JSPAN Issues Haggadah Supplement for 2014

Though the goal of absolute equality may be impossible to realize, we learn from Yachatz that is it incumbent upon us to strive for equality.

The Jewish Social Policy Action Network has released its annual Haggadah Supplement for 2014, titled A Passage to Equality. The theme is overcoming inequality of opportunity.

Assembled and edited by three lawyers — Stephen Sussman, Jeffrey Pasek and Ken Myers — the Supplement addresses the Passover as a passage from slavery to equality, and seeks to provide additional relevance to the story with modern prayers and readings. The readings take up the meaning of Zdakah, how we address poverty and economic inequality as a society, women’s rights issues, and other modern conditions that impact lives. The Haggadah Supplement provides fresh ideas and opportunities for discussion during the Seder.

The Supplement is a 12-page booklet, including photos. Download it as a pdf file for viewing or printing.
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Get to Know Israel From Inside: Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land”

— by Kenneth R. Myers, Esq.

With Secretary of State Kerry’s peace initiative in the Middle East nearing a conclusion, this is a great time to read My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit. If you have already read it, consider reading it again.

Shavit is a Sabra, and the son and grandson of Sabras. His British great-grandfather came to Palestine as a tourist in 1897, returned home to fight for the Zionist cause, and ultimately resettled his family in Palestine.

Shavit lived through the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, and has been a kibbutznik, a soldier, and ultimately, a well-known journalist.  

Shavit carried out the direction in Genesis 13:17, and traveled the land, beginning in the steps of his great-grandfather. He interviewed both important and ordinary Jews and Palestinians, and visited sites of historic significance in the struggle between the Jews and the Palestinians.  

More after the jump.
In every page of this book, his love for the land comes forth. He asks the question, how did the best of intentions of the early settlers to live side-by-side with the Palestinians, turn into 60 years of confrontation with no apparent solution?

The book describes the massacres, the important battles, and the victories and defeats of both sides.

Shavit visited locations where Arab villages existed but do not anymore, or have been replaced by Israeli towns and cities. He visited Jewish settlements that have been, and in some instances are still, marauded. He pieced together the reasons that Palestinians departed or were driven away from them.

The title, “My Promised Land,” is misleading: After reading the whole book, “Our Promised Land” sounds more appropriate. Along with the victories and wonders Israel has accomplished, the Palestinian claim to a fair shake comes through loud and clear.

Shavit sets forth great achievements by Israel, far beyond any parallel development in Arab lands. But he also perceives several missteps. The most serious of these, Shavit explains, was the government’s decision to retain, at least for a time, the territories conquered in the Six Day War:

[F]rom the beginning Zionism skated on thin ice. On the one hand it was a national liberation movement, but on the other it was a colonialist enterprise. It intended to save the lives of one people by the dispossession of another.

In its first 50 years, Zionism was aware of this complexity and acted accordingly. It was very careful not to be associated with colonialism and tried not to cause unnecessary hardship. It made sure it was a democratic, progressive, and enlightened movement, collaborating with the world’s forces of progress. With great sophistication Zionism handled the contradiction at its core…

But after 1967, and then after 1973, all that changed… The self-discipline and historical insight that characterized the nation’s first years began to fade… You were wrong to think that a sovereign state could do in occupied territories what a revolutionary movement can do in an undefined land… Ironically, [occupation] brought back the Palestinians Ben Gurion managed to keep away.

After building a detailed history, Shavit examines Israeli society, politics, economics, government, and the competing positions between Israel and the Palestinians of today.  

[F]ive different apprehensions cast a shadow on Israel’s voracious appetite for life:

  • the notion that the Israeli Palestinian conflict might not end in the foreseeable future;
  • the concern that Israel’s regional strategic hegemony is being challenged;
  • the fear that the very legitimacy of the Jewish state is eroding;
  • the concern that a deeply transformed Israeli society is now divided and polarized, its liberal democratic foundation crumbling; and
  • the realization that the dysfunctional governments of Israel cannot deal seriously with such crucial challenges as occupation and social disintegration.

Through interviews with key political and government figures, Shavit explores each of these five apprehensions, gloves off and no holds barred.

For anyone trying to understand where Israel is headed and what might happen there in the future, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is a must-read.

JSPAN Holds Two Programs Dissecting Economic Inequality

— by Kenneth R. Myers, Esq.

For the last 70 years our economy has grown almost steadily. Until 1970, this increase in productivity was shared between growth in wages for labor and profit growth for business. Since then, virtually all the growth in productivity has gone to increase corporate profits, while wages have not even fully kept pace with inflation.

Beginning with the film “Inequality for All” starring Professor Robert Reich, and continuing with a panel discussion a week later, JSPAN has initiated its year of focus on the problems of economic inequality. The programs, held on March 9 and 16 (after a one-week snow delay), drew substantial audiences at the host site, Germantown Jewish Centre.

More after the jump.
Inequality for All is Prof. Reich’s grand statement on film of the sources, attributes and problems of economic inequality in our society. With pictures and charts, and in his own personal electric presentation, he documents an immense change in American society, particularly since 1970.

The issue, according to Reich, is not just the discouragement of workers or the toll on people and families of declining expectations and a static or sliding quality of life. The sustainability of democracy, here and in other countries, depends heavily on the existence and growth of a middle-class.

Economic inequality in this nation, while accumulating immense wealth in the hands of a few, has expanded poverty and shrunk the middle class. The expectation that life will be better in each generation has been reversed.

The second program was a panel discussion featuring Rabbi Mordechai Liebling and Benjamin Peck. Liebling heads the Social Justice Organizing program of instruction for rabbis at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote. Peck is the Federal Affairs Manager for Demos, lobbying for progressive policies in Washington DC. Ilene Wasserman, Board member of JSPAN, moderated the discussion.  

The program began with Torah study of selected texts, directed by Rabbi Liebling. He urged that we must recognize that all wealth comes from the Lord.

Biblical justice for the Jewish community included Shmita, the forgiveness of debt every seven years, as well as the limit of seven years on slavery, and the restoration of land ownership every fifty years (“the Jubilee”). These institutions tended to level wealth within the community and to prevent the accumulation of immense wealth in a few people.

Drawing on statistics compiled by the Economic Policy Institute, Mr. Peck documented the extent to which wealth has become concentrated in a few hands in America.

With the accumulation of this great wealth has come political influence and control of the political system. The government has favored wealthy corporations and individuals by such steps as the bailouts in the 2008 crisis, the provision that Medicare cannot negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for lower prices, tax policies, and other examples.

Peck urges the wisdom of Warren Buffett, that his income tax rate should not be lower than that of his secretary.

Is Private College Education Worth the Following Debt?

— by Kenneth R. Myers, Esq.

One segment of our society that is disproportionately facing unemployment, debt load and powerlessness is our youth who are considering college, going to college, or recently graduated.

Issues today include whether taking on the high cost of a private college education is worthwhile, how much student tuition debt accumulates during college, and how the debt affects lives after graduation. Here is an excellent video seeking to expand understanding of the true dimension of the economic difficulties facing many of these young people and their families.

Save Me From Terrorists and the TSA


Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport control tower.

— by Kenneth R. Myers, Esq.

The relaxed feeling after my family vacation last month ended fast, when a bomb threat arrived, putting our plane and us in the hands of the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA).

Flight 770 to Philadelphia pushed back from the San Juan terminal gate precisely on time, loaded with 257 passengers and crew. The engines were started, and then stopped. The airline received a bomb threat, and a piece of checked luggage was on board with no passenger.

In a series of announcements, the captain first explained that a mysterious item of luggage was aboard, and then after a long pause, that a call had been received warning of a bomb. In a very slow procession, our airplane was towed about a mile, to a distant “isolation area” in a part of the airport with no buildings or people nearby, other than the emergency equipment called out for our arrival.  

There we sat for almost two more hours. There was no way for us to leave the plane, and we were forbidden to use cell phones, or other electronic devices. Nobody came aboard, and nobody left.

More after the jump.
The luggage compartment was opened, and the suspected item of luggage was found and towed away in a special containment vehicle, that looked like a large safe on wheels. As we sat there.

In short, the airport was saved from a threatened disaster, but we were left on the plane to await the feared explosion.

What kind of national security ignores 257 people exposed to a bomb threat? Who manages an emergency by protecting the airport, but not the passengers? This bomb turned out to be a hoax, but for us, protection from the TSA was like a hoax as well.

Kosher Food for Prisoners: A Question of Money?


Fewer than 1% of inmates request kosher meals. (San Quentin Prison, California)

— by Kenneth R. Myers, Esq.

Last week, an Orthodox Jewish prison inmate ended his four-year-old lawsuit seeking a kosher diet, thanks to a recent court ruling requiring Florida to provide all Jewish prison inmates with a kosher diet.

This case is one of several that prison inmates and the U.S. Department of Justice have brought in the last few years, where state prisons have withheld the option of kosher meals for Jewish inmates.  

The cases are brought under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (commonly referred to as RLUIPA) — the federal law that seeks to protect the right of inmates and other institutionalized persons to free exercise of religious practices. However, some state prison systems are slow to learn.

Providing kosher food for inmates is reported to about double the cost of the usual prison diet: an increase of between $4 and $5 per day for each inmate, according to the prisons. However, very few inmates (typically fewer than 1%) request kosher meals, according to the experience reported in the court decisions.

The courts therefore reject claims by the prisons that the cost of providing kosher food is burdensome. But the details of the cases suggest that there is more than cost at issue.

More after the jump.
Various prison systems have put up different bars to deter inmates from securing kosher meals:

  • One prison requires the inmate to pass a test of knowledge of the rules of kashrut;
  • another prison admits an inmate to the kosher food program, but removes him if he eats any “non-kosher” food (although the prison management does not appear to have enough knowledge to judge that question);
  • yet another prison’s management examines the inmate’s historic practices and reaches its own determination of the “sincerity” of the inmate’s beliefs;
  • and some prisons offer inmates the ability to purchase kosher food at their own expense.

In recent cases, the Justice Department and Jewish prisoners have prevailed over the state prison officials as to all of these arguments and stratagems. Yet, questions will continue to arise under RLUIPA, and the earlier-related Religious Freedom Restoration Act (familiarly known as RFRA).  

These statutes legislate religious accommodation — specifically, relief from some legal requirement of general application, where that relief is practical. Simple? Not at all.

The range of circumstances that give rise to RFRA and RLUIPA claims is great and still growing (most recently in the form of dozens of challenges to the Affordable Care Act). The questions of what constitutes a sincere religious belief, and more importantly, what is a substantial burden on religious practice, draw the courts into an unfamiliar territory.  

Each accommodation ordered by a court, and looked at differently, is a small establishment of one religion over all others. So the courts assiduously avoid “entanglement” by becoming involved in deciding religious issues, except for practice mandated under these two statutes.

The author is a member of the Church-State Committee of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, an organization which frequently participates in religious liberty cases as amicus curiae (“friend of the court”), and a director of the Philadelphia Jewish Voice.

Defending Voters’ Rights in Pennsylvania: The Battle Is Not Over


A visit to a PennDOT office to secure a photo ID may be very difficult for the elderly and the poor, and as a result they may drop from the voters’ rolls.

— By Kenneth R. Myers, Esq.

Striking down the voter ID law was an important step in securing voters’ rights in Pennsylvania.

The well reasoned opinion of Judge Herman McGinley overturning the voter identification law takes effect subject to the high likelihood of an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. That Court’s 2012 ruling withheld decision on the merits of the law, instead questioning the practical impact on voters. So there is no foretelling the result in the coming appeal.

Meanwhile, the next battle to defeat the wishes of the voting public is Governor Corbett’s proposal to award Pennsylvania’s electoral votes in presidential elections on the basis of the tally by Congressional district.  

More after the jump.
As a result of the very successful gerrymander of those districts, Republicans cast less than half the votes statewide yet elected 13 out of 18 of our state Congressional delegation in 2012. According to analysts, despite the fact that President Obama won Pennsylvania by more than 5 points in 2012, he probably would have won only 7 of the state’s 20 electoral votes if this vote rigging plan had been in effect.

The problem with the voter ID law is that many people, particularly the poor and the elderly, have no driver’s license. A visit to a PennDOT office to secure a photo ID may be very difficult for them, and as a result they may drop from the voters’ rolls.

The very detailed and careful opinion of Judge McGinley of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court permanently enjoined the voter identification law that has been challenged in court for almost two years.  

The primary thrust of this law is to require picture identification, such as a driver’s license, for any registered voter to be able to cast a ballot. This voter ID law is one of many adopted across the country, primarily by state legislatures with Republican majorities.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court received the case on motion to enjoin operation of the law temporarily, before any final trial on the merits. Acting just before the 2012 presidential election, the Court enjoined the law and sent the case back to Commonwealth Court to determine whether it places an illegal burden on the right to vote, particularly as regards people who cannot readily visit a PennDOT office to secure a photo ID.

At trial the plaintiffs presented calculations that as many as 400,000 Pennsylvania voters might find it difficult or practically impossible to qualify for the necessary photo ID. The Administration argued, in support of the law, that it is justified to address potential voter fraud. But no significant evidence of voter fraud was presented.  

Judge McGinley sifted through the many problems that would-be voters, are likely to have in trying to secure the necessary photo ID. Various efforts at curative patches put up by the Corbett Administration were rejected either as unsatisfactory to solve the problem, or as unauthorized under the law. The court ruled that the difficulties imposed on many citizens amounted to a deprivation of their right to vote.

Unfortunately, the battle against suppressing voters’ rights in Pennsylvania is not over.

Forget About Media Bias: How We Can Really Support Israel


“Judea and Samaria” or “West Bank”?

— by Kenneth R. Myers, Esq.

In their article, “‘Occupied’ Territories? Anti-Israel Media Bias Starts With Language,” two stalwart supporters of Israel, Jerry Verlin and Lee Bender, attack the press for bias against the Jewish State in the words that are used to report on the Middle East.

But the authors then go on to build to a conclusion well beyond either the press or linguistics: They argue that “there is a deeper psychosis,” which views Israel as “ethnic cleansing Nazis.”

We are reassured, however, that “since the Oslo Accords, Israel has been trying to trade land for peace, only to have each offer of statehood for the Palestinian Arabs spurned.”

Comforting it may be to recite that we Jews are (still) victims, and that the Palestinians are a hateful bunch who are at fault for the situation.

But sixty-five years of retelling the same tale has not resolved the problem of achieving Middle East peace. At best, the repetition provides the appearance of a reason not to even try.

More after the jump.
We need to remind ourselves instead that in the world today, ruling over a subjugated multimillion-person population is an unstable and unsustainable situation.

We ought not to waste time decrying the press for use of the words “occupied” or “Palestinians.”  The authors propose substituting “Judea and Samaria” for the term “West Bank” — a facially neutral term (it is, after all, the west bank of the Jordan River) — but those names are taken from our Hebrew Bible.

And they signal to readers the concept of a Greater Israel, a one-state solution that does not help to resolve the situation of the Palestinians. Unless the unspoken goal is that Palestinians (pardon me, I meant non-Jewish Palestinians) will conveniently arrange to disappear.  

We U.S. Jews, having full regard for Israel’s long term security, need to take every opportunity to exercise all our influence with the Government of Israel, with Israelis, with our government, and to the extent we have any influence, with Palestinians, to move matters beyond this unstable status quo.  

The design of the solution is not our choice to make, and arguing about it needlessly divides us and wastes our effort. But we should be true to our own beliefs that we are all the Lord’s children, all equal, all deserving of peace and security, and all deserving of self-determination.

Pennyslvania DOMA Hero Honored: Mark Aronchick’s Journey


Mark Aronchick and Congressman Chaka Fattah.

— by Kenneth R. Myers, Esq.

The local attorney and advocate for equality, Mark A. Aronchick, received the Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN) Social Justice Award, at a reception last month.

Aronchick is the lead counsel, along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in the challenge to the Pennsylvania version of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), being brought by a number of same sex couples seeking the right to marry in Pennsylvania.

This challenge is the most important civil rights case in Pennsylvania in years. As the case progresses through the lower courts and perhaps up to the Supreme Court, it could be a very suitable capstone to Aronchick’s long and illustrious public career.

More after the jump.
Through its Church-State Committee, JSPAN takes an active, lively interest in freedom of religion, and other First Amendment cases. This non-profit agency intervenes in key cases, petitions the federal and state executive branches, and educates its members and the public regarding religious and civil rights issues.

DOMA is a statute that the federal government, Pennsylvania and a handful of other states adopted, defining marriage as exclusively a union between a man and a woman.

The United States Supreme Court ruled a key provision of the federal statute unconstitutional earlier this year, reasoning that the law addresses no apparent federal interest, except to express animus against the gay community.


Mark Aronchick and Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach.

The LGBT movement exulted: The federal ruling points the way to attack the Pennsylvania DOMA, but getting a state law overturned is never an easy case.

The DOMA case will turn on constitutional issues, with which Aronchick has extensive experience: Prior important constitutional level cases he handled include litigation concerning voting rights, electronic voting machines, and policies and practices of the Philadelphia Police Department.

As the new DOMA case develops, a growing public recognition of its importance and of Aronchick’s key role is expected.

After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School in 1974 with high honors, Aronchick became active in local democratic politics. After Bill Green was elected mayor of Philadelphia, Aronchick became the youngest person to serve as Philadelphia city solicitor.

He has also filled key positions in the organized bar, including president of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation and treasurer and chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association.

Aronchick served as a member of the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, and Chair of the City of Philadelphia Board of Ethics. He was a member of the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board, a key advisory board to the state supreme court, for four years.

Regarding this virtually continuous stream of often difficult, very public volunteer positions, Aronchick states that he is not special, and that a number of other lawyers could have filled his roles, but his argument in this instance is not convincing.


Dan and Sheila Segal, and Mark and Judith Aronchick.

Aronchick views the fight to allow same-sex marriage in the DOMA case as incredibly important, and a natural next battle following in the larger Jewish tradition, of supporting greater equality for all people.

He is optimistic about the future of the Jewish community, observing that young people today approach public service differently than earlier generations, but continue to offer strong leadership skills.

Aronchick is married to Dr. Judith Aronchick, a professor of radiology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Their daughter, Sara Aronchick Solow, graduated from Yale Law School, and currently is clerking for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

Mark and Judith’s son Jonathan is a student at Georgetown Law School, having previously served on the staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

The Aronchicks’s five month old grandson, Ethan Solow, is reported to constitute a serious distraction from law, but one that Mark is up to handling.  

Bipartisan Pennsylvania Bill: Merit Selection of Appellate Judges

— by Kenneth R. Myers, Esq.

A bill to bring merit selection of appellate judges to Pennsylvania has been submitted in the State House of Representatives with a bipartisan sponsorship this week.

Pennsylvania State Representatives Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster County) and Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) introduced the bill, which received immediate support from Pennsylvania’s current governor Tom Corbett (R) and previous two governors, Ed Rendell (D) and Tom Ridge (R), as well as the League of Women Voters and Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

More after the jump.
The bill by Cutler and Sims would establish merit selection for appeal court judges only, while retaining the present method of judicial elections for all other courts and justices of the peace. Affected would be future judges of the Commonwealth Court, Superior Court and Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

A bipartisan merit selection panel of fifteen citizens, selected by the governor and legislature, would propose a list of judicial candidates for each vacancy. The candidate chosen by the governor and confirmed by the State Senate would serve as a judge for a short term, and then would face a retention election without opponents in order to hold his or her chair. Retention elections at ten-year intervals would continue to apply to all judges.

The bill proposes an amendment to the state Constitution, and so must pass the legislature in two consecutive sessions, and then go before the people in a public referendum before taking effect.

Pennsylvania has been electing its judges only since the state Constitutional Convention of 1968. Those seeking election to our appellate courts typically visit county political committees across the state, seeking endorsement by one party or the other. In order to advertise and travel they have to raise substantial funds, and the usual sources are lawyers and law firms, that are likely to have business before the same courts.  

In the most recent election for a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, each side was reported to have spent over $2 million. The successful candidate, Joan Orie Melvin, was subsequently convicted of election law violations, and suspended from her position.  

“Judges are different from officials in the legislative and executive branches so it makes sense to select them differently,” the Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts executive director, Lynn Marks, said.

Judges must decide cases solely on the facts and the law, not based on political considerations, platforms or constituencies. It just doesn’t make sense to have a totally partisan process for a nonpartisan job. And the problem with money in judicial races is that most of the money comes from attorneys and special interests that often appear in state courts.