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Roosevelt Island jewish congregation

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Joel Shaiman, Rabbi.      Nina Lublin, President.   


An Independence Day Greeting


I’m a rabbi -- not a politician, nor a pundit, nor a constitutional scholar.  Nevertheless, I often imagine that I am all of these!  I have a lot to say about the Supreme Court’s rulings from the past few weeks.  There were many decisions that I disagree with – concerning abortion, guns, the EPA.  However, the ruling that most troubles me is the one permitting the assistant high school football coach to pray on the fifty-yard line after high school games.   A friend pointed out to me that this decision was arguably the least important in terms of its practical ramifications.  Yet, as we enter the Fourth of July weekend, and as we read Parshat Korach this Shabbat, the intersection between religion and politics is forefront in my mind.


The majority of our Torah reading recounts a challenge to Moses’ leadership by Korach of the tribe of Levi, along with many of his followers.   Israelite society approaches a civil war, which is ultimately resolved with a very violent response.  The remainder of the parshah seemingly pivots to an unrelated topic:  the tribe of Levi is “taken… from among the Israelites” (Num. 18: 6) for the purpose of service and of holiness.    As we learn, the Levites become the keepers of the Israelite religion in the Temple, along with the Aaronite priests (also from the tribe of Levi).


Parshat Korach could be considered the Jewish foundational story regarding the separation of Church and State.  In a nutshell, this parshah teaches us that there is a relationship between politics and religion.  Like meat and dairy, they should be kept separate and apart.


We Jewish Americans of course know this.  Our first president George Washington famously shared greetings to one of the first Jewish communities in the States (in Newport, Rhode Island) including both a reference to a verse from Chapter 4 from the Book of Micah and a riff (i.e. midrash) on that verse.


Here’s the quoted verse from the Tanach, in context:


And they shall beat their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation shall not take up sword against nation;
They shall never again know war;

But every man shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree
With no one to disturb him.


Here’s Washington’s (a bit wordy and somewhat archaic) midrash:


The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.   It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.


We Jews – good citizens of the United States of America – are not here by sufferance.  We are here because we belong.  Full stop.


Yet, we Jews have an advantage.  We literally are reading from the same primary text – the Bible – as the Christian majority, even though we often interpret and drash it differently.    What about those who are reading from different texts, or have a different non-textual tradition, or are creating their own traditions and identities?   Don’t these peoples deserve the right to sit under their own fig trees undisturbed?


On occasion American Jews seem to exploit our advantage.  We often are happy to be a favored minority.   As Jews, we forget the lessons of Parshat Korach by dangerously mixing Church and State, and by using our status as a cudgel to cement our position while disenfranchising other minority groups and individuals.   As Americans, we forget the foundational story of America and the New World:  an oppressed minority of English Puritans in search of religious freedom.


As we celebrate Independence Day this weekend and enter a summer of political campaigns and voting deliberations, I encourage you to consider all of our blessings as citizens of the United States of America.  And I also ask you to work towards expanding these blessings to all Americans, regardless of religion, gender, race, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.


Personally, I’m still considering my primary vote in late August.   One thing I am certain of however.  New York City can survive without a Jewish congressional representative.   We as a Jewish community used to vote based upon our parochial concerns.   We would scan the ballot looking for names ending with “berg” or  “stern” thinking that a vote for that candidate would be “good for the Jews”.  Dayenu!   It’s time that we Jews work toward expanding the franchise with kavanah (intention).


Have a wonderful summer and see you in September.


Rabbi Joel Shaiman

July 1, 2022

2 Tammuz 5782



As you & your families and your friends begin your summer “break”, so does your RIJC.  We are “off” until September 9th, but Rabbi Joel & I are always available to you via Email and telephone.


We thank all of you who joined Rabbi Joel & his wife, Harriet, and the rest of us this past Friday, June 24th at our annual Shabbat at the Meditation Steps, where we greeted both long time friends & neighbors, as well as visitors from California, and took in familiar sights on the East River such as party boats and kayakers.  And a beautiful sunset.


While your RIJC will be taking a little break from Services, Schmoozing, Adult Education & Learning, we will be busy planning for our New Year return in September, with our first Shabbat on September 9 and our High Holiday “Prep” / Selichot on September 17. We will be following all important news of note here and in Israel; there is no vacation from current events affecting us. Your suggestions and questions, recommendations and input are always welcome.


In 1966, The Happenings sang a great Summer song, “See You in September”. 

The RIJC will do just that.

Wishing all of you and your families & friends good health, good weather, good times.




Rabbi Joel