In The News
There was a throng of protestors outside of AIPAC’s Policy Conference in Washington. This wasn’t the band of usual Neturei-Karta Jews dressed in Orthodox uniforms voicing their 69-year-old gripe that the State of Israel can only be brought by the Messiah.
This was a group of predominantly young people, many Jewish of different denominations, singing Jewish songs and chanting rhetoric against Israel and taking aim at the pro-Israel conference.
But why? Why here? Why now? Why AIPAC?
Sociologists would point to evidence that proves most of these protestors are college educated. Many came from acknowledged Jewish homes where parents would relish the idea of their kids engaging with AIPAC, not protesting against it.
Inside the building these demonstrators assembled outside of, gathered Nancy Pelosi, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer. These are the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, respectively. With the sole exception of the State of the Union, these congressional leaders will likely not appear together, anywhere, over the next year. Are you protesting bi-partisanship?
Inside the convention center 4000 students from universities around the country gathered in support for Israel: Republican and Democrat students, Jews and gentiles. In fact, 50 school presidents from historically black universities were standing with AIPAC. As Elon Gold remarked, Jews stood with the civil rights leaders during the 60s and today. How great that African-Americans are standing with us now. Latino students and leaders stood with AIPAC too.
Are you opposing diversity and student activism?
At the plenaries and breakout sessions women leaders were championed, including the president of AIPAC, Lilian Pinkus, and former candidate for Prime Minister and current Member of Knesset, Tzipi Livni. In addition, many other women Israeli leaders – almost 25% of the current Knesset are women – were celebrated. Are you protesting women in the US and in Israel?
Members of peace groups and members of Knesset whose platform advances vigorously the peace process (I am referring, by example, of Meretz) were on the dais in numerous sessions speaking about the unrelenting pursuit of peace and the need for 2-states for 2 people. They were joined by other leaders – some elected and some heads of NGOs and NFPs – to promote this cause. Most of these sessions were sold out with standing room only. Are you protesting peace and peace movements?
For the past six-years at AIPAC, Israeli innovation has been highlighted. This year, we learned about technology that pulls water from the atmosphere and is being used in drought ridden countries. We were also introduced to smart-phone technology that enables people who cannot use their hands to utilize a cell phone through head movements. This has allowed quadriplegics and ALS patients to surf social media, make phone calls on their own and integrate into parts of society that their physical challenge inhibited them from previously.
Are you protesting innovation? Are you protesting helping others?
During the opening plenum, we were introduced to Youssef, a sweet Palestinian boy that needed lifesaving heart surgery when he was in infant. Through the Shimon Peres Center for Peace, this child was able to be healed and now, as a young boy, could thank the Peres Center on the stage for saving his life and supporting his family through this harrowing journey.
Are you protesting Youssef? His family? The medicine and collaboration that saved his life?
At AIPAC, we applauded the IDF field hospital in the Golan Heights that has treated thousands of refugees from Syria over the past five years of its civil war. The same physicians that treat the wounded victims of Syria’s civil war are the first responders in the wake of natural disasters in Haiti, Thailand, Turkey, Japan and any place that has suffered devastating loss. Are you protesting doctors and saving lives?
Inside the Washington Convention Center, the 18,000 participants of AIPAC were comprised of Christians, Muslims, Jews and even atheists. We united in common values. In fact, AIPAC hosts a rabbis’ lunch every year. This year, more than 800 rabbis of all stripes: men and women, orthodox and reform, from Berkley to Bangor, broke bread together. Name one other place where the diverse stripes and varied backgrounds and passions of the Jewish rabbinic world convene together? Are you protesting religious unity?
I am befuddled. What are you protesting?
If you contend that you are protesting the occupation of Palestinian land by Israel, I can hear that. But, as college educated people, you know that the situation is more complex and layered than you suggest. Does protest prevent you from acknowledging success? Did you protest the Palestinian Authority not accepting a treaty with Israel in 1947, 1967, 2000 or 2007 when bonafide and negotiated offers were made to the PA, brokered with the help of the United States, to finally establish two states for two people?
Were you protesting the use of violence by the PA, HAMAS and the PLO against innocent Israelis for too long of Israel’s existence? Did you protest Intifadas and suicide bombers? Stabbers and so-called freedom fighters?
You lament a separation wall. At times, I do too. I say that having spent time on both sides of that wall and seeing the realities and harsh challenges it presents to Palestinians, in particular. But, I also console a member of my community each year on the anniversary his mother’s death. She was blown up in the middle of a Passover Seder in Netanya, Israel, one of the impetuses for erecting the wall in the first place. I do not offer this story to counter your claim. Rather to highlight the layers of complexity and often competing and compelling narratives. Israel most certainly asks me to un-peel the onion, not exploit it.
Is your protest to insinuate that AIPAC supports Palestinian oppression? That is simply preposterous. Your promotion of such a falsehood is almost as criminal as the allegation in the first place. AIPAC has one simple mission: to promote a strong relationship between the United States and Israel. Why could anyone protest about that?
Israel is not immune to rebuke. Like all countries, it has strengths and warts. Still, one would be hard pressed to stand idly by while the United Nations continues to advance far too many strikes at the Nation State of the Jewish people. At times, Israel indeed needs it feet held to the fire. Other times, the baseless and scheduled attacks on Israel seem to play into the familiar anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist agenda of many hating nations. I am curious, are you protesting at the United Nations too? Why not? Are you protesting AIPAC because you want Israel to be singled out at the United Nations and treated differently than the other 192 other members of the family of nations? Why are you not draped in your tallit and chanting hymns against the evil regimes of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba?
One day, your children will ask what you did to advocate for peace in the Middle East. They will ask you what you did to celebrate Israel’s right to sovereignty while advancing a path for the Palestinian people and nation. Your loved ones will ask what you did to be a part of unity, bi-partisanship and healing the afflicted? Your sisters will ask what did you do to lend your voice to women’s rights and celebrate religious diversity. Your brothers will ask what did you do to engage in innovation to help the challenged and feed the hungry. Future leaders will ask what did you do to add your one voice to the choir of many that celebrates unity without unanimity.
I hope you will be able to answer them by saying you were a part of this great cause and rich conversation. And I hope you join the diverse ranks of people for that discussion immediately. Because, If not now, when?
Although this was written before the election, by the time you read this column, our long national nightmare should be over.
During the past 18 months, our electorate has wedged neighbors against each other, pitted spouses against their partners, and divided the country in unimaginable ways. It makes the Hatfields and the McCoys seem like child’s play.
Fingers can point in every direction to explain why this divide has happened and who is to blame. At this point it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is how we will move forward in the wake of this election and the toll it has taken on our citizens and our society.
Like most times when I seek direction, I turn to our tradition to recalibrate my coordinates. I was pointed toward a teaching that Maimonides offers about a man who enters a mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath, while holding a reptile. The twist here is that the mikvah makes you ritually clean — but the reptile makes you ritually unclean.
The question being posed — it might be the first example of Murphy’s law — ask what is the ruling. Clean or unclean?
Two contradicting actions are happening at once. Which one triumphs?
This paradigm, either/or, yes or no, clean or unclean, pure or impure, kosher or trief, has become a model for Jewish living and for our world in general. The problem is that our world, Jewish and secular, is not as binary as this pattern would have us believe.
Of course there are times when our choices are linear. But my rabbinate rarely has been preoccupied with those sorts of questions. While I am incredibly well-versed at what to do when a meatball splashes into a dairy pot, that is rarely the kind of question I am asked. Instead, I face questions that implore me to say the word “and” instead of “or.” You can observe Shabbat AND serve food at the soup kitchen. You can maintain the integrity of kashrut and be integrated into society.
I do not have enough fingers to count the instances where people ask me tough rabbinic questions to which there are no formulaic answers. My child is marrying someone who is not Jewish. I am opposed to the marriage. Should I attend?
“Yes” or “no” is the easy way out. “And” is the harder but more meaningful path. Letting your child know that you are upset and disapprove yet going to demonstrate your love unconditionally, is an example of building a nuanced relationship.
Whether it’s about being for or against the Iran deal or settlements, favoring J Street or AIPAC, liberal or Orthodox Judaism, Clinton or Trump, Bibi or Lapid, our world is divided into halves. Sadly, supporting one camp inhibits us from gaining any footing in the other.
It does not have to be that way.
Could “and” exist instead of “or”? Could we speak at AIPAC and J Street? Have a membership in both a Reform and an Orthodox synagogue? Could we support Bibi and Lapid financially? Could we support a particular candidate and find merits in parts of his or her opponent’s platform? Could we support a Palestinian state and be right-wing in our defense of Israel? Could we root for the Chicago White Sox and support the Cubs in the World Series? Or closer to home, can I believe that Black Lives Matter and police officers’ lives matter?
I sure do.
With “and,” we add color and degrees. “Or” is monochromatic and level. “And” provides many paths and portals. “Or” is entrance and exit only
I find something fundamentally awry when the archetype we create assumes that by being in one camp, we are profoundly opposed to the other. That is ridiculous.
The aftermath of this election will leave us with lots of clean-up from the mess we made on the campaign trail. It will be easy to dig in our heels and keep up the either/or mentality. If we do, my worry is twofold: We will continue to divide our country in ways that bridges will be unable to traverse. Secondly, by ignoring “and” in favor of “or,” we will lose the color and nuance that makes our individual and shared world glow. “And” is a bigger word than “or,” literally and in what it offers to our world.
Let us look for opportunities to incorporate it into our lexicon, our conversations, and the world we want to create.
When the Cubs won the World Series last week, a 108-year narrative ceased and a new one was written. For all but perhaps 40 inhabitants of this universe of more than 7 billion souls, the Cubs were the lovable losers. They were the team whose fans chanted at some point during the season, “Maybe next year.” Suffering was the shared DNA of all Cubbie fans. For their entire life, they only knew of one title; failures. That all changed in the 10th inning of game 7 of this year’s World Series. 8 year olds, 38 year olds, 68 year olds and 108 year olds alike, learned a new narrative for their beloved baseball team: Winners.
One Wednesday morning later, I woke up to a new America that forever will change my narrative of this country in which I live and would sacrifice my life for.
I went to sleep in an America that felt united on common values and shared dreams of a better tomorrow. I woke up to an America split deeper than any pundit or soothsayer could have ever prognosticated. I went to bed in America. I woke up in Two-Americas.
We live in a country that is as divided as it once was before the Civil War, if not more. The voters have sung that song loudly and clearly. Today, I and many in my social and communal orbit, wake up to a new narrative and it is frightening.
New narratives are scary, mainly because they take us out of our comfort zone. They shock us towards paths not travelled and turns and twists we cannot anticipate. Oddly, Cubs fans know how to prepare for a season of hope in the wake of loss. They do not know how to shape themselves to continue their success for the coming season when pitchers and catchers report to spring training.
Likewise, this is a new America. We are 50 States united by borders, currency and a military force. But today, the people that make up this amazing Republic are not a ‘United’ States. We are common states, wildly different in our hopes and aspirations, our challenges and fears and our reality.
It is easy to look backward and wag fingers in the face of all of those that caused this divide and created this new narrative. That exercise will be futile because no real change can come from only looking backward.
The coordinates towards embracing a new narrative includes adding your pen to the proverbial paper. That process, while perhaps sounding kitsch, begins with listening. What has become evident is that 50% of this country does not know what makes the other side tick and what keeps our neighbor up at night. I come from a tradition that thrives on disparate views with mutual respect. Seeking solace inside echo-chambers provides momentary comfort. Sadly, though, it deafens our ears to the world of our neighbor.
Perhaps most important to remember, is that we control the environments in which we live and work. How we treat the “other” in our society, the language we use around the dinner table, the temperament we display in the office is up to us, not our democratically elected leader. Our children will be more influenced by what their parents and friends do and say than they will the person who leads from afar.
That is why endeavoring to write a new narrative and uniting our states and our citizenry together again is more important than ever. It has to start today, not tomorrow. We cannot afford to wait.
The 2016 World Series and Presidential Election remind us that the unexpected can indeed happen and that can prompt us towards new narratives. The sun will continue to rise and set. That is beyond human control. What we do in-between that time is up to each of us.
Joke: One man says to his colleague, “How are you?” “In a word,” he replies, “good.” “In two words, not good.”
This month marks the 10-year birthday of Twitter, the social media platform that limits our reports, reactions and responses to 140 characters.
Twitter has spread like wildfire with close to 1 billion subscribers worldwide. That is more than half of the computer-using world.
The problem with Twitter is its limits. 140 characters cannot describe, detail or delineate most scenarios in life. In fact, Twitter has ushered us into an age of staccato answers that lack nuance. We have devolved; instead of hashing things out, we sum up things with hashtags. I find that criminal since the world we live in has more layers than ever before. #Damnyoutwitter!
Indulge me to share a few examples with you.
I loathe Donald Trump but I am a staunch supporter of AIPAC. I found myself in a conundrum when the organization near and dear to my heart invited all candidates for President of the United States to speak at their annual conference. After thoughtful deliberation, I decided to stay for Trump’s speech and promised myself I would not applaud for anything he said until he uttered the following:
“In a world where we make firefighters our heroes, young boys and girls will dream of being firefighters when they grow up. In a world where we make athletes our heroes, young boys and girls will dream of being athletes when they grow up. And in a world where we make suicide bombers our heroes, young boys and girls will dream of being suicide bombers. So we must stop making these people martyrs and heroes and all leaders must condemn these despicable acts of violence.”
Any civilized and democratic society would agree with that sentiment. In fact, those parameters of heroism might be the litmus test between good and evil in the world.
I agreed with every syllable Trump said in that statement. Inertia took over and I found myself rising to my feet and applauding loudly.
Upon the conclusion of the session, I found that everyone with whom I interacted asked me, “Did you stay or leave for Trump? Did you clap or sit still?” The questions were crafted to seek one-word answers and inherently categorize me without hue or tone and offer no trace of nuance. I was provided no envelope for explanation.
Some who had noticed my standing and clapping were dumbfounded; how could I be applauding anything but Trump’s exit? Did this mean I support his candidacy? #helmeexplainthis
Another example of a non-sound-bite situation happened about two weeks ago, approximately 6000 miles away. A knife-wielding terrorist threatening to attack a soldier in the town of Hebron was summarily killed. The knife was taken away from him and the threat neutralized. The Palestinian assailant lay subdued on the floor with his hands and legs spread, in a pre-arrest position. Another solider then took the judicial process into his own hands. He shot the 21 year-old in the head. The assailant died instantly.
The country of Israel, along with those monitoring the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from afar, have quickly been divided into two factions: one which holds that the soldier is guilty for war crimes, along with the IDF for being in Hebron in the first place. The opposing faction exonerates the soldier from any wrongdoing, because he was defending the land from saboteurs. In Twitter talk it would read something like: 2 factions. Free the soldier or try him for murder. Is it possible to love Israel, support the IDF and condemn this heinous act of vigilantism? Can I be a part of both factions? #of2minds #confused #itscomplicated
As someone who has tuned into the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for as long as I can remember, I find myself torn. I love the IDF and the brave, young soldiers who not only defend the homeland of Israel, but de-facto, defend the Jewish people, worldwide. Each time I visit Israel the soldiers seem younger. I am 42 and question my decisions hourly. In Israel, we are bequeathing the morality of a 2,000-year-old religion and the stability of its homeland to an 18-year-old kid who potentially is staring down the barrel of a rifle at armed terrorists holding a baby as a human shield. His decision to shoot, or be shot is a judgment made in milliseconds that will hold with it the scrutiny of media outlets, the condemnation of governments across the globe or the consolation of heads of state. #nowin #loselose
The world of politics is rife with examples of clipped answers and quickly-drawn conclusions too. Look no further than our commander in chief, Barrack Obama, the President one either hates or loves. Yes, it is that black or white.
The Iran deal, the mistreatment of the Israeli Prime Minister, snubbing Bibi when he was in DC, skipping a visit to Jerusalem during his landmark trip to Cairo, and the list goes on, are all criteria that the anti-Obama crowd has marked up against the man. The divide amongst the pro-Israel community about this leader is wider than the crossing Moses maneuvered at the Red Sea.
Yet, this week, that same President whose imminent exit from office caused people to rise in thunderous applause, signed legislation that prohibits Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel from European Union countries. The penalty for passing any BDS laws in Europe would now carry the penalty of losing the ability to trade with the United States. Most notably, it stops un-just economic warfare against Israel. President Obama’s signature turned that bill into the law of the land. #justabilloncapitolhill
How can we properly modulate feelings about the President when those who dislike him still celebrate his decision to sign this bill? Perhaps we need more than just 140 characters to make our point? Can we support some decisions of President Obama and be disappointed in others? Do we have to be limited to one word answers like, “good” or two words, “not good” to explain the intricacies and layers of any situation or feeling? Can we transcend party affiliation or team allegiance when individual merit and distinct achievement warrant? Can we realize that with the due diligence necessary, which will indeed take more than 140 letters?
This problem started long before Twitter. The sage Hillel who lived almost 2000 years ago, was once asked by a potential convert to Judaism to explain the entire Torah while standing on one foot. In consulting jargon, Hillel was asked to deliver an ‘elevator pitch’ about Judaism. In the social media world, it would be called, a ‘tweet.’ #contextualizing
Hillel replied, (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a) “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!” (132 characters) Just enough left over to tag a person with a short name or add and pithy hashtag.
The fundamental part of Hillel’s statement is forgotten. “Go and study it.” That critical cog of the answer demands of us to unpack the layers of tradition, to explore the complexities of situations, to apply context to any text and to expand on statements with details and nuance. We cannot afford to forfeit explanation. If our world continues to become a mosaic of thoughts, opinions and ideas representing many faiths and passions, why should we seek to sum it all up in so few characters? #wewantnuancenow
To celebrate Twitter’s birthday, I recommend we put down our devices and sit with another soul. Blow out the candle and make a wish that we can talk about ideas, unpack details, and unpeel the onion, so to speak. Our complicated lives deserve more than 140 button swipes to offer it justice. Surely, our future does as well. #thatsallfolks
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach penned an article in this paper chastising those that compare Trump to Hitler. He has joined a sliver of society that purports to hold the keys to the proper way to memorialize the Holocaust and who and what can be called genocidal.
I do not plan to dedicate this article to pointing out the hypocrisy of Rabbi Boteach; so thick, a Challah knife couldn’t cut through it. After all, it was Rabbi Boteach that called Susan Rice complicit in genocide in the New York Times for all of its readers to see.
Nevertheless, I do plan to put up the case of why I disagree with Shmuley, again.
When Hitler was appointed President of Germany, (he was never elected) in 1934, his platform was one of channeling the anger of the Germans and pointing their problems in a particular direction. When Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, his distaste for the Jews was evident but, his intent on mass murder was not.
I have learned from many people who lived in Germany during the years of 1935-1938 that there were basically two houses of thought; it cannot get any worse, so let’s stick it out. The other house of thought was, it cannot get any better, lets leave now.
Many German Jews sensed a deja-vu from the pogroms and expulsions of their ancestors that had become as much a part of their Jewish DNA as gefilte fish. While other Germans Jews had no inkling their fate could be so horrid until Krystallnacht, which occurred on November 9-11, 1938.
During those three days, 91 Jewish souls were murdered and thousands were put into work camps. During the years leading up to the Krystallnacht, Jews could not earn fair and equal jobs, were educated separately from Gentiles, were denied basic rights and were refused to be treated as equal citizens of Germany.
Hitler had his aims set higher than exterminating the Jewish race, at least at that juncture. His first goal was set on world dominance. Hence the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 launching Europe into a continental war.
One year after the war began, Hitler built a wall in Poland. It was around a small portion of Warsaw where he would then centralize all of the Jews living there inside a ghetto. A vibrant city with 3 Million Jews inhabiting it, roughly 25% of the city’s population, was to be cut down into an area less than 2 square miles for all Jews to live within. He replicated this in countless cities throughout Europe where there was heavy concentration of Jewish homes. The purpose of the ghetto and its wall was to separate the Jews from German society.
It was after 1942, in Wansee where the final solution was brought to light. Then, Hitler implemented his plan, some say that he had from the onset, to murder all the Jews of European countries he could. In addition to Jews, Hitler notoriously murdered the few blacks in Europe, Gypsies, homosexuals and political prisoners too. 11 Million in total. 6 Million Jews. Lucy Dawidowicz points out in her book, The War Against the Jews, in the year 1944, Hitler sent more trains to round up the Jews of Budapest and Prague instead of sending rearmaments to the troops fighting on the front lines. This proved he was a genocidal monster more focused on the annihilation of the Jewish people than winning the war.
Where I quibble with those like Rabbi Boteach is, when exactly is the moment of worry which officially allows us to sound the alarm bells? Must one first kill 6 Million Jewish souls to be categorized as “Hitler?”
Hitler never laid out his elaborate plans to mass exterminate non-Aryans before 1942. However, he did refuse to shake a black athletes hand, he did separate Jews and blamed them for the problems in Germany and world-wide and blamed the porous borders that allowed too many Jews inside of Germany. In fact, it was that very issue of entering Germany that was the catalyst for Krystallnacht. Indeed, Hitler was the worst person the human race might have ever known. Or at least he is found in the unenviable company of the world’s worst people.
If any of us could turn back time, we would have stopped Hitler before it was too late. We wish we could have read the tea leaves and known our collective fate. Today, we ask ourselves how were we so blind to miss it? How did many march to their deaths? Were they weak? Did they not love life? Of course not. They just never thought nor imagined that the unthinkable or the unimaginable would happen to them. History demands us to remember and learn.
Some claim that to compare anyone to the monster, dishonors the memory of 6 Million.
For those that call Trump and his antics Hitler-like, I assure you it is out of respect for the victims of the Holocaust.
I have stood on the black grass at Birkenau ten times. On each occasion I vowed to the souls I memorialized and to humanity world-wide, Never Again. If we take that oath seriously, we must call out those that act in a demagogic, elitist and separatist manner so it will not lead towards a path where the very morals this country was founded upon and the Judeo-Christian values all of the Presidential candidates cling on to like a safety harness, are turned upside down and stripped from the context of where and how and why they were integrated into our society in the first place.
When Donald Trump says immigrants are the cause of crime in our country and we will deport all of them. When he claims he will build wall to keep Mexicans out. When he suggests that women who are testy must be menstruating. When he infers that captured soldiers are not good war heroes. When he declares many, many Muslims hate America and says we should separate an entire stripe of a religion from entering and even moving freely within a country. When Mr. Trump advocates for the murder of innocent family members of terrorists, which is a blatant war crime. When he plays fast and loose with the KKK and regularly advocates violence at his rallies. And too much more…
When all of that happens, it does not mean that Trump killed 11 Million people or that he will. But it doesn’t pass the sniff test for me and countless others. It stinks like the history books of 1933-1938 Germany smelled like. And for those who naively and passively sit idly by without condemnation, perhaps they should be called into question too. Could you imagine if for a minute, in the place of Muslim he (or any other candidate) had used the religion Jew? If instead of Mexican he said, Israeli? And, the absurd notion that Trump’s daughter Ivanka being Jewish exonerates her father’s xenophobia is tantamount to claiming that vegetarianism makes people skinny.
Simply stated, Hitler was most notably a criminal against the Jewish people. But he was a criminal against humanity, first. Trump targeting Mexicans and Muslims and being coy on his affiliation with the KKK is a person chanting a familiar tune with different lyrics. To advocate for his asylum is to abet his lawless and amoral aspirations that could lead us down a path where humanity, again, is the greatest loser.
If and when historians will ask, where were you and your voice when this man with these dreadful intentions and despicable statements rose to power, I want to be noted on the record with other leaders who aggressively rang alarm bells of warning. We are still paying for the apathy of yesteryear.
I am not a professional politician. I am only an enthusiastic spectator in the stands. From my seat, during this round of the electorate, I have witnessed what is beyond my imagination. All the rules, written and unspoken, seem to have been thrown out the window. What we have learned is there is nothing conventional about this election.
Change is good. In fact, the best campaigns have been based on change. Sadly, many of the changes we are observing are driven more from fear then from the notion of change. Many Americans feel betrayed, unheard and unfairly represented.
Like them or lump them, the dark horsed, front-runners in both parties are leading the pack because they are un-orthodox in their approach and their views. They represent a deeper sense of change.
If we do not address the underlying tremors that the ‘everyman’ is feeling, namely of being duped or swindled with empty promises and unachievable goals by the entitled, this experiment called America might fail.
Thus, I humbly suggest 5 inter-connected items that need to change for future elections and the future of our Republic.
We Must Have a Shorter Election Process
I contend that Donald Trump is our collective punishment for an 18-month electoral process.
The election has been exhausting and we are not even near the convention, yet alone November. Primaries have only been completed in 1/3 of the States. The media is hip deep in what-if scenarios and interviews that has dragged out the process longer than necessary. Meanwhile, other important news items are shuffled to the bottom of the pile, if they even make the mound at all.
There are countless strong democracies that elect leaders in significantly shorter processes. Some are as short as six weeks and others four months. Take a look at Canada, Israel, Great Britain and Germany for a clinic on how it could be done. None are almost two-years long!
Inestimable energy, resources and oomph are drained over this elongated process. Right-wingers and left-wingers end up fatigued and simply begging for the process to be over. Make it shorter. Everyone wins.
No Public Office While Running for President
No one should be permitted to run for President while they hold public office.
You heard me correctly. No public office. You can hold public office before you decide to run for president and afterward too, but not while running.
Obviously, public office could propel one’s candidacy a great deal. But too many people lose out when you are holding office and run for President.
Governors that are out of State for 250 days of the year, Senators that miss votes, Judges that are not on the bench are all derelict in their duties while aspiring for a greater role. It is unfair to the citizens of the state in question. It is also unethical.
Could you imagine a CEO of a Fortune 500 company missing ¾ of a year’s worth of work, still receiving a full salary and benefits, while she interviews for a more prominent position? It is absurd. So is the current system. The constituents of the state or district of the person running lose. That is why college athletes that dream of the big leagues cannot try out for the professional teams until their season is over. We should do the same.
New Term Limits
The Presidency of the United States should be one, six-year term.
Most Presidents spend the first four years of their first-term trying desperately and strategically to get re-elected. Countless resources of the Oval Office, including secret service details, the ability to leverage his role tactically and pushing policies that garner votes but do not necessarily spur the country, make the American taxpayers and citizens the suffer.
One term of six years is a sufficient time to govern and make real, direction-based choices. Further, the choices of the President can be purer and less politically motivated if the goal is to strengthen the fabric of our country and not best posture oneself to be re-elected.
No More Super Pacs
This country went a long way to reform campaign finance only to have it undone by a legal loophole. This is some of the reason why the ‘everyman’ is acting out.
I am familiar with legal loopholes. They are used all the time in all types of settings. Religious people use them to avert categories. Accountants apply them regularly to benefit the bottom line for the company. Congress uses legal loopholes to filibuster bills. Attorneys use them to aid their clients. I get it. Loopholes are great. But The SUPER PAC loophole is idiotic.
Give a nickel to any person running for office and I guarantee you an un-ending blitz of automated e-mails, texts and phone calls asking for more money. These funds are used for hiring staff, airing television commercials, private jets, lavish lunches, consultant fees and thousands of other things that remind us, the true victor of the election is the one who can amass the most spoils.
If the electoral process is about equanimity, how much money raised or spent needs to be curbed in a significant form. The Presidency cannot be accessible solely for the rich or the seasoned fundraiser. No restrictions on campaign finance can unhinge our entire electoral system.
I Pledge Allegiance
Why are we quick to sign pledges for party yet, painfully silent on pledges of civility?
Republican candidates, worried about a splinter cell that would divide the party and cost the election (think Ross Perot) encouraged all of those seeking the Presidency in 2016 to sign a pledge that if they were not the nominee, they would support whoever the nominee of the party would be in the general election. All the candidates signed the pledge.
The debates of nasty rhetoric and yelling over one another have become commonplace. It feels more like a WWE match than interviewing for the most important job in the free world. Heck, one candidate even boasted about the size of his manhood. But, few have bragged about the magnanimity of their heart.
I am embarrassed that my kids are spectators sitting by my side during this election process. They have deduced in the snippets and glances that have been the focus of attention for the past 12 months, that bullying works. They learned that saying something outrageous gets you free airtime. They absorbed that deriding someone will garner more attention than being kind.
That is the very opposite of every value and ethic I have tried to instill as a parent.
I want my kids to lead, not follow. I want my kids to defend victims and push back on bullies. I have told my kids to ignore the attention seeker and to use kind words. I have reminded them to try to pursue the good in every situation. This election has made my job as a parent exponentially harder. We have to require candidates to sign pledges of respect. Civility should trump, ahem, pledges to party.
Democracy is not a sideline sport. The trends I am watching unfold before my eyes threaten more than an electoral cycle. They threaten the very democracy we claim to protect.
This election will pass. But, if we do not make serious and bold changes to overhaul this process, we will watch this movie again. I am afraid to see the ending of this show. I cannot imagine walking into the theater for the sequel!
America has always been made of courageous leaders. Courage requires us to break from that which we are familiar and take new steps for a better future. I cast a vote for change - not the person - but the concept.
Lets start with these steps.
The news of Justice Scalia’s death hit the airwaves around sunset Saturday night. Before his family could process his unexpected passing, his still warm body was turned into a political football.
A Republican debate – scheduled months before Justice Scalia’s death – began with a moment of silence to his memory. But when the candidates took their place behind the podium it was as if they heard a bell ring and the gloves came off. Reverence was replaced with rhetoric; moments of silence with political opportunity.
As a United States citizen, I was appalled. What has our society devolved toward?
To be fair, I would be labeled by most as a Democrat, but never by me. I try not to use labels. I find they only divide and rarely unify.
One reason some would brand me with that tag is because I regularly find myself disagreeing with many of the opinions and dissents of Justice Scalia. Still, he was a brilliant jurist. In addition, he was well known for having a sharp, quick and sophisticated sense of humor along with an unbridled love for his family and this country. While Justice Scalia disagreed with many, he was never rude, dismissive or obnoxious. In fact, one of the greatest tributes to surface after his death was from his fellow jurist and opera buddy, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She and Scalia found themselves on the same sides of Supreme Court opinions about as often as a solar eclipse occurs. Even so, they had a deep seeded respect for each other’s thought processes and a shared love of the law. Where has that level of commonality gone?
I grew up in the ‘80s. As a prepubescent kid with an elementary understanding of politics, I could vividly remember the impact of Tip O'Neill, then Democratic Speaker of the House, and Ronald Reagan, then Republican President, working together on all issues and even breaking bread in public often, in what was obviously a public display of camaraderie. That simple gesture let the world know that while politically O'Neill and Reagan might be separated, that is where the division begins and ends. It modeled to the world that our differences need not be personal. It demonstrated that core values and mutual respect are more important than voting records.
Bible thumping candidates for president should be familiar with the Book of Ecclesiastes. In Chapter 3 of that Good Book, it teaches that there is a time for season. The notion is so timeless, The Byrds put the words to melody in a song that came to characterize the landscape of the 1960’s.
“There is a time for dancing and a time for standing still; a time for crying and a time for laughter. There is a time for being born and a time for dying.”
This time in our nation should be a moment of mourning. Flags should be lowered to half-mast. A brilliant jurist, a devout Christian, a loving husband, an adored father of 9 children and 28 grandchildren, a civil servant and respected Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States for 30 years has died. Let us rent our clothes and mourn his loss properly. Allow time for his family and colleagues to grieve. Let us inter him with the respect and dignity of his faith. Allow us to celebrate his achievements and begin the process of cementing his legacy. After those things occur, we can transition to seeking a suitable replacement and deliberating the qualifications for such person.
What thick hypocrisy for candidates on both sides to claim our country was founded on values and morals yet be devoid of those values when it comes to political opportunity. Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions each have mile-markers of mourning that bring people on a journey. Time is the shared ingredient for all faiths while on that course.
Justice Scalia’s body is not yet cold. Nevertheless, politicians and pundits alike are plotting the next steps and political ramifications. I find that behavior abhorrent and akin to family members standing around a loved one in the hospital bed as the doctor pronounces the time of death, and instantly they stoop into a fight over inheritances. It is tactless, insensitive and uncouth. We should be ashamed.
If we 'want to make America great again’ then we better start matching our conduct with our slogans. Otherwise, the ones ranting about our demise are ironically the very ones accelerating it.
May Justice Scalia’s memory be a blessing. May his family find comfort in his life and his achievements and the support of a grateful nation. May he forever rest in peace.
Originally Published at The Huffington Post
When my children were born, they each represented perfection to me: ten fingers and ten toes, good APGAR scores and a wail that was music to my ears. However, it did not take long for the initial bliss to turn towards more challenging moments that, while minimizing the perceived perfection, never diminished my wife’s and my love for these amazing people. Whether sleepless nights, car sickness, colic or, with time and maturation, one’s child proving to be a non-typical learner or demonstrating some physical, emotional or mental challenge, parents quickly learn that this sense of perfection is fleeting. And yet, regardless of their imperfections, we continue to find both beauty and reward.
Last week in the cycle of Torah reading we read Parshat Yitro, immediately followed this week by Mishpatim. The succession of these portions tie together revelation at Sinai, the laws on stone that are received and the values and laws we are to follow each day. In summary, we receive 10 commandments that serve as an emblem for all of the laws we keep: those between humans and God and those between humans and their fellow humans. Most of us who have read ahead know well that in Parshat Ki Tisa (Ex 32:19) Moses breaks the tablets in a fit of rage when he sees the Israelites, led by his siblings, worshiping a golden calf. The Israelite people never get a chance to see the tablets whole and learn them, understand them or incorporate them into their lives. They really only know the tablets shattered in pieces and broken.
In the world in which we live, perfection is something too many strive for in every arena possible. SAT scores, GPAs, sports, home décor, cars, clothes and technology all need to be “perfect” to be maximized. But is there really such thing as “perfect”? And, if so, how long can perfection last?
Judaism is a religion where we demonstrate that nothing is perfect. On Passover we pour out from our cups so they will not overflow and we eat broken bread. On Rosh Hashanah we hear the broken sounds of the ram’s horn. On Sukkot we dwell in a temporary and non-sturdy hut. At a Jewish wedding we conclude the ceremony with the breaking of the glass. I always tell couples who are getting married that we shatter the glass to represent that while a wedding can feel like elation and perfection, the life that follows is not always that way. The days ahead will have brokenness within them. Our role is to take each broken piece and make a mosaic that becomes the beautiful pattern of our life. It is through the broken pieces and the mosaic we create from it that we can find our personal perfection.
Moses’ breaking of the tablets before the laws even had time to be a part of the Israelite nation is a critical lesson to our people today. It reminds us that each person is broken, un-whole and imperfect in one way or another. I cannot think of a more valuable lesson in being Jewish today.
This year, Parshat Mishpatim is read on the first Shabbat of February, Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. Non-typical learners and those living with physical challenges are the embodiment of the beauty of imperfections. Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that the single most important thing to know about God is not God’s perfection, but God’s care for the world. Our role in partnering with God is to ensure that all people are a part of our shared future; and through the brokenness of tablets or glass we will make a beautiful mosaic of our shared Jewish future.
The purpose of this letter is two-fold: to thank you and to challenge you.
After spending this past week in Israel with each of you, future rabbis in each denomination, I am optimistic for tomorrow . I am buoyed by your deep and thoughtful commitment to Israel and your unique gifts that will help direct the Jewish people on a path to make the world a better place.
Each one of you is smart, kind, sophisticated and empathetic, which are core ingredients to a successful rabbinate. Thank you for reinforcing my faith in the future of the Jewish people.
We were greeted in Israel 7 days ago, with a short phrase, ‘It is complicated here.’ That phrase would prove to be a foreshadowing, because it was reiterated at each visit we made by speakers on the political left, right and center and even the people with little skin in the political game.
From Peace Now to proud members of the Settlement community, from discussions on the permissibility of Jews and Muslims on the Temple Mount to religious pluralism throughout the land, from civil marriage conversations to the plight of refugees and challenges for the LGBTQ community, from Saeb Erekat to Michael Oren — this place, these issues, this history, the narrative we inherit and the narrative we create, are all complicated.
Complicated, as a concept, is something we are quickly abandoning in place of simple, linear and monochromatic models. Fast answers, less research, more sound bites, staccato statements, reports limited to 140 characters all make the task of description much more challenging.
Can any of you explain the almost 70-year Israel — Palestine conflict in a Tweet? Can the tug of emotions experienced near Bethlehem at the Rachel Border crossing of embarrassment for the dehumanizing conditions Palestinians must endure to come and work in Israel, but satisfaction these measures keep Israelis safe, be limited to an elevator speech? How can one boil down the positions of the Meretz AND the Likud members of Knesset and explain those distinctions at the coffee house?
This amazing place called Israel is indeed complicated. But, what thing that is good, that matters in our life is not complicated? As Jimmy Duggan said in the movie, A League of Their Own, “It is the hard that makes it great. If it were easy, everyone would do it.”
Love is complicated yet, it doesn’t stop me from engaging in relationships. Judaism is complicated, but that has not interfered with my faith. Politics are complicated, but that will not stop me from exercising my right to vote. Life is complicated, but that has not stopped me from sucking out the marrow of what it has to offer.
Israel is complicated too. Please do not let it inhibit you from being an important thread that is integral to the tapestry of this sacred place.
You have chosen a career and dedicated the balance of your life to teaching Torah and modeling its values. Torah begins to breathe life when Rashi is taught next to the verses. The rabbis, influenced by the time and social climate of where and when they lived, brought color to the laws we follow today with personal interpretations and particular analyses. Our text gains meaning when we better understand the context from where it comes. We have a rich history that has used endless resources to embrace that which is complicated. Our ancestors have done an amazing job of bringing nuance to our shared history. Can we do the same with our shared future?
As you take the next steps in your lives and prepare to enter the leadership ranks of the Jewish communal world, teach the Rashi, so to speak. Embrace the complicated and nuanced when it comes to this land called Israel. Do not be bullied by those that want you to share their absolute and simple view of the situation, regardless of their side of the aisle. Try hard to listen to those around you and to make them feel heard. Just as your theology and personal practice has, and will continue to modulate over time, so too can your thoughts on Israel change, so long as your love is unconditional.
Simple is good sometimes for some situations. So is complicated. Do not shy away from it. Grab on to it tightly. ‘Complicated’ is the bedrock of our past. It should be a vital part of our future too.
Chapter 90 of Psalms ask God for support so that the work of our hands do good in the world. I pray that God partner with all of you to add meaning for those that seek and to start the challenging and rewarding process of unpacking the complicated in the communities that will be blessed to have your leadership.
May you go from strength to strength.
Your colleague and friend,
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner
The AIPAC Leffell Israel Fellowship is a two-year program for rabbinical students from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox seminaries. The fellowship deepens rabbinical students’ understanding of modern Israel, the US-Israel relationship and its place in the rabbinate through education, advocacy and mentorship. This program is made possible thanks to the beneficence of the Lisa and Michael Leffell Foundation.
Poor Steve Harvey. Last Sunday night, while hosting the Miss Universe contest, he mistakenly announced the wrong winner, crowning Miss Colombia Miss Universe when he should have had called for the tiara to be placed on Miss Philippines.
Harvey learned of his mistake, sheepishly walked back on stage and said he had to apologize. He went on to take full and complete responsibility for the incident. He did not blame the teleprompter, the strange verbiage on the card in his hand or some underling producer. He put it all on his shoulders, even if it did not squarely belong there.
Who is old enough to read these words and has not made a mistake? Who does not have a moment or two or three hundred that play over and over on the theater in our mind’s eye, where we are riddled with regret, misstep, error or blunder? Who does not wish for a magical remote control that would enable us to hit pause, rewind and re-do. Life transpires in real time and mistakes happen. All the time. For all of us. No one is immune to it. Not even The Donald or Steve Harvey.
How we handle mistakes defines our character more than the mistake itself. To prove that true, look at the spectrum of reactions to Harvey’s bungled moment. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were inundated with jokes and jabs pointed at the TV host and comedian. News anchors cringed when re-telling the story, as if they had never made a mistake and are insusceptible to misspeaking on camera. Even celebrities chimed in with trending hashtags to poke fun at another in their ranks.
This is all another sad example of a technology that works at a faster pace than our morality. Remember Tyler Clementi, the closeted gay freshman that was outed by a remote video camera operated by Dharun Ravi, his roommate of only a few days? Clementi was shamed and embarrassed to the point where he jumped from the George Washington Bridge. He hoped his new life in heaven would afford him a slate without viral judgments, courtesy of the Internet. He had hoped that his coming out would occur on his terms, not others’. It didn’t. That invasion and rape of his privacy and abuse of ethics led to his death.
What is crazy is that Ravi knew well how to operate a video camera remotely from his computer, but he did not know the moral code regarding another person’s privacy and proper boundaries. This is just another example proving technology moves faster than morality.
I am steering my kids away from the social media’s response to Harvey. As a whole, it is devoid of the values I want to model and celebrate. Overall, it is cheap and unfair. I think you should steer away from it too.
What parent does not want their kids to own up to mistakes? Who does not want their kids to take responsibility? To apologize for trouble they have caused or an mistake made, especially unintentional mistakes? Harvey did everything that we teach our kids to do. He does what any responsible person — whether leading a country or hosting a game show — should do. Does it really deserve to be the target of the malicious and viral social media world when instead it could be an equally contagious clinic of how to handle a slip-up? Shouldn’t we be praising him instead of scolding him? Couldn’t Harvey be our poster boy for integrity instead of being the target of callous one-liners and wisecracks?
The Talmud and all of rabbinic literature are thick with samples to distinguish between acts that are be-shgaga versus be-mayzeed — unintentional versus intentional acts. The person that eats non-kosher meat thinking it is kosher, the person that profanes Shabbat not knowing the candles were kindled, the person that eats on Yom Kippur forgetting that it was the holiday are categorically different than the person who does any of these acts intentionally or without heed to law, rule or fear of God. This underscores the notion that our tradition is as accepting of mistakes as it is with rainfall: they both happen often and, many times, beyond our control. How we respond to such mistakes is what matters.
When choosing a path for my kids to follow, I’d much rather take a page from our Talmud or Steve Harvey’s book of life than follow any of these quick-draw and mean-spirited cynics, cowardly hiding in the world of social media. Harvey’s book, like our tradition, is rich with real experiences, honest characters, and responsible moments. That is the standard I want my children to be inspired by. If not, I tremble for the world they will inherit.
Last week, Haaretz, the liberal leaning Israeli newspaper hosted a conference of other NGOs and governmental leaders and political pundits in Manhattan to discuss Israel: its challenges and opportunities.
President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin was in New York and spoke at the event. So did US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power as well as representatives from other organizations. But, the friction ignited when Saeb Erekat, an invited guest speaker, refused to address the plenary while the Israeli flag waved on the podium behind him.
I was not at the event. I was not invited to attend. I did not witness the event first hand.
My understanding is that stage hands went on stage and removed the flag before Erekat was introduced and ascended to the podium.
Upon hearing this, I was confused and then enraged.
I posed a question on social media with sincerity and earnestness trying to unpack the situation. I asked (clearly stating my curiosity and not my intent to be adversarial or instigating), what happened and why.
The only two replies I received, both from respected colleagues were:
1) This was not an official conference sponsored by the State of Israel.
2) The other stated, “Why would one of the leaders of the Palestinian Authority stand behind a flag of a country that ‘occupies’ his people?”
Have you ever been so upset or frustrated that words escape you? Even for a pretty articulate fellow, I find myself unsuccessfully searching for words that match my emotions.
According to the United Nations and it protocols on flags, each member state of the UN is entitled to a flag to be flown, and when displayed at the United Nations, it should be ordered based on English alphabetical order. In essence, a flag is to statehood what a heartbeat and breath is to life.
Saeb Erekat, as part of systematic and long-term delegitimizing efforts towards the state of Israel, tried to take that emblem, state-hood and very life away. Sadly, Israel supporters stood by silently when it happened. Regardless of whether you are conservative or liberal, a hawk or a dove, the flag of a nation that represents its right to breath and exist, need not be questioned.
Take your memory for a jog with me to the years, 2007 and 2008. Ariel Sharon suffered a crippling stroke and Ehud Olmert assumed responsibilities as Israel’s Premier. We know today from Condoleezza Rice and Mahmoud Abbas himself, that Olmert made fantastic concessions towards ending the decades long conflict with the Palestinians.
Ignore the overtures and offers for a moment and focus on the photo opportunity. When Olmert met with Abbas during these years for official talks, mainly in Jerusalem, Olmert insisted that the Palestinian flag be waiving in the background next to and equal to the Israeli flag. He did this at every official meeting and photo opportunity. Bear in mind, in those years, the Palestinian Authority had no role at the United Nations. It did not even hold, Observer State Status until less than 3 years ago. Still, Olmert, in an effort to create equanimity and peace, had the Palestinian flag in the backdrop, (see pictures on inset).
I have been biting my tongue for so long, I am afraid I might have a hole in it, but I cannot hold back any longer. I feel compelled to respond to the opinions of Rabbi Boteach, a frequent columnist in this paper.
I do not know Rabbi Boteach on a personal level. My umbrage is purely based on what I have read over the course of many years in this publication.
I cherish the notion that in healthy communities, we can share differing views on politics, religion, sports allegiance, or what have you, and be celebrated amongst the many faces that make up our rich and diverse Jewish society. However, when we do have topics on which we differ, there is a way we can share a thought without denigrating others in the process. To me, that is the crime Rabbi Boteach commits far too often.
Rabbi Boteach’s ad hominem attacks, nasty tone, and name-calling in countless articles and full page advertisements, toward the likes of the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Powers; the chair of the Democratic National Committee, the proud Jewish leader, Debbie Wasserman Schultz; the U.S. security adviser, Susan Rice, and way too many more to list — although overwhelmingly they are women — causes me to cringe.
I, like Rabbi Boteach, am firmly against the recent deal brokered with Iran. I believe it is not in the United State’s best interests and also does not serve the interests of our allies in the Middle East — most notably, Israel. There are those who take a different view, for many reason. Their opposition, however, does not make them pariahs. Their struggles and their eventual conclusion, which falls on the other side of the ledger, should not categorize them as anti-Semitic or failing the Jewish people and state. Their decision should not be dismissed as purely emotional and without substance. That decision is just another opinion — and not the opinion that either Rabbi Boteach, or in this case, I hold.
Rabbi Boteach likes to refer to himself as “America’s rabbi.” He can call himself whatever he pleases. But surely he should know when he calls himself rabbi, it would behoove him to demonstrate finer rabbinic standards, like those of Hillel and Shammai, or any of the myriad of rabbis in mishnaic and talmudic literature. Our tradition is replete with disagreements and rich with passionate opinions, but it is limited in its name calling.
Focusing on the “America’s” part of Rabbi Boteach’s nickname, it would correspondingly befit him to demonstrate the core tenet that this country was founded upon: Equality for all of its citizens, even those with whom we disagree.
In a great display of irony, Rabbi Boteach serves as the executive director of This World: The Values Network. According to its website, This World is an “organization that seeks to bring Jewish values to mainstream culture.” I am mystified about how the rabbinic head of such a body could behave in a way that seems not in consonance with the values and morals it claims to espouse, and that are core to our religion and country. Even last week, the rabbi advocated for AIPAC to have been more ruthless toward members of Congress to achieve their goals. That is ridiculous!
Perhaps the most dangerous part of Rabbi Boteach’s approach, though, is politicizing Israel. Trying to turn the 67-year history of bipartisan support for Israel into a political football that will further divide the political parties and make support for our homeland contingent on the letter following a politician’s name could pose a greater existential threat to the land he and I both love then a nuclear Iran or an armed Hezbollah would.
Support of Israel should live on both sides of the aisle and should be strong and resolute because of our shared values and strategic interests. The other reasons to support Israel are gravy!
The Talmud specifically teaches that the living God has many voices. Not knowing what God wants is my definition of pluralism. So is the license to hear things I disagree with, and to treat the people that share them with respect and kindness.
Sadly, Rabbi Boteach seems to have taken a different approach. He appears to practice the idea that for him to be right, everyone else must be wrong. And the more loudly it is said, and the more severely, the more correct it is.
While it is Rabbi Boteach’s prerogative to act and attach as he chooses, I would claim that attitude to be uncouth, unwise, and un-Jewish.
The paradox of Judaism is that the religion unites us as a tribe but the core of our tribalism is rooted in a sense of diversity and variety. There are differences that divide Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Orthodox and Reform, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative. Yet all of them — all of us — have a place in our tent.
When Rabbi Boteach puts people who do not share his world or his political or religious views in his crosshairs, with coarse rhetoric and personal assaults, he goes against the very values (ahem) of our people and repudiates his own claim to being ‘America’s Rabbi.’
Shmuely, please share your opinions thoughts and passions. It is what makes the world go ‘round. Just, please, do it nicely! It is the both the American and the rabbinic way!
On Wednesday morning, October 21, 2015, a delegation of twenty Jewish and Christian leaders met with members of Secretary General’s office at the United Nations. They requested this meeting given the language the Secretary General employed in describing “Israel’s use of excessive force” in his response to the escalating violence this week.
A formal letter of protest was presented to express their profound disagreement with his characterization of the situation. The letter stated:
Every member state has legitimate right of self-defense in the face of wanton terrorism. Sadly, the United Nations does not grant this moral right to Israel and consistently sees Palestinians as victims and Israelis as aggressors. This morally bankrupt stance contravenes the human rights principles upon which the United Nations was founded.
Contrary to the wrongful assertions that violence is attributable to “the longstanding occupation” and “the lack of a political horizon,” it is clearly hate speech coupled with incitement which create this bloody climate of conflict.
As Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis strongly articulated, “ The murder of innocent Israelis must be fully condemned by the Secretary General without equivocation or statements of moral equivalence which fail to distinguish between victim and aggressor. Disputes about land should be resolved at a peace table, not through shootings and stabbings in the streets.”
Furthermore, the letter read:
“We also ask, Mr. Secretary General, that you take note that the attacks are taking place in areas of Bersheva, communities over the Green Line, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Petah Tikva, Afula, Kiryat Gat and Ra'anana, which have no geographical connection to so called land settlements.”
The Secretary General’s staff expressed both an openness to the group’s criticisms of recent statements and were receptive to their discussion of matters of mutual concerns. They indicated their willingness to reexamine recent statements in light of the opinions shared by the group.
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, President of the New York Board of Rabbis said that, “I am very proud of the NYBR’s leaders in setting up this important meeting and was refreshed by the receptivity of the Secretary General’s staff to our efforts. We hope that this is the beginning of a process to strengthen the dialogue between the Jewish and Christian communities and the United Nations, and will lead to the safety of Israeli citizens in the streets as well as further legitimizing Israel’s place amongst its brothers and sisters in the Family of Nations.”
Dr. Paul de Vries, President of the New York Divinity School, affirmed, “Christian leaders stood as one with Jewish leaders insisting that public statements asserting moral equivalence of street terrorists with legitimate government need to stop. As long as the United Nations' leaders try to be ‘nice’ to everyone, the will tarnish the UN principles and also multiply the chaos and the killings.”
The group requested that both organizations work collaboratively to strengthen the lines of communications between them. The delegation also asked for a meeting with the Secretary General upon his return to New York.
Midrash is a rabbinic commentary on the bible that clarifies legal points so that we can derive lessons through literary devices. We use stories, parables, and legends to help understand, fully appreciate, and apply how it is that things happened in our tradition.
The most beautiful thing about a Midrash is that it is open to anybody. Anyone can write a Midrash at any time to offer an understanding of their choosing on any situation in the Torah. Here’s my Midrash about a special animal called the Muzar.
Have you ever heard about an animal called a Muzar? Probably not. It does not exist anymore, but it used to. It did not go extinct – at least not in the way we think of animals going extinct in modern times. It stopped existing after the Flood.
The Muzar was a unique animal. It was a little strange, a little different. But isn’t every animal a little strange, and a little different? A giraffe has an unusually long neck. The elephant is endowed with a giant nose. The penguin is oddly shaped walks with a waddle. All animals are “different” in some way or another.
The Muzar was an animal that kind of looked like a monkey but could also fly. It didn’t have hair and it didn’t have skin visible to the eye. Rather, it had feathers like a bird and it walked like an ape. And while its face was quite similar to a monkey, it had one unique characteristic that made it very different; the Muzar had eyes in the back of its head. So when the Muzar wanted to face people as they interacted with one another, it turned its body with its back facing the subject so it could see whom it was talking towards. This was the story of the Muzar.
God tells Noah there is going to be a terrible flood. Noah is commanded to gather all of the animals, all of the living flesh and put them on this ark. All of them. So Noah does exactly as God tells him. He starts building the ark and gathers all the animals together. And they start boarding one by one.
There are the elephants, hippos, orangutans, lions and bears; there are penguins and giraffes, husbands and wives, passports and tickets in hand, toting their luggage, one asking the other did you remember to turn off the lights? Did you remember to pack the underwear?
As the animals are entering the ark they pass, standing by the door, guards – bouncers of sorts. On the left is the snake, the lowest animal of all, an animal angry for being punished for tempting Eve to eat the fruit that we read about in the parsha of Bereishit. And on the other side of the door is the giraffe, the tallest animal of all, who’s frustrated because no one can see eye to eye with the giraffe.
The Muzar begins to make his way into the ark and the snake says, “Hold on, just a second. The invitation calls for all animals, but you are not really animal-like. You are more like a bird, you have feathers. You don’t have hair or skin. I want you to stay right here.”
The Muzar replies, “I am like other animals. There are other animals that don’t have skin, they have feathers.”
The snake retorts, “Yeah, but those animals are different in nature.”
“Yes,” says the giraffe, “when they talk to you they look at you. You turn your back to us when you talk. We don’t like the way that you are.”
So the snake and giraffe hold all of the Muzars off to the side of the ramp to the ark.
Noah stands up and cries out, “All aboard!” The snake and the giraffe close the door to the ark and it sets sail, leaving the Muzars outside. The flood came. It rained, ahem, ‘cats and dogs’ for 40 days. After those 40 days the dove flew out with an olive branch and all that was on the ark continued to live. Everything on the ark continued to live. But everything that was not on the ark ceased to exist. And that is the very reason why you have never heard of the animal called the Muzar, because the giraffe and the snake decided that the Muzar could not get on the boat.
There are a lot of things wrong in this story, this Midrash, that I share with you. The snake was wrong for not allowing the Muzar on the boat. The giraffe was wrong for not realizing it was not up to him and the snake to decide who was getting on the boat and who wasn’t. Noah was wrong for not making a roll call before he set sail. And all of the other animals, from the hippopotamus, elephant and the dove, to the lion, bears, aardvark and the porcupines, were wrong for not saying to the snake and the giraffe, “Let the Muzars on the boat.” Even if they weren’t by the boarding door, they were wrong for not saying, “Where is the Muzar? Where did he go? We can’t leave without the Muzar. There is only one ark setting sail for all living flesh.”
When the ark was loaded with animals the criteria for getting on board was simple; Living creatures of God. Animals of all kinds. Some could swim and others could fly. Still others could float while some actually repelled the water. But all were different and all were on the boat.
In our world, there seems to be more and more places where less room is made for the long-necked, the strange-nosed, the different-colored, the non-typical learner and anyone that might not fit the mold of “normal” or “standard.” Since when is being different a criteria for non-inclusion? Aren’t we all different and unique, but linked in the notion that is the foundation of our Torah; that we are all created in God’s image? This is one of the key principles that makes me proud of my religion and allows me to embrace its values.
Let this portion of Noah be a reminder to all of us, to ALL get on board and make place for everyone to be a part of our heritage. Weathering the storm or enjoying the rainbow, we all have a role and a place in our future and no one animal has the right to deny anyone a place in our world.
Be kind to the stranger because you were strangers in a strange land. Be a light unto the nations. Love your neighbor as you would yourself. Do not sit idly by when your neighbor’s life is threatened.
These are more than Biblical verses. These are the core values of Judaism and the rebar that has helped shape generations of Jewish leaders, thinkers and followers. It is these verses and values that served as the blueprint for the establishment of the Jewish State. It is these verses that stoke us to load planes full of medicine and supplies to earthquake-hit cities and tsunami ravaged towns. This has been the secret sauce of the Jewish State and its people. More than a free press, being a creative technology or even a lone democratic state amongst its dictatorial neighbors, Tiqqun Olam – Making the world a better place – when tragedy or crisis strikes has been our most potent calling card.
Sadly, the bell has rung but we are not responding the way in which we have been fashioned: our reflex is to react and we are sitting still. Woe to us.
A young lifeless body washed up on the shore of Turkey last week. The picture is haunting and it tells a painful story. It is not a new story, just a story for this time. In the 1980s that boy’s name would be Yevgeny and he would be from Kosovo. In 1995 that boy’s name would be Ndugu, and he from Rwanda. Were it 1939 that boy’s name would be Shmuel, from Eastern Europe. It is 2015 and his name is Aylan, a Kurdish refugee seeking safety from war-torn Syria. He is one of too many innocent casualties in the war that has claimed close to a quarter of a million lives of his brethren. Thousands other, more fortunate than Aylan, have escaped through the border with only the clothes on their back and, of course, pictures. We all flee with pictures because they are tangible memories that remind us our dreams and even nightmares did happen. These refugees are simply looking to start anew wherever they can. We must help.
Our neighbor is in need and it is time for us to be that light unto the nations. We cannot sit idly by. We know what it was like to be forsaken and foreigners. These are more than verses in our history. They are mandates for our present.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, if indeed you speak for all Jews, act as our shared tradition instructs us and open our gates to those that seek refuge. Whether it be eighteen or one hundred eighty or one hundred eighty thousand… But open the gate and demonstrate to the world the beacon that guides us. That light can disinfect those that seek to hate us and call for our destruction. That light will show the way for other leaders and countries and citizens to follow. That light can write a new narrative of hope and partnership that will blind out the past stories of hate and animosity.
Make this a time where the verses that founded us yesterday inspire the values that fuel us today.
Be a light unto the nations.
Apple is offering a new product called Apple Music. It’s a modern-day jukebox where you can listen to and download music of your liking. Its secret sauce is a simple heart-shaped button that demarcates you like any particular song downloaded or playing. Apple thinks that marking between 30 to 40 songs will enable the machine to apply some musical algorithm to determine other songs you would enjoy.
While the technology is neat, I resent the implication. How could any machine know my eclectic and diverse tastes in music from such a small sampling? Is it not possible for me to enjoy Sting and Vivaldi? Kenny Loggins and U2? Duran Duran and Gwen Stefani?
One of the sadder and more ironic parts of today’s world is that we are the most individualized and self-centric society in the history of the world, yet we are easily categorized into camps based on simple and mundane choices. I hate that.
In an example of such categorization, U.S. President Barack Obama said last week that those who oppose the deal brokered by the United States with Iran are no different than the radical mullahs that also want to derail the agreement, and he suggests anyone who doesn’t like the deal would rather go to war. The president’s sentiment hurt me, personally. In a strange analogy, I felt like he was saying if I enjoy listening to rap, there is no way I could appreciate classical music.
Mr. President, please don’t paint me in monochromatic colors.
For the record, I think the Iran deal is a bad deal. I reached this conclusion with more high level briefings and updates than most, and less than some, along with long hours of personal soul searching.
This deal indeed has many meritorious components that I do not take for granted:
On the top of the list is brokering a treaty that a heavy-water reactor at Arak be dismantled and filled with concrete, so that it produces much less – if any – plutonium. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry explained in a briefing I attended, bombing Arak would be difficult for serious fear of nuclear fallout.
This deal also limits uranium enrichment for 15 years if Iran obeys the guidelines.
And, the agreement adds the number of inspectors on the ground for that time to ensure compliance.
But the bad outweighs the good, in my opinion:
The release of some $100 billion in Iranian bank accounts overseas that were hitherto frozen is beyond worrisome, since Iran is one of the largest state sponsors of terror in the world. Funneling even a fraction of that sum to the streets of Gaza or inside Hezbollah strongholds can go a very long way and will have grave consequences.
The eventual removal of all arms embargoes on Iran is of paramount concern. Allowing a felon with no remorse access to the artillery cabinet is a perilous proposition, especially with added funds to make purchases. Surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft machinery and the like would make any military option against Iran all the more challenging regardless of capabilities.
Most problematic is that after 10 to 15 years, the physical constraints on fissile material production in Iran at declared facilities and most of the specialized verification and enforcement provisions of the agreement expire. Then, Iran could quickly grow its nuclear capabilities within a few years to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons, whether at declared or secret facilities, making it a nuclear-threshold state. The older I get, the faster 15 years happens.
Lastly, history has told us Iran is not to be trusted. Its rhetoric and double speak is only one instance of its commitment to terror instead of peace. Thus, brokering a deal with Iran based on trust is tantamount to asking Bernie Madoff to be secretary of the treasury!
Mr. President, just because I oppose this deal does not make me like a mullah or a warmonger. In fact, it doesn’t even make me a Republican. It makes me an American who respectfully disagrees with you and the administration on this topic.
There were many decisions and occurrences under this administration that I celebrated. When the Supreme Court passed in favor of marriage equality, confirmed health care for all in need and championed a clean energy revolution, I was proud as an American and proud of you, Mr. President, for these achievements. Woe to our future if disagreements classify us in defined camps.
It feels unfair to be painted in a monochromatic brush, even as a tactic to persuade fellow party members and supporters to follow the crowd. Real leaders stand up when they disagree on principal, even if it is against the grain of their party’s politics.
Instead, I would prefer that you, Mr. President, dip your quill into the vivid and colorful palette that comprises this splendid country; citizens of different races, creeds, colors, orientations, genders, passions and beliefs.
To melt those many hues into two simple colors and two defined camps is the greatest threat to us all.
Benjamin Netanyahu is the winner of the most recent election in Israel. Odds are on his side to build a coalition and continue his premiership. I wish him well. But many are still gargling to get the yucky taste out of their mouth.
This afternoon, I saw the most magnificent stars in the sky. You might ask, how could we see stars in the afternoon? Doesn’t nightfall bring out the stars? Ordinarily, you would be right. But the stars we saw were not ordinary at all. They were extraordinary!
Our Temple Emanu-El returners trip (2.0) to Israel was fortunate to gain entrance this afternoon to graduation ceremonies for the Israeli Air Force pilots. 33 young men and one young woman earned their wings to fly and protect our shared homeland. At the end of the ceremony, loaded with pageantry and dignitaries, an impressive airshow took place showcasing the oldest and newest planes of Israel and their capabilities. Sitting in the outdoor amphitheater, looking skyward we saw aircraft of all shapes and sizes; some refueling in mid-air and others doing amazing acrobatic feats. Each plane had on the underside of the wing, the Star of David, the symbol of Israel. That star was one of the most magnificent I have ever seen.
I remember the day my little girl was born, just over ten years ago. I was the first one to hold her after the doctor pulled her from my wife’s womb. Tears streamed down my face as I gazed into this little person’s squinting eyes, wrapped up like a burrito, and saw her future in the reflection of tears. At that moment, I dreamt in my mind’s eye of all of the special milestones she would celebrate. Her first steps, first words, starting school, taking the training wheels off of her bicycle, skinned knees, her Bat Mitzvah, prom dates, college visits, walking down the aisle and many more special times. I imagine many people with kids have had similar experiences.
However, when in my arms, just a few minutes into her life and even as recent as last week, I never anticipated the rite of passage of my daughter reaching the appropriate age to visit Yad Vashem; Israel’s Memorial to the fallen of the Holocaust.
Our daughter is a precocious kid who is very dialed into her emotions. She might be ten and half years young but emotionally she is older and more sophisticated than I am the majority of the time, even to the less biased observer. My wife and I discussed this junction at length and we agreed that the choice would be hers to make as to whether she would visit. Just because she could did not mean she had to. We put no pressure on her verdict. Our daughter chose to go to Yad Vashem.
As she strolled through the halls of the museum, captivated with the photos, videos, testimonies and history, I saw a girl who is usually talkative and full of energy fidgeting with her lip and noticeably pensive. She, like most adults, had many more questions than answers. She was trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.
When the tour ended with a personal story from the museum docent about his parents, adults wiped tears from their cheeks. My daughter was stoic and non-emotive. Was this one of those rare moments where she was a pure ten year old and not the mature, high-level person I was used to, I wondered?
Now my curiosity got the best of me. Did we make a mistake by allowing her to visit the museum? Was she not ready? Did she not “get it?” Was she more focused on iPads and music? All of that would be fine too, but I was second-guessing our decision to take the training wheels off and allow her to begin this important ride down history’s road concerning our past.
I delicately tried to pry some thoughts and emotions out of this usually talkative prepubescent girl for the hours and days that ensued. She was buttoned up – a strange phenomenon for ANY ten-year-old girl, especially mine. I made no progress. Finally, out of sheer frustration, I pulled the headphones from her ears and blurted out over Taylor Swift playing in the background, “Honey, did you understand anything that you saw at Yad Vashem yesterday? Do you have any questions? You haven’t said a word about it?!”
She replied as only she could.
“Dad, the Holocaust was horrible and really sad but, when we were here in Israel this summer lots of people died during the war and the sirens and hiding in shelters was really sad and scary too. And going to Har Herzl, the military cemetery where so many soldiers died for Israel is really sad too. And dad, you are always talking on the phone about Iran not getting a bomb and I know it is because they could hurt Israel with that bomb. So what is different between Iran and Hamas and the Nazis? Don’t they all want to hurt Jews and Israel? The Holocaust was bad and sad but so are all of these other things.”
She then put her headphones back on her head and picked up with Taylor Swift where she left off.
I, on the other hand, felt like I had the wind sucked from my gut. She summed up a reality that we all know but perhaps are afraid most times to admit.
Indeed, the magnitude of the Holocaust is unparalleled. The scope of the atrocities and systemized killing of communities and Jewish families is beyond comprehension. Yet, for this little girl, the holocaust is as removed from her history as the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492. She doesn’t know Holocaust survivors. They are not her teachers in schools or sitting near her in shule. They are historical figures. They are in no way real-life, modern people in her neighborhood.
When I was ten, I grew up looking at every old person’s forearm for tattooed blue numbers. For my daughter she looks for a dangling Hamsa and red-stringed bracelets. She did not grow up in the wake of the survivor’s generation, like I and most of the readers of this column did. 1945, while yesterday for some, is a long, time ago to her and her peers.
So, what she is really saying is, why is the challenge of that generation so much harder than the challenge of this generation? Besides the magnitude and scope of the Holocaust, I had little retort. For this innocent and mature young girl, this is where her confusion was most acute. She survived sirens and lived with fear and knew of funerals for soldiers and civilians. Why isn’t there a museum to that pain and torture and death?
What my ten year old taught me through her visit to Yad Vashem is what we know but are afraid to say: Jews have always been the victims of anger and hate and are targeted for their mere existence. Whether by Zyklon B in a gas chamber or by suicide bomber on a public bus or by a terrorist sniper inside a tank in Gaza, the pain for each family member is immeasurable. The tears taste the same. We have been persecuted with different weapons throughout history. When will there be a memorial to recognize the end of that persecution against the Jews instead of the latest iteration of it?
Sadly, I have no answer for her.
Yad Vashem is a sacred place dedicated to the memory, resistance and survival of Eastern European Jewry during World War II. It is important to place wreaths in its halls and to make pilgrimages when in Israel. It is a critical piece of the modern Jewish narrative and an important building block of the Jewish state.
Through this unanticipated rite of passage for my daughter I gathered new fear and sadness in Yad Vashem. Not of the systematic killing of 6 million Jews, rather, for the fear that this memorial will lose its potency and relevance as Jews feel loss and pain today in place of remembering the suffering of yesterday.
No rabbinic prescription can console the aching hearts of those mourning the loss of Jewish life this week in Israel. Bloodied prayer shawls (talises) are indelibly painted into our memories and our fears. I wish I could rid my mind’s eye of it. I cannot!
Even rabbis can come up empty searching for words and meaning to such tragedy.
Just as every thorn is usually attached to a rose, there was a gorgeous moment within this awful episode.
When the attack in Har Nof occurred, the Police responded quickly and engaged in a fire-fight with the terrorists. One of the first responders was an officer named Zidan Saif. As his name suggests, he was not Jewish. Rather, Zidan was Druze, part of a Shia Muslim group that originate from Lebanon and Syria and today within Israel, predominantly live in the north near the Galilee. They overwhelmingly integrate into Israeli society and conscribe to the army, often making exemplary soldiers and commanders.
Zidan was shot in the head by one of the terrorists; a fellow Muslim. Though physicians tried valiantly to save his life, Zidan succumbed to his wounds later that day.
The ultra-Orthodox community is quite insular, especially in Har Nof. Most members of that community follow an understanding of tradition that forbids them from entering churches and mosques and even witnessing other religious celebrations and commemorations from near for fear others could deduce they are part of that expression of faith and would categorize them as worshiping another faith and god.
Nonetheless, throngs of buses filled with ultra-Orthodox people, many from the very community that Zidan died defending, traveled three hours north to the village of Kfar Yanouch in the Galilee. There they joined with thousands from across the nation including elected officials, to attend the Islamic-Druze funeral of Zidan and console his young wife and infant daughter.
This act reminded me of the moment this summer when Racheli Fraenkel recited the mourner’s kaddish in memory of her murdered son, Naftali. The prayer, usually said by only men in Orthodox circles, was recited in this case by a woman and before the chief rabbis of Israel. These rabbinic leaders had to quickly choose whether to follow the letter of the law and not answer her prayer, dismissing her grief, or to reply to her prayer, trumping the letter of the law for feelings and humane behavior. The rabbis made the wise decision of answering her prayer. It was considered a watershed moment in the history of the religious and national state.
Today in the north of Israel, the kindness of the ultra-Orthodox to offer consolation by attending a service they would usually keep away from is a valuable lesson and an important opportunity. It is sad that Jewish law stretches its elasticity to be more egalitarian in moments of tragedy. Perhaps that is why we call these acts, Kiddush Hashem – acts for the sanctification of God’s name. Ultimately, they bring us closer and make us more tolerant. That might be the only silver lining of this senseless tragedy.
May the souls of the murdered rabbis and Zidan Saif, be bound in Eternal Life.
May they forever rest in peace.
May those wounded have a full recovery.
May this act of unity for burial be the dawning of renewed love for all of God’s creatures.
Rabbi Kirshner recently appeared on WABC Radio’s Religion on the Line to discuss Sukkot, “The Holiday of our Happiness”
A Frenchman, a German and a Jew were wandering in the desert. All parched they craved their favorite drink.
The Frenchman proclaimed, I am thirsty, I must have a glass of wine!
The German said, I am thirsty, I must have a frothy beer!
The Jew said, I am thirsty, I must have diabetes!
Jews are a worrying lot. We often are consumed by fear and see our glasses of wine and beer only half full. Perhaps that is from years of persecution or just part of our DNA. Any way you slice it, we are pessimistic.
On this holiday of Sukkot however, we are commanded to be optimists; to see the good in a world we are reflexively used to seeing through a negative lens. When we recite the liturgy for this day, it is called the time of our “joyousness.” Thus, we are commanded to be positive and happy, for 7 days at least!
With this teaching in mind, indulge me to share a particular thought in light of the breaking news of the past week that I have seen in a particularly positive light.
A Conservative, pulpit rabbi of a storied synagogue in a major city revealed in a raw letter to his community that he is gay. He explained that his marriage would end but his respect and love for his wife and children would not.
It is not my place to address his letter or his choices. Rabbis are people first. Each clergy person is entitled to dignity and privacy for their sake and for their family. Suffice to say, I applaud his courage and pray that he finds the all the layers of peace and fulfillment he seeks.
The letter that accompanied the rabbi’s note to his congregation captured my attention. It was from the synagogue president with the imprimatur of the board of trustees he represents. The letter was unequivocally supportive of the Rabbi and his choices and set the tone and boundaries for the congregation to give time and space for the rabbi and his family as they take the next steps in their lives. The rabbi’s role at the synagogue was never called into question. The rabbi’s deep admiration by his constituents was evidenced in each word of the communication.
Twenty years ago, congregations summarily fired rabbis that came out – similar to how this rabbi did. Presidents — in those days and in similar circumstances — penned letters explaining why the behavior was an abomination and why this rabbi’s practices were against the best interests of the Conservative Movement and the Temple. Many colleagues that came out found themselves unemployed and unable to regain traction because of their orientation. Some of these rabbis lost their families and left the rabbinate, even the religion all together, because they could not find the support systems to be comfortable in their identity in a faith community.
Fast forward 20 short years, which is the blink of an eye in the history of the United States and even briefer than a millisecond in the time span of creation. Presidents are championing the honesty and courage of their rabbis. Leadership is setting the tone and demonstrating in word and deed what a welcoming, inclusive and embracing community is all about.
LGBQT concerns are the civil rights issue of our generation. Seeing how far we have come in such a short time is reason for us to be proud. In a time full of pessimism and cynicism, learning the right way quickly is something to be “joyous” about during this holiday.
We read these words thrice each High Holiday period. For 12 years I have been writing modern adaptations of this ancient prayer to bring resonance to our lives and its frailty. Whether it is a modern Unetaneh Toqef post Katrina, after the earthquake in Haiti, following a Tsunami or even after the Boston Marathon Bombing, my goal each year is to remind those that utter the ancient words that the prayers have modern relevance and application to our daily trials and achievements.
All of us have brushes with death in some fashion or another. But we also renew our leases on life in manifold ways. Indulge me to share with you ways we have had brushes with death and found renewed leases on life – my modern adaptation of Unetaneh Toqef of 5775.
Who has been afflicted with the debilitating disease of MS – Multiple Sclerosis, affecting the Central Nervous System? – And who amongst us has been given hope, a renewed lease on life because of the Medicine Copaxone immunomodulator, which was discovered at the Weizmann Institute in Israel?
Who amongst us have ever lived under drought conditions and had water rations?
And who amongst us can water their fruit trees, shower and drink as needed because of the inventions of TAKADU and the Shafdan – which has pioneered Drip Irrigation, waste-water reclamation and desalinization –in Israel? Most of the water advances, pioneered in Israel, are being shared today with countless African countries which saves lives and builds lasting friendships.
Who has had shrapnel from a terrorists suicide vest explode into their spine, rendering them paralyzed and unable to walk?
And who, thanks to the Israeli invention, RE-WALK –an exo-skeleton device that attaches to ones legs and allows those without use of their legs the ability to stand and walk – was able to walk their daughter down the aisle for her wedding?
Who had stomach pain or is afflicted with Crohns or Colitis? And who, thanks to the brainchild of Given Imaging – an Israeli company – is able to swallow the Pill cam which takes pictures of your digestive tract and submits those pictures to your physician in a non-obtrusive manner.
Who has a sight difference and cannot read signs or menus? And who, thanks to OrCam – an Israeli company that created a tiny reading device that attaches to the temple of one’s glasses and connects to one’s ear in a small device the size of a hearing aid. This amazing technology will read and speak into your ear whatever your eye is focusing on, allowing those with sight differences to read menus and signs and feel better integrated into the seeing community.
Who during the summer vacation has donned a bathing suit and been mortified by unwanted and unseemly hairs in the wrong places? And who solved that embarrassing dilemma thanks to the Epilady – an Israeli invention that smoother our world since 1985.
Who has a newborn child and is petrified of SIDS – Sudden Infant Death Syndrome which claims too many infant lives each year? And who sleeps more soundly because of Baby Sense – a non-radioactive crib system that monitors your child’s breathing and heart rates and alerts parents of any changes.
Who has a family history of Alzheimers, ALS, Parkinsons, ADHD and other brain centered ailments and injuries? And who, thanks to ElMindA, is able to participate in a non-invasive brain function and mapping to identify early and preventatively diagnose those ailments.
Who has been victim to a hostage event and were hidden behind walls? And who could be seen through those walls thanks to Camero –which has developed security cameras with a micro powered radar that can literally see through walls and provide real time surveillance of concealed and stationery and moving objects?
Who has seen a traffic accident or a terrible cut where loss of blood led to trauma and even loss of life? And who, thanks to the Israeli Bandage, developed by Bernard Bar Natan – an Israeli combat medic, which is a unique absorbent cravat that can be simply converted into a tourniquet, if needed, has had their limb and their life saved?
Who has gone to a meeting and needed to bring files, a Power Point or particular pictures but had no way or even the space to bring them all? And who felt amazing relief when they realized a small and simple thumb drive,– another Israeli invention by Dov Moran in 1998– can fit in our pocket and store countless pages of presentation, pictures and materials and allow for the safety , security and most of all, portability?
Who has gone out on a date but needed to get in touch with a baby sitter? Who has been delayed at an airport? Who has needed to communicate when afar and not had the means to make it happen? And who, thanks to Instant Messaging – invented by Yossi Vardi from Israel, in the mid 90s, has been able to connect with others, often sharing pertinent and even life saving data by SMS and instant messaging?
This list could continue for page after page, example after example of life saving measures, medical advances and technological wonders that have saved lives and enhanced the way we communicate and function as a society. In a world that too often targets Israel unfairly, we should take pause and stock of not only who will live but also, how we will live and the manifold ways Israeli contriubtions have made this world a better place. Perhaps we should conclude the prayer, Repentance, Prayer, Deeds of Righteousness and a drive to innovate will lessen the severity of God’s decree.
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, print journalism and the blogosphere are abound with conversations about what rabbis will be talking about when congregants sit in the pews on Thursday and Friday. After this summer, there is no shortage of material. A rise in anti-Semitism worldwide, an increase in violence on college campuses, the murders of four teenage boys — three Israeli and one Palestinian — a 50-day war with Hamas in Gaza where more than 75 percent of Israel was within reach of rockets, not to mention the worsening situation in the Ukraine and the proliferation of ISIS — should be enough for any clergy person to sink their teeth into and make a meaningful message.
Thus, I am surprised to see an article in the New York Times yesterday which claims many rabbinic colleagues — most maintaining anonymity for fear of their views affecting their positions — will not broach Israel, or events surrounding Israel, as a topic for their sermon for fear of offending the right or left and for an inability to craft a take-away message from the sermon.
Further to the point, Peter Beinart wrote in Haaretz this week that rabbis should steer away from sermons about Israel these High Holidays because they are “B-grade pundits.” His point expressly implies that rabbis are ill equipped to speak about Israel effectually. Additionally, Beinart says the real issue with the Jewish world today is illiteracy with Jewish texts, not issues about Israel and that is where rabbis should dial in their sermonic coordinates this New Year.
My response to Peter Beinart and the many anonymous rabbis quoted by the New York Times is simple: Don’t wimp out.
What congregations around the globe want from their leaders more than any teaching or story is simple. They want courage. They want leaders with convictions and principles and passion. Congregants want to be infected by their clergy with that passion. As clergy members we have been deputized to share our interpretation – both of texts and current events – and to lend a Jewish voice and lens to the situation we find ourselves living within. Few people want to come to synagogue to hear a tofu-flavored thought about the Torah portion these days. They want to know what you think and why you think it. That is, after all, why they hired you.
As with all things that require courage, speaking up and out might make you vulnerable. That is a good thing. I contend that the very openness that is fostered in being honest is the secret ingredient that allows us to be sensitive and thoughtful in crafting our message, so that other views and opinions can be heard and tolerated, even if disagreed with. Walking that line and making many feel included is sacrosanct. Clergy members can finesse that fine line better than most.
Isn’t that why we heard the calling to join the cloth in the first place? Didn’t we want to change the world and make it a better place? I chose to be a clergy person because I wanted to lend my voice and my hand to the shaping of this planet I live within. Religion is not a sideline sport. It necessitates me getting on the field and being open and raw. Our shying away from the hard conversations will not make that change and it most definitely will not inspire our flocks. That silence leads clergy members to a career limited to hatch ‘em, match ‘em and dispatch ‘em. While those touchstones are sacred – my job calls for more from me.
In my congregation, I speak about Israel as much as I speak about any topic. Everyone who walks through our doors knows that our Temple has unconditional love for our Israel. But, they also know that we can ask tough questions and be lovingly critical in an effort to make our homeland better and ourselves too. Isn’t that the essence of religion? Shouldn’t that be the ideal we strive for?
To my colleagues in the pulpit, I encourage you to ignore the New York Times and brush off Beinart, who is a B-grade rabbinic adviser, at best. Instead, muster the courage to speak your heart and your passion these High Holidays. Infect your congregation with your courage and challenge them to lead. Let them know whether you are left or right, critical or complimentary that you bearing your soul will help effect change. That is the core component of the High Holiday season. I posit that doing so will stoke your members to make a difference in their work place and amongst their social orbits with the same valor you exemplify. And frankly, after all that has happened in our world recently – I think the courage to speak our mind is what we need most right now. Let’s celebrate that courage and not squelch it. That would be a sin too great to burden this season.
Read more from Rabbi Kirshner on The Times of Israel
In an interview on WABC Radio Rabbi Kirshner discusses the choice of the Met opera to offer the Death of Klinghoffer.
Israel puts the fizz in reclamation and SodaStream
Two weeks ago I visited a place in Israel that I had never seen before.
Every week after Shabbat services, our congregation adjourns to a festive Kiddush luncheon. Inevitably, there are two people who come and talk to me in between my bites of sponge cake and tuna fish. I have given both of them nicknames; terms of affection.
What do the Pope, John Travolta and your rabbi have in common? They all have problems getting names and words out these days!
My oldest brother Gabriel committed suicide. He was 36 years young and had his whole life ahead of him. Instead of living it, he poisoned himself with carbon monoxide and left his wife and two-year-old daughter to find his lifeless body slumped in the backseat of his Toyota. But while Gabe killed himself at 36, he really died 23 years earlier.
By Peter Applebome
Teaneck’s tale of love, money, sexual orientation and Torah began innocently enough.
A young couple, who grew up in Conservative Jewish congregations, who met at a Jewish day camp and whose lives have been dominated by Jewish interests, sent a wedding announcement to The New Jersey Jewish Standard.
It said that Avichai Smolen, 23, and Justin Rosen, 24, planned to be married this month by Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg at North Shore Synagogue in Syosset, N.Y.
After much deliberation, the newspaper ran the announcement — the first in its 79-year history for a same-sex marriage — in its Sept. 24 issue. Then, in its next issue, citing complaints from Orthodox rabbis and a “firestorm” that resulted, it issued an apology for the “pain and consternation” the announcement had caused members of the Orthodox community. It promised not to run similar announcements again.
Then, after firestorms from other corners, the newspaper released a statement on Tuesday reconsidering its reconsideration. It said the paper may have acted too quickly and listened to only one segment of its readership, which includes Bergen County and beyond, Orthodox and non-Orthodox.
What it says about Teaneck, a community with a history of diversity, a contentious civic culture, a Muslim mayor and an increasingly dominant Orthodox Jewish community, is worth an entire rabbinical commentary in itself. But coming at the same time as the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University student, it played out like a Talmudic variation on contemporary themes.
Jews may have a reputation for tolerance, but they are splintered on gay issues. Reform and Reconstructionist communities tend to be supportive, Conservative ones conflicted but generally not hostile, and Orthodox leaders, if not all congregants, usually staunchly opposed.
So there was some sympathy for The Standard’s plight.
“This is one where they almost couldn’t win,” said Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor in chief of The New Jersey Jewish News, which serves a much less Orthodox readership. Mr. Silow-Carroll said his publication ran its first same-sex wedding announcement in January and received no response. “The Orthodox community has huge economic clout,” he said. “If they put out the word that their members shouldn’t be reading or advertising, it could be crippling for a newspaper that size.”
Many others were surprised that the paper didn’t figure out the politics in advance and show more resolve.
“The news that your paper will no longer publish gay marriage announcements reflects craven cowardice,” one reader wrote on the paper’s Facebook page. “Some letters from Orthodox rabbis changed your mind? What did you expect Orthodox rabbis to say?”
“You didn’t realize you’d have to have a little backbone when you made the decision to publish the announcements in the first place?” the reader added.
Neither the Orthodox rabbis contacted nor the newspaper responded to phone calls. And on the streets of Teaneck, businesspeople preferred to speak anonymously, rather than risk offending. Still, there was widespread speculation that the economic clout of the Orthodox gave them outsize influence.
“This decision didn’t reflect the whole Jewish community,” said Rabbi Steven Sirbu, of Temple Emeth, a Reform congregation in Teaneck, where nearly all the other Jewish congregations are now Orthodox. “It looks like the newspaper was held hostage in some way by a small group of Orthodox leaders.”
Another rabbi, David Kirshner, of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative congregation in Closter, said that while critics of the same-sex announcement couch their argument in terms of Scripture, the newspaper contains numerous elements that can be seen as impious — like ads for nonkosher restaurants.
“Make no mistake about it,” Rabbi Kirshner wrote in a public letter. “This is homophobia masquerading as religious piety. Pure and simple.”
Mr. Smolen and Mr. Rosen have felt more than a bit of whiplash, but they figure that, in a distinctly Jewish way, maybe controversy could lead to greater understanding, particularly of the way being marginalized or excluded can have tragic consequences. They will sign papers for a civil marriage in Greenwich, Conn., on Thursday and have a traditional wedding ceremony Oct. 17. “We’re very happy about the conversation this has engendered,” Mr. Rosen said “and think it’s incredibly important both inside the Jewish community and without.”
Rabbi Kirshner was published in The Hope: American Jewish Voices in Support of Israel
Transcript available here.
In May of 1939 the M.S. St. Louis set sail from Hamburg, Germany to Cuba with 937 Jewish German passengers aboard. Their mission was to flee their homeland to a place where Jews could live with more freedoms- economically, socially and religiously.
Almost 19 years ago on a Shabbat afternoon, my doorman told me the news that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been shot. I ran upstairs to my apartment, put on the television and saw the dramatic events unfold.
Moonday night, around sunset, we had just finished a pizza dinner at an outdoor cafe that was about to be washed down with ice cream. The kids were racing to finish the dripping scoops from atop the cone before it turned to soup on their little hands. My wife and I were relishing the moment; in our homeland, on vacation and enjoying life.