Realizing the Dream, Equality for All: Law Day at the Blair County Courthouse, Friday, May 3, 2013
Even though my husband Don is the one in law school, I’m grateful to have the opportunity to speak to you, because of my scholarly work in the field of Jewish law. Like the American system of justice that we celebrate today, Jewish law is based on the concepts of fairness in judgment, equality of treatment, and a single system of rules that applies to everybody. The rules and rulings of Jewish law, like those in America, reflect a presumption that you are not who you are because of where you are born, or how much money you have, or who your parents are – but what you can and want to become.
Our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents left Russia and Poland and Germany and Austria because we were treated as less than full citizens – and eventually as less than fully human. They believed what Scripture taught them: that we, created in God’s image, are all equally God’s children. They brought their children here so that they – so that WE – could be free of the oppression of tyrannical regimes that turned God’s decrees upside down: that restricted where we could live, where we could go to school, and how we could earn a living. They came to America knowing that this country provided the best opportunities for their children – for us – to realize our potential, to reach beyond what we thought was possible.
I’m a pretty good example of what they had in mind. First, you have to understand – I’m not only the oldest child of the entire generation in my family, but also the number-one grandchild. So of course, I was taught from the time I was born that I was brilliant, that I was gifted, that I could do anything that I set my mind to. My grandmother and my great-grandmother were my role models. Bubbe Rose came here from Poland, all by herself, at the age of 16, and made a very good living cooking and sewing for prominent Jewish families in New York. Her daughter, my Grandmom Freda, was like her mother – a modern woman, probably ahead of her time. She didn’t have a college education. But she was a successful businesswoman who ran her dress shop for years so that she could put her two kids through school. Not only did my dad and my Aunt Bobbi get college degrees, they went on to graduate studies as well, and Dad’s Ph.D. in psychology was a source of pride for the entire extended family.
I was fortunate to have a dad who not only encouraged me but inspired me. When I was growing up, he worked for the US military, creating programs designed to promote tolerance, understanding, and cooperation among soldiers of different backgrounds, races, and ethnicities. He had traveled through the country and witnessed first-hand the oppression of blacks in the south, and the lack of opportunities for the poor. He raised me in a home with progressive ethical values – which I have come to understand are directly derived from the Jewish tradition. You shall have one set of laws for citizen and stranger alike. You shall care for the poor, the orphan, the widow and the stranger. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. All of these are commanded by the Torah, the laws set down by God at Mount Sinai. All of them clearly influenced what my father did for a living, and how he lived out his beliefs, and how he passed them down to me. He may have been surprised when I decided to become a rabbi, but he should not have been surprised that I would choose a life based on these fundamental principles.
About that becoming a rabbi thing. I got a little ahead of myself there. I’m actually a third-career rabbi, and the first two careers were as non-traditional as this one. My first career was as a broadcast journalist, on the radio, in Baltimore. Yes, I covered general local and political news. But I also got into sports reporting too. I was one of the first female reporters granted equal clubhouse access by Major League Baseball. That’s a fancy way of saying that I was allowed in to do interviews while the guys were still naked. I did my job, I did it well. The players generally were respectful. The coaches looked after me. And God bless the Orioles manager, Earl Weaver, of blessed memory. He hated reporters – and he really hated female reporters. The first time I went into his office, I was scared to death. He looked at me in front of all the male reporters and boomed “Are you gonna do something with that tape recorder, young lady?”
I didn’t say what I wanted to say. I just sort of took a deep breath. And anytime I would go to the visitors’ clubhouse, and somebody would call out, “Lady in the locker room!” I would just say, “thank you for noticing.”
Sports reporting got me to my next career. Besides baseball, I also learned pretty much everything there was to know about the thoroughbred horse-racing industry in Maryland – one of the biggest employers in the state. Me and a tape recorder hanging out at the racetrack – in the early mornings, interviewing trainers about their prospects. In the afternoons, learning the racing side, and understanding the business of the industry. Springtime at Pimlico, autumn at Laurel. And when the three tracks that run the Triple Crown races – the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont – decided to create a new company to market them, I was the one they picked to be the first executive director of Triple Crown Productions.
So I traveled the country, working with horsemen, with the media, developing national corporate sponsorships, and moving their business plan forward. I had a great working relationship with the big corporations, with the network TV folks, and with the horsemen. I did so well that I worked myself out of a job. After three years, everything was in place, and my boss figured they could do it without me. So they did away with my job. And even though I knew it wasn’t personal – it was devastating. Never in my life had I been turned down for an opportunity or a job that I wanted. And now I couldn’t stay doing something I loved, and something I was really good at.
Thank goodness for Don, who said, “You’ve been on the treadmill so long.” Just take time and figure out what you want to be when you grow up. And he was right. I hadn’t stopped working since I was 14. I needed to step back and figure it all out.
That’s where Judaism came in. Don and I had joined a congregation in Louisville, Kentucky, where we were living at the time, and we started taking Hebrew lessons and basic Judaism classes from the wonderful rabbi there. Turned out I had a knack for learning Hebrew. And the more we studied, the more questions I had – about prayer, about history, about culture, about Jewish law. Basically about everything. Our rabbi got me teaching, volunteering, helping to lead services. And after a couple of years, it dawned on me one day that this was what I was really meant to do.
I had one more test. The rabbi said – if you’re serious about becoming a rabbi, you have to do one thing for me. I am going to make you a substitute 7th grade teacher in the after-school Hebrew program. If you can handle that, I’ll recommend you to the seminary.
So here I was, embarking on my 3rd career – the thing that I really was supposed to become when I grew up. It is not easy for women to be rabbis, even 40 years after the first woman was ordained. We tend to get less pay and less respect and less high-profile jobs than the guys, even when we’re just as qualified. But to be an OLDER woman? Oh, that’s a double whammy. They sort of don’t know what to do with us. They call us “non-traditional students” which is a nice way of saying that we’re, you know, not kids they can mold into what they want. We already have years of experience of life, doing stuff, raising families, earning a living.
Being a 35-year-old woman embarking on a career as a rabbi is infantilizing. At Hebrew Union College, they ask for your High School transcript. They presume you’ve come up through their system – Religious School, summer camps, Jewish studies majors, junior year abroad studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Me, I had exactly ZERO of that. What did I have? Hey, I was number one, remember? Number one child. Number one grandchild. I was brilliant. There was nothing I could not do. But I had to work for it. And I worked harder than anybody else. At first, it took me hours to translate and understand one short paragraph of text with the help of a dictionary. But I forced all that stuff into my brain, and then sorted it out and synthesized it. And eventually it made sense. I learned to sing and to chant traditional melodies and to translate and explain medieval texts as well as anybody in the school. I was accepted into the Ph.D program at the seminary before I had even achieved rabbinic ordination. And now – even with 15 years of practical congregational experience under my belt – I’m also working through my dissertation to become the second Doctor Korotkin in my family, after my dad.
Look, I know that I had opportunities that some other people don’t. I was not only raised to believe I could be anything – I also was raised in a comfortable middle-class home. So, yes, some opportunities came to me that might not come to somebody else. But I also made my own opportunities. In college, I created my own professional internships, and even designed my own major. I worked hours and hours beyond what I got paid at the radio station to learn new skills. At the Triple Crown, I created programs that didn’t exist before and are still in use today.
And as I rabbi, I’ve carved out my own niche. I’m not doing the rabbi thing the way they expect you to. The old model – the model that men created – was that you get ordained, you work as an assistant, and that you work your way up the ladder to the ultimate achievement, a senior position at a huge mega-temple with thousands of members and millions of dollars in the budget. For those of you who know anything about Temple Beth Israel – that’s not us. Not by a few decimal points. I can work a big room (as one of my classmates said) – but I choose not to. I choose to create a sense of importance, and dignity, and joy, and connection with the broader Jewish world in places like Altoona, Pennsylvania – because we deserve it just as much as the big congregations do, and maybe more.
When somebody’s hurt, we all jump into action. When a baby is born, we all celebrate. When a student becomes Bar or Bat Mitzvah, we are all proud. And when somebody dies, we all come together to mourn and to comfort one another. We don’t need to CREATE a formal committee like a caring community, we ARE a caring community.
It is in small congregations and small communities like this one that we really live what we preach about the dignity of every individual. Judaism holds as sacred the human being, created in the image of God and put on this earth to be God’s partner in making the world a better place – for ourselves and for everybody else. America holds as sacred the right of each person to equal opportunity, and the responsibility of each person to make sure that happens – for ourselves and for everybody else.
As a rabbi, it’s auspicious for me to be speaking with you today, of all days. For the Sabbath that begins tonight at sundown, Jews all over the world will be reading these words from Scripture: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof.”—the very same words inscribed on the Liberty Bell. The founding fathers of America were inspired by this verse from the Book of Leviticus, because it goes to the heart of what we are: a nation based on the very radical concept that each of us has the right to be free to live where we want, to earn a living however we want, to pray however we want. That each of us has the right to the same opportunities as everyone else. That each of us has the same responsibilities to everyone else.
So to the members of the Blair County Bar who have gathered today, I say: Please take these words to heart as you fight, each day, for the dignity and rights of our neighbors.
And to our students, I say: Take these words to heart as you grow, each of you, into the fabulous, talented, successful person you are destined to be.
Remarkable Victory for Women of the Wall, Women’s Ritual Rights
The ruling by the Jerusalem District Court today was beyond what anyone could have imagined. Judge Moshe Sobel ruled, as we hoped he would, that the five women arrested earlier this month for praying at the Kotel did not disturb public order, and therefore the Jerusalem police should not have arrested them. He also denied, as we hoped he would, the police request for a restraining order preventing the women from returning to the Kotel to pray next Rosh Hodesh. But he went far beyond that. He ruled that the Law of Holy Places, which requires visitors to the Kotel to pray according to “local custom,” does not mean according to ultra-Orthodox policy. Indeed, he said, “local custom” also has national and pluralistic implications. And, said the judge, just because the Supreme Court recommended that Women of the Wall pray at Robinson’s Arch – an active archaeological dig far removed from the traditional “Kotel” prayer area — it doesn’t say that they must pray there, nor that they are barred from praying at the Kotel, nor that it is a criminal act for them to do so.
Wow! Anat Hoffman of WOW and the Reform Movement’s Religious Action center celebrated it as a liberation of the Western wall for all Jewish people. “We did it for the eight-year-old girl who can now dream of having her Bat Mitzvah at the Wall,” she said, “and for the grandmother who cannot climb on a chair in order to see her son’s Bar Mitzvah. We did it for the great diversity of Jews in the world, all of whom deserve to pray according to their belief and custom at the Western Wall.”
The judge’s ruling seems to undermine the current Israeli government’s determination to move women’s prayer and egalitarian minyanim to Robinson’s Arch, essentially affirming the Kotel as an Orthodox synagogue. I applaud the judge’s ruling and his bravery to stand up to intolerant elements within the Israeli government as well as the Israeli religious administration, and to make it clear that the prayers of Jewish women are as important, as legitimate, as legal, and as appropriate as those of men. Shabbat Shalom!
Separate But Equal? And Is That Enough?
In recent days, Jewish media have been abuzz with Natan Sharansky’s latest proposal for an egalitarian prayer space in Old Jerusalem. We should caution, however, that this proposal is not really new, is not really completely acceptable, and may even lead to a significant step backwards for womens’ rights and the rights of non-Orthodox Jewish worshipers in Israel.
Sharansky’s proposal is for a large egalitarian prayer space at an area known as Robinson’s Arch. This is not new. The Netanyahu government has floated this idea, at least privately, for a couple of years now. I heard this proposal myself on a pre-High Holy Day call with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren in 2011. One problem is that this is an active archeological excavation and would require significant, and expensive renovation. Another problem is that it is far removed from the area we know as the “Kotel,” the active prayer area for Jewish worshipers. Supporters of the Sharansky proposal say that it’s still part of the Western Wall. And technically that’s true. But it’s way on the south end, and that it is separated from the current prayer areas by extensive excavations as well as the large Mugrabi bridge, which provides access to the Temple Mount.
As my colleague and friend Rabbi Uri Regev pointed out to me, the government seems to be trying to codify what has been the situation for some time – Women of the Wall and other egalitarian minyanim are forced to leave the Kotel worship area and travel a distance just to pray together. The proposal would, I believe, completely cut off egalitarian prayer from the Kotel’s worship area, leaving it fully in ultra-Orthodox hands. The government could then tell the rest of us not to complain because, after all, we have Robinson’s Arch.
This is not a tenable situation. Truly, what needs to happen is that the Kotel worship area needs to be removed from ultra-Orthodox auspices and no longer considered a Haredi synagogue. It is a national treasure and historical landmark of the Jewish people. All of us should have equal access to it, to pray as we wish. The egalitarian prayer area used to be in the back of the Western Wall Plaza – and even this was taken away from us some years ago in the ultra-Orthodox power grab over common Jewish prayer space. Now that the ultra-Orthodox parties are frozen out of the new government, this would be the ideal time to move against the Haredi-controlled Heritage Wall Foundation, which now controls the entire Western Wall Plaza, and make this accessible to all who wish to worship, however they wish to do so.
The (Latest) Temple Baby Is Here!
Just before Shabbat began on February 8, we welcomed Ethan Robert Holzer into the world. Ethan now replaces his big brother, Ari, as the “Temple Baby” – the one we will all ooh and aah and coo over, the one we will pass around from person to person and table to table at the oneg, the one we (well, I) will make funny faces at from the bimah during services and hope it’s not too distracting for the adults. Mazal tov to Heather and Mike and their entire extended family. And mazal tov to us, for being such a warm, personal, welcoming and open congregation that Ethan and Ari represent four generations of their family still active at Temple Beth Israel. They are lucky to have a wonderful, loving family. We are lucky that their family has such a profound connection to the Temple. Mike and Heather have taken on the challenge of growing and enriching our membership; Sue is our Sisterhood President and the driving force behind many of our events and fund-raisers; Norma continues to inspire us all with her work in the interfaith community and as a Temple representative with the Federation. Without families like the Holzers and Sevels, we could not continue to provide the experiences and opportunities that we do. I hope that they will inspire all of you to give more of your time, your energy, your talents, and your love to the congregation, so that each of you can both be a blessing and gain much blessing from your involvement.
Funeral for Bob Patt on Friday Afternoon
We are saddened to inform the congregation and community of the death early Wednesday morning of Bob Patt, a beloved and long-time member of Temple. The funeral service will be at 1:00 on Friday, February 1, at E. Merrill Smith Funeral Home, 2309 Broad Avenue, with interment to follow at Mount Sinai Cemetery. The family will receive visits of condolence at the funeral home for the two hours prior to the service, beginning at 11:00 AM. Zichrono livracha. May his memory be for blessing.
What’s Next For Israel
So the votes are in for Israel’s election and the winner is – still to be decided. That’s the way Israeli politics works. With nearly a dozen political parties garnering seats in the Knesset, it remains to be seen who will be strong enough to cobble together a functioning coalition and become (or remain) Prime Minister. PM Benjamin Netanyahu called these elections early because he thought they’d strengthen his hand both domestically and with regard to foreign policy, but the move seems to have backfired and so has his Likud Party’s alliance with the nationalistic Yisrael Beiteinu party. The alliance garnered only 31 Knesset seats, down from the current 42, and reports circulated even before election day that a sizable number of Likudniks were turned off by Avigdor Lieberman, the outspoken Yisrael Beiteinu leader forced to resign from Bibi’s cabinet last month after being charged with fraud.
Netanyahu could go two ways on this. He could react as he has in the past, cutting deals with right-wing religious parties that would give him a slim majority in the Knesset. But he will have to contend with the growing popularity and surprising success of Yair Lapid and his centrist Yesh Atid (“there is a future”) party, which won 18 seats on a platform of economic support for the middle class and broad conscription of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students into Israeli military service. Lapid said after the election that he won’t form an opposition to stop Netanyahu from staying on as Prime Minister and offered positive support after Netanyahu gave voice in post-election speeches to the issues Lapid stressed in the campaign. Lapid might have the power to demand that Netanyahu not do deals with the ultra-Orthodox – which would be great news for those of us who have feared that the Haredi would maintain their hegemony over issues of religious and personal status throughout Israel. But given Netanyahu’s historic aversion to opposing the Haredi, I will not hold my breath until this comes about.
Justice, justice shall you pursue
After we share this Shabbat together I’ll be traveling to Memphis, Tennessee, for the Women’s Rabbinic Network conference for several days of prayer, study, sisterhood, and emotional renewal. We will tour the Civil Rights museum at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, and we will connect with a group called OpEd, which teaches skills for advocacy and making our voices heard in our community. I hope to come back with new ideas on how we can make an impact on life in our area, along with reflections for Shabbat Tzedek / Social Justice Shabbat on Friday the 18th at 7:30 PM. Please note that there is NO adult learning on Saturday the 12th. Saturday morning programming will return on the 26th with Shabbat morning worship at 10 AM.
Hey, We Made It!
Mazal tov, everyone. It’s now Friday morning and the world did not end. Oh, it’s not all sweetness and light. But the Mayan calculations seem to have been off. Of course, we, as Jews, do not follow the Mayan calendar – nor the Christian one, for that matter. The most important calendar, for us, is the weekly calendar that brings us to Shabbat, the day of rest and peace that provides us a taste of what the world could be like, if we work to make it so. Given all this, I hope to see everyone at services tonight at 7:30 PM. And since the world is still around, please know that we are still on the job, still working to perfect it. Shabbat shalom!
An Update From Israel’s Ambassador to the US
- More than half of Israel’s population is now in the line of fire from rockets fired from Gaza. In the month before this operation began, 600 rockets were fired from Gaza mostly into the south of Israel, terrorizing Israeli citizens. An additional one-thousand have been fired since.
- Israel seeks to restore safety and security of its population. They also require, as part of a cease fire, a change in status, where Hamas and the other terrorist groups can no longer fire with impunity on Israelis, which he called an “intolerable situation,” and the situation must be changed “in a fundamental way.” Ambassador Oren made it clear that the status quo is not acceptable: “We are prepared to take all necessary legitimate actions to protect our people,” he said, adding that a ground incursion into Gaza is not desirable but may be necessary.
- The Obama Administration has been in regular contact with Israeli leaders and they are grateful for President Obama’s unequivocal statements of support for Israel’s right to defend itself. He expressed appreciation to the White House and also to members of Congress and the Senate from both parties, who have continually asked what they can do to support Israel.
- If there is one bright light in all of this, it is the Iron Dome anti-missile system that has been 90 percent effective in intercepting and destroying hundreds of rockets aimed at Israel’s cities. It has saved many lives and, said Ambassador Oren, has given them time to maneuver and hopefully to come up with a diplomatic resolution.
- Israel is making what he called “super-human efforts” to limit civilian casualties in Gaza, warning residents by phone and e-mail and leaflets to stay away from targeted areas. The problem is that terrorists embed themselves and rocket launchers into heavily populated areas. So even though Israel makes surgical strikes on these targets, there is regrettable loss of life.
- Ambassador Oren thanked us as rabbis for our support in letting our congregations know what’s going on and trying to get information out without the “tendency toward ‘moral equivalency’ that we see in so much of the media.” (That is, that it’s not tit-for-tat attacks, and that Hamas and the other terrorist groups in Gaza are responsible for precipitating this violence with their unrelenting rocket attacks – something I have spoken and written about at length to you.)
- In response to questions, Ambassador Oren said it’s very hard to remove rockets in populated areas without a ground intrusion if the international community is not going to help. We saw this in Lebanon, where UNIFIL was supposed to be there not only to patrol the border but prevent the military build-up of Hezbollah; they are so ineffective that Hezbollah now has four times as many rockets as they did before.
- He said there are more than 10,000 rockets in Gaza, many hidden, deployed out of warehouses where they are harder to stop and target. But he added with regard to civilians that “at the end of the day, we are the Israeli Defense Forces, bound by our code of ethics that will continue to guide us during the most complex of situations.”
- He also noted that the power of rocketry has changed. While many rockets are smuggled in tunnels from Egypt in multiple pieces, the Palestinians also have imported engineers, from Syria in particular, to teach them how to build their own. And they have gotten out of Gaza to train in rocketry in Sudan and Libya. So they have a home-grown rocket industry based largely on Iranian and Syrian models.
There Is NO Equivalency
Did they really think they’d get away with it?
Since the beginning of the year, more than 800 rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel – many into cities in the south where men, women and children have been terrorized nearly every single day. The rockets are fired indiscriminately toward heavily populated areas with the express purpose of killing innocent civilians, destroying homes and property, and terrifying the whole of Israel. When more than 130 rockets fell in a 72-hour period this week, Israel’s government had finally had enough. It launched a major air attack into Gaza, killing the Hamas terrorist responsible for the Gilad Shalit kidnapping and the murders of countless other Israelis, as well as reportedly taking out a cache of longer-range rockets that could have hit Tel-Aviv. Still, on Thursday a rocket did hit Rishon LeZion, a city of over 200,000 people.
Predictably, the so-called “mainstream” American media (such as the Associated Press) depicts Israel as the aggressor here, falling for Hamas’s contention that Israel is targeting civilians. Here’s the truth: Hamas, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, is a terrorist organization whose stated purpose is the murder of Jews and the destruction of Israel. Hamas, like Hezbollah, is funded and armed by Iran and Syria – two international pariahs. And even Ahmed Said Khalil Jabari, the murdered Hamas military leader, bragged publicly after Shalit’s release that most of the terrorists released from Israeli prisons in the trade for the young Israeli solider were collectively responsible for murdering 569 Israeli civilians. Yes, he bragged about it. He was proud of the mass killings. Did anybody think he’d be left off scott-free? Does anybody think there aren’t more – many more – just like him in Hamas ready to murder again?
To their great credit, the Obama Administration immediately put out a statement condemning the rocket attacks from Gaza and re-affirming Israel’s right to defend itself. But the unrelenting attacks will continue as long as a terrorist state exists on Israel’s border, and as long as the world stands aside while Iran and Syria continue to provide support for Hamas’s murderous activities. While the world focuses on Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s civil war, Israelis remain in the cross-hairs every single day.
It is time for the world to condemn Hamas’s terrorism and demand that they stop immediately or face the consequences. Nobody – and certainly not Israel – wants another ground incursion into Gaza as we had just a few years ago. But if Hamas doesn’t knock it off, the people who live in Gaza will know first-hand how it feels to be an Israeli, under ceaseless threats and attacks on a daily basis. If the international community wants to stop that from happening, it’s Hamas, Iran and Syria they need to look to. Israel doesn’t initiate the attacks but will always respond to them.