My Thoughts on the Religious Freedom Executive Order

In 1954, President Lyndon B. Johnson was a senator from Texas. Frustrated by a political opponent who was receiving support from a tax-exempt organization and using this support to spread accusations that Johnson was a communist, the future President of the United States introduced an amendment to the federal tax code. This amendment focused on tax-exempt organizations, including charitable, scientific, literacy, educational and religious groups. It must be pointed out that the organization that was working with Johnson’s opponent was not a religious organization. Johnson’s amendment stated that any organization that wanted to maintain their tax-exempt status was required to refrain from participating in or intervening in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” The amendment faced no opposition and it became the law of the land. As a result, to this day tax-exempt organizations are forbidden to publicly endorse or denounce political candidates. They are also forbidden to raise funds for and make contributions to political candidates. They are not forbidden from engaging “in a limited amount of lobbying (including ballot measures) and” advocating “for or against issues that are in the political arena.”

Dating back to the birth of our nation and reflecting the First Amendment, the Establishment Clause and the desire to separate church and state, making religious institutions tax-exempt has been a longstanding practice in the United States. In 1970, the Supreme Court ruled in Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York that the tax-exempt status given to religious institutions helps protect the separation of church and state. This exemption, according to the Supreme Court, “creates only a minimal and remote involvement between church and state and far less than taxation of churches. [An exemption] restricts the fiscal relationship between church and state, and tends to complement and reinforce the desired separation insulating each from the other.” In addition, the Court stated that tax-exempt status “has helped to guarantee the free exercise of all forms of religious belief.”

While President Johnson’s amendment was clearly designed to undermine a political rival, it has helped to keep politics and religion as separate as possible. Granted, many religious institutions cross the line, some going so far as to blatantly endorse or denounce political candidates. The line separating what clergy can and can’t say from the pulpit is often fuzzy. However, the IRS doesn’t strictly enforce the Johnson Amendment. Since 2008, only one of more than 2,000 clergy who have intentionally challenged the amendment has been audited. No members of the clergy have been punished for violating the amendment.

As a rabbi, I’ve embraced my ability to advocate “for or against issues that are in the political arena,” especially when it comes to Israel. While doing so, however, it’s often incredibly challenging not to say things that wind up endorsing or denouncing the positions of political leaders. This is just one of the reasons that I’ve tried to avoid getting political over the past several years – making some of you very happy and a few of you very frustrated.

Last week, President Trump issued an Executive Order focused on religious freedom. The Executive Order states that the government will not:

take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective, where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office by the Department of the Treasury.  As used in this section, the term “adverse action” means the imposition of any tax or tax penalty; the delay or denial of tax-exempt status; the disallowance of tax deductions for contributions…; or any other action that makes unavailable or denies any tax deduction, exemption, credit, or benefit.”

In a nutshell, President Trump’s Executive Order states that religious institutions shouldn’t be treated any differently than other tax-exempt organizations when it comes to their freedom of speech. They may speak about political issues, but they may not break the law: religious institutions, like all tax-exempt institutions, may still not participate in or intervene in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office. While this Executive Order works to ensure the fair treatment of religious institutions, it does absolutely nothing to change the regulations of the Johnson Amendment. Churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious organizations are still limited when it comes to what they can and can’t say about American politics.

The Executive Order also states that the government “shall consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate.” In a nutshell, this means that businesses may be exempt from certain regulations that are part of the Affordable Care Act if these regulations require a business to go against religious beliefs. Again, this Executive Order does nothing to change the law of the land. Back in 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that because of religious beliefs, a business may deny employees the coverage of contraception as regulated by the Affordable Care Act.

While this Executive Order has attracted a lot of attention, it changes nothing. Fortunately, the order didn’t go as far as some had predicted – it contains nothing that legalizes the discrimination of the LGBTQ community. This being said, the order does promote the idea that religious institutions are under attack. This is just not accurate.  Religious institutions have tremendous leeway to engage in the political process. I believe that many religious institutions have taken advantage of this leeway and have become too involved in this process, encouraging the overlap of church and state. In addition to breaking the law, this overlap threatens core American values. Further, it denies many the comfort, community and focus that religious institutions have the potential to provide. In our society that is so divided and where civil discourse is a lost art, many people are seeking a spiritual haven within the sanctuaries of their synagogues, churches and mosques. Unfortunately, instead of a haven, they find that these sanctuaries have become extensions of a particular political ideology and the preaching within these spaces does nothing to heal the partisan divide that we are struggling with today. These politically active religious institutions are fortunate that the IRS has not aggressively pursued the Johnson Amendment. Based upon this Executive Order, it’s highly unlikely that the government will begin to enforce the law of the land. However, if it does, religious institutions must remember that they have the right to say whatever they want to say so long as they give up the precious right not to pay taxes.

The Executive Order also suggests that religious freedom is in jeopardy. While there are certainly religious groups in America, including our own, that face challenges, religious freedom is alive and well. This is a freedom that has been protected by the Supreme Court – as demonstrated by Burwell v. Hobby Lobby – and some of the court cases involving the President’s Executive Order on immigration. Unfortunately, some insist upon using religious beliefs as a way to discriminate against, marginalize and dehumanize individuals and groups whose rights are protected by the laws of our country. To argue that our religious freedom is in jeopardy when the religious beliefs of some are used to deny the civil rights of others is to overlook the freedom guaranteed to us by the First Amendment of the Constitution and the Establishment Clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” If the religion of one group of Americans is given the authority to deny the rights of another group of Americans, the very fiber of our great nation will begin to unravel.

In summary, this Executive Order does nothing to change the law governing tax-exempt religious institutions. It also doesn’t do anything that the judicial system hasn’t done to protect religious liberty. As a rabbi, I appreciate that the order puts a national spotlight on the fine line that separates church and state and how this fine line can limit what religious institutions should and shouldn’t be talking about. I also appreciate that the order highlights one of our many national challenges: to both protect the religious freedom and uphold the civil rights of every American. This being said, I’m troubled by the narrative that the order presents. While we still have much work to do to create a more perfect union, our Constitution, our laws, our courts, and most of our political leaders and religious institutions are doing a pretty good job at keeping religious freedom alive and well.

 

Just One of 8,680,000 Israelis to Celebrate this Yom Ha’atzmaut

unnamed

George Deek, a diplomat working at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs

As Israel turns 69 on Monday evening and celebrates Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day), her population will stand at 8,680,000 people. Among these millions of people, residing in the city of Jaffe lives George Deek, a young Israeli diplomat working at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. George is also an Arab and a Christian. And he’s chosen to build a life in Israel. Days before we celebrate another milestone in the life of the Jewish State, it’s fitting that Deek has been featured on the cover of the Jewish Journal – the first Arab-Israeli to be given this honor.  Along with the cover photo is an article detailing Deek’s journey. It’s a journey that is complicated, inspiring and filled with hope – a lot like the country he proudly calls home. While the article is long, I encourage you to read it. Make sure to wish Israel a “Happy Birthday” Monday night. Take some time to give thanks for the soldiers who fought for and continue to defend Israel and appreciate that there are many incredible individuals like Deek who are working tirelessly to strengthen the Jewish State.

You can read the article on JewishJournal.com by clicking on the image below:

unnamed-1

Finding Inspiration In The Darkness Of The Holocaust

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 10.13.32 AM

As the sun sets on Sunday evening, Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, begins. On this somber day, we remember the 6,000,000 Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. We know how important it is to remember the horror of the Holocaust and so I ask each of us to pause at some point Sunday evening and/or during the day on Monday to remember and to commit ourselves to doing whatever we can to ensure that “never again” is not just a phrase we say, but a call to action that we never ignore.

While Yom HaShoah is a dark day, it is important for us to pay attention to many of the inspirational stories that come from the Holocaust – stories that remind us of our incredible ability to persevere through the darkest of darkness and the power of loving acts of kindness that were ignited by this darkness.

Back in January, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I shared the story of Francine Christophe at Kabbalat Shabbat services. Francine was born in 1933 in France. In 1944, she and her mother were deported to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. The remarkable story she shares reminds us that by showing compassion and kindness to others, we can truly conquer hate – we can save the world. On this Yom HaShoah, may we remember the darkness, but may we also live the love captured in Francine’s story and, in turn, fill the darkness with light.

You can listen to Francine’s story by clicking on the image below. She speaks in French, but there are subtitles. Please note: Every noun in French has a gender. “Bébé” (baby) is masculine and in the subtitles it is translated as “he.” However, when Francine speaks in French, she is not referring to the baby as a boy. She does not give the baby a gender.

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 10.13.32 AM Click on the image above to hear Francine’s story.

This Passover: 4 Children In Memory Of 24,000 Syrian Children

Screen Shot 2017-04-07 at 8.11.52 AM

Five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, rescued after an airstrike by Syrian or Russian aircraft on his town in Syria in August, 2016.

Last night, as I am sure you know, the United States struck a Syrian airbase. The strike was in response to a deadly sarin gas attack by the Syrians on a city in the northern part of their country that killed 86 people, including 27 children. Since the violence in Syria began in 2011, 207,000 civilians have been killed – 24,000 of them children – including little Omran Daqneesh’s (pictured above) 10-year-old brother, Ali. While Omran survived, the trauma he experienced shattered his little life.

No matter where we stand on last night’s military strike, we can all agree that the actions of the Syrian government and its supporters and the slaughter of innocents is reprehensible. As Jews, the plight of those like little Omran, who are brutally oppressed by their government, is a plight we can too easily identify with. As we prepare for Passover in just a few days, when we will read about our own ancestors fleeing from Pharaoh, the Haggadah reminds us that the plight of those attempting to flee the violence of Syria has been our plight as well.

In memory of the 24,000 children who have been killed in Syria, in honor of Omran and as a reminder to our children and grandchildren, I ask that you consider incorporating “The Four Children” from Next Year In A Just World, a Haggadah prepared by American Jewish World Service.

At Passover each year, we read the story of our ancestors’ pursuit of liberation from oppression. When confronting this history, how do we answer our children when they ask us how to pursue justice in our time?

What does the activist child ask?
“The Torah tells me, ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue,’ but how can I pursue justice?”

Empower her always to seek pathways to advocate for the vulnerable. As Proverbs teaches, “Speak up for the mute, for the rights of the unfortunate. Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy.”

What does the skeptical child ask?
“How can I solve problems of such enormity?”

Encourage him by explaining that he need not solve the problems, he must only do what he is capable of doing. As we read in Pirkei Avot—The Ethics of Our Ancestors, “It is not your responsibility to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

What does the indifferent child say?
“It’s not my responsibility.”

Persuade her that responsibility cannot be shirked. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The opposite of good is not evil; the opposite of good is indifference. In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

And the uninformed child who does not know how to ask …

Prompt him to see himself as an inheritor of our people’s legacy. As it says in Deuteronomy, “You must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

At this season of liberation, let us work toward the liberation of all people.

Cheryl, Abigail and Jonah join me in wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom and a very meaningful Passover.

 

 

The Need To Confront A Shocking Reality

Yesterday, it was announced that an 18-year-old Jewish, Israeli-American was in custody in Israel, accused of placing the majority of bomb threats recently directed at Jewish institutions.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the CEO of the ADL issued this formal statement yesterday:

We are relieved there’s been an arrest in the majority of the bomb threats against JCCs, schools, synagogues and several of our offices across the country. We are deeply grateful to the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the state and local law enforcement officials who made this investigation the highest priority.

While the details of this crime remain unclear, the impact of this individual’s actions is crystal clear: These were acts of anti-Semitism. These threats targeted Jewish institutions, were calculated to sow fear and anxiety, and put the entire Jewish community on high alert.

Even though it appears that the main culprit behind the majority of these attacks has allegedly been identified, anti-Semitism in the U.S. remains a very serious concern. No arrests have been made in three cemetery desecrations or a series of other anti-Semitic incidents involving swastika graffiti and hate fliers.  JCCs and other institutions should not relax security measures or become less vigilant.

We appreciate the support of so many community and organizational leaders, both within and outside the Jewish community, who spoke out and condemned these threats. They understood not only how disruptive they were, but also how they traumatized the people affected, especially young children and senior citizens who were evacuated as a result of these threats.

Also yesterday, The Jewish Federation of North America sent out this press release:

Ten days ago, and again this morning, Jewish leaders were briefed by top officials from the FBI. From those briefings, we learned about the unprecedented level of time and resources that were committed to this investigation along with high levels of cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security and a long list of partners, including Israeli law enforcement. It was heartbreaking to learn that a Jewish man is a prime suspect.”

Our ability to adapt quickly and liaise with law enforcement officials was in large part due to the work of the Secure Community Network. As a community and a society we must remain vigilant in our effort to counter anti-Semitism and other hate crimes as they appear. We are fortunate to know we have partners in law enforcement who will do whatever it takes to bring these perpetrators to justice.

While I whole-heartedly agree with everything shared in the above statements, they do not adequately address the gut-wrenching reality that one of our own is allegedly responsible for terrorizing us. As a community, I believe that we have an obligation to ourselves, our Jewish community and the larger communities of which we are a part, to confront this shocking reality.

In a Tweet yesterday, the American Jewish Committee began to do just this: “If proven, this Israeli teen’s culpability in JCC bomb threats is a lesson in not leaping to assumptions.” Many of us assumed that the anti-Semite or anti-Semitic group that was behind the bomb threats would have links to alt-right organizations, white supremacists and/or radical Islamic terrorists. Learning that a Jewish kid allegedly placed these calls from his home in Israel teaches us a very powerful lesson about making assumptions. If the allegations against this teen are true, this nightmare reminds us that we can be our own worst enemies.

We do not yet know the motives of the accused teen. It has been reported that he suffers from a non-malignant brain tumor that prevents him from making rational decisions. Yesterday, while being taken into custody, it was reported that he grabbed an officer’s gun. In addition, authorities assert that the teen threatened Delta Airlines back in 2015, forcing a plane to make an emergency landing. We also know that he was in possession of complex hacking technology that he used to terrorize the Jewish community. He appears to be a disturbed young man with many issues. He has caused terror in the Jewish community. The financial ramifications of his actions to the Jewish community and the local, national and international resources that were used to find him have been tremendous. In Judaism, there is the drastic tradition of excommunicating (herem) someone who seriously threatens the Jewish community. There is also the concept of teshuvah or repentance. While the courts will determine this young man’s fate after weighing the evidence and evaluating his mental health, many of us within the Jewish community – still reeling from weeks of threats – are struggling with our own feelings about what should happen to him.

On top of this, we must recognize that this young man’s actions have the potential to jeopardize the Jewish community’s global fight against anti-Semitism. As a community, we have been outraged by these threats and demanded that our political leaders and law enforcement agencies take action and protect us from those who hate us. And all the while, the perpetrator was hiding among us. We understand that in no way does the fact that this teen is a Jew diminish the anti-Semitic nature of his actions that terrorized us all. However, outside of the Jewish community, this might not be so easily understood. In fact, his actions have the potential to belittle our demands for more protection and security. We run the risk of becoming the community that “cried wolf” even though there are still many individuals and organizations out there that seek to do us harm – even though anti-Semitism is still very, very real.

Therefore, as a Jewish community we must do more than express our heartache that the alleged perpetrator of these threats was a Jew. We must express our horror that one of our own would endanger the wellbeing of the Jewish community and add fuel to the long burning fire of hate that continues to threaten Jews across the planet. We must remind our political leaders and law enforcement agencies that the plague of anti-Semitism is not over just because this individual has been caught.

On another note, you might have read about possible budget cuts in Florida that could affect local Holocaust survivors. I have been in touch with Commissioner Steve Geller about these cuts and he suggests that we call the following people, not because we have been told to do so, but because these cuts are a concern to us as Florida voters. The budget cuts are not final and phone calls are being monitored closely:

  • Senator Anitere Flores (she is the Chair of the committee overseeing cuts): 850-487-5039
  • My friend, Senator Kevin Rader – who does not want these cuts to go through: 850-487-5029
  • Senator Jack Latvela (Chair of the Budget Committee): 850-487-5016

A Gift For Purim: Believe In Good!

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 8.44.53 PM

An image from Unsung Hero: TVC Thai Life

Sunday is Purim, the most joyful day on the Jewish calendar. Sadly, because of the threats that the Jewish community has faced over the past several weeks, many of us are not feeling so joyful.  However, given that Purim celebrates our ability to rise above those who threaten our very existence, the holiday has much to teach us.

We read the Book of Esther on Purim. It tells the story of our ancestor’s victory over Haman who sought to destroy the Jewish people. This victory reminds us that for centuries we’ve had to find the strength and courage to stand up to hate. Purim celebrations, including shpiels (plays that recount the story of Purim), costumes, festive meals, and, of course, hamantaschen (the triangular cookies stuffed with filling that are symbolic of Haman’s hat), are important reminders that we have and will continue to overcome those who seek to do us harm. And the strength of our Purim heroes, Queen Esther, Mordechai and the Jews of Shushan, are a reminder that when we are united as a people, haters come crashing down.

It’s customary for Jews to send each other Mishloach Manot – gifts of food and drink – on Purim. By sending these gifts, not only do we help spread the joy of Purim, we also do our part to unite our community. In the Book of Esther, Haman asserted that the Jewish people were “a scattered and divided nation.” Sadly, there have been times in history when it seemed like Haman’s assertion was accurate. Even today, as we face a rise in anti-Semitism and a divisive political climate, we struggle to be a united Jewish community. Mishloach Manot are a way for us to heal the divide and, therefore, a way to ensure that Haman’s terrible assertion about us never really comes true. We might disagree vehemently, we might be fearful, but on Purim, our tradition asks us to come together and celebrate the downfall of Haman.

While Mishloach Manot are usually gifts of food and drink, they can also be words of Torah – a powerful lesson that brings us closer to each other. Today, I’m including my Mishloach Manot in this message.  It’s a lesson that’s not comprised of traditional biblical verses. Rather, it’s an extremely touching life insurance commercial from Thailand. Yes, you read that correctly! Please click on the image below to watch “Unsung Hero: TVC Thai Life”:

This is truly a beautiful commercial. The lesson it contains reminds me that when we do our best to rise above the negativity out there and go out of our way to lift each other up, we can discover pure goodness. When we discover this goodness, we experience pure happiness. And this pure happiness is the essence of Purim.

Please pass this video on as we get ready to celebrate our joyous holiday. Make it your own Mishloach Manot, a simple gift that reminds us of the importance of coming together and believing in good.

Cheryl, Abigail, Jonah and I wish you all a very happy Purim.

Today’s Community-Wide Gathering Addressing Anti-Semitism

screen-shot-2017-03-03-at-4-40-41-pm

This morning I joined with other rabbis, Jewish professionals, law enforcement – including members of the FBI, FEMA, BSO and police chiefs from Broward and Miami Dade – including the Chiefs from the Plantation and Davie Police Departments – at a meeting to discuss the outbreak of anti-Semitism in our community. This meeting was organized and led by our Congresswoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz.  We were briefed by the FBI about the current situation. It is clear that they are working very closely on investigating the many anti-Semitic incidents rocking our community. During our meeting, it was announced that an arrest has been made related to the bomb threats called into Jewish institutions. The FBI made it clear, however, that this is an ongoing investigation that has a possible international nexus. Law enforcement did caution us all to be wary of media reports surrounding these incidents. In addition, they stressed that if we do find ourselves in a building where a bomb threat has been called in, do NOT share information – especially on social media. Doing so puts everyone involved at risk. This morning’s meeting gave me great confidence that this crisis is being handled extremely well and everything is being done to ensure our safety and security. Our law enforcement community is incredible.

In attendance at this morning’s meeting were representatives of the American Jewish Committee, the Miami Jewish Community Relations Council and the Anti-Defamation League. With these organizations, we spoke about ways in which we as a community can strategize and work to combat the rise in anti-Semitism. Congresswoman Schultz encourages us to build bridges with other religious and ethnic communities to help teach others about our faith. She and others also stressed the need to put aside religious and political differences within our Jewish family and come together to combat hate. While it was not shared at the meeting, the ADL did propose the following strategy to President Trump – click here.

As we are taught in Pirkei Avot: “Do not separate yourself from the community.”  Now is the time to come together. To be with each other. To support each other. To show the world that we stand together as a strong, united community. And so, I urge you to join us tonight at 7:30PM for Kabbalat Shabbat and all other events at Ramat Shalom. Your presence is one of the best ways to combat hate directed against us.