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I shook the hand that blessed Barack Obama

In the U.S., she's a leading rabbi with a flourishing congregation. In Israel, she's officially nothing.

In the last few days, the Israeli news has been filled with nothing but conjectures about which parties will make up the new government in Israel and when the Prime Minister will be sworn in. But this week, I am in Los Angeles for the Masorti Olami and MAROM AMLAT Leadership Seminar and all the Americans can talk about is whether or not the singer Beyonce lip synched at the recent inauguration ceremony for President Obama.

I spent this past Shabbat Shira, at Ikar, a congregation in Los Angeles, California led by Rabbi Sharon Brous. Rabbi Brous is thought of as one of the most influential Jewish leaders in the United States. Who thinks this? Not just me, but Newsweek magazine who named her as such in their annual edition of the 50 most influential Rabbis in America. The list is a veritable who’s who of Rabbis from all over the spectrum: Haredim, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. This is the second year that Rabbi Brous has made this list.

In Rabbi Brous’ Dvar Torah on Shabbat morning, she spoke about blessing President Obama at The Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service, held on Janaury 22nd in Washington DC, the day after his second Inauguration. Everyone in the congregation was excited to hear about this. At the service, there were several other influential clergy members, including three Rabbis, of which Rabbi Brous was one. Each clergy member was given a few private moments to meet with the President. She chose that moment to teach the President the Midrash about Abraham and the burning mansion.

Rabbi Isaac told the parable of a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a mansion in flames. He wondered, ‘Is it possible that the mansion is without someone to protect it?’ At that moment, the owner of the mansion peered out at him and said, ‘I am the owner of the mansion!’ So, too, as Abraham was wondering, ‘Is it possible that the world should be without someone to look after it?’ The Holy One peered down at him and said, ‘I am the world’s Owner.’

Genesis Rabbah 39:1, adapted from Sefer Ha’Aggadah

The message of the midrash teaches us that a leader must know how to locate the problem and to work hard to find a solution. Rabbi Brous then blessed the President with insight to know how to locate the problem and to connect to it and to the people that these problems affect in society; those who are most weak and in need of help – not just in the US but all over the world. She then continued and told the kehillah about how the President was very excited about her words and that he praised her and the interesting midrash that she had shared with him.

During the interfaith Inaugural Prayer Service, Rabbi Brous also offered a prayer for hope asking Elohei Ahava “God of Love” to “pray that you bring your presence among us, as light, as life and as holy inspiration.” The congregation was very impressed and excited about the role that their very own Rabbi Brous had played during the inauguration. When I went to shake her hand and wish her a Shabbat Shalom, I thought about two things: The first that I was shaking the hand of someone who had blessed the President of the United States of America on the eve of his second inauguration.

The second – somewhat obvious but also somewhat sad – that this incredible rabbi (who has taken a congregation that started with only two people nine years ago and that now consists of over 500 families) would never be invited to a similar ceremony at the Israeli Knesset – the parliament of the Jewish state. How is that possible? I pondered on the paradox that in America a Jewish leader of such vision and influence can be invited to stand before senators and presidents, while not even being considered a legitimate rabbi in the Jewish State of Israel. This is because she is a woman and therefore is forbidden to participate in a religious way in any government ceremony in Israel and even if she would or could would most likely be spit upon or spark some other outrageous act of violent protest.

This Shabbat, which as I mentioned was Shabbat Shira, is traditionally known as the Shabbat of women. The Haftarah reading is about Deborah the Judge and Prophet who sings about the victory of the Israelites over Sisera. And of course, the Torah portion is about Miriam who sang and danced spontaneously after the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. (Even in front of the men, God forbid!)

It would take me another article and much time to expound upon this serious and complicated issue. I will leave that for another time. Meanwhile, I pray and will continue to pray with all of my strength that there will come a day, in the Jewish State, my state, that a Jewish leader such as my dear friend, Rabbi Sharon Brous will be invited to bless and to give hope to a nation that currently oppresses and denies her the ability to freely practice Judaism. Then we will truly have finished crossing the Red Sea in the tradition of our ancestors, with a woman waiting on the other side to sing praises to God.

About the Author
Rabbi Tzvi Graetz, is the former Executive Director of Masorti Olami & MERCAZ Olami. He serves on the board of JNF Israel as chair of the environment and sustainability committee and he is a fellow in the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis, a joint program run by the Shalom Hartman Institute and HaMidrasha at Oranim. Rabbi Graetz was born in Israel and is a second generation Masorti (Conservative) Jew who has spent his career working to build and promote Israel’s Masorti Institutions in order to enhance religious pluralism. Rabbi Graetz spent four years as the spiritual leader of Kehilat Shevet Achim in Gilo, Jerusalem and as rabbi of the TALI Gilo School. He has served as Director of the NOAM youth movement and Camp Ramah NOAM, and also spent time in the USA as a shaliach of the Jewish Agency and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.