Monday, November 30, 2009

Pluralism in Israel: Taking to the Streets

Here is an update received today from the Israeli Religious Action Center:

For background see: Woman wearing tallit arrested at Western Wall
The Israeli Religious Action Center
Secular Jews protest at ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem demos

Nofrat Frenkel’s arrest for wearing tallit at the Wall was the last straw. Last week, more of you read and forwarded our newsletter than ever before. You were thoroughly outraged – and rightly so. And just two nights ago, on this past Motzei Shabbat, Jerusalem’s progressive community also decided things had finally gone too far. It was time to react.

Months – if not years – of rising tension between the Haredi community and the rest of Jerusalem, from last summer’s Karta parking lot riots, to three Shabbat protests at Intel in just as many weeks, (to say nothing of last week’s arrest at the Kotel) culminated in a 2,000 person peaceful protest against religious coercion of any kind.

2,000 people – it might not sound like a lot, but in a country smaller than New Jersey, in our little Jerusalem, 2,000 people is huge. The protestors stretched from Kikar Paris, where the protest began, then marched up King George Street, filled the pedestrian walkway of Ben Yehuda, and overflowed Kikar Zion. There were signs, songs, and speeches – including one from Nofrat Frenkel.

The protest brought out a diverse crowd organized by the Forum for Free Jerusalem: Reform and Conservative Jews, secular Jerusalemites, city councilmen, and members from the Jerusalem Open House. In a special nod to Nofrat, the Masorti movement had made bumper stickers which read: “hakotel l’culam/n” – the Wall for everyone – which means women as well.

It was a protest not only against religious coercion, but FOR religious pluralism. It was inclusive, non-violent, and, notably, took place after Shabbat.

Last week, forty women were prohibited from reading Torah at the Wall. Forty women, and one arrest. This week, 2,000 people showed up to prove that what happens at the Wall affects the rest of the city.

And read Nofrat Frankel's own account - from the Forward:

Every morning, since I was 15, I have worn a tallit for prayer in my home. During my army service, I was forced to swallow many negative comments by other soldiers who prayed in the army synagogues, some of which did not even have a women’s gallery, because female soldiers never set foot in them. After leaving the army, I began to visit the Kotel every Rosh Hodesh. The atmosphere at the Kotel, the feeling that all those women praying around me were also turning to God and pouring out their hearts to Him, inspires me with the joy of Jewish fraternity. Here is one place in which, shoulder to shoulder, all the hearts are calling to God. more

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren

Mara and I arrived in Providence for the Thanksgiving college pickup early this afternoon - a new ritual for us - just in time to hear Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren speak at Brown. As you can see from the Providence Journal's coverage of the event, perhaps the most newsworthy aspect of it was how uneventful it was. Given the charged climate of anything involving Israel on college campuses, plus the charged and uncivil climate of just about any discussion these days, I was expecting significant protests and hecklers. There were none, neither inside the packed hall nor on the street outside the building.

Perhaps that was due to the timing, which the Ambassador described as "Erev Yontiff." But, while students were beginning to scurry over the river and through the woods, I don't think so. It was heartening to see that he could be received so warmly on a campus that, despite its large and active Jewish population, is also perceived as being very liberal on foreign policy matters, which at times has led to anti-Israel activity.

Or maybe the protesters have met their match in Oren. Maybe the word has gone out not to challenge this guy. He is the simply the best advocate Israel has had on this side of the Atlantic since Abba Eban - and unlike Eban, he speaks English (and Hebrew, he confesses) with a distinctly American twang. And his English is not a techno-smooth monotone like Prime Minister Netanyahu's, but more like the calming cadence of your doctor, or at least the guy who plays a doctor on TV. As we discovered when he was the Hoffman lecturer at Beth El two years ago (see highlights of that appearance here), he speaks our language in more ways than one. He understands the core reasons for the unique relationship between America and Israel, a bond that transcends administrations and political parties. He made a strong case that the relationship with the current administration is every bit as solid as it was with the prior one, that Sec. Rice was over there complaining about settlements every bit as much as George Mitchell might be now.

He made the case for "natural growth" of settlements (upward not outward), accompanied by the partial freeze negotiated between the Israeli and American governments, and he spoke of the eventual need to redraw borders and for each side to give up part of its dream. As a noted historian of the region, he claimed to have a deep understanding of the Palestinian "narrative" as well as the Israeli. But his main focus was Iran. He stated that Israel and America are absolutely on the same page right now, and that we are, over the next few weeks, likely to see a transitioning from the engagement-in-dialogue stage toward a consensus for crippling sanctions. Israel was consulted in the formation of the sanctions protocol. These next few weeks are therefore crucial.

Oren was asked about the Gilad Shalit deal, and he said that he had just spoken to the Israeli leadership only 90 minutes before this appearance, and was told that no deal is in place.

His most moving response was to a question about his having to renounce his American citizenship, a requirement of the American government (not Israel's) when one takes a position like this in a foreign government. He described a tearful ceremony of renunciation that took place in the American Embassy in Tel Aviv. He admitted, however, that in ceasing to be an American, he did not have to renounce his love of football and turkey, and he added that he was looking forward to Thanksgiving. Plus, he was told that if he remains married to an American, when he leaves the government, he could apply for a Green Card.

He said that he is in a good position to interpret Israel's ways to American audiences, but that he also could help explain America to Israelis, adding that Israelis have no idea what all the fuss is here over health care. In speaking of that fuss, he also expressed a grave concern that a lack of civility in political discourse can have dire consequences - he said that as one who worked closely with Prime Minister Rabin at the time of his assassination.

He spoke eloquently and was received warmly. Israel's most important foreign diplomatic position is being filled by just the right man at just the right time.

Job, Jobs And Jobs: Turning The Page (Jewish Week)

by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

I’ve been thinking about Job lately. Not “job” as in “employment,” though the rate of joblessness keeps rising to staggering proportions, or Jobs, the Apple CEO who defied death this year, while keeping his liver transplant a secret from his stockholders, but Job the biblical figure and inspiration for the Coen brothers’ much-discussed film, “A Serious Man.”

Or maybe I’ve been thinking about all three. Because those who are suffering, whether Job, Jobs or jobless, all share the same need to turn the page, to move on, to emerge from the shadow of death renewed and refreshed, back and better than ever.

That is precisely what happens at the end of the book of Job. God appears in a whirlwind to inform Job that it is pointless for humans to seek discernible moral patterns in God’s ways. The skies clear, and at the book’s end we find our hero thriving once again. He is blessed with thousands of sheep, camels, oxen and she-asses, seven sons and three beautiful daughters. Job lives 140 additional years, sees four generations of progeny and dies old and contented.

I’ve always been bothered by that ending. It may work as a fitting bookend to the fractured fairytale prologue, but it denies the existence of everything in between. When we first meet Job, he also has seven sons and three daughters. Then God makes the Faustian bargain and everything is wiped out, meaning that the sons and daughters of the last chapter are different sons and daughters. The happily-ever-after Job must have had at least seven yahrtzeits for that first set, plus a body and psyche ravaged by the scars of victimhood. How could he recover so effortlessly? How could he have been able to leave it all behind?

I recently had the privilege of hearing Elie Wiesel discuss Job at the 92nd Street Y. In addressing the end of the book, Wiesel spoke of the fine line separating faith from insanity, suggesting that a little madness might be required in order to maintain a posture of belief in the face of an unjust world. He postulated that Job did not fear an unjust God so much as an apathetic one. Once he heard from God directly, he could regain his balance, knowing that even if no divine reward were coming, at least God was there.

The Jewish experience has been such that the book of Job has not only been read from generation to generation, it has been lived. And, at the end of each trial, in the face of each encounter with absurdity, each generation has gotten up from the dung heap and chosen life.

As Wiesel put it, in recalling Deuteronomy’s call to “choose life,” the word for life, chayim, also means “the living.” For him, and for all survivors since Job, the only real choice has been to choose the living — as illogical as it that choice might at times appear. It may seem like madness to move on, but it is also the secret of Jewish survival. So Job had to move beyond mourning his dead kids to celebrate life with the living ones, just as so many Holocaust survivors have astonished us with their ability to embrace life and build new families.

So now I understand Job’s motives better, but I’m still troubled. Does turning the page require a self-imposed amnesia? The Torah, after all, commands us to remember, zachor, rather than simply to get over it. Wiesel’s life’s work has been built on the basis of fostering memory. And now, with events bombarding us at a frenetic pace, we are often too quick to put yesterday’s news behind us.

One gets the impression that, with this year’s stock market’s rebound, we are living out the Wall Street version of that epilogue to Job. The recession is far from over, but once unemployment figures begin to decline, I’ve a feeling that we’ll be celebrating like it’s 2007 — as if the intervening horrible two years never happened. Already we are seeing the return of exorbitant bonuses, astronomical bank profits and a relaxation of the pressure for regulation and reform.

Jewish organizations, too, seem to have learned little from the cataclysm that we’ve just endured. They’ve been chastened, but have they really changed the way they do business? Too many are trying simply to turn the page.

We may be the people of the book, but we are not the people of the page. Our most sacred text is in the form of a scroll, not a book, and scrolls have no pages. The beginning, middle and end are all interconnected, the one flowing into the next seamlessly — and when there are seams, they are hand woven together, without the slightest gap or tear. Jews don’t turn pages; we scroll with the punches.

Ironically, the next stage of literary technology is taking us back from the printed page to the seamless flow of words and stories. The journey from scroll to book to Kindle is, in reality, a round trip.

Rumor has it that Steve Jobs was dismissive of the Kindle when first released it in 2007, saying, “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore.” But now, with the Apple Tablet set to appear, the master futurist may have been humbled by his recent brush with death. Instead of turning the page, he too is scrolling down as he scrambles to catch up.

Elie Wiesel believes that when we hear the story of a witness, we too become witnesses. The story lives on; a living scroll ever unfolding. All that is must flow from all that came before, no matter how painful those memories can be.

“Because I remember, I despair,” Wiesel says, then adding, “Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.”

Which is why we can never really turn the page.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.

Is the Turkey Really Kosher?

This is a legitmate halachic question, since the turkey is not one of the birds listed as kosher in Leviticus. But common practice has determined that it is - so no need to worry.

For more, see this article:

With Columbus' serendipitous discovery of the "New World", came not only the blessing of a new land in which Jews would find a safe haven, but also unknown species of flora and fauna with which the halachic system would have to deal. Turkey, a New World bird, is a good example of this. According to the National Turkey Federation, Israel leads the world in turkey consumption. At a whopping 26.9 pounds per capita in 1996, Israelis consumed about 45% more than Americas, who are the world's number two consumers. How is it that the turkey, the quintessential New World species which Benjamin Franklin proposed as the national bird of the United States, has become so universally accepted as a kosher species that Israel leads the world in its consumption? To appreciate the question one must understand how fowl are classified as permissible or forbidden, and to recognize why a "new" species of fowl presents a significant halachic challenge.






You can also hear a complete halachic shiur (lecture) here

Happy eating!

A Special Senior Sermon

Rafi Lehmann died the day after Yom Kippur this year. He was a few months shy of 28 years old. A month before his death, Rafi fell and broke several bones. A chain of events led to a spiraling decline, the ICU, unconsciousness, and death. He was just about to begin his last year of rabbinical school at JTS. Last week was when he had planned to deliver his senior sermon at the Seminary. His father, Rabbi Allan Lehmann, shared that sermon with fellow rabbis, and I delivered it last Shabbat. Several requested that I post it, which I have, below.

Parashat Toledot—Senior Homiletics -- Rafi Lehmann
Growing up in Florida, even the biggest hill in my hometown of Gainesville seemed quite insignificant in hindsight. It was a late summer morning in Northern Jerusalem, and I had just arrived the day before on a group flight with forty plus university students from all over the North American continent. We were up early with the sun after being awoken by the crow of a nearby rooster. I was living in the French Hill neighborhood in student dormitories at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Feeling a little bit jetlagged a few of the other newcomers and I began our trek to campus to get ourselves registered for Summer Ulpan and became better acquainted with what I would soon regard as the big scary monster of Israeli bureaucracy. Gradually, as a group, we climbed up the Churchill Boulevard, a World War I cemetery on our left and a pristine, glistening view of Jerusalem on the right—it was really quite distracting. Once arriving on the campus we walked to the Rothberg International School building and began the registration experience. By the time we finished it was lunchtime and asked the folks in the Rothberg building if they had any recommendations for lunch. Without missing a beat, we were directed to the Frank Sinatra Cafeteria—a cafeteria-style eatery with all kinds of a la carte Israeli specialties. A group of a dozen American students that arrived on the group flight the day before sat together in the corner of the dining hall. The food was good and rather filling, we happened to see the representative from the New York office that escorted us on the group flight having a cup of coffee with a friend, we bid her a pleasant afternoon and we were on our way to set up our campus emails.

It was there when it happened. An earth shattering noise that sent car alarms blaring. After a bit of confusion, it soon became clear that the noise was an explosion and about an hour later I was informed that the bombing occurred in the very cafeteria in which I stood only ten minutes earlier.


I don’t share this story with you out of a heartfelt desire to gain sympathy for a difficult experience that I went through, rather upon first reading this week’s parashah, Parashat Toledot, a particular piece of its narrative stuck out for me and it’s a thought that I remember exclaiming to myself that afternoon at Hebrew University. Very early on in the parashah, we encounter Rivka Emeinu (our mother) in the midst of what could only be characterized as a difficult pregnancy. Genesis 25:22 reads, “V’yitrotzatzu habanim b’kirba”—“And the children struggled together inside of her.”—she was having twins. Now, this is interesting and certainly chomer l’drush (material for interpretation) -as Rashi would even say in so many words- in and of itself. But I’m more interested in the second half of the verse. The text goes on, “vatomer, im kayn, LAMAH ZEH ANOKHI?!”—“If it is so, why me?” Why is this happening to me? The 12th century biblical exegete, Avraham ibn Ezra, understood this to be a question asked by Rebecca and being addressed to other women—if they had experienced similar travails while pregnant themselves, and their answer is a resounding no. Ibn Ezra taught that Rebecca’s response should be read as follows: “If pregnancy is generally experienced differently than the way that It is occurring to me, why is my pregnancy different?”

Ibn Ezra, without question exposes us to a very contextual, text-based reading of the verse. But I want to approach this question that Rebecca is asking from a different perspective altogether. I’m not convinced that Rebecca’s question is purely a scientific one—far from it. Rather, Rebecca’s question strikes at the very core of her being, her very existence. In the Zohar, from the section entitled “Midrash Ha’Ne’elam” we learn that Rebecca’s question should be understood to mean, lamah nivrayti?” or “Why was I created?”

“Why is this happening to me?” is one of life’s questions that many of us ask ourselves during trying times. It almost never has associated with it an easy answer. However, when asking such profound, deeply existential questions, it is rarely the “answers” that prove to be the most revelatory—at times, merely getting to the source, the heart of the question proves to be truly transformative and perhaps even “life-changing.” It could boil down to the question of what is my purpose, my motivation, my very role in this seemingly complex web of a universe in which I find myself.

I find Rebecca’s next move in the saga to be meaningful and quite instructive and it has helped me on my own life journey. The Torah teaches us that immediately following the matriarch’s deep question of “Why me?!” the text goes on with “Vataylekh l’drosh et Adonai”—“And she went to go seek guidance from God.” At this difficult, and self-definitional time, after having asked the all-important question, Rebecca seeks out God, the Source of Life, in order to better understand her purpose, perhaps even to seek out support from the one called “El Rachum v’Hanun.” Again, it is important to emphasize that she is not necessarily in search of answers, justifications, or a rationale for her excruciating situation.

It is exactly those trying moments when we yearn for proximity to the Force in the universe that we understand to be larger than ourselves. There is a desire to transform the chaotic, unintelligible present with an ordered discernible future.

That extremely difficult summer afternoon, and the days, weeks, and months that followed it led me to be a “doresh haShem”—a seeker, in an unquestionably deeper manner than I had experienced before that moment. In a sense, that “drishah” took place much more within than “without.” I have to admit, initially on an emotional level, I wanted answers—who was responsible? How could this happen? What could motivate a human being to be capable of such blatant hatred of the “other” to the extent that a heinous act like this was even possible!? Once the initial emotional, and even a bit exasperated response calmed a bit, it became an opportunity for heshbon nefesh (soul searching) and a genuine chance to reflect quite personally and confront life’s big questions: “what’s my purpose,” “what’s the very nature of my existence”… “LAMAH ZEH ANOKHI?”—The likes of which we so instructively observe Rivka pursuing in our parashah.

Master of the Universe, help us to embrace opportunities to reflect upon and better understand what it is that gives our lives purpose, direction, and a deep sense of meaning. While we will almost certainly encounter “birth pangs” in the process, grant us the strength and courage to prevent them from becoming stumbling blocks on our respective journeys.

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Jordan Ganz on Vayshlach

Shabbat Shalom!

When I began to learn about my portion, I came to understand that it is really telling the story of my life. No, I didn’t sleep on a rock, have weird dreams, go off to a foreign country and marry four wives. But in other ways, the story of Jacob in this portion really hit home for me, even as Jacob was LEAVING home.

The title of the portion, “Vayetze,” means “and he went out,” and it’s all about Jacob’s journey, the first time he ever went away from home

On the first night of his journey, Jacob was understandably nervous, and he had a dream about angels on a ladder, going up and coming down.

Probably this dream came as a result of Jacob’s own fears of traveling alone for the first time. OR, the restless night could have been caused by the fact that his pillow was a rock …. And by the way, the word for rock in Hebrew is evan… just like my brother, who has always been a rock for me, someone I can rely on. Just an interesting coincidence.

With all of Jacob’s concern about traveling, it is interesting that the traditional Jewish traveler’s prayer includes a verse from the end of this portion.

So what does this have to do with me?

Well. I’m not the best traveler. I love it once I get there, but it’s the getting from here to there that I’m not so crazy about! So I can understand why Jacob was so nervous that he actually made a deal with God, saying “If you watch over me and get me back here safely, you can be my God.”

As much as I don’t love to travel, I know that traveling is an important part of growing up. Every new experience has helped. Going away to camp has helped most of all.

At nine years old, I went away for my first summer to Brant Lake Camp in the Adirondacks, for 7 weeks. I had checked it out the summer before on sibling day. Evan had been going there for several years and my cousin Bradford had been there too.

I was very nervous to go somewhere without my parents, a place I didn't know anyone. Each summer, I get anxious about going away to camp, but my parents encourage and support me. And each summer, it gets a little easier to leave home. The good news is, each summer at camp gets better and better!

I’ve learned how to be more mature, independent and make many good friends. I've enjoyed sailing, kayaking, lacrosse, baseball and color war with my friends, to name a few of my favorite activities.

Growing up doesn’t just happen at camp, but also from experiences I’ve had on other journeys, even ones close to home. When I was 8 years old, I broke my arm on the slide at our club. I was very brave the whole time. I made the best of my summer and had a wet cast, so I can still swim and enjoy our vacation at Aunt Andrea and Uncle Bob's beach house in Amagansett.
I tried not to complain, and when the cast came off, I told my mom that this was one of my best summers. Having had this first experience at the hospital prepared me for the next time when I went to the hospital for a hernia operation a couple of years ago. I wasn't scared at all and my family members were all there for me.

Aside from my parents, grandparents and other family members, two other family members have really helped me to grow up: Evan and Benji, our dog.

Evan has helped me improve in sports, school and other aspects of my life. When he comes home from college, we both look forward to our baseball and lacrosse catches in our backyard. We've probably had a few hundred catches, but we both still really enjoy that time together.
I always wanted to have a dog, since I was a little boy. FINALLY, my parents made it happen! It just so happens that when Evan went away to college, we got Benji, our 2 1/2 year old Shih-Tzu. Evan thought we got Benji, to replace him, so he wasn't crazy about this whole idea. But every time, he came home he enjoyed him more. After time, they bonded, too.

When I get home from school, I say hello to Benji and play with him, before I even say hello to my parents. He greets me at the door, wagging his tail and I drop my backpack and immediately start playing with him, Benji licking me all over, so happy to see me. Having Benji has taught me responsibilities and caring for a pet.

For my mitzvah project, I conducted a food drive for the Food Bank in Stamford. I collected 300 pounds of food and delivered them. I sorted and stocked the shelves with my friends. Some people donated money, for me to do the shopping. From that experience, I learned it is a mitzvah to help others who are in need and that feeling makes me feel better about who I am as a person. I also will be serving meals with my Mom, to get the true meaning of my mitzvah project.

Just like Jacob, I’ve started out on a long journey. And every step of the way has helped to grow.

Talkin' Turkey About Ethical Eating

At the recent Reform movement biennial, two major initiatives were proposed, both of which are already part of our agenda. Read a summary of the hi tech initiative here -
4 great suggestions for integrating technology into synagogue life.

The other initiative has to do with eating ethically, and includes a recommendation to build community gardens. Well, guess what we've been doing this past week! Our TBE garden is nearly complete. By next Thanksgiving we'll be ready for a feast with the Natives. We'll bring our first fruits up to Foxwoods and have a feast!

The drive for ethical eating is a major trend cutting across the board (or this week, "carving" across the board) of the denominations. The Conservative movement is promoting it's new ethical kashrut certification Magen Tzedek (see also Magen Tzedek: Model of the Jewish Future or Show Without an Audience?) and in light of the Rubashkin fiasco (see also the Forward editorial here), Orthodox groups have been proclaiming the need to promote "Yosher" over "Kosher" (in other words, ethical behavior to match ritual strictness in food production).

See for the Reform Movement's recommendations on eating ethically and for families with kids this week, check out their material on Celebrating Thanksgiving Jewishly.

See especially the Food for Thought Curriculum, an extensive guide to ethical eating, created in partnership with Hazon, leaders of the new Jewish food movement, to prepare this special Food for Thought curriculum designed for adult education and religious school classes. In this three-part series, you’ll learn how to consecrate your food through Jewish blessing, think critically about the ethical implications of food choices and food systems, and discover the real effects of red meat consumption.

I used material that curriculum in my class on ethical eating given at last Saturday night's Tapestry program. You can see some of the other materials I used here as we looked at the values symbolized by our "Jewish" foods and taboos and some of the sources promoting vegetarianism.

With all the scandals that have shamed us this past year, perhaps the Agriprocessors scandal has the most potential to yield a positive outcome. Ethical eating makes sense on so many levels, environmentally and economically in addition to all the community building that can take place when you have a community garden such as the one we are building. And then there are the ethical concerns themselves, involving the treatment of animals as well as human laborers. I have been reading Jonathan Safron Foer's new book "Eating Animals" and highly recommend it. But if you are not a vegetarian, you might want to wait until after Thursday's main course is served.

Once you read it, your next Thanksgiving meal might just consist of things harveested from our TBE Community Garden!

Happy (and ethical) eating!

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Health Care Debate: Notes and Sources

I've received some very thoughtful response to my posting about Joe Lieberman and the issue of filibustering the Health Care bill, which I appreciate, no matter what side of the issue they are on. Unfortunately, the tone of a couple of responses was such that I couldn't publish them. The respondents clearly had not read my own posting, which took no position on the bill, or on the public option, but made a strong (and rather conservative) case that nothing should distract from Iran right now. My feeling is that whatever bill is passed on health care can be tinkered with and fixed over the coming years, but that an Iranian nuclear weapon will be irreversible.

It is becoming painfully clear that, thanks to the polarizing effect of advocacy journalism, all of politics has now become what only Middle Eastern politics used to be: people talking past each other and not really listening. Health care has become a domestic version of the Arab-Israeli conflict; so has just about everything else. When Walter Cronkite died this year, it symbolized the end of the era when everyone got their news from a common source (granted, not a totally unbiased one, but at least not what Fox and MSNBC have become). And while the Internet carries the potential to open people up to other views, more often it becomes an echo chamber where one's own opinions are reinforced. Sad, but, unlike an Iranian bomb (and like Health Care), not irreversible.

One response to my Lieberman posting contained this request:

I would like to hear more from Rabbi Hammerman on how the current political events are related to the Jewish law, traditions and culture. For example, I heard from Dennis Prager that Talmud advises against acceptance of free medical services and I heard also that according to Talmud a doctor cannot refuse to provide medical services to the person who cannot pay.

Your wish is my command!

Click here for Dr Rambam's prescription for health care, which I provided a couple of months ago in advance of a discussion at services. As a physician and rabbi, Maimonides understood that the key to a sound mind was to maintain a sound body.

In his Mishna Torah, Maimonides listed the top ten services that must be provided by any community. It is noteworthy that #1 on his list is health care. What was true 9 centuries ago is true today.23) It is not permitted for a learned sage to live in a town which does not have the following ten things: a doctor, a blood-letter, a wash-house, a toilet, naturally occurring water such as a river or spring, a synagogue, a midwife, a scribe, a warden of charity and a Court of Law which imprisons people.

Rabbi Gail Labovitz explores Jewish sources in this posting. Much of the Jewish view stems from Exodus 21:19, which discusses a case in which one person has injured another in an altercation. The Torah rules that the assailant must see to it that the victim receives necessary medical attention: וְרַפֹּא יְרַפּ אֵ , "He shall certainly heal him.” See Labovitz's commentary for more details on how the Talmud interprets that verse.

Jewish law clearly places health care as a prime communal obligation. Whether "communal" implies the government is a matter for conjecture - and that is where the two sides of this debate divide.

In the interest of being "fair and balanced," here is what conservative commentator David Klinghoffer had to say about Health Care and Jewish sources. I couldn't find anything as articulate on this subject from Dennis Prager, though I'm sure he has addressed it.

I'm impressed by how this blogger handled the matter, providing a number of sources. I hope you will take the time to read them. So here are the sources... now you decide!

Jewish Law and Health Care

Many Jewish groups have been speaking out about the current debate surrounding health care reform, with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism even setting up a separate web site, Jews for Health Care Reform. Usually I believe that Judaism never comes down on one side of a public policy debate, rather it demands certain behaviors and the upholding of values, but whether these necessitate a specific political platform is often unclear. The demands that Jewish law places on a Jewish community in relation to its members might not translate into a call for civil legislation. For example, Judaism definitely holds charity and help for the poor to be a supreme value and goal, but how does this necessarily translate into politics and government. Someone who supports a minimalist version of government help to the needy may claim that from a macro standpoint they think that this is the best way to help the poor. A recent example of how a movement might be able to agree on the long-term goals, but disagrees on how to get there is the discussion within the Conservative movement about living wage legislation. There have been a number of interesting posts recently which have argued that Jewish law and ethics may actually require that one support universal health care. Whether support for universal health care necessarily equals support for the current health care reform is another question. Here are some of them:

1. Elliot Dorff,
Why We Must Support Universal Health Care

2. Shmuly Yanklowitz,
The Health-Care Battle: A Jewish Issue? (warning: the HTML is messed up on this page)
3. Brad Hirschfield,
The Jewish Source for Universal Health Care

There are two scholarly articles on this question which look very interesting. I haven’t read them, so I can’t comment on them.

1. Aaron L. Mackler,
Judaism, Justice, and Access to Health Care, Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal – Volume 1, Number 2, June 1991, pp. 143-1612.
Noam Zohar,
A Jewish Perspective on Access to Healthcare, Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics (1998), 7, 260-265.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Good News from Israel

Here's the unnoticed, good news coming from Israel, as compiled by Daily Alert.

Israeli Invention Allows for Early Detection of Cancerous Skin Tumors - Dan Even

A new Israeli invention allows cancerous tumors on the skin to be detected and examined before they become visible to the naked eye, Ben-Gurion University announced. The developer of the new instrument, Ofir Aharon, a doctoral student at the electrophysiological department at Ben-Gurion University, said the technology "allows manipulation of different light frequencies and adjustments to electric fields to examine skin lesions." (Ha'aretz)

Tel Aviv University Develops New Wound Dressing with Antibiotics

About 70% of all people with severe burns die from related infections. But a revolutionary new wound dressing developed at Tel Aviv University could cut that number dramatically. Prof. Meital Zilberman of TAU's Department of Biomedical Engineering has developed a new wound dressing based on fibers she engineered that can be loaded with drugs like antibiotics to speed up the healing process, and then dissolve when they've done their job. A study published in the Journal of Biomedical Materials Research - Applied Biomaterials demonstrates that, after only two days, this dressing can eradicate infection-causing bacteria. The new dressing protects the wound until it is no longer needed, after which it melts away. (Medical News)

Bone Repair "Breakthrough" at Hadassah - Judy Siegel-Itzkovich

A team at Jerusalem's Hadassah University Medical Center has managed to separate platelets and adult stem cells from the blood and bone marrow of patients with fractures and inject them - causing the bones to meld in a quarter to third of the time and repairing some breaks that would have failed to heal. (Jerusalem Post)

Israel Water Tech Thrives in Weakened Economy - Ari Rabinovitch

Israel's water technology sector has prospered despite the global financial crisis, largely due to global stimulus packages and penetration in developing countries, officials said on Wednesday. Water companies benefit from both infrastructure and cleantech spending, both cornerstones of stimulus packages. Water recycling company Aqwise, whose system breeds bacteria to break down organic waste, saw its sales increase 50% in 2009. (Reuters)

G-dcast for Toldot

Parshat Toldot from

More Torah cartoons at

Warning from the creators of G-Dcast, This episode used Midrash, which is interpretation of biblical stories that can "fill in the gaps" about Torah text. We don't generally use midrash in this series, and wanted to make sure you realized that it's at play this week in the storytelling, when Y-Love talks about Rebecca's difficult pregnancy and about Esau's character. Also, our animation functions as a sort of midrash - it's very, er, cartoonish - some would say, over the top!
Bottom line: We encourage you to pick up a copy of the Torah (or use an online source) and read parshat Toldot for yourself. Compare and contrast the simple text with Y-Love's midrashically inflected G-dcast and see what you think for yourself about the story, the characters, and its meaning.

Palin: "Jews Need a Place to Live"

I would say that it is scary to think of how little Sarah Palin understands about Israel, except that the chances of her ever being in a position of real power are about as great as Netanyahu becoming the supreme ayatollah. But her claim on ABC that "Jews need a place to live" as the reason for continued settlement construction demonstrates her lack of understanding that the construction being promoted is for natural growth from within the community, not immigration from without.

BTW, the current controversy concerns building around Gilo,which for over 40 years has been part of Jerusalem, not what Israelis and most American Jews would even consider a settlement. When it was being shelled 400 times by Palestinians from Bet Jala a few years ago, it was hardly considered a settlement.

The Wikipedia entry states: Gilo lies within Jerusalem's municipal boundaries and is geographically contiguous to surrounding Jewish neighborhoods that pre-dated the Six Day War. Some media outlets, including The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, Associated Press, Boston Globe and CBS News, have described Gilo as a "neighborhood".[22] A CNN memorandum to its staff stated that "We refer to Gilo as a 'Jewish neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem'... We don't refer to it as a settlement."[23] The United States government also refrains from classifying Gilo and other East Jerusalem locales as settlements, instead referring to them as neighborhoods.[24]

Many of us have visited Gilo, particularly when it was suffering from those traumatic attacks. I was amazed at how the people were able to stand up to them.

So maybe Sarah Palin was speaking of the people of Gilo as Jews who need a place to live.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Arrest at the Kotel

See this editorial below from the Forward. Also see: Police arrest female activist after donning prayer shawl at Western Wall (Ha'aretz) and, for more partisan views from each side: Police Arrest, Release Woman with Prayer Shawl at Kotel (Arutz Sheva blames the victim), and from Pajamas Media, The Jewish Taliban in Jerusalem. I like the suggestion here of a third section at the Kotel, but the fact is that am egalitarian section already exists, at the Robinson's Arch section of the wall where Masorti (Conservative) groups often pray. That section is much more peaceful, much more interesting and scenic and every bit as holy. The Women of the Wall have tended not to want to pray there, however.

The worn, mammoth stones tell a powerful story of Jewish spirituality, resistance, and allegiance. But today, the Kotel is speaking a language that most Jewish women and men cannot accept.

An Israeli woman was arrested by the holy wall on November 18 for the alleged crime of wearing a prayer shawl, an act of devotion common in many American synagogues. The self-named rabbinic authorities deride such behavior, claiming it is offensive to their ever-rigid standards of what they believe is true Judaism.

But for many women, the act of prayer is incomplete without a tallit, much as one would not approach the ancient stones stark naked. With this arrest, the first in memory, the authorities guarding Jerusalem’s holiest site have taken their intolerance and arrogance to a new and dangerous level. In another land, in another culture, this would be held up as the antediluvian act of the modesty police. Somehow in modern-day Israel, it is accepted.

There are ways to make the Kotel welcoming to Jews of differing practices. Writing in our Sisterhood blog, contributing editor Debra Nussbaum Cohen suggested that a third section, for egalitarian worship, be created alongside the ones for men and women. No doubt there are other creative ideas for sharing this sacred space.

Unless it is truly shared, those Jews who do not follow ultra-Orthodoxy ­ that is, most Jews ­ will feel increasingly unwelcome in what is supposed to be the touchstone of their homeland. That is something an embattled Israel can neither desire nor afford.

Friday, November 13, 2009

G-dcast for Hayye Sarah

Parshat Chayei Sarah from

More Torah cartoons at

Stamford and Anatevka: Our Little Village

That ringing you heard at about 9 this morning was the sound of a gaggle of worried parents calling their realtors, considering a flight from Stamford, after reading the headline story in today's Advocate about yesterday's tension at Westhill High School, which led to six arrests.

You want to hear about tension? I witnessed a full fledged riot yesterday afternoon, as hundreds of Stamford school students fled for their lives, not from mere gang members, but bloodthirsty Cossacks bent on killing, evicting and generally destroying a centuries-old way of life.

Of course, what I saw wasn't really happening. It was a rehearsal for the all-school performance of "Fiddler on the Roof," which will be presented at the Rippowam Middle School next month. Students from every school in the city are in the cast (full disclosure: including my son Dan), both public and private schools are represented, including parochial and day schools, a hundred of them on a single stage, kids from all religious and ethnic backgrounds and all ages. This production is, in a word: fantastic. It also demonstrates what is absolutely fantastic about Stamford and why those frightful families would be horribly mistaken to flee.

More full disclosure: both my kids have attended Westhill and thrived there, socially and academically. They have been able to go as far as they wished to push themselves (with a little parental nudge from time to time) and most of their teachers have challenged them to do just that. They and their friends are getting into the very best colleges; but more importantly, they are being prepared for life, real life, in an atmosphere that is far more nurturing than it is tense.

When I picked Dan up at school yesterday and asked him about the police presence, he had no idea that there had even been an incident.

The school is not without its faults - the entire school system has faults. Incidents involving violence cannot be taken lightly. But leave here? Leave a town that has farmland, city and sea, with bustling restaurants, fascinating neighborhoods, balloon parades and Jerry Springer?

But I digress. Because I want to tell you more about Anatevka.

I went to the "Fiddler" rehearsal yesterday at the invitation of the organizers, as the cast's official rabbinic advisor. It turns out that the kids wanted to know something about the little world they were inhabiting on stage and the tragi-comic characters they were portraying. I came in expecting a few simple questions about what "mazal tov" means or why we light candles on the Sabbath. I was overwhelmed at the sophistication and depth of their questions.

I began with a brief overview of the tumultuous period when the play takes place, those decades just before and after the turn of the 20th century, when Jews living in the Eastern European Pale of Settlement under Czarist rule. I explained that this was a time of jarring change, of modernization confronting traditional societies, that most Jews were confined to shtetls, living among themselves. The cultural mix was extremely rich and diverse in the shtetl, with religious Jews mingling with socialists (hello, Perchik!), secularists and Zionists. But most, like Tevye, simply struggled to get by on their wits and their wisdom.

Things got turned upside down in 1881, when Czar Alexander II was assassinated. The Jews were blamed. We discussed what the word "scapegoat" means and why the Russian government found the Jews to be a convenient victim around which they could bolster their flagging popularity. This led to anti Jewish rioting known as pogroms, featuring murder, maiming and eviction, leading to a mass immigration of 2 million Jews to America by 1920.

I pointed out to the kids the great historical irony that, had these 2 million not come to America in the early 20th century, they and their children would likely have been killed in the Holocaust that followed a few decades later. Some would call it the miracle of Jewish survival. Since all of my grandparents were among those huddled masses, I'm not one to dispute that point.

May God bless and thank the Czar... for kicking out 2 million Jews!

But "Fiddler" would not be so universally adored were it only about the Jewish experience. I sensed from this very diverse group of students a desire to wrap their arms around these characters and make them their own. So they had lots of questions. It got to the point where the director said "last question" about a dozen times, and even then, kids came up to me after they were dismissed. Bear in mind that I was the only thing standing between a long day of school and rehearsals, and their dinner. When finally it was time to leave, we agreed that I'd respond to any other queries via e-mail.

They asked relatively simple questions, like why people kiss the mezuzah on the doorpost or spit three times to ward off the evil eye. And then there were tough ones. Why did the family sit shiva for the daughter who married a non Jew? I explained, as sensitively as possible, the emotions that were behind such an action, and how Jews have always seen immortality less in terms of their own souls' ascent to heaven as in their children and subsequent generations carrying on the faith.


Then another toughie: Why weren't girls and boys allowed to dance together in the wedding scene? Keep in mind that these questions were being asked, in large part, by cast members who are not Jewish. In the play itself, Tevye expects the audience to have only simple questions about matters like "why we keep our heads covered and why we wear these little prayer shawls." Evidently, the students of Stamford schools are far more curious and more sophisticated than the typical Broadway crowd of the mid 1960s.

And less afraid to ask.

I paused for a moment and decided not to get into a detailed discussion of the subject of sexual contact (for more details, see my recent posting Ask the rabbi: Does my hand have a disease?") Definitely not the right place for that. So I just talked about how traditional people of all faiths are concerned about modesty; for Jews, that meant very little contact between boys and girls until marriage.

They asked whether Yenta the matchmaker still exists. Yes, I said, only now she's got a new name: J-date (which of course they had no idea about, so I added, "or E-Harmony"). Someone asked whether rabbis are revered as much now as they were then. I smirked knowingly at a few Jewish parents in attendance, said something like "If only!" and spoke of how the prime role is - and was - to be a teacher and as such to be respected because of the teachings we represent.

Then it occurred to me. These kids come from as many backgrounds as there probably were on the boat that brought my grandparents over, from Minsk and Smorgon and wherever (you can find your own ancestors at ). What an experience, for them to be in this show together. How amazing, for Tevye to be bemoaning intermarriage when one of his five daughters is African American, another is Asian - and he's Catholic! How incredible, that despite these confusing mixed messages, somehow this production of "Fiddler" makes perfect sense, to them, to a Jew with a traditional background like me, and maybe it would have even to Shalom Aleichem himself, a man who embraced life's messy absurdities, saying, "No matter how bad things get you got to go on living, even if it kills you."

One of the youngest cast members is the fiddler (he fits the requirements to play from that roof: small, agile and talented). He asked me about the symbolism of the fiddle. I mentioned that Jews have long gravitated to that instrument, including several of the world's most famous violinists. Maybe because it's music comes closest to a human cry. The emphasis there is on both words: "human" and "cry." Balancing that song of life in a world so shaky is no easy trick. Which is why we love these characters so much.

The original Tevye of the Shalom Aleichem books suffered much more than his watered down Broadway version. A daughter actually converts out of the faith and another child commits suicide. Novelist Dara Horn noted how her students came to see this literary Tevye as "a model for the Jewish people—because of his talent for “rolling with the punches,” because of his reservoir of inner strength, and because of his unique ability, woven from modern irony and sacred text, to forge meaning out of the absurdity that is so often the Jewish condition. In navigating a new world where being Jewish or even American can mean being a living target, Tevye, whose world was no less absurd, became their guide. Quoting the Mishnah, a Rabbinic text, Tevye often said, “You live regardless of your own will.” Tevye’s “translation”? “A person’s life is never pointless.”"

The Jewish condition is in fact the human condition. But in order to understand that, you need to live in a place where you are exposed to the widest possible variations of the human. You need to breathe the air of difference. That rarely can happen in a gated community, or in some of the towns nearby where homogenity is the rule. You can't put on a play like "Fiddler" in Stepford. You can only do it in a place like Stamford.

But in our little village of Anatevka, everyone of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a simple, pleasant tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. Why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous? I'll tell you, I don't know, but it's a tradition!"

Are we talking about a roof in Anatevka - or the cafeteria at Westhill?

Only in a place like Stamford can this play resonate so full-throatedly, despite all the seeming contradictions and inconsistencies. I cannot imagine having brought up my kids anywhere else.

A Catholic Tevye kissing a mezuzah? Sounds crazy, no?

Why Friday the 13th is a Lucky Day for Jews

Why is Friday the 13th a lucky day for Jews? See my prior posting: Friday the 13th: Jason and Freddie Make Shabbos.

And also, note the following, from a now-defunct website for an Israeli flower distributor:

In Israel, Friday the 13th is considered to be an unusually lucky day.

In Judaism, Friday is a very special day because the Sabbath begins on Friday evening and because the Bible mentions that God noted that his creations on this day were very good.

Moreover, the number 13 has always had a special lucky significance to Judaism. A few examples:

1. The Bar Mitzva is held at age 13.
2. There are 13 months in the Hebrew lunar calendar.
3. The Bible lists 13 attributes of God.
4. There are 613 commandments.
5. When Israel regained its independence in 1948, the first provisional government was called the Minhelet Ha'Am and it had 13 members (for good luck). As the first Jewish government of an independent Israel, the country's founders felt that would need all the luck they could use.
6. Maimonides (the Rambam), formulated his famous 13 principles of Judaism (not 7 principles or 11 principles, but EXACTLY 13 principles). -- A religious relative of mine commented that the Rambam must be turning over in his grave 13 times as he reads this!
7. Succot Eve, the Jewish holiday of Thanksgiving, fell on Friday the 13th -- October 13th, 2000. Succot, the holiday of Tabernacles, is a special holiday. Friday Eve is special because it is the Sabbath. And when everything falls on Friday the 13th, then you have a truly lucky holiday!

We are sure that you can think of other "lucky 13" numbers.

For example:
- There were 13 colonies in British North America.
- There are 13 stars and stripes in the original American flag.
- Alfred Hitchcock was born on Friday, August 13th (a quite fitting date).

Christian fear of the number thirteen goes back to the Last Supper. Jesus and his apostles numbered thirteen at that meal, and within a day Jesus was crucified. The moral of the story is: If your name is Jesus, and you are invited for dinner, never eat at the table with 12 other people.

Truth is though, that fear of the number 13 goes back at least to pagan Norse mythology. According to Norse tradition twelve gods were invited to a banquet at Valhalla. Loki, the evil god, wasn't invited to this party but crashed it anyway, bringing the number of guests to thirteen. During the evening, Loki, always looking to cause destruction, shot the god Balder with an arrow, killing a favorite of the gods. As a result of this story, the number thirteen became a source of anxiety for people. By the time Jesus began preaching, the superstition had already been established, but the Last Supper certainly reinforced it.

Some Jews consider the U.S. $1 bill lucky because there are so many 13's on it: 13 stars, 13 stripes, 13 steps, 13 arrows and even an olive branch with 13 leaves on it.

What has all of the above got to do with flowers? Quite simply, Friday evening is the beginning of the Sabbath in Israel and because this is such a special day, it is the custom in many households to buy flowers on Friday. Friday the 13th is a special day, so that there is an even greater incentive to buy flowers on this day.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Say it 'aint so, Joe!

Joe Lieberman is so fiercely independent that he has now separated himself from his most entrenched group of supporters: Connecticut's Jews and religious leaders. The faith & values folk had been his bread and butter and the Jewish community his hallah and schmaltz - until he began to use the "f" word: filibuster - on health care.

Just this week I've received three impassioned pleas from completely unrelated sources, Jewish and religious leaders, looking to garner support for petitions and, yes, even a protest near Lieberman's Stamford home (scheduled for this Sunday at 6), sponsored by a Hartford-based group called The Interfaith Fellowship for Universal Health Care.

Apparently, the guy, who didn't completely alienate his core supporters when he said that Sarah Palin was "ready" to be President, has gone a step too far this time.

It's not that the question of a public option is so cut-and-dry. I've done quite a bit of wading through this issue and am not convinced by either side that anyone has a firm grip on the costs and benefits. It's the filibuster part that has left me and others gasping out the words, "say it 'aint so, Joe."

The evolution of Lieberman's filibuster threat can be found in this Slate timeline. The public response to his threat has been virulent and at times beyond the bounds of the law and civility. While it's clear that he is maximizing his leverage, it's hard to fathom why the grand moralist is going to the wall on the wrong moral side of this issue. As one who has commented often on the need to offer health care for the uninsured, why would he stand in the way of allowing a vote, even if the bill may not be completely to his liking? One would think that in these times of crisis, with limited political capital to spend, Lieberman would opt for other grand gestures, like, say a sit-in on the Capitol steps until Congress approves drastic sanctions on Iran.

Whatever he is trying to accomplish, it looks like he is grandstanding on the backs of the poor. For that alone he has succeeded in alienating himself from those who spend their time volunteering at shelters and soup kitchens, the moderate religious establishment.

Whatever he is trying to accomplish, it is taking attention away from the mortal dangers of the imminent Iranian threat. For that alone, he is succeeding in alienating himself from his core constituency of supporters: the Jews of Connecticut.

Say it 'aint so, Joe!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Fort Hood and the November Nexus

What caused last week's tragic murders at Fort Hood may never be fully known, whether the crazed acts of a single gunman was inspired by his own psychological insanity or the madness of a virulent form of radical Islam; whether it was predetermined or spontaneous, and whether he acted on his own or as part of some vast jihadic conspiracy. The answer to all these questions lies most likely in some grey area, although ideologues and apologists are already staking out their ground on both poles of this muddled spectrum.

While it is best for the rest of us not to get bogged down in these speculations, we can find common ground in commemorating two events that always come one day apart, yet rarely are so intertwined as they are post Fort Hood. Kristallnacht recalls the events of November 9 and 10, 1938 that, in the words of the Nazis themselves, set in motion the chain of decisions that ultimately led to the destruction of European Jewry. Madness went unchecked that night and the result was cataclysmic. It was the shot heard round the world, to which the world refused to respond with anything but a few words.

Kristallnacht was commemorated on Monday in Berlin. Here's how it was marked there:

As German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachov and ex-Polish president Lech Walesa celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, more subdued tributes were held to mark the 71st anniversary of the nazis' Kristallnacht pogrom.

On Kristallnacht - the Night of Broken Glass - at least 99 German Jews were killed, 267 synagogues destroyed and thousands of Jewish businesses vandalised and looted.

Up to 30,000 German Jews were arrested and placed in concentration camps.

The pogrom marked an intensification of the nazis' fascist policies that would eventually lead to the murder of some six million Jews.

In Berlin a special service was held at a memorial outside the Jewish Community of Berlin's building.

The event also paid tribute to Anne Frank, who would have turned 80 this year had she not died of typhus in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp.

Separately a candlelit service was held in the evening at Berlin's Grunewald train station, from which many of the city's Jews were deported.

The anniversary was also noted at services celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was known as the "anti-fascist protective rampart" in the former German Democratic Republic.

At an ecumenical service in Berlin Archbishop Robert Zollitsch said: "The memory of the horrible events of November 9 1938 no less than the memory of the November 9 1989 teach us unequivocally that walls, whether real or in the minds and hearts of the people, solve no problems."

On the 11th, we commemorate Veterans Day, once-upon-a-time called Armistice Day, in the good old days when a single military triumph war was to mark the end of all wars.

These days no one is so naive as to think that any military victory is really "mission accomplished." Now we just consider those small wins to signal, "disaster averted." The Gaza and Iraq wars are two of the most recent examples. No one is foolish enough to think the war is over.

But the battles must still be won, each one. In the face of extremism, not even one skirmish can be lost without sacrificing more ground to the madness. The act of a single insane person in Texas was also one of those battles. Even if he had no orders from some jihadist commander above him, he felt he had orders from On High.

There will be no quick victory. Our soldiers and leaders will constantly be put to the test. Kristallnacht reminds us that a tepid response to madness will only yield more - and worse -madness.

It is in that light that the Iranian nuclear threat must be taken. A nuclear Iran would only embolden those forces in the Middle East and elsewhere and weaken considerably the possibilities for reasoned diplomacy to prevail anywhere. Inaction now will be measured ultimately by more American soldiers and civilians everywhere succumbing to extremists' bullets, and it won't matter a hoot whether those personifications of madness are inspired by their own psychosis or orders from some mountain hideaway in Pakistan.

Listen to Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech yesterday in Washington at the GA here and read the transcript for Natan Sharansky's words here. The video for all the plenary sessions can be found here.

Sharansky said, "We must remind ourselves that the Iron curtain was brought down and hundreds of millions found their freedom only because we found the source of strength in our pride and in our identity. We must remind ourselves that we succeeded in building the democratic State of Israel and bringing the ideas of human rights and equality to the darkest places populated by tyrants and dictators only because we were empowered by thousands of years of dreams and prayers of Next year in Jerusalem."

As if no other proof was needed about the nature of this struggle, see this short video of Israel going through the weapons cache it seized on that Iranian ship that was intercepted.

(And then look at
this video, showing the spectacular Israel pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo.)

We can end on a hopeful note - this essay from the Boston Globe by the renowned scholar of religions Harvey Cox, "Why Fundamentalism will Fail."

However, the truth is that for all its apparent strength, the fundamentalist sun is setting on all horizons. Throughout the Muslim world growing numbers of people are becoming impatient with violent groups that, in the name of Allah, seem capable of killing but incapable of producing jobs, food, or health care. Observers on the ground report that popular support for the jihadist wing of the Taliban is falling off as it fails to address the real life problems that afflict people in Afghanistan. (The other parts of the Taliban are inspired less by fundamentalism than by tribal loyalties and a traditional aversion to foreigners.) Al Qaeda faces a similar dismal prospect. Dr. Audrey Kurth Cronin, a professor at the National War College in Washington and author of a new book, “How Terrorism Ends,” says, “I think Al Qaeda is in the process of imploding. That is not necessarily the end. But the trends are in a good direction.” In Iran, the fact that the clerics have resorted to beating and imprisoning their critics reveals the shakiness of their hold.

This year, Veterans Day and Kristallnacht are one and the same. The war to end all senseless killing of innocents is still being fought. The broken glass of a fateful night in 1938 and the broken hearts in Texas this week - all are shattered symbols of the same long fight.

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Hilary Fryd on Hayye Sarah

In the Torah portion I just read, Sarah dies - but the name of the portion is “Sarah’s lives” (Chayay Sarah). This Torah portion gives us clues as to how it is possible to keep someone’s memory alive long after they have gone.

In what ways is Sarah still alive even though she has died?

For one thing, when Isaac meets and marries Rebecca, at the end of the portion, he brings her into Sarah’s tent. That’s where he married her and loves her. The message is that Sarah is remembered and kept alive through Isaac’s love for Rebecca, who reminds him of his mother.

In the midrash, Sarah’s tent is seen as a place where God’s blessings can be experienced. When Sarah dies, those miracles stop, but when Rebecca moves in, the holiness of the tent returns.

The midrash states that all the days in which Sarah lived, the doors of the entrance [to her tent] were open to the wind …. And all the days in which Sarah lived, there was a blessing sent through the dough [with which she baked]…. And all the days in which Sarah lived, there was a light burning from one Shabbat evening to the next Shabbat evening…."

All of those wonderful things returned to the tent with Rebecca.

Now I may not be able to accomplish all that, but in becoming a bat mitzvah, I know that I will be continuing in the traditions of my parents and grandparents, and that too is a blessing.

Two days from now, we will be remembering Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, which occurred on November 9, 1938. Jewish communities in Germany were attacked; many were killed and wounded and many shops and synagogues were destroyed. Many people say that this event marked the beginning of the Holocaust.

Remembering the Holocaust is always important, but especially this week, because of Kristallnacht – and especially for me. My grandparents were survivors of the Lodz ghetto and the camps. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to meet my grandfather before he passed away . But I did get to spend many years with my grandma Fay - and now it’s important for me to remember them and to tell their story. In that way , I can help keep them alive for us, by keeping their memory alive.

For my mitzvah project, I’ll be keeping alive the name of another person, a Holocaust victim named Hannah Ossiaz, who died in Treblinka when she was 11. I’m doing this through an organization called “Remember Us, The Holocaust Bnai Mitzvah Project.”

I looked for information about Hannah on the huge data base of victims housed at Yad Vashem, which now can be found online. There really isn’t much information about her. I know that she was born in Warsaw in 1932 and that her parents’ names were Leon and Jaika. Also, her Hebrew name was Chana. Mine is Chaya, which is very close. Chaya also means “life” and is part of the title of my parsha. We also know that she went to school and did have relatives who survived the war. One of them, named Aaron, submitted her name to Yad Vashem.

We tried to find out more, but very little is known. I can only imagine what she was like. Well, she lived in a large city like me. Maybe she liked to dance and play piano, like I do. Perhaps she liked to ice skate like I do and like my Grandma used to enjoy doing in Lodz. Maybe, like me, she also liked to shop!

In fact, she probably was a lot like me. The only difference is that she will never get beyond age 11, and here I am, 13, and becoming a bat mitzvah. Hanna never had the chance to do this. Maybe she dreamed of becoming bat mitzvah or ,at least, of growing up. Now I will, in some way, be growing up for her – and for myself. I’ve pledged to say kaddish for her on Yom Kippur every year. The first time I am saying it for her is today.

It may not bring her back the way Rebecca was able to bring back the spirit of Sarah to her tent – but, in its own way, maybe saying kaddish for Hanna will bring a blessing.

Now that I am becoming a Bat Mitzvah, I understand more fully how important it is to keep people in our memories so that they may continue to bring blessings to our lives.