Thursday, March 26, 2015

God G-d. Allah All-h.

On Mar 26, 2015, at 12:31 PM, [omitted] wrote:

Dear Rabbi:

I was surprised to see that you wrote ".. with God's help", rather than "with G-d's help" as I was taught in my youth.  Is the way I learned it an Orthodox tradition rule?


Dear P,

G-d is a option, but since it is one of many non-Jewish names of God, it should be joined by All-h, and Jes-s, etc., which no one seems to do.

The rules against writing God’s name applies to the Hebrew names, since those names on paper or parchment require burial.

Chag Kasher v’Sameach, 

Robert Tobin 
B'nai Shalom
Office: 973-731-0160
P Please consider the environment before printing this email.

Original message follows:

In a message dated 3/26/2015 12:25:52 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:
Dear Friends,

We are sorry to tell you that our internet router was fried by a power outage this morning here at the synagogue.  Therefore, until they are able to fix it (tomorrow with God’s help), our staff are unable to receive your electronic communications, etc., or to send any emails to you.

For reservations to Friday night’s dinner with Rabbi Asekoff, or to our second night Seder next week, or for any other reason, please CALL our front office during business hours:  973-731-0160.

From my cell phone,

Robert Tobin 
B'nai Shalom
Office: 973-731-0160
P Please consider the environment before printing this email.

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Non-Jewish Members of the Synagogue?

From: Robert Tobin <>
Subject: Re: Question
Date: March 24, 2015 at 1:25:51 PM EDT
To: [omitted]

The topic is a live one among Conservative rabbis to be sure.

Since “shul" is a made up category, there is no biblical, rabbinic or halakhic authority to clearly define the term “shul membership” and who it applies to.  Therefore it is a matter of policy, not religion in that sense.

Basically, non-Jews making decisions about the form of religious expression would be inappropriate. Jewish people should not determine who the priest in church is, or if the mass is in latin or not, even if their spouse is Catholic.  This is no different.  Therefore, non-Jews voting on which rabbi to hire (or fire), cantors, religious school directors, etc., is to be avoided in the opinion of most Conservative synagogues.  Since synagogue membership carries with it voting rights, they draw the line at the word “member,” only allowing Jews to be members and thereby maintaining that all members have the right to vote and hold office.

That is the simplest, but not the only way to handle the situation.  Many synagogues allow the non-Jewish spouse to serve on committees. What if they are president of the sisterhood, and by laws say that sisterhood gets a voting seat on the board? The dominoes fall quickly.

Probabably best, give the rate of intermarriage and the movement’s need to attract people to our form of Judaism, would be a “Jewish Membership” and a “non-Jewish membership” which would clearly delineate the priveledges and responsibilities of each category, kind of like a country club with “social” “golf” and “tennis memberships.”

But it is a live issue to be sure.

Robert Tobin 
B'nai Shalom
Office: 973-731-0160
P Please consider the environment before printing this email.

On Mar 24, 2015, at 12:57 PM, "T" and "H" ...... wrote:
Hi rabbi,
"T" here. My bro-in-law had a question for me that I must pass to you for a reliable answer. This is in regard to some sensitive proposed changes to our SHUL in upstate ny. (If that info makes a diff). Here's the question:
"What authority is there for the premise that Conservative synagogues do not admit non-Jews as members?"
Thanks in advance for your attention. 
Ps. A sweet and kosher pesach to you, "L" and the kiddies! 

Sent from my iPhone

Monday, March 23, 2015

The President vs. the Prime Minister: Why they'll never get along.

PM Netanyahu has convinced President Obama, 
beyond repair, 
that Netanyahu is a racist.

We should now expect a rapid and prolonged change in all "executive order" based relationships like US/AID investments, cultural and academic exchange programs, and US protection of Israel in the Security Council.

Here's why:

There is no way for President Obama to hear the following statements without directly associating them with the civil rights movement in America:

a) Netanyahu rejected his 2009 commitments to a two state solution;

b) Netanyahu stated clearly in the last 48 hours of the Israeli election that there will be no Palestinian State (no qualification given at the time), and;

c) Netanyahu and his party urged his followers to the polls on election day by portraying Arab voting, Arab voter drives, and allegations of bussing Arabs to polling stations as a threat.  While Netanyahu did NOT criticize or undermine the Arab right to vote, the rhetoric sounds like the anti-black oppression of voting rights in America in the 1960's. Race relations in America are deteriorating, and both the President and the U.S. Attorney General have been paying close attention to race riots and protests in MO and elsewhere of late. It is a hot topic right now in America, and a core value of this Presidency.

Netanyahu's rhetorical portrayal of "the threat" of the Arab voting, along with the denial of the possibility of a Palestinian state sounds to the President like this:  "those who have the vote are a threat, and the rest should never have a vote at all."   The only way the President will interpret that is institutional racism and oppression.

Or, as Jimmy Carter infamously declared it: "Apartheid." Netanyahu has pushed the only button we have that could possibly justify that horrific and misbegotten misunderstanding of Israel.

Now what?

The President has already made statements that must be taken very seriously:

From his press secretary Josh Earnest's press briefings following the election on March 18, 2015:

"Just as a relevant piece of recent historical context is that there have been two Israeli elections during the Obama administration.  In both situations, in the aftermath of both elections, the President did not telephone Prime Minister Netanyahu until he’d already been directed by the Israeli President to begin the process of forming a coalition government.
"So I'm not suggesting that the President will wait until that direction has been handed down this time.  I'm merely pointing out that in previous situations the President has not telephoned the Israeli Prime Minister on the day after the elections.  But I do anticipate that the President will call Prime Minister Netanyahu in the coming days.
"Q    -- talking about the Palestinian state issue over the last couple of days, citing the election.  But now that the election is over and Prime Minister Netanyahu has been reelected, can you talk a little bit about what that means for the U.S. goals in the peace process and the hope for a two-state solution?
"MR. EARNEST:  That's a good question, Justin.  I've got a couple of things to say about that.  The first is that the unprecedented security cooperation between the United States and Israel, including our strong military and intelligence relationships, will continue.  And that relationship will continue because those relationships are essential to the security of the Israeli people, and the President is committed to continuing that important security cooperation.
"The second thing I wanted to say is that it has been the policy of the United States for more than 20 years that a two-state solution is the goal of resolving the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinian people.  And that two-state solution has been pursuit of a democratic and Jewish state of Israel living side by side in peace and security with an independent and sovereign Palestinian state.  That has been the policy of the United States under both Democratic and Republican Presidents.
"In the context of the recent election, Prime Minister Netanyahu indicated a change in his position.  And based on those comments, the United States will evaluate our approach to the situation moving forward.
"Q    -- that you guys may no longer favor a two-state solution, or that you may reevaluate sort of your ability to cooperate with Netanyahu?
"MR. EARNEST:  What I'm suggesting is that it has been the longstanding policy of the United States that a two-state solution is the best way to address this conflict, primarily because it is in the security interest of the Israeli people -- again, in the view of the United States -- it is in the best interest of the Israeli people because it would be the best way to resolve the very legitimate security concerns that they have.
"The United States also happens to believe, and the President also happens to believe that this would be the best way to resolve the situation, this conflict in a way that satisfies the concerns of the Palestinian people as well.  They seek a sovereign, independent state.  This solution also has the benefit of best addressing the stability of the region; that this ongoing conflict has contributed to instability throughout the region and that addressing this conflict by establishing a Jewish independent state of Israel living side by side in peace and security with a sovereign, independent Palestinian state is the best way to defuse regional tensions as well.
"Of course, it's not going to solve every problem, but we know that this ongoing conflict does serve to inflame tensions around the region and promote instability.  And it has long been the policy of the United States and it continues to be the view of the President that a two-state solution is the best way to address those tensions and address that instability.
"Q    Netanyahu said that there would not be a Palestinian state for as long as he’s Prime Minister.  So the U.S. position is that you favor a two-state solution.  But he’s saying that he doesn’t want that as long as he’s in office.  So does that mean the Mideast peace process is essentially dormant for the rest of the Obama administration? 
"MR. EARNEST:  It means for today -- it means that for today that based on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments, the United States will reevaluate our position and the path forward in the situation.

"Q    Josh, a couple more on Bibi.  Republicans have put out the most celebratory statements on the results.  Some like Ted Cruz have pointed out that in their view, Netanyahu seems to have won despite the efforts of the Obama administration -- the Obama political machine, I think he put it.  I wonder if you care to respond to that.  And also, could you address what this does to efforts to prevent passage of either new sanctions without a veto-proof majority, also the Corker bill to require congressional --
"MR. EARNEST:  I don't anticipate that this will have a substantial impact on our ongoing efforts to resolve diplomatically the international community’s concerns with Iran’s nuclear program.  And the reason for that is, obviously Prime Minister Netanyahu has had ample opportunity to make very clear what his views are about that situation, so I'm not sure that the events over the last 24 hours or so has a material impact on that.
"As it relates to some of the comments from Republicans, I'll just point out that the administration, in very conspicuous fashion, avoided leaving anybody with even the appearance of an administration effort to influence the outcome of the elections one way or the other.  The President pointedly avoided commenting on the political back-and-forth that took place in the context of the election.  The President avoided meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he traveled to the United States only because it was two or three weeks before the election.
"So this administration has gone to great lengths to avoid weighing in on one side or the other.  And the reason for that is we believe that the interest between our two countries is well served by preventing this relationship from being subjected to a lot of aggressive partisan rhetoric.  And the President has certainly done his part to ensure that we’re protecting the U.S.-Israeli relationship from that kind of political back-and-forth. And, again, that is consistent with the tradition that other U.S. Presidents have prioritized, which is avoiding sort of the kind of partisanship that is part of the U.S. democratic process from infecting the U.S.-Israel relationship."

From his press secretary Josh Earnest's press briefings following the election on March 20, 2015:

"But you've also heard me raise significant concerns that we have here about some of the divisive election-day political tactics that were deployed by the Prime Minister’s political party on election day.  And you've also heard me raise concerns about the Prime Minister indicating withdrawal of his country’s commitments to a two-state solution.  And those are views that we’ve discussed at some length in this venue over the last day or two, and those were topics that the President raised directly with the Prime Minister in that phone call, as I said that he would."


In conclusion, we should be prepared for a U.S. improvement of relations with the pro-democracy Palestinians, such as Abbas.  Now is the time for those pro-state Palestinians to move forward actively in the U.N., not just the International Court. It is entirely possible that, in the absence of an Israeli commitment to the "legal" creation of a Palestinian state, the U.S. government will see the U.N. as the only viable route to advance the peace goal of  a two state solution.

For the United States, that would mean a withdrawal from the idea of a "negotiated" two-state solution, but if forced to choose between a non-negotiated two-state solution and the "permanent" rejection of a two-state solution, this lame duck President may feel that he is immune from criticism and able to support that move in the U.N.  If the Palestinians were to achieve U.S. support for that bid, it would pass in 24 hrs.

Stay tuned.

Friday, March 20, 2015


Dear Friends,

My professional organization, the Rabbinical Assembly of America, released a statement regarding this week’s election in Israel.  First, I will share my reactions, and then I will copy the press release unedited.

1.     The RA leadership posted this statement without consulting the members of the Rabbinical Assembly. The statement does not come from me or the other members in any way.

2.     The RA statement is, in my opinion, na├»ve to the mechanics of the Israeli electoral system.  The parliamentary system’s essential nature is to divide the voting population into multiple competing camps during the election, and then to unite them into a majority coalition following the election.  I am certain that the Arab parties were telling their people that the settlers and anti-Palestinians were coming out in droves and therefore their people should also come out in droves.  This is “normal” electioneering, no matter how we in a two party democracy perceive it.  In the American system, this extremism happens during the primary process, and then the national election is about “unity” or “mainstream ideas.”  That is simply not how the Knesset system works. Is the Israeli system uglier or dirtier or worse? That is for you to decide for yourselves.

3.     My own personal politics (not speaking for the RA, Conservative Judaism or B’nai Shalom) are deeply troubled by many of the things that PM Netanyahu said in the final 10 days of the election: negating the idea of a Palestinian state or a two state solution would be much higher on my list of problems – personally – than the voting statement that the RA decided to condemn.

4.     The RA statement is factually incorrect.  PM Netanyahu did not indicate that Israel was in danger from Arab voters, but that his party and government were in danger from Arab voters.  That was, of course, correct.  It was a call to voter turnout from his base, and it worked.  Every party thinks the other parties are bad for Israel and that only they can save Israel. Again, that is normal. 

5.     The RA’s statement puts pulpit rabbis in a horrible position.  If the rabbi agrees with the RA, then he or she alienates congregants who don’t agree with them.  If the rabbi doesn’t agree with the RA, then the congregants who do will bring it up and challenge the rabbi on the topic. The RA should never create a wedge issue between a rabbi and the congregation. Here, they have done it in spades.

6.     Finally, I think that the RA has exceeded both its mandate from its members and its purview as a major Jewish organization.  The RA exists for the following purpose, according to its own website.  I would rather it had stuck to this purpose this week:

7.     The Rabbinical Assembly is the international association of Conservative rabbis. Since its founding in 1901, the Assembly has been the creative force shaping the ideology, programs, and practices of the Conservative movement, and is committed to building and strengthening the totality of Jewish life. The Assembly publishes learned texts, prayerbooks, and works of Jewish interest; and it administers the work of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards for the Conservative movement. It also serves the professional and personal needs of its membership through publications, conferences, and benefit programs, and it coordinates the Joint Placement Commission of the Conservative movement. Rabbis of the Assembly serve congregations throughout the world, and also work as educators, officers of communal service organizations, and college, hospital, and military chaplains. (

The Text of the RA’s Statement:

"NEW YORK – On Tuesday, March 17, as Israel held its elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated: “The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are going en masse to the polls.” The Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative/Masorti rabbis, condemns this statement and calls on the Prime Minister to unite, rather than divide, the people of Israel. Rabbi William Gershon and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, president and executive vice president, respectively, released the following statement:
The Jewish people have been subject to political persecution and vilification for over 2,000 years.  It is for this reason, among others, that when the State of Israel was founded, it committed itself to the equality of all of its citizens.  The Israel Declaration of Independence unambiguously states that Israel ‘will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.’  Israel’s commitment to equality, justice and democracy is the underpinning of its special relationship with the United States and distinguishes Israel from despotic regimes in the Middle East and around the world. 
On Election Day, March 17, 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated that Israel was endangered by Israeli Arabs exercising their right to vote. ‘The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are going en masse to the polls,’ said Prime Minister Netanyahu. This statement, which indefensibly singled out the Arab citizens of Israel, is unacceptable and undermines the principles upon which the State of Israel was founded. Because we proudly and unreservedly continue our unflagging support for the State of Israel, its citizens and its values, we must condemn the Prime Minister’s statement, singling out Arab citizens for exercising their legitimate right to vote.  It is incumbent upon Jews around the world to denounce the Prime Minister’s divisive and undemocratic statement and we do so here.
In the aftermath of the election, we call upon the Prime Minister to use his authority to unify all the citizens of the State of Israel, regardless of religion or ethnicity, as demanded by the guiding principles upon which Israel was founded and of democracy for which the State of Israel stands."

Hopefully, you see my points.
Yes, Israel is a Democracy, and must be a democracy. A large portion of the Israel Arab population united to prove that the ballot box could be an agent of change for their interests.  For some, that was a hopeful idea.  For some others, that was an uncomfortable idea.  It would have been interesting to see, as my earlier blog indicated, what Israel would do if an Arab coalition partner had the keystone role in the government.  PM Netanyahu's victory makes that curiosity irrelevant for now.  And that was exactly what he wanted, and evidently what the Israeli electorate as an entity has decided.  

The truth is that a decidedly democratic election happened in the middle east, in which Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis peacefully went to the polling stations and passionately - peacefully - elected their leaders.  That is remarkable.  

For the RA to talk about the post-election democratic state as "an aftermath" indicates a pejorative view of the outcome of the election, which I have a hard time interpreting as anything but partisan within the political spectrum.  I think that both the content and tone of the RA statement is off base and inappropriate - despite my own personal opposition to much of what the PM said and did in this election.    

Yes it is now time for unity, but with a loyal opposition as well.  That is already happening as the coalition is being put together.  The only real lingering question is: will the Israel Arabs who got over their own differences to vote together take away the idea that this was a first victory for them, or a final defeat? That is an interesting and important question, which should be handled and supported without referencing "despotic regimes in the Middle East."

The RA rhetoric is even more exaggerated than the PM's.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Two Conservative Rabbis On Intermarriage Ceremonies

Recent Musing about Intermarriage in the Conservative Movement:

The question of performing intermarriage ceremonies is settled in the Orthodox (NO) and the Reform (YES) movements. The Conservative Movement (NO, but please join us anyways) is in the middle.... is there a time in the future when our answer will change?

Those rabbis considering intermarriage ceremonies are outside of the bounds of the Rabbinical Assembly, and are removed from the movement for doing so. Yet the argument is not really about demographics, or moral imperatives in light of societal change.  The argument in the Conservative movement is about commitment to Judaism.  What is the path forward to keep and get as many Jews as possible to live and pass on a a committed and measurable Jewish life of action?

Lately, the traditional rejection of intermarriage ceremonies has become a topic of renewed introspection and debate among Conservative Rabbis. Here are two voices, recently published.

Rabbi Jeremy Kalmonofsky:

As a heterodox but halachic Jew, I hasten to add that traditional norms are not necessarily the best ones. I celebrate my movement’s radical transformations on gender equality and sexuality — not because they widened the sphere of freedom and privacy for women and gay men and lesbians to pursue their happiness, but because they helped people fulfill the covenant better, enabling more Jews to do more mitzvot and build better families.
Celebrating interfaith weddings cannot clear that bar. It would instead diminish a sacred covenantal tradition, and risk making liberal Judaism into a jumble of traditional gestures that might please individuals but demand nothing from them.

Read more:

Rabbi Adina Lewittes:

I could have easily refused their request. But it felt misguided to turn them away. I was their rabbi before they married and would be afterward. Who was I supposed to be for the moment they came together? Couldn’t I stand at their wedding, bless their love, and convey the Jewish community’s desire for their continued involvement, while maintaining my integrity and that of Jewish tradition?
I believed I could, but that belief was hard-won.
I wouldn’t perform a Jewish ceremony for them with the traditional rituals of a ketubah, the Mosaic ring formula, and the seven wedding blessings. To me, those are historic, holy elements reserved for two Jews. But our treasure of Jewish texts has words to invoke without coopting tradition...

I realized, too, that if I set aside millennia of precedent to marry this couple because I was standing by a committed Jew who loved a non-Jew, she should affirm her ongoing Jewish devotion. I knew I would be taking a tremendous risk with both my reputation and my beliefs by marrying Beth and Joe, and I wanted to make as explicit as possible the reasons I was willing to do so. I asked Beth to increase her visibility and activity within our community to affirm her Jewish loyalties; she did. She became the chair of an important committee, a clear public role, and was careful to maintain her presence at events and services.

Rabbi Robert L Tobin:

The studies are clear:  Those intermarried couples who choose to raise their children in Conservative synagogues have children who affiliate and behave Jewishly in the same numbers as those non-intermarried couples in the same synagogues.  To the left of us, where the emphasis on a lived Judaism is different, the future affiliation numbers plummet.  Of all movements, it is our movement that probably stands to gain the most from, and can have the best impact on, intermarried families.

Are the times 'a changin'?  Who knows?

For me, I am a rabbi of the movement.  I am not allowed to due an intermarriage at this time, so I don't.  I am 100% welcoming of any married couple in my shul, no matter what their backgrounds look like.  I "mazal tov" all engagements, and celebrate all births. I am committed to matrilineal descent.

Should the movement change.... I would be very interested to hear and see what that would look like... after all, I am a rabbi of the movement.

March 6 Poll shows Netanyahu in narrow position to lead again.

With 92% of the Israeli electorate telling polls that they are probably or definitely decided on who they will vote for on March 17, the picture is looking more clear:

My guess:  Netanyahu will lead the next government with Likud (21), Yesh Atid (15), Bayit Yehudi (12), Israel Beiteinu (5), Kulanu (9) for a narrow majority of 62 seats.  

Shas, UTJ and Yachad will be on the outside looking in.  The Zionist Union and Meretz remain the main parties in opposition.

There are 4 "camps" in general:

1) Any "left" leaning coalition under Herzog/Livni will include Zionist Union, Yesh Atid and Meretz.  That's 44 seats.

2) Any "right" leaning coalition under Netanyahu will include Likud, Bayit Yehudi, and Israel Beitenu. That's 38 seats.

3) The "Religious" Parties include Shas, UTJ, and Yachad. That's 17 seats.

4) The united Arab list has 13 seats.

...And the wild card is Kulanu, here with 8 seats. (rounded down to make the 120 total seats work).

The "left" and the "religious" will not form a government, due to ideological differences.  Meretz and Netanyahu will never join together.  That leaves a few possible scenarios:

A)  A left-leaning coalition [59 + ??]:  Herzog/Livni Core (44) + half the Arab list (7) + Kulanu (8) = only 59.  You need 61.  Either a government dependent upon the united Arab list would form, or this coalition doesn't work unless the 8% undecided voters all go to the left in the last week of the campaign. Coalitions have not been dependent upon Arab votes in the past, and that would be a remarkable development.

B)  A right-leaning + religious coalition [63]:  Netanyahu Core (38) + Religious (17) + Kulanu (8) = 63. Serious concessions would need to be given the the religious parties, and the government would depend upon the settlement bloc's participation.

C) A centrist government under Netanyahu, without Herzog/Livni [60+ ??]: Netanyahu Core (38) + Yesh Atid (14) + Kulanu (8) = 60.  You need 61.  If Yesh Atid and Kulanu each gets an extra seat from the poll's undecided voters, it could work, but it would hang by a thread. This is what I predict will happen.

D) A broad "Unity" government under Netanyahu, with Herzog/Livni [84]: Netanyahu Core (38), Zionist Union (24), Yesh Atid (14), Kulanu (8) = 84 and a supermajority.  Given the Herzog/Livni "anti-Netanyahu" stance, this is unlikely.

E) A "Centrist" government is theoretically possible of course [62]: the Netanyahu/Herzog/Livni groups together add up to (62) in this poll, but that is also unlikely.

Among the "undecided" voters, nearly all of them are leaning to one of three parties:  Kulanu, Yesh Atid, and Bayit Yehudi.  Undecided "Yesh Atid" Voters split between Kulanu and the Zionist Union.  Therefore the likely "advantage" is to the center/right gaining a few seats at the last minute.

.... So, the most likely scenarios have Netanyahu forming a government, either pulling Yesh Atid to the right, or working with the religious parties in lock-step.

Here is the March 6 polling result.  Polls cease in Israel several days prior to the election, so this may be the last word:

Panels conducted a poll of 1027 people with a 3% margin of error that was taken out for Knesset Channel and released on March 10 2015.
Current Knesset seats in [brackets]
24 [20] Zionist Union (Labor-Livni)
21 [18] Likud
14 [20] Yesh Atid
13 [11] The Joint (Arab) List
12 [11] Bayit Yehudi
09 [02] Kulanu (Kahlon+Kadima)
07 [10] Shas
06 [07] Yahadut Hatorah/UTJ
05 [13] Yisrael Beitenu
05 [06] Meretz
04 [02] Yachad (Yishai+Chetboun+Marzel)
00 [00] Green Leaf 1.2% under 3.25% threshold
00 [00] Ten other parties poled under 1%, four others were not polled
64 [63] Right-Religious-Kahlon (Parties that have not ruled out nominating Netanyahu in Phase 2)
56 [57] Center-Left-Arab (Parties that have ruled out nominating Netanyahu in Phase 2)

Among voters that are still undecided on their vote, who are you leaning towards if not the party you selected?
Likud voters- Bayit Yehudi 13%, Kulanu 13%
Yesh Atid voters – Zionist Union 38%, Kulanu 12%
Zionist Union voters – Yesh Atid 47%, Merertz 20%
Bayit Yehudi voters – Likud 33%, Kulanu 26%
Kulanu voters – Bayit Yehudi 28%, Yesh Atid 25%
Yachad voters – Bayit Yehudi 38%, Shas 38%
Yisrael Beitenu voters – Bayit Yehudi 33%
Shas voters – 30% Kulanu
Meretz voters – Zionist Union 88%