Exactly seven years ago, newly separated from my husband of twenty-one years, I flew to Israel to begin life anew. Little did I know that the events of the final morning of my stay in our family home would set this reluctant feminist on quite an odyssey. On the secular calendar, the day was July 12, 2010; on the Jewish calendar, the day was Rosh Hodesh Av, 5770. That morning I joined the Women of the Wall for the monthly minyan, finding myself in the middle of the confrontation between WOW leader, Anat Hoffman, and the Jerusalem police. Before flying back to Cleveland that evening, I witnessed the police power of the Jewish State confront and assault a woman because she was carrying a Torah scroll away from the women’s section toward Robinson’s Arch. The following morning, I awoke on the plane to a bruise on my elbow, a physical reminder of the force I used to rip the policeman’s hand off of Anat’s neck. More deeply, I fully awoke to the realization that the time had come to raise my voice in concern about the violation of fundamental religious rights, “spiritual civil rights,” by the government of the State of Israel. At that moment, the musician and the Israel activist within me found each other, giving rise to my Zionist Artistist Activism and the cantata known as “Sacred Rights, Sacred Song”.
Work on “Sacred Rights, Sacred Song”, an original cantata for chorus, orchestra and narrator, began early in 2010, after an encounter with then Israel Ambassador Michael Oren at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s convention in Cherry Hill, New Jersey in December of 2009. While not an ardent Women of the Wall activist at the time, as a passionate Zionist I asked the Ambassador to comment on what had occurred several weeks earlier with the tallit-wearing Nofrat Frankel and the Jerusalem police. From his answer, it was clear he was unaware of the extent of the violations occurring on a monthly basis; several weeks later in an article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, I read that my question had prompted the Ambassador to get the full picture from the Israeli government about this gross violation of “spiritual civil rights.” With that as background, I anticipated meeting Nofrat Frankel on that hot July morning seven years ago and sharing with her the song “Woman at the Wall”, the first completed piece from the cantata. My desire to meet Nofrat put me directly behind Anat Hoffman Rosh Hodesh Av 5770, the morning that gave birth to what I call “the Modern Jewish Democracy Movement.” As an aside, I must say I was equally gratified and bothered that Donnielle Hartman used that exact phrase in his Times of Israel blog. While I don’t claim any intellectual property rights to the phrase, I just want to put on the Times of Israel record that I have been speaking and singing about Israel’s modern Jewish democracy for seven years.
So it was that in the wake of my experiences with WOW at the Kotel, I literally began singing out on behalf of the Modern Jewish Democracy Movement, through Concerts of Concern. Wherever possible, through word and song, I began to express my deep concern that the status quo Orthodox monopoly on matters of personal status was resulting in the State of Israel violating the spiritual civil rights of entire classes of Jews. In the areas of marriage, divorce, burial, conversion, access to Holy Space, funding for religious institutions and public gender segregation, narrow Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law are causing unfair, unjust and at times, immoral situations within Israeli society. In short, in Israel Jews Other than Orthodox are denied the “full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture” guaranteed by Israel’s Declaration of Independence; nor is Israel upholding “the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex”.
I produced the first Concert of Concern in Cleveland on November 6, 2010, under the direction of maestro David Gooding at Fairmount Temple, thanks to the support of Rabbi Rob Nosanchuk and Cantor Sarah Sager. Since then, we have produced Concerts of Concern in Atlanta, Baltimore, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York City, Jerusalem, Kfar Saba, Beit Shean and at my collaborator’s institutional home, the acclaimed Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. We have produced a video of the song Sh’ma Israel – Listen Israel with Jewish rock star Naomi Less, filming members of the Jewish community at booths in Jerusalem at the 2013 General Assembly of the Federation movement and the Conservative movement convention in Baltimore. Over the seven years, I have added and subtracted to the cantata, responding to the progress made within Israeli society.
Needless to say, Sacred Rights, Sacred Song celebrated the historic Kotel Compromise Agreement of January 2016. I wrote about the potential thrill of actually adding to what the Jewish People considered Holy Space in our modern day. I also knew that the deal was subject to the political whims of a parliamentary democracy that has overempowered the ultra-Orthodox political community. In yet another encounter with another Israeli Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, last summer in Cleveland (he was in town for the Republican convention), I pressed him to explain how Bibi justified favoring the views of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners over the agreement that had been made with World Jewry. It was explained that all parties in the government had to come along which meant to me, that the deal was never going to be implemented as long as the Orthodox monopoly over matters of spiritual civil rights, the status quo, remains in place. Changing that status quo is the goal of the Modern Jewish Democracy Movement. Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Concerts of Concern are a creative way for a community to literally raise their voices in concern over these issues that have finally gotten the attention of the “Big Boys” of the American Jewish world, AIPAC, the ADL, the JFNA, to name but a few of our alphabet soup of Jewish non-profit organizations.
Two weeks from today, it will be Rosh Hodesh Av 5777, exactly seven Jewish years from the day my life changed at the Kotel as I became not just a witness but a participant on the stage of modern Jewish history. On this coming Rosh Hodesh, I have the blessing to be able to play multiple roles, which is the essential nature of not just being a complicated woman in 2017, but an American feminist Zionist in 5777. I will wake up very early in my hotel room at the Inbal, where I will be sleeping as Rachel and her family have moved into our family home in Jerusalem for the duration of the 3 year Israel stay. I’ll be in Jerusalem to spend a final Yerushalmi Shabbat with my children, “hosting” them at the hotel for meals and relaxation, being there to help them as they pack up and fly back to Cleveland, through Newark on Monday, July 24 which is Rosh Hodesh Av. So, before flying back to the United States later that day, I will once again be at the Kotel on what promises to be another historic Rosh Hodesh Av.
Seven years ago, I could not imagine being a grandmother before turning sixty, but here I am delighting in the joy of grandparenting. Nor could I anticipate spending a special Shabbat with my family, rejoicing that my love of Israel has been passed down to the next generations. So it is that my love for Israel brings me back to Jerusalem to be both Grammy, an extra set of hands in the final days and especially for the flight home on Monday afternoon, and Fran, the Zionist artist/activist at the Kotel early Monday morning. I will join the Women of the Wall, as well as other liberal-minded and open-hearted members of the Jewish People. We will raise our voices, like modern day Levites, in songs of praise and yes, of protest.
No doubt I will have more stories to tell and more experiences to sing about. For the sake of the Modern Jewish Democracy Movement, I want to share those stories and the songs that make up Sacred Rights, Sacred Song as a way of sparking activism through information and conversation. The time has finally come for Jewish communities around the globe to work with the Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project to produce Concerts of Concern. Please comment on this piece if you are interested in starting a conversation about presenting a Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Concert in your community. For more information about the Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project and to view the Sh’ma Israel video, please visit sacredrightssacredsong.org.