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Thoughts on the URJ Biennial, Chayei Sarah and the resolution on Israeli-Arab Citizens

Parshat Chayei Sarah

Genesis  23:1-25:18
Rabbi Denise L. Eger


This past week I visited Toronto, Canada. I was attending the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial Conference. More than 3000 Reform Jews from all over North America gathered to pray, study and learn from one another. We sang and danced during Shabbat. Listened to the inspiring words of Reform Movement leaders and met old friends and made new ones. Representing our congregation at the Biennial was also Cantor Saltzman, VP President of our Board, Gary Wilson and past president, Cary Davidson and his partner Andrew Ogilvie.  Cary is a National Board member of the Union for Reform Judaism.  There were other Kol Ami members there too. Of course, Dr. Eric Schockman, a past officer of Kol Ami, was there in his capacity as President of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and former Kol Ami members Rabbi Dean Shapiro and Haim Ainsworth were there from New Zealand!

During the course of the Biennial conference I helped lead a workshop on diversity and inclusion for synagogues. We addressed how to include and welcome LGBT people and families but this workshop went deeper and further to address issues of race, gender, class and ability.  Kol Ami is seen as a model in welcoming Jews and their non-Jewish partners, Jews of every color, and of course our congregation’s work in LGBT equality is well known.

On Thursday night of the Biennial we all took time to have a wonderful meal with former Kol Ami intern, Rabbi Eleanor Steinman at a local Japanese restaurant.

Shabbat is always special at the Biennial conferences. Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services are filled with music.  In the Toronto Convention Center the entire Biennial conference worships together. The music (with full rockin’ band) fills the hall! It is inspiring to pray together singing Lecha Dodi as we welcome Shabbat and create sacred space even in such a huge, cavernous place.  This special service was followed by regional Shabbat dinners and our very own Cantor Saltzman led after dinner Shabbat zmirot, Shabbat singing! We went back into the convention hall for a giant one hour Shabbat song session with great musicians and song leaders such as Julie Silver, Craig Taubman, Jeff Klepper, Josh Nelson and Dan Nichols and Noam Katz!

At every Biennial conference there is also important work of the URJ that is done. Plenary sessions are filled with important resolutions on a variety of social justice topics. This year was no different. Israeli Minister of Minority Affairs Avishay Braverman addressed the Biennial conference. Braverman (who I also heard speak passionately and eloquently this summer at the Shalom Hartman Institute) talked about Arab, Druze and Bedouin citizens of Israel and their plight.  He spoke about the need for better access to educational and vocational services for these citizens of Israel as well as housing. He spoke about how the measure of a country is how it serves those who are not the majority but the minority. Israel is a democratic state and all of its citizens must have equal rights- Jewish or not. But sadly, most Arab citizens live way below the poverty line, in towns and villages and neighborhoods that do not have equal services. As you can imagine this might fuel their distrust of Israel and their Jewish neighbors. As a result of his presentation the URJ passed an important resolution at this Biennial conference on Israeli Arab Citizens who comprise more than 1/5 of Israel’s population.

The Union resolved to: recognize Israel’s repeated commitment and efforts to address inequality among Jewish and Arab citizens, reflecting the principles in its Declaration of Independence. And encouraged the Israeli government to follow its own Or Commission recommendations to reduce the gaps between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel in all areas of life, including but not limited to education, housing, industrial development, employment and services. It further commended Minister Avishay Braverman for his leadership in these issues. To read the full resolution click,

This week’s torah portion Chayei Sarah reminds us that our ancestor Abraham was the father not just of one people but of two.  Even though we Jews trace our ancestry to Abraham through his grandson Jacob and son Isaac, Abraham is also the father of the Arab nations through his son Ishmael and second wife Keturah’s children who is mentioned in this week’s portion.  Six additional children are born to Keturah and Abraham. 

Arabs and Jews are indeed family. Our fates are intertwined even as we worship differently and this week’s Torah portion reminds us of our shared ancestry. 

That is why this week’s actions by the URJ Biennial convention to urge the vision of the Or Commission and Minister Braverman’s work continue ahead full bore and why indeed we as a moment endorse his plans.

May we come to know peace with our brothers and sisters and may the state of Israel know peace outside its borders and within.