Matisyahu Dovens at the Intersection in Grand Rapids

Matisyahu comes out on stage complete with the large black velvet kippah (thank God, not advertising Mashiah – he’s broken ties with Chabad), tzitzit hanging out, and peyot swinging.  The crowd – 1,500 or so, whatever the Intersection in downtown Grand Rapids holds – goes wild.  I can’t figure out why this group of Grand Rapidians is so excited.  He begins singing.  The first song is about a princess yearning to return to the King.  I wonder how many of his fans have any idea that he is talking about the soul yearning to be near God, and how many are just attracted by the energy, the volume, his voice.  He’s not just singing, something that the crowd intuitive knows, even though they might not be able to name what he is doing – dovening.  He’s praying.  He’s leading the crowd in prayer.  His body is swaying back and forth.  He continues with a song about the death of the body – created of earth, destined to return to the earth.

Later on, both the music and his dancing become more conventional, less like something you’d see in a synagogue.  But near the end of the evening, after a wild dance, sweat visibly dripping off his peyot, his kippah falls off.  He grabs a towel, and puts it over his head and shoulders, like a tallit.  We’re now back to the dovening.  His mood changes.  He hums a melody – “My help comes from Adonai, maker of heavens and earth.”  I may be one of a small handful in the room who understands the Hebrew words that go with that melody.

He begins dovening again, singing about Jerusalem, praying for the messianic era.  It is clear to me, in this context, that his prayer reflects not just a Jewish messianism, but the hope that his music will unite Jews, Christians, non-Theists, all those represented by the bodies in the room that evening, in worship of God together, creating a beautiful messianic moment.  May we see the day.

Irrational Hatred, Jew vs. Jew

Two nearly simultaneous events occurred in Israel on Monday, Rosh Hodesh Av, the beginning of the month during which we recall several national tragedy of destructions and exile, most notably the destruction of the Temple (twice) in Jerusalem. The first destruction was attributed by the Talmud to sinat hinam, irrational hatred within the Jewish community, Jew vs. Jew. First, a woman was arrested for carrying a Torah at the Kotel, the Western wall (for an article, click here; for a video, click here). Second, a bill that would formally give complete control over conversion to Judaism to the chief rabbinate in Israel was introduced and passed its first reading.

The executive director of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, my colleague Rabbi Steve Wernick, was in Israel when he along with his Masorti colleagues, learned that MK David Rotem was taking the bill to the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, hoping to have it approved before the end of the Knesset session, which is soon after Tisha B’Av. This was an upsetting surprise; Rabbi Wernick and his colleagues had been assured many times by many officials that no version of the bill would be brought forward at that time and in that way. Rabbi Wernick has done a great deal of lobbying, and has met with former Minister Sharansky (current chairman of the Jewish Agency) and other MKs. Members of the Kadimah party have been supportive, he tells us. There is something that we can do, and we have to do it NOW.

Please click on this link www.masorti.org/email/form-letter.html and fill out the form to send a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu. It is vitally important for all of us – Conservative/Masorti Jews, liberal Jews, and ultimately all Jews – that this bill, which will serve only to divide the Jewish world and subvert the Zionist ideal – not be allowed to pass.

For more information:

jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/are_you_jewish_enough_20100713/
washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/12/AR2010071203071.html
haaretz.com/jewish-world/american-jewish-leader-israel-is-trying-to-delegitimize-liberal-judaism-1.301537
jpost.com/Home/Article.aspx?id=181141
www.jpost.com/Israel/Article.aspx?id=181177
Here is a Jerusalem Post editorial strongly against the Rotem bill www.jpost.com/Opinion/Editorials/Article.aspx?id=181271

Update from Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, with President Peres’ Statement

Dear Colleagues,

I am writing to you all now towards the end of yet another day of very significant activity regarding the conversion bill. I’ll try to summarize the latest news here.

As you know, the bill passed its reading in the Law Committee yesterday. The next stage involves three readings in the Knesset plenum. A number of sources have indicated that the bill will not be presented before the Knesset breaks for the summer next Wednesday, but we are not relying on this. In fact, the media has reported that Prime Minister Netanyahu himself will stop the legislation from progressing before the recess, but there have been no public statements to that effect.

Unfortunately, over the last three days, neither Prime Minister Netanyahu nor the Likud Party have issued any statements regarding their position on this issue – but we hope they will do so. The Prime Minister has, in the past, expressed his view that the bill should not be passed in its present form, but he has refrained from commenting in the critical last three days.

I sent a personal and urgent letter to the Prime Minister two days ago. Similarly, our Chair, Kathy Manning, sent a letter to him today. The text of that letter can be found at the end of this update.

In addition, our Campaign Chairs and Directors (CC+D) Mission, currently in Israel, met today with Mark Regev, the Prime Minister’s media advisor. Responding to a question by National Campaign Chair Michael Lebovitz on the conversion issue, Regev stated: “The Prime Minister takes this very seriously. His closest confidante is Natan Sharansky. The Prime Minister will not allow anything to happen that will in any way inhibit the unity of the Jewish people. That’s all I can state publicly.”

I was supposed to return to the United States last night, but have now delayed that trip indefinitely, pending developments. Yesterday we met late in to the night discussing strategy, and we continue to be in constant touch with JAFI Chair Natan Sharansky and the representatives of the religious streams. The relationship and professionalism of working with the streams has truly been a privilege.

In addition, we have been speaking with influential Israeli personalities and politicians to continue to apply pressure. We appreciate the work of our Federation colleagues in North America and our rabbinic colleagues and major organization leaders in reaching influencers to hear their concerns. Similarly, we have given multiple media interviews in both Hebrew and English, including to the BBC, and continue to act wherever possible.

A short time ago, our Senior Vice President Rebecca Caspi and I had a personal, urgent meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres on this issue where we stressed the critical nature of the question to our communities. Following the meeting, Peres met with the entire CC+D Mission where he made the following statement:

“More than half of our people are living in the State of Israel. Almost half of it lives outside of Israel . We should remember that those living outside of Israel are not represented by the Knesset, they have their own communal life. A discussion that bares consequences on the entire Jewish people should include different voices – from within Israel and from without.

The legislative process should include an open public discussion that will lead to an understanding. It should be conducted with tolerance, with open hearts and open minds.

A split in the Jewish life will be catastrophic and totally unnecessary. We bear the responsibility for generations to come we should handle it with care while preserving unity.

In 1988 I could have formed a government under my leadership. The condition was my approval to revise the law of ‘Who is a Jew’. I immediately rejected this offer.

I noticed with appreciation the comments made by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who said that the legislative process will be postponed in order to conduct a serious and inclusive discussion. We have to find a proper solution to enable conversion in Israel but not at the cost of unity with the Jewish community abroad.”

JFNA is closely monitoring developments and we will keep you posted as the events occur.

Sincerely,

Jerry Silverman

Update from Natan Sharansky

Jerusalem, 2nd Av התש”ע
July 13, 2010

Dear Friends,

I am writing to bring you up to date on developments over the past 48 hours related to the conversion bill of MK David Rotem. As you may recall from my letter in March, the implications of this bill could be profound for Israel-Diaspora relations.

In a surprise move apparently calculated to enable quick, unopposed passage of his bill, MK David Rotem brought it before the Knesset Law, Constitution and Justice Committee on Monday morning.

After vociferous debate in which many MKs expressed deep-seated opposition to the bill, it nevertheless passed the committee by a vote of 5-4, rallying the support of MKs from Israel Beitenu and the haredi parties Shas and Agudat Yisrael. The bill is expected to go to the Knesset plenum for the three required readings in the coming weeks, though, we hope, not before the Knesset goes into recess in the middle of next week.

When I spoke at the Knesset Law Committee, I explained to the MKs that the passage of this bill would send a loud message to world Jewrythat they had been betrayed and that Israel was questioning the legitimacy of their Judaism. Jerry Silverman, President and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America attended the Knesset Law Committee and explained cogently the implications of this legislation both to Knesset members and the media.

Once the bill passed through the committee, our efforts turned toward thwarting the intention to move the bill forward through the Knesset plenum in the few remaining days before the Knesset goes into its summer recess. That very day I had an urgent meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as well as with Speaker Reuven Rivlin and cabinet ministers, in order to make sure that no additional surprises are in store for us in the days ahead.

In parallel, the Jewish Agency took to the airwaves and spoke to journalists about the urgent need to prevent a needless rift in the world Jewish community. I can assure you that the issue is becoming as important to Israelis as it is to Diaspora communities. In the past 48 hours, this issue has received a prominent place in the pages of Israel ‘s newspapers and in Hebrew-language radio and television broadcasts, nearly all of which carried our message of the importance of unity in these difficult days.

We continue to meet with key players in the political system, as well as to keep up our efforts in the media. We are committed to ensuring that the Diaspora’s position is heard clearly by all members of Knesset and ministers in the government so that they can fully understand the gravity of the consequences of this legislation.

We will continue to update you as this important issue moves forward.

Natan Sharansky

Letter to the Prime Minister

July 13, 2010

His Excellency Mr. Binyamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister of Israel
Jerusalem, Israel

Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

We are writing to you in what we believe are extraordinary circumstances. Indeed it is highly unusual for the entire Coordinating Council of The Jewish Federations of North America to jointly sign a letter, but we feel that this action reflects the depth of feeling and the gravity of the situation regarding the conversion bill currently before the Knesset.

We were certainly encouraged by your earlier statement on the matter and especially by your request to Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to lead efforts to find a formula that is acceptable to all parties.

But we were taken by surprise and deeply disappointed to hear that the bill was passed by the Law Committee before this process reached completion.

We are at a loss to understand how, with the entire Jewish world focused on that committee room, the three Likud members – who could have voted down the bill – were conspicuously absent.

We are of course pleased by what we understand is your position on this issue, but are concerned that neither you nor your party has made a public statement on the matter in the last few critical days.

We don’t need to tell you the depth of feeling and level of concern in our communities at this moment in time. We now await your leadership and action that will reflect your concern for the unity of the Jewish People to ensure that dialogue takes place and that appropriate language is found, acceptable to Jews across the world.

On behalf of The Jewish Federations of North America, we urge you to act decisively to stop this bill from proceeding any further and ensure that the proper discussions that you requested take place.

Sincerely,

Kathy E. Manning
Chair of the Board

Jerry Silverman President & CEO
Michael C. Gelman Chair, Executive Committee
Michael I. Lebovitz, National Campaign Chair
Heschel I. Raskas, Treasurer
Linda A. Hurwitz, Chair, National Women’s Philanthropy
Harvey J. Barnett, Secretary
Cheryl Fishbein, Chair, Domestic Affairs Committee
Marc Fisher, Chair, Consulting Committee
Lori Klinghoffer, President, National Women’s Philanthropy
Jerry Levin, Chair, Marketing Committee
Shepard Remis, Chair, Israel & Overseas Coordinating Council
Michele Sackheim Wein, Chair, Jewish Peoplehood & Identity/Chair, OTZMA
Steven Scheck, Co-Chair, National Young Leadership
Alice Viroslav, Co-Chair, National Young Leadership
Toni Young, Immediate Past Chair, Israel & Overseas Coordinating Council

cc: Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Executive, Jewish Agency for Israel
Rebecca Caspi, Senior Vice President, JFNA