Pictured: Rabbi Levi Lauer (second from left) with Rabbi David Ellenson, President; Irwin Engelman, Chairman, Board of Governors; and members of the Joseph family
Rabbi David Ellenson, President, HUC-JIR, awarded the 2011 Roger E. Joseph Prize to ATZUM-Justice Works and Rabbi Levi Lauer, its Founding Executive Director, at Ordination and Investiture Ceremonies at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York on Sunday, May 8, 2011.
Established in 2002 in Israel, ATZUM endeavors to open eyes and extend hands to those in need, to confront and remedy injustices in Israel. ATZUM’s work is founded on the belief that Israel should serve as an example for the rest of the world in addressing social problems and crises.
The Roger E. Joseph Prize was established thirty years ago in memory of Mr. Joseph, a lawyer, World War II hero, and polio victim. Although almost completely paralyzed, he resumed his law practice and advanced causes of social justice, inspired by his own exceptional personal courage and passionate devotion to principle and justice.
Rabbi Levi Lauer stated:
Rabbi Ellenson, Rabbi Posner, Rabbi Cowan, Members of the Roger Joseph Family, Soon to be ordained master teachers of Israel, Rabenu u’morenu b’Yisrael, Dear Friends and Dear Family,
Devarim mehalev nikhnasim el halev- may heartfelt words be taken to heart.
ATZUM --- and ATZUM is above all its wonderfully able, tirelessly hard working and devoted staff --- is honored to receive the Roger Joseph Prize. We are fully cognizant the committee that awarded the Prize, and all who read the list of previous recipients, know ATZUM has much yet to do to ride the bus with Rosa Parks, or stand at the rail sidings with Raoul Wallenberg. We accept this honor, then, as surely it is intended, as an inspiration for our further efforts to insist Medinat Yisrael be worthy of her very name, the State that would wrestle with God.
We understand you granted us this Prize to fortify our resolve not to desist until the evil of human trafficking is driven from our land, until not one woman is sold into sex slavery on the streets of Tel-Aviv and Yerushalayim. In that struggle, we are privileged to enjoy the partnership of Kabiri-Nevo-Keidar whose attorneys provide unlimited pro bono wisdom and representation before the courts, the Knesset and the enforcement agencies. And we have made a difference -- new public consciousness, better regulated borders, far fewer women sold over those borders.
ATZUM acknowledges you want us to persist in our efforts to bring economically deprived children who were severely wounded, and children whose parents were disabled or murdered in a terror attack, the educational resources requisite for a viable, productive future. Our social workers, and many volunteers, have sustained hope for hundreds of these families. With determination and rich imagination, where others saw unbreachable walls of inadequate State budgets or indifference, they built bridges to private funds and public agencies to secure the means to alleviate urgent need. I think of Yael, on her way to university exams, two weeks away from beginning work as a flight attendant. A few blocks from our home, she was nearly mortally wounded and horrifically disfigured in a Jerusalem bus bombing. Long months of hospitalizations and years of countless surgeries. She married a few months ago and today practices law, helped back to life by the skills of plastic surgeons, and by ATZUM’s social worker who saw the person and the soul beneath the burns and scarring, stood with her day and night, refused to allow despair to triumph over hope.
We know you expect ATZUM not rest until every Righteous Person who saved Jewish lives during the Shoah and came to live in Israel is assured the dignity of their last years --- home care, medical assistance, the visits of adoptive grandchildren. We pursue that challenge because a brilliant, young project coordinator, straight from her army service, assumed personal responsibility for every one of those righteous rescuers. She brings volunteers to their apartments; develops curricula for schools to know of their courage; provides for their care in times of extreme illness, and arranges their burials with all the respect due the finest people of our and any time.
By granting ATZUM this Prize, you also now inspire a project to assist Ethiopian high school students. They’re often alienated from the culture they inherited. So give a creative and caring staff the means to dream with those kids. They’ll open doors to recruit a noted Ethiopian filmmaker who teaches these teenagers to film and document the heroics of their elders, Prisoners of Zion, who suffered imprisonment and brutal torture when their work to organize the emigration of their communities to Israel was revealed by the authorities in Ethiopia and Sudan. Give them a camera and you enlarge their vision of and pride in their origins and their connection to their new homes in Israel.
It is a great zkhut, an enormous privilege to be able to do this work and to share it with you this morning.
Devarim mehalev– straight from the heart. It’s troubling to hear and read of a growing indifference of Diaspora Jewry to our struggles. It’s particularly disturbing to witness that distancing today, the eve of Yom HaZikaron, Israel Remembrance Day, as we prepare to honor the sacrifice and memory of 22,684 of our sons and daughters. They sought no heroics, but risked and gave everything to secure our safety. In death they breathed life into a two millennia-old vision, to bear the moral burden of power and control of Jewish destiny; to allow us to determine who we really want to become, who we, the Jews of Israel and of the Diaspora, the Jews of Yerushalayim and the Jews of NY need become.
Every Yom HaZikaron I go to Har-Herzl with Anya, my younger daughter, to place a small stone on the graves of soldiers we know personally and on the graves of those unknown but to their Creator. I wonder if next year you can come with us to Har-Herzl. For, if next year we’ve grown too weary of this decades-long battle to maintain Israel’s well-being, let’s tell those soldiers why we’re too discouraged to continue the struggle for a just society. How shall we explain to them why growing numbers are too disaffected to extend hand and heart from NY to T-A? With what turn-of-phrase will we articulate the more important priorities that diminish our dedication to sovereign Jewish independence? But, if on that hallowed ground our words ring hollow, let’s reconsider --- and recommit.
We’ll have no illusions; we know how grueling it is to try to drain the swamps of Israel’s moral morass, to render the institutions of Jewish Statehood resources of Jewish dignity. Our abuses of power and failures of moral courage are legion. We’re in trouble, the mishpoho is hurting, gut auf tzuris, b’tzarot tzurot, and we’re in need of thebest hands-on caring we, all of us, can muster.
Perhaps one day we’ll come to times so good, so secure, so morally enlightened, we’ll be able to afford the luxury of not caring, or of merely caring about, but not for the future of the State of Israel – but this eve of Remembrance and Independence is not that time. For all the inevitable divisiveness it entails – really, did you think we’d have State politics less contentious than the average synagogue board meeting --- this is not the time for American Jewry to disengage from helping us build an Israel that inspires a compelling vision of what Jewish authority and respect for the other might engender. This is exactly the time to revision and reinvigorate four-thousand year-old prayers and deeds with which we’ll renew a people deserving of its children’s and grandchildren’s dedication.
May we be granted the clarity to discern the best and reject the worst of those old-new visions. May we reaffirm the covenant made with the God of Israel, a covenant blessing us with the “difficult freedom” of unparalleled responsibility. May that blessing and its burden sustain our hearts and hands. May it press us to the hard grounds of God-wrestling and state building where we might earn the gifts of peace and well-being --- and in the meantime find strength to make Israel a home sheltering those less able and more vulnerable.
I accept the 2011 Roger E. Joseph Prize humbly and with great pleasure and with gratitude for the friendship, hard work and high intelligence of my friends and co-workers who built and grew ATZUM to what we are today --- Sara Wenger, Joe Ratzersdorfer, Ellen Singer, Kayla Zecher, Yael Rosen and Yulia Gofman-Wygoda, Karyn London and Gila Berdichev, Ori Keidar and Avital Rosenberger. They are enormously talented, young (fair enough, they’re all young of heart) people who could choose many avenues and venues for their work. They have chosen to make a better Israel, little seen in the headlines, usually ignored in the welter of Middle East politics and wars. ATZUM, all Israel, and I are deeply indebted to them.
I have no words adequate to express my appreciation to Chaya Lauer for sustaining my heart and ATZUM’s work, and for standing unshakably beside me in this endeavor.
Finally, I accept this Prize in loving memory of my dear friend, teacher and moral compass, Rabbi David Forman, zikhrono livrakha, whose first yahrzeit wasthree days ago and whose thirty-eight years in Israel were daily inspiration for the very best courage and decency Reform, Progressive Judaism can bring to our Land and to its people.
Ani asir toda lakhem --- thank you.