A special live taping of our podcast ‘Not That Kind of Rabbi’.
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Why the Conservative movement is changing our approach to interfaith marriage
(JTA) — At the recent convening of Conservative/Masorti movement leaders, we were holding a workshop on new approaches to engage intermarrying couples when a participant spoke frankly about her own family. She said she felt like a failure and was not sure what to do.
“We’ve raised our daughter with a thorough Jewish experience,” she explained. “But she recently told us she is going to marry someone of another background.”
A member of the workshop panel responded quickly and emphatically: “Mazal Tov!”
Murmurs quickly spread throughout the room. Some people echoed the hearty wishes of congratulations and wanted to give the parent permission to fully embrace the young couple. Others were more measured, reflecting a strong, traditional preference for marrying Jewish partners.
The tension in that room over how hearty our blessing should be reflects the tension we face in the Conservative/Masorti movement. That tension was addressed in a new report from our movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, which I lead, issued this week, exploring ways to better welcome interfaith couples.
I was brought up in the 1970s and 1980s to believe that if I intermarried, it meant I didn’t care about Judaism and the Jewish people.
But in more than two decades of my rabbinate, I have not found that to be the case. Some of the most beautiful things said to b’nai mitzvah in my congregation came from parents who are not formally Jewish. They have been full partners — and in some cases, the driving force — in organizing religious school carpools, hosting a Passover seder, lighting candles, putting a mezuzah on their door and taking trips to Israel. Some ultimately chose to convert to Judaism.
And let’s face it: there are certainly households with two Jewish parents who make far fewer intentional choices about creating a Jewish home.
Being a rabbi also proved different than I expected when I was ordained. In rabbinical school, my teachers taught me a lot about rabbinic authority. When I actually started at my synagogue, I discovered that my influence with congregants was based much more on trust and relationship than on my title.
Given these experiences, it’s no wonder that our Conservative/Masorti movement is changing how we engage intermarrying and intermarried couples and families.
A series of prohibitions — around officiation, synagogue hiring, rituals and public roles — were developed in previous decades on the premise that intermarriage would inevitably lead to Jews leaving our people, and that religious authority could influence congregants’ choices.
But that culture of disapproval did not generally dissuade individuals in their marriage choices. It certainly did not draw people closer to our communities. Instead, too often, it pushed them away.
It is time for us to reconsider some of those practices.
These policies and prohibitions also made it much too easy for rabbis and couples to avoid hard conversations about what it means to create a Jewish home together. Whether it was discussing what kind of wedding ceremony could have Jewish integrity for both the officiant and the couple, or what it would mean to raise Jewish children, our policies — and our attitude — have meant we didn’t have the opportunity to engage. Why bother having these conversations when our culture simply disapproved of intermarriage?
The issue of officiation at a wedding ceremony by a rabbi is a complex conversation, which our rabbis, and so many others in our communities, take seriously. The Rabbinical Assembly report issued this week recommends that the prohibition around officiation at interfaith weddings be maintained at this time.
But the report was clear that this standard of rabbinic practice does not need to be the start (or end) of our conversations. Our culture of welcoming and engagement can start with how we announce all of our weddings and lifecycle events; how we offer blessings as a community in the days before and after a wedding; the pastoral conversations we have with all couples about creating a Jewish home; and how we include everyone in our communities during lifecycle events, in worship, in Torah study and in acts of kindness and justice.
This new invitation is also reflected in the establishment of a Joint Working Group between the RA and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), which represents our congregations, on how we can better engage intermarrying couples.
For more than 100 years, our movement has learned how to conserve tradition while evolving with a culture of respect, inclusion and egalitarianism. I have no doubt we will continue to do so.
As I listened to the murmurs in the room when the mother shared her feelings of failure, it was clear to me that our movement has a duty not just to love every Jewish person — but to love the ones whom they love. I recognize this both as a parent and as a rabbi. This love inspires me to find the words to congratulate couples and their families and then to to help them find a path toward a meaningful Jewish life.
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Biden sanctions 4 Jewish settlers based on allegations of violence against Palestinians and Israeli peace activists
WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Joe Biden ordered crippling sanctions on four Jewish West Bank settlers for alleged violence against Palestinians and Israeli peace activists.
Biden’s executive order Thursday represented an escalation of the diplomacy and pressure he has exerted on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to rein in extremists.
A White House statement framed the action as part of the multiple sanctions Biden has levied against officials of Hamas, the terrorist group that launched the war with a wave of massacres on Oct. 7.
“Since October 7, the United States has issued five rounds of sanctions against Hamas, including the most recent round of sanctions against Hamas last week,” the White House said in a statement. “President Biden has also spoken about his concern about the rise in violence that we have seen in the West Bank from extremist actors — in particular the rise in extremist settler violence, which reached record levels in 2023. This violence poses a grave threat to peace, security, and stability in the West Bank, Israel, and the Middle East region, and threatens the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.”
The sanctions essentially bar the four from transactions that involve the U.S. financial system, and make it nearly impossible for them to carry out business with U.S. dollars.
The United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs has reported that settlers, or settlers joined with Israeli forces, have killed 10 Palestinians and wounded 137 since Oct. 7.
The four named settlers are: David Chai Chasdai, who allegedly led a riot in the Palestinian village of Huwara, which resulted in the death of a Palestinian; Shalom Zicherman, who allegedly attacked Israeli peace activists in the West Bank; Yinon Levy, who allegedly intimidated and assaulted Palestinians with the aim of driving them from lands where they lived and farmed; and Einan Tanjil, who allegedly assaulted Palestinians and Israeli peace activists.
Biden has held Israel tight since the launch of the war, accelerating arms transfers, relaying troop ships to the region to deter others from joining the war, and leading airstrikes against Houthi militants in Yemen who in solidarity with the Palestinians have been targeting commercial ships headed for Israel’s Eilat port.
But he has also grown increasingly exasperated with Netanyahu, who has defied any post-war scenario that would lead to Palestinian statehood, a key Biden priority. Netanyahu was slow to respond to U..S. requests to accelerate the entry of humanitarian assistance into the Gaza Strip and to conduct a more targeted war inside Gaza.
More than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched counterstrikes after Hamas killed 1,200 people, brutalized thousands more and took more than 250 people hostage. Israel says a third of the Palestinian dead are combatants. The strip is on the verge of mass famine, international aid organizations have said, most of its homes are destroyed and most of its people are displaced.
Most galling to Biden however, has been Netanyahu’s unwillingness or inability to rein in extremists in his Cabinet, whom Biden called on Netanyahu to disavow before the war, and to control accelerated anti-Palestinian violence in the West Bank.
Biden reportedly considered adding to the sanctions list Itamar Ben-Gvir, the national security minister who has armed settlers with few restrictions since Oct. 7, and who has been convicted of terrorist-related activity. He decided against it, Axios reported. Biden also considered sanctioning Bezalel Smotrich, the far-right minister responsible for the West Bank.
Smotrich lashed out at the order on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, saying without evidence that it targeted the entire settlement movement.
“The ‘settler violence’ campaign is an antisemitic lie spread by the enemies of Israel to smear and harm the movement of settler pioneers,” Smotrich said. “Too bad the Biden administration is participating in this action while settlers are paying a steep price in the blood of their children in the war in Gaza.”
Smotrich said he would not stop in his efforts to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and to expand settlement. “If the price I pay is American sanctions imposed on me, so be it,” he said.
The Biden administration in December levied visa restrictions on settlers found to be involved in attacks, but to little effect.
A senior administration official, briefing reporters on Thursday just before the executive order was released, suggested that Biden was frustrated with the deaf ear that Netanyahu seems to have turned to the pleas of Israel’s most important ally.
“The president has also spoken about his concern repeatedly and consistently publicly and also in almost every diplomatic conversation he has with Israeli leaders about the rise in violence that we have seen in the West Bank from extremist factors,” the officials said. “And these actions pose a grave threat to peace, security and stability in the West Bank, Israel, and the Middle East region, and they also obstruct the realization of ultimately, an independent Palestinian state sitting side by side with the State of Israel.”
The order came on the day Biden traveled to campaign for reelection in Michigan, a key swing state where he overwhelmingly won the substantial Arab American vote in 2020. There is an organized campaign in the state to persuade voters to vote neither for Biden or for his presumptive rival, former President Donald Trump, because of anger with Biden over his support for Israel.
It was not immediately clear if any of the four named settlers have U.S. ties, but the order puts on notice any organization in the United States found to have funded any movement associated with the violence.
Individuals or organizations found “to have materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of, any person blocked pursuant to the order” will face the same sanctions, the order said.
West Point Urban Warfare Expert: IDF ‘Implemented More Measures to Prevent Civilian Casualties Than Any Other Military in History’
The chair of urban warfare studies at West Point’s Modern Warfare Institute released an op-ed on Wednesday arguing that, during Israel’s war on Hamas, the country “has implemented more measures to prevent civilian casualties than any other military in history.”
John Spencer, who served in the U.S. Army for 25 years and did two tours in Iraq, took to the pages of Newsweek to push back on allegations that Israel is indiscriminately targeting civilians and even committing genocide.
“As someone who has served two tours in Iraq and studied urban warfare for over a decade,” Spencer explained, “Israel has taken precautionary measures even the United States did not do during its recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
He wrote: “One of the best ways to prevent civilian casualties in urban warfare is to provide warning and evacuate urban areas before the full combined air and ground attack commences. This tactic is unpopular for obvious reasons: It alerts the enemy defender and provides them the military advantage to prepare for the attack. The United States did not do this ahead of its initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, which involved major urban battles to include in Baghdad. It did not do this before its April 2004 Battle of Fallujah (though it did send civilian warnings before the Second Battle of Fallujah six months later).”
“By contrast,” Spencer continues, “Israel provided days and then weeks of warnings, as well as time for civilians to evacuate multiple cities in northern Gaza before starting the main air-ground attack of urban areas. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) employed their practice of calling and texting ahead of an air strike as well as roof-knocking, where they drop small munitions on the roof of a building notifying everyone to evacuate the building before a strike.”
Israel’s use of hundreds of thousands of leaflets, almost 20,000 cell phone calls, 65,000 texts, and 6,000,000 voicemails to civilians, along with alerting civilians where its ground operations would be on a day-to-day basis, is also unprecedented, says Spencer. Not to mention pausing fighting for four hours “over multiple consecutive days” to allow civilians to leave war zones.
Israel may have needed to take such unprecedented measures because the conditions in which they are fighting are also unprecedented, according to analysts. Gaza is a small piece of land — only 25 miles long and, at its widest point, 7.5 miles wide — and extremely densely populated. To make matters more difficult, there are between 350 and 450 miles of tunnels under the strip, which is only 141 square miles, meaning almost the entire territory has Hamas infrastructure under it.
On this point, Spencer writes, “No military in modern history has faced over 30,000 urban defenders in more than seven cities using human shields and hiding in hundreds of miles of underground networks purposely built under civilian sites, while holding hundreds of hostages.”
Protecting civilians in such an environment is particularly challenging, which is likely one of the reasons Israel took the measures they have.
At the same time, the destruction in Gaza is widespread. More than half of the buildings are likely no longer habitable and the war has created a humanitarian crisis where people are unable to gain access to food and necessary medical care.
Additionally, the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health says almost 27,000 Palestinians have been killed during the war, although it does not differentiate between civilians and terrorists. Based on Israeli and U.S. estimates, the civilian-to-combattant casualty ratio is somewhere between 1.5-to-1 and 3-to-1, which is significantly better than the international average, which is 9-to-1 according to the United Nations, but still means thousands of uninvolved civilians have been killed.
“To be clear, I am outraged by the civilian casualties in Gaza,” Spencer makes sure to emphasize, “But it’s crucial to direct that outrage at the right target. And that target is Hamas.”