Friday, June 20, 2008

If July 4 Coincides with Shabbat...

This year, Independence Day falls on Friday, thereby coinciding with Shabbat, at sunset. I’ve done some research to see what Jewish practices are in order, and came across a little known rabbinic source related to “Ethics of the Fathers,” called “Ethics of the Uncles.” There I found the following, attributed to “Dod Sh’muel,” or “Sam, the Uncle.” The relevant section is embedded in a chapter entitled, “DOD SHMUEL’S TOP TEN LISTS.”


1)We begin the Shabbat with not 2, but 3 candles. The third is to be lit by remote control from a safe vantage point at least 100 feet away.

2)At the Sabbath meal, 2 hallot are served, each with apple pie filling.

3)Cookouts are allowed, as long as the charcoals are lit before sunset and the food is prepared beforehand. In other words, cookouts are not allowed.

4)It is customary to sing Adon Olam, to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

5)When reciting the Amida, instead of facing Jerusalem, we face Washington D.C. Or if Joe Lieberman is in town, we simply face him.

6)When walking around with the Torah, it is customary for the cantor and rabbi to do a do-si-do with the president, singing “Turkey in the Straw.”

7)At the beginning of the Torah reading, the Gabbai (sexton) shouts, “Play Ball” and the reader takes the yad (pointer) and tries to knock a knish out of the park.

8)The popular Shabbat afternoon dish known as cholent, featuring simmering vegetables and chunks of meat, is pureed so that all the items blend together and then simmered in a melting pot.

9)NASCAR runs the “Shabbat 500.” Precisely at sundown, all the drivers get out of their cars and run for the finish line.

10)Finally, for one day of the year, Lubavitch Hasidim replace their furry streumels with red and white striped top hats, and then go around to Jews imploring, “We want YOU.”

Masechet Cyberspace #10: Seeking God in Cyberspace

As we break for the summer, Masechet Cyberspace will continue to develop and grow. I welcome your ideas. Meanwhile, I sign off with some passages from my prior writings on the subject of spirituality and cyberspace:

“I’ve found sanctity online. I've also found God in my VCR instruction manual. And in my home videos, my cell phone, my beeper, my remote control, my cable box and television screen. I've encountered God in the Hubbell telescope and the space shuttle, in my microwave oven and in a cloned sheep called Dolly. How I see God in these other technological phenomena is the subject for a more broad-based book; yet in some sense, a deep search for God on the Internet, the subject of this study, is a microcosm of the larger issue. And it is necessary to spend some time dealing with the general question of God and technology before we enter sacred cyberspace. Through my search for God on-line, I've discovered danger signals along the journey. God can be found on the Internet, but God can also be lost there.”

“If we look for God only in the usual places, we are sure to miss the mark. It is only when we seek God outside the sanctuary and beyond the prayer book that we have the best chance of succeeding. And technology is the terrain we all inhabit right now. That's where the path of our searching must lead. Pope Pius XII said it in his Christmas message in 1953, and these words resonate even more today: "The Church welcomes technological progress and receives it with love, for it is an indubitable fact that technological progress comes from God and, therefore, can and must lead to Him."

“We find God on the Internet through the redemptive power of the written word.

On the Internet, God lives not exactly in the "written" word, because the words we see on the screen aren't really written. Like God, they are real, but can't be touched; they stand clearly in front of us, yet are primarily a product of the imagination, as our eye fills in the spaces between the lines and creates the impression of permanence.

It is against Jewish law to erase the name of God. That is why the Hebrew name of God (the Tetragrammaton, as it is called, which consists of the letters yod-heh-vav-heh), is rarely spelled out in Jewish texts and most often seen in an abbreviated form. Some even shorten the English appellation, using G-D rather than God. Yet God's name is all over the Internet, in all forms. Why? Because as the name appears on the screen, it is not in fixed, permanent form. It can be compared to writing one's name with one's finger on a frosty window.
A leading Orthodox rabbi recently ruled that the word “God” may be erased from a computer screen or disk, because the pixels do not constitute real letters. Rabbi Moshe Shaul Klein published his ruling in an Israeli computer magazine aimed at Orthodox Jews, “Mahsheva Tova” “The letters on a computer screen are an assemblage of pixels, dots of light, what have you,'” the rabbi's assistant, Yossef Hayad explained to a reporter for the Associated Press. “Even when you save it to disk, it's not like you're throwing anything more than a sequence of ones and zeroes. It's there, but it really isn't.”

So the name of God isn't really being erased, because it never was really there in the first place. Or was it?

The words are virtual, just as the on-line relationships are virtual. Just as our relationship with God appears virtual, cloaked in metaphor. But it all feels so real -- because it is.

Through the word, we have come to a new understanding of reality. For the Internet is a medium of the word. True, there are graphics too, and now increasing capacity to communicate via audio and video images. But when the medium was created in the late '60s by two UCLA professors and introduced in 1969, its goal was to connect computers in their language so that academicians could communicate in ours -- and ours happens to be words. The medium was intended originally as a depositary of massive amounts of recorded data. When Tim Berners-Lee first proposed the World Wide Web near Geneva in 1989, his intent was to make scientific papers available on the Internet to other scientists. Graphic images were then added to words, but in the beginning, it was all about words. And that is still how we primarily know it.

So now we live in a world where billions of invisible words are out there, massive virtual libraries, information on almost everything imaginable, real yet untouchable, at our fingertips, yet, without a computer impossible to fathom. Try explaining the Internet to those who have never experienced it -- it's almost as impossible as explaining the Red Sea splitting to those who slept through it.”

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Message to the Graduates (and that means all of us)

This week's portion, Shelach Lecha, contains within it the worst commencement address ever given. This being that commencement-time-of-year, you probably know the basic formula for the typical graduation speech: "Go get 'em. You can overcome all odds, no matter how great. Believe in yourself and the future is yours."

Twelve spies were sent out by Moses to scout out the Land. Ten of the twelve returned with a message that would have sent any school superintendent's head spinning. "Don't even bother to try to succeed out there," they reported. "These people are men of great size. We saw...we saw...Nefilim there! Anakim! And we looked like grasshoppers to them."

Who were these Nefilim and Anakim that terrorized the spies. Were they some mythical race of giants? Were they real people? Did Michael Strahan exist at that time? Or was it merely a matter of hyperbole: the spies saw no chance of victory, so they concocted an exaggerated tale to back strengthen their case. Whether or not these obstacles were real or perceived, the sin of the spies led to the Israelites' having to wander in the Wilderness for 40 years, and the sin had less to do with overestimating the size of the opponent as in underestimating their own abilities.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk commented, "It is all right in the presence of giants to say that you feel like a grasshopper. But it is terribly mistaken, even a sin, to presume that you look like a grasshopper to them."

We all discount ourselves at times, but the real problem occurs when that subjective observation is allowed to become objective truth. Growth became impossible for the Children of Israel after the report of the spies, and the 40 years of wandering wasn't so much a punishment as the natural outgrowth of their national paralysis.

Paralyzed is how we all feel when the child in each of us is thrown into very adult situations. We feel unprepared, unfit, small. And there is no scarier time than when your name is called and you rise to grab hold of the diploma, that paper sword with which you're expected to slay all the Nefilim wandering about in your path.

My ordination from rabbinical school is case in point. That afternoon 25 years ago, I sat in a pew at the Park Avenue Synagogue next to a score of classmates, listening to the obligatory charges, some of which were Talmudic in both in content and length. There was plenty of time to think. Too much. I looked down the row at my classmates. Were they feeling, as I was, the awesome weight of the moment? Were they questioning, as I was, the five-year investment that had been made and the life-long investment that was about to be made? Were they also beginning to sense the awakening of that demon of the deep that rises from the pit of the stomach at times like these, then proceeds to make mincemeat of the esophagus -- that feeling of utter incompetence?

This feeling was exacerbated by the prevailing notion fostered at the Seminary that the last generation of teachers was always more revered than the current one. The classical Jewish view teaches “the decline of the generations” — since Sinai we have grown further from revelation and stand, as a result, on a lower level of holiness. My teachers were the giants their’s all the greater - and we were grasshoppers, in their eyes and our own.

As I rose to heed my calling, I took comfort in the knowledge that I was not alone. All over the city that day, people were rising to the call of their names: doctors pledging the oath of Hippocrates, psychologists joining the ranks of Freud and Jung. And we all were grasshoppers on this day, afraid of giant obstacles, unsure where fate would take us. But not afraid to hop.

Sure enough, when Israel finally did invade the Land, the inhabitants there were terrified of them. Joshua's army was able to defeat many of them without a fight. Think of how easily the walls of Jericho came tumbling down.

So now I speak to you, the class of 2008 -- and all of us are graduating from something this month; if not, create a milestone for yourself and leap beyond it. Never fear freedom. Never stop growing. Never turn back. Slay those dark Nefilim of childhood. Dare them to make your day. Because, when all is said and done, you might be the true giant after all.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Is "The Zohan" Good for the Jews?

Last weekend, during that brief window between Shabbat and Shavuot, I took Dan to see the latest Adam Sandler flick, “You Don't Mess With The Zohan,” which, for a lover of Israel and devotee of hummus, was a must see. Before I give you my take, here’s the “view from the front,” an e-mail from my sister Lisa, who, as many of you know, lives in Israel, in Mitzpe Yericho.

(Before I go on, let me take this opportunity to wish Mazal Tov to my niece, Lisa’s daughter Luz, who will be married (God willing) this July at a fantastic theme-park duplicating life from the time of Abraham called Genesis Land).

So here is Lisa’s take:

Dear JJ

I wanted to write you a letter about this movie we just saw. I was interested in knowing if you would put it in your newsletter.

The movie is called "don’t mess with the Zohan." At first, from the trailer it looked like another "eskimo lemon" type of movie; a classic comedy where everybody is quite stupid, but in the end, the good guys win, as it were. In those movies, too, there is lots of "typical" Israeli stuff, but nobody brushes their teeth with hummus.... But the Zohan movie is a lot more problematic than just a bit of overdone shtick. There are two issues which I believe your readers should hear from an Israeli, since it is so seductive to look at a movie like this and say, "cool! We are on the map!" and reminisce about the silly and often inappropriate things that well meaning sabras do when in contact with Americans.

One issue is like this. Even "the Producers" waited till Hitler was good and dead, and there was no more war going on. To mock a situation where Israeli Jews are in mortal danger just by going to work or school is to make it all seem trivial. I suddenly realized, while watching the movie, that probably most of the Americans watching it would conclude that it is all a big joke. That really, we are such incredible super heroes that feel no pain, that this is all a show for the CNN crews, etc. (I can tell you for sure that there is no Israeli equivalent of Pallywood). It is the result of a tragic lack of understanding of the situation that someone can do such a trivial comedy about life here. I do recall a long and serious debate about "the producers," but I don't see that such a thing will happen here....

The other issue is that the movie promotes a certain kind of resolution, which is very typical of American resolutions, but precisely the kind of conclusion that can only bring on more tragedy. It is so typically American, at least in Hollywood, that if one takes someone to bed, then all is well. It is also evidently very American to see the resolution of any ethnic, racial or religious problem as "let's get married." In actual fact, the "melting pot" approach is the opposite of respecting a person's traditions and roots. It slices and dices too many rich ways of life, and insists that the "best" way to be, is like "us." It may be that the American audience will lap up this ending, but I can only hope that there are a few out there, who think that immediate gratification of one's urges is NOT a sign of a mature resolution to a problem.

I am the last to put down a good comedy.

But this is just NOT funny!

Love, L

OK. First thing: She’s the only one who gets away with calling me JJ!

Dear Lisa,

Thanks for your review!

I agree with you that “Zohan” hardly presents a realistic view of what is going on now in your neck of the woods and is insensitive to the real suffering that takes place there. It’s interesting to note that the script was first written several years ago, before the Second Intifada, and they had to can it for a while because of 9/11. For some reason they decided that the time was now right for its release. At the time this film was conceived, the Pollyanna-ish ending fit right into the last embers of the Oslo years, accentuated by the failed Clinton efforts at Camp David and Sharem el-Sheik. But that doesn’t mean Hollywood is now less of a sucker for glib happy endings. Zohan has a plot that, in places, is exactly the same as last year’s short film, “West Bank Story” (right down to the hummus stand), which won an Oscar.

So yes, Hollywood is delusional. But I already knew that. They still think the Lakers will beat our Celtics, for crying out loud!

But don’t confuse Hollywood with the rest of the country, or even with Hollywood itself. As I saw in Washington at AIPAC last week, Americans now relate to the Israeli experience as never before. What was said quietly by some right after 9/11, “We’re all Israelis now,” is being echoed by the vast majority of Americans and Israel’s support has never been higher because of it. We heard from residents of Sderot and nearby communities and their plight was highlighted, pointedly, during the session attended by over half of Congress. We also heard of the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab lands. As a recent article in the Jerusalem Post proclaimed, American support for Israel is at an all-time high, with a poll showing that 76% agree that Israel is a "vital ally" of the US, 71% saying the US should support Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians and 60% willing to identify themselves as supporters of Israel in that conflict.

With the exception of the far left, people are fully aware that the Israeli “melting pot” is more like a cauldron that would be shattered to bits long before its contents have had time to melt. Neither is a melting pot the goal. When I saw politician after politician echoing the “Two State” mantra, it wasn’t because they think those states of Arabs and Jews will all “learn to live like good Christians” next to each other. It’s because the alternative, one state, will lead inexorably to something either non democratic or not Jewish.

Incidentally, at a lunch I attended, Natan Sharansky gave rabbis a copy of his new book, "Defending Identity", in which he makes the claim that Identity and Democracy go hand in hand. I feel that it is vitally important, for the Jewish people and for the world, that Israel stay both democratic and Jewish (“Jewish” as defined broadly, with “halakhic” being a factor, but not the only factor). I’m looking forward to reading Sharansky’s book this summer.

While the Zohan character clearly has identity issues and could use a good therapist, I hesitate to over analyze this film. Suffice to say that while Americans may be making light of the lot of Israelis, we aren’t nearly as good at it as the Israelis themselves. At the bottom of this week'sShabbat-O-Gram, there is a link to a TV ad that mocks Ahmadinejad that is right out of Chaplin and Mel Brooks. My favorite Israel TV program, Eretz Nehederet, mocks Israeli culture with a wicked precision that Saturday Night Live could only dream of (though they did quite a number on Hillary). During my rabbinical school year in Israel, lo those many years ago, we saw Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” and I couldn’t help but sense the irony of seeing this spoof of Jesus, in Jerusalem no less, and hearing the audience convulsing in laughter. That movie, like “Zohan” was spoofed extremism - that scene with all the liberation army’s “rescue” is one of my favorites:

Reg: [arriving at Brian's crucifixion] Hello, Sibling Brian.

Brian: Thank God you've come, Reg.

Reg: Well, I think I should point out first, Brian, in all fairness, we are not, in fact, the rescue committee. However, I have been asked to read the following prepared statement on behalf of the movement. "We the People's Front of Judea, brackets, officials, end brackets, do hereby convey our sincere fraternal and sisterly greetings to you, Brian, on this, the occasion of your martyrdom.”

Brian: What?

Reg: "Your death will stand as a landmark in the continuing struggle to liberate the parent land from the hands of the Roman imperialist aggressors, excluding those concerned with drainage, medicine, roads, housing, education, viniculture and any other Romans contributing to the welfare of Jews of both sexes and hermaphrodites. Signed, on behalf of the P. F. J., etc. " And I'd just like to add, on a personal note, my own admiration, for what you're doing for us, Brian, on what must be, after all, for you a very difficult time.

“Zohan” not only spoofs the extremist threat to Israel, but, like “Munich,” it shows how the hard-nosed Israeli soldier hates to kill. In demonstrating the purity of arms that is so crucial to the IDF mindset, I think the movie shows Israelis in the most positive, peace-loving light.

I also think Zohan works as a spoof of the macho Israeli male, much like “Blazing Saddles” or “The Frisco Kid” spoofs the American cowboy. Yes, we realize that Israelis don’t brush their teeth with hummus (though it’s something I wouldn’t mind doing from time to time). Adam Sandler often throws absurdities into his films. While there are certainly some objectionable caricatures, I’d have more reason to be upset were I an Arab, actually (for mistaking Neosporin for an explosive), a supporter of gay rights or a PETA activist (the scene where they are kicking a cat like a soccer ball I’m sure got a rise out of them). Sandler’s shift from Macho Male to Borscht Belt Borat (“The Producers” meets “Shampoo”) was mildly offensive, but nothing to scream about.

So yes, it’s not realistic and yes, falling in love with the Palestinian hairdresser across the street will not solve the problems of the world. But in responding to the big question that we must ask of everything at all times, “Is it good for the Jews?” I’d have to give a qualified “yes,” based on the tourism dollars that will be generated by the Tel Aviv beach scenes alone. It’s good. Not as good as Abu Shukri’s hummus, to be sure. But harmless.

(Web Journey) Friday the 6/13th: Jason and Freddie Make Shabbos

See the "Friday the 13th" website and see how many Jewish values are exposed in these wholesome films. Everyone goes to camp and sits around the campfire; the hockey mask is a nice touch for Purim. OK, so there’s a little blood, but I was at a bris on Tuesday, so I can take it.

But that begs the question. Why is Friday the 13th considered so unlucky? For Jews, no day brings a greater sense of anticipation than Shabbat, and 13 is a very lucky number – ask any bar or bat mitzvah. So nothing to worry about today. But just in case you are concerned, you might want to join us for services…tonight at 6:30.

This is a lucky day for another reason… not only is it the 13th, but it’s JUNE 13th – i.e. 6/13. Since there are 613 commandments, this day is no doubt one of the luckiest of the year.

So, if you would like to see a list of all 613 Mitzvot, click here. Another version is found here.

Click here to read about the significance of the number 613

The Jewish Virtual Library reminds us that "There is also complete agreement that these 613 mitzvot can be broken down into 248 positive mitzvot (one for each bone and organ of the male body) and 365 negative mitzvot (one for each day of the solar year)." There are also connections drawn to the numerical values of the strings and knots of the Tallit fringes (the tzitzit). Wikipedia gives us Rashi’s explanation for that here, followed by an opposing view:

Rashi, a prominent Jewish commentator, bases the number of knots on a gematria: the word tzitzit (in its Mishnaic spelling) has the value 600. Each tassel has eight threads (when doubled over) and five sets of knots, totalling 13. The sum of all numbers is 613, traditionally the number of mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah. This reflects the concept that donning a garment with tzitzyot reminds its wearer of all Torah commandments.

Nachmanides disagrees with Rashi, pointing out that the Biblical spelling of the word tzitzit has only one yod rather than two, thus adding up to the total number of 603 rather than 613. He points out that in the Biblical quote "you shall see it and remember them", the singular form "it" can refer only to the "p'til" ("thread") of tekhelet. The tekhelet strand serves this purpose, explains the Talmud, for the blue color of tekhelet resembles the ocean, which in turn resembles the sky, which in turn is said to resemble God's holy throne - thus reminding all of the divine mission to fulfill His commandments

But, as you can see from this Ohr Samayach essay, there are many more laws in the Torah than are listed in Maimonides’ calculation or others. These can be seen as broad categories.

Note that many of the 613 can no longer be fulfilled since the Temple no longer stands. In addition, some commandments can only be fulfilled by those living in the Land of Israel. As result, there is not a single Jew living on this planet who can claim to fulfill all the mitzvot. We’re all flawed, to a degree, we’re all imperfect. There is no such thing as the Perfect Jew…. Or even the perfectly observant one.

I like that idea. It keeps us humble.

But Judaism was never an all-or-nothing proposition. If you don’t fulfill them all – and who does? – that doesn’t mean you can’t fulfill some.

In fact you can – right here – this Shabbat!

Masechet Cyberspace #9 - Taking Responsibility

Today’s New York Times contained an ad for a Liberty Mutual sponsored website designed to increase personal responsibility and ethical decision making. Check it out at It seems especially designed for young people, but resonates with general audiences as well. As with so much on the web, the focus is not on a top-down approach where some ethicist lectures at is, but mor ef a “wiki” approach, where anyone is able to contribute films or blogs detailing moral dilemmas. So many of them remind me of issues discussed in basic Talmud classes at our Hebrew High School or with B'nai Mitzvah as they consider their speeches.

One featured case is a recent hit-and-run incident in Hartford that was recorded on camera. See it here. No one came to help him! The camera shows dozens of people just walking on by, or gawking motionlessly. The man survived, barely, and the drivers who hit him have not yet been apprehended.

This lack of concern is perfectly legal in American law, but not in Jewish law. We cannot stand idly by the blood of our neighbor. This disturbing tape tells us much about our sense of community – and it is not pretty to see.

Perhaps through sites like this one, we might learn to become less desensitized to the pain of others.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

AIPAC Policy Conference 2008 - Day 3

(Click here for video of the key speeches from the AIPAC Policy Conference)

By now, most of you have probably seen the news reports about this morning’s plenary session, “Democrat Day” at AIPAC. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Republican Leader John Boehner (the token Republican) addressed us, but the biggest ovations were reserved for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Obama spoke first, and his task was to win over a crowd that, based on its unequivocal affection for prior speakers representing the Administration, appeared to be skeptical at best. But as soon as he was introduced by a Chicago AIPAC activist and friend, for the first time as the “presumptive nominee,” the throng appeared to be swept up by the historical nature of the moment. I know that I was.

It may or may not impact how people will vote, but what mattered today was the moment, and what it means about equality, freedom and the fulfillment of the American Dream. While Obama did not speak of race until the end of his speech (except for a brief autobiographical reference at the beginning), he did it in a manner that framed this moment not only as a breakthrough for African Americans, but also for that historical alliance with Jews that melted away in the late 60s.

This was a tough crowd, and he won them over long before reaching those closing paragraphs about race. Yes, he is a great speaker (man, does he know how to raise the cadence of his voice in perfect synchronicity with the rising of an audience – it almost made me wish that High Holiday sermons could have applause lines), but what made this the perfect speech for this skeptical crowd was not its emotional appeal, but its content. He knew just which buttons to push, not only to show the expected support for Israel, but to hammer home his toughness and stradfastness. The devil is in the details, and he knew details that only this very well educated crowd of Israel advocates would know and was able to position himself on the right side of all of them – even, in one case, to the RIGHT of the Administration (on keeping Jerusalem undivided, which the Administration is saying is subject to negotiation).

It was a tour de force, but was it enough? Hard to say, because in John McCain, the Republicans are running perhaps the only Republican this side of Joe Lieberman (sorry) who could compete on a level playing field for the Jewish vote – against anyone. In fact, they’ve nominated Joe’s twin brother!

Then came Hillary, and again, history. In between Obama’s rock star exit and Hillary’s introduction, the loudspeaker announced that there would be an unexpected intermission – curious, because we were running late for the lobbying efforts that are the most important part of the conference. But almost instantly, that intermission was cut and Hillary was introduced. I suspected at the time (and it was later confirmed) that the two candidates’ paths had crossed “by happenstance” and they were talking. It was a short conversation.

Hillary faced an enormous challenge. It was doubtful that she would choose this venue to secede from the race, but if she came on stage at AIPAC and did not offer real support to the presumptive nominee before 7,500 activists, she would be blowing her best chance – and perhaps only chance – to bring Jewish supporters around to Obama. Conceivably, were Obama to lose the Jewish vote in November, it might have been traced back to what Clinton did right here. She walked that fine line, all but conceding in assuring people that the next President had to be a Democrat and in the next breath saying that she “knows that Barack Obama will be a great friend of Israel.”

To wax Clintonian for a moment, it all depends on what is the meaning of “will be.” Does it mean that he “will be” friendly to Israel? But isn’t he already?

Or does it mean that he “will be” President?

Her intent was clear. And so was the pain on her face. She looked very tired, more vulnerable than in her recent feisty rallies. But she was received with such warmth and love. When she uttered those “will be” words, there was a bit of a stunned silence in the crowd for a moment. Was this it? Should we cheer? That was followed by a prolonged standing ovation that might be better described as a mass exhaling. There. She said it. So now, let’s go on.

This was not only a historical moment for American politics, it was a historical week for AIPAC. Never has Israel’s position been so synonymous with America’s, and never has the support been so widespread and bipartisan.

It remains to be seen whether the legislation we were asked to promote will provide enough pressure to up the ante on Iran, or whether the realities of Congressional life – and Washington’s current dysfunctionality - will enable good legislation to be passed in time. With a summer recess looming, and the elections to follow, we are close to shut-down mode, just at the point where the Iranian threat is becoming most dangerous. I also have doubts as to whether that rock solid support will withstand an Israeli incursion into Gaza, should it become necessary. But still, it is as solid as ever.

Our Connecticut delegation met with Senators Dodd and Lieberman and Rep. Shays up on Capitol Hill, in the Dirksen Office Building. Our group was large (but I hope that next year it will be even larger) and the session was, as you might expect, extremely congenial. Our representatives in Washington are among Israel’s staunchest supporters on the Hill, but still they need to be thanked and to hear about our concerns. Senator Dodd made the point that Israel needs to become a prime cause not only for Jews in Connecticut, but for those in the mainline churches as well. And we need to help make that happen.

Shays spoke of his evolution on this issue, how he came to recognize only many years later how much Israel had helped America and the world when it bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. Now, when people ask him what has Israel done for us, he can point not only to that, but to the bombing of the reactor in Syria last fall. When he heard about that, his reaction (and the President’s): “Thank God for the Israelis.”

Thank God for the Israelis and thank God for this unbreakable bond of friendship between Israel and America. AIPAC, you done good.

In the midst of everything, Ethan and I snuck off for a couple of hours to visit the brand new Newseum, just a few blocks from the capitol. As a lifelong news junky, I was in paradise. And it gave me a chance to explain to him why Walter Cronkite was called the most powerful man in America (sort of like what Stephen Colbert is today). Check it out next time you are in town.

In the spirit of that museum, I’ve always wanted to sign off from Washington by saying “Goodnight, Chet.”

But since I stepped back in the door back home in Stamford a couple of hours ago, I’ll simply sign off with “Good night.”

I’ll have more to say at services this Shabbat.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

AIPAC Policy Conference Day 2

Ethan and I joined others from Fairfield County early this morning for a training session in advance of our lobbying effort tomorrow. We sat with Bob Abrams, who gave Ethan a big hug (causing me to reflect on how Ethan's being here was a natural extension of the Bi-Cultural Israel trip that Bob led for Ethan’s class three years ago – it’s definitely a good thing to bring your kid to this!).

While lobbying Shays, Dodd and Lieberman to support Israel might seem as needless as lobbying the sun to go down, it actually does serve a purpose. Yes they are already supportive, but we need to thank them for their constant support, and politicians, like the rest of us, really appreciate being thanked. I can recall a meeting with Chris Shays several years back, when he had just taken a tough stand in support of Israel, and he asked why he was not hearing more from the Jewish community. Lieberman asked the same question when he was running for President. In any event, it is always good to thank. As the Psalm says, "it is good to give thanks to Adonai." Even God needs to be thanked from time to time!

Also, it is not enough merely to ask for general support on Israel, as there are specific bills that need support. And today’s plenary sessions were all about our being “on message.” The theme of the conference was that the US – Israel relationship is “built to last,” and with today’s featured speakers being Secretary Rice and Prime Minister Olmert, representing administrations with limited shelf lives, the clear message delivered was that the relationship is so solid that it is built to OUTlast both administrations.

Being “on message” meant showing how that relationship is good for both countries - and Rice scoffed at the “crude conspiracy theories” that attempt to malign the pro-Israel lobby. When Michael Oren was at Beth El last fall, he spoke of how that relationship is not subject to political whim and manipulation but is deeply ingrained in us as Americans as it is for Israelis. It is about shared values.

The messages we received were powerfully delivered though videos as well as speakers. An Israeli author born in Iraq spoke of the plight of Jewish refugees. A resident living near Sderot spoke of the horrors of daily life under Hamas bombardment.

And the most pressing message of all: Iran, Iran, Iran. We learned about the strong sanctions that are being proposed, on business, banks and oil companies that supply fuel to the Iranians (they import 40% of their refined oil, believe it or not). The clear message we were given was that Iran can still be stopped by sanctions and international pressure. On the other hand, another clear message being sent to Congress is that Israel has the right to defend itself under all circumstances. Olmert was particularly powerful this evening in stressing Israel’s right to defend itself, both regarding Gaza and Iran. He was equally effusive in praising Abbas and in hinting that there are real possibilities for a breakthrough in those negotiations, and even a possibility with Syrians.

At tonight’s banquet, well over half the House and Senate attended, plus many dignitaries from Israel and dozens of other countries. It was an impressive display of the role of AIPAC in this town and the bipartisan affinity for Israel.

I had the privilege of having lunch with Natan Sharansky (OK, and about a hundred other clergy – I actually sat with Rabbi Mark Golub, who was covering the conference for Shalom TV). Sharansky related a story about how, when Napoleon was marching through Russia and came across a Jewish shtetl on Tisha B’Av, he asked the residents why they were sitting and crying. They told him that they were mourning the loss of the temple, 1700 years before, To which Napoleon replied, “A people who can cry over something that happened that long ago is a people that will live forever.”

Yes we are a unique people, and Israel is an extraordinary country. So is America. The relationship is rock solid right now, built, as they say, to last.

Tomorrow morning we’ll hear both Clinton and Obama (Pelosi too). Tonight I had a vision as Olmert spoke so powerfully. I imagined the three of them on the podium together tomorrow morning. Hillary and Barack emerging from the wings, with Ehud between them, arms around them, the way Bill Clinton led Rabin and Arafat into the Rose Garden that fateful day not too long ago, coaxing them to shake hands. Should be interesting….

Just heard on CNN that Obama tried to call Hillary just now but "she was on a plane to Washington" so they couldn't connect the call.

We’ll see what happens on the podium tomorrow – or more likely, behind it.

Ethan sends regards. We'll be home tomorrow.

Monday, June 2, 2008

AIPAC Policy Conference: Day 1

Simultaneously bleary eyed and invigorated, I am completing my first day at the AIPAC Conference in Washington. Ethan, my 17 year old, is joining me on this road trip as a student delegate and together we left Stamford before dawn this morning, arriving in D.C . in time to catch the latter part of the morning plenary.

Imagine a room so large that the Washington Monument could fit in it horizontally, then fill that room with 7,500 supporters of Israel, people of all races and religions; throw in a heated, historic primary season that is coming to its climax right here, and toss in as well a Middle Eastern tableau that is as complex as it is explosive, and that is where we are right now.

Prior to the conference, delegates were admonished to be warm and welcoming to all guests, but the welcome for John McCain went far beyond that. It is clear that, at least at the moment, the support McCain enjoys here is unchartered territory for a Republican Presidential candidate. At a breakout session this afternoon, a straw poll of the hundreds of delegates in the room was taken and McCain seemed the clear favorite. At that point Donna Brazile, one of the panelists, lightheartedly asked for a recount.

All of this simply means that, in its own way, Barack Obama’s speech here on Wednesday might be as significant to righting his electoral ship as was his speech on race delivered several weeks ago. Sharing the stage with Hillary Clinton, just hours after the last primary vote has been cast – the presumptive nominee will need to go beyond the expected platitudes in demonstrating his toughness and his support of Israel. One panelist today speculated that he might go where John McCain did not, and throw his support behind a congressional proposal where the US would integrate Israel fully into its own missile defense system, enabling Israel to shoot down Iranian missiles while they are still over Iran (the Israeli system, the Arrow, would, when operational, only shoot them down once they are over Israel).

But today was about far more than presidential politics. It was about this weighty moment in history and our unique opportunity to impact it. In the midst of the obvious concerns, particularly involving Iran, Gaza and Lebanon, there were some pockets of hope that I could garner from the sessions I attended (among the dozens offered):

· While Gaza boils over, there has been some marked improvement in the West Bank, where the Palestinians are restoring law and order. A reporter from Ha’aretz spoke of how former Aksa Brigade terrorists have become social pariahs and are giving up arms.
· Abu Mazen is widely seen as genuinely wanting to reach an agreement, but neither he nor Olmert are much respected by their people (Olmert speaks here on Tuesday)
· Because of this, former Hoffman lecturer Dennis Ross suggested that peace can only be built from the bottom up – and progress can be shown without compromising israel’s security (he suggested that West Bank checkpoints can be maintained while Israel finds ways to expedite the process of passage through them – simply by opening up five lanes instead of one)
· We are coming close to zero hour on Iran. Knesset member Ephraim Sneh said that if Iran is on the verge of nuclear capability, “no Israeli government will allow that to happen.”
· Our most recent Hoffman lecturer, Michael Oren, lent the historical perspective this evening, comparing today’s situation to Israel’s far more precarious predicaments in 1948 and 1967. Unlike then, today Israel’s economy is flourishing and it has solid relations with China, India, man y former Soviet states and Europe, and the relations the with US have never been more solid.

“Where in history is there a story like Israel?” Oren concluded.

As the bus back to the hotel pulled away from the convention center (where we also enjoyed dinner with Darice Bailer and family), I noticed that we had a police escort; a subtle reminder of the dangers of stepping into the arena, to help make history. Dangerous, perhaps, but all the more exhilarating.

More to come…meanwhile, some comments from Ethan:

Hey everyone! I’m having a great time here in Washington D.C. at the AIPAC Conference. It is amazing to see all of the extremely notable politicians, analysts and lobbyists here. I think that this is an experience that everyone in Stamford should, eventually, be privileged to experience sometime in their lives.