But in part, their goal is broader — to systematically break down barriers to teaching their specifically religious beliefs in the schools by cloaking them in scientific respectability.

That is the engine behind the intelligent design movement — the effort to infiltrate creationism into the schools under the guise of objective science. Increasingly, that effort is getting traction with an administration and a Congress that regard the fundamentalists as mishpachah (family), as well as key political allies.

Other examples abound.

A report by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) in 2003 concluded with this statement: “the Bush administration … has repeatedly suppressed, distorted, or obstructed science to suit political and ideological goals. These actions go far beyond the traditional influence that presidents are permitted to wield at federal agencies and compromise the integrity of scientific policymaking.”

That report cited a pattern of deliberate distortions of science to suit religious or ideological ends, including bogus or distorted research on sexual abstinence programs, environmental problems, HIV/AIDS, stem cell research and breast cancer.

The report also noted examples of government officials appointed to key health and science oversight positions because of their views on today’s culture war issues, not their professional qualifications.

The Reform movement resolution cited another study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, which found evidence of a “systematic effort to suppress and distort scientific findings in order to promote certain political ends.”

Even the highly respected Centers for Disease Control (CDC) altered medical recommendations based on religious pressure.

There are moral arguments from polar opposite perspectives to be made about issues such as abortion, abstinence, stem cell research and others. But to bend science to conform to moral and religious beliefs and make such distortions part of national policy is more than a church-state violation; it is a prescription for national decline in a world where so much — economic strength, environmental protection, the battle against disease — depends on a scientifically informed public and policymakers who can distinguish between science and faith.

That was the reality that the URJ acknowledged in Houston. In a short debate before the overwhelming vote in favor of the resolution, a noted scientist and a neurologist spoke angrily about the impact of the trend — including real harm that will be done to Americans if science is turned into just one more front in the nation’s culture wars.

Fighting public displays of the Ten Commandments may be important to preserve a constitutional principal. But protecting the integrity of science will be critical to the lives of millions of people.

Kansas may be just the first major battleground — and the URJ just the first Jewish group to speak out as the fight over science gains intensity.