A Good List To Be On: The NRA’s Blacklist

Do people still get blacklisted in America?  

The National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action has published a list of “organizations, corporations, publications, and celebrities that have lent monetary, grassroots or some other type of direct support to anti-gun organizations.” It features a lot of Jews and Jewish groups:

  • American Jewish Committee
  • American Jewish Congress
  • Jewish Labor Committee
  • National Council of Jewish Women
  • Union of American Hebrew Congregations
  • B’nai B’rith
  • Central Conference of American Rabbis
  • Hadassah
  • Rabbi Paul Menitaff
  • Rabbi David Saperstein
  • Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
  • Actor Ed Asner
  • Actor and Producer Mel Brooks
  • Actor Hal Linden
  • Actor Leonard Nimoy
  • Actor Jerry Seinfeld
  • Actor Henry Winkler
  • Mayor Ed Koch z’l

They have also blacklisted medical groups such as the Ambulatory Pediatric Association, the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, the National Association of Public Hospitals and the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as the League of Women Voters of the United States, and the National Association of Police Organizations.

Read the complete list. I think you will agree that this is the sort of “blacklist” any self-respecting organization would like to be on.

Human Rights Campaign First-Ever Index of LGBT Religious Inclusion


Jeremy Burton

Statistics show that most of us have some family members who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning where they fit in terms of gender. Loving and including our loved ones for all of who they are is what healthy families and communities do, IMHO. So it is good to learn that The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights organization, released today its first-ever index of inclusion within a faith-based community. “The Jewish Organization Equality Index (JOEI) provides benchmarks for gauging, and resources for improving, LGBT inclusivity policies and practices of North American Jewish communal organizations. The entire report is available at online.”


Rabbi David Saperstein


Joy Ladin

Initiated by the ever-progressive Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, together with The Morningstar Foundation, Stuart Kurlander and an anonymous donor, the report aims “to push the Jewish community to prioritize inclusion of LGBT employees, members and volunteers into communal organizations. Here are some excerpts from their press release:

Findings from the index include:

  1. 98% of participating membership-based organizations offer same-sex couples family memberships;
  2. 90% of participating organizations include inclusive terms in their publicity materials;
  3. 75% of participating organizations have not specifically recruited LGBT individuals to their lay leadership board in the past three years (often cited as a significant contributor to increased awareness about inclusive policies);
  4. 73% of responding organizations have a written non-discrimination policy;
  5. 66% of participating organizations actively reach out to the LGBT community to attract members or clients; and
  6. 33% of participating organizations with youth programming have a written anti-bullying policy.

Organizations that participated in the survey were from 26 states across the U.S, the District of Columbia and Canada, and represented a range of denominations, though no survey submissions were received from any Orthodox institutions. Jewish Community Centers, Jewish Federations and Hillels were among those with the highest rates of participation.

The report contains a number of resources, including a checklist of 14 steps organizations can take to be more welcoming and inclusive of LGBT families, couples and individuals, and an assessment of organizations’ cultural competency in delivering services to the LGBT community.

Timed to coincide with the release of the report, the survey’s supporters have joined with Keshet-the national grassroots organization that works for the full inclusion and equality of LGBT Jews in Jewish life-to raise awareness of the importance of inclusion and spread these and other tools for action. Visit the Tumblr site.

Led and supported by LGBT Jews and straight allies, Keshet offers resources and trainings to create inclusive Jewish communities nationwide as well as community programs for LGBT Jews.

“This report marks a milestone in the Jewish community,” said Idit Klein, Executive Director of Keshet. “We hope it will galvanize our leaders to make LGBT inclusion a key priority, and we invite organizations at any stage of inclusion to reach out to us for training, resources and assistance to make our community a home for all.”


Full Disclosure: Rabbi Milgram authored the first inclusive guide to Jewish rites of Passage titled Living Jewish Life Cycle: How to Create Meaningful Jewish Rites of Passage at Every Stage of Life.

Reform Jewish Leader Criticizes One-Sided Contraception Hearings

Rabbi David Saperstein: “The government has a compelling interest of the first order in ensuring that all individuals are able to access necessary services.”

— Sean Thibault or Katharine Nasielski

Bishop William Lori, representing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, testified at the House Committee on Oversight and Government Relations Hearing entitled, “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?”  In it, he analogized the government mandate that most employers must cover birth control, without co-pay, to a hypothetical situation in which a kosher restaurant would be mandated to include pork on the menu because of its health benefits. Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement in response:


Today, an all male ‘witness’ panel was allowed to speak at the GOP’s hearing examining the Obama administration’s new regulation requiring employers and insurers to provide contraception coverage to employees. When Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke was presented to testify on behalf of the Minority, she was shown the door. She would have been the only female voice speaking on behalf of the millions of women who support access to birth control. Here is the basis of her testimony, had she been allowed to speak.

Bishop Lori chose to use a vivid and unusual analogy between religious employers providing comprehensive health care coverage to their employees and kosher delis being forced by government to sell pork on the grounds that pork is good for you.  While I appreciate the humor and creativity of this analogy that sought to raise important issues of balancing free exercise of religion against other compelling government interests, picturesque analogies are not always the most effective or accurate.  Unfortunately, this analogy is flawed in ways that obscure rather than illuminate the important moral, religious and legal issues involved.

First, the government’s interests in the functioning of the health care system  are manifestly far greater than mandating stores sell a particular healthy food, pork or otherwise, and the analogy unintentionally trivializes the need to ensure all Americans have access to quality healthcare in a manner that does not discriminate against women. Indeed, every individual partakes of the health care system at some point in his or her life – whether it is in the process of birth, death or points in-between. That care is paid for by the individual or the public; either directly or through some form of private or public insurance. As such, the government has a compelling interest of the first order in ensuring that all individuals are able to access necessary services. In contrast, no one needs to eat in a particular restaurant and no one needs to eat one particular form of (assumed) healthy food, pork or otherwise.

More after the jump.


When pulling together a panel for a Congressional hearing on birth control, wouldn’t you think it would have at least one woman on it? Come on! This is what Rep. Darrell Issa, the House Oversight Committee Chairman, said when turning away the sole female voice that would have been heard:
“As the hearing is not about reproductive rights and contraception but instead about the Administration’s actions as they relate to freedom of religion and conscience, he believes that Ms. Fluke is not an appropriate witness.”

Second, Bishop Lori’s argument also fails to distinguish for-profit consumer relationships from employer-employee relations.  The Supreme Court has long upheld a broad range of government regulation, including religious employers, health and safety requirements, requirements to pay into social security (which was upheld by the Supreme Court over employer’s religious objections in United States v. Lee), bans on a number of forms of discrimination (again with some accommodation of religious free exercise) and requirements that employers accommodate the religious practices of its employees, unless doing so would cause “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”  This is quite different than the government trying to regulate what foods a restaurant must provide to its customers, where there is a much lower government interest and no well-settled pattern of government regulation.

Third, Bishop Lori’s analogy compares the limited religious exemption for kosher caterers allied with synagogues with the broad exemption that the Obama Administration has now established that would protect the religious conscience of employers with moral objections to contraceptive coverage. Not only will a church, synagogue or other house of worship, parochial school, or missionizing group not be required to include contraception in its health plan, but now religiously affiliated entities, such as church affiliated hospitals, social service entities and universities, will also be exempt from providing the coverage, under the compromise announced last Friday. This compromise was praised by Sister Carol Keehan, President of Catholic Health Services, who said she was “pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection” was accomplished. What Bishop Lori did not elucidate was the moral basis for the Church to oppose the government providing millions of women with basic health care services, services that ironically will cut significantly unwarranted pregnancies and attendant abortions.

Finally, the attention to Bishop Lori’s analogy should not obscure the greatest flaw of these hearings. The House Oversight Committee did not allow witnesses opposed to the church’s position to testify and, among the witnesses who testified, not a single one was a woman. Is diverse representative discourse not the point of Congressional hearings?  Does the committee so lack confidence in the free marketplace of ideas that is at the core of our democratic system of government?  I urge the committee to convene hearings that can truly debate the important issues involved. As someone who believes in ensuring both access to contraception for all women and the robust protection of religious autonomy, it seems clear that the fundamental rights of all women and the fundamental rights of religious conscience deserve no less.


Broad Jewish Leadership Signs Eco-Covenant

— by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Yesterday, The Shalom Center and I joined with the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) in a formal signing of the “Jewish Environmental and Energy Imperative” declaration, part of its Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign. Leaders from a broad spectrum of the Jewish community set the community-wide goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 14% by 2014.

More after the jump.
Before reporting my own talk and naming the other speakers,  I want to note that over the last two years, COEJL has come back from the brink of the grave, mostly owing to the work of three people: Rabbi Steve Gutow, head of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (under whose umbrella COEJL operates); Rabbi David Saperstein, the Jewish community’s designated prophetic voice in Washington as head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and Sybil Sanchez, the exec of COEJL, who breathed active life into the newly raised-up body.


This is what I said:

We have just been reading the Torah passages about the ecological disasters that Pharaoh — a top-down, unaccountable, arrogant ruler — brought upon his own country: undrinkable water, swarms of frogs and lice and locusts, unprecedented hailstorms: what we call the Ten Plagues.

Today our own Pharaohs — the top-down, unaccountable, arrogant giant corporations of Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Gas, and their allies in and out of government — are bringing terrible plagues upon our planet:

  • unprecedented droughts and fires in Russia;
  • droughts and famines in Africa;
  • floods in Pakistan;
  • oceans encroaching on the shores of island nations and Bangladesh, endangering their very existence;
  • vanishing snow-caps in the Himalayas that for centuries have provided water to billions of human beings.

And these are not just foreign events. Those who think that we Americans will be safe if we stop using “foreign” oil must face the truth:

  • The oil-well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico — a plague brought on by modern corporate pharaohs drilling for “American” oil.  
  • Drinking water on the farms of Pennsylvania, so poisoned by the fracking industry that when farmers touch a match to their kitchen faucets, chemicals in the water flame up into torches — a plague brought on by modern corporate pharaohs drilling for ‘American’ gas.  If these pharaohs get their way, the plague will engulf the drinking water of millions in the cities whose water comes from the shale rock regions.
  • The worst drought in the history of Texas,  the destruction of whole mountains in West Virginia, the epidemic of asthma among our children ‐ all plagues brought on by modern corporate pharaohs.  Brought upon Americans by corporate obsession with profits from exploiting ‘American’ oil, coal, and gas. Supported by some, including even some in the Jewish community,  in the name of US ‘energy security.’

We can halt these modern pharaohs, as we halted the Tar Sands pipeline when thousands of protesters surrounded the White House and about a thousand were arrested there.

For The Shalom Center, the Covenant we are about to sign means that in order to reduce emissions of CO2,  we must dissolve the arrogant pharaohs of Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Gas — no matter whether they bear a “made in America” label or not.”

Others who spoke were

  • Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, exec of the Rabbinical Assembly;
  • NY City Councilman David Garodnick; Nancy Kaufman, exec of the National Council of Jewish Women;
  • Joe Laur, exec of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal;
  • Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, director of the program on the rabbi as social activist at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (and president emeritus of the board of The Shalom Center); and
  • Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield, exec of the Jewish Greening Fellowship at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.

In signing the Jewish Environmental and Energy Imperative Declaration, leaders are committing to take many significant steps, including:



  • Setting the personal goal of reducing emissions by 14% by September 2014, which is Judaism’s next sabbatical year (Shmittah year). 


  • Setting the community-wide intention of reducing greenhouse gases by 83% of 2005 levels by 2050 (a goal set by the US government), with a communitywide approach to greening homes and buildings.

Meanwhile, including but reaching beyond COEJL, there has emerged an amalgam of Eco-Jewish organizations called the Green Chevra, which has recently received an important grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

Among its fifteen active and activist members are groups committed to one or more of four ways of dealing with our planetary crisis in Jewish terms:  hands-on greening of synagogues, JCC’s, and Jewish households; the awakening of ecological themes in Jewish practices like the festivals and life-cycle events and the “kosher” consumption of food and other fruits of the earth; the creation of alternative communities, especially Jewish organic farms; and public advocacy for change in public policy.

I am glad to report that The Shalom Center is not only a member of the Green Chevra but sits on its “stewardship committee,” coordinating its work.

For many years we have been doing this work to pioneer eco-commitment in many regions of the Jewish world. It is an aspect of what we call “Transformative Judaism” — a commitment to bring the fullest Jewish wisdom and action to address the present deep multidimensional earthquake (ecological, economic, military, political, familial, sexual) in the life of the human race and the rest of our planet.

Jewish Leaders Commit To Reduce Energy Use


Leaders across the political and religious spectrum celebrate Tu B’shvat by setting goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 14% by 2014.

— by Vicki Stearn

The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) today announced that a diverse group of community leaders has joined its Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign by signing the “Jewish Environment and Energy Imperative” declaration. Rabbis from the Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform and Renewal movements and other communal leaders set the goal of significantly lowering greenhouse-gas emissions, advocating for energy independence and security, and reducing the Jewish community’s energy consumption 14% by 2014.  The official signing ceremony at Manhattan’s 14th Street Y preceded Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish new year for trees.

The declaration states:

The need to transform the world’s energy economy while addressing global climate change is not only a religious and moral imperative, it is a strategy for security and survival.

Each of us — as Jews, people of faith and Americans — has a personal responsibility to work toward lowering greenhouse-gas emissions and decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, COEJL co-chair, and president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “This responsibility starts in our hearts and from there we must care for our homes, places of worship and institutional buildings.

More after the jump.
COEJL Director Sybil Sanchez said,

The Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign commits our leadership to take concrete action on climate change and energy security. Reducing our energy use by 14% by 2014 is our first step toward the national goal of an 83% reduction of 2005 greenhouse gas levels by 2050.

The year 2014 is the next ‘sabbatical’ or seventh year in the Jewish calendar, a traditional time to refrain from impacting the earth.

“Greening and sustainability are areas where the Jewish community has both an opportunity and an obligation to take a leadership role in the neighborhoods where Jewish institutions thrive,” said Stephen Hazan Arnoff, 14th Street Y executive director.  

Since participating in the Jewish Greening Fellowship program, the Y has reduced energy usage with new systems and equipment, and adopted sustainable practices to reduce and reuse materials, especially in the Y’s theater, where the ceremony took place.

Among the 50 signers of the declaration are:

  • Robert Barkin, president, Jewish Reconstructionist Federation;
  • Rabbi Yosef Blau, chair of Rabbinic Advisory Board, Canfei Nesharim;
  • Rabbi Steve Gutow, president and CEO, Jewish Council for Public Affairs;
  • Nancy Kaufman, CEO, National Council of Jewish Women;
  • Karen Rubinstein, executive director, American Zionist Movement;
  • Sybil Sanchez, director, Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life;
  • Rabbi David Saperstein, director and counsel, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism;
  • Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president, The Rabbinical Assembly;
  • Rabbi Arthur Waskow, executive director, the Shalom Center;
  • Rabbi Steven Weil, executive vice president, Orthodox Union; and,
  • Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president and CEO, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

About COEJL
The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life deepens and broadens the Jewish community’s commitment to the stewardship and protection of the earth.  Through a network of 27 national organizations and 125 community agencies, COEJL is mobilizing the Jewish community to address today’s energy and climate change crisis. COEJL is an initiative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

About the 14th Street Y
The 14th Street Y builds community in the heart of Manhattan’s East Village.  The Jewish center embraces people of all ages, faiths and backgrounds, offering health and fitness, education, art and recreational programs for people and families of all ages. The 14th Street Y is part of a network of 44 programs at 27 sites provided by The Educational Alliance.

Reform Movement to Komen on Defunding of Planned Parenthood


Though the Komen Foundation announced that it would award no new contracts to Planned Parenthood clinics, Brinker denied that Komen was actually “defunding” Planned Parenthood, a technical point based on the fact that a few grants have yet to expire.

This afternoon, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Marla Feldman, Executive Director of the Women of Reform Judaism, sent a letter to Ambassador Nancy Brinker, the founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

We urge you to use your leadership in Komen for the Cure to reinstate funding to PPFA for breast cancer screening, to reconsider the standard by which the organization makes funding decisions, and to continue to fight for the health and lives of women everywhere.

The full text of the letter follows the jump.

Dear Ambassador Brinker,

On behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism whose 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, with membership of more than 1800 Reform rabbis, and the Women of Reform Judaism, which represents more than 65,000 women in nearly 500 women’s groups in North America and around the world, we write to express our disappointment in Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s decision to halt its longstanding partnership with Planned Parenthood Federation of America, thereby withholding funds to fight breast cancer where they are most needed.

Komen for the Cure has helped hundreds of thousands of women in the fight against breast cancer, and has educated millions, bringing the once taboo and closeted subject of breast cancer into the public domain. Indeed, the global impact that you and Komen for the Cure have had was precisely why we were so pleased to bestow upon you the Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award at our recent Biennial convention. And this is why we are so deeply disappointed by Komen’s decision to cease funding mammograms provided by PPFA in the face of a politically-motivated investigation unrelated to PPFA’s breast cancer screenings for vulnerable women.

At the same December Biennial, the Women of Reform Judaism honored PPFA President Cecile Richards and applauded PPFA’s work to advance women’s health. It is painful for us now to see politics and partisanship interfere with and undermine efforts to support women who lack the resources they need for preventive medical services like mammograms. Each year Planned Parenthood’s network of more than 800 clinics nationwide provides nearly 830,000 breast exams. PPFA has stated that, over the past five years, 170,000 of the centers’ 4 million breast exams conducted were a direct result of Komen grants. Halting Komen grant money to PPFA is contrary to your organization’s mission and interests, directly and unfairly threatening the health and safety of women.

Upon accepting the Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award, you told the story of two women, one Palestinian and one Israeli, marching together to combat breast cancer in the first Race for the Cure in Israel. You explained with admiration that, in the course of the walk, they were able to forget the political climate that divided them and they bonded instead over the common cause of women’s health. We now urge Komen to follow their example by rejecting efforts to sow division among women’s health advocates and providers and refusing to sacrifice the lives of women on the altar of political ideology.

We understand that this funding decision comes from a new standard employed by Komen for the Cure that defunds organizations under government investigation. While we understand the desire to have an objective policy in place, this particular standard is misguided, threatening more than just grants to PPFA. We believe there are less partisan ways to accomplish your goals. For example, a standard that is linked to investigations carried out by law enforcement is more likely to be free of partisanship. The standard that Komen has established allows Komen’s funding decisions to be dictated by the political whims, partisanship and pet issues of individual members of Congress, who persuade their committees to launch an investigation.  This new standard may appear to extricate Komen from politicization, yet in reality it leaves the group open to even greater politicization.

We urge you to use your leadership in Komen for the Cure to reinstate funding to PPFA for breast cancer screening, to reconsider the standard by which the organization makes funding decisions, and to continue to fight for the health and lives of women everywhere.

We look forward to your prompt reply.

Sincerely,
s
Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Rabbi Marla Feldman, Executive Director of the Women of Reform Judaism

Sad Day For The Atlanta Jewish Community

Atlanta Jewish Times proposed assassination of the President of the United States of America.


— by Annette Powers

The leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) uniformly and vehemently denounces the column penned by Atlanta Jewish Times Publisher Andrew Adler. In a bizarre missive that referenced Alice in Wonderland, a Star Trek movie and fiction writer Tom Clancy, Adler laid out potential scenarios for Israel’s leadership to avoid a multilateral war, including assassination of President Barack Obama.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ said:

That any publication in the United States would call for the assassination of the President is despicable. That a newspaper owner could even consider publishing this irresponsible and hateful column is beyond belief.  Worse still, Adler used the platform of this respected Jewish community paper to espouse such disrespectful language and ideas that have, sadly, become far too common in today’s political discourse.

URJ Chairman, Steve Sacks said

Aside from the monumental misjudgment by the publisher to print such inflammatory beliefs, Adler has furthermore embarrassed not only himself but his paper, his community and the larger Jewish community. His article marked a sad day for the Jewish community in Atlanta as their once vibrant newspaper has been tainted with rhetoric that serves neither Israel’s interests nor those of Atlanta’s Jews.

While welcoming the news that Mr. Adler will no longer be at the helm of the paper, Religious Action Center Director Rabbi David Saperstein said

It is not enough for the American Jewish community to only condemn this editorial in the strongest possible terms. We must reclaim the public dialogue around Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship from those who launch attacks for partisan political gain.

Video interview of Andrew Adler on Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters TV follows the jump.

No Justifiction for Gender Discrimination in Israel


— by Rabbi David Saperstein

On behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism whose 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, with membership of more than 1800 Reform rabbis, I commend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres for speaking out against gender segregation in Israel. We oppose discrimination against any all individual, for the stamp of the Divine is imprinted on the souls of each and every one of us.  For anyone to be discriminated against on the basis of one’s gender, or to justify discrimination in the civil sphere based on one’s interpretation of a religion’s law is unacceptable.

Cartoon reprinted courtesy of Yaakov (Dry Bones) Kirschen www.DryBonesBlog.blogspot.com.

Obama Addresses Grand Assembly of the Union for Reform Judaism

Obama reiterates his record on Israel:

  • President defends commitment to Israel’s security
  • Proud of “hardest-hitting” sanctions on Iran expected to be signed into law soon
  • Obama says his administration has led fight against delegitimization

Before the speech, Obama met on the sidelines of the conference with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who had already spoke at the convention, for about a half hour.

Transcript of Remarks by President Barack Obama

I am honored to be here because of the proud history and tradition of the Union for Reform Judaism, representing more than 900 congregations, around 1.5 million American Jews.

I want to congratulate all of you on the golden anniversary of the Religious Action Center.  As Eric mentioned, When President Kennedy spoke to leaders from the RAC in 1961, I was three months old, so my memory is a bit hazy.  But I am very familiar with the work that you’ve done ever since, and so is the rest of America.

And that’s because you helped draft the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.  You helped to liberate Soviet Jews.  You have made a difference on so many of the defining issues of the last half-century.  And without these efforts, I probably wouldn’t be standing here today.  So thank you.  Thank you.   You have brought to life your faith and your values, and the world is a better place for it.

Now, since my daughter Malia has reached the age where it seems like there’s always a Bar or Bat Mitzvah every weekend, and there is quite a bit of negotiations around the skirts that she wears at these Bat Mitzvahs — (laughter) — do you guys have these conversations as well?  (Laughter.)  All right.  I just wanted to be clear it wasn’t just me.  (Laughter.) What time you get home.

As a consequence, she’s become the family expert on Jewish tradition.  And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from her, it’s that it never hurts to begin a speech by discussing the Torah portion.  It doesn’t hurt.

So this week congregations around the world will retell the story of Joseph.  As any fan of Broadway musicals will tell you, there is a lot going on in this reading.  But many scholars have focused on a single word that Joseph uses when he replies to his father Jacob.

In Hebrew, that word is hineni.  It translates to “Here I am.”  Hineni.  It’s the same word Abraham uses to reply to God before the binding of Isaac.  It’s the same word Moses uses when God summons him from the burning bush.  Hineni.  The text is telling us that while Joseph does not know what lies ahead, he is ready to answer the call.

In this case, “hineni” leads Joseph to Egypt.  It sets in motion a story of enslavement and exodus that would come to inspire leaders like Martin Luther King as they sought freedom.  It’s a story of persecution and perseverance that has repeated itself from Inquisition-era Spain to Tsarist Russia to Hitler’s Germany.  

And in that often-tragic history, this place, America, stands out.  Now, we can’t whitewash the past.  Like so many ethnic groups, Jews faced prejudice, and sometimes violence, as they sought their piece of the American Dream.  But here, Jews finally found a place where their faith was protected; where hard work and responsibility paid off; where no matter who you were or where you came from, you could make it if you tried.  Here in America, you really could build a better life for your children.

I know how much that story means to many of you, because I know how much that story means to me.  My father was from Kenya; my mother was from Kansas — not places with a large Jewish community.  But when my Jewish friends tell me about their ancestors, I feel a connection.  I know what it’s like to think, “Only in America is my story even possible.”

More after the jump.
Now I have to interrupt.  My friend Debbie Wasserman Schultz just got in the house.  (Applause.)  

Now, the Jewish community has always understood that the dream we share is about more than just doing well for yourself.  From the moment our country was founded, American Jews have helped make our union more perfect.  Your parents, your grandparents, your great-grandparents, they remembered what it was like to be a stranger, and as a result treated strangers with compassion.  They pursued tikkun olam, the hard work of repairing the world.  

They fought bigotry because they had experienced bigotry.  They fought for freedom of religion because they understood what it meant to be persecuted for your religious beliefs.  Our country is a better place because they did.  The same values that bring you here today led Justice Brandeis to fight for an America that protects the least of these.  Those same values led Jewish leaders to found RAC 50 years ago. They led Abraham Joshua Heschel to pray with his feet and march with Dr. King. And over the last three years, they have brought us together on the most important issues of our time.

When we began this journey, we knew we would have to take on powerful special interests.  We would have to take on a Washington culture where doing what’s politically convenient is often valued above doing what’s right; where the focus is too often on the next election instead of the next generation.

And so time and time again, we’ve been reminded that change is never easy.  And a number of the rabbis who are here today, when I see them, they’d been saying a prayer.  They noticed my hair is grayer.  (Laughter.)  But we didn’t quit.  You didn’t quit.  And today, we’re beginning to see what change looks like.

And Eric mentioned what change looks like.  Change is the very first bill I signed, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which says in this country an equal day’s work gets an equal day’s pay.  That’s change.  

Change is finally doing something about our addiction to oil and raising fuel-efficiency standards for the first time in 30 years.  That’s good for our economy.  It’s good for our national security.  And it’s good for our environment.

Change is confirming two Supreme Court justices who will defend our rights, including our First Amendment rights surrounding religion — happen to be two women, by the way.  That’s also a good thing.  

Change is repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” so that in the first time in history, you don’t have to hide who you love to serve the country that you love.  That’s change.  

Change is working with the Reform movement, and other faith-based groups, to reform the federal faith-based initiatives, improving the way we partner with organizations that serve people in need.  Change is health care reform that we passed after a century of trying, reform that will finally ensure that in the United States of America, nobody goes bankrupt just because they get sick.  That’s change.

Change is the 2.5 million young people — maybe some of those NFTY folks who have already  who have health insurance on their parents’ plans because of Affordable Care Act.  That’s change.

It’s making family planning more accessible to millions of Americans. It’s insurance companies not being able to charge you more just because you’re a woman, or deny you coverage if you have breast cancer.

Change is committing to real, persistent education reform, because every child in America deserves access to a good school and to higher education — every child.

And change is keeping one of the first promises I made in 2008:  After nearly nine years, our war in Iraq is ending this month and our troops are coming home.

That’s what change is.  And none of this would have happened without you.  That’s the kind of change we’ll keep fighting for in the months and years ahead.

And just last night, you took another step towards the change we need and voted for a set of principles of economic justice in a time of fiscal crisis. And I want to thank you for your courage.  That statement could not have come at a more important time.  For as you put it, we’re at a crossroads in American history.  Last Tuesday, I gave a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, where I described that crossroads.  And I laid out a vision of our country where everybody gets a fair shot, and everybody does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.  And these are not Democratic values or Republican values; they’re not Christian values or Jewish values or Hindu or Muslim values — they’re shared values, and we have to reclaim them.  We have to restore them to a central place in America’s political life.  

I said it last week, I’ll say it again:  This is not just a political debate.  This is a moral debate.  This is an ethical debate.  It’s a values debate.  It’s the defining issue of our time.  It is a make-or-break moment for the middle class and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class.  And for those of us who remember parents or grandparents or great-grandparents who had to fight to get in the middle class, but they understood that the American Dream was available to them because we were all in it together &mndash; that’s what this is about.  And last night, you reaffirmed the moral dimension of this debate.

We have to decide who we are as a country.  Is this a place where everyone is left to fend for themselves?  The most powerful can play by their own rules?  Or do we come together to make sure that working people can earn enough to raise a family, send their kids to college, buy their own home, have a secure health care and a secure retirement?  That is the story that almost all of us here share, in one way or another.  This is a room full of folks who come from immigrants, and remember what it was like to scratch and claw and work.  You haven’t forgotten.  You know what it’s like to see those in your own family struggle.

Well, we have to apply those same values to the American family.  We’re not a country that says, you’re on your own.  When we see neighbors who can’t find work or pay for college or get the health care they need, we answer the call — we say, “Here I am.”  And we will do our part.

That’s what you affirmed last night.  But more importantly, it’s what you affirm every day with your words and your actions.  And I promise you that as you pray with your feet, I will be right there with you every step of the way.  I’ll be fighting to create jobs, and give small businesses a chance to succeed.  I’ll be fighting to invest in education and technology.  I will fight to strengthen programs like Medicare and Social Security.  I will fight to put more money in the pockets of working families.  I won’t be afraid to ask the most well-off among us — Americans like me — to pay our fair share, to make sure that everybody has got a shot.  I will fight alongside you every inch of the way.

And as all of you know, standing up for our values at home is only part of our work.  Around the world, we stand up for values that are universal — including the right of all people to live in peace and security and dignity. That’s why we’ve worked on the international stage to promote the rights of women to promote strategies to alleviate poverty —  to promote the dignity of all people, including gays and lesbians — and people with disabilities —  to promote human rights and democracy.  And that’s why, as President, I have never wavered in pursuit of a just and lasting peace — two states for two peoples; an independent Palestine alongside a secure Jewish State of Israel.   I have not wavered and will not waver.  That is our shared vision.  

Now, I know that many of you share my frustration sometimes, in terms of the state of the peace process.  There’s so much work to do.  But here’s what I know — there’s no question about how lasting peace will be achieved.  Peace can’t be imposed from the outside.  Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them.

And the fact that peace is hard can’t deter us from trying.  Because now more than ever, it’s clear that a just and lasting peace is in the long-term interests of Israel.  It is in the long-term interests of the Palestinian people.  It is in the interest of the region.  It is the interest of the United States, and it is in the interest of the world.  And I am not going to stop in pursuit of that vision.  It is the right thing to do.

Now, that vision begins with a strong and secure State of Israel.  And the special bonds between our nations are ones that all Americans hold dear because they’re bonds forged by common interests and shared values.  They’re bonds that transcend partisan politics — or at least they should.

We stand with Israel as a Jewish democratic state because we know that Israel is born of firmly held values that we, as Americans, share:  a culture committed to justice, a land that welcomes the weary, a people devoted to tikkun olam.

So America’s commitment and my commitment to Israel and Israel’s security is unshakeable.  It is unshakeable.

I said it in September at the United Nations.  I said it when I stood amid the homes in Sderot that had been struck by missiles:  No nation can tolerate terror.  And no nation can accept rockets targeting innocent men, women and children.  No nation can yield to suicide bombers.

And as Ehud has said, it is hard to remember a time when the United States has given stronger support to Israel on its security.  In fact, I am proud to say that no U.S. administration has done more in support of Israel’s security than ours.  None.  Don’t let anybody else tell you otherwise.  It is a fact.

I’m proud that even in these difficult times we’ve fought for and secured the most funding for Israel in history.  I’m proud that we helped Israel develop a missile defense system that’s already protecting civilians from rocket attacks.

Another grave concern — and a threat to the security of Israel, the United States and the world — is Iran’s nuclear program.  And that’s why our policy has been absolutely clear:  We are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  And that’s why we’ve worked painstakingly from the moment I took office with allies and partners, and we have imposed the most comprehensive, the hardest-hitting sanctions that the Iranian regime has ever faced.  We haven’t just talked about it, we have done it.  And we’re going to keep up the pressure.  And that’s why, rest assured, we will take no options off the table.  We have been clear.

We’re going to keep standing with our Israeli friends and allies, just as we’ve been doing when they’ve needed us most.  In September, when a mob threatened the Israeli embassy in Cairo, we worked to ensure that the men and women working there were able to get out safely.  Last year, when raging fires threatened Haifa, we dispatched fire-fighting planes to help put out the blaze.

On my watch, the United States of America has led the way, from Durban to the United Nations, against attempts to use international forums to delegitimize Israel.  And we will continue to do so.  That’s what friends and allies do for each other.  So don’t let anybody else tell a different story.  We have been there, and we will continue to be there.  Those are the facts.  

And when I look back on the last few years, I’m proud of the decisions I’ve made, and I’m proud of what we’ve done together.  But today isn’t about resting on our laurels.  As your tradition teaches, we’re not obligated to finish the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.

We’ve got to keep going.  So today we look forward to the world not just as it is but as it could be.  And when we do, the truth is clear:  Our union is not yet perfect.  Our world is still in desperate need of repair.  And each of us still hears that call.

And the question is, how we will respond?  In this moment, every American, of every faith, every background has the opportunity to stand up and say:  Here I am.  Hineni.  Here I am.  I am ready to keep alive our country’s promise.  I am ready to speak up for our values at home and abroad.  I am ready to do what needs to be done.  The work may not be finished in a day, in a year, in a term, in a lifetime, but I’m ready to do my part.

And I believe that with tradition as our guide, we will seize that opportunity.  And in the face of daunting odds, we will make the choices that are hard but are right.  That’s how we’ve overcome tougher times before.  That’s how we will overcome the challenges that we face today.  And together, we will rewrite the next chapter in America’s story and prove that our best days are still to come.

Thank you, God bless you, God bless the United States of America.

Food Stamp Challenge: The Week The Rabbis Went Hungry


– by Eric Harris

This week Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and other members of the RAC staff, is taking the Food Stamp Challenge. Part of “Fighting Poverty with Faith’s” initiative to focus people of faith on issues of economic justice and the need to sustain vital social safety net programs, Food Stamp Challenge participants live for seven days on the standard weekly food stamp allotment of $31.50. Rabbi Saperstein will participate in the Challenge from October 27th through November 2nd, joining a half dozen prominent Jewish leaders and ten Members of Congress in this effort to call attention to anti-hunger programs and educate the faith community on the plight of hunger.

We are honored to be able to participate in the Food Stamp Challenge, and experience even for a brief time the ongoing struggle of the millions of Americans nationwide who are confronting hunger on a daily basis. We have long advocated for anti-hunger programs, like SNAP and WIC that meet the needs of the 49 million food-insecure Americans but the Challenge places in stark relief how difficult it is to obtain enough food and nutritious food on a food stamp budget – and why we must do better as a nation.

Jewish tradition teaches that feeding the hungry is a vital responsibility. The Midrash says:

When you are asked in the world to come, ‘What was your work?’ and you answer: ‘I fed the hungry,’ you will be told: ‘This is the gate of God, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry.’

Participating in the Food Stamp Challenge will not, by itself, end hunger in America; that will take a sustained commitment by our nation and its leaders. To that end, we are hopeful that our participation in the Food Stamp Challenge this week will inspire others to advocate for policies addressing families and individuals who confront hunger nationwide. During these difficult economic times, easing the burden on those who are most vulnerable must be our number one priority.

All members of our congregations are being called to register online, and join us in the Food Stamp Challenge and use it as an opportunity to educate your synagogue and community.

Other food stamp challenge participants are listed after the jump.

Who else is taking the challenge?

Ask your Member of Congress to take the challenge too.