JSPAN Haggadah Supplement: The Immigration Crisis

supplementThe 2016 Jewish Social Policy Action Network Haggadah Supplement edited by Steven Sussman and Kenneth Myers is entitled “The Immigration Crisis: A Pesach Seder Reflection for 2016” and focuses on immigrants and refugees. Their plight calls to us at this season of the Jewish year when we remember that we were exiled from our homeland and enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years, and then stateless nomads for forty years in the wilderness of Sinai, at the mercy of the elements, often losing faith as danger surrounded us.

At your Seder, consider the crisis in Europe and what we can do to relieve the suffering of refugees.

The supplement is now available for download.

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Is the US-Israel Special Relationship Altered?


Anyone in Israel who is pleased with Obama’s speech does not completely understand its destructive implications.

— Kenneth R. Myers, Esq.

Since Harry S. Truman, every U.S. president has had the opportunity to engage in Middle East war, peace or both. We in the U.S. are result-oriented, giving politicians little credit for “best effort.” We like strong leaders, so the failed peace encounters can only damage the Chief Executive’s popularity.

One might tire of such engagements. Indeed, since both principal parties walked away from the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, less has been said in the U.S. about the problem. In Obama’s major address on foreign policy at the U.S. Military Academy commencement ceremony Wednesday, there was no mention of the Israel-Palestinian “peace process.”

More after the jump.
On Thursday, in the Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth, commentator Alon Pinkas wrote: “It was an ‘all-inclusive’ speech that President Obama gave yesterday at the graduation ceremony at West Point Academy. All-inclusive, except for Israel and the peace process. Not even as a footnote.”

[Obama] made no mention of “our” Middle East. Not with affection and concern, and not with criticism and frustration. Neither as a U.S. foreign policy objective nor as a U.S. interest. He voiced neither a commitment to the ally Israel nor an aspiration to grant the Palestinians a state of their own. The “peace process” is yet another conflict flashpoint in the world, and the U.S. has grown weary of its failed attempts to mediate and resolve it.

Pinkas added that Wednesday morning, “in an appearance that was broadcast by three networks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did not mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at all.”

This matters to us, U.S. Jews, as well as to Israel. The perceived centrality of the U.S.-Israel relationship, or the apparent disregard of that relationship, is likely to influence nuclear negotiations with Iran, subtly altering both the Iranian and the American strength of purpose and will. But that is just one likely effect of the failure of talks.

U.S. Jews have little basis today to press their government for re-engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the voice of AIPAC is not likely to be heard to urge a course that the Government of Israel does not want. Israel appears to be satisfied to let matters ride as they are, awaiting a day when a more desirable, or at least more desirous, peace partner may emerge on the Palestinian side.

Although a quiet has settled in for the present time, we and Obama know too well that the problems are unresolved and very unlikely to go away. As Pinkas concluded, “Anyone in Israel who is pleased with [Obama’s] speech does not completely understand its destructive implications.”

Modern Marriage: DOMA Elimination Raises Many Questions


Daylin Leach officiates the marriage between Sarah and Marcia Martinez-Helfman at the Talamore Golf Club in Ambler, Pennsylvania.

— by Kenneth R. Myers, Esq.

The elimination of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the parallel provision on the Marriage Law in Pennsylvania expand gay rights and bestow important benefits on GLBTQ communities. These include the ceremonial and symbolic element of traditional marriage, and the reduction or elimination of economic discrimination in favor of traditional marriage that continues to exist in some public laws and programs.  

But in addition, this line of cases has broadened the circumstances in which discrimination will be inferred in facially “neutral” governmental action, and has broadened the application of the doctrine of equal protection of the laws, all to the good.  

More after the jump.
Family law, the body of common law principles and statutes controlling marriage, adoption, divorce, support and custody issues, has been a subject of state law. Moreover, the states have been permitted to experiment and apply highly individual approaches in this area.

Until late in the last century, battles over divorce laws arose primarily in state legislatures. For decades, trips to Reno or Mexico had been common parts of a divorce “package.” These days, lawyers fight cases over the question of jurisdiction: If one of two married people travels to a place far from the marital home, is the divorce decree obtained there really binding?

The questions of how marriages formed, on the other hand, had received much less attention. Now with the advent of gay marriage, inevitable adjustments will be made in related norms and practices. Any assumptions about relationships will be revisited.

The traditional polite seating at the meal table — boy, girl, boy, girl — is surely adaptable. Other institutions will take longer to adapt.

As a formal matter, the two paths to marriage — a civil or a religious ceremony — will remain unchanged. Nonetheless, organized religions will face pressure to decide whether they too will broaden their viewpoint and grant sacramental support to gay marriage.

This revolution is surely going to pour over into heterosexual families and relationships. When a marriage — or union — breaks up, many assumptions about custody and support will no longer seem applicable.

Who is responsible for bringing up a baby? The traditional assumption that there will be a breadwinner, and that this role will survive separation and divorce, will seem antiquated. Why should the breadwinner, or the homemaker before divorce continue in that role afterward? If those roles are purely personal elections, need they be permanently binding?  

Remember to Vote in the Primary Election

Pennsylvania’s primary election day is Tuesday, May 20, and the polls will be open between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m.

You understand the importance of turnout if you have seen the “ground game” that candidates run in elections these days.  

The vote that is assured, including people tied to the government and other reliable votes, are “pulled” by a team working for a particular candidate. Independents, and centrists in general, are not urged to come out. And so when turnout drops too low, a lazy electorate can result in an unwanted result.

According to statistics assembled in the election project at the George Mason University, only about 40% of Pennsylvanians eligible to vote came out for the gubernatorial general election in 2010. The turnout in primaries is usually even lower; in 2012, only 20% of the electorate bothered to vote in the primary.

For a representative government to be truly representative, we all need to vote and to get others to vote.

Information on absentee ballots and the most important races after the jump.

Absentee Ballots

If you cannot be at the polls on election day, you may vote absentee ballot.

The completed application form must be received by your county’s election board by 5 p.m. on May 13; having it postmarked by May 13 does not count. In addition, only an original of your completed application can be submitted; do not submit a copy of your form.

For example, people in Montgomery County can mail their applications to: Election Board, Montgomery County Court House, P.O. Box 311, Norristown, PA 19404-0311.

To file in person or through UPS or FedEx, the address would be: Election Board, One Montgomery Plaza, Suite 602, 425 Swede Street, Norristown, PA 19401.

Completed absentee ballots must be returned to the same office by 5:00 p.m. on Friday, May 16. If the ballot is to be delivered by hand, then it may only be returned by the actual voter. And again, having a completed ballot postmarked by May 16 does not count.

People serving in the military can also vote through absentee ballot. However, different deadlines apply.

Also, certain people may qualify for emergency absentee ballots before or even after May 13.

Among the many contests, four important races to be decided have created real excitement.

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is seeking a second term. Seeking the Democratic nomination to oppose him in the Fall general election are four candidates:

  • State Treasurer Rob McCord;
  • Kathleen McGinty, previously state environmental protection secretary;
  • Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz; and
  • Tom Wolfe, previously state revenue secretary.  

Also running are Paul Glover for the Green Party, and Ken Krawchuk for the Libertarian Party.

In the race to be the Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 13th District, former Congresswoman Marjorie Margolies is battling State Sen. Daylin Leach, State Rep. Brendan Boyle and medical professor Valerie Arkoosh.

Lining up to oppose incumbent Republican Mike Fitzpatrick in the 8th District are two Democrats: publisher Shaughnessy Naughton, and Afghanistan and Iraq war veteran Kevin Strouse.

Long-time Democratic State Senator LeAnna Washington represents the 4th District, spanning portions of Northeast Philadelphia and Montgomery County. Challengers in this race are nonprofit social services officer Brian Gralnick, and Cheltenham Township Commissioner Art Haywood. The race is considered competitive because the incumbent is under indictment for misuse of public funds and staff.

Other congressional races will be decided, along with local races for state legislature that add to the interest and importance of this primary.  

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.