We’ve Moved…Come Visit Our New Site

The Union for Reform Judaism recently launched URJ.org, a terrific new website. In addition to all the great blog posts that previously lived here on RJ.org, the new site is full of news, information, and blog posts about all facets of congregational life — and how you can enrich and strengthen your own synagogue. The […]

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Rabbi Rick Jacobs

How to Ensure Reform Voices and Values are Heard Throughout the World

Shalom from Jerusalem! I arrived on Sunday – together with many other Diaspora Jewish leaders – for the 37th Zionist Congress – often referred to as “The Parliament of the Jewish People.” Especially as our hearts break as our people are viciously attacked throughout this beloved land, taking us further and further from the peace […]

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The Future of Reform Judaism: How Can We Lead in Challenging Times?

This fall, the URJ’s Leadership Institute is offering a series of three sessions about key concepts that we hope will inspire sacred action within congregations. The series began with Allison Fine’s session about “matterness” and values alignment. The second session is hosted by Marty Linsky, who will discuss leading in challenging times at the URJ Biennial […]

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When Less is More: The Role of the Synagogue Executive Director

Job descriptions are important. They outline and shape the work to be done. In a temple, job descriptions ensure that lay and professional leaders understand responsibilities and roles. When I was an executive director, my job description was four pages long. Although routine and mundane tasks were explained in great detail, there were many things […]

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Vayikra: Restoring the Fires of Israel

ARZA’s Torah commentary explores connections in the weekly Torah portion to the Land of Israel through the lens of tradition and in our own day. Readers are absolutely encouraged to share this material for weekly Torah classes, conversations, and the Shabbat table, remembering, of course, that “Whoever conveys a teaching in the name of the person who said it brings redemption to the world” (Pirkei Avot 6:6).
For a copy of the D’Var Torah including sources and Hebrew text, view a PDF version here


Vayikra: Restoring the Fires of Israel

(Parashat Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1-5:26, is read during the week that ends on Shabbat, March 19, 2016.)

It is a burnt offering, an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to God… (Exodus 29:18)

The early chapters of Leviticus have been the bane of bar/bat mitzvah students for centuries: What are we to do with chapter upon chapter devoted to the sacrifices that the ancient priests offered as Israel’s worship of God?

Vayikra describes several kinds of sacrificial offerings: the olah (burnt offering, whose smoke “went up” to God), the mincha (grain offering), the zevach shelamim (“sacrifice of well-being,” although many prefer the old translation “peace offering”), the hata’at (sin offering) and the asham (guilt offering). In these ways, ancient Israel drew near to God and sought atonement for their sins.

The sacrificial system was designed for the mishkan, the portable wilderness sanctuary described in Exodus, and subsequently for the Temples that stood in Jerusalem for the better part of one thousand years. Therefore, Leviticus is a spiritual link to the Land of Israel and Jerusalem, even if that bond exists only in the memory of the Jewish people.

By the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, the Sages elevated prayer to the status
of sacrifice. The literal offerings of Leviticus were no longer necessary, they explained,
because each person could draw near to God through prayer, which the Talmud called  haavodah shebalev, “the sacrifice that is in the heart” (Talmud, Ta’anit 2a).

As the Jewish prayer service took shape in the first two centuries CE, the Amidah service was designed to correspond to the sacrifices that were offered in the Temple. For that reason, the Talmud ruled that the Amidah should be recited facing Jerusalem (and, if in Jerusalem, toward the Holy of Holies), with one’s heart inclined towards God (Talmud, Berachot 30a).

To this day there remain echoes of the ancient sacrifices in Jewish prayer. However, to be honest, in Reform services one has to listen for these echoes a little more carefully. After all, the editors of early Reform prayerbooks strived to remove the vestiges of the Temple sacrifices from their liturgy.

One interesting illustration of this is found in the “Avodah” prayer—sometimes known as “R’tzeh,” from its first Hebrew word. The “R’tzeh” is the first of three concluding blessings that are recited in every Amidah (and thus in every service, whether it’s a weekday, Shabbat, or a holiday).

The “R’tzeh,” in its traditional form, poignantly longs for the Shekhinah (God’s intimate—and feminine—Presence) to return home to Jerusalem… and, more provocatively, it years for the Jews to resume the levitical sacrifices! In the traditional siddur, this is the R’tzeh (English translation):

Find favor, Adonai our God, in your People Israel and in their prayer; and return the sacrifice to the Holy of Holies. In favor accept the fire-offerings of Israel and their prayers in love. And may the service of Israel your People always be favorable.
May our eyes behold your return to Zion in mercy. Blessed are You, Adonai, who restores the divine Presence to Zion

The early Reform editors of their prayer book were uncomfortable, to say the least, with these passages about “returning the sacrifice” and “the fire-offerings of Israel.” Like most Jews, their vision of a perfected world did not include restoring the rites of sacrifice in a Temple in Jerusalem as described in Leviticus. In fact, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman has written that “Early Reform Jews took exception to the idea of God’s returning to Zion on the grounds that it was too ‘Zionistic’…” So they removed these references.

The contemporary American Reform siddur, Mishkan Tefillah (2007), has restored the centrality of Israel to the spiritual longing of the prayer, but still omits the explicit references to sacrifices. In fact, most Reform siddurim add a line that emphasizes the universal aspect of prayer, that God can draw close to every open heart (English translation):

Find favor, Adonai, our God, with Your people Israel and accept their prayer in love. May the worship of Your people Israel always be acceptable. God is near to all who call, turn lovingly to Your servants. Pour out Your spirit upon us.
Let our eyes behold Your loving return to Zion. Blessed are You, Adonai, whose Presence returns to Zion.

Most provocative is the form of this prayer in the Israeli Reform siddur, HaAvodah SheBalev (1991). The Israeli Reform movement retains the Reform objection to language about sacrifices, but (naturally enough) asserts the centrality of Israel and Jerusalem. And it adds one word—a Zionist word—to the final line. It’s not just the Shekhinah (God’s intimate—and feminine—Presence) that is returning home to Israel; it’s also the Jewish people (English translation):

Blessed are You, Adonai, whose Presence and whose people return to Zion.

What do we make of all this? The “R’tzeh” was once, in is earliest form, a prayer to God to lovingly accept the sacrifices of Israel, and, in the years after the Temple’s destruction, it was a prayer that those sacrifices soon would resume. Does this have any relevance for a contemporary Jew?

I believe it does. The blessing for “returning God’s Presence to Zion” could be a hallmark of a contemporary Reform Zionist: While Israel is foremost in our prayer, we knows its sense of imminent Godliness is still far from complete. For that to happen, we need to build a State of Israel that is shaped by justice and peace. As poet Marcia Falk has written, “Asking that the Shekhinah be restored to the Jewish homeland can be a way of seeking at least two distinct but related aims: that Israel be a place in which we live with reverence for all life, and that the sense of the divine as immanent (and the valuing of women’s experience as part of the divine immanence) be honored in Israel and wherever else we make our homes.”

We can even discover poetic meaning in that old traditional phrase—the one the editors removed, “In favor accept the fire-offerings of Israel.” After all, the fires don’t need to be so literal. Keeping lamps of the spirit trimmed and burning — fighting boredom, complacency, and the status quo — is a perpetual religious quest. What does it take to rekindle the spiritual flames in today’s lovers of Israel? How do we keep that passion burning in our hearts and in our communities? And in what ways does Israel flame the passions of the Jewish soul, even in a soul that is is far away?


Rabbi Neal Gold is the National Director of Content and Programming for ARZA. He was ordained as a Rabbi from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1997. For over 18 years he has served congregations in New Jersey and Massachusetts. In 2016, he became the first in-house scholar-in-residence for Jewish Family Service of Metrowest. 

Rabbi Gold has served on the national board of ARZA and was a delegate for ARZENU, the international Reform Jewish movement, at the 37th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem in October 2016. He is a founding member of the President’s Council of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and currently serves as Vice-President of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. He is married to Heidi Gold and they have two sons, Avi and Jeremy. Rabbi Gold enjoys fishing, writing, yoga, reading, and highly amplified music.

What is sometimes worse than losing a revolution? Winning

A D’Var Torah for Parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19)

What is sometimes worse than losing a revolution? Winning. The day after the revolution is over we often see revolutionaries demonstrating behavior of great let-down or even depression. The fight is over, the cause has been achieved, and now the really hard work begins. Building. Laying groundwork, creating infrastructure and setting up systems requires an entirely different set of leadership skills than those of a charismatic and passionate revolutionary. What happens when revolutionaries become bureaucrats?  Some fade away unable to recognize the necessity to adapt and alter their focus, and some are able to harness their passion, creativity and vision to create the necessary structure to weather a massive transition and to surround themselves with the right people to take it to the next level.
Modern Israeli history is a classic example with leaders such as Ben Gurion, Begin, Shamir, Rabin, Sharon and Peres (just to name a few) who all transitioned from pre-State times to visionary leaders working to build the fledgling State. We see a not terribly dissimilar process with the Palestinians who are trying to figure out how to transition from insurgency to institution.
As we read parshat Terumah we embark on a five-week journey that is all about one thing: building. It marks a major transition in our story from a familial dynasty in Breishit, to the foundational narrative of liberation and revelation in the beginning of Exodus. Now we are free from slavery, we’ve received Torah at Sinai and for the next 5 weeks we will be immersed in the building of the Mishkan.
This sedrah begins a series of five parshiyot that are completely focused on this rather simple building – a tent like three-walled structure not unlike a large tent – including all of its relative vestments, garments and ritual items. The great 20th century scholar Yeshayahu Leibovitz makes a fascinating observation of the disproportional relationship between two accounts of building in the Torah. The first is the “building” (or creation) of the world, and the second is the building of the Mishkan. Leibovitz points out that the Torah dedicates a mere 34 verses to the entire story of creation (including the seventh day) and in comparison dedicates a whopping 450 verses to the building of the Mishkan.
What are we to make of this incredible disproportionality? One could glean here that that the Torah is not meant to be given as a lesson in cosmology nor should we as Jews and human beings be terribly focused on how we got here, and how we were created (much to the dismay of the Kabbalists who dedicate considerable emphasis on creation) rather to understand the reason what is demanded of us by our creator. It was the great 19th century American author Mark Twain who wrote that “the two most important days of a person’s life are the day we are born, and second, the day we figure out why.” Creation was indeed important, but now – during this and the next 4 parshayot – we begin to understand our purpose.
The account of the building of the Mishkan, which begins in Parshat Terumah and takes us through P’kudei and the end of the book of Exodus is, in my opinion, a wonderful lesson for our modern day Mishkan – the State of Israel. Much has been written about Israel’s creation and inception, yet that’s all happened in the past. The exciting part is how do we harness that spirit of revolution, of creation, of dreams and vision to focus on the minutiae of building a society? We must understand that the State of Israel can serve a similar purpose and function of the Mishkan. It can be the central institution for all “tribes” through which we are unified and in which we find Torah. Similar to the Mishkan, it must be built with contributions from all of the children of Israel – “from every person whose heart so move him/her” (25:2).
The only difference today is that we are without a clear instruction manual. We did not receive 450 verses outlining God’s plan given to skilled artists and architects. That means that we are all part of the process of creating our Mishkan, and we must ensure that all of us take part in this sacred endeavor.

The Talmudic Art – and Challenge – of Compromise

In the wake of the historic decision of the Israeli cabinet to create an expansive egalitarian section at the Western Wall, a lot of soul-searching has ensued. Count me among those who celebrate this as a momentous event for Jewish pluralism in the State of Israel—even as I acknowledge the dismay of those who say too much has been compromised with the Haredi authorities who rule the plaza.

Most Reform and Conservative leaders—and other advocates of equal rights for all the streams of Judaism in the Jewish State—consider this agreement to be a milestone after a quarter-century of advocacy by Women of the Wall and their supporters. Anat Hoffman, a tireless champion of human freedom who has so often been the face of this movement, considers it a “win.”

And yet, there are some voices—especially advocates for Orthodox feminists who want the right to pray with Tallit, Tefillin, and Torah scrolls but not in mixed settings with men—who feel that they have lost too much in the deal. Some of their words are gut-wrenching, such as this critique from Vanessa Ochs.

So did we give away too much? In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 6b), Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya said, “There are times for compromise, and times for not compromising,” and every person who cares about Jewish pluralism in Israel will have to decide for herself or himself which sort of moment this was.

Compromise, by definition, always feels less-than-perfect. In a funny way, “compromise” is the exact opposite of “justice”—and we know the enormously high value that is given to justice in Jewish tradition. When you compromise, by definition you are sacrificing an important element of what is fair or what is deserved from your point of view. Whether or not the sacrifice is worth it is the question at the heart of the compromise’s value.

Well known is the Jewish virtue of pursuing justice. But is compromise also a Jewish value?

The Talmud recognizes the tension. One Sage, Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yose Ha-G’lili, says that compromise (in matters of law) is forbidden; he cites Moses the lawgiver as his model for the administration of blind justice, in all its noble purity. Another Sage, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha, calls compromise a Mitzvah; his model is Moses’s brother Aaron, the consummate peacemaker.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha gets to the crux of the matter about why compromise lies at the heart of a civilized society—and why it’s sometimes so difficult:

It is a Mitzvah to compromise, as it is written:  Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates (Zechariah 8:16). Anyplace where there is straight justice—there will be no peace; and anyplace where there is peace, there is no straight justice. So what is the justice that abides with peace?  We must say:  Compromise. (Sanhedrin 6b)

I, for one, cant wait to see the implementation of the new egalitarian plaza at the Western Wall as it unfolds – and I can’t wait to stand side-by-side with any Jew who comes to pour out their heart in prayer. From my point of view, the prospect of egalitarian prayer-space at the Kotel—a space that is beautiful, spiritually exhilarating, and free from molestation or antagonism—is a win. And the compromise itself, although an element of it stings, is part of the grand challenge of Jews living side-by-side with one another in the world’s only State.


Rabbi Neal Gold is an active board member of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) and the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, and serves on the President’s Council of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Thoughts on the Kotel, the day after…

Shalom Haverim,

Yesterday we all learned of the historic vote that took place in Israel recognizing an interdenominational consensus on Judaism’s holiest site.  The Government of Israel officially approved the expansion of the egalitarian section of the Western Wall known as the “Ezrat Yisrael”.


Why is this so dramatic and important?

As our partners in the Israeli Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism declared:

  • FOR THE FIRST TIME – Complete and clear Israeli legal recognition of egalitarian prayer in the spirit of Reform and Conservative Judaism as part of the custom of Jewish holy sites.
  • FOR THE FIRST TIME – A joint government office with legally binding authority,  government funding and official representation from the Reform and Conservative Movements.
  • FOR THE FIRST TIME – Any visitor to the Kotel and any family from Israel or from abroad celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitzvah will be able to choose between a separated prayer service with a Mechitza (barrier) between women and men and an egalitarian and mixed prayer service.
  • FOR THE FIRST TIME – Legally binding recognition of the official status of the upper plaza and its usage for ceremonies and national and public events with no separation between men and women and without the coercion of religious norms which are unaccepted by the majority of Israelis (such as the prevention of women from singing).
  • FOR THE FIRST TIME – The Reform and Conservative Movements, Women of the Wall, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) have teamed up for a joint and coordinated agreement with the Israeli government regarding matters of religion and state in Israel.


What can we say about this the day after?

Let’s be clear, this is still a work in progress. Skeptics will be quick to point out that that the egalitarian space is not contiguous with the Orthodox section nor is it as large., and that the Western Wall Heritage Foundation will retain control over the Kotel Plaza.

Those are all indeed true, yet we can point out a few things:

  • The Reform and Conservative movements, along with Women of the Wall are not aiming to control the entire Kotel Plaza. Rather, we aim for it to reflect a true pluralism, with an egalitarian option provided in addition to the already existing Orthodox option, not in its stead.
  • This takes time. Serious negotiations over the issue only began in 2012.  To have a negotiated and approved deal in such a short time – for an issue and site as divisive as the Kotel- is a monumental milestone.
  • This victory does not mean that our campaign is over.  It will take additional time and effort to obtain a truly equal Kotel prayer space.
  • The projected capacity for the Egalitarian section is 1200 people.  Let us prove this space insufficient.  If we, Reform Zionists, help to bring the masses of Jews to pray and make use of the egalitarian section, we will send the message that this is of great importance to liberal Jews both in Israel and in the Diaspora, and we need to expand our space and access.



There are still some unknowns to the deal:

  • The timeline for construction and access to the new site is
  • While we know that the section will be administered by a committee composed of two Reform leaders, two Conservative leaders, two non-Orthodox women representatives, the Jewish Agency chairman and six government officials, we don’t yet know who those individuals are and when we’ll be able to start booking B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies there.
  • It has yet to be determined what the signage directing people to the site will look like, and it is our hope that it will be clear and obvious how to access the egalitarian section.

As previously stated these things will take time to work out. We must keep in mind that this is a major victory in recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel.  Due to our growing movement in Israel and steadily increasing support for Israel from abroad we are able to achieve such victories.  Let us continue to build and to change what it means to be Jewish in the Jewish state.


With Gratitude

As stated in the release of the Israeli Reform Movement:

“Today’s victory would not have been possible without the vision and leadership of our own Anat Hoffman. For 27 years, Anat has been on the forefront of this issue. She has persevered through decades of protests and prayers, arrests and activism. We are inspired every day by Anat’s leadership and her tireless creativity. Anat, we are all grateful to you for your prophetic voice for equality, which has borne such sweet fruit today.” In addition to Anat’s work, we must recognize Rabbis Gilad Kariv and Rick Jacobs who negotiated tirelessly for the past 4 years on our behalf as well as Jerry Silverman of JFNA and our partners in the Conservative Movement.”

Finally, we must also thank you.  All of our ARZA members, leaders, board members and officers  and all those in our movement who supported this cause along the way, who worked over the years on behalf of equality and recognition at the Kotel.  This is part of what it means to be a Reform Jew committed to Israel and to shaping the future of the State of Israel to be an inclusive and pluralistic Jewish environment that represents its diversity.


Todah rabah,


Rabbi Bennett Miller

Rabbi Josh Weinberg

Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Dan Ephron

Twenty years after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, a horrible question arises: Was the murder a complete and unmitigated success?

I remember exactly where I was on November 4, 1995:  dozing with family on a lazy Shabbat afternoon. The TV was on, and it grabbed our attention when the program cut to breaking news. Rabin had just been shot, and was later confirmed killed, on his way toward the parking garage after a big peace rally in Tel Aviv.

It pains me even now, two decades later, to write the next sentence. But I knew in my kishkes right away that it was not a Palestinian terrorist who had murdered Rabin. I knew this was the work of a Jew. I doubted an Arab attacker would infiltrate a Tel Aviv rally of hundreds of thousands of Jews and be able to get to the Prime Minister. A Jewish terrorist, on the other hand, would slide through the crowd with ease.

And I had seen firsthand the underbelly of violence fomenting in the Jewish community. The opposition (Mr. Netanyahu) had no problem, in the months prior to the murder, rallying beneath images portraying Rabin in an Arab kaffiyeh or with a Hitler mustache. Rabin, who had dared propose peace, was vilified among the Jewish right.

But worse than that: there were code words. Rabin, they insisted, was a boged (traitor), a rodef (one who is in active pursuit of a potential victim), and a moser (one who informs against Jews to non-Jewish authorities). Those are loaded terms, because in the Halachic world they could be interpreted to mean: Such a person could legally and morally be killed in order to halt his treachery. This was gasoline being poured on smoldering embers, waiting for the right fanatic to spark the flames of violence.

The publication of Dan Ephron’s Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel is timely, coinciding not only with the ugly anniversary, but also with waves of violence in Israel from the hands of Jewish extremists.

Ephron begins the saga with the events leading up to the historic peace signing on the White House lawn in September 13, 1993. On that day Rabin, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and PLO President Yasser Arafat signed the historic peace accords that set in motion a dizzying new direction for the Middle East. Suddenly, nations around the world were making diplomatic overtures to Israel. It sparked a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994 (the first Arab state to do so since the treaty with Egypt in 1979). Rabin, Peres, and Arafat were all awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

But the peace process also triggered more insidious responses. A wave of terrorism was launched against Israel. Hamas rose to power in Gaza, positioning itself as a more radical voice of the Palestinian street. And right-wing Jewish radicals seethed. On Purim 1995, Baruch Goldstein (yimach sh’mo—may his name be blotted out), a 38 year-old doctor and captain in the army reserve, walked into the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron and massacred 29 Muslims at prayer and wounded 100 others. In some religious quarters, rabbis and students debated—in an ostensibly theoretical way—whether or not Jewish law mandated that Rabin should be put to death.

Ephron tells two distinct narratives (distinct, that is, until they come together at the denouement). One is Rabin, the unsentimental, battle-hardened leader, who had doubts but still concluded that peace with the Palestinians was pragmatic, strategic, and sensible.

The other narrative is of a young Yemeni Jew, Yigal Amir. Amir did not grow up in what was considered Israel’s incubators for radicals, the remote settlements in Judea and Samaria; he was from Herzliya, a small Mediterranean city north of Tel Aviv. He was a student at Bar Ilan University, than (and now) a mainstream Orthodox college for Jewish and secular studies.

The story of Amir’s radicalization is sobering. Amir spoke openly about killing Rabin to a circle of peers and family. He and his brother gradually accumulated an arsenal of weapons hidden in their family home. Yet somehow on that tragic night he was able to enter the garage where Rabin’s car was parked and loiter there for the better part of an hour.

One astonishing detail is Amir’s utter remorselessness. Aviv was his third attempt to murder the Prime Minister. In early 1995, he attempted to get close to Rabin at Yad Vashem, at a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (can you imagine if the Prime Minister of Israel was assassinated by a Jew at such an event at such a place?). In April, he tried again to get close to Rabin at a Mimouna celebration in Jerusalem. He had been a known quantity to Shabak, Israel’s security services. And after Amir was in police custody, he acknowledged what he had done and why. He even returned to the square in Tel Aviv and walked police through the series of events, explaining exactly how he shot Rabin.

In the weeks after the assassination, there was some genuine hand wringing from the right wing religious Zionist camp. There seemed to be an acknowledgment that a virus was replicating itself in certain yeshivot and in the settlements: a virus that was radical, violent, and placed its loyalty in extremist rabbis rather than in the laws and institutions of the State of Israel. There seemed to be a spirit of honest Teshuvah.

But that self-reflection faded. Amir became a hero to many. (I recently argued with an Israeli friend about whether or not Amir would be paroled in his lifetime. He is convinced that one day it could be politically prudent for a Prime Minister to pardon Amir. I disagree, but the prospect chills me to the bone.) And conspiracy theories began to flourish among those who would exonerate Amir. Was the murder an inside job with Amir as the fall guy? Who yelled “They’re blanks!” when Amir fired his gun, causing confusion among the bodyguards and secret service agents? And what was the role of an embarrassing rogue Shabak informant, Avishai Raviv?

Ephron strikes a proper balance: He dismantles the conspiracy theories in a few pages without granting them too much legitimacy.

Today, the lessons of 20 years ago seem forgotten. Israel is currently governed by its most right-wing coalition in history. Recent months have seen a proliferation of “price-tag” attacks on Palestinians. So-called “hilltop youth” have become folk heroes of a sort among elements of Israeli society. Reclaiming the Temple Mount for Jewish prayer—once considered to be an extremely radical and inflammatory position—has gained traction this season as political wedge issue.

And certain settler rabbis continue to preach hatred and armed conflict in the name of G-d.  I have no doubt that behind closed doors, there are many Israelis who say, “You know, Rabin was a boged. He deserved to be killed.”

Ephron’s gut-wrenching book deserves to be widely discussed in the pro-Israel community. Frankly, it’s haunted me since I read it. Somewhere tonight Yigal Amir sits in prison, aware that the modern Middle East is different because of him. Somewhere there are people who still drink L’chayim! to Amir as a hero. Somewhere, radical rabbis are giving drashot inciting their followers to embrace their hate—and their guns.

Killing a King reminds us that hateful words erupt into hateful deeds. If it inspires us to be counterpoints to Amir and his ilk—to elucidate a Judaism and a Zionism based on mutual respect and peace—then it will be more than just a timely reminder. It will be a mitzvah.


Rabbi Neal Gold lives outside of Boston and has served congregations in New Jersey and Massachusetts for the past 19 years.

He is an innovative teacher, pastoral counselor, and social activist, who loves how the beauty and power of Jewish texts and traditions unite communities, inform Jewish souls, and transform the world.  He especially loves Talmud, Midrash, early Chasidic spirituality, and the roots of Zionism. Some of the adult education courses Rabbi Gold has taught in recent years include:  “Crossing the Street: Jews and Muslims in Conversation,” “Reading Maimonides,” “Finding My Personal God,” “The Old, Weird Bible,” “Money, Sex & Power in Jewish Texts,” and “Biblical and Jewish Themes in the Lyrics of Bob Dylan.”  He has served on the faculty of the URJ Adult Summer Learning Institute (Kallah). 

Rabbi Gold is active on the Boards of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) and the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, and serves on the President’s Council of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. For years he worked in Israel with the Ziv Tzedakah Fund, teaching thousands of teenagers about simple and offbeat ways in which people do the work of World-Repair. He has also been very involved with creating meaningful interfaith projects, especially Jewish-Muslim dialogue. He is a founding board member of the Kavod Tzedakah Collective.

He is married to Heidi Gold and they have two sons, Avi and Jeremy. Rabbi Gold enjoys fishing, writing, skiing, reading, and highly amplified music.

Im Tirtzu: Just Lashon Hara or Worse?

By now, many of us have seen the video. It opens with a horror-film score and a scene of everyday Israeli life. A dark, bearded, sinister man approaches the camera and raises a knife. You, the viewer, are the victim of a terrorist attack. The narration then begins, in the tone of a spy thriller. The leaders of four leading Israeli human rights NGOs — The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem, and Hamoked: The Center for the Defense of the Individual — are condemned as European “plants” aiming to destroy Israel.

Yet, Im Tirtzu’s latest ad is only the tip of the iceberg. The far-right Israeli political movement, which has traces of facism as stated by a 2013 Israeli court decision, ran the ad to support a bill by Likud MK Yoav Kish, labeling Israeli NGOs that receive foreign financing as “moles,” heavily restricting their activity and giving the state the power to dissolve them at will. Meanwhile, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has proposed a bill placing additional scrutiny on left-leaning NGOs and their funding sources, and even Yair Lapid has suggested that Breaking the Silence is a stooge of foreigners seeking to hurt Israel. Even Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, has been accused of being everything from a traitor to a Nazi for appearing in the same forums as these NGOs and defending the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens. According to The Times of Israel, “threats on [Rivlin’s] life and personal attacks have become so common that they rarely make headlines anymore.”

Our Jewish tradition considers defamation and lashon hara (speaking evil tongue or slander) to be great sins. Lashon hara is distinguished from defamation (motzi shaem ra) in that the information spread may be true but does nothing to improve a negative situation, while defamation defines outright falsehoods and slander. Both are forbidden. The Talmud states that speakers of lashon hara are not tolerated in God’s presence and even compares lashon hara with shfichut damim (murder), and the ninth commandment tells us not to bear false witness against our neighbor, a clear proscription against defamation and lying.

Lawrie Cate via Flickr

Lawrie Cate via Flickr

Both defamation and lashon hara are clear in the behavior of groups like Im Tirtzu. Repeated accusations that individuals like Avner Gvaryahu, Breaking the Silence’s director of public outreach and a former paratrooper commander, are “traitors” and “plants” for insidious foreigners, or that Israel’s president and former chairman of Likud is a “Nazi” are clearly false and defamatory. The accusations aim to destroy the reputations of these figures and incite hostility and even violence towards them. Similar accusations – of Nazism, of treachery, of betrayal of the Jewish people – were leveled against Yitzhak Rabin. Only 20 years after his assassination, the same sort of incitement is being repeated by the usual suspects.

Meanwhile, bills like Shaked’s “transparency” law aim to accomplish the same goal without outright lying. By forcing organizations to only reveal foreign government donations – and not, for example, the hundreds of millions of private foreign dollars propping up far-right groups and the settlement enterprise without accountability – Shaked and her supporters are able to insinuate treason while proclaiming that they are only interested in transparency. This is classic lashon hara: malicious use of “truth” without context to damage the reputation and safety of another person.

Regardless of what one thinks of President Rivlin or Israel’s human rights activists, this behavior is both dangerous and contrary to Jewish values and must be combatted. That starts with rejection of these false Zionist activists by the Jewish community.  People who see tough criticism of Israeli policy and defense of Israeli liberal and democratic values as traitors are a grave threat to Israel’s future.  Im Tirtzu, the racist Lehava movement, the Tag Mechir (Price Tag) vigilantes, and other foes of Israeli democracy must be denounced without reservation.

We must also act to ensure that no Jewish communal funds are provided to support violent and racist incitement against Israeli NGOs, Arab citizens of Israel, or Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Donations from groups receiving the benefit of tax exemption from the IRS should not be permitted to support these dangerous anti-Zionist organizations. Finally, we must call on the Israeli government to withdraw the proposed law on the registration of NGOs and other anti-democratic legislation and administrative actions that threaten the Supreme Court, civil liberties and artistic and cultural freedom for all Israeli citizens.

Israeli democracy is on the line. We cannot be silent.





Celebrating American Thanksgiving in Israel during the past 40 years

Kiddush by Ron Shabbat Thanksgiving 2014Reminiscing about Thanksgivings past and our first celebration as a young couple living in Kiryat Nordau, Netanya found us hosting Israeli cousins who had been exceedingly kind in welcoming us as new olim.  They joked for many years after about ‘Tanksgiving’.

Working with NFTY and with Indiana University students at Hebrew University, I came to understand that this all-American holiday could be a sad time, prompting homesickness among those far from family in a place where the holiday isn’t celebrated.

During one of the last years of NFTY in Israel’s CAY program (College Academic Year in Israel), then based at Kibbutz Tzora, I was asked to join at their student-led Thanksgiving dinner.  I was so warmly received and enjoyed the give and take among the group, who enthusiastically described their procurement of the necessary supplies, planning and prep for the feast.  One student’s mom had sent pumpkin table decorations (subsequently willed to me which and enjoyed every year), while another shared her experience of ‘catching’ the turkey, which then had to be slaughtered.  Tzora raised turkeys at that time, but this lovely student was herself a long-time vegetarian, doing her duty to her fellow students even if personally distasteful to her.

One year, I found myself with NFTY students enjoying a Thursday night Thanksgiving dinner, our Erev Shabbat hosts unexpectedly served a sumptuous Shabbat Thanksgiving repast with all of the trimmings, and the follow night we were hosting students and friends in our home for the same……three in a row!

By the way, one might note Israel’s  high rate of per-capita consumption of turkey products.  We enjoy turkey hot dogs, pastrami, salami, shwarma and shnitzel to name just a few, yet a whole roasted turkey remains relatively unknown.

Terry & The Turkey Shabbat Thanksgiving 2014Our bird is always ordered in advance from Achmed, the long-time, skilled, and very kind Arab butcher at our local supermarket, which caters to English-speaking Israelis, diplomats and ex-pats.  I was sad when ordering the bird earlier this week to learn from his successors that Achmed  had retired.  I would have wanted to say goodbye to him and personally wish him good luck.  I then told these young men that I had been ordering a turkey from Achmed every year since he had been working at this store.

One year a three-day Muslim holiday fell just before Thanksgiving.  I came by early to pick up my bird and Achmed whispered and pointed under the counter, explaining that because of the holiday, the slaughterhouses preparing whole turkeys were closed and that he had only received 20 of the 70 birds ordered.  I got mine and he safeguarded those set aside for the U. S. Consulate folks.  Here I am, an ex-pat American Jew, now an Israeli dependent on the Muslim Arab butcher for her kosher turkey essential to hosting homesick American students for Thanksgiving dinner in Jerusalem.  Achmed and friends always yielded their knives with peace and love, happy to supply what their American customers liked to order.  We love this store for many reasons, one of which is the apparent respect and fair treatment of this store’s long-time Arab employees.   We’ve become attached and depend on them when seeking out the finest vittles for our holiday tables.

Shabbat Thanksgiving 2014Having ourselves come to Israel from another land and culture and growing to love Israeli culture and customs, it never occurred to us that our Israeli friends and family would find our Thanksgiving celebrations exotic or enticing.  Yet, our daughter Ayala’s close friend Sivan had never seen a whole roasted turkey until her first Thanksgiving with us many years ago.  It’s since become an annual tradition to photograph Sivan with the bird pre-carve.

We were privileged to bring my 85 year old mother to Israel in 2007 where she was well cared for in a local nursing home, departing peacefully from us at the age of 90.  Granny reminded everyone that ‘she was just a plain old American girl’ and looked forward each year to Thanksgiving.  Being wheelchair-bound, unable to access the steep stairs to our home, we invited her favorite caregivers to join her at a local hotel which annually hosts a sumptuous feast.  When that was no longer possible, we brought her our home cooked goodies to the nursing home.

Since the day of our aliyah, I have held firm to the notion that we are privileged to live at a time in the history of our people when we have our own democratic state.  With all of the challenges and blemishes, our Israeli Thanksgiving dinners remind us of the deep and lasting relationship between the United States and Israel, of Israelis and Americans and American Israelis, and that we have been chosen to be among those fortunate enough to have made Israel our home, the only true democracy in this part of the world and that as dual U.S./Israeli citizens we continue to find meaning in the story and celebration of Thanksgiving.



Terry Cohen Hendin, M.S.W., a  member of Jerusalem’s Kehilat Kol Haneshama and the Israeli Reform Movement  was Office Administrator and Director of Student Services for NFTY in Israel  1991-2007.  A graduate of HUC-JIR School of Non-Profit Management, Terry holds an Honorary Doctorate from HUC and currently works as Israel Volunteer Coordinator for Skilled Volunteers for Israel. She made aliyah with her husband Ron in 1975, happily celebrating American Thanksgiving in Israel for the past 40 years.  Their daughters, Keren and Ayala live in Jerusalem.

This article is dedicated to the generations of NFTY students and staff hosted at the Hendins’ Thanksgiving table and to Terry’s  late mother, Audrey Cohen who was a long-time member of Temple Beth-El in Hammond, Indiana.

The Odd Couple: Reform Judaism and Zionism

by Rabbi Daniel M. Bronstein, Ph.D.

Making sweeping historical generalizations is easy. Lots of people make them, even the best of historians.

Broad statements can be a “necessary evil” when one is faced with limited time or space to make an historical point. But generalities can easily mutate into over-simplifications that ultimately obscure – if not distort – historical narratives of particular moments or communities.

For example, we Reform Jews are sometimes the unwilling recipients of generalizations about our politics and religiosity. Sometimes, though, we are guilty of the same sin.

Some were surprised by the Reform Jewish community’s recent response to the Obama administration’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Agreement, intended to regulate Iran’s use of nuclear power. Voicing a lack of “unity of opinion among the Reform leadership,” the Union for Reform Judaism declined to either support or oppose the initiative. Read more…

How We Planned the Temple Event That Won Us a Prestigious Programming Award

by Alexis Rothschild

This year, the sisterhood of Temple Sholom in Vancouver, BC, Canada, is celebrating our 50th anniversary. We are proud to be receiving a silver Or Ami “Light of My People” Programming Award, which will be recognized at the WRJ Assembly 2015, held Nov. 4-8 in Orlando, FL (concurrently with the URJ Biennial 2015). For the past six years, we have won awards both on the WRJ District and international levels.

We’re proud of our innovative programming and the broad range of women it helps bring to and involve in sisterhood. From ongoing programs like Book and Bagel, Rosh Chodesh Renewal, and Tikkun Olam Gogos supporting the Stephen Lewis Foundation Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign, to single events like presentations on human trafficking and death, our programs represent the breadth of interests in our diverse community.

Our programming arises from the interests and passions of our members. A couple of year ago, one of our members brought her strong interest in the issue of death and dying to sisterhood with her desire to have a community discussion. She was willing to take the lead on the program and work with the existing Sisterhood Social Action Committee. Six members of the Social Action Committee organized the event; more than 25 additional women volunteered toward the success of the program. It took us more than two years to plan the event. Read more…

URJ Calls for an Immediate End to Violent Attacks in Israel

In a press release issued today, URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs issued the following statement:

The growing number of violent attacks on Jews and Jewish sites in Israel must end. Continuing on this course puts Palestinians and Israelis on the precipice of a conflagration that will end only with greater bloodshed. Today’s arson desecrating Joseph’s Tomb was just the latest in a string of incidents targeting Jewish people and property, destroying families, and vandalizing holy sites. Such actions lead both sides ever further from peace. President Abbas must take the steps necessary to halt these attacks immediately, including refraining from fanning the flames of violence with rhetoric. Israeli leaders – including Prime Minister Netanyahu – must take the steps necessary to ensure the safety and security of Jewish Israelis, without alienating Palestinians who reject acts of violence. As Shabbat starts, we join with Jews around the world in praying for a week of peace to come.

When It Comes to the Middle East, It Can’t Be All Black and White

by Kendra Gerstein

As a community, we feel deeply the recent acts of violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank. It is painful to see these senseless attacks being repeated day after day. Many of us feel both angry and sad as these events continue to unfold. As fears and tensions rise, the outcry is getting louder and the filters that keep discourse civil are being peeled away.

This week, I am in Israel attending the World Zionist Congress, where I am proud to be an ARZA delegate representing the Reform Movement. The World Zionist Organization is the umbrella group for Zionist organizations of a wide range of political leanings and affiliations.

It is easy to think of your own thoughts and views as center. That is until you meet the people who are either to the right or left of you and you realize how far away you might be from them. When I attended the pre-congress meeting in New York a few weeks ago, I had a chance to meet many of the delegates from other parties. I was surprised to learn that the conservative movement’s party is called “Mercaz” or “center.” How can this be? I thought. The very name of the movement suggests that they must be much further to the right that I am… right? Using my own social media feed as a litmus test, I find myself positioned safely in the middle. Read more…

This Month in the Tent: A One-Stop Source of Ideas and Information for Congregational Life

With the High Holidays behind us, congregational programming is in full swing – and so is activity in The Tent, the URJ’s online communication and collaboration forum.

Here’s a sample of the many interesting and engaging topics congregational leaders are chatting about in The Tent:

  • More and more congregations are using online forms and surveys to gather information from members. Read about the range of options, including which ones get a thumbs up from users.

Do you have a question or issue related to some aspect of congregational life? Post it in The Tent, where hundreds of your peers in synagogues across North America will see it – and will have creative, proven ideas, and suggestions to share. For additional support, contact the URJ Knowledge Network team.

The World Zionist Congress Begins This Week – and the Reform Movement is There!

I am sure that over the past couple of weeks you have watched the news coming out of Israel with grave concern. These new terror attacks are both difficult to deter and impossible to predict: One Israeli friend of mine commented, “It feels like 2002 all over again, except all the lessons we learned about suicide bombers aren’t helpful in preventing someone stabbing you in your neighborhood.”

It is no doubt a trying time for the people of Israel, for the Palestinians, and for all of us who feel emotionally connected to the situation.

Much has been discussed about the failures of leadership on both sides and about how this current outbreak of violence is an indication of the feelings on the Palestinian street – especially among the younger generation – and that the current status quo is unsustainable. This is worrisome and only reinforces the need for a real commitment by all parties to revive serious peace negotiations. Read more…

Tikkun Olam at the URJ Biennial

The URJ Biennial 2015 has been designed to present content in new and innovative ways, and we’re proud to share that the Religious Action Center of Judaism has coordinated the tikkun olam track – an outstanding series of more than 30 social justice workshops!

Join us throughout the course of the Biennial as we learn from social justice leaders from across our Reform Movement and around the world. These presenters will highlight dozens of topics ranging from anti-Semitism in Europe to transgender inclusion, Jewish genetic diseases, and techniques for engaging youth in social justice priorities. Each workshop is designed to offer programming ideas and opportunities for you to return home with, and we promise you’ll return inspired to create a more just world. Read more…