In 2003, I received my Green Card and became a permanent resident of the United States. Last week, a little more than three years after America became my home, a number of fellow Phoenix rabbis and I sat down in very comfortable chairs at the Ritz Carlton Hotel and debated former president Jimmy Carter about his controversial book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.”
Now, there are around 300 million people living in the United States, and there are only five living people who have ever been president. The chances of spending an hour in conversation with one, especially when what you have to say is rather critical, are unlikely to say the least. So how did this come to pass?
In June 2005 I was ordained a rabbi. After a number of years working as a Jewish professional in informal educational organizations such as Hillel, I decided to pursue what I have since come to understand as my calling. In the short time I have spent in the rabbinate, I have come to understand that my responsibilities as a rabbi go beyond teaching and praying.
In an American Jewish reality where the voice of the Jewish community has come to be that of the federations and other organizations similar in nature if not in kind, and where rabbis are ceremonially invited along to make benediction over bread, it is my sincere and heartfelt opinion that rabbis need to again become equal partners in speaking truth to power.
As in past generations — when Rabbi David Einhorn was the Jewish voice of conscience during slavery, when Rabbi Stephen S. Wise gave the clarion call for social injustice in America, when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel prayed with his feet while marching for civil rights — we must realize our unique power as rabbis and raise our voices.
In Phoenix, a place rarely if ever considered a center of Jewish culture and activity in the American Jewish landscape, one rabbi invited his colleagues to protest the irresponsible and damaging words in Carter’s book. They agreed and, in less than a week, we gathered together — 400 hundred of us, rabbis and laity — to speak, sing and talk of Israel’s wish for peace.
The response? Carter’s first face-to-face meeting since the publication of his book with a group representing the Jewish community.
Why would the former president agree to such a meeting? Maybe he was inspired, as a deeply religious man, that it was a group of rabbis that had chosen to protest. Maybe, as a politician always does, he realized an opportunity to make himself look good. Or maybe he was just stunned that outside a local bookstore in Tempe, Ariz., some rabbis gathered together to speak truth to power.
I don’t know why Carter decided to meet with us — but I do know that we rabbis spoke up for Israel, and for the Jewish people, and we were heard.
Darren Kleinberg serves as rabbi of KiDMa-The Southwest Community in Phoenix.