Rabbis join clergy in fight against Knight initiative

Rabbi Mona Alfi knows what it means to be singled out for abuse. The Sacramento synagogue where she serves as an assistant rabbi was firebombed in June and hate literature vilifying Jews was left on the scene.

To prevent further attacks and discrimination against minorities, the Congregation B'nai Israel rabbi says she has decided to speak out against the so-called Knight initiative — which would prohibit same-sex marriage in California.

Alfi joined several state religious leaders in Sacramento on Wednesday for a No on Knight press conference.

"For me, the most obvious reason to speak out against it is the Holocaust," the Reform rabbi said in a phone interview after the coalition's press conference. "Gays and lesbians were the first group to be targeted."

The 14-word Knight initiative, or Proposition 22, declares that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid. It will go before state voters on March 7.

Seventy-seven state clergymembers, including 11 rabbis and one cantor, also wrote a Dec. 23 letter opposing the initiative to the Mormon Church, one of the initiative's key supporters.

Local rabbis who signed the letter include George Gittleman of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, Jonathan Slater of Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa, Eric Weiss of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, and Zari Weiss, the East Bay community rabbi.

Alfi, whose name is at the top of that list, said she also spoke out against the initiative on Wednesday because she knows what it means to receive community support.

"So many non-Jews stood with us" after the June firebombings, she said. "I feel like I must reach out and support others" in danger of being scapegoated.

The night before, Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood — who also signed the letter — fielded questions on the initiative from colleagues at the Palm Springs meeting of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis.

PARR has already declared its "wholehearted" opposition to the controversial initiative, as has the Reform movement's Pacific Central West Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

PARR, an organization for Reform rabbis in the Western states, passed a resolution in October calling upon members to "educate their congregations and communities" about the dangers of the measure.

During the meeting in Palm Springs, "we shared sermon ideas, textual references," Eger said. "I was very encouraged by the response. There will be a lot of good sermons up and down the coast this week."

Eger, who sits on the boards of both No on Knight and PARR, called the proposition "hateful, hurtful and divisive." Reform rabbis also questioned the background of its architect, state Sen. Pete Knight (R-Palmdale), whose gay son is campaigning against the initiative.

"A lot of them are concerned about his misusing the initiative process to work out his family tsuris," Eger said.

Several prominent Jewish progressives have raised their voices against the initiative. Among them is Silicon Valley mover and shaker Kathy Levinson, president of E*Trade.

Levinson and her partner, Jennifer Levinson, have plunked down $300,000 to fight the initiative. In addition, they have raised $60,000 from family and friends, and $500,000 at an August fund-raiser at Kathy Levinson's Palo Alto home. Before Levinson announced her donation — and her challenge — Knight backers were outspending opponents 4 to 1.

Knight first dubbed the initiative the "Definition of Marriage." But California State Attorney General Bill Lockyer called the moniker inaccurate and misleading, and changed it to the "Limit on Marriage" initiative.

"There is no need for a definition of marriage," Tracy Salkowitz, executive director of the American Jewish Congress Northern Pacific region. "It's redundant. Secondly, it's punitive, because it provides a legal framework for challenging protections that have been secured through very hard work."

In states that have adopted measures similar to the Knight initiative — including Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Virginia, Washington and Pennsylvania — "all kinds of protections have been eroded," such as the right to adopt children or domestic partner benefits, Salkowitz said.

Because civil rights are being challenged, she added, the AJCongress is involved. "Here is another group being scapegoated, and as one of history's longtime scapegoats, we are particularly sensitive to that."

And "since 10 percent of our own Jewish population is gay," Salkowitz said, "it's very much our issue."

The initiative is not the first effort by Knight to oppose same-sex marriage. Since 1996, the state senator has sponsored two Assembly bills and one Senate bill challenging any same-sex marriage performed in other states. The bills all failed.

Knight also battled Assembly Bill 1982, which would have granted domestic-partner benefits such as hospital visitation and conservatorship rights.

Eger, like Alfi and Salkowitz, says Jews need to take a strong stand against discrimination.

Given the Sacramento arsons, the shooting of children at the Jewish Community Center near Los Angeles and other hate crimes, she said, "we have a moral imperative to speak out against this very divisive initiative."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.