Thursday, January 27, 2011

Two Jews, and how many opinions?

I like the old saying that whenever two Jews come together, you have three points of view. However, I haven’t experienced that process at TBS when it comes to the issue of the Israeli government’s policies on the Palestinian question. My experience has been that it’s difficult and awkward to bring up points that counter official government policies. Perhaps that’s only a reflection of my own insecurities, but I wonder if it may be a more widespread experience.

So I’m writing this blog post to find out how TBS members would feel about hearing other points of view from our various guest speakers and forums. For example, the Israeli media is widely and justifiably praised for presenting all viewpoints on the volatile issue of I/P (settlements, Gaza, statehood, etc.), but it’s rare to hear anything apart from unconditional support for Israel’s policies in the American media. A recent local attempt to host a respected speaker for the so-called peace perspective was cancelled at the last minute (when Newton’s Temple Avodah abruptly disinvited the head of J Street).

That sort of action is very troublesome. I would love to hear the J Street perspective on these issues as a complement to the AIPAC view that we are so often presented with. I’d love to hear a Palestinian or Muslim perspective on current events – for example, this year’s impressive Yom Kippur Colloquy speaker should be invited back to talk about, well, anything he’d like. I’d be curious to know what the spectrum of opinions is among TBS members – a membership survey would be fascinating, asking how many of us support settlement expansion, how many think recent actions might be illegal, how many want to extend the security wall, etc.

After all, at times the world seems nearly united in opposition to Israeli government policies. How divided is American Jewish opinion? What do TBS members think? I’d be surprised if, unlike the proverbial two Jews, we have only one opinion.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The TBS Children's Center Blog

Blog Shalom is not the only new blog in the building.

Ellen Dietrick began as director of the TBS Children’s Center this summer, and one of the first gifts she gave to our preschool was to start up a Children’s Center blog. New laptops were purchased for the classrooms, teachers were trained on blogging, and all parents were sent an invitation to be a member of the blog community.

This new blog creatively addresses an ongoing goal for our preschool: to increase communication between school and home (noting that communication is a two-way street). Not only does the blog act as a reliable space for information that parents need to know, it also makes it easy for parents to post comments and questions.

The blog is mainly about the children, but the conversation goes way beyond the topic of adorableness. Pictures and videos of students enjoying all kinds of activities are posted several times per week. Teachers take turns writing their thoughts. There are recipes, quotes from the children’s classroom discussions, and ideas for how to enrich and support learning at home. A list of upcoming events and reminders is continually updated. There are also links to other websites and resources that may be of interest to parents, including programs offered at the Temple. Anything child-focused can be brought to parents’ attention, and it’s all just a click away. This is enormously helpful, but what I want to point out about this blog is not just its facility in broadening our range of information, but its potential for deepening our focus on our school community.

On the blog there is a “getting to know you” section about the teachers, each of whom wrote a short piece about themselves before school began this fall. These pieces contain their reasons for becoming a teacher, their pedagogical philosophies, their goals for the upcoming school year, and their hobbies and interests. The teachers’ words set the tone for the rest of the blog, and remind us that we are all tuned in to this community for the same reason: we care about the children who go to school here.

Every week teachers write about curriculum themes and day-to-day fun. They also write their own reflections on what is being taught and learned. These posts go light-years beyond simple descriptions of classroom activities. When teachers write about the deep thinking that goes into a lesson, everyone learns more. When parents post comments in response to these reflections, teachers gain well-deserved feedback about their work, and everyone learns even more.

The new TBSCC blog has set the stage for families to communicate publically, for the benefit of the entire school community. Public communication, when it is constructive and respectful, underscores the relevance of a community and deepens the commitment of its members. This is a gift we can all appreciate.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

U.S. “Church and State”: a False Model for Separation of Religion and Politics in Israel (by Jeremy Serwer)

On December 22, 2010, an incredible Op-Ed from the Israeli newspaper “Ha’aretz” talked about the very important need to separate religion from politics in Eretz Yisrael. The letter was then published by the URJ here, in Ten Minutes of Torah.

The writer was a self proclaimed “ultra Orthodox” man, and claimed that Israel’s system should be based on the Constitutional model of church/state separation in the United States.

While the latter phrase is a false statement on its face (there is no Constitutional separation of church and state in the U.S., though there is case law on the subject), one could not propose a greater disconnect. Israel has very little to do with the U.S. on this matter: separating religion from politics in a country whose very existence IS a religious state, compares poorly to our Constitutional requirement that the STATE (e.g., our Federal government) may not countenance one particular religion (and, secondarily, there’s no implicit separation of church and state in that).

Further, that this has come to mean a Constitutional requirement of church/state separation is false, of course, as the Constitution says nothing of the sort: otherwise, why would all the court cases from 1948 (and NOT UNTIL 1948) by which case law established a supposed legal doctrine of church/state separation, have been necessary in the first place?

But I digress, sort of . . .

The U.S. Constitutional requirement (that the government may not establish a state religion) contradicts blatantly with the concept of a democratic but Jewish state, and thus cannot be claimed as a proper model for Israel. Further, however church/state separation has evolved in the U.S., clearly the intent of the Zionists – however secular their personal behavior – was that Palestine would give birth to a Jewish nation: hardly a parallel concept to church/state separation.

When you add that our Constitution falls short of actually mandating a clear separation between church and state, there fails to exist even a contradictory model upon which Israelis can depend. Given the myriad references to the Creator, God, etc., and the strong religious beliefs of our Founders, they clearly felt the existence of the Almighty in everything they envisioned and accomplished.

That they wanted to prevent any singular religion being mandated by the government was more a function of their views of democracy and religious freedom – the history of our early immigrants fleeing religious persecution being quite extant in their thought – than any interest in actually separating church and state dealings, symbols, activities, etc.

It wasn’t until 1802, in a parenthetical comment buried in a thank-you note sent to the Baptists of Danbury, CT that Thomas Jefferson first coined the phrase “separation of church and state”. It wasn’t until 1948 that this concept arose again to any significant level, when a case involving a Catholic school receiving government funds resulted in a dissenting opinion by Justice Hugo Black in which he re-affirmed Jefferson’s reference as an interpretation of law. Clearly, this could not stand on its own, so a plethora of cases since that time – primarily brought by the likes of the ACLU, etc. – have resulted, at best, in case law supposedly preventing any melding of church/state symbols, activities, etc., down to the most ridiculous and politically correct degree.

This is certainly not an effective model for Israelis to rid themselves of their problems with the mix of politics and religion. Common sense debate, a real sense of kavod, and improved exercise of ‘loving thy neighbor as thyself’ would take them a whole lot further!

That the URJ/TMT would then disseminate this Op-Ed on such a false and ineffective model is disingenuous at best: one can only guess the intent was to reinforce the separation model in the Reform Jewish community. Seems a bit propagandist to me . . .

[I must say, however, when I complained to the URJ and RAC, Rabbi Saperstein asked to post my thoughts above on the RAC and URJ blogs – finally, a published counter-point!]

Friday, January 7, 2011


When my dad was a 10 year old boy in South Bend, Indiana, his father, Julius Spigle, died. Julius had been a successful salesman, an officer of the local temple (Temple Beth El), and a loving father. His widow – my Grandma Sadie – prudently invested the substantial proceeds of his life insurance policy in the stock market. It was the summer of 1929.

After the stock market crash, my dad's family went to live with relatives in Chicago. Years later, my dad drove Grandma Sadie to South Bend for a long overdue visit with some of her Temple friends. One of Julius's old pals started talking with my dad, and wound up offering him a terrific management job in his South Bend company.

The only people my parents knew when they first moved to South Bend were Temple members, and the Temple became the foundation of their social life. It was within the Temple community that my parents found their most cherished friends, and their most important sources of support. They were active in Brotherhood and Sisterhood, taught Sunday School, wrote plays, shared celebrations, and provided - and received - comfort in the most difficult of times.

Jane and I both came to Boston for graduate school, and for each of us, the first "community" we found here was among our school friends. Later, our neighborhood, our co-workers, and the families of our sons' school friends became important communities for us as well. (By community, I mean "a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common interests or characteristics, perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society"). It has only been in the past several years that Temple Beth Shalom has become for us what Temple Beth El was for my parents - the most important, and the most beloved, of all our communities.

I think we all recognize that our Temple community is extraordinary. Visitors comment on the warmth they feel here, and many Temple members have joined our congregation because of the welcoming, comfortable feeling they find here.

The importance of community in Jewish tradition cannot be overstated. From the beginning - in Genesis 2:18 the Lord says that it is not good for a person to be alone - through the assembly of all the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai (Exodus 35) - through that rabbinic creation, the minyan - through the diaspora - and on and on - our most important events occur in the company of others, and our survival has depended on the strength of our communities. It is no coincidence that the word "community" appears in our Mission Statement and Vision Statement more than a dozen times - compared with only 3 appearances of the word "individual."

I have said before that my two gateways into the Beth Shalom community were the Brotherhood softball team and Saturday morning Torah study - activities which happen to embody the best features of "community." In so many ways, Temple Beth Shalom has been, for me, a place where people care about - and for - each other; where we learn from one another and with one another; where we form strong, lasting friendships; where we celebrate happy occasions; where we are blessed with opportunities to offer needed support, comfort and solace; and where we can feel at home, at peace, and among friends.