Remembering Rabbi David Forman z”l on his 9th Yahrzeit

Rabbi David J. Forman z"l

My d’var Torah for Parashat BeKhukotei (Behar outside Israel) will be a little different this week because today is the 9th yahrtzeit of my rabbi and teacher, Rabbi David Forman z”l.  It is perhaps symbolic that David’s yahrzeit falls when we in Israel and the rest of the Jewish world are reading different Torah portions. On the one hand, most of his professional career running  the programs of the US Reform Movement here in Israel was dedicated to enriching the religious, ethical and spiritual life of Jews throughout the world.  He mentored and inspired countless young people, including many who eventually became rabbis. On the other hand, as David made it clear in his book “Israel on Broadway: America Off-Broadway,” David believed that the cutting edge of Jewish life is here. He would frequently point out the very different ways he saw Judaism and Jewish life developing in Israel and abroad.

Where others saw contradiction, David saw consistency.  For example, he saw no contradiction between Zionism, his dedication to the welfare of the Jewish people, and his trenchant criticism of Israeli human rights violations. In fact, David believed that the essence of Zionism was working for an Israel which was both physically and morally secure.  The haftarah readings for both BeHar and BeKhukotei are from the prophet Jeremiah. In the  haftarah for BeHar  (32:6-27) God commands Jeremiah to symbolically buy and redeem a piece of land, a message of hope and comfort that seemed to fly  in the face of the impending destruction that Jeremiah knew was coming.  The haftarah for Bekhukotai (16:39-17:14) contains severe tokhakha-relentless condemnation of Israel’s iniquities, and a prediction in line with the Torah portion of what these iniquities would bring upon us.  One could also say that, like David, these two haftarot from Jeremiah are contradictory. They are not.  Jeremiah agonizes over the condemnations he knows he must forthrightly speak, continues to love his people, and believes that they have the ability to one day change their ways, do God’s Will and be restored.

David was in many ways a product of the 60s. His office was adorned with posters of “The Doors” and other 60s icons. He, another of my rabbinic role models — Rabbi Bruce Cohen z”l, Rabbis Stanley Ringler and Shaul Feinberg , who are thankfully still with us, and others were a radical cohort at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, championing civil rights and opposing the Vietnam war.  I recall David telling me of how some of them were arrested and rounded up together in the University of Cincinnati football station. Many of those rabbinical students made aliyah, or dedicated their lives in other ways to working for a better Israel.

I first met David when I worked for “Interns for Peace” from 1981-1983 as a community worker facilitating coexistence between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. David’s good friend Bruce Cohen founded the program, and David served as chairperson.   It was that experience that convinced me that my life’s work would be here. Later on I was a counselor and then a rabbinic student advisor for the NYFTY in Israel summer programs David ran.  We rented David and Judy’s apartment when David was on sabbatical and I was taking a break from rabbinical school to study at Hebrew University.

I really got to know David when, starting in 1995, I had the great honor and responsibility to serve as co-director, executive director and eventually president and senior rabbi of Rabbis For Human Rights, the organization David founded in 1988.  This was the time of the first intifada. Even before working for RHR, I remember receiving an copy of an RHR book on Judaism and human rights  “Life, Liberty and Equality in the Jewish Tradition,” (Originally in Hebrew, later translated into English)  with a letter explaining that, even in light of the very real security threats posed by the intifada, we must be true to our Jewish values.  David and RHR asked, “Where are the Abraham Joshua Heschels,” running around this country, crying “gevalt,” and speaking to the burning moral issues of our society? Under the leadership of David, and founding director Rabbi Ehud Bandel, RHR succeeded in bringing many human rights issues to the fore, as subjects of spiritual and religious concern.  RHR received the Speaker of the Knesset’s Prize for contributions to Israeli society and democracy, was invited to Oslo when Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat received the Nobel Peace Prize.  Just this week the Israeli High Court rejected petition asking that the Jerusalem day parade through the Old City be cancelled, in light of the fact that the restrictions imposed on Palestinian movement during the parade would prevent them from observing many Ramadan customs.  Yet, in its early years, RHR successfully appealed together with Muslim and Christian religious leaders against a curfew imposed on Ramallah at the time, that prevented Christians from preparing for Christmas.

I heard from David two stories about what prompted him to found RHR. There are undoubtedly more. The first is that the Palestinian groundskeeper for his office arrived two hours late because he was stopped and asked to prove he had paid his taxes.  He didn’t have tax documents in his car, and his car was impounded.  The second is that his wife Judy called him to say he must come home urgently. His distraught daughter had gone to meet a friend at Jerusalem’s central bus station wearing a radical t-shirt saying “freedom of the press” in Hebrew, Arabic and English. A crowd began shoving and spitting, and a policewoman told her she was wearing an “illegal t-shirt” that she must take off immediately. These experiences were click moments for David, whose 60’s education had taught him that one cannot stand idly by.  Along with Rabbi Ben Hollander z”l (Conservative), Rabbi David Rosen (Orthodox) and others, he founded RHR on Hannukah in December 1988.

So often I feel the lack today of spiritual giants like David, Ben, and the late Rabbis Isaac Newman and Max Warschawski, who had the audacity to demand just treatment of Palestinians, Ethiopian Jews and every human being.  During the period in which I was frequently being arrested for standing in front of bulldozers coming to demolish Palestinian homes, some of RHR’s board were uncomfortable.  David stood up and said that, for any other activity that could involve arrest I needed to get advance approval.  However, the evil of making it almost impossible for Palestinians to build legally and then demolishing the homes they were forced to build without a permit, was so patent, that I should not need to ask permission to carry out civil disobedience. Needless to say, David carried the day. He was a moral leader in every sense of the word.  His genuine commitment to both human rights and the welfare of the Jewish people were such that even most of those who opposed him, respected him.

At the end of the day, David respected no sacred cows, and called things as he saw them.  In his Jerusalem Post and Hebrew press columns, he sometimes criticized RHR.  Sometimes he would get upset with those living abroad saying the same things he did, because he felt they didn’t have a full understanding of our reality.  A few months after I began working for RHR, a previously submitted request to meet with Yasser Arafat came through.  While praising Arafat for the peace process, we demanded that he do more to stop terror, and criticized PA human rights practices towards Palestinians. Being close to the Baumel family because of a family connection, what was most important to David was asking Arafat how he had obtained half of Zachary Baumel’s dog tag, and asking that he make an additional effort to bring Zachary home.

David would also be straightforward with me when he disagreed with me, making it even more meaningful when he told me how proud he was of where I had led the organization he founded. I sometimes wish I was still there today, to continue to cultivate what David planted. I usually don’t get that excited about awards. The real prize is when we succeed in defending human rights. However, I was very moved when my current human rights organization –Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice,  and I, received the Rabbi David J Forman Memorial Fund’s Human Rights Prize for this year. I see it as an affirmation that the path Torat Tzedek and I have chosen continue the legacy and vision of my friend, teacher and rabbi.  It is hubris to compare ourselves to the giants that came before us, but we have the possibility and the obligation to stand on their shoulders.

This week’s haftarah contains Jeremiah’s verses that are one of the sources for another popular 60’s song (although its roots go back much earlier),

“Blessed is he who trusts in Adonai,

Whose trust is Adonai alone.

S/he shall be like a tree planted by the waters,

Sending forth its roots by a stream:

It does not sense the coming of heat,

Its leaves are ever fresh;

It has no care in  a year of drought,

it does not cease to yield fruit.

David was taken from us much too early, but he was a tree planted by the waters. His consistency was that he was never moved by anything other than his conscience and his heart.

There is no need to say “Yehi zikhro barukh-may his memory be for a blessing. His actions were, and his memory is.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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