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Religion

New Head of Rabbis Board Has Ambitious Plans to Speak Out

August 30, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

For a soft-spoken man, Rabbi Robert Gann has set his sights on an ambitious and potentially boat-rocking role for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Gann, the new president of the board, is calling on the panel to speak out on vexing political and social issues facing not only the second-largest Jewish population in the United States but also the state and nation.

Health care for the uninsured, race, violence in the Middle East, the environment -- even the political debate over whether undocumented immigrants should be given driver's licenses -- are all grist for possible pronouncements.

While there are always players in the social and political arena willing to offer advice and shape public policy, Gann said there is a need for a rabbinic voice in the community, one "grounded in Torah, Talmud and Jewish history," that speaks to contemporary issues.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 03, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Board of Rabbis -- A story in Saturday's California section about the president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California misspelled his name. He is Rabbi Robert Gan, not Gann.

"All that goes on in the community, whether Jewish or secular, often has an ethical component to it. It's incumbent upon us to try to deal with those issues and voice our opinions," the veteran rabbi said. "Ultimately, people will decide for themselves. But I think it's important to have a moral and ethical voice that resonates for everyone to consider."

Getting people to listen may be the easy part. Getting rabbis to agree may be the real obstacle. Jews are fond of saying that where there are two Jews there are three opinions. Multiply that by the 260 members of the Board of Rabbis and the task becomes evident. They represent divergent streams of Judaism from modern Orthodox to Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist. Some Orthodox rabbis decline to join.

Gann was not without a sense of humor in conceding the difficulties ahead. In his recent inaugural address as president, he borrowed a witticism from a previous board president, Rabbi Leonard I. Beerman. "We exist as a diverse rabbinic body," Beerman had said, "because of what we agree not to talk about."

Orthodox Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, who is not a member of the Board of Rabbis, compared differences within the Los Angeles rabbinate and Jews in general to "a deep fissure in the face of the American Jewish community." He noted that in July 2001, when the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles sponsored a pro-Israel rally on Wilshire Boulevard, no more than half of the hoped-for 10,000 participants showed up.

"Where you see differences [with New York] is the amount of public agitation for Jewish issues with a single voice. There is no single Jewish voice, no single Jewish vote, but they can still get oodles and oodles of people at an Israeli parade in New York," said Adlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute at Yeshiva of Los Angeles.

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Los Angeles Board of Rabbis, said he didn't doubt that reaching Gann's goal would be a formidable undertaking. "There are enormous challenges. One is the sheer diversity of opinions among members of the board," Diamond said. He said some believed that religion and politics shouldn't mix. But Diamond said he agreed with Gann on the need to speak out as a group. "The prophets mixed politics. The Bible is full of politics and religion," he said.

It isn't that the board hasn't spoken out in years past. It endorsed United Farm Workers union leader Cesar Chavez's grape boycott and offered its views on school busing, fair housing and Vietnam.

Next week, the board's executive committee will meet to open discussion on how to reclaim what Gann calls the board's prophetic voice -- and how to do that quickly enough before they are overtaken by events while at the same time including everyone in the process.

"How can we make a statement that has meaning and substance and not make a statement that is so neutral that it ceases to have much meaning," Diamond asked.

If anyone is up to the task, Gann is, Diamond said. At 63, Gann has been senior rabbi for 33 years at Temple Isaiah, an 850-family member Reform congregation in West Los Angeles.

During that time and before that when he was associate rabbi, the synagogue's interest in social and political issues has been evident by guest speakers. They have included Eleanor Roosevelt, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., former Ohio Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, gun control advocate Sarah Brady, consumer advocate Ralph Nader and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious and Social Action Center of Reform Judaism.

This weekend, a Latino hotel worker will speak about the need for a living wage for hotel workers. Gann's temple has had a continuing relationship with the African American community and for the last 18 years has had a pulpit exchange with the First African Methodist Episcopal Church led by Pastor Cecil "Chip" Murray. Gann supports blessing committed gay and lesbian relationships.

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