Friday, April 21, 2000

Terezin and The Vision Thing (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week 4/00

With another Bush now running for President, it s time once again for us to discuss "the vision thing." In truth, the Jewish community has never ceased talking about it, long after George the Elder suffered electoral demise after scoffing that ineffable and elusive quality we call "vision."

So what is vision, anyway?

It s that which allowed a Herzl to look at the squalor of Jewish life in Europe and see modern Maccabees building up a Jewish state; or Moses to see broken slaves and imagine a people proud and free. Jews were quixotic long before Quixote ever flailed against his first windmill. Without the most audacious imagination, we could never have survived in Exile. Yet vision is so lacking in Jewish life today.

Is it simply that we have been hammered down for so long that we no longer can bring ourselves to envision the light at the end of the tunnel? Or is that that we ve become so pessimistic that, even when we do see the light, we automatically assume that its source must be an oncoming train?

Part of the problem might be that things are too good. Because we live in a time of such extreme affluence, with a secure Jewish state in one pocket and a Papal apology in the other, we ve lost the ability to imagine the future getting any better. All we can do is suppose the opposite, a cataclysm that any card-carrying Jew feels must be inevitable when times are good. We feel like we re being set up by God for one of those Satanic Joban deals. I call it the "P tu P tu" theory of Jewish life. When things are good, all we can see is the evil eye lurking behind the bend. Every policeman becomes a Cossack, every crucifix a potential dagger, every extended hand a cynical ploy to catch us off guard.

Time and time again we ve been told that the specter of anti-Semitism will no longer motivate Jews to greater involvement, yet we continue to return to the Holocaust as our primary rallying cry. Sometimes I look at all the attention being paid to these dark shadows of our past and wish to cry out "Never Again!" as in, "Never again will I allow myself to say Gevalt in public and allow the my message to be succumb to such despair."

Then I went to Terezin, and I understood the true nature of vision.

Recently I was part of a group of thirty-plus rabbis, representing the full geographical and denominational spectrum of North American Jewry, who traveled to Prague in a trip coordinated by the North American Boards of Rabbis (NABOR). We journeyed there to fulfill a vision -- several visions, actually. We went to accept a genuine offer of reconciliation from Church and government leaders. We also went to demonstrate an authentic model for unity amidst diversity. Rabbis from the group offered a class to the Prague Jewish community the first ever in Eastern Europe taught by rabbis of three different denominations. And we went to pay respects to the victims of Terezin, the infamous concentration camp located an hour s drive from the Czech capital.

At the end of a long and emotional tour of the camp, the guide brought us to a site only recently discovered, a small synagogue hidden in the basement of a bakery. It was an oasis of holiness in the midst of hell, never defiled by the Nazis, a place where the condemned could utter ancient prayers and dare to hope.

On the walls are Hebrew liturgical inscriptions, two of which absolutely floored me. One says, "Know before whom you stand," a verse found in synagogues everywhere, but one that took on a whole new meaning in that place; for on the other side of that wall stood the S.S. guards. They knew in their hearts that the One before whom they really stood was God, a sovereign whose very existence they certainly had every reason to doubt. In spite of it all, they believed.
And with belief comes vision. On the front wall of the synagogue is inscribed a verse from the Amida, "May our eyes be able to envision Your return to Zion in mercy."

Never again will I be able to recite the Amida without thinking of this holy place.

"Hazon" in Hebrew means "vision" and that word is embedded in the inscribed verse. Note that the prayer doesn t ask that the people themselves be whisked to Zion. The Jews of Terezin were not so quixotic as to imagine that they themselves would ever see the spectacular sunrise over Jerusalem. They didn t pray for their own return to Zion but for God s. Hidden away for a moment of sanity amidst the madness, these heroes had the audacity to pray that God and the Jewish people survive the Holocaust, even though they knew that they themselves most likely would not. They not only saw the light at the end of the darkest tunnel in human history, they shined it toward a distant future that no sane person could possibly have imagined, a future that certainly would not include them.

We were in tears. Spontaneously we davened the afternoon service, although very few of us had prayer books. It didn t matter. The prayers were calling out to us from those walls. It suddenly didn t matter that there was no Mechitza separating the men from the woman or whether the language was gender-neutral. Nothing mattered but that we were Jews, praying together, the living fulfillment of their vision.

Then I read aloud two selections from that classic collection of children s poetry written in Terezin, "I Never Saw Another Butterfly," and I felt like a pilgrim on the steps of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, reciting psalms. The poems were all about the joy of being alive.

If these residents of hell could find the vision to see butterflies and pray for God s renewal, how dare we allow ourselves to become mired in cynicism and negativity! The words of the prophets were written on these subterranean walls:

"May our eyes be able to envision."

And when I reach that verse of the Amida, never again will I dare to yawn.

Friday, April 7, 2000

Shabbat-O-Gram for April 6, 2000

This message runs the gamut this week, from deep concern and protest to laughter and song, from the sublime to the ridiculous.  We begin with the sublime:

Today (Thurs.) is Rosh Hodesh Nisan.  Happy New Year (in the biblical sense)!  We read in the Torah (last Shabbat in fact) the instruction, "HaChodesh HaZeh Lachem..." "This shall be the first of months for you."  What a perfect time, in this beginning of the spring month, to, in the words of Isaiah (40:26) "Lift your eyes heavenward and see Who created these..." 

Once a month, it is customary to look to the sky, check for the Moon, make sure it is not even partially obscured by clouds, and say Kiddush Levana, the prayer over the new moon. This will be done by many people this Motza'ei Shabbat.  Aside from this once a month mitzva, one can and should look at the sky often and be filled with a sense of wonder at God's creation. This might not be a specific mitzva, but it is definitely mitzva-ish in that it can bring a person to a greater appreciation and feeling towards God. 

A very special opportunity of this type presents itself tonight. A short time after sunset, low in the western sky (towards the south), we will be treated to a pretty sight - a slender crescent moon, bright "evening star" Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars close enough to each other to be framed by a circle of thumb and pointer held at arm's length.  

Or, for a daytime experience of awe, simply lok at the first buds of spring and say the special blessing over them.

The trial of the "Iran 13"(Iranian Jews imprisoned on the pretext of spying

for Israel) is scheduled to begin next week. 

As International President of the United Synagogue, I am calling on all

congregations to devote this Sabbath to special prayers, sermons, and other

appropriate programs.  The Hebrew names of the 13 individuals are Yaakov ben Mohtarem, Asher ben Sltani, Nasser ben Peeran, Shahroch ben Shhnaz, Faramaz ben Eshrat, Farzad ben Eshrat, Najat ben Nosrat, Farhad ben Hamdam, Daniel ben Soraya,  Orech ben Zoleicha, Ornid ben Soraya, Ramin ben Malak, Ramin ben Sarah.

We are also including recommendations for action, which are based on months of ongoing consultations of the Presidents Conference Special Task Force on the Iran 13, leaders of the Iranian Jewish communities in the US and abroad, many experts, and government officials.

This list of activities was developed keeping in mind at all times that our

primary obligation is the well-being of the 13 and of the Iranian Jewish

community. The complexity of the situation imposes certain restraints and

restrictions. We have sought throughout to give Iran a face-saving exit

strategy and to avoid provocations. We continue to believe that mass

demonstrations and protests could be counterproductive, although they may

be called for in the future.

Expectations that the situation would improve after the recent Iranian

elections have not been borne out. If anything, the Khatami government

appears to have adopted a harder line.

This list of suggestions will be updated periodically as developments


Public activities will begin in North America and Europe this weekend, and

other communities will be joining thereafter.


1) Contact embassies and consulates of West European countries, Japan,

Muslim nations and other countries to urge continued intercessions with the

government of Iran at the highest level, and ask that they underscore that

the case of the 13 will affect their future relations with Iran.

2) Members of Congress should be urged to support resolutions now

being circulated. 

        (Texts will be sent separately.)

3) The Administration should be encouraged to continue approaches to

foreign governments, to oppose the World Bank loan to Iran, and to warn

Iran that no further gestures or concessions will be forthcoming until the

13 are free.

4) The United Nations should be urged to continue direct representations. Write to UN ambassadors calling on them to press their governments to act.

5) The UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva should be urged to send a

representative to Iran and to raise the plight of the 13. A resolution regarding human rights in Iran is pending and is due to be introduced on April 18. Urge support for the resolution.

6) Governments with resident ambassadors in Iran should ask that they

request to be observers at the trial.


1) Human rights organizations, groups, church bodies and particularly

Muslim organizations should be asked to issue statements, write to the Iranian government, and send representatives to Iran to be observers. Joint

declarations of support for a fair trial, legal representation and freedom

for the 13 are in order.

2) Solicit interfaith participation in vigils, joint statements.

3) Business associations, Chambers of Commerce, and particularly those

having contacts to those doing business in Iran should be enlisted.


4) Devote this Sabbath to special prayers, sermons, and other

appropriate programs. A list of the Hebrew names of the 13 is attached.

5) Special prayer services can also be held on Sunday and during the

week of the trial.


1) We do not believe that street protests and mass demonstrations are

appropriate at this time. However, public vigils with the participation of

Jewish and non-Jewish clergy, governmental leaders, human rights figures,

cultural figures and other personalities are in order. These should be

conducted around the clock (at least throughout the day) at key locations

(e.g., near Iranian diplomatic posts or at central, high profile sites).

2) Press statements and press coverage of vigils are encouraged. Urge

editorials in newspapers and the electronic media.

3)  Promote public statements, letters to the editor and interviews

with human rights activists, clergy and political personalities.

4) Secure ads by legal associations, rights groups, etc. (A suggested

text is available.)

5)      Events should be scheduled to assure continuous activity during the

3 days before the trial.


1.      Release of the 13 and, at least, granting the ten bail.

2.      The allegations of espionage are groundless.

3.      No formal charges have been brought after more than one year of


4.      Allow full legal rights, including the choice of lawyers. This is

in accordance with the Iranian constitution, which provides:

"The parties to a suit have the right to appoint a Lawyer in all courts and

if they are not able to appoint a lawyer, facilities for appointing a

lawyer must be provided to them." Article 35 of the Constitution of the

Islamic Republic, The Single Article Act approved by the Council of Discernments of the Exigencies of the Regime provides: 

"All the parties in a litigation have the right to appoint a Lawyer and all

the courts that are established in accordance with law are required to

accept such Lawyers. "

To date, the judge has refused to recognize the attorneys chosen by the


5.      An open, fair trial with observers from the UN, legal associations,

the Jewish community, etc.

6.      Remind Iran that the case of the 13 is a "barometer" for future

Iran-US relations, as Secretary Albright said; a "test case" of the Khatami

government, as Vice President Gore said, and will affect their standing in

the international community, as declared by many governments.

7.      The emphasis must be on humanitarian and human rights and not

attacks or threats against the government of Iran.

We will also post this information on our (USCJ) website. Fact sheets and

materials will be made available.


These announcements were found in shul newsletters and bulletins.  Even spell check wouldn't have helped!...

Don't let worry kill you.  Let your synagogue help.

Join us for our Oneg after services.  Prayer and medication to follow.

Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our congregation.

For those of you who have children and don't know it, we have a nursery downstairs.

We are pleased to announce the birth of David Weiss, the sin of Rabbi and Mrs. Abe Weiss.

Thursday at 5:00PM, there will be a meeting of the Little Mothers Club.  All women wishing to become Little Mothers, please see the rabbi in his private


The ladies of Haddassah have cast off clothing of every kind and they may be seen in the basement on Tuesdays.

A bean supper will be held Wed. even. in the community center.  Music will follow.

Weight Watchers will meet at 7 PM at the JCC.  Please use the large double door at the side entrance.

Rabbi is on vacation.  Massages can be given to his secretary.

Mrs. Goldblum will be entering the hospital this week for testes.

The Men's Club is warmly invited to the Oneg hosted by Hadassah.  Refreshments will be served for a nominal feel.

Please join us as we show our support for Amy and Rob, who are preparing for the girth of their first child.

If you enjoy sinning, the choir is looking for you!

The Associate Rabbi unveiled the synagogue's new fundraising campaign slogan this week:  "I Upped My Pledge - Up Yours."