JSPAN Supports Providing Contraceptives to Workers


A package of birth control pills.

Earlier this year, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN) filed an amicus curiae brief, urging the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that private, for-profit corporations provide employees with coverage that includes all FDA-approved contraceptive methods.

The key issue in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, now before the Court, is whether for-profit corporations have a right to deny contraceptive coverage to women workers based on religious objections of the corporation’s owners. JSPAN argues that it would not be proper to treat the religious views of the corporation’s shareholders as an exercise of religion by the corporation.

More after the jump.
In the fall of 2013, JSPAN filed an amicus brief in Town of Greece v. Galloway, which is also now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. JSPAN therein urges the Court to reverse its prior opinion and ban government sanctioned legislative prayer.

Additionally, earlier this year JSPAN has joined with the Anti-Defamation League and other groups in briefs to federal courts of appeals in challenges to state same sex marriage bans in Utah, Virginia, and most recently, Oklahoma.  

Book Review: Relational Judaism

Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community by Ron Wolfson primarily reasserts a core principle of life, business and community organizing: “It’s all about relationships.”

This was also essentially the theme of his 2006 volume, The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community.

His patience and willingness to restate his message is impressive, given how slow the uptake among congregations worldwide seems to be, at least in this reviewer’s experience. And as times are changing, the direction of relationship-building is changing, as Wolfson indicates in a telling quote from a congregational leader:

We thought Shabbat would be a doorway to relationships. We learned that relationships are a doorway to Shabbat.

More after the jump.
Or as in the famous quote from Martin Buber that Wolfson will quote further on: “All real living is meeting.”

Another powerful reversal is the story of Rabbi Zoe Klein, upon becoming senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah, Los Angeles:

[S]he was advised by the board to “tell her story to the congregation.” She felt differently:

“The way people feel really connected to you is not if they know your story, but if they feel you know their story. If the rabbi knows your story you feel like you are seen, you matter, you are in relationship.

“So I set up small groups in my study — six to eight people — to share a ‘Sacred Stories Haggadah’ experience; we had a little Kiddush, karpas, appetizer; we told the story of the congregation, and then I would invite people to add their own stories by answering the question: ‘What was your own journey that brought you to this place?’ We concluded with a blessing.

“Some 250 people shared their stories with me and with each other. It was powerful.”

Wolfson’s examples are solid and instructive applications of what those who have participated in support groups of any kind are well aware of: the sharing of personal narratives, stories from our lives’ joys, traumas, challenges, innovations and more, often supports the creation of sustainable communities.

He also offers encouragement to adopt the kind of volunteerism that engages participants in meaningful ways. As this reviewer is involved, she is aware that this area is being developed at Bar/Bat Mitzvah (R)evolution, and in the emerging Jewish Spiritual Education as well.

Wolfson further takes note of the ascendancy of Jewish interest in social justice efforts, and the relational opportunities and challenges of social media.

For anyone who is already trained in social work, group work, chaplaincy, or providing psychotherapy of almost any kind, it is initially bemusing to read of a leader in the field of Jewish education writing something that has been known and skillfully practiced in social service organizations since at least the days of the settlement houses:

Working with others on a project can bind people together, but only if attention is paid to relationship building. We learned this lesson in Synagogue 2000 when we insisted that the leadership team begin every session with “check-in,” a brief opportunity for every person in the room to share something about her or his personal life.

I am reminded of the power of the quilting bee, when groups of women would join together to craft beautiful quilts, but through sharing the stories of their lives as they worked, they crafted deeper relationships among themselves.

How is it possible that most clergy and educators do not have the core skill repertoire of social work, and seem to be trying to reinvent it from scratch?

This reviewer is a rabbi and a Master of Social Work (MSW) — a recipient of the Jewish Federation’s scholarship for such training. From this vantage point, the problem would seem to be that of an unfortunate split, almost a conceptual wall, between the domain of training for Jewish social service and that for synagogues, religious education, and religious-movement youth groups.

Wolfson is a PhD academic, and highly accomplished Jewish educator. His American Jewish University bio does not show evidence of Jewish communal service’s core — relational training, most of which is woven within MSW programs.

Here are a few possible examples: (Most other schools of Jewish communal service seem more oriented toward management than actual human services at this time.)

At the 2013 Biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism, President Rick Jacobs lectured on the importance of creating welcoming communities, and Wolfson gave a seminar on the topic too.

Friends walking out, MSWs walked over to me equally surprised at the obvious nature of the content and full of ideas for how to take it deeper.

It made me wonder, might a ready approach to effective change be to leverage the thousands of retired Jewish social workers to serve as community building, or welcome-training volunteers, as well as to increase relational social work-skills training throughout the field of Jewish education and clergy training?

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has recently begun to do so in their curriculum. This has also long been the case at The Academy for Jewish Religion.

The restoration of relational communities and consciousness is clearly emerging again as desirable. Consumer consciousness fades in recognition that welcoming communities and relationships that go more satisfyingly deeper require more of an investment of self than dollars.

As Wolfson points out, programming skills are substantial among leaders of all ages in Jewish life. Relationship-building skills and relational program components are needed.

In the age of social media, the pendulum of yearning for meaningful face-to-face relationships is already returning. We need to build upon and use our skillful professionals to deepen the many insights provided in Relational Judaism.  

The Les Misérables Special You Will Only See On Passover!

The Maccabeats sing the story of Passover in a perfectly adapted medley based on Les Miserables.

“Look down, look down. You’ll always be a slave…” Wait for the grand finale as they continue with “Do you hear the people sing? Say do you hear the distant drums, It is future that they bring when tomorrow comes.” The Maccabeats are unbeatabe on their new album – One Day More. Just sit back and enjoy!

An Unusual Holocaust Film

— by Ronit Treatman

The life of a Jewish dwarf who miraculously survived the Holocaust is the inspiration for a new motion picture project.

The Lilliput will illustrate how Abraham Kerber was able to defeat the odds of surviving the war by using his weaknesses as strengths. This dark fairy tale, which is being shot in Gabin and Lodz, Poland, promises to be one of the most moving new films being produced about the Holocaust.

American stage, television, and movie actor Mark Povinelli will star as “Umchik,” as Abraham was affectionately called. Povinelli was one of the seven dwarves in Mirror, Mirror, and a regular on the television show Are You There, Chelsea?  

More after the jump.
The film will take us back to Poland in 1938. Umchik survived the war by hiding in tiny places that the Nazis did not think to search. He concealed himself in garbage cans in the rail yards and underground in the sewers.

Umchik was a photographer and an ardent Zionist. His best friend was Esther, a Jewish woman who converted to Christianity to marry a gentile. Her family and community disowned her for making this choice, and Abraham remained her only friend. As the war progressed, Umchik and Esther supported and understood each other as no one else could.

When the war was over, Umchik moved to Israel. He settled in Kiryat Tivon, and worked as a journalist and photographer. He died on April 19, 1978, and was buried in Kiryat Tivon. The names of his relatives who perished in the Holocaust were etched on his tombstone. The final inscription reads, “G-d will avenge their blood.”

The script was written by filmmaker, screenwriter and producer Minna Packer. She is a graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, the Pratt Institute, and a Fullbright scholar at the Lodz Film School. She previously directed and produced the documentary Back to Gombin.

For more information, a preview of the movie, and an opportunity to contribute to this project, go to the film’s website.

My Republican Haggadah: An oldie but goodie

Editor’s Note: This “Republican Haggadah” first appeared in the Huffington Post in 2012. However, except for the references to the 2012 Presidential election the humor is timeless. Enjoy!

— by Steve Sheffey

Jewish history is littered with sects, groups of people kind of like Jews who celebrate the same holidays and have many of the same customs, yet are somehow different.

Today’s sect is known as “Jewish Republicans,” few in number but very loud. Like most Jews, they celebrate Pesach, but they’ve got their own Haggadah. The differences between their Haggadah and ours are instructive.

After drinking the first cup of wine, most Jews wash their hands, but the Republicans stay seated and wait for the water to trickle down.

Most Jews then eat a green vegetable, but the Republican Haggadah follows the ruling of Rabbi Reagan that ketchup qualifies as a vegetable. Ketchup is not green, but green is the last thing any Republican would want to be. (Reagan does have this in common with Moses: Neither ever set foot in the land of Israel.)

More after the jump.
Next we break the middle of the three matzot. Most Jews break the middle matzah into two roughly equal pieces, replacing the smaller piece on the Seder plate and hiding the larger piece as the afikoman. The Republican Haggadah asks the leader (or in Republican parlance, the Seder CEO) to keep 99 percent of the matzah for himself and let the other participants share the remaining 1 percent.

The Torah speaks of four sons, but the Republican Haggadah speaks of four candidates: The simple candidate (Santorum), the wicked candidate (Paul), the candidate who does not know how to answer (Romney), and the simple candidate who thinks he’s the wise candidate (Gingrich). They have no wise candidates.

The highlight of the Republican Haggadah is its version of “Dayenu” — “it would have been enough.” The Republican motto when it comes to President Obama is “nothing is enough” — no matter how much President Obama does for Israel, it’s never enough for some of our Republican friends:

President Obama has called for the removal of Syrian President Assad.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama ordered the successful assassination of Osama bin Laden.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama has done more than any other president to stop Iran’s illicit nuclear program.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama restored Israel’s qualitative military edge after years of erosion under the Bush administration.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama increased security assistance to Israel to record levels.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama boycotted Durban II and Durban III.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama has taken U.S.-Israel military and intelligence cooperation to unprecedented levels.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama cast his only veto in the U.N. against the one-sided anti-Israel Security Council resolution.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama opposed the Goldstone Report.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama stood with Israel against the Gaza flotilla
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama organized a successful diplomatic crusade against the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama immediately intervened to rescue Israelis trapped in the Egyptian embassy.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama gave orders to give Israel “whatever it needs” to put out the Carmel fire.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama maintained the U.S. policy of ambiguity on Israel’s nuclear weapons.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama has repeatedly condemned Palestinian incitement against Israel and attempts to delegitimize Israel.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama pulled out of joint exercises with Turkey after Turkey excluded Israel.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

There’s probably nothing President Obama can do to convince some Republicans that he’s pro-Israel. If President Obama split the Sea of Reeds and walked through it dry-shod, they’d accuse him of not being able to swim. They made their mind up before he was elected that he could not be trusted and they ignore everything that contradicts their biases.

The ultimate message of the real Haggadah is hope (sound familiar?). Let’s hope that just as the vast majority of American Jews voted for Barack Obama in 2008, the vast majority of us will remember who we are and what we value and vote to re-elect President Obama in 2012.

Perelman Jewish Day School Bars Teachers Union

— by Lynne Fox, Chairperson, Philadelphia Jewish Labor Committee

The Perelman Jewish Day School board has unilaterally withdrawn its recognition of the union which has represented their teachers without interruption since 1976 and refuses to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement.

Philadelphia Jewish Labor Committee stands firmly with the teachers, their union and the parents and community leaders who have reached out to us as the board violates the rights of the school’s teachers to bargain collectively.

Although the school claims a religious exception to the relevant labor laws, it is the teachers’ concerns which are in alignment with tenets of Conservative Judaism. By dismantling the union and denying employees the power of collective bargaining, the Perelman Jewish Day School is acting in opposition both to major halakhic authorities and to the official position of the Conservative Movement. In 2008, the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards passed a teshuvah (legal position) which obliges institutions affiliated with the movement to comply with a series of Jewish labor laws. Among these, employers must pay a living wage and “may not interfere in any way with organizing drives.”

More after the jump.
This teshuvah draws upon a consistent line of rabbinic authority dating back to the Talmud. The third century Mishnah and Tosefta instructs employers to meet or exceed local custom in terms of wages and benefits, and the Babylonian Talmud gives town residents the right to intervene between a local employer and a worker to insure that wages are fair.

In 1945, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, a leading Israeli Ashkanzi scholar and posek (authoritative adjudicator of questions related to Jewish law), recognized the right of workers to organize and to have their regulations and rules seen as binding. He also recognized, in certain conditions, their right to strike.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), a Lithuanian Orthodox rabbi, scholar and posek, concurred in a series of Responsa that extended Rabbi Waldenberg’s holding to include the right of workers to prevent scabs from doing their jobs and to include the rights of religious school teachers to bargain collectively, even though community funds and the religious obligation to teach Torah were at stake.

The Perelman Jewish Day School has based its identity on a fidelity to halakhah (Jewish law) and derekh eretz (Jewish ethics). We call upon the school’s administration to bring this same dedication to its obligations as an employer of teachers who work hard every day to make the institution a center of Torah.

Jewish tradition has been clear and consistent — the treatment of workers and their right to organize are among the basic underpinnings of a just society. We therefore call upon the Perelman Jewish Day School to reverse their decision and begin to bargain with the teachers union over the terms of the next collective bargaining agreement.  

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.

Three Philadelphians Star in “Megillas Lester” Musical Comedy DVD

Akiba Hebrew Academy graduates Michael Bihovsky, Adam Levinthal and Andrew Davies star in the newly-released, full-length musical animated comedy DVD Megillas Lester, presented by EMES Productions, produced by Kolrom Animation Studios, and distributed by ArtScroll.

Bihovsky, who directed and starred in One Grain More and Fresh! now voices Doniel “Lester” Lesterovitch, an average boy in a Jewish elementary school. While directing his school’s Purim play, Lester gets a knock on the head from a fallen box of puffy paint and falls unconscious. Suddenly, Lester finds himself in the middle of the feast of King Achashverosh, and through a case of mistaken identity, it is Lester who is asked to go summon Queen Vashti to the party.

More after the jump.

Vashti decides to go, which prevents the story of Megillas Esther: Vashti is not killed, a search for a new queen is not required, and thus Esther never comes to the palace. That leaves nobody to save the Jews from the plot of Haman (voiced by Levinthal). Amid a sub-plot involving Bigsan (voiced by Davies) and Seresh’s murder schemes, Lester runs all over Shushan, trying to stay out of Haman’s way and set the Purim story back on track.


The Actors

Get to know the real live actors that are the voices of Lester, Bigsan, Achashverosh, Haman and more!

Ukrainian Government Must Ensure Rights, Safety of Minorities


Protests in Kiev, last week.

— by Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean, Simon Wiesenthal Center

Like millions of concerned people around the world, we hope that the emerging leadership in Ukraine will steer a course based on democratic values and inclusion, including guaranteeing rights and safety for its large Jewish communities and their communal institutions.

As the late Simon Wiesenthal said, “Where democracy is strong, it is good for Jews and where it is weak, it is bad for Jews.” Nothing will better guarantee a future for Ukrainian Jewry than the end of violent confrontations and the restoration of true democratic rule.

World Jewry’s concerns have been heightened with word of a firebomb attack on a synagogue southeast of the capital of Kiev Sunday night.