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December 18, 2009

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, DECEMBER 18, 2009 PAGE 19A By Ron Kampeas WASHINGTON (JTA)--A funny thing happened on the way to modifying puni- tive legislation targeting Palestinians--Jewish and non-Jewish groups backing aggressive peacemaking established a coalition. The groups succeeded in toning down the Pales- tinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006. In the process they forged an unofficial coalition of so-called "pro- peace" groups that now routinely consults on issues ranging from Israel-Pales- tinian matters to how best to deal with Iran--most participants oppose new sanctions. Participants say the Jew- ish groups in the new coali- tion include Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, as well as two groups in the process of merging: J Street and Brit Tzedek V'Shalom. Officials with the groups unabash- edly defend their growing ties with their non-Jewish partners, insisting that the non-Jewish groups back a two-state solution and favor other policies that will help Israel by improving chances Arab American Institute Jeremy Ben Ami, the direc- tor of J Street, addresses a session J Street held jointly on Oct. 25 with the Arab American Institute while Jim Zogby (center), the institute's president, andJ Street politi~ cal director Hadar Susskind look on. for peace in the region. The list of organizations from outside the Jew'- ish community includes narrow-interest groups such as the Arab American Institute, the American Task Force on Palestine, Churches for Middle East Peace and, more recently, the National Iranian Ameri- can Council. At times the informal coalition also has included liberal think tanks such as the New America Foundation, the Open Soci- ety Institute and the Center for American Progress. The loose-knit coalition has persisted and even ex- panded since the election of President Obama, who is friendly to its goals of active engagement. Many of the organizations had an active role, or even helped spon- sor, J Street's inaugural national conference in Oc- tober. Participants attend each other's strategy meet- ings and, during intense periods--for instance, in crafting the modifications to the 2006 Palestinian leg- islation-speak routinely in conference calls. "It's informal and it's based on personal rela- tionships that we'Ve devel- oped over the months and years," said Warren Clark, the executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, an umbrella body for mainstream church groups from Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox streams. For years, liberal activ- ists-including some as- sociated with the budding coalition--have protested the willingness of estab- lishment Jewish organiza- tions to embrace pro-Israel Evangelical Christians, citing their conservative views on domestic social issues and hawkish for- eign policy positions. In recent weeks, however, Conservative journalists and bioggers have criticized the willingness of dovish Jewish groups to work with non-Jewish groups that have been critical of Israeli policies and oppose Iran sanctions. Many pro-Israel groups, including AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations, have made sanctions a top priority, portraying them as a means of leveraging Iran into abandoning its suspected nuclear weapons program. Several members of the informal dovish coalition oppose such steps, with the National Iranian American Council leading the way. Conservative critics have focused on alleged links be- tween J Street and the Irani- an group, lumpifig together the two organizations. Yet J Street officials have always stopped short of publicly ruling out sanctions, argu- ing that the time was not right for tougher measures, but might be in the future to stop Iran's nuclear ambi- tions. And, indeed, J Street this week came out in favor of proposed sanctions legis- lation being considered in the U.S. Congress. Americans for Peace Now, on the other hand, has joined the Iranian group, known by the acronym NIAC, in portraying the sanctions as inhumane and likely to reinforce support for the regime. In at least one mass e-mail, Ameri- cans for Peace Now directed readers to NIAC's talking points outlining the case for opposing sanctions tar- geting Iran's energy sector. In the wake of Obama's election, NIAC called a meeting to strategize among like minds on Iran sanctions. Lara Friedman, an Amer- icans for Peace Now lobby- ist, attended the meeting. So did Joel Rubin, then a staffer at J Street, though participants say he took part in a personal capacity. In any case, the proposed language that emerged from the Nov. 12, 2008 meeting is broad to the point of meaninglessness, underlining the difficulties of pleasing all parties in such coalitions. "Obviously with such a diverse group, it will be difficult to coalesce behind any specific position," the minutes of the meeting stated. "But we all share a view that advocates a dip- lomatic resolution to the conflict between the U.S. and Iran, opposes military action against Iran, and agrees that sanctions are no substitute for diplomatic engagement." Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, said Friedman's presence was unexceptional. "We seek advice and guidance, including those that don't share the views of NIAC--including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, of which we are a member," he said. "Lara participated in this meeting and other meet- ings that included NIAC and other meetings of groups that have an interest in Iran policy." By Hadara Graubart Tablet NEWYORK--In his 1954 book "Man's Quest for God," theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, bemoaning what he saw as a post-Holocaust religious malaise, took aim at those who chose to blame the prayerbook for Judaism's woes. "The crisis of prayer is not a problem of the text," he wrote. "It is a problem of the soul. The siddur must not be used as a scapegoat." Heschel would probably not approve of a recent trend in American Jew- ish life: niche siddurim, prayerbooks that reflect ideological differences on traditional ideas such as messianism (Lone Star Siddur), homosexuality, and even the concept of serious prayer (Comic Book Siddur). But the most recent example may also be the most radi- cal: a Wikipedia-like project called Open Siddur that allows users to create their own individualized prayer- books. The aim of Open Siddur is to catalog the vast breadth of Jewish liturgy and com- mentary, allowing all Jews access to all prayers, from the ancient to the new age, in a sort of museum and buffet. While still in the process of compiling a da- tabase of liturgy and in need of transcribers, translators and programmers, the Open Siddur's creators hope it will allow individuals or groups to peruse a vast array of liturgical material culled from libraries, publishers and individuals, and create prayerbooks that suit their specific needs and interests, which they can then print out as PDFs or have bound. In a religion that places a high value on communal prayer, these developments are prompting a re-evalua- tion of the very concept--if we all worship as Jews but say different things--are we still praying "together"? There are those who say no, or at least, not quite-- from this perspective, a sid- dur that would be unrecog- nizable to any Jew is a siddur unworthy of its duties. But Aharon Varady, one of Open Siddur's founders, says that the project promises to take what has become a modern mainstay--the synagogue prayerbook committee-- and "expand it across the entire world." Indeed, rather than looking at the recent influx of niche siddurim as emblematic of a "crisis of prayer," Varady--along with co-founders Efraim Feinstein and Azriel Fas- ten-say they see a crisis only of logistics and an op- portunity to use the Web to universalize the vast canon of Jewish liturgical ideas. Not everyone is as hope- ful.Anumber of critics argue that Open Siddur's "choose your own adventure'-style of Judaism is in conflict with the communal essence of the tradition. "Even if you don't feel bound by the law," says Rab- bi David Berger, head of the Jewish Studies department at Yeshiva University, "the siddur has emerged as a very important source of Jewish unity in that its essentials are the same worldwide, so that I could go into a syna- gogue of Egyptian Jews and pray there in away that is not entirely unfamiliar to me." But Feinstein argues that the idea ofa"communal stan- dard" of prayer is misleading. "The idea that there are really only three viable texts is relatively new,"he says. "I don't see Open Siddur as anything divisive." say, Mizrahi and Chasidic Jews did in the past. Berger acknowledged that people feel disconnected from certain parts of the siddur but says he's com- fortable with the age-old practice of simply skipping over them. "There was a comment by [rabbi and scholar] Yitz Greenberg: 'The differ- 'The aim of Open Siddur is the vast breadth of Jewish and com- mentary, all Jews access to allprayers, from the ancient to the new age, in a sort of museum and buffet.' By "relatively new," Fein- stein means the era before the advent of Conservative and Reform movements in the 1800s. And while there may have been awider range of accepted texts in this pre- modern past, the variety was mostly a result of organic changes that came about because of geographic and ethnic differences, while there remained remarkable consistency in the core of the prayer service. But with the advent of Web 2.0, our concepts of community and even the idea of "organic" change are shifting enough that we may see an enormous degree of variety develop in spirit much the same way that inconsistencies between, ence between the Orthodox and Conservatives when it comes to some of the morning prayers is that the Conservatives leave them out of the siddur and the Orthodox just don't say them,'" Berger says. But this is precisely the sort of thinking that frus- trates Varady, who argues that it compromises one of the values of traditional Judaism, all the dearer in a rapidly changing landscape: kavanah, or intention, a deep spiritual connection to one's prayer ritual. Varady argues that the siddur's "symbology," removed from spiritual and legal signifi- cance, has the tendency to alienate those who struggle with prayer--and there's little comfort in knowing that you could experience that same alienation in any synagogue in the world. But even some who are naturally sympathetic to Open Siddur's mission, including Elie Kaunfer, ex- ecutive director of Mechon Hadar, have reservations. "When people are not sat- isfied by traditional prayer service, is it the words or the performance of the prayers that's tripping them up?" asks Kaunfer, who says that the independent minyanim he has seen "by and large use traditional prayers," but experiment with the format of services. "What these guys are betting on is that the words are holding people back." In fact, though, it may be that words and performance are not as separate as one might think. While many of the new minyanim may pray with traditional texts, their radically altered ser- vice structures often involve unconventional inclusions, from moments of silence for the plight of Sri Lankan textile workers, to poems about atheism, to entreaties for the continuing safety of fervently Orthodox settlers in Israel. The Open Siddur team welcomes the possibility that people will feel moved to upload their original work, or relevant passages from literature, along with little-known songs and melodies from disparate communities. More than being sim- ply "post-denominational," Open Siddur's founders say it seeks to transcend nu- merous boundaries, from geographic to political to aesthetic, and promote "all the beautiful traditions that are inherent in the geographically disperse communities, and some- times made very obscure by historical siddurim that many people don't have ac- cess to." "Our own personal the- ology does not need to be reflected on each page of the prayer book," argues Rabbi Leon Morris, executive di- rector of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning in New York City, in a recent article tackling the subject. "Rather, our evolving theol- ogy can emerge from the en- counter with the siddur and its words. 'This I hope to be true but am skeptical.' 'This I have real problems with.' 'This I understand in my own way.'" But many Jews may be turning away from religion for the very reason that they don't want to make room in their personal spiri- tual practice for ideas they find problematic, outdated or incomprehensible. And perhaps the best argument in favor of the Open Siddur is the fact that, as Kaunfer points out, "You have people who weren't connecting anyway. What American Jewish society needs is a dose of 'let's get invested in the fight.' If you love the aleinu, then this site forces you to articulate what it is about the aleinu that's important to you. That's what people are thirsting for." Reprinted from Tablet-, a new read on Jewish life.