Rep. John Lewis Receives Liberty Medal

Jeff Rosen, Lynne Honickman and Rep. John Lewis

Jeff Rosen, Lynne Honickman and Rep. John Lewis

Rep. John Lewis has joined the ranks of such luminaries as Nelson Mandela, Sandra Day O’Connor and Shimon Peres. Like them, the longtime Georgia congressman is now a recipient of the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. As described on the Center’s website, “the Liberty Medal is awarded annually to men and women of courage and conviction who strive to secure the blessings of liberty to people around the globe.”

Mayor Jim Kenney, former Councilwoman  Marian Tasco, former Mayor Wilson Goode, Sharmain Matlock-Turner, U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle and State Rep. Dwight Evans

Mayor Jim Kenney, former Councilwoman Marian Tasco, former Mayor Wilson Goode, Sharmain Matlock-Turner, U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle and State Rep. Dwight Evans

Lewis has demonstrated such “courage and conviction” throughout his life as a champion of civil rights. A product of the segregated South, Lewis joined the Civil Rights Movement at a young age, and throughout his career, maintained his courage in the face of many challenges, such as arrests and police brutality. He took part in the Freedom Rides to oppose bus segregation, and as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he organized sit-ins and other protests. Along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis was a member of the Big Six, the group that organized the March on Washington, and he was the youngest speaker at that historic event.

Harold and Lynne Honickman and Marguerite and Jerry Lenfest

Harold and Lynne Honickman and Marguerite and Jerry Lenfest

Later, Lewis focused much of his attention on voting rights. He was one of the leaders of the Edmund Pettus Bridge crossing, during which peaceful advocates for voting rights were viciously attacked by Alabama state troopers. He also led voter registration drives and directed the Voter Education Project.

Lewis began his own political career as a member of the Atlanta City Council, and since 1986, he has represented Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives. For 13 years, he worked to promote the federal legislation that created the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall in Washington.

Ira Lubert, Colleen Wyse and Dr. Steve Klasko

Ira Lubert, Colleen Wyse and Dr. Steve Klasko

Phladelphia Mayor Jim Kenney calls Lewis “an inspiration to people all over the world.” Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, describes Lewis as having “helped to extend the blessings of liberty and equality to all Americans.”

Among the attendees at the Liberty Medal Ceremony were elected officials as well as other civic and philanthropic leaders. The Liberty Medal itself was sponsored by Ira Lubert, trustee of the National Constitution Center and co-founder of the firm Lubert-Adler.

Photos by Bonnie Squires.
Channel 6 ABC will air the Liberty Medal Ceremony on Sunday, October 2, at 5:30 p.m. and on Sunday, October 23, at 1:30 p.m.

Jewish Community Debates Sochi Olympics


Gornaya Karusel on Mount Aibga in Krasnaya Polyana, one of the 2014 Sochi Olympics venues.

— by Alina Dain Sharon, JNS.org

With the Winter Olympic Games underway in Sochi, Russia, the Jewish debate on the games mirrors the discourse taking place in the broader international and athletic communities.

While some Jews say they view the games purely as sport — with social or political issues not factoring into their evaluation — not all can ignore Russia’s controversial “gay propaganda” legislation, political detentions, and allegations of Olympic corruption, and the recent terrorist threats against the games.

One Jewish resident of Moscow, Anya Levitov, said the various sensitive issues in Russia “make these games anything but an event to follow.”

More after the jump.
Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist and activist who is both Jewish and openly gay, said on ABC News that the propaganda law, which was signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin last June, bans the distribution of information that could harm children’s development or encourage them to accept alternative sexual relationships.

There have already been attempts to remove children from lesbian couples. So, basically, LGBT people [in Russia] have an incredible amount to fear right now, especially if they have children.

Furthermore, while the law itself only bans propaganda, anti-gay violence around the country has increased recently.

An International Olympic Committee member, Gian-Franco Kasper, said that as much as a third of the record-high $50 billion price tag for the Olympics has been siphoned off. Businessman Boris Nemtsov, a critic of Putin’s government, said on ABC News he has evidence that Russian officials and business executives stole at least $30 billion of the funds meant for Olympics-related projects.

Levitov said to JNS.org that the the Olympic sports venues were hastily built and may be hazardous to spectators and players. “The construction was done by migrant workers, many of whom were sent back home without pay,” she said, and added that growing nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiment has been growing in the country in recent years.


The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, being interviewed on the Games, last month.

Putin has denied allegations of Olympics-related corruption: “I do not see serious corruption instances for the moment, but there is a problem with overestimation of construction volumes,” he said to reporters, and added that some contractors had won tenders due to low bids that they subsequently inflated.

This price increase, it is sometimes due to contractor’s deliberate acts, and sometimes it is due to the fact that the professional valuation of necessary investments, especially in mountain conditions, for a mountain cluster, are not efficient enough

Putin’s presidency has not been associated with the kind of state-sanctioned anti-Semitism that was prevalent during the Soviet era. But Levitov said that “the rise of state-sanctioned xenophobia and anti-gay hatred, as any intolerance, is ultimately a threat to the Jews.”

A Jewish businessman from Moscow, Ivan Kosarev, said that since the decision was made to hold the Olympics in Sochi, he has fully supported investing money in the major sports competition, and doing so efficiently. Kosarev said to JNS.org he is glad the games are taking place in Russia, and that while corruption around the games should be investigated if it exists, political issues such as the LGBT rights should be discussed separately.

On the other hand, he said, “If I were the Russian president X years ago when they decided to apply for holding the Olympics, I might have not made the same decision but rather invested into infrastructure in a more broader sense,” such as railways, airports, and roads.

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) editorial manager, Stuart Lieberman, who will be reporting on the Paralympic Games, which will take place in Sochi next month, disagrees with boycotting the Olympics.

“I do not think you should be avoiding countries for reasons like this,” he said. Lieberman added that part of the value of the games is “to inspire and excite the world, and to instill change in society.”

Sochi’s Chabad-Lubavitch center is preparing to welcome an influx of Jewish athletes and visitors to its 3,000-member local Jewish community. Chabad has acquired two temporary centers that will be staffed by 12 rabbinic interns, and its staff has equipped itself to prepare about 7,000 kosher meals during the course of the games.

The Chabad emissary to Sochi, Rabbi Ari Edelkopf, does not take a political stand on human rights or corruption issues.

“I view my role in this community as a spiritual one. I am here to cater to the needs of the Jewish community, as well as to visiting tourists,” he said to JNS.org. “It is our goal as an organization that the spiritual and religious needs of those living and visiting Sochi are met, and hopefully expanded.”

However, Edelkopf said that the Sochi Jewish community is “in touch with local officials and security experts” regarding safety precautions, in light of concerns that the Sochi Olympics may be a target for terrorist attacks, particularly from Islamist groups in the Northern Caucausus region.


Sochi, Russia.

In December, two suicide attacks killed 34 people in Volgograd, about 700 kilometers north of Sochi. An Islamist group from the Caucausus claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Police is imposing long-planned restrictions of access into and movement within Sochi. Russian officials said that up to 70,000 personnel will be patrolling the games.

the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) director of Russian Jewish community affairs, Sam Kliger, said JNS.org that he hopes Russia “will do its best to prevent any attempt of terrorist acts during the Olympics.” A “positive sign” is that Russia reportedly cooperates with the U.S. on security issues, said Kliger, who also cited rumors that Russian security cooperation with Israel is also on the way.

Levitov, however, questions the publicity surrounding security risks to the games:

I personally view the widely publicized threats of terrorist attacks simply as a public relations effort of Russian authorities. It creates pre-text for further attacks on civil rights, and more restrictions on freedom of travel around the Olympic area, and allows for excuses if something does go wrong. Any mismanagement, infrastructural failures or collapsed buildings can be explained by terrorism.

The executive director of the National Conference Supporting Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia (NCSJ), Mark B. Levin, said to JNS.org that his organization is not certain about any specific threats to Jewish people attending the games. But the group has been contacted by some concerned individuals and is directing those people to the U.S. State Department, Levin said.

Like the IPC’s Lieberman, some Jewish groups see the Olympics as a way to promote tolerance and freedom.

B’nai B’rith International said in a statement that “The Olympic Games have the potential to mark a new direction in which there is no discrimination based on race, gender, handicaps or sexual orientation.”

The Olympics are a microcosm. While we expect athletes from every nation to have the right to compete fairly, a societal commitment to tolerance and acceptance should be applied to every aspect of society.


Postage stamps commemorating the three mascots of the Games.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) national director, Abraham H. Foxman, said to JNS.org that the games provide “a chance to demonstrate solidarity with the LGBT community and to promote democratic ideals.”

He said that the ADL is not supporting a boycott of the games but calls for the U.S. to “consider new ways to “lead in the effort to have Russia address the anti-LGBT persecution in the same way the Jackson-Vanik amendment dealt with Soviet Jews, or the Magnitsky act addressed certain human rights violations.”

AJC’s Kliger said that Putin’s recent political gestures, such as the releases of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the members of the Pussy Riot band from prison, are a step forward for the country ahead of the games.

Kliger said to JNS.org that he is encouraged by “recent declarations by a number of Russian officials that there will be no discrimination against any group or individual” at the games, including LGBT people, and other “signals of goodwill coming from the Russian government indicate that Russia is much more interested in conducting the Games in the spirit of sports, peace, and cooperation.”

But Gessen said on ABC News that “people who have not had the kind of international attention that those people had are remaining in prison… So it’s not a sign of an end to the crackdown… It’s a very transparent and actually a very cynical PR gesture.”

Levitov said to JNS.org that the Sochi Olympics are a very important event for Putin and his public image. Since the games are being marketed as Russia’s symbol of strength and prestige among world powers, she said, it is important for the games to show that none of the human rights and corruption issues in Russia belong in the civilized world.

“It would be great if leaders of the world’s leading democracies would demonstrate their position or disapproval openly. I have no hope that the Jewish leaders would, but it would be great,” she said.

NCSJ’s Levin said that, naturally, “there will be athletes and spectators who will voice disapproval,” given the “serious differences, politically, between the Russian federation and the U.S. or the West.”

But at end of the day, Levin said, the Olympics “always go to the country that is willing to pay for it.”  

Civil Rights Arrive in Pennsylvania: State Rep. Brian Sims Interview

Pennsylvania State Rep. Brian Sims (D., Philadelphia), the first openly gay candidate to win an election to the state General Assembly, made headlines last week with the passage of a resolution for recognizing the Human Rights Day.

In an exclusive interview with the Philadelphia Jewish Voice, he shared his plans for the next few years, a surprising Jewish connection, and a few thoughts on the House speaker, Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler County).

Q: Where did the idea for the resolution on the Human Rights Day come from?

I had known of the Day for 15 years, since I heard of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Last month, after the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, invited me to speak on advocating for civil rights at local events in honor of the Day, I decided to propose a resolution for recognizing this day in Pennsylvania.

Q: Was it realizing that you were gay that brought you to the civil rights area?

I have first learned of civil rights through feminism. Both of my parents were lieutenant colonels in the Army, so I grew up with a very strong woman and two very equal parents.

Being part of the gay community was one of the reasons that I ran for the House. Pennsylvania has no LGBT rights laws at all, so a lot needs to be done. Both Republicans and Democrats in the House and the State Senate support such legislations.

Q: Has your being gay hurt you in ways that legislation could have prevented?

Not very often. To my fortune, I live in a city with many laws that protect my rights. In other areas of Pennsylvania, you can get fired from your job or kicked out of your house, and even get bullied just for being gay.

Q: Were you surprised last June, when the speaker of the House, Daryl Metcalfe, did not let you speak on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act, saying that it would be “an open rebellion against God’s law”?

Yes. I knew that he did not like me personally, and did not have respect for the House and its members, but I was surprised by the reason for which he did not let me speak.

Anyone can believe in anything they want, and have any motivation for their activism, but “God’s law” has no place in the Government and its voting.

Q: How has being elected changed your lifestyle?

I have always been very busy: Before being elected, I was the president of Equality Pennsylvania, and active in five more civil rights organizations. Now I am just as busy, but have a whole team that helps me.

In the little spare time that I have, I carry lectures, to teach the public on subjects such as saving money and public safety.

Q: What are your plans for the elections to the General Assembly next June?

I will run for the same office again. I need several more years to take care of all of the issues in my district (the 182nd House District, Center City).

Q: Do you have any connection with the local Jewish community?

When I worked as a lawyer, each and every one of my bosses was Jewish. They all understood what it meant to stand up and be an advocate for your community, so working as a lawyer had been connecting me with the Jewish community as well as with the lawyer community.

Last October, politicians from Pennsylvania held a diplomatic trip to Israel, but I could not go. A similar trip is planned for next March, and I would like to join it.

50 Years Ago Today: The Complete “I Have A Dream” Speech

“You know the sound bites from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. But have you actually seen the whole thing?

“The speech was delivered 50 years ago today — August 28, 1963 — as part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It gave a powerful boost to the Civil Rights Movement and helped lead to passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.” (Nick Berning)

(Transcript)

Video of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Roy Wilkins on “Meet the Press” August 25, 1963 follows the jump.

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Court Cases in Pennsylvania: Good vs. Evil

— Crossposted from Democratic Convention Watch

There were two interesting happenings in the courts of Pennsylvania this week. Both of them relate directly to Governor Tom Corbett, and show him to be the kind of person dedicated to personal gain over human rights.

Certainly you remember the case of Jerry Sandusky, the coach who was abusing young boys for years and is now in prison for life. When pedophiles are brought to light, it is the obligation of those in charge to do something to prevent further abuse. Tom Corbett, as attorney general, chose not to, and instead to take $640,000 from Sandusky for his gubernatorial campaign coffers. He is not being charged, yet, but the three men who oversaw Jerry Sandusky are now going to trial. Former Penn State president Graham Spanier, Former Penn State Vice President Gary Schultz, and Former Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley, are charged with knowing about Sandusky's abuse, not reporting it to the police, and then lying about it to the Grand Jury. Specifically: perjury, obstruction, endangering the welfare of children, failure to properly report suspected abuse and conspiracy.

More after the jump.

My guess is that Corbett's complicity will come up at some point. And probably someone will end up mentioning that he is up there with Bob McDonnell for turning the governor's mansion into a pay-to-play site. Read this

So, we have a bunch of powerful men putting their own institutions (Penn State and the Pennsylvania Legal System) ahead of the protection of young boys.

In another court case, the Pennsylvania Board of Health is suing the Montgomery County Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes. Hanes is the man in charge of issuing  marriage licenses. In light of the recent Supreme Court decision, he started issuing marriage licenses to gay couples: 34 of them so far. 

I know, you don't understand what the Register of Wills and the Health Department have to do with marriage licenses. This is Pennsylvania, and we are weird. For example, my mailing address has a zip code that includes part of 3 counties, and is different from my actual township. If I had a landline, it would be in yet another town. In addition, Pennsylvania is one of the only states in the country that does not have a gay marriage or civil union law, and also not a constitutional ban on marriage equality. Marriage licenses come from the Register of Wills, which is a county position, and the State Health  Department oversees, among other things, marriage and death certificates. 

The Attorney General's office, headed by Kathleen Kane, is refusing to defend the state against the ACLU suit related to the ban on  gay marriage. She won't touch this, either. Under Pa. law,  the Health Department is allowed to sue in Commonwealth Court, because marriage licenses are a civil, not a criminal, matter. That's why it is a suit in lieu of a criminal action. 

Further, the Health Department is an arm of the Executive Branch, and Corbett wants to defend against both the ACLU suit, and anything that would allow gay people to marry. Again, he is against civil rights and human rights, and basic moral decency. 

On the up side, Jerry Sandusky is in jail, where he can't hurt any more boys, and he will never get out. Spanier, Schultz and Curley will likely join him there in a year or two. It is not out of the realm that Corbett will end up as an indicted co-conspirator one of these days. In the end, the Pa. DOMA law will be struck down, and the Montco marriage licenses will stand, and will end up issued in all the other counties, too. 

Interview: Jewish Lesbian Couple Are First to Sign Civil Union in Colo.


Photos by Stevie Crecelius

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Two Jewish women, Anna and Fran Simon, both of Denver, Colo., became the first same-sex couple to be issued a Civil Union, license at a midnight ceremony on May 1 in the Denver Office of the Clerk and Recorder. Rabbi Steve Booth participated in the rite, as well, having long-served beside them as an activist in this cause. In fact, it wasn’t the Simons’ first marriage ceremony.

Full interview after the jump.
Q: When did you decide to marry?

Anna Simon: Back in 2005 we had a Jewish wedding, so that we would be married in the eyes of God before we had children. We are somewhat traditional in that way, and felt it important to commit before our family and friends with a rabbi. 100 friends and family attended and Rabbi Jamie Korngold officiated. There were no civil legal ramifications of that ceremony at all, so it was very important to us that there one day be a civil service, and at it to have a rabbi and say the Shehecheyanu (prayer for special occasions) for being joined in the eyes of the law.

Q: Was the Jewish community able to be there for you?

Fran Simon: We felt incredible support from the Jewish community here in Colorado. From the Anti Defamation League that testified numerous times, Rabbi Steve Booth Nadav was at many hearings and votes. Keshet, the LGBT organization, was incredibly supportive, B’nai Havurah (congregation) and Judaism Your Way have also been very supportive and helped us achieve civil unions and continue in the fight for marriage equality. It was because of Steve’s role in the civil union fight that we wanted him to be part of our civil ceremony. Many faith leaders were involved in winning these protections.

Homosexuality in Judaism

The Reconstructionist movement, in its 1992 Report of the Reconstructionist Commission on Homosexuality, expressed its support for the full inclusion of gay men and lesbians in all aspects of Jewish life.

The Reform Movement‘s March 2000 Resolution on Same Gender Officiation states that, “the relationship of a Jewish, same gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.”

The Conservative Moment: Homosexuality, Human Dignity and Halachah: A Combined Responsum was adopted in June 2012 by the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards, voted 13-0 with one abstention to formally approve same sex marriage ceremonies.

Orthodoxy: No mainstream Orthodox organization has endorsed same sex marriage. A growing number of independent Orthodox rabbis, starting with Rabbi Steven Greenberg have conducted such rituals.

Above: the Simons’ Brit Ahuvot, Female Lovers’ Union, between the bride and the bride

Q: How did the two ceremonies differ?

Anna Simon: We met the rabbi for our Jewish wedding, Jamie Korngold, to study the elements of a Jewish wedding, the brit (covenant), the sheva brachot (seven blessings), the priestly blessing, the kiddush — our rabbi, as a feminist, had already made tweaks to the ketubah for her own wedding, and ketubah for men and women too, that fit for us as well. The traditional ketubah is based on ownership law, but for our marriage we had a brit ahuvot (feminine plural for Covenant of Beloveds). We drew on Jewish partnership law, not ownership law, to formulate our document and the ceremony.

Fran Simon: We both broke glasses. It was extremely emotional for us when the rabbi said it was valid and binding. We honestly didn’t think it would make that much of a difference, but it did. We became somehow very much more committed to one another. Doing so in front of friends and family, and everyone agreeing to support our relationship, was overwhelming. The amount of love and support at both ceremonies was tremendous.

Q: Were there unifying factors between the two ceremonies?

Fran Simon: We customized our vows for our wedding, and our civil union incorporated the same themes. We designed our brit ahuvot with elements of justice, righteousness, lovingkindness and faithfulness.

Anna Simon: We both believe that customizing for authenticity and honor is really important.

Q:
Did these rituals change your relationship with your extended families?

Fran Simon: I believe my family saw us differently as a result. Leading up to the Jewish wedding, my parents weren’t telling their friends. I don’t think they saw it as a marriage until it got closer.

Anna Simon: Fran’s father’s toasts had everyone in tears. At our rehearsal dinner he said, “You know Francine, when you came out as a lesbian to me, I was really sad and I told you then, I had always wanted to dance at your wedding, and tomorrow — I will.”

Anna Simon: I want to add something about Fran’s mother, who always loved me completely: The wedding ritual changed her perspective and attitude about Fran’s being gay.

Fran Simon: My mother refers to Anna as her “daughter” and asks her to call her “mom.” As a consequence of the wedding, she told all of her friends about us. She’s completely out about her daughter now, after struggling with it for many years.

Q: Anna, what about your mother?

Anna Simon: Well, when I told her I was in love and this is the one, her first two questions were “Is she Jewish?” and “Where did she go to school?” And she was very happy with the answers to both those questions; that I married a nice Jewish girl.

Q: Where did you go to college? I imagine readers would now be curious.

Anna Simon: Fran went to Cornell and then Stanford. I went to Earlham and the University of New Mexico.

Q: Do you have children?

Fran Simon: We have a son who will be six in July. He was our ring-bearer at the civil union.

Q: You now both have the same last name. Was that a difficult decision?

Anna Simon: If I was married to a man, I would most certainly not have changed my name. Fran felt more attached to her family name. We didn’t want our children to always be answering the question: “Who is this woman with that other name?” Not only that, but Jeremy is the one that will carry on the Simon name, as there are no other male grandchildren in the Simon family.

Q: Have you had to make accommodations around caring for your son out there in gun country?

Fran Simon: Not really. They did have “mom’s night” and “dad’s night” at our school, and when we questioned the gender separation they said it’s just so that they don’t have everybody show up all at once. So we said, “why not just call them ‘parents’ nights?” That worked.

Anna Simon: We are very happy with people’s attitudes here, very warm and welcoming. Jeremy went to daycare at the university where I work. And when he got older we switched to our neighborhood school and we’ve benefited from families that have come before us. Though we are still doing some educating, we feel completely accepted.

Fran Simon: I think we also shelter ourselves. We have been in the media a lot in this fight for civil unions, and I read the comments in some of the articles calling us terrible parents, etc. People don’t say things to our faces, but in this state there are certainly a lot of people who don’t support our relationship.

We’ve come such a long way; in 2006 we had Referendum I, which was domestic partnerships, and only 47% of the state supported it. But in the last couple of years support for civil unions has been 70% or higher. And now for marriage, one poll I saw was 50% for and 38% against. All this in a state where a 2006 amendment defines marriage as between a man and woman. Colorado was labeled the “Hate State” in 2002 due to Amendment 2, which allowed legal discrimination against LGBT people.

Q: New Jersey has a State Amendment, that may come up for a vote, that would require health insurance to cover treatment for those who want to cease being homosexual and attain a heterosexual life. How would you address such a situation?

Anna Simon: There is not just moment when someone makes a decision to be attracted to someone of the opposite sex or the same sex. It is a very deep part of a person’s biological and psychological makeup. We only have to look a little bit back in history and see what happened when people writing with their left hand were forced to use their right hand. They could manage, but it was not what their natural position was. And we have learned very clearly there is harm in such forcing. I think it is a good analogy for one’s sexual orientation except on a more serious scale: There is horrible damage done through this so-called reparative therapy — suicide and destroyed lives in the wake of these well-intended but damaging therapies.

Fran Simon: Well-intended?

Anna Simon:  A parent who wants their child to be straight loves their child, and thinks that is the healthy way to be. My heart goes out to that parent; rather than trying to change their child, I would encourage them to find support to accept their child for who they are. PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, is a helpful organization to seek out for guidance and support.

Q: What role does faith play in your lives?

Anna Simon: Our faith exists in everything that we do. We say Jewish prayers before we eat, and at bedtime; indeed at every significant event. Jewish ritual is woven into our everyday lives; at the end of each day we sing the shema with our son and talk about the things for which we are grateful to God.

Q: Did prayer help you hold the course in advocacy?

Fran Simon: I would say that faith played a role in the civil unions battle. It really was an emotional roller coaster at times. Last year, the Republican leaders essentially killed 30 bills just to kill the Civil Unions bill. We kept our faith, knowing it would pass, just as we know marriage equality will come to be in the near future.

Anna Simon: I feel strongly that we are called to the lives that we have and the work on justice. In our brit ahuvot, we talk about tikkun olam (repairing the world). We were able to testify a half a dozen times regarding this bill, in part because of where we live and the type of work we do, and given that we are out and at less risk than some. I believe literally that God intended us to do this work.

Q: How did your son relate to the civil ceremony?

Fran Simon: One Colorado organized a lot of the press who came. We did bring our son to testify at the hearings this year. Not previous years, just now, when we were very confident that it was going to pass. He also attended the rallies; he was part of help makeing this bill become law. We felt extremely honored to be the first couple to receive the civil union. Our son saw the signing pens on the document table, and asked for one before the ceremony. And I said, “No, these are for very special people.” And then, at the bill signing, one of the bill’s sponsors, Senator Guzman, spontaneously gave one the pens to the governor to give to Jeremy.

Anna Simon: I want to acknowledge how grateful we are to all the people in Colorado who supported the effort, and to our legislators, who showed courage and real leadership in passing this bill. There are many people that put in time, money, effort and sacrifice to make the bill pass.

Q: Thank you so much. May you be blessed with long healthy lives together in your loving Jewish home, and may your work for justice prevail.

Rabbi Goldie Milgram’s Living Jewish Life Cycle: How to Create Meaningful Jewish Rites of Passage at Every Stage of Life (Jewish Lights Publishing) provides traditional and inclusive step-by-step guides to all Jewish rites of passage. Also see the websites ritualwell and Keshet for information on the subject.

I Heart Equality

Crossposted from Democratic Convention Watch

Yesterday President Obama finally came out as a supporter of gay marriage. You can “blame” Joe Biden for pushing the president into this pronouncement, but as it turns out, his Sunday interview was taped on Friday, and the White House knew about it then. They could have asked for a do-over, but they chose not to. The back story is that Obama had planned to announce his support closer to the convention, but decided to move it up. He had said for a long time that his feelings were evolving, and the story is that he made this decision back in January. 

Some say that this will not hurt him politically, as those people who would have voted him, still will, and those who never would, still won't. (Although that does beg the question of the Log Cabin Republicans: I just don't get how they can support people who support North Carolina's Amendment 1, but maybe Jon Stewart says it best in his piece on cognitive dissonance. Clip here. He's talking Romney, but you'll easily see the association.) There is an issue of whether fundamentalist blacks will still support him: some are rabid anti-gay, but it's likely that re-voting Obama will trump the single issue. The statistic you'll here is that 90% of blacks in California voted for Obama in 2008, but 58% voted for Prop 8. In my heart, I believe that a lot of those people will see Obama's evolution, and think that maybe they, too, need to evolve. Loving v. Virginia all over again with different actors.

The most important thing, I believe, is contained in what Corey Booker said last night on TRMS. He perfectly encapsulated the idea that what Obama did today is not about gay rights, the suffragette movement was not about women's rights, and the Civil Rights movement was not about black rights — they are ALL about ONE set of EQUAL rights for ALL Americans. He further made the point that teenagers in his city now feel that their president considers them equal, that it is a necessary form of validation. In addition, he pointed out that it isn't just “marriage” – it's the thousands of legal rights and protections that straight people have and gay people do not. If you click on the chart on the left, you'll be taken to an interactive graphic showing how far some states have come, and how far others have to go.

It's all so clear: when you vote this November, will you vote for ALL the people, or only the rich white guys?  Will you, personally, say: my issue is X, but I understand that X is part of A,B,C through X,Y,Z, and we must all stand together. Stand up for all Americans. Stand up and lead the world. You can watch Corey Booker, superstar and super hero, below:

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Blunt Amendment on Purim Eve: Guests in a Christian Nation

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought light to many dark places in American society. It was most famous for opening businesses and institutions which operated in public to members of all races. Less well known were its provisions which prevented discrimination on the basis of sex, creed, national origin, and religion. In the matter of discrimination in the workplace, the act clearly places responsibility for establishing a work environment free of harassment on the operator of the business. Court decisions later established that employers needed to make themselves aware of harassment of minorities in the workplace, that their toleration of such harassment made them liable to penalties and prosecution under the law, that their encouragement of such harassment would lose them federal business.

More after the jump.
The far-reaching consequences of the Civil Rights Act can be seen most clearly in the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency. Unlike Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Obama’s appreciation for the role that the Civil Rights Act played in providing him with opportunities — for his education, for his advancement, for political career, for his being taken seriously as a human being — has always been open and straightforward. Obama’s recent interpretation of the Affordable Care Act — to guarantee that employees of religious institutions who were not themselves members of management’s religious faith were able to practice the tenets of the employees’ own faith, without the intimidation, coercion, and harassment of the employer’s religious restrictions on those employees — is something that Jews in particular should be grateful to their friend in the White House, who stuck up for our rights.

The Catholic Church has taken the mission of the Civil Rights Act, and stood it on its head. It is not the big bad government imposing free practice of religion on the helpless Catholic institutions — who employ followers of Judaism, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, Unitarianism, Muslims, Buddhists, Farsis, Hindus and others whose religious beliefs may differ from the Church — not just in matters of contraception, or about when life begins and ends, or about the relative importance of the lives of a woman and her fetus before childbirth. It is in fact the big bad government which has allowed such Catholic institutions to flourish and prosper, tax free, as they compete with for-profit hospitals, even as the Church provides right-to-life demonstrators at secular institutions to increase their costs of doing business. It is rather these powerful institutions who now influence the votes of our Senators Toomey and Casey — who both voted for the Blunt Amendment this past week. It is these powerful institutions, who demand exception from having to provide a harassment-free workplace for their employees, on the grounds that their employees’ free practice of religion offends management’s religious moral sensibility.

I have had to remind some friends, who were not alive at the time of the Civil Rights Movement, that some white churches in the South justified their practice of segregation on religious grounds. Such churches encouraged “Knights” to act in their defense. As government contemplated the Civil Rights Act, these churches too claimed that the government would intrude on their members’ freedom of religion. Many South African white members of the Dutch Reformed Church also justified their apartheid regime, by appealing to their interpretation of scripture, and to the teachings of their church. The coercive use of religious doctrine is not of course confined just to racial segregation and racist governments.

At this time of Purim, where we celebrate the resourcefulness of Mordechai and Esther in proclaiming their Judaism, and attempt to drown out with groggers the name of he who tried to exterminate our people for attempting to practice our basic Covenant, I would urge my compatriots to support their own civil rights, and to support the Obama position on the universal support for women’s health care services — to be exercised as the employee and not the employer sees fit, and to prevent religious harassment in the workplace from being justified, by a sense of freedom which treats the religious freedom of neighbors as if some of us were only “guests” in a Christian Nation.

Book Chat


— by Hannah Lee

As a Chinese-American, I am neither white nor black and I am privileged to observe the nuances of race relations in this country as a bystander (except when my own racial heritage is a source of grievance).  I wonder if an academic awareness of an issue allows one to appreciate the inherent complexities?

I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and I was riveted but very perturbed by its central issue of race relations.  Set in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman interviews and edits the painful narratives of black maids about their relationships with their white employers.  I  wanted to identify a black perspective.  Another friend cautioned me that I cannot generalize to all blacks, as African immigrants and people with Caribbean roots do not share the same experience as those descended from slaves brought to America.  No, indeed, but I was sure that a black person would respond differently to the book.

More after the jump.
I spoke with a black staffer at my local library, someone whom I’ve known for the 21 years that my family has lived in this community.  She did not enjoy the book as did the white readers who have praised The Help, launching it onto the bestseller lists.  She could forecast how the plot would go, and she skipped over parts.  Her niece was bored by it and never did finish the book.  I asked her if it would have been a better book if it had been written by a black author, but she demurred at that.

Could the difference lie in perspective?  Events resonate more when they become personal, as Jews are instructed to imagine that they themselves are leaving Egypt during the Passover seder.  Issues become more painful.  It took me a few years before I could follow a friend’s recommendation for Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
, because the central character, a child, dies from an epileptic seizure and my child has the same disorder.I’ve read that people like horror films because they find it cathartic, a vicarious experience that leaves them relieved to be safe and ordinary.  I wonder if readers of The Help become more understanding?  Are some readers smug that they are not racist and do not harbor any prejudicial intent?  Or do they have a renewed sensitivity to insults to human dignity?  Do they speak out in protest?My Rabbi has noted that we do not feel pain to the same degree when a tragedy, a violation, happens to someone else.  However, the challenge is in the striving to maintain sensitivity and that is a hallmark of a compassionate person.

I attended a book discussion along with my friend who grew up in the South.  She found the novel realistic, and told me later that the others (all white women) did not appreciate the fact that though the overt theme of the book was racism, the same kind of prejudice and peer control exist in other times, other places, including our own.  I attempted to point out that the new theory on bully-behavior management, is not to address the bully directly, but to educate the silent majority, that they can take control of a situation by speaking up.  The queen bee, Hilly, from the novel could not have continued in her role, if the others did not let her do so.  However, most people were too afraid, ignorant, or blind to the racial divide in a society in which they had a comfortable perch.  I wonder if readers would become more conscious and sensitive to injustice around them?  I made a reference to To Kill a Mockingbird, which is now a classic.  Did readers of the time immediately take to its message?

The film version, starring Emma Stone as the ingenue reporter, Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, Viola Davis as her source, a black housekeeper named Aibileen Clark, and Bryce Dallas Howard as their nemesis, the controlling Hilly Holbrook, will open in the local cinemas on August 10th.

Love and Hate

Crossposted from DemConWatch

I've been thinking a lot about hatred and bigotry, in light of the comments on this post. It seems that we all have some latent, if not blatant, inherent bigotry. Last night, Scott posted a link to Ron Paul's comments about why Park51 should be allowed near Ground Zero. Scott picked one quote, I pick this one:

Defending the controversial use of property should be no more difficult than defending the 1st Amendment principle of defending controversial speech. But many conservatives and liberals do not want to diminish the hatred for Islam–the driving emotion that keeps us in the wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. 

I have been thinking about my lifelong, absolute, defense of First Amendment rights. In case you have forgotten, there are five: 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

And yet, I am somehow disquieted.  It's because of the Preamble to the Constitution, which says:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. (emphasis mine)

What do we say about religions, and religious “idealism” that deny liberty to those amoungst us? How do we balance the right to practice one's religion when members try to force some parts of that religion down other people's throats? 

Much more after the jump. 

My friends Tim and Victor are getting married. Victor published this:

We waited two years for the order striking down Prop 8 in California. When it happened Tim and I immediately started making  plans to fly back and finally get married like we were supposed to before this this illegal piece of legislation. Then we waited till we understood the order. And then we waited to see if an appeal would happen before August 15th….well, as you know the order was stayed, and it will likely be next year before the appeals court hears the case. We waited long enough, we're not waiting any more.

Marriage for everyone is legal in 5 states. New Hampshire is one of them. We have a dear friend in New Hampshire who is a lawyer and not only that, she's a Justice of the Peace. Come this October Tim and I (and our faithful companion Cybil, the Wonder Dog) will pile into the car and make the 7 1/2 hour drive to the Live Free or Die state (how appropriate is that???). On October 14th we are getting married.

We'd like to apologize in advance for all the heterosexual marriages that will fail or be devalued because of us and for the end of civilization as we know it.

In my heart, I cannot abide those who work tirelessly to deny this couple, who have been as “married” as anyone, except in the eyes of the law, for so very many years. Marriage is, in many ways, a blessing of liberty: why should Tim and Victor, and Mike and Jim, and Debbie and KJ, and Wendy and Jill, and all the others be prevented from this? You won't find a single agnostic or atheist who is opposed. 

Why does political action in the name of religion trump basic human rights? This is not a rhetorical question: I've wondered for years, and no one has been able to give me an answer of why and how a country based on freedom of religion uses it as a stick.  

And I come back now to the Park51 project. I defend to the death the right for the project to be built. Without question. I don't, however, think it's a terribly smart idea because there is no doubt in my mind that there will be clashes there, and violence, and possibly killing. I do not believe, as the Time poll indicated 46% of Americans believe, that people born into Islam are more likely to do violence to others in the name of religion. There is too much history of violence in the name of all religions to believe that. I am, however, disquieted by how Islam treats women. I don't expect in America to see stonings, and virtual home imprisonment, and women being denied the right to drive a car, or even to be on the street without a male family member accompanying them. But that certainly goes on in Muslim nations. I am haunted, for example, by the 15 school girls made to die in a fire because they lacked the proper attire. The sect Mormons with plural marriage are not much better to their girls and women. How do I integrate in my heart supporting the rights of people under the First Amendment, when they lead lives in violation of the Preamble? I don't have a good answer. I want everyone to be allowed to practice his/her religion, but I want religion to never trump law. Is there some way to make sure that the religious “beliefs” stay internal to those religions? If so, there is no problem with Tim and Victor getting married (gift is on its way, boys!) and no problem with making sure that all women, in all areas, have the same basic rights to liberty as men.