February 2014 MERCAZ USA Pre-Purim E-letter Adar I 5774 

WELCOME to the new MERCAZ USA E-Letter being sent to MERCAZ members and supporters. Information to Unsubscribe is available below.

MERCAZ USA is the Zionist membership organization of the Conservative Movement, the voice of Conservative Jewry within the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Zionist Movement and the Jewish National Fund to support religious pluralism in Israel and strengthen the connection between Israel and the Diaspora. Click here to learn how MERCAZ USA's involvement in the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency for Israel benefits the entire Conservative Movement. Click here to (re)join for the current 2013-2014 fiscal year.

NEWS

SYNAGOGUE TRIPS TO ISRAEL
Looking to join an organized trip to Israel? Click here for a list of upcoming Conservative Movement synagogue trips for 2014.

'WOMEN IN ZIONISM' ESSAY CONTEST
Calling all teens!  Essays for the biennial MERCAZ USA/Canada - Women's League contest are due by the beginning of March.  Five scholarships will be awarded for use on Conservative-Movement affiliated Israel trips.   This year's theme:  Women in Zionism, Past and Present.  Click here for more information.

SEMINARIO RABINICO CELEBRATES 50TH ANNIVERSARY
The Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano is currently celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding in Buenos Aires in 1962 by Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer z"l and a group of community leaders.  In just 50 years, it has become one of the most important institutions of Jewish education in Latin America, training Conservative/Masorti rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators for the entire continent. Recently, the Seminario founded a new Masorti Yeshiva in Santiago, Chile.  For more information, go to www.facebook.com/seminariorabinicolatinoamericano

JTS LAUNCHES NEW ISRAEL STUDIES M.A. PROGRAM
The Jewish Theological Seminary has launched a new Israel Studies Track, designed to provide students earning master's degrees in Modern Jewish Studies with a rigorous, comprehensive analysis of the Jewish experience. Students in the new track will spend the fall semester of their second year at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. For more information about the new Israel Track, go to www.jtsa.edu.

MASA ISRAEL TEACHING FELLOWS OPENS FOR 2014-2015
MASA, the umbrella program for long term study and volunteer activities in Israel, has opened registration for the new round of Israel Teaching Fellows.  170 outstanding college graduates ages 21 to 30 will be selected to close the achievement gap in Israel's education system through volunteering as English teaching aides in schools throughout Israel.  The cost of the 10 month program is $1,000 which includes flight, housing, monthly cash stipend and other amenities.  The fellowship runs from the beginning of September 2014 through the end of June 2015.  For more information and to apply, go to http://www.israelteachingfellows.org/apply/

STUDY AND VOLUNTEER THIS SUMMER IN JERUSALEM
Register now for the Conservative Yeshiva Summer Program in Jerusalem – a chance for intensive Hebrew and Jewish text study in a dynamic learning community.  Choose between the standard study program and the new "Volunteer and Study" track which offers the opportunity of volunteering with an Israeli non-profit organization while studying at the Yeshiva.

The two summer sessions, which are not repetitive, are running June 22 – July 10 and July 13 – July 31.  Beginning and advanced students aged 18–80 are welcome!  For more information about the Yeshiva or to apply, go to www.conservativeyeshiva.org/summer.  For information about Skilled Volunteers for Israel, go to www.skillvolunteerisrael.org.

FEATURE STORY

What is a "Jewish State"?  by Rabbi Reuven Hammer

the following article by the former President of the Rabbinical Assembly was originally published by the Jerusalem Post

What does it mean to be a 'Jewish State'? There are as many answers to that question as there are different political, religious and philosophical approaches to Judaism and Zionism. It may be easier to say what it should not mean. It should not mean using the State to force the observance of Jewish law on the unwilling. In this day and age in which the Jewish People consists of many variations and interpretations of Judaism and when many Jews do not see themselves as observant or bound by Jewish Law, the State of Israel must not become the enforcer of observance.

Obviously the Jewishness of the State means that Israel is a place where all Jews have the right to live, but it should go beyond that. It should also be a place where Judaism in its many varieties can flourish, where a true renaissance of Judaism can take place.  It should be a place in which the best moral and ethical standards of Judaism are allowed to set the tone for life.

I use the phrase "the best moral and ethical standards" advisedly because Judaism over the centuries has given rise to many different attitudes, some of which are unacceptable by current moral standards. Considering the history of Jews, the persecution that we underwent by both Christian and Islamic states and the anti-Jewish teachings that were promulgated then and still exist in some quarters, it is no wonder that these ideas developed within Judaism. For example, within the vast panorama of Jewish writings one can find ideas of Jewish superiority and of non-Jewish inferiority that are totally unacceptable. Unfortunately some of these ideas are being taught today by recognized religious leaders. They must not be allowed to become the predominant ethos of Israel. On many issues such as these one finds contradictory teachings within the corpus of Jewish thought and must choose which ones are worthy of being passed on.

Fortunately, the Torah is filled with concepts that we can proudly teach today to all Jews: the concern for the poor and the underprivileged, the importance of mercy and of justice, the sacredness of human life, the love of others and the love of the stranger. These are only some of the great ideals that are taught there and that can serve as the basis of a truly Jewish State.

Rabbinic writings are also a great source of ethical norms. For example, when Hillel the Elder was asked by a non-Jew to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot, he replied, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else. All the rest is commentary. Go study," (Shabbat 31a).This was his Aramaic interpretation and elaboration of the verse "Love your fellow as yourself," (Leviticus 19:18). It is truly remarkable that Hillel did not characterize the Torah by speaking about belief in One God, or about observance of rituals. Rather he stated clearly that the essence of the Torah is in the way you treat your fellow human being. Everything else in the Torah is commentary on that, teaching us how to do it.

A century or so later, Rabbi Akiva, the greatest Sage of that generation, also taught that the most important general rule underlying the entire Torah was that very same verse, "Love your fellow as yourself" (Sifra 89b). Of all the verses in the Torah he chose that one and not "Love the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy 6:5) or "Be holy" (Leviticus 19:2) or anything else. We know that Akiva was extremely careful about observing all the rituals of Judaism and lived his entire life according to "Love the Lord your God with all you heart, with all your soul and with all your might." He died trying to fulfill it. Yet Akiva knew and taught that acting lovingly toward other people was the greatest rule of the Torah. All else was subservient to that. All the observances and beliefs the Torah teaches are aimed at creating one who fulfills that verse. Without that, nothing else is of value.

The Jewish State should not be an enforcer of  Jewish practices but a place in which the magnificent values of Judaism, such as those mentioned, are inscribed on its gates, taught to it citizens and serve as the basis for its laws and statutes. That will truly bring glory and admiration to Judaism and its teachings.