Although it has been less than a fortnight since our previous update, enough happened within the last several days alone to warrant a special issue. This is extraordinary, and we hope you will share this update widely with friends, neighbors and colleagues.
Because now it’s not about the impact we are trying to have, but the impact we are having, and what we are doing that no one has been willing or able to do before. In this issue, you’ll see us making the news story, defending religious liberty, and promoting true Jewish values in the public sphere.
As we were completing the last update, a hateful statement from a Reform leader hit the media. A group of leaders from American liberal movements journeyed to Israel, in order to lobby for greater recognition of their departures from traditional Jewish practice. As described in an excellent article by Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum, they demand, in particular, “a co-equal space for one-thousandth the number” at Israel’s Western Wall.
Shoshana Dweck, a board member of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), told Israeli Minister Tzachi Hanegbi that “it was never about a seat at a lunch counter, or a seat on the bus,” implying that Israelis, especially the Orthodox, are bigots, simply for denying Reform a large space at the Western Wall that they will never use for prayer, and want only for political purposes.
This has happened many times before, but this time, the CJV called them on it. We sent a letter to Rabbi Josh Weinberg, President of ARZA, in which we challenged the comparison of “the Israeli government and traditional Jews to white supremacists of the early South,” and pointed out that her statement plays directly into the hands of anti-Semites, always anxious to depict Jews as racists. We concluded, “will you, on behalf of ARZA, dissociate yourself from Dweck’s inflammatory statement, or call upon her to retract it?”
We also shared a copy of our letter with a reporter from the Jewish News Service (JNS), and when we did not receive a reply from Rabbi Weinberg (who eventually did reply, but only to “one hundred percent completely stand behind the comments”), we then sent a letter to Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice President of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, calling upon the Conference to “urgently consider a statement of censure” — which we shared with the JNS reporter as well.
The reporter confirmed the story, and not only obtained a copy of ARZA’s reply, but also requested statements from the RCA’s Rabbi Mark Dratch, Agudath Israel’s Rabbi Avi Shafran, and the National Council of Young Israel’s Farley Weiss. The resulting article featured a widespread condemnation from Orthodox groups, initiated and led by the CJV. We successfully put the Reform movement on notice that when they use disparaging statements about Orthodox Jews, they should expect to be challenged and condemned in the media.
The director of Princeton University’s Center for Jewish Life (CJL), which is affiliated with Hillel, is Rabbi Julie Roth, a supporter of T’ruah and the New Israel Fund. She rescinded the CJL’s invitation to Israeli Minister Tzipi Hotovely, responding to a complaint from the “Alliance of Jewish Progressives” that Hotovely is a “racist” for supporting Jewish life in the homeland of the Jewish people. CJV Managing Director (and Princeton alumnus) Rabbi Yaakov Menken penned a quick press release from Houston the following morning, which was covered in Israel National News and elsewhere, condemning the cancellation as an “outrage” built upon classic anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Why was Rabbi Menken in Houston? At 3:30 PM, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison was holding a hearing, and a Jewish presence was needed.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides special recovery assistance to organizations that help the government by doing community work — such as hosting meetings and public events — following natural disasters, such as the recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. However, FEMA policy explicitly denies relief to houses of worship and any building used primarily for religious purposes, even if otherwise qualified. This is both discriminatory on its face, and also involves an impermissible government entanglement in determining which activities of, for example, a Jewish Community Center, are “religious” vs. “ethnic” or otherwise non-sectarian.
Lawyers for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed for a preliminary injunction on behalf of three Protestant churches in Houston, that would set aside FEMA’s discriminatory policy and ensure that religious organizations receive equal access to the funds provided to others. They were supported by Amicus Curae (Friend of the Court) briefs filed by the local Catholic Archdiocese, as well as by Jews for Religious Liberty and Congregation Torah Vachesed, a synagogue flooded by Hurricane Harvey. FEMA responded by requested a sixty-day stay, claiming that they are in the process of revising their policies in any case.
Representatives of the Catholic Archdiocese were at the hearing, as were Rabbi Abraham Yaghobian, Rav of Congregation Torah Vachesed, and Rabbi Moshe Friedman, Executive Director of the Houston Community Kollel. In coordination with Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin, Director of Jews for Religious Liberty, Rabbi Menken attended the hearing to represent the national Orthodox Jewish community.
Rabbi Menken’s presence affected news coverage of the hearing; in published comments, he pointed out that despite repeated comments from the Becket Fund counsel Daniel Blomberg, arguing for the plaintiffs, and from the bench, U.S. Justice Department attorney Kari D’Ottavio made no attempt to defend the constitutionality of FEMA’s current policy. Mr. Blomberg thanked Rabbi Menken via email “for taking the trouble to join us at the argument, and for your work on behalf of religious liberty.”
This may have impacted more than the news coverage. Not only did the judge deny the stay, but on Friday, November 10, he gave FEMA until December 1 to change its position, or he would issue a ruling on the preliminary injunction — presumably, against FEMA.
November 8, morning
The following morning, Rabbi Menken was in Denver, at the invitation of the Centennial Institute, the public policy center of Colorado Christian University. The Institute was holding a rally on behalf of Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Bakery. Mr. Phillips designs a unique cake for each couple, and considers his artistry an expression of his faith; as a Christian, he says that he is only able to participate in what the Bible calls a marriage. For declining to design a cake for a same-sex couple, he was found to be “discriminating,” and the U.S. Supreme Court will hear his appeal early next month.
This is a very important religious liberty case, and the Centennial Institute wanted to demonstrate wide-ranging religious support for Phillips, including Catholics and Mormons, as well as Jews. Rabbi Menken was early on the program, and received a half-minute standing ovation for his remarks, which you may read and hear on our website.
The presence of a Jewish speaker was considered especially newsworthy, and Rabbi Menken’s presence was covered extensively, in the Christian Post, the Christian Times, Christian Broadcast News, the Washington Times and elsewhere.
November 8, evening
The evening found Rabbi Menken at Rutgers University, explaining a classic Jewish perspective on anti-Semitism to the members of Young Americans for Liberty. This came in the wake of anti-Semitic Facebook posts by a Rutgers professor, which seamlessly found themselves among the slides shown by Rabbi Menken to demonstrate how the same markers of anti-Semitism recur throughout history, including today in the anti-Israel movement.
The final event of the week was yet more evidence of the need for the CJV: a lead article in The Forward, a very liberal, left-wing Jewish outlet, entitled “Inspired By Trump Era, Orthodox Rabbis Launch New Political Group.” It correctly describes us as “articulating some of the most conservative positions ever espoused by a Jewish group.”
To be certain, The Forward is not a publication friendly to our perspective, and its coverage shows that slant. It contained numerous errors as a result:
We were not inspired by the “Trump Era.” We were inspired by others claiming to speak in the name of Judaism while espousing liberal, anti-Torah positions. We only have views that “are strikingly similar to those of many Christian evangelicals” because Christian evangelicals derive those values from the Jewish Bible. And while we come from diverse places in the Orthodox world, we are not necessarily tied to any existing organization.
Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, President of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), described us in the article as “a fringe group that only represents a tiny slice of the Orthodox community.” That description aptly describes JOFA itself, and the extreme left-wing views of Dr. Marcus. As one of her adherents said on the JOFA Facebook page, “with all due respect to Batsheva, I am not sure underestimating [the CJV] was the right way to go here.”
The Forward story acknowledges that the CJV has become a force to reckon with, slowly changing the public perception of what the “Jewish community” has to say about religious liberty, Israel, and moral values.
And this is why our organization is so urgently needed at this time.
And of course, please support us; join our growing membership and contact us if you wish to make a larger gift. It means a tremendous amount to all of us at the new CJV.