by Joseph Wolkin, World Israel News
In February 2017, the Coalition for Jewish Values (CJV) was founded by Rabbis Pesach Lerner and Yaakov Menken. They started with just six directors, but rapidly grew to include more than 1,500 Orthodox rabbis across America.
The organization came into being when its founders saw that American liberal Jewish groups increasingly adopted causes that gainsay traditional Jewish teachings.
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“American liberal Jewish movements have long abandoned Jewish tradition as their final arbiter of morality, and today declare that ‘Judaism’ requires support for positions at odds with the Bible itself,” the CJV says.
Rabbis Lerner and Menken recognized a void needed to be filled, that an organization was required to speak up for traditional Jewish values in the public square.
World Israel News recently spoke with Rabbis Lerner and Menken.
Q: How did the Coalition for Jewish Values begin?
Rabbi Lerner: “Rabbi Menken, myself and a bunch of others decided that every time we read about a Jewish value, the Jewish value is not so Jewish or even anti-Jewish. It may be a week, a month or a year old, and the feeling is that to be a Jewish value, it needs to be built on tradition. We put together a group of six like-minded rabbis and said we have to do something, and we put together the Coalition for Jewish Values.”
Rabbi Menken: [Rabbi] Avrohom Gordimer [a member of the Rabbinical Council of America] asked, ‘How do we make our voice louder?’ I said we should form a group. The response from other members of this group was, ‘OK, you’re the director.’
Rabbi Lerner: “We started with six directors and we expanded out. What was a voice in the wilderness has become a bigger voice. We realized the gap and the hole we have to fill is much greater than we imagined. From the responses we’ve gotten from non-Jewish groups, Capitol Hill and other sources show it was needed. Someone asked me and Rabbi Yaakov, ‘Where have you been?’”
“All of a sudden, there’s a group out there representing the Bible and Jewish values, rather than the Christian community that didn’t have friends in our community. It wasn’t a custom in our community to speak out to the greater world. We’re showing up in places that people can’t imagine. We created an international liaison. We’re working with non-Jewish groups. They’re calling us for assistance and we’re calling them for assistance, so there’s a common cause.”
Q: Why was the group needed? What hasn’t one like this existed until yours was created?
Rabbi Menken: “I was meeting with a noted conservative figure on Capitol Hill when I described who we are, what we intend to do and why we’re here. The reaction was that we need this organization. Think how often traditional conservative groups are speaking up and offering a traditional perspective on family value issues that are actively debated, yet the Torah has a clear position on.”
“The Torah tells us what genders are, what marriage is, what a life is, how valuable a life is and none of these are complicated issues from our perspective. Yet you hear people on the Left in the Jewish world are claiming the Jewish view is precisely the opposite in these cases. They’re providing a false account of what Judaism believes. These are foundational, ethical principles that every American should share.”
Rabbi Lerner: “If we had a situation where there was no ‘Jewish opinion,’ that’s one problem. There would be a voice of Torah missing. Here, you have a ‘Jewish opinion,’ where people are misappropriating Jewish values. We have to correct the incorrect, and we have to fill in that gap.”
Q: What percentage of the group is not Orthodox?
Rabbi Lerner: “Probably zero. Our rabbinic group is 1,500-plus rabbis and, by definition, are Orthodox. Our supporters, friends and circle of people we reach include all types of Jews and non-Jews.”
Q: What is the CJV’s biggest accomplishment so far?
Rabbi Lerner: “The biggest accomplishment is the recognition that there is a voice of traditional biblical values out there that is willing to speak up and speak out and to be called upon. If you call something a Jewish value, you better double check it. We’re now being quoted in articles on the Left side even. The other organized Jewish groups out there have multiple agendas. I don’t blame them, and they’re into lobbying, fundraising and other causes. Sometimes, they can’t speak out for what we consider to be Torah truth, because they have multiple goals, and I respect that.”
“Our goal — the rule of thumb is to not be beholden to someone on top of you — is to have our rabbinic experience and participate in the conversation. We’re an independent group that will challenge the situation based on what we call Torah true values. We have people from all across the country, Israel and Europe because we have a common denominator.”
Q: What’s the future of Jews in America?
Rabbi Lerner: “The cost of housing in Israel is going up as we speak because of supply and demand. The Aliyah from America is greater than ever before. Nefesh B’Nefesh [an Aliyah group] told me they’ve opened up four times the amount of files in the last six months than ever before. You can say people are moving because of altruistic reasons, because of taxes and tuition, because of the pandemic and they realized they can work out of the office, or they’re scared of what’s going on and what’s going to happen. It could be all of the above.”
Q: In your criticism on Feb. 25 of the Equality Act, your group said it would open religious groups up to lawsuits. How can this act affect religious Jews and observant non-Jews in America?
Rabbi Lerner: “Your bathroom is no longer single gender. If someone has a value system of separate swimming, you can’t do that anymore. They can participate in any event that may be restrictive. There was a seminar on men’s health issues that two women walked in on [in an Orthodox part of Brooklyn], and they said they were interested in it. With sports, it’s an issue. You have no restrictions of men and women. Not only does it affect you and me, but imagine the message it sends to our kids.”
Rabbi Menken: “It doesn’t matter what everybody else thinks, if you don’t give a priority to an activist, you can’t throw them out because you’ll be declared a bigot. That’s the society the Equality Act is creating. It’s obviously unfriendly to us.”
Rabbi Lerner: “There’s one more factor, I think. The religious protection that used to be guaranteed to us is being thrown out.”
Q: In what way?
Rabbi Lerner: “I think it’s specifically excluded.”
Rabbi Menken: ‘The First Amendment protects religion. In an early 1990s or late 1980s Supreme Court decision, it said as long as a government policy isn’t targeting a religion, it’s not unconstitutional, even if it violates a certain religious teaching. Along came Congress, with the active support of the ACLU at the time, and they said we have to restore religious freedom. They called it the Religious Freedom Restoration Act [RFRA], and the purpose of that act was to say if you’re making life difficult for religious people, you have to show a compelling interest as to why the law is the way it is.”
“The act said all past and future legislation for the United States has to pass this test: to show there’s a reason why religious practice doesn’t deserve special consideration. That’s the First Amendment. They felt the Supreme Court decision had been wrong. This is the first time in history that an act specifically excludes RFRA as a defense.”
Q: It’s the 10th anniversary of Herbert Zweibon’s death, the former chairman of Americans for a Safe Israel. Rabbi Lerner, you worked closely with him. What was he like and how do you remember him?
Rabbi Lerner: “Wow. Herb was a great guy. He believed in Israel and did everything he could to protect Israel. He wasn’t bashful in saying it. He stood up for the security of Israel. He was somebody you could count on. He was out of the box and vocal. He did it with a deep sense of belief in the State of Israel. He wanted to make sure Israel was safe. He didn’t care about the politics. He cared about the results… His was a voice that was straightforward and honest.”