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A moral path out of the wilderness

Brutal repression in Brunei has prompted Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills to boycott a local hotel

The large Reform congregation in Beverly Hills where I am a rabbi is very far away from the wilderness we read about in this week’s Torah portion. On the other hand, maybe it is not so far. The Hebrew name of the portion is B’midbar, “in the wilderness.” The English name for this week’s Torah portion is Numbers. These two different names challenge us to think about who counts and who is counting, and what are the signposts that can point the way out of the wilderness.

I think about the wilderness that is hiding the young girls who were kidnapped in Nigeria because the Boko Haram, the militant Islamic group in Nigeria, believes that educating girls is a sin. To say this kidnapping and the unbelievable actions of this terrorist group is unspeakable is an understatement. I, like all of you, watch the news, paralyzed by outrage and frustrated by how little power I have to intervene. I signed on to the Change.org petition. It might not do much, but at least I am doing something. I am grateful to all the activists who have pushed to keep this issue on the front pages of the newspaper and the focus of social media in order to pressure the government of Nigeria and the neighboring governments of Chad and Cameroon to bring back the girls. #Bringbackourgirls is one of those signposts.

Another brutal example of the wilderness is the unfolding of Sharia law in Brunei. It is hard to imagine the impact this will have on women, girls, gays and lesbians who live there. But here the story is also about Beverly Hills. The leader of Brunei, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, controls the Brunei Investment Agency, which includes the Dorchester Group, the owners of the Hotel Bel Air and the Beverly Hills Hotel.

What should a synagogue in Beverly Hills do? We should applaud the Beverly Hills City Council which passed a resolution condemning Brunei for implementation of Sharia laws and calling for Brunei to divest ownership of any property it owns in Beverly Hills, including the hotel. While the Council did not call for an official boycott of the hotel, our congregant, Mayor Lili Bosse, publicly shared her personal decision not to return to the hotel because these new laws “must be met with a strong statement of support for the human rights of the people of Brunei.” So, like Mayor Bosse, each one of us should also pledge not to frequent the hotel as long as these laws remain in force or the hotel continues under its present ownership. What should a rabbi in Beverly Hills do? She should pledge not to do any weddings at the hotel (or the others under the same ownership) until the hotels are sold or the situation in Brunei changes.

I know boycotts are complicated. The official historian of the hotel is reported as saying “The Beverly Hills Hotel does not send any money back to Brunei; it is reinvested in the community, in the hotel.” The arguments against a boycott are clear: it will hurt the workers, have a negative impact on local taxes, and it won’t change the laws that permit the stoning of gays or the flogging of women who get abortions.

Maybe it won’t change the laws, but it will send a message to our own community, if not to the leaders of Brunei. Human rights and dignity matter. So does protecting the job security of hotel workers, so we should call on a new owner, should the hotels be sold, to implement a worker retention policy.

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills held its Purim Ball this past year in the Beverly Hills Hotel. It was a beautiful evening, and we would certainly have considered going back again this year. But our Board of Directions voted to “not hold Temple Emanuel events at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Bel Air Hotel, or other Dorchester Collection Holdings until the hotels are under new ownership or the situation in Brunei has changed and there is basic respect for human rights.” That resolution is one of those signposts.

The way to get out of the wilderness is to pay attention to who and what counts. We remember this especially at this season of counting the days between Passover and Shavuot, the anniversary of the day we received Torah. This connection reminds us that our exodus from Egypt wasn’t only about our own freedom , but rather about the responsibility to work to create a world where everyone counts. Paying attention to what really counts is the way out of the wilderness.

About the Author
Rabbi Laura Geller is Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, California. She was named one of Newsweek’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America and featured in the PBS Documentary called “Jewish Americans.” Rabbi Geller is a Rabbinic Fellow of the Hartman Institute, and a Fellow of the Corporation of Brown University from where she graduated in 1971. She was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1976, the third woman in the Reform Movement to become a rabbi.