"Is this the Fast...." YK Sermon 5770 Rabbi Rebecca Alpert

Excerpt from a Yom Kippur Sermon by Rabbi Rebecca Alpert
Mishkan Shalom, Philadelphia, Yom Kippur 5770

” Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6)
While Isaiah seems to be choosing doing justice over acts of ritual, it is important to remember that the reading of this portion in the context of the service/fast itself is [probably] not pointing to choosing one over the other, since we do abstain from food, after all, [although that might have been the intention of some angry liturgist some time in the past] but mostly we understand the connection to be a demand that we make fasting not only about a personal/religious obligation but also a connection between such ritual acts and doing good in the world.
If I didn’t believe in coincidence, I might fancifully assume Brian finally got tired of my failures, and figured out a way to help me tie these things together this year. But in all seriousness, he had more important things on his mind. What was on Brian (and recon rabbi Brant Rosen)’s minds this year was their complete inability to continue to pretend the situation in Gaza was not demanding our attention, and, unlike the rest of the Jewish community, their willingness to address the situation through in their words, “a communal fast held in times of crisis both as an expression of mourning and a call to repentance.”
So this summer, I responded to that call, and have begun the monthly water-only fast for Gaza about which you’ve already heard some on RH, on the third Thursday of the month from sunrise to sunset; although I often do a modified version. I have also signed on to the following pledge that Rabbi Linda shared on Rosh Hashanah, but I think bears repeating:
1. To call for a lifting of the blockade that prevents the entry of civilian goods and services into Gaza;
2. To provide humanitarian and developmental aid to the people of Gaza;
3. To call upon Israel, the US, and the international community to engage in negotiations without pre-conditions with all relevant Palestinian parties - including Hamas - in order to end the blockade;
4. To encourage the American government to vigorously engage both Israelis and Palestinians toward a just and peaceful settlement of the conflict.
Signing on also includes a pledge to donate the money I save on food to the Milk for Preschoolers Campaign of the American Near Eastern Refugee Aid (ANERA), a non-political, non-religious relief organization that combats malnutrition among Gazan preschool children through daily provisions of fortified milk and high energy biscuits.
I am not alone in becoming part of the Ta’anit Tzedek (Jewish Fast for Gaza). 21 Mishkan members Linda Holtzman, Arthur Waskow, Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, Mordechai Liebling, Carol Towarnicky, Abby Ruder, Marjorie Berman, Phyllis Berman, Sue Rouda, Lance Laver, Susan Landau, Rachel Kamel, Ellen Tichenor, Elliot Bat Tzedek, Simone Zelitch, Susan Windle, Wendy Galson, Lillian Sigal, Laura Levitt, Hannah Schwarzschild, and Christie Balka, so far, have signed on. I say your names aloud because it takes courage to stand up and say that lifting the blockade in Gaza is an issue of Jewish justice, and because I am proud of the company I’m keeping, and because fasting is a communal activity.
I do believe that this is what Isaiah was talking about when he put in God’s mouth the words: this is the fast I have chosen.
Why?
Because it is not an exaggeration to say that Gaza is nothing more than a prison, impoverished, unhealthy, densely crowded and furious.
96% of the population of Gaza, 1.4 million, now depends on humanitarian aid to meet basic needs. There is no private sector and no industry; 80% of their agricultural products have been destroyed. It’s estimated that 400 trucks a day bringing food and supplies in would meet basic nutritional need, but on average, only 23% of that number have been allowed to enter this past year. Only 40 commercial items are permitted. That list does not include: Building materials (including wood for windows and doors), electrical appliances (such as refrigerators and washing machines), spare parts for cars and machines, fabrics, threads, needles, candles, matches, mattresses, sheets, blankets, cutlery, crockery, cups, glasses, musical instruments, books, tea, coffee, sausages, semolina, chocolate, sesame seeds, nuts, milk products in large packages, most baking products, light bulbs, crayons, clothing, and shoes.
As a consequence, according to the red cross [not human rights watch, not amnesty, not the UN, the red cross]:
Every day, 69 million litres of partially treated or completely untreated sewage – the equivalent of 28 Olympic-size swimming pools – are pumped directly into the Mediterranean because they cannot be treated.
Thousands of homes only have access to running water on certain days. Because the water supply network cannot be properly maintained, it is leaking, making it harder to maintain sufficient water pressure. Even when water is available in the pipes, many homes do not have sufficient power to pump it into rooftop storage tanks.
That water and sanitation services could collapse at any moment raises the spectre of a major public health crisis. We worry about passing a bill to improve our health care system, and we should. But consider this situation in comparison:
Gaza's hospitals are run down. Much of the equipment is unreliable and in need of repair. Complicated procedures for obtaining approval to import spare parts make it difficult and time consuming to bring in and maintain hospital equipment, such as CT scanners, and spare parts – even for hospital washing machines. The ICRC has had to wait as long as five months to import medical equipment for operating theatres.
Daily power cuts and power fluctuations continue to damage medical equipment. Most hospitals have to rely on backup generators for several hours a day, but it is never certain that enough fuel will be available to run them.
These are just a few examples that give you a sense of the extent of impoverishment the blockade has caused.
Sarah Roy, a child of survivors and teacher at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and is the author of Failing Peace: Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict asks poignantly: How can keeping food and medicine from the people of Gaza protect the people of Israel? How can the impoverishment and suffering of Gaza’s children – more than 50 per cent of the population – benefit anyone? International law as well as human decency demands their protection. It is her conjecture, and her fear, that Israel sees destroying Gaza’s basic needs as a sure way of making it impossible for Gaza to be an actor on the political stage; impoverished countries are not. But no matter how we feel about the political conflict between Israel and Palestine, we cannot pretend that it is all right to prevent an entire population from access to the basic necessities of life; that it is all right to impoverish a nation by blockading their borders.
And there are those who would take the argument further. Jeff Halper, who will be speaking in Philadelphia next month, participated in Free Gaza Movement in 2008. He says, “I am an Israeli here in Gaza, we as Israelis have to start taking responsibilities for what we are doing. For the Israelis there is no occupation, so everything is terrorism from their point of view. What I am trying to say is: no, we have an occupation, we have siege, we have sanctions, we have closure and therefore, we are the strong party, we are the oppressors, the Palestinians aren't occupying Tel Aviv. Therefore, it's our responsibility to end the occupation and to bring an end to the conflict. As Israelis we have to take responsibility. That's why I am here: to represent the Israelis that want to say to Palestinians, we are responsible for the terrible situation here and we are willing to take responsibility for it.”
Those of us who have chosen this as our fast feel that we must call attention to the situation in Gaza. How can we as a Jewish community think it’s our obligation to end genocide in Darfur and pretend that there is no problem in Gaza? There is no question in my mind that if what was happening in Gaza was being perpetrated on any other country by any other country, we Jews would be in the lead, decrying such collective punishments and lack of respect for international humanitarian law, demanding an end to the blockade, proclaiming never again!
Even if your love for Israel makes you see the political situation differently; even if the rockets Hamas sends into Southern Israel make you furious and anxious, (and it should), even if in your eyes Hamas is nothing but a terrorist organization, what Israel is permitting to take place in Gaza is wrong. I have to believe, like Isaiah, that God is calling on us to choose this fast: these are the bonds of wickedness that we must loosen, and the heavy burdens we must undo: The people of Gaza are oppressed and must go free, and the blockade is the yoke that must be broken (Isaiah 58:6)
It is one small step that each of us can take if you are moved to do so: go to fastforgaza.com and see for yourself. Read what’s there, and if you are moved to do so, sign your name, pledge to participate in the monthly fast. If fasting doesn’t work for you, you can still join and participate in other ways, like by skipping a meal, contributing to ANERA, to provide milk and biscuits to children, or by encouraging others to sign up and help this effort to grow. For each of us it is a small step, but it is a big step if we do this together, to provide the only American Jewish voice that is saying no to the economic destruction of Gaza.
This year, this is the fast that I and 20 others of us have chosen, and I hope more will consider.
Rebecca Alpert
Mishkan Shalom, Philadelphia PA