Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Let's Be Honest--About High Holiday Sermons--How Do You Jew--Part II

In the first part of this series, I pointed out that people who view Judasim as an important part of their lives today fall into two denominations--Tribalists and Aspirational--with most of us incorporating aspects of each into our own Jewish experience.

For years we have framed Jewish denominations as Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform which differed mainly in their levels of ritual observance.  But the new denominations cut across the old lines and focus on their followers' view of what it means to be Jewish.

Tribalists tend to believe that they were born Jewish and have a responsibility to unequivocally support Israel and to remain vigilant in their fight against anti-Semitism, discrimination against Jews and existential threats to the Jewish people here and in Israel--threats which they believe are both real and daunting.

Aspirational Jews tend to view Judaism as a package that includes a Jewish homeland, a rich history, a written and oral tradition of rituals, wisdom, values, and ethics.  It is an option with which they are fully prepared and even anxious to engage if and only if it can provide them tools that enable them to live happier, better, more productive lives.

The very different messaging and views regarding the true meaning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and how they are being played out in High Holiday sermons provide a dramatic example of this dynamic.

In Jewish tradition, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur--called the "Day of Awe--are a time for intense self-examination (heshbon hanefesh) as each of us is commanded to repent for the sins we have committed during the last year.  We are supposed to seek out those who we have hurt or treated badly during the last year and ask them for their forgiveness.  We also are to do repentance (tshuvah) before God and make our case to be inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year. 

But in recent years, even as life for American Jews has become better and Israel has become stronger and more secure, many Jews and  rabbinic leaders have become  increasingly vocal about their existential fears and sense of victimhood--so much so that their Rosh Hashanah sermons have morphed into fearful and demonizing rants against others--both inside and outside the Jewish tent--who are perceived as threats.

A tipping point occurred two years ago when every Jews Inbox suddenly filled up with forwarded emails from friends sharing what they were calling "The Sermon of the Century."

The now-famous sermon was delivered on Rosh Hashanah in 2010 by Rabbi Schlomo Lewis of  Atlanta's Etz Chaim (Conservative) synagogue. It earned him a commendation from both the Georgia legislature and the U.S. Congress.    

On Rosh Hashanah, instead of helping his congregants with their upcoming negotiations with God where their very lives stood in the balance, Rabbi Lewis decided to deliver a  passionate warning about the evil perpetrators of radical Islam--comparing the Islamists to the Nazis and making numerous allusions to the Holocaust.

He concluded by saying:

Our parents and grandparents saw the swastika and recoiled, understood the threat and destroyed the Nazis. We see the banner of Radical Islam and can do no less.

A rabbi was once asked by his students….

“Rebbi. Why are your sermons so stern?” Replied the rabbi, “If a house is on fire and we chose not to wake up our children, for fear of disturbing their sleep, would that be love? Kinderlach, ‘di hoyz brent.’ Children our house is on fire and I must arouse you from your slumber.”

My friends – the world is on fire and we must awake from our slumber. “EHR KUMT.(yiddish for "He--meaning Hitler-is coming)”

Thousands of Jews were so moved by this Rosh Hashanah message that they forwarded it all over the country and it has received hundreds of thousands of views. 

With others like the blogger Gefilte on loonwatch.com it raised some red flags.

Quite simply, it’s nothing but a piece of hate speech by a religious leader. Not only that, it’s a piece of dreck delivered at a pulpit by a rabbi on the first day of Rosh Hashanah — a day for introspection and self-examination, not high political theater.

And the Tribalist approach to the High Holidays continues.

Last week former New York mayor Ed Koch gave his annual "sermon" at the Modern Orthodox Park East Synagogue in New York and reportedly used the opportunity  to deliver a screed blasting President Obama for his policies and actions regarding Iran and his weakness when it comes to dealing with Muslims in general.

This represents the third complete flip for Koch on the subject of Obama and Israel.  Two years ago, he vilified Obama for "throwing Israel under the bus" only to decide months later that Obama was great for Israel.  Now he has apparently flipped again on the subject.  All of that is interesting (or not) but in any event is it what we should be hearing from the bimah during a Rosh Hashanah sermon?

Meanwhile in Israel, two of the most powerful and influential rabbis in the Jewish world sent Rosh Hashanah messages to the their followers.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the politically powerful religious Shas party, sent out a message before the holiday urging all Jews to use the Rosh Hashanah observance as an opportunity to pray for the destruction of Iran.

At the same time,  Rabbi  Shlomo Amar, the chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel used the Rosh Hashanah platform to make a single statement--that Reform Jews pose the greatest threat to our people today and that it is better for a Jew not to pray at all than to pray along with Reform Jews.

Most American Jews dismiss the impact of rabbis like Amar and Josef, describing them as fringe elements, fanatics, and worse.  But they are not the least bit fringe.  These rabbis have enormous political power and influence in Israel and elsewhere and their opinions form the basis for policy and law in the Jewish homeland.

Those widely hailed dark and ominous sermons were far different from those delivered  last week here in Aspen.  The sermons on the mount(ain) were the work of Rabbi David Segal, the young spiritual leader of the Aspen Jewish Congregation--a fast growing center of Jewish life in a community where the congregants range from old and very wealthy to young and middle class and who come from all neighborhoods of the Jewish, economic and political spectrum.

Rabbi Segal is a Reform rabbi who is bright and innovative and would even be called progressive but his sermons seemed far more true to Jewish tradition that those delivered by the more ritually observant religious leaders described above.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah Rabbi Segal  traced the Jewish tradition of reforming the rules and tradition back to Abraham, and suggested that each of us can be true to that tradition by changing it in ways that retain its essence but keeps it relevant.

On Rosh Hashanah morning  he talked about politics.  But instead of promoting or bashing one of the candidates, Rabbi Segal talked about our need to support candidates and promote our political agendas in a way that is consistent with Jewish values and civility.

He closed with the following prayer for the New Year: 

Ribono shel olam, Great One of the World, we’re trying really hard here to put Your will into action through our political affiliations.

Remind us that You are bigger than party and faction, and that some of Your truth always resides in the words of our opponents. Give us the confidence to learn from them, especially the ones who seem so wrong at first... Remind us of the wisdom of our ancestors, who taught,“Who is wise? He who learns from all people” (Pirkei Avot 4:1).

Teach us that our People’s record of your Revelation is subtle, complex, multi-vocal, at times confusing and troubling, and elsewhere a clarion call for justice. Help us to study it more (perhaps with a local rabbi), and through our learning to know You better, and Your will, for our action in the world.

Then may we fulfill your promise to Abraham, that we shall be a blessing to the community and nation we all call our home.

As Rabbi Segal quotes from the Talmud, a truly wise person is one who learns from all people.  And as we are also advised in the Talmud, we should travel down some part of the middle of the road and not on the far right or the far left.

Today we have new Jewish denominations.  The Tribalists on one extreme who view being Jewish as a real life game of "Survivor" where even today we face enemies and discrimination and existential threats.  And on the other extreme are the Aspirationalists who view Judaism as a value-added set of beliefs, history, rituals, and wisdom traditions that can help us lead happier, better, and more productive lives.

Each side is correct--to a point. There are existential threats to the Jewish democratic state of Israel and to our ability to maintain a vital Jewish community here in the U.S.  But the most daunting of those threats is not a nuclear Iran or radical Islam or intermarriage or anti-Semitism. 

The major threat is that in our efforts to fight each of those very real challenges we lose sight of the Jewish values and ethical guidelines regarding how we treat each other that were the whole point of Judaism in the first place.

Now more than ever before, Jews are in a position where we have the power and standing to implement our tradition and our values more fully and completely than ever before.  Along with that power comes the freedom to make choices--including the choice of simply walking away from a tradition if it loses its meaning and ability to help us be better, happier, more productive human beings.

The key challenge of 5773 is to spend less time demonizing others (even with fair criticism) and to seek out more opportunities for self-examination and linking to our tradition and wisdom in ways that truly make each of us, the world, and the Jewish people better.

That seems like the best New Year's resolution of all.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Let's Be Honest--About Jewish Denominations--How Do You Jew--Part 1

The time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the "Days of Awe" since we are supposed to spend them making our case before God that we are worthy to be inscribed in the Book of Life for yet another year.  It is the one short period when we are supposed to focus completely on our own strengths and weaknesses and our personal relationship with God.  The rest of the year, and Judaism in general, focuses on prayers for the Jewish people, the communities in which we live, and the rest of the world.

The various flavors of Judaism--Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Vegan, Jew-Bu, etc.--have always more or less agreed on this model.  We are very different in the trappings and the role that ritual observance plays in the process.  But the various denominational labels have been used for decades to help Jews and other differentiate between the various denominations and how different Jews choose to be religious in their own way.

But as with most labels that have served us well for a long time, those denominational labels are becoming more meaningless by the day.  In the past, the list above (in order) has been used to determine which Jews are "more Jewish" ranging from Orthodox at the top to Jew-Bu at the bottom.
But now, many of my Orthodox friends have become more flexible in their levels of observance while more and more of my Reform friends are wearing kippot and keeping kosher. 

As with our relationship to Israel and a whole broad range of issues, things are just getting more and more complicated when it comes to using the old measures and language to talk about what it means to be Jewish.

I would suggest that as a practical matter, there are really only two denominations of American Judaism that exist today and that they have far less to do with ritual observance per se than they do with the macro view regarding what it means to be Jewish.

One view--the one I hear about in emails from my older Jewish friends of all existing denominations--is that Judaism carries with it first and foremost a set of obligations.  Those of us who were born Jewish have a duty to perpetuate the Jewish people (by marrying inside the faith), to unequivocally support the government of the State of Israel without which Judaism would essentially cease to exist, and to be fully aware that even though things may seem pretty good for us right now, the anti-Semites and Jew haters are still out there and we must always be alert and vigilant for the signs of the next catastrophe. 

We owe it to the memory of those who died in the Holocaust not to grant Hitler a posthumous victory and must forward every article and statement documenting horrible acts of anti-Semitism from anywhere in the world to make sure that the current complacent generation of Jews is snapped out of its dangerous illusion that life for Jews is pretty good here.

The other denomination consists of those who believe that in this new open source world without boundaries and limitations in which we are blessed to live in this country, Judaism like every other religion, way of life, and wisdom tradition, is to be viewed as a choice--not a burden or responsibility.  It will thrive or wither based on the ability of its rituals, ethics, values, historical memories and insights to help people live happier, better, and more productive lives. 

The same applies to the legacy organizations such as synagogues, Federations, pro-Israel groups and all of the other entities that for decades essentially had a large captive audience and suddenly find themselves having to compete for customers in the open market.

Perhaps the best example of how the failure of most Jews and the media to understand that there are now just two relevant denominations has surfaced in the jumbled and contradictory conversations about "The Jewish Vote" and whether President Obama is as popular with Jews as he was four years ago or if he is losing ground to Mitt Romney.  It also applies to the corollary question regarding the role that Israel plays in the voting decision of Jews.

Polls and surveys have yielded a broad range of results and answers to those questions because the pollsters and pundits don't understand that the differences in issues, politics, and actual definition of what it means to be Jewish is so profoundly different between the denominations that the term "Jewish" no longer has a single definition.

Among the "tribal" Jews, unequivocal support for Israel and its government is a huge priority and the almost omnipresent sense of victimhood, fear, and anger that is voiced at meetings and articles that are forwarded by these folks has caused many of them to employ the tactics and tone of the political Right.

Within the other denomination people who turn to Judaism as an important part of their lives embrace its rituals, culture, history, wisdom, ethics, and values as a life choice due to its ability to help them live happier, better, and more productive lives.  They believe that a Jew's first responsibility is to leave the world a better place (tikkun olam) than it was when we got here. 

I will call this group Aspirational Jews--not because they don't feel as strong an historical and cultural connection to Judaism and Israel but because they tend to pick and choose among the rituals and traditions and focus on observing only those that make their lives better, happier, and more productive.  They don't feel "commanded" nearly as much as they feel empowered to make relevant and value-added choices.

As is always the case, the best result will occur when pluralism prevails and the extremists of each denomination work hard to find the partial truths that certainly exist in the positions of the other.

The Tribalists need to understand that we live in times when even the legacy organizations that they embrace have determined that the greatest threat that American Jews face today is not that gentiles hate Jews and want to destroy us but is rather that so many gentiles love Jews so much that they can't wait to marry our children.  That fact should cut into the fear just a smidge.

The Aspirational Jews need to understand that although we enjoy a life in the U.S. that none of our forefathers and mothers ever dreamed possible, there are still enormous threats that exist in a very ugly world and that Jew hatred is a very major challenge in many places around the world.

Our tradition teaches us over and over that some version of the middle road is always the best way to travel.  It also teaches that we grow and survive not by demonizing those with whom we disagree but rather by engaging those very people in dialogue and conversations that will make each of us wiser and lead to the best result possible.

During these Day of Awe we need to look at ourselves and determine how we can best make the positive difference that our tradition teaches were are all obliged to seek.

Part 2 will  be a discussion of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the Days of Awe and point out new differences are emerging the the way the Tribalists and the Jews by Choice frame this period as well.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Let's Be Honest--It is SO OVER!

Full Disclosure:  I voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and have known for a long time that I will vote for him again in November.  I am socially liberal and fiscally conservative and have voted, worked for, and donated money to the campaigns of both Democrats and Republicans in the past and in the current election cycle.

I had planned to write this article two months ago and I wish I had because back then it was less clear to most people that the upcoming presidential election has already been decided and that Barack Obama has won.  Actually, it is more accurate to say that Mitt Romney and the Republican party have lost.  But the result is the same.

Even though our president has done a pretty good job under horrible circumstances over the last four years, it is disappointing that his imminent victory has come so easily.  Americans deserve a real choice between candidates with a vision for the future.

Unfortunately, for the last four years Republicans have been so caught up in their proudly announced determination to cause Barack Obama to fail and so anxious to please the extremists in their base that they have presented us with a candidate and a platform that are out of touch with the wants, needs, and values of most Americans.

In Mitt Romney, Republicans nominated a candidate that was the second or third choice of most of their party members.  His only seeming strength is his ability to master the ins and out of the legal and free market system to build a huge personal fortune for himself and a handful of wealthy investors.

During the last few months, his ineptitude in the areas of diplomacy and foreign affairs has been showcased through a serious of unforced statements that make most people cringe.  He has declared Russia to be the number one geopolitical threat to the U.S., has gratuitously insulted the people of our most reliable ally by saying they weren't ready to host the Olympics, has said he would do "everything the opposite of Obama" regarding Israel even though Obama has been called the most pro-Israel U.S. president ever and cited as a true friend by current and former Israeli prime ministers, and has recently used the tragic murders of U.S. diplomats in Libya for political purposes.  Enough said.

Also to blame are Romney's campaign advisers who have led him horribly astray.  His first major downturn came when he responded to calls for him to release his tax returns by mounting a racist offensive against the president stating that Obama "needs to learn how to be an American."

But most damaging was choosing to key his entire campaign around asking Americans if they are better off today than they were four years ago.  The answer for most Americans is a resounding "yes."  The stock market has doubled, millions of new private sectors jobs have been created, the real estate collapse has started to reverse, and polls show that consumer spending and confidence are now at four year highs.

Does it make sense that the Romney campaign is spending millions to encourage Americans to realize that under President Obama our nation and most voters' view of the future have emerged from a death spiral and are headed in the right direction?

But the impending Republican disaster is not all Romney's fault.  The truth is that the Republican Party never really had a chance.

He has been saddled with a party platform that is so extreme and out of touch with most Americans on a broad range of social issues and the role of religion in our government that only those who truly hate Barack Obama could support him.

This sad story for Americans like me who were hoping for a real choice has been unfolding for months but just a few weeks ago the race was still close.  The politics betting site Intrade showed Obama as a 54-45 percent favorite to win in November.

Then came the Republican convention followed by the Democratic convention and that was that.  The focus of each convention was Obama.  All of the energy and passion and both conventions were in speeches about Obama.  The Republicans hate him and the Democrats love him.  But it also became painfully clear that Romney was the second or third choice for most Republicans.  They aren't passionate about HIM.  They are passionate about beating Obama.  The Democrats on the other hand are running the candidate that all of them want.  The difference in energy level, organization, and charisma from one week to the next was palpable.

Then came Romney's unfortunate and unpatriotic comments in the wake of the catastrophic murders of U.S. diplomats in Libya and suddenly it was over.

In an unprecedented three week slide on Intrade, the odds on the election have suddenly exploded to the point where Obama has now become a 67-33 favorite to win.

It has been a Wizard of Oz-like stretch where suddenly voters realized that the man behind the Republican curtain is not a wizard at all and that the party he represents has become so consumed with demonizing the president that they have forgotten to put together a positive plan for the future that makes any sense.

Just look at what has happened in Virginia--a key swing state that had been leaning toward Romney prior to the conventions.  The Republicans became so obsessed with including every Obama-bashing speaker in their shortened convention that not a single speaker--including Romney--made even a mention of the fact that our country is at war in Afghanistan and that tens of thousands of troops are fighting and dying there every day.

The Democrats then seized on the opportunity and made the troops a key part of every day's agenda.  They even had a mother of four servicemen--one currently serving in the Army, Air Force, Marines, and Navy--introduce Michelle Obama.  Both Obama and Biden talked extensively in their speeches about how grateful our country is to our men in uniform.

In Virginia, where one out of every three voters is either a veteran or a current member of the Armed Services, voters were apparently listening.  Senate candidate and former Governor Tim Kaine told me this week that support for both him and the president spiked dramatically during the last 10 days. 

Now Intrade shows Kaine as a 58-30 favorite in his race while Obama is listed as a 58-42 percent favorite.  Both races were neck and neck just two weeks ago.  Romney's numbers have also fallen off a cliff in Wisconsin, Ohio, Colorado, Michigan, Nevada, and Iowa since the conventions. 

You get the picture.

There are thousands of writers and broadcasters who will make their living over the next seven weeks trying to convince us that the race is neck and neck and could easily tilt in either direction.  That the three upcoming debates will swing the race one way or another. That's their job.  But they will be fibbing.

It is over. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Let's Be Honest--About Iran

After studying with the Dalai Lama and his chief rabbis (they actually called themselves "rimpoches" but I assume that is Tibetan for "rabbi") here in Aspen a few years ago, I realized I needed a mantra. 

So I came up with the observation that "the more I know, the less I know for sure" which isn't all that different from the mantra of CLAL that we should always be looking for the partial truth in the opinion of others or the statement in the Talmud that a truly wise person is "one who learns from all people."

It has actually been a very useful mantra during these times when we are confronted by so many people who believe they have 100 percent of the truth on a variety of complex issues and instead of engaging with people who have different opinions and trying to learn from them the response too often is to demonize and delegitimize others and simply turn up the anger and the volume on their own positions.

With that as background, let's look at the situation in Iran and the conversation regarding what, if anything, the U.S. and Israel should be doing in response to that country's presumed march toward a nuclear weapon.

In the media and blogosphere, the conversation is relatively simple.  On one side are those who believe that Iran is on the verge of manufacturing a nuclear weapon that would pose and existential threat to Israel and other countries in the region and that the only responsible action for Israel and/or the U.S. to take would be to launch a preemptive military strike against Iran to destroy that country's nuclear capability.

On the other side are those (including most military experts in both Israel and the U.S.) who believe that Iran is not that close to developing nuclear capability and/or who doubt that a military strike would accomplish its goal in any event.

It seems pretty straight-forward. But the more one knows, the less one knows for sure.
President Obama has stated repeatedly that he will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon and has imposed harsh economic sanctions against Iran which by all accounts are causing great economic hardship to Iranian citizens and which are therefore considered to be successful by many people who are hopeful that the people there will pressure their government into abandoning their nuclear aspirations.

Here in Aspen I met with Clifford May and Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) who acknowledge that the sanctions are indeed making life miserable for average Iranians.  They reported that the price of chicken--the staple of the Iranian diet--has quadrupled in recent months and there are other hardships.  But they claim that the hatred of Israel, Judaism, and western values is so hard-wired into the soul of the radical Muslims who run the country that it won't have any impact on their quest for a nuclear bomb. 

Despite their reservations, FDD is reportedly pushing for even tougher sanctions and its leaders are actually helping to draft them.

Then I had lunch in Washington with Dr. Trita Parsi, the head of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) this week who told me that Obama and the FDD are both correct that sanctions are indeed making life miserable for Iranian citizens but they are hurting--not helping--the Israeli and American cause.

Parsi claims that most Iranians actually love--not hate--America and western values.  Their real hatred is reserved for their own corrupt, fundamentalist government leaders who have no qualms about making their own people suffer.  But now that the American-led boycott is creating a shortage of medicine that is causing many Iranians to die needlessly, he says a lot of that anger is being redirected toward the U.S. and Israel and away from the very government leaders that we are trying to hurt.

Later the same day, I talked with former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Dan Haloutz who believes that Iran has no intention of developing a nuclear weapon at all and that even if they did, Israel is the last country in the region they would ever attack.  Israel, he pointed out, is the one country in the neighborhood that is already a major economic and military power that could wipe Iran off the face of the earth in a retaliatory attack so, he asks, why would Iranian leaders (who may be evil but who are not stupid) pick a fight with the toughest kid on the block.

Haloutz, like virtually all current and former Israeli military and IDF experts, doubts that a preemptive Israeli strike would succeed in destroying Iran's nuclear capability and that the inevitable Iranian response would result in massive casualties among Israeli citizens--most of whom are opposed to an attack in the first place.

And because this is the silly season in the U.S., everything has a political component.  The Right wing has used Obama's unwillingness to endorse an attack (which polls show that more than 70 percent of Americans and virtually all of our military leaders oppose) as a sign of his weakness and lack of true support for Israel.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has shockingly decided to once again publicly criticize the leader of Israel's only major ally and benefactor in a very public and direct way, leading to speculation that he is trying to help his friends Mitt Romney and Sheldon Adelson accompish their goal of defeating Obama in November.

I have some thoughts on who is more right than wrong on each of the above issues, but there is certainly a lot of truth in each of these positions and points of view.  And I have no doubt that all of the people I refer to above are sincere in their belief that their position on Iran is correct and will lead to the best result.

And, because our media has become more focused on advocacy and quick and simple answers than on providing real insights and education, there is a lot more heat than light being produced by all the ranting and raving on this issue. 

And the energy and passion are coming from those who are convinced the situation is simple--not complicated--and that their side has 100 percent of the truth.  Their response to troublesome facts or different opinions is to either ignore them or demonize those who voice them.

But for those of us who dig even a little bit deeper, it is clear that nothing is clear.

The more I know, the less I know for sure.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Let's Be Honest--J Street is SO Inside the Tent

Full disclosure up front.  I have been very involved in Jewish and pro-Israel organizations for three decades and I try to use Jewish wisdom, values and ethics as my moral filter.  I have chaired two Federation campaigns, chaired state Israel Bonds campaigns, made 20 trips to Israel, served on our local AIPAC board and am now on the National Advisory Committee of J Street. 

I spent the last couple of days in Washington, D.C. at the J Street National Leadership Summit and came away proud and enthused over how J Street has evolved and matured during over the last few years.  It has truly taken its place among the ranks of the important national Jewish and pro-Israel organizations in a very short period of time.

You don't have to take my word for it.  The list of speakers who addressed us and their tone and message said it all.  I'll deal with some of what I heard and learned in subsequent articles over the next couple days.

But first and foremost, my many self-described pro-Israel friends who have been anywhere from very suspicious to downright hostile toward J Street since its inception just a few years ago should all know once and for all that J Street is here to stay and has clearly established itself as a major pro-Israel player on the national and international scene. 

The days are long gone when small, wealthy passionate groups of wealthy Right wing Jewish community leaders will be able to intimidate community professionals and rabbis who have agreed to host J Street programs and speakers.  The most egregious example of that behavior occurred two years ago in Boston where a speaking invitation to J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami was cancelled by a synagogue rabbi just hours before a scheduled event after the rabbi said he was pressured by a few large donors.  But those days are behind us..

J Street's amazing growth (more than 180,000 donors and followers and a Rabbinic Cabinet of more than 600) is a reflection of the huge void in the American Jewish discussion about Israel it has filled.  It is the only place where honest, open and balanced conversations about the many nuanced and complicated issues surrounding Israel can really take place.

Look at what happened in just 24 hours in Washington this week.  Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren spoke to our group of about 75 J Street leaders.  Although his specific comments were off the record, the difference in his tone was like night and day from his appearance at the same event two years ago when he spent all his time criticizing J Street for everything from its unhelpful statements and policies to its logo.

This time, he didn't talk about J Street's credentials as a pro-Israel group--that was a given.  Instead he gave us a detailed update of all the issues and challenges confronting the Jewish state.  It seemed obvious that his different and friendlier tone was based on J Street's clear stands on a number of issues over the last year that removed doubt about its commitment to Israel as a Jewish democratic state.  Oren answered many questions from the audience--all of which were respectful and asked by people who clearly cared about Israel.  But he still hates our logo.

His talk was followed by an interview of former Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff General Dani Haloutz who is in the U.S. on a three-day J Street speaking tour.  Gen. Haloutz was interviewed by
Jeffrey Goldberg--a highly respected reporter with The Atlantic who had accepted an invitation to appear at a national J Street event for the first time.  Jeff told me after his interview that he was surprised by the "moderate" tone of the questions and the crowd in general.

That night, our group attended a J Street fundraiser for former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine who is running for the Senate in a close race.  Kaine has accepted J Street's endorsement--as has California Senator Dianne Feinstein and more than 60 other Congressional and Senate candidates.  Just two years ago, candidates of that stature told J Street they couldn't accept our money or endorsement for fear of being ostracized by those on the pro-Israel Right.

But a lot has changed in two years.

The next morning, we heard from PLO Chief Representative Maen Areikat who gave us a very different perspective than the one presented by Oren.  He was also treated with respect and was pressed hard by the group with questions about his version of the story.

Then we went to Capitol Hill where I had the opportunity to meet with two Congressmen from former homes--Ron Kind of Wisconsin and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio who represents the district including Oberlin where I sent to college and lived for nine years.

It was an energizing and informative couple of days and I came away very aware that only J Street could have put a program like that together.  No other Jewish or pro-Israel organization would invite and treat with both respect and probing questions a group of top level speakers representing such a rich and broad range of perspectives. 

That's because J Street doesn't do pep rallies and is not strictly a booster club for the Israeli government .  J Street promotes conversation and informed discussion for those who acknowledge how complex and complicated the issues surrounding the relationship between the democratic State of Israel and most Jewish Americans have become.  What an opportunity and what a blessing it is that J Street has filled that gaping void in our national Jewish conversation.

It is defiinitely time for those who have never attended a J Street event or read a J Street statement or policy from our website but instead have forwarded vicious emails decrying J Street's hidden agenda of destroying Israel to actually do some reading and get some first-hand knowledge of the important role the organization is playing on the political scene after just a few short years.

Thankfully more and more people like Michael Oren, Jeffrey Goldberg, dozens of members of Congress and many, many others are no longer part of that crowd and are acting out the Jewish mandate to try to learn from all people and to embrace disagreements that are the result of good, caring people all working to make the world a better place.