Reacting to the Iran Nuclear Deal

Following this week’s announcement, I have been spending quite a bit of time considering and discussing the recently announced Nuclear Deal with Iran.  I have also spent time immersed in reading the many articles and analysis that have come my way and have taken part in phone briefings with high level Middle East analysts and experts.  I have found the particulars of this deal  to be concerning at the very least and, in many ways, deeply troubling.

Before I share with you my personal perspective on this deal and the actions I invite you to join me in taking, I would commend to you the following reading list of articles and statements that span a spectrum of opinions and which I have found to be of particular interest.

This is a complex issue that will conclude with what has been called “The single most important vote” in terms of future world security that this generation of congressional leaders may ever make.  Educating yourself is critical if you are to reach out to our Congressional leaders on this issue of grave importance to both the United States and Israel.

Articles on the Iran Nuclear Deal

Obama Makes His Case on Iran Nuclear Deal

The Single Most Important Question to Ask About the Iran Deal –

Five reasons to worry about the Iran deal

Iran deal leaves U.S. with tough questions

How Should American Jews React on Iran?

Israeli ambassador: The four major problems with the Iran deal

Why the Iran nuclear deal is likely to survive

Statements from major Jewish organizations

ADL Deeply Disappointed After Early Assessment of Final Deal with Iran

AIPAC Statement on Proposed Iran Nuclear Agreement

AJC Urges Thorough Congressional Scrutiny of Iran Deal

JCPA focused on ultimate goal: Iran must not have nuclear weapons

Reform Jewish Movement Responds to Proposed Nuclear Agreement with Iran

My Personal Reflection

While I have long been a proponent of peaceful, diplomatic solutions to world crises and have prayed deeply for outcomes that would bring peace between our homeland and her neighbors, I can’t shake the sense that closing this deal became somehow more important that making sure this was the right deal to make.

In looking at the P%+1 agreement, I have found AIPAC’s five measures for a good deal with Iran to be both important and compelling.  I am most concerned that this deal does not satisfy even one of those measures:

1. The proposed deal does not ensure “anytime, anywhere” short-notice inspections;

2. The proposed deal does not clearly condition sanctions relief on full Iranian cooperation in satisfying International Atomic Energy Agency concerns over the possible military dimensions of Tehran’s program;

3. The proposed deal lifts sanctions as soon as the agreement commences, rather than gradually as Iran demonstrates sustained adherence to the agreement;

4. The proposed deal lifts key restrictions in as few as eight years;

5. The proposed deal would disconnect and store centrifuges in an easily reversible manner, but it requires no dismantlement of centrifuges or any Iranian nuclear facility.

As such, I will be reaching out directly to Senator’s Booker and Menedez for their support in expressing our deep concerns over the inadequacy of this agreement and to express my hope that they will oppose it when it comes before them for a vote.

While the President has already promised a veto, sending a vote of opposition to his desk remains important as an expression of our significant doubts about this agreement.  And even if such a veto cannot be overridden, the vote of opposition will make clear that we will need to be strongly vigilant while holding Iran accountable for its actions and will strengthen the hand of future administrations as they face down her threats.

If, after doing your own research and reading, you wish to join me in expressing your concerns to Congress, I am happy to offer you the following link to a web page that will support your efforts:

Urge Congress to Oppose the Bad Deal with Iran

May our actions and our prayers for peace be answered with a world in which all are secure and none are afraid.

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The Sermon I Have Waited Many Years to Deliver – Love Wins!

11390068_10206762654127939_8693947172261257303_nZeh hayom asah Adonai, nagilah v’nismecha bo! – This is a day that God has made, let us rejoice and be glad of it!  

This is a day of rejoicing and this is the sermon I have waited to deliver for many years.

25 years ago when I was first starting out as a Rabbi, I made my first foray into what would become continuing activism on behalf of LGBT rights as I flew to Seattle for my first CCAR conference.  I had spent the days prior speaking passionately with various colleagues on behalf of a resolution in favor of the ordination of Rabbis without regard to sexual orientation.  I will always remember the pride I felt on the day it was brought to the convention floor as I stood beside Rabbi Ely E. Pilchick z”l, our Rabbi Emeritus and a past-president of the CCAR, and saw him join me in casting an affirmative vote.

At future conferences I would support resolutions supporting same-sex civil marriages and responsa supporting Rabbinic officiation.  As a Rabbi in St. Louis, I would help found Missourians for Freedom and Justice and successfully fight off a Right Wing attempt to pass a constitutional amendment that would have legalized discrimination against LGBT persons.

And in Connecticut and here in New Jersey, I would find myself playing very active roles in two successful efforts that brought marriage equality to those states.  It has been quite a journey and today feels like the culmination of a moment of celebration that began only a few short years ago as I stood in Newark City Hall with my fellow clergy serving as witnesses for Mayor Cory Booker’s officiation at New Jersey’s first same-sex unions.

Along the way there have been a number of personal moments that strengthened my resolve to work towards this day.  One in particular that comes to mind took place some 18 years ago. I was sitting with a very close friend consoling him after he had been through a particularly bad break-up.  As I assured him that one day he would find the right person, I said “Don’t worry, one day you will find a nice Jewish boy, and I will be there to celebrate at your wedding!” A rather bold statement at a time when marriage equality was barely a dream and the first legally recognized same sex marriage still 9 years in the future.

But my statement was a reflection of my faith as a Rabbi and my belief in the American ideal.  As a Rabbi, I understand our Judaism’s teaching that we are all equally created B’tzelem Elohim, in the divine image, as a guiding principle teaching us that all people are deserving of equal treatment and equal opportunity.

As a Rabbi whose tradition celebrates the sanctification of same sex marriages, I have prayed and worked for the day when those marriages would be recognized in the eyes of the law, as I believe they already were in the eyes of God. And tonight we celebrate a shecheheyanu moment as that day has finally come to our nation.

It has been 18 years since I assured my friend that I would celebrate at his wedding. He did, in fact, find a nice Jewish man with whom to share his life and his love, and 2 years ago last October I did celebrate with them at their wedding; something they could do because they lived in New York.  Now, their state of residence no longer matters.

We are blessed to live in a country whose history reflects an ongoing commitment to the continuing pursuit of civil rights for all individuals and the continuing guarantee of the religious freedom. The murders in Charleston, SC and the controversy over removing the Confederate battle flag in their wake have reminded us, however, we still have some ways to go in fighting prejudice and discrimination in our country.   Even as our President celebrated this victory by noting that our Union was now “a little more perfect”, a heaviness shown on his face as he anticipated the task of offering the eulogy at Rev. Sen. Pinckney’s funeral this afternoon.

We have a ways to go before our Union is not simply a little more perfect, but fully perfected.  We have a ways to go as our eyes now turn from Marriage Equality to fighting for the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.  We have a ways to go before our society is an inclusive, just, safe and caring nation for all people, regardless of race, religion, national origin or sexual orientation.

We have a ways to go; but the tide continues to turn and good hearted, inclusive-minded people continue to define the majority of Americans. As an American, I have been committed to seeing that ideal reflected in full legal recognition of same sex marriages in our country, while still respecting the rights of those faith traditions that choose not to sanctify such marriages.  Todays decision has made this a reality.  Today we can declare, as do the opening word’s of this Shabbat’s parasha, This Is The Law!

As Justice Kennedy so beautifully stated in his decision: No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

We have waited far too long to see the lifetime promise of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family that is marriage be made available to all couples. Marriage equality is no longer the dream of someday, it is the undeniable right of this day and this day is a day for celebration.

Unlike other Religions, in which marriage is viewed as a divinely ordained sacrament; in Judaism we see marriage as a Brit, a sacred covenant, entered into by two persons in the presence of God and community.  This image of marriage as a covenantal relationship mirrors the historic ideal of the covenantal relationship between God and our people, with its mutual responsibilities and its assumption of constancy.

Regarding marriage, the prophet Hosea offered these vows, “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion, I will betroth you to me in everlasting faithfulness.” (Hosea 2:21-22)

A marital relationship is covenantal and enduring and includes mutual esteem, trust, and faithfulness.  More than anywhere else, it is here, in the midst of covenant, that Jewish marital values pass the litmus test of inclusivity.  A covenant is not a gay thing or a straight thing; it is a human thing and a Godly thing.

Each of us has been given the blessing of a covenantal relationship with our God; how much the more so is each of us worthy of entering such a relationship with our chosen partner through the holy act of Kiddushin, Jewish marriage.

Three years ago, from this pulpit on Yom Kippur I prayed that all those seeking partners with whom to share the blessings of Kiddushin would find them; that such love and commitment would continue to grow and deepen; that God’s presence would be felt in the midst of the marital bonds of all who share in them; and that those sacred bonds of marriage would be open to all such couples. Kiddushin, is a sacred blessing and a precious treasure whose gifts can now enjoyed by all who seek them.

This is a day for celebration and so in the words of the Sheva Brachot:
O God, may there forever be heard throughout the land:
the voices of joy and gladness,
the voices of loving companions joined together in marriage,
the voices of celebration and song.
Blessed are You, Adonai, who causes loving couples to rejoice together as one.

(Delivered at Temple Shalom on Erev Shabbat, Friday, June 26, 2015)

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AIPAC, Jersey Pride, Purim and Netanyahu

The following is an email which I sent to my congregation this morning with reflections on the recent AIPAC Policy Conference:

Over the past few days, I had the amazing experience of joining 16,000 fellow Israel activists in Washington, DC for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. It is an event that brings together a broad coalition of supporters of our Jewish homeland and the vital American-Israeli partnership. Attendees represented every stream of Judaism, a political spectrum from left to right and Democrat to Republican and included, as well, members of the Black, Hispanic and Non-Jewish faith communities. The learning and the inspiration for we, who are passionate supporters of our Homeland, was powerful and meaningful. I cannot more strongly urge you to consider supporting AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) at and attending next year’s policy conference.

Of course, it was also a policy conference that found itself at the center of the controversy surrounding Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress yesterday. I will share my reflections about that further on, but first I want to share with you a moment of pride and a very special learning session.

The moment of pride came Monday night when our own Senator Bob Menendez gave a strong, unequivocal speech in defense and support of the State of Israel. He was Jersey Strong in the best sense of that phrase as he declared: “I know there are more than a few people here in Washington who say that I’m outspoken in my defense of Israel—and, frankly, I’m not only proud of it. I’m fully prepared to stand on this stage today—or on any stage anywhere, anytime—to carry that message to both the friends and enemies of Israel around the world…” It was a powerful speech that provoked numerous standing ovations and cries of support. And whether or not one fully agreed with his views, and there were both in the audience, you could not help but be moved by his passion, his intelligence and his commitment. I was so proud to be able to identify him as one of my Senators.

Earlier that day, we Rabbis were blessed to spend an hour over breakfast with Rabbi Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is a phenomenal teacher who shared with us a different way of looking at the Megillah whose story we will retell at Purim Worship services this evening. Hartman noted that most often we focus on Haman and how his genocidal plans for our people were averted. As was noted yesterday, Purim comes to remind us of the need to stand up courageously in the face of those who would seek to destroy us.

Hartman noted, however, that the central mitzvah of Purim is a call to feed the hungry and care for the disenfranchised in our midst and asked how did this become Purim’s commandment. The answer, he said, may be in a focus not on Haman, but rather on King Ahashverosh. Purim, according to Hartman, comes to warn us of the danger of becoming Ahashverosh. Ahashverosh is the perfect example of one who is trapped in a “Palace Mentality”, so self-involved that he is completely unaware of the real world, so privileged that he has lost touch and so cut off that he lives with indifference to the needs of others. Esther becomes trapped in that same world of indifference until Mordechai forces her to look outside herself to see and to know what is really happening outside her.

The Haman’s of the world need to be destroyed. But, Hartman reminded us, in our battle with Haman, we must guard against becoming Ahashverosh. Our discourse about Israel must not just be about survival, but about who we want to be as a people. There is no conflict between fighting for Israel’s survival and fighting for an Israel dedicated to religious pluralism, gender equality, civil rights and economic fairness. We can both speak out on behalf of Israel and speak out when Israel strays from these ideals. Hartman said Americans need to be more like Israelis who see no dichotomy between a concern for survival and a concern for what kind of people we want to be.

That lesson echoed in my ears as we made our way to hear Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to our gathering. I count myself among those who questioned the wisdom of his accepting Speaker Boehner’s invitation to speak before Congress. I felt that in accepting an invitation that had not gone through normal channels, he was risking the broad bi-partisanship that has historically been behind America’s support for Israel. In his focus on survival, he was losing sight of relationships that are critical to that survival. I looked forward to how he would address such concerns.

His words were relatively brief, as he did not want to take away from his address to Congress the following day. But I was heartened by his recognition of the controversy his acceptance had engendered. Before he sought to defeat Haman, he defeated the tendency to become Ahashverosh by acknowledging the world outside his own as he said:

First, let me clarify what is not the purpose of that speech. My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds. I have great respect for both. I deeply appreciate all that President Obama has done for Israel, security cooperation, intelligence sharing, support at the U.N., and much more, some things that I, as Prime Minister of Israel, cannot even divulge to you because it remains in the realm of the confidences that are kept between an American President and an Israeli Prime Minister. I am deeply grateful for this support, and so should you be. My speech is also not intended to inject Israel into the American partisan debate. An important reason why our alliance has grown stronger decade after decade is that it has been championed by both parties and so it must remain… Israel has always been a bipartisan issue. Israel should always remain a bipartisan issue.”

But the Prime Minister was equally clear that the uniquely dangerous threat to Israel’s life represented by the Iranian nuclear program compelled him to accept this chance to speak directly to Congress about this existential threat. “American leaders worry about the security of their country. Israeli leaders worry about the survival of their country.” he said. With that difference in mind, he felt compelled to speak directly to congress about an issue that threatens Israel’s very existence.

His speech to Congress yesterday was, in my mind, masterfully written and powerfully delivered. He again made clear his appreciation of the support of the President and the American people for Israel and then laid out very clearly his concerns that the Administration was heading towards a deal with Iran that would be bad in the short term and existentially threatening in the long term. The Administration responded to the speech by calling it nothing more than “rhetoric” that offered nothing new. But as this morning’s Washington Post offered in an editorial entitled “Obama needs to provide real answers to Netanyahu’s arguments”:

Iran’s nuclear program can be rolled back well beyond the current proposal by insisting on a better deal and keeping up the pressure on a very vulnerable regime,” he said. Is that wrong? For that matter, is it acceptable to free Iran from sanctions within a decade and allow it unlimited nuclear capacity? Rather than continuing its political attacks on Mr. Netanyahu, the administration ought to explain why the deal it is contemplating is justified — or reconsider it.”

As we celebrate Purim, we do so with the hope that the Prime Minister’s words will be taken seriously, that the Haman’s of modern day Persia will be faced down with courage and that the Israel of today will continue to live and prosper as it seeks to build a better tomorrow. And in the words of our Megillah, tonight may we all know light and happiness, joy and glory.

Rabbi Levy

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Honoring MLK by Recommitting to What’s Missing from Selma’s Epilogue

This week my wife and I went to see the movie “Selma” in anticipation of my speaking about it this past Shabbat.  Putting aside the various controversies it has spawned (It’s portrayal of LBJthe absence of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the Oscars snubs), it is a  powerful piece of filmmaking that must be seen and is deserving of every accolade it has received. More importantly, it beautifully portrays the emotional impact of the times and the incredible strength and courage of those who championed the fight for civil rights of the 1960’s. You walk out of the theater feeling the power of that seminal moment in American history and inspired to continue the fight for justice for all people that Dr. King began. 

Some of the movie’s most powerful moments are also its most visual shocking: the bombing in Birmingham, the beating to death of a minister, the rampage unleashed on the bridge as police and white extremists violently attack the marchers on the bridge. They are scenes that sear themselves into your memory, giving a taste of the horrors that turned the tide of American opinion some 50 years ago.

But it was one of the quieter moments that affected me in a way that has stayed with me even days later.  Strategizing with his partners in a cramped living room, Dr. King asked for their help in determining the focus of the voting rights law should be.  Obstacles placed in the way of black voters such as qualification tests, poll taxes and voucher laws  were discussed. Finally, with a bitter edge in his voice one aide declares (and I am paraphrasing from memory), “We need to eliminate the voucher laws, so that we can pay the poll tax, so that we can take the test so that we can have the chance to be denied the right to vote!” This scene lays out the barriers to voting faced by black voters in a way that is both of its time and, sadly of our own day as well.

At the end of the movie Selma, the epilogue shows what happened to each of the main characters after the March. What is missing in that epilogue is an explanation of what happened to the Voting Rights Act in the years after it’s passage and that is a story to which we who are committed to justice must pay attention. 

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated the obstacles that denied the right to vote to many Southern Black Voters. It was the key victory brought about by the march on Selma and has served to protect the voting rights of many Americans ever since, that is until last year’s midterm elections. 

As the Religious Action Center notes: “On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby v. Holder to invalidate parts of the Voting Rights Act. The Court struck down Section 4(b), which contained a formula requiring certain areas with a history of disenfranchisement problems to seek pre-clearance from the Department of Justice when making changes to election procedures. In the aftermath of the Court’s misguided decision, many states previously covered by the invalidated “preclearance” formula have tested the extent to which they can legally limit citizens’ access to the ballot box, by introducing, and in some cases passing, restrictive voting laws. These laws often have discriminatory effects on racial minorities, the poor, the elderly, and students.

Once again, the least powerful among our society are being denied the right to vote using obstacles placed in their way by those who wish to silence their voices.  In fact, the presence of such obstacles was so extreme during the recent midterm elections that the Election Protection Hotline, a
phone line used by voters to report problems and receive support,
reported more than 18,000 calls by 8 pm – a
nearly 40 percent increase from 2010. 

Last January, the Voting Rights Amendment Act was introduced into Congress with the aim of undoing the damage done to the Voting Rights Act by Shelby v. Holder.  Unfortunately it was not passed in the last Congress.  Plans are underway to introduce it in the the new Congress where it, admittedly, faces a more difficult road to passage.  But as Dr. King’s example reminds us, we dare not stay silent no matter how great the challenge.

Let us use this 50th anniversary of the March in Selma to push our Representatives to stand up on behalf of equality and justice and push for the passage of the VRAA. So much that was fought for then needs our recommitment today. Let it not be said that in our complacency born of victories past, we have taken our eyes off the prize. May the legacy of Dr. King, and those who marched with him, continue to inspire us act in ways that will let freedom ring throughout the land for all people today.

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Baruch Dayan HaEmet – Leonard Fein

(The following is the text of a letter that I sent to our National Jewish Coalition for Literacy Affiliates in the wake of the passing of our founder, Leonard Fein.)

August 14, 2014

Dear NJCL Affiliate Leaders and Friends,

As you may have already heard, this morning we lost our founder and my dear friend, Leonard Fein z”l.  As the most recent NJCL chair, I know you share in my grief at the passing of one of the true tzaddikim of our generation and join me in sharing our heartfelt condolences to all of his loved ones.

Over 16 years ago, Leibel took me aside during a meeting at the Religious Action Center and said “David, you live in the Hartford area, don’t you?  When you return home, I need you to start a literacy effort there.” As may know, Leibel was not someone who took no for an answer.  And so, in only a few months, the Hartford Jewish Coalition for Literacy was born as one of the first NJCL pilots.  Along my JCRC partners, we created a vibrant Jewish community effort that continues to serve at-risk K-3rdgrade children to this day, standing as a lasting tribute to Leibel’s legacy.  In addition, I had the blessing of being able to work with and learn from one of my heroes and to be able to know him not just as my teacher, but also as my friend.

Many of you have similar stories and the same can be said of each and every one of our affiliates: Each NJCL affiliate is a lasting tribute to Leibel’s legacy and his mission to give every child a chance to succeed academically and in life.  He continues to live on, in part, through the amazing work each and every one of you is doing.

A tribute in today’s forward notedAcross the decades he (Leibel) built lasting institutions for the progressive Jewish community. In 1975… he co-founded Moment Magazine with Elie Wiesel; In 1985 he started MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger; In 1997 he set up the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy. Each of these organizations in its own way preserves his memory: without food we cannot live, without education we have no future and without thoughtful conversation we cannot thrive.”  In the coming days we will be looking to you to help determine how we can preserve our portion of this three-fold blessing that Leibel has left us. For now, we wish days of comfort and healing to his family and all who loved him. 

May his memory forever be for blessing.

Rabbi David C. Levy
Chairman, NJCL

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Why is This Camp Different from All Other Camps?

A year ago at this time, while I was serving on the faculty of Eisner Camp, a call went out in the Chadar (Dining Hall) for volunteers to appear in a promo video for a new URJ Science and Technology camp that was to open this summer. Intrigued, I watched as the campers were filmed engaging in fun and exciting experiments with dry ice and making Jewish connections so organically that it was simply a part of the science rather than apart form the science.  

At the time I had only three thoughts: “This is so cool!”, “Why didn’t they have this camp when I was a kid?” and “I just have to be faculty there next summer!”  Well, next summer is here, URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy is a reality, I am one of two faculty members at camp this week and yes, THIS CAMP IS SO COOL!

What is being built here in its inaugural year is an intimate, close community in which leadership, staff, faculty and campers are sharing in the creation of a place that combines Jewish values, scientific inquiry, mutual caring and support with fun, joy, and pure ruach (Jewish spirit).  

It is hard to fully explain what is so special about this place. At URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech, like-minded children have found a summer home all their own, a place that wasn’t available to them anywhere else. There are things you hear campers and counselors say here that you would hear nowhere else, such as:

  • “Can I launch the drone?”
  • “That’s the weirdest seagull I’ve ever seen.” (as a drone sped by on the soccer field)
  • “We had to make a nightly quota for questions in the dorm, so that everyone would have a chance.”
  • A dozen girls skipping down the hill singing “Let It Go” from Frozen, in Hebrew.
  • “I just know we’re going to get all the way to the end.” (As we tried over and over to get a Rube Goldberg device we built in Robotics to successfully complete all its tasks)
  • “41 trials and lots of savlanut (patience)!” (A camper when asked how they finally got the Rube Goldberg device to work.”
  • “There’s time for more math after we play frisbee.” (Said by a counselor to a camper who wanted her to teach him about calculus.)
  • “Can I go in and see the Robots one more time, please!!!” (The plea of a camper who I was able to get into the IRobot research facility for one last look before we made way to the Science Museum.)
  • And my favorite line of the summer, said to me by one of the campers I was working with in a workshop: “This place is so great, even the Rabbis are nerds!”

 Unique and Special are words that best describe what we hear at Sci-Tech and who we are as campers, leadership, instructors, counselors and faculty.  Our pioneer summer is one of amazing Taglit (discovery) both personal and communal that will resonate for years to come as this special place continues to grow and grow. 

A week at Sci-Tech and I am left with one overriding thought: “Why didn’t they have this camp when I was a kid?”

I can’t wait to come back next summer!



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#blogexodus for 1 Nisan

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