Stephen Horenstein
Music, Arts and Society

If Jeremiah were alive today…

There are those of us who are livid about the state of morality in politics.  We rave and rant to each other, online and in the press.  We argue at meal time.  We complain. But there is one man who has had enough!

Rabbi Bill Berk has single-handedly decided to demonstrate, on the street, by himself.  If you are lucky,  you can see him standing with his signs by the Prime Minister’s house, even in 37 degree heat.  Does he want others to join him?  “Not yet — right now this is my solo journey,” Berk says. “The attack on our democratic institutions is serious. Our current prime minister has attacked the courts and the police, and has threatened to diminish the power of the Supreme Court, which is the crown jewel of our democracy”.

Berk displays four Hebrew handwritten signs (here translated):

1) “Nobody’s above the law”

2) “13 years is enough!”

3) “Good leaders instill love not fear”

4) “Attacking our democratic institutions is against Judaism”

According to Berk he was a bit apprehensive at demonstrating, given the strong presence of security guards near the Prime Minister’s residence.  At first they routinely asked for his identity card, and asked why he was there.  They were firm and direct.  Soon, however, they warmed up to him, concerned that he might be dehydrating.   “It’s really hot out here.  Do you have enough water?” One asked.  Berk commented, “You gotta love Israel”.

Berk’s motives? “Every country has defining moments in its history…forces that are fending for a serious democracy with checks and balances that are honored and forces that are against it, people that want to manipulate the government.”  He adds:  “I think that people need to stand up and be heard.  It’s ultimately about what kind of country we want to live in.  It’s an important moment for all of us.”

Will he make a difference? “There’s a lot of people. There are about thirty cars a minute coming by.  My hope is that they’ll say to themselves, ‘Wow, look at this guy! He really cares about these issues.’ Maybe they’ll stop.  Whether they’re from the right/left/or center, maybe they’ll say, ‘You know maybe it really is enough; maybe it is time for someone else to take over!’  That’s my main message. It’s time.  We need a fresh government.  We need a new Prime Minister. I think people experiencing somebody just standing at the gate of the city, an important part of the city, might jar things up a bit.”

Rabbi Bill Berk is not a stranger to social causes.  He was brought up in the vortex of the late 1960’s USA social action movement, demonstrating for an array of causes from the Vietnam war to civil rights and more recently the inequality of economic opportunities, especially among minorities.   He also reminisces about his Berkeley, California college days. It was on that campus that the Free Speech Movement was born; it then spread to other colleges across the United States.

“I came just after the Free Speech Movement, and I immediately got involved in the anti-war movement trying to get us out of Vietnam, and then got involved in the civil rights movement (my mother was also involved in) trying to fend for more Afro-Americans to be admitted to college and to give them what they needed to be able to stay their at a school of such calibre; and then I got involved  in issues of third-world poverty, racism, sexism, and all kinds of ‘isms’. ..A lot of this work was actually on the creative end. For instance through what we used to call ‘guerilla theatre’ in suburban supermarket parking lots, we tried to get people to be against the war in Vietnam.”  Might what he is doing NOW be considered a form of guerilla theatre? “Yes, I suppose so!” He smiles.

Actually, the one person protest is a strong tradition in America. “Soapbox oratory” was a mainstay in early American democracy, going back to the 19th century when people would stand on easily-accessible packing crates and speak their mind.  Not only was this crucial to hearing people’s opinions, but also healthy entertainment for passers by.  This “theatre”, along with local “town meetings”, was also a vehicle for the most central values of American democracy, i.e that EVERYONE had a legitimate voice and could be heard.

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For 23 years Berk was a seemingly permanent fixture in Phoenix Jewish life. As Rabbi of Temple Chai  he led with openness and warmth, growing the community from hundreds to over a thousand.  He led retreats for adults, introduced more innovative music into his prayer service, taught and most of all chose a role well beyond the average Rabbi, serving as advisor, psychologist, marriage counselor, trip planner and visionary.

How was his role unique and different than other more traditional Rabbis?  “First of all, I was someone who played an important role in linking the different sub-communities of the Jewish community together.  I had very good relations with the orthodox, conservative and reform communities.  I was able to help build cooperation between all segments of the community.  In my own synagogue, which was a traditional-leaning Reform congregation, I worked very hard at helping people  re-cover the art of prayer, to re-cover Shabbat (we grew Kabalat Shabat to 450 people every single Friday), and began to change the patterns of people’s lives. We gave them a liberal religious life that had more texture. In addition, we had a garden where we produced 100 of pounds of food that went to help poor people, people with issues of hunger; we were involved with certain issues concerning immigrants and the border between Mexico and Arizona.”

Even with all his past successes and innovations, Rabbi Bill Berk decided to immigrate to Israel and live out his dream.  In his first years he explored ways creating transformative experiences for visiting American Rabbis at the Shalom Hartman Institute, and then for various visiting adults, many of them American congregations seeking something other than the mainstream “tour”.  People who have studied with Bill know him as someone who thinks out of the “box”, and utilizes many “texts” (both traditional and unconventional, i.e. art, music, landscapes, and social encounters).

Now in his early retirement for Rabbi Bill Berk his focus has changed.  He is worried about what Israel has a danger of becoming.  For him democracy is, and must be, at the heart of Jewish people.  He is adamant that there needs to be a change of leadership, and re-assessment of the society’s value.  Yes, the economy is important but the eroding of democratic values is of the greatest concern; it endangers the country’s very existence as conceived by its founders.

Berk often recounts the words Jeremiah Chapter 17:

“Thus said the LORD unto me: Go, and stand in the gate of the children of the people, whereby the kings of Judah come in, and by which they go out, and in all the gates of Jerusalem..”

“I have noticed how many people pass by the road adjacent to the Prime Minister’s residence, thirty at a time, in constant flow.  It’s not exactly the gates of Jerusalem, but it will do!…In Chapter 17 of Jeremiah, he’s is standing at the gates of the city, and what’s he doing? He’s trying to wake people up!  He’s warning them that their souls are in jeopardy. “Heshamru b’nafshotaychem“. They have to watch their souls!  And I would say that we’re in a time in this country where people have to wake up. There’s danger to the democracy and it’s time like that where people have to be shaken up, and have to shake themselves up!”

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About the Author
Stephen Horenstein is a composer, researcher and educator. His repertoire of musical works has been performed and recorded worldwide. He has been a recipient of the Israel Prime Minister's Prize for Composers and the National Endowment of the Arts (USA). His teaching has included Bennington College, Brandeis University, Tel Aviv University, Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance; residencies at Stanford University, York University, California Institute of the Arts, and others. He is Founder and Director of the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music, established in 1988 to bring the music of our time to a wider audience.
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