Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Evil Doers' Final Four

In honor of Shabbat Zachor, when we recall the evil done to us by Amalek, and in anticipation of March Madness here is a link to an ingenious bracketing of the most evil villains of Jewish history, all ranked and rated, as if they were NCAA basketball teams. My son Ethan did this in 2008, but it's still pretty accurate today. Unfortunately, our enemies seem to have as much staying power as we do. Madoff wasn't there yet, so maybe we need to add a play-in game to this tournament. See it here

Latke vs Hamentaschen Debate

The Great Debate -- Latkes vs. Hamentaschen

There have been many great debates in world history: Lincoln vs. Douglas, the Scopes trial, and of course that all time classic, "tastes great" vs "less filling." Jews have been avid debate fans ever since Abraham took it to the limit with God over the future of Sodom. But no debate has stirred up Jewish passions over the years more than the one that we feature today: Latkes vs. Hamentaschen. And so it is only natural that this great debate has spilled over onto the pages of the Web. Dozens of sites analyze this great match-up, giving it the hype it deserves. This is the Super Bowl of Kosher Culinary Combat. And for rabbis and academicians, this is the Super Bowl of "pilpul," the art of taking Talmudic logic to absurd extremes.

You can read all about it by clicking here. Some of the links to this Shabbat-O-Gram classic are regrettably no longer in operation.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Spirituality and the Internet

It's been ten years since I wrote this... and while the experience of surfing the Internet has now become routine, and many of the dangers exposed (not the least of which the isolation it can paradoxically bring), my initial claim still rings true. The Internet still connects people to something Beyond unlike anything else.

Sit down in front of your computer after midnight and see what is there. Reach out to connect - and not necessarily with people. Simply connecting to the latest news, to stock results or late ball scores, is enough to evoke a feeling of “humble surrender” and awe. How lovely can this universe be, how orderly and sound, when, without waking a soul, I can order cut-rate plane tickets to Chicago? How close to the mountaintop can you ascend, when, with a few clicks, you can see the deep blue earth from the perspective of a roving satellite hundreds of miles up? How dusty must my weary pilgrim’s feet get, when I can click my way to a live shot Jerusalem’s Western Wall in seconds, and fax my prayer to be placed within its ancient cracks? Mircea Eliade, a modern master of the study of the Sacred, writes of a sacred space as a place of breakthrough, a point of passage to another realm, an absolute reality. From where can we jump off into a higher world if not from a springboard whose range appears so limitless? Who would have thought that the “road less traveled” could be so easily located on the Information Superhighway?” (, p. 113)

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Best Purim Parodies and Jewish Jokes

What does Purim have to do with humor and parody? EVERYTHING. The book of Esther, properly read, IS itself a parody. Read about Purim Torah and the art of scholarly parody, in this web journey from the Shabbat-O-Gram archives (some of the links are no longer active).

Our survey of Purim Parodies has to begin with this video from the Shushan Channel.

See Backward: A Purim Spoof, the Forward's annual foray into Purim absurdity, this year featuring God Resumes Prophecy — Via Twitter and Israeli Rabbinate Declares Non-Orthodox Jews ‘Kosher — and Delicious’.

Also see the "Jewish Weak" Purim Spoof including Kotel Schnorrer Pleased With Portfolio Rebound, YU Prez Bans Male Study Partners, Informant In Syrian Rabbi Case Can’t Stop Squealing, Mirthright Israel To Show Lighter Side Of Jewish State and Four Arrested At JCPA Debate On Civility.

For some good general jokes, a great option is Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion "Joke Machine" and his Annual Joke Show.

Then there is MyJewishLearning's Jewish Humor Bank, featuring these all time classic videos and jokes:

Mel Brooks
You Don't Look Jewish
Jerry Seinfeld
Rain in Chelm
Woody Allen
The Riddle
Sarah Silverman
Our Luck
Jackie Mason
Marx Brothers
The Terryifying Rumor
Adam Sandler
The Census
Sacha Baron Cohen
The Converts
Jon Stewart
Jewish Movie Scenes
Jewish Internet Sensations
Teaching English
Richest Man in Town
Jewish and Goyish
Showing Up Late
Haikus for Jews
Public Toilets
Jewish Word Play
Lenny Bruce Was Jewish...
Schlemiels and Schlemazels
34 Years
Marriage Brokers
Sages of Chelm
Million Dollar Question for God

The Top Hat

And these additional links:

Bang It Out
Frum Satire
Joel Chasnoff--Jewish Stand Up Comic
Old Jews Telling Jokes
Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour

The Chelm stories are a genre unto themselves. See this guide explaining how this little village in Poland, which later became the sight of an infamous death camp, found its way into Jewish lore as the silliest place on earth. One story has it that an angel was flying over a mountain with a sack filled with souls. The bag got caught on a tree, and ripped open. All the foolish souls were in the bottom, and tumbled out, landing in the village of Chelm.

Some say these are Jewish versions of Polish jokes. If so, at least no actual Jewish Chelmites exist anymore, so we are not making fun of real people (except maybe for those living in Chelmsford, Mass.). Or maybe there are still Jews there. Well, I know that there will be - for one night at least. In April, our March of the Living group will be staying one night in Chelm. I can't wait. But I might hesistate before stepping into the elevator.

A typical Chelm story:

The town of Chelm decided to build a new synagogue. So, some strong, able-bodied men were sent to a mountaintop to gather heavy stones for the foundation. The men put the stones on their shoulders and trudged down the mountain to the town below. When they arrived, the town constable yelled, "Foolish men! You should have rolled the stones down the mountain!" The men agreed this was an excellent idea. So they turned around, and with the stones still on their shoulders, trudged back up the mountain, and rolled the stones back down again.

Stay tuned for further updates as Purim approaches, send me your favorites - and BRING them to services this Shabbat and Purim!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Shechina Has Left the Building!

When I first visited the Kotel, as a 16 year old on a teen tour, it was the evening of Tisha B'Av. Over 100,000 Jews, people of all backgrounds, clustered in small circles to recite Lamentations. My group sat on a perch looking down at this mass of Jewish humanity. We prayed on our own but felt at one with them all.

After we finished I approached closer to the Wall and saw a white dove about halfway up, glowing in the light, perched on a nest of moss. I quivered with recognition of the Shechina, God's most manifest and loving presence, sent to that very spot to weep with Her people among the ruins. For centuries, that legend and that weeping bound motionless stones to a yearning nation.

But things have changed since the summer of '73.

The controversy over who "owns" the Western Wall continues to rage, following last week's new incident involving the harassment of women seeking to pray there. The Women of the Wall have met with increasingly hostile treatment lately, including interrogation and arrest by the police. Last week's incident was "mild" by comparison. They were "only" called Nazis by the jeering fundamentalists.

In a statement released Monday, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall, condemned the women's group, saying, "As a place dear to the heart of every Jew, every movement, and every world view, the Western Wall must remain a place that unifies rather than separates the people of Israel. The different movements need to understand the complexity and sensitivity of the Western Wall, and leave it outside the borders of conflict."

I agree that the Kotel should be a place of unity for the Jewish people. That was, after all, one of the two main functions of the sanctuary built in the Wilderness, the mishkan, described in great detail over the second half of the book of Exodus. The other function was to be a symbol of God's continued presence among the Israelites. The Temple, whose design was said to be based on the Mishkan's, also fulfilled both purposes. The Kotel, as a remnant of the second Temple, and should fulfill the same two roles.

Twenty years ago, I had no problem bringing groups of congregants to the middle of the plaza, men and women together, for Friday evening services, after which we would approach the Wall as individuals to share in the euphoric cacophony of singing Yeshiva students, tourists, new immigrant, worn pilgrims and curious seekers and long-lost friends from the States. But such is not the case today.

As a location of unity, the Kotel is failing miserably, since it represents only the interests of those who maintain an ultra-Orthodox posture. As Rabbi Julie Schonfeld,Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Assembly, writes,

"Discrimination and harassment -whether sexual, racial, or religious--are demeaning and dehumanizing. We fool ourselves if we think we can stand by while Jews in the Jewish state utilize government agencies to harass and oppress other Jews based on religious practice. The soul of the state of Israel and of the Jewish people is at stake."

In a brilliant expose, Rabbi David Golinkin documents conclusively that throughout Jewish history, the Western Wall never was intended to be a synagogue. Just as with the Mishkan and Temples before it, the Kotel was never the place for collective prayer, but rather for individual expressions of gratitude or concern. In bringing their sacrifices in ancient times, Jews left a little of themselves in that sacred spot, a place of personal selfless giving, as expressed in the Tale of the Two Brothers, a story that has informed our perceptions of that sacred space - of all sacred space - for many generations. And today, when we leave notes in the cracks in the Kotel, we are performing essentially the same act - leaving a little of ourselves, our prayers, behind.

Golinkin demonstrates that even when the lower plaza came under the control of the rabbinate in November of 1967, and in effect became a synagogue, the upper plaza explicitly did not. But now we are seeing a creeping annexation of even that upper plaza by the rabbinate. One solution proposed would be for non-Orthodox groups to pray at the area of Robinson's Arch, which is not controlled by the religious authorities and is a lovely, uncongested and equally historic spot. But that spot currently cannot accommodate the large number of groups seeking to pray there. A column in the LA Jewish Journal, "Take Back the Kotel Part II: Open Up Robinson's Arch," suggests that more funding be devoted toward relaxing the restrictions in that area.

But others say that the Arch, lovely as it is, is not the part of the Kotel that Jews have known and prayed at for centuries. And "separate but not-so-equal" does not fulfill the original vision that this be a place where all Jews can celebrate their unity, in the same place, together.

The best solution would be for Jews everywhere to pressure the Knesset to take that plaza back on behalf of the Jewish people.

Given the unlikelihood of that happening, there is one more alternative - to seek God's presence elsewhere in Israel. As I wrote several years back, while the Kotel has become a place not of harmony but of spiritless spiteful strife, the rest of Israel beckons.

In ancient times, the Kotel, the Temple's outer, retaining wall, was the place where all the people could gather, from the largest to the small, sheep and pigeons in hand, before arriving at the inner courtyards where degrees of separation set in. The Kotel scene was a festival of earthy democracy for the plain folk: the sweaty Herodian-era laborers who moved enormous slabs of rock, the late-Roman period artisan who scribbled joyous graffiti from Isaiah, the dying whispers of medieval pilgrims having reached their long-sought final destination, the teary paratroopers in '67, the final breath of my grandmother who never got there.

At the Wall, the Jewish body beat with one heart.

Now the stones have lost their heart and strangers beware.

The Shechina has left the building.

And where has She gone?

Why to the Mall, of course, where the people of Israel share a common language and meet on an equal canvas, bearing first fruits and exchanging them for a sip of coffee and a snippet of intimate conversation. Everyone is there, sharing small talk at Burger King on Ben Yehuda St. in Jerusalem or folk dancing at Ben and Jerry's on Tel Aviv's beach front.

If this all reeks of American cultural imperialism, I beg to differ. While the Western Wall has become bad Disney, the Mall has made Burger King a touchstone to the Sacred. A kosher Kentucky Fried Chicken isn't about the Americanization of Israel, it's about the Judaization of Americanism -- at long last Colonel Sanders has discovered our secret recipe for the sanctification of life.

At the Jerusalem's Malcha Mall there is equal access from every gate. Priests, Levites, women, the disabled, tourists: all are treated in like manner. A mall with honest shop owners, separate meat and dairy food courts and even a synagogue, is a mall that conveys the best of our value system to the next generation. Amidst the Hebrew Coca Cola bottles and Movie Star magazines there is a level of holiness, because they are bringing my children and their Israeli cousins together in a Jewish state speaking a Jewish language.

The Mall, democratic, serendipitous, wide-eyed, infused with Jewish values, just a little bit dirty and a whole lot Israeli; has become a place of pilgrimage and unity for the Jewish people -- just what the Temple's outer courtyard used to be. The Shechina now sits on a nest atop Burgers Bar, weeping no longer, for Her people have returned.

But alas, how lonely sit the ancient stones of the Kotel. I weep for them

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Israel's Branding War: A Challenge from Jan Gaines

Jan Gaines issues this challenge from Netanya, directing our attention to the current war of deligitimization that is seen by many as a major strategic threat to Israel. Shlomo Maital, a senior research fellow at the Technion, wrote about Israel's chronic branding problem in this week's "Jerusalem Report." He suggests that leading marketing experts need to help re-brand Israel in the face of the orchestrated campaign being waged against it. Many have pointed out the hostile treatment given Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at U C Irvine recently, a videotaped incident that has gone "viral" on the Jewish internet.

Also see "Reut Launches Comprehensive Report on Israel’s International Delegitimization, Eroding Israel's Legitimacy in the Public Arena - a Report and "Branding Israel on Campus" all from the Reut Insititute. In the words of Gidi Grinstein of Reut, "Israel's survival and prosperity depend on its relations with the world in trade, science, arts and culture - all of which rely on its legitimacy. Rather than seeking to conquer Israel, its enemies aim to bring about its implosion, as with South Africa or the Soviet Union."

My feeling is that Israel has many more supporters out there than many Israelis realize. Israel's image is reaping the benefits of Haitian relief, Oscar nominations and SI swimsuit models. Israel also can market it's greatest strength - a vibrant democracy, supported actively by the New Israel Fund, ideally promoting a responsible government aligning its deeds with core Jewish values.

But we still need to be vigilant. We need to take Jan's challenge seriously. We are Israel's last line of defense.

Psalm 121 is my favorite. "I lift mine eyes unto the mountains. From whence commeth my help. My help commeth from the Lord, who neither slumbers nor sleeps."

But these days I stop at the second sentence because I am not sure that the Lord really isn't slumbering. So from whence cometh my help? These days, I'm not sure anymore.

As Danny Gordis says in his new book and constantly in his columns and speeches, Israel is at war. The Arabs have failed to defeat us militarily, economically or with terrorism. So they have found a very effective new method: the war of deligitimization and revilement. And that war is succeeding where the others all failed.

Coming up soon, look for Apartheid Week on all the American college campuses. Watch for repeats of the U Cal Irvine and the Oxford Univ. incidents, which are going on all the time but don't make the news that you get. And of course there is Goldstone, the ultimate weapon of those who say that even if Israel defends itself it is guilty of war crimes and must be condemned. Add the boycotts of Israeli goods in England, Norwary, Sweden, led by the trade unions. And rise of Holocaust deniers now that Iran has made that an acceptable means of attack.

To quote Danny Gordis: Our enemies are winning this trial in the court of international opinion. Walt and Mearsheimer, Jimmy Carter and Goldstone and British courts issuing arrest warrants for Tzipi Livni are only the best known examples. The real list is much more extensive. One does not need a vivid imagination to envision a scenario in which the world simply imposes a bi-national solution (not a 2 state solution) on this region. If one is not absolutely committed to Jewish sovereignty that solution actually makes some sense.

Thus, this war over Israel's legitimacy is one we cannot afford to lose."

The problem is, who is on our side. Who is fighting back. Can Israel do this by itself with its small population and limited resources when the Arab world is funding anti-Israel NGO's in the area of l billion dollars worldwide. The World Council of Churches has been at this for many years. Now we have endowed chairs of "middle eastern studies" held by anti-Israel academics all over the States and England. When did you ever see a Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International report that supported Israel. How much money is the Ford Foundation giving to the New Israel Fund to support Adala, one of their grantees which rejects the claim of Israel as a Jewish state. Or B'etselem which cried out for the casualties in Gaza but never mentioned the 8 years of attacks on Sderot.

So we come to the role of the American Jewish community. Frankly, without the U.S. and American Jews, we aren't going to make it. You think that statement is too over the top-paranoid?

And if I compare this deligitimization campaign to the tactics of Nazi Germany to do the exact same thing to the Jews in the 30's, do you shrug and say "she's crazy. It'll never happen."

My friends, it's happening. Look beyond your doorstep . Open your eyes, not just to the Iranian threat, but this quiet war going on all over Europe and the Arab world': the goal is to Demonize not just the Israelis, but the Jews as well. You can't separate them anymore.

So if I lift my eyes unto the mountains, where is my help coming from? This is a clarion call my fellow Jews. Are you helpers or bystanders.

The time to make a choice is now.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Torah! Torah! Torah! Bright! Bright! Bright!

My colleague Rabbi Jason Miller comments that Torah Bright's gold medal made yesterday a real "Simchat Torah" for her family, as the gold medal hung around her neck like a breastplate hangs from our sacred scroll.

The breastplate is covered in next week's portion, Exodus 29: And Aaron shall bear the names of the children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment upon his heart, when he goeth in unto the holy place, for a memorial before the LORD continually.

The breastplate, or choshen, was very special, in part because it housed the divination oracles, the urim and thummim.

The prognosticators got it right this time in dubbing Torah Bright the favorite in her event. The Aussie "Queen of Extreme" is a devout Mormon, not a Jew, but the Jewish Week reports that she told a Mormon web site that "The name Torah is “the Jewish name for the first five books of the Bible." A piano teacher also told her the name also means ‘bearer of a great spiritual mission.’”

And so it does. BTW, see that aforementioned Jewish Week article for the latest on all the Jewish or presumed Jewish athletes competing in the Olympics this week.

Israel is Back!

An interesting twist on recent events (Goldstone, the killing of Hamas and Hizbullah leaders) in this column from Ynet, summarized here. What may seem an image problem in the West is a major advantage in the Middle East. (And BTW, I've yet to hear a solid argument for the Mossad's having botched the recent operation in Dubai. By leaving a trail, it only calls attention to the success and brazenness of the mission.

Israel Is Back - Guy Bechor (Ynet News)

Israel's enemies are in panic - or is it paranoia - for fear that Israel will be attacking them. Hizbullah is convinced that it will suffer a blow at any moment and Lebanon has asked for France's protection, Hamas is still licking its wounds, Syria is concerned, and Iran's foreign minister already declared that Israel is a "nation of crazy people" with "mad leaders" who may launch a strike. On the other hand, Israel's borders are quieter than they have been in many years.

This is called deterrence. Both Hizbullah and Syria know that since the last Lebanon War the IDF is now the first military in the world equipping its tanks with anti-missile systems, which are changing the rules of war. Moreover, a series of daring assassinations attributed to Israel is prompting personal fears among axis of evil leaders. They suspect everyone around them and the confusion is great. We should recall that Hizbullah leader Nasrallah has been hiding for three and a half years now, and this is quite embarrassing for someone who rushed to declare a "divine victory," no less, after the 2006 Lebanon War.

According to terror groups, Israel can reach anywhere and has infiltrated every organization and each Arab state. The glory of Israel's secret services had been restored and the fear of them has increased. People in the region are telling themselves: "Israel is back." It disappeared for about a decade and a half when it was perceived as weak, yet now it is back at full force.

Both the Lebanon War and the Gaza War are having an effect. Hizbullah sees the destruction sowed by Israel in Gaza and it loses the urge to fight us. Israel has learned the rules of the region. Our enemies realize that Israel has matured, learned the art of creating deterrence, and that it is here to stay. They are starting to understand that Israel is stronger than they thought.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

I Agree With Sarah Palin. Really.

It's not often that I find myself agreeing with Sarah Palin, but it is time to take her developmentally disabled son out of the discussion. I Yes, it is undeniably true that Palin has injected her family into her public persona in a number of ways to convey her "family values." So she is not entirely blameless here. And it is also true that a woman who uses inflammatory language in saying that her opponent is "palling with terrorists" is hardly one to cast stones at name callers.

But "retarded" ceased being acceptable a long time ago. Evidently, Rahm Emanuel just found that out. I don't think that faux pas should cost him his job, as Palin does, but I'm glad that Emanuel has seen the error of his ways. See also this article on the use of the R word, and this Washington Post blog discussion.

Trivia question. What was the only time in my entire life that I started a fistfight?

Answer: I was about 12 and at a summer camp program (which fittingly featured boxing lessons), another kid starting making fun of my brother Mark, calling him a "retard."

Now I often use the expression "mentally retarded," in its clinical rather than pejorative sense, to describe my brother, as outmoded as the expression may be. I just find it hard to find another term that describes things as accurately.

But I cringe every time I hear one of our students using that word pejoratively to describe anyone - or anything else. "Retarded" has become the new "gay." (Except that "gay" is still around too). As we all know, words kill.

I've taken the pledge at

So what then are we to make of the case of Sarah vs the Family Guy? I didn't see the episode and the single clip offered here really doesn't get to whether the idea was to mock Down Syndrome or Palin - it seems that Palin is the butt of the joke here, and not the girl. As a politician, she may be fair game. But wouldn't it have been nice for Hollywood and the media to seize the high ground for once and leave her family out of this mess.

Fat chance of that happening.

Ask the Rabbi: How to Respond to Non-Jewish Parent's Last Will

Ariela Pelaia,'s Guide to Judaism (as well as our programming director) sent a challenging "Ask the Rabbi" query my way this past week. It led to an interesting discussion at services last Shabbat morning. See the question on her blog here.

In this week's "Ask the Rabbi," Rabbi Joshua Hammerman answers a question about how to respond to the last wishes of a parent when those wishes conflict with Jewish beliefs and that parent had converted to Catholicism. As always, respectful comments are welcome.

Q. My mother just passed away and we have a difficult situation due to her last wishes and the way that she lived the last part of her life. My husband and I are Jewish, as was my father. After his passing, and against our wishes, my mother joined the Catholic Church (She was Jewish all her life before that). We were upset about that but couldn't talk her out of it although we tried to for almost 10 years. Our current problem is that her burial is being held up because she wanted a Catholic funeral Mass and also wanted to be cremated, and we are trying to decide what to do.

My husband and I do not want to attend a Mass or to allow cremation either. Should be just attend the graveside service or have a non-denominational service since she would not be able to have a Jewish funeral? And as for the cremation... should we go against her wishes? We can't decide what would be both ethical and morally right in this situation. Since she abandoned the Jewish faith, should we just allow her wishes to be honored? Or would that be giving sanction to her conversion?

A: First of all, my sincere condolences on the passing of your mother.

Your predicament presents two unusual twists to more common issues. First, I am most often asked questions by parents whose children have converted out or intermarried, not the other way. And second, I often am asked by those who have become Jews by Choice how to mourn the deaths of their parents who were lifelong Christians, not apostates.

There are two prevailing mitzvot that would seem on the surface to be at play here: 1) to honor your parent and 2) the obligations of a Jewish mourner. Traditional Judaism, including most Conservative opinions, would say that apostasy overrules both. It is counterintuitive to say that a parent should not be mourned, but the traditional approach would suggest that the mourning was already done, at the time of the apostasy. This would not be the case if a Jew by Choice were mourning a lifelong Christian parent. In that case I would say, by all means, attend the funeral and burial, and then mourn in the Jewish manner.

Why such revulsion against apostates? We need to remember that for most of Jewish history, maintaining a visible Jewish identity was risky. Yet so many became martyrs rather than betray their faith, and people had little respect for those who chose the cowardly alternative of submission. The resentment against apostates has grown in our time, when people are free to embrace their Jewish destiny without negative social consequences. Plus there is an added fear that the so-called "Jews for Jesus" and other missionary sects have muddied the waters, claiming that one can be both Jewish and a believer in Christian doctrine.

These are indeed muddy waters, because there is another side to it. Many who leave Judaism have done so under duress, such as the Marranos of the Spanish Inquisition era. And many return to the fold, even on the death bed. Rabbi Moses Isserles in the 16th century ruled that one may recite Kaddish for an apostate parent murdered by idolaters, and later authorities extended that include those whose parents died a natural death. They figured that the commandment to honor parents was one meant for the living, the children, and not subject to the dead parent's being deserving of that respect.

Okay, so what would I advise you? If I knew your mother's motives, it would be easier for me to respond. If the conversion coincided with some sort of dementia, for instance, I would lean toward lenience. If, on the other hand, her motives were to somehow punish God, or even you, I'd be less generous. Not knowing all the facts, I propose a compromise. I do think that it is important to mourn her in the Jewish way, because the Jewish way is your way. Your response to her conversion is to affirm the faith of your -and her - ancestors. The Kaddish speaks of restoring a degree of Godliness to the Universe, after all, and says nothing specifically about the fate of her soul.

But, while I would have no problem with a Jew attending a church service in general, or a Christian burial in particular, I believe that the honor due this parent need not extend this far. A non denominational service is not necessary, if there is going to be a mass as well. Why not make it a Jewish service?

I know just the place for that - at your home, during shiva. You can announce that she will be memorialized there. During the service, people can stand up and exchange anecdotes, or you could speak more formally. You can focus on all those positive qualities she embraced, the ones you will pass on to her descendants - her Jewish descendants.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Future of Conservative Jewry

In this comprehensive interview with JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen, "The Future of Conservative Jewry," we can see, in detail, the Chancellor's vision and agenda. It is well worth reading the entire interview, but here is a basic outline:

Conservative Jewry faces three major challenges. These concern its message, its quality control, and its structure. The definition of the message has become a priority in part because of the blurring of the boundaries with other movements.

Quality control is a prime issue because Conservative Judaism depends on "franchises." It relies on local organizations - synagogues, camps, day and congregational schools, youth groups, men's clubs, and sisterhoods - to provide a quality product.

Conservative Judaism has structural problems because it only has a loose umbrella body, the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism. Up to twenty different organizations are represented there and in such a framework it is hard to function in a unified manner. A major restructuring of the movement is underway.

Ten elements define Conservative Judaism's worldview: learning, community, klal Yisrael (Jewish peoplehood), Zionism, Hebrew, changing the world, mitzvah (commandment), time, space, and God. A major project to make Conservative Jews more aware of the role of mitzvot has been undertaken at the initiative of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Indeed a major restucturing IS underway in the movement; the USCJ has been streamlined considerably and, at JTS, the cantorial school just lost it's director. See more on that in these articles:

JTS Revamps Cantorial School (Jewish Week)
JTS sheds cantorial dean's post (JTA)
JTS Downsizes Its Cantorial Program: A Bad Sign (First Things)

Technology and Jewish Education: A Revolution in the Making

I'm proud to have played a part in this exciting new venture by JESNA - the best Jewish education think tank going.

Introducing:"Technology and Jewish Education: A Revolution in the Making."

JESNA's Lippman Kanfer Institute would like to invite you to the launch of a new website, devoted to the growing impact of technology on Jewish learning and teaching.

The JE3 (Jewish Education 3.0) website grows out of a year-long process in which thought leaders, visionaries, and activists in the burgeoning world of Jewish educational technology met together both face-to-face and virtually to share ideas about the future of Jewish education in the age of Google, Facebook, Twitter, web 2.0, and beyond. Contributors to the site include individuals like My Jewish's Daniel Septimus; Rabbi and author of Seeking God in Cyberspace Joshua Hammerman; Jewish Television Network founder and Los Angeles Jewish Federation CEO Jay Sanderson, and Darim Online founder Lisa Colton. Together with more than a dozen of these leaders, we have put together in JE3 the first digital, open-source publication for the field of Jewish education on technology.

Here, you will find:

A "core narrative" exploring the far-reaching implications of new communication technologies for how we think about and implement Jewish education

Articles from our contributors.

A blog for both technology news and resources.

A feed from the #Jed21 discussion on Twitter.Plus, a featured video section and core narrative on our homepage.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Avi Schaefer z'l

I didn't know Avi Schaefer first-hand, but the 21 year old Brown University freshman who was senselessly killed by a reckless driver in Providence, R.I. early Friday morning could just as easily have been my own son.

My son Ethan was a friend of his, as well as a fellow freshman seriously engaged in Israel advocacy, who happened to have a rabbinic father. So when Ethan called me on Friday, it is with some justification that he said, "If you hear anything about someone who was killed, it wasn't me." But then he added, "It was my friend."

As thankful as I am that it wasn't him, I'm shaken nonetheless, moved by the cruel randomness of the loss and touched by the impact Avi had in so brief a time. We often talk of potential when speaking of young adults. Avi's potential was vast, and it was already being realized.

He started college late because he served in the IDF for three years. He came back from the Israeli military to a very different kind of war, and immediately Avi became engaged in the battle for peace on a major college campus. He was not a "my-country-right-or-wrong" defender of Israel. Instead, he reached out to the other side. His outreach was not always reciprocated, however. Read this column he wrote last fall in the Brown Daily Herald. He said:

"Let’s figure out how we can work together to do something productive to honor your name and find our common ground. I am here, ready and anxiously waiting for you to work with me, not against me. Do not give me another reason to lose hope, because my patience is sadly running out.”

Avi already had begun discussion with a Brown professor to create a course that would allow real dialogue to take place. Meanwhile, his final project for the Israel committee was a major fundraiser, not for Israel, but for Haiti, which last week raised $4,000 on campus. Ethan tells me the whole thing was Avi's idea and he quickly had become a leader of Hillel's Israel committee, even as a freshman. Everyone looked up to him. Here's Avi's final blog post, describing that event.

He was loved by students, professors and many in the Providence community, touching more lives than one would think possible in so brief a time. He was advising the Providence police SWAT team, sharing the lifesaving skills he had learned in Israel.

Unfortunately, none of those skills could save him early Friday morning. No doubt Avi had traversed many dangerous valleys of the shadow of death during his tour of duty with the IDF. But that could not save him from a single (presumably) drunk driver at 2 AM on Thayer and Power Streets in Providence.

Brown Hillel was packed on Friday night, overflowing with sadness. Brown's president, Ruth Simmons, a visible presence in the Hillel building during the day, also shared in their Sabbath prayers that evening. She called Avi "a young man of inordinate strength and integrity." Read her entire letter here. The entire campus has been hit very hard by this. Read coverage of the Brown community's reaction from the Brown Daily Herald.

There are deep theological questions that need to be asked at some point, questions that Avi's father has no doubt faced often from grieving parents. Now is not the time to speculate why there was no providence on Thayer Street last week.

If students become more attuned to Israel's desire for peace through Avi's example, perhaps some comfort will be gained. How many American teenagers simply drop everything and join the IDF? That kind of sacrifice and dedication are so rarely seen. Maybe this supreme sacrifice will inspire someone else to build the same kind of bridge, one that can link the holy stones of Jerusalem to the ivy covered walls of American academe.

The students of Brown Hillel are creating a t-shirt in Avi's memory, with the verse from Psalms, "Seek peace and pursue it," to raise money for a new fund that has been established in his memory. See the design and details here.

The funeral was at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles on Monday, Feb. 15. It was streamed to Providence and Israel and can be seen online here. The two hours you invest in watching it will change your life.

Condolences can be sent to: Rabbi Arthur and Laurie Gross Schaefer 4598 Camino Molinero Santa Barbara, CA 93110.

Among the many beautiful selections recited at his funeral was this poem by Hannah Senesh, another brilliant young soul, cut off far too soon: "To die."

To die… so young to die… no, no, not I.
I love the warm sunny skies,
Light, songs, shining eyes,
I want no war, no battle cry –No, no…not I.
But if it must be that I live today
With blood and death on every hand,
Praised be He for the grace, I'll say
To live, if I should die this day…
Upon your soil, my home, my land

My heart goes out to his family at this difficult time.

I'm a Closet Canadian

I discovered something while watching the Olympic Opening Ceremonies this weekend. Something more than the fact that the jazz phenom who sang "O Canada," Nikki Yanofsky, is Jewish.

I'm a closet Canadian.

Give me a country that is all scenery and almost no people, but the people that are there are gentle, courteous and almost apologetic for wanting to win. A place where the prime genre of the music is the music of the earth, where KD Lang' version of Hallelujah gently squeezes every drop of spirituality that was left after Justin Timberlake's version for Haiti; where Joni Mitchell is not yesterday's news as she pays tribute to the Prairies and Sarah McLachlan's "Ordinary Miracle" could just as easily have been taken from this morning's Amidah.

Give me a place where, rather than wasting their time simulating epic bloody battles on grand canvases, they simulate spouting whales. Come to think of it, there are hardly any bloody battles to remember (aside from the ones on the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens and the Montreal Forum, that is).

I like this place.

OK there were glitches. Yeah, the flaming cauldron thing got screwed up, and maybe the national anthem. Yes, it was amusing to see the tribal dancers have to keep on going and going while every athlete walked in. But the glitches only made these ceremonies seem quaint and vulnerable in comparison to the Chinese juggernaut of two years ago. These are the Olympics of the Human, not celebrating the human form, as they did in ancient times, or the human potential, as they may have in more optimistic centuries. These Ceremonies celebrated the human spirit, warts and all, as best seen through the prism of an unparalleled natural beauty: people not just living with nature, not just tolerating it, but truly flourishing in the Garden. Their songs were in fact prayers of gratitude, uttered by a people capable of genuine smiles and real tears, mature people who have looked at things from Both Sides Now, people who choose to be Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik's Adam 2 in his essay, "The Lonely Man of Faith."

As Soloveitchik describes it, Adam 1, the one described in Genesis chapter 1, is "Majestic Man," driven to subdue the earth and dominate. Adam 2, from the second Creation account, is "Covenental Man," the one who names the animals, is nurtured by nature and seeks only one thing: companionship. He is the Lonely Man of Faith. The US and China are Adam 1. Canada is Adam 2.

I've always preferred Adam 2 (though I think Woman 1, of the first creation account deserves more due). Songs like McLaughlan's bring me tears. (I'm not ashamed to admit that I liked John Denver too.) But let's not forget that Adam 2 still fought alongside us at Normandy and in Afghanastan. Adam 2 still packs a punch - but the quest is never to dominate and subdue the earth.

If Canada weren't our neighbor to the north, we'd have to invent a country like it, just to remind us from time to time of the priorities we so often neglect. A little less majesty and a little more covenant wouldn't hurt us, even if our health care system can't be like theirs.

If I can't live in Canada, I'm very glad I don't live too far away. And for the next two weeks, I'll see visions of that grand, vast, yet so intimate country, every time I turn on my TV... or open my prayerbook.

Life is like a gift they say,
Wrapped up for you every day
Open up and find a way
To give some of your own
Sun comes up and shines so bright so bright
And disappears again at night
It's just another ordinary miracle today.

Friday, February 12, 2010

What is Shabbat Shekalim?

See also the prior posting: Why Name a Shabbat After Israeli Currency?

This week we begin the series of special Shabbats that will lead us along the path guiding our preparations for Passover. There are four special portions (parshiot) that are read. Some excellent background is found at the O-U website, beginning with this week’s special portion: Shekalim: See the following discussion from the OU website:

Shabbat Shekalim

Resh Lakish said "On the first of Adar, an announcement is made concerning the Shekalim." (Bab. Tal. Tractate Megillah)

The first of the Four Special Shabbatot is Shabbat Parshat Shekalim. It occurs either on the last Shabbat of the month of Shevat, or on the Shabbat which in that year coincides with Rosh Chodesh Adar, or on a Shabbat early in Adar. A special reading, taken from Parshat Ki Tisa (Shemot 30:11-16) is appended to the regular Torah reading.

The reading describes a census of the Jewish People that was taken while the Jews were in the Wilderness, after their Exodus from Egypt. The Torah, here and in other places, teaches that it is forbidden to count Jews in the ordinary manner; rather, the People should be called upon to contribute items, which would then be counted.

In the case of this census, the item that was contributed, by rich and poor alike, was a half shekel, the "shekel" being the coin in use at the time, roughly equivalent to our dollar. The collected shekels, or "shekalim, in Hebrew, were then used for the construction and upkeep of the Mishkan, the portable Temple, which was used until the Temple found its permanent residence (despite its destruction twice, the place retains its holiness) in Jerusalem.

The equal participation of all the People symbolizes that all Jews must share in achieving national goals, by giving up his selfish, personal interests for the sake of the nation. One who does so gains infinite benefit, because the mission of Israel is dependent upon the unity of the whole. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, cited in the ArtScroll Stone Edition of the Chumash)

The verses also speak in terms of atonement that is achieved by participation in this half-shekel assessment… A solitary human being can seldom survive Divine scrutiny; what person is free of sin and shortcomings? But when a nation becomes one, it ascends to a higher plane, because all its individuals merge their virtues with one another. This is also the reason that it is better to pray with a "minyan," a quorum, to establish a community, whose virtues can merge, instead of praying individually.

Parshat Shekalim recalls the time of Purim, which was also a time of Divine scrutiny and judgment for the Jewish People. The name of the Day of Atonement, Yom HaKippurim, the "Day which is like Purim," is also suggestive of this relationship, although Purim also contains the word "Pur," lottery, to suggest how G-d uses what seems to be "chance" in His administration of the world.

At the time of Purim, an edict had been issued by an earthly "court;" namely, the "court" of Haman and Achashverosh (often acting unknowingly as an emissary of the Heavenly Court), calling for the harsh punishment, if not the total destruction, G-d Forbid, of the Jewish People. The Fast of Taanit Esther, combined with the Repentance of the Jewish People, drew the nation into a unity, which was once again able to receive upon itself the "yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven," and renew their acceptance of the Torah, "the Jews accepted again what they had begun to do," (Megillat Esther 9:23), and thus merit their redemption.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Jewish Guide to Shoveling Snow (Koach)

A Jewish Guide to Shoveling Snow

Ehud Barak - "You must shovel most of the driveway, but the exact dimensions of shoveling will be determined in discussions with our neighbors. No, wait, you can shovel only in places where snow had previously fallen, but you cannot shovel in places where no snow had fallen - wait, don't do any shoveling until you hear from me!"

Yossi Sarid - "You should not shovel any part of the driveway, since you really do not have any valid historical or legal claim to the driveway, and it will soon be given back to its rightful owners.

Artscroll Hilchos Sheleg ("Laws Regarding Snow; Ashkenaz version, chapter 5) - "First approach the snow with the proper kavanah, meditating on the concept of snow removal. Recite the "...Who commanded us concerning the shoveling of snow" benediction," then take three steps back, bend the knees slightly with feet together, then look at the snow, lift shovel and dig, turning right and then left, bend knees fully, take three steps forward and deposit snow deliberately. Repeat until done, then recite the Sheheheyanu benediction, go indoors and have a hot drink, remembering to say the Shehakol brocha (see Artscroll Hilchos on Drinking Hot Liquids)..."

Tikkun Magazine - "What right do we have to violently take snow from its rightful resting place? Snow has rights: each snowflake is a unique individual, and we have absolutely no right to do anything with it. Let the snow decide for itself what it wishes to do, and then if it wishes to be shoveled, do so humanely.

Rashi - "Snow, this is a form of solid precipitation that clings to one's beard if you remain outside too long in the winter season. (Old French: neige). Shoveling is a Rabbinic precept, based on the verse in Isaiah 1:18-"If your sins be like scarlet, they will turn as white as snows"

Birthright israel - "It does not matter how the shoveling is done, but the very act of a young Jew shoveling snow for ten consecutive days, under proper supervision will have a lifelong impact on Jewish identity."

Meir Ben-Meir (Israeli Water Commissioner) - "Just shovel the snow as fast as you can, and ship it here. We are running out of water fast! Is anyone listening to me?"

Rabbi David Hartman - "Snow is a potent force in the world which unites all Jews. It falls on us all, regardless of religious denomination and belief, and is therefore instrumental in our understanding of Jewish unity and diversity. In fact, just this week, I was explaining the significance of snow to the Prime Minister, President Weizman, President Clinton, and His Holiness the Pope, who had asked my opinion."

The Late Lubavitcher Rebbe (from an epistle to a disciple) - "Shoveling snow is a distraction from our efforts to bring Moshiach, may He come soon, when in any case there will be no snow to shovel. So leave it and let it melt. If the Messiah does not come by Shavuos, the snow will have miraculously disappeared anyway."

"God says to the snow, 'Fall on the earth...'" Job 37:6 - Snow in Jewish Culture

"God says to the snow, 'Fall on the earth...'" Job 37:6

Little-Known Facts About Snow in Jewish Tradition and Lore:

Many traditional Jewish congregations refuse to count snowmen in the prayer quorum.

Medieval Jewish mystics practiced rolling in the snow to purge themselves from evil urges. They were the first snow angels.

Moses Maimonides, 10th century physician to the Egyptian Khalif, prescribed snow as a cure for the hot Cairo summers.

The elders of Safed have 36 different words for snow -- but none for snow removal.

During 3 particularly cold Sinai winters, the Israelites were led by a pillar of snow.

It is forbidden to write in the snow on the Sabbath. (if you are interested in this topic, see here
and here) – halachot on writing on Shabbat and on walking on snow)

Following the great Jerusalem blizzard of 1900, Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl proposed the "Uganda option."

According to some rabbinic authorities, one must wait six hours between going out in the snow and in the rain.

On snowy days, the procession of King Solomon's immediate family was pulled by 2,800 reindeer and 1,200 huskies.

Israel's national hockey team participated in the 1992 Winter Games, dominating both the Olympic village and concession area.

On January 9, 1896, a snowball from St. Patrick's elementary school landed in Mrs. Manischewitz's kitchen, inspiring her to invent matzo ball soup.

See more from the Shabbat-O-Gram archives for a snowy day: Snow in Jewish Culture: Snow in Jewish Culture

So snow is heaven speaking to us - speaking to us through purity, speaking to us gently and gradually on our terms. Snow is the intermediary stage between heaven and earth; ice is a little closer to the level of earth; sleet is in between snow and ice. Thus every weather condition sends us a message and lesson - whether it’s rain, snow, ice, sleet or hail. (Simon Jacobson)

Is the Western Wall a Synagogue?

With all the controversy surrounding the harrassment of the Women of the Wall, one question has become paramount: Who Owns the Western Wall?

And whom does it belong to? If it is the Jewish People, does that mean all the Jewish people, or just those who pray in a certain way? Finally, is the Kotel a meant to be a synagogue at all, a place of collective prayer, or simply a very holy place where individuals historically have come to pray spontaneously?

Here are two recent answers, one from an Orthodox authority and one Conservative:

From Rabbi Marc Angel

The Kotel currently operates under the governance of Orthodox rabbinic authorities. There is a separation between men and women. Women's prayer groups or non-Orthodox prayer services are not allowed. Recently a woman was arrested for violating the Orthodox rules that govern the Kotel area. A group known as Women of the Wall insist that women be given greater access to prayer at the Kotel. Non-Orthodox groups insist that the Kotel should be available for non-Orthodox prayer services, without separation of genders. Many Orthodox Jews find the current situation unsatisfactory for a variety of reasons.

It is very sad that the Kotel--which should be a unifying spiritual center for the Jewish people--is in fact a source of controversy. I would like to offer a suggestion, however strange it may seem at first glance.

My opinion is that no formal prayer services should be allowed at the wall--not for men, not for women, not for Orthodox, not for non-Orthodox. The Kotel should be a place for private prayer and meditation, and that's it. If people want to have formal prayer services, they should reserve space in the enclosed areas to the left of the Kotel square; and those services should be conducted however the group that reserves the space wants.

I fully understand that my suggestion will be totally rejected by the current religious authorities who control the Kotel. But these authorities alienate the vast majority of Jews, and treat the Kotel as though it is their own--when it in fact belongs to all the Jewish people. My suggestion has the advantage of taking the Kotel area out of the realm of religious controversy. Perhaps we can hope that the powers-that-be in Israel will understand their responsibility to keep the Kotel as a spiritual center for all the Jewish people; and this can best be done (I think) by reserving the Kotel only for private prayer and meditation, with no formal prayer services conducted by any groups.

And here is a more lengthy, historical survey by Rabbi David Golinkin:
Is the Western Wall a Synagogue? I encourage you to read the entire teshuvah, but here is the final section:

...On the other hand, the Rambam rules (Hilkhot Tefillah 11:21) that:

The plaza of a city which is used for prayer on public fast days and the like is not sacred because it is temporary and was not fixed for prayer. And so too houses and courtyards which the people gather in for prayer are not sacred, because they were not specified only for prayer; rather they are for temporary prayer like a person who prays in his house.

The first half of this law is based on the opinion of the Sages in Megillah 26a, but the second half seems to be the Rambam’s own opinion. This law was then codified in the Tur and Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 154 and in other codes of Jewish law (Bet Yosef, Knesset Hagedolah, Kaf Hahayyim and Mishnah Berurah ad loc.).

These two laws teach us that:

a. it is permissible to sanctify a courtyard as a synagogue;
b. a courtyard used as a temporary or intermittent synagogue which was not specified only for prayer does not have the sanctity of a synagogue.

Therefore, according to Jewish law, there is a clear halakhic difference between the lower prayer area next to the Kotel which has been used as a synagogue on a daily basis since July 1967 and the much larger upper plaza which is only used for prayer on Shavuot or Tisha B’av when 50,000 to 100,000 people come to the Kotel to pray. In other words, the lower prayer area next to the Kotel is a courtyard which was sanctified as a synagogue, while the large upper plaza is a temporary place of prayer which does not have the sanctity of a synagogue.

Indeed, there are two ways of proving that the Chief Rabbinate and other prominent Orthodox rabbis also differentiate between these two areas:

1. Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, the son of former Sefardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, wrote in his Yalkut Yosef in 1990 (Vol. 2, pp. 276-277):

It is forbidden to eat and drink near the Kotel, in the place which was sanctified by tens of thousands of Jews for prayer… and if one does a circumcision near the Kotel, it is good not to distribute candy and confections there, only outside the area near the Kotel.

In note 11, he explains that it is forbidden to eat and drink near the Kotel according to Megillah 28a and Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 151:1 that it is forbidden to eat and drink in a synagogue. In other words, in the opinion of Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who wrote his book “with the careful editing and agreement” of his father (according to the title page), the area near the Kotel is a synagogue and it is therefore forbidden to eat and drink there. But “outside the area near the Kotel”, i.e. in the large upper plaza, it is permissible to eat and drink because it is not a synagogue.

2. Secondly, it is clear from the actual behavior of the Chief Rabbinate, Rabbi of the Kotel and Kotel Guard from 1967 until just a few years ago that in practice it did differentiate between the lower area near the Kotel which it considered a synagogue and the large upper plaza which it did not:

a. mehitzah, chairs, torah reading tables
b. the Kotel Guard demands wearing a kippah and modest dress
c. no cars and police cars
d. no military ceremonies.

a. no mehitzah, chairs or tables
b. no Kotel Guard
c. cars and police cars
d. military ceremonies.

It is therefore clear that even if someone claims that the established custom of the Kotel was to pray with a mehitzah - a claim we have disproved in paragraph I above - the large upper plaza is not a synagogue according to Jewish law and according to the practices of the Chief Rabbinate itself for about 35 years after the Six Day War. Therefore, the Chief Rabbinate has no halakhic right to demand certain types of dress or behavior in that area.

IV) How should the State of Israel deal with the fact that the entire Kotel plaza is slowly becoming a Haredi synagogue?

Thus far we have seen that:
I. there was no mehitzah at the Kotel until 1948; it was viewed and treated as a prayer area and not a synagogue;

II. the Ministry of Religion/Chief Rabbinate was given jurisdiction over the Kotel in June 1967 after a political struggle, but the Antiquities Authority managed to limit that authority to the Kotel Plaza and to exclude the much larger areas to the south and southwest of the Temple Mount;

III. according to Jewish law and according to the actual practice of the Chief Rabbinate for decades after 1967, the lower area near the Kotel is a synagogue while the larger upper plaza is not;

IV. In light of these facts, I would like to agree with the suggestions made in a recent article by Rabbi Barry Schlesinger, the President of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel (The Jerusalem Post, January 12, 2010, p. 14):

a. the lower area near the Kotel will continue to serve as an Orthodox synagogue not because it was before 1948 - it was not - but because it has been one since 1967 and it will be impossible to turn back the clock after 42 years;

b. the upper plaza should be turned over to the National Parks Authority or the City of Jerusalem either by a government decision or by changing the law. Item II above serves as a good precedent for this. The Chief Rabbinate and the Ministry of Religion tried to prevent the Antiquities Authority from excavating the areas south and southwest of the Temple Mount. These areas were then removed from their hegemony and the result was the incredible discoveries of Prof. Mazar and others in the area which is now the Davidson Archaeological Park. The same thing should be done now regarding the upper plaza at the Kotel. It must be turned over to a non-partisan government body before the Rabbi of the Kotel, who is Haredi, turns it into a Haredi synagogue.

c. Robinson’s Arch was designated by the government in 1999 as a synagogue/prayer area for Conservative and Reform Jews and for the Women at the Wall. This should now be reaffirmed or passed as a law by the Knesset. The government should also provide Torah scrolls, siddurim and talitot and allow use of the area at all hours of the day without paying an entrance fee after 9:15 am.

If this plan is adopted, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews will be able to continue to pray in their respective areas of the Kotel and the IDF and all Jews can continue to hold ceremonies and public events in the upper plaza of the Kotel.

In this way the Kotel can become a source of peace which unites the Jewish people as envisioned in our ancient sources (see Berakhot 30a and parallels).

David Golinkin
19 Shevat 5770

New Israel Fund Under Attack

In the previous post, TBE member Jan Gaines commented on the alleged role of the New Israel Fund in the infamous Goldstone report, reflecting a growing demonization of the NIF in Israel. Like Jan, I began supporting the NIF many years ago, primarily because it, unlike UJA or any other Israel support agency here in the US, took an active role in promoting greater acceptance of the non Orthodox religious streams. This support has been most important recently, in light of the arrests and detentions of the Women of the Wall. Here is the NIF's response to recent accusations, taken from it's website. Unlike Jan, I still actively support the efforts of the NIF, and I reject the demonization that has taken place. Goldstone was horrible - but the basic freedoms that make Israel such a vibrant democracy, including freedom of speech, are among Israel's most precious attributes, to be preserved at all costs. This treatment reeks of the atmosphere that led to the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin.

Take a look at the Oscar nominations for recent Israeli films and you'll see the best of what a self-critical society can accomplish when it turns the lens on itself. Take a look at the bestselling book "Start-Up Nation" and you'll see that a key to Israel's economic success is the vibrant grass-roots debate that goes on everywhere, even within the ranks of the army. It's part of the culture - thank God, for Jews to be skeptical of those in power, even in their own state. All the more so when war is so prevalent. I pray that such vibrant dialogue continues to strengthen our Jewish homeland, protecting it from all foes, including the fear of freedom.

Meanwhile, the demonization of Israel is not nearly as bad in this country as Jan is perceiving from Netanya. Israeli Ambassador Oren was heckled at the University of California-Irvine. Where's the news there? Is this the first time anyone at Cal has heckled someone? That's not demonization on a mass scale. I heard Oren speak at Brown just a couple of months ago and he was treated with the utmost courtesy on one of the most liberal campuses in the country. Brown has an Israeli film festival this week. I am in contact with TBE students all over the country and am hearing nothing about a gathering storm of hatred of Israel. Europe might indeed be another story, but the reports of an anti-Semitic frenzy on US campuses are vastly exaggerated.

We Won the Battle...
But the war for democratic values in Israel will go on.

Yesterday, the leadership of the Kadima party decided not to support a proposed Committee of Parliamentary Inquiry into the New Israel Fund and the human rights organizations it supports. The proposed inquiry, initiated by a Kadima MK, was in response to a vicious campaign launched against NIF two weeks ago by a new right-wing group, attempting to blame Israel’s human rights community for the Goldstone report on Gaza. The immediate threat of a Knesset inquiry has abated for now.

Because of the outcry of thousands of people of conscience like you, and hundreds of Israeli and American Jewish leaders, journalists, academics and activists across the political spectrum, extremists in the Knesset will not at this time hold NIF and democratic values hostage to a frightening ideological agenda. But those in Israel and elsewhere who equate the work of human rights groups, the monitoring, reporting and self-examination so critical to the functioning of a democracy, with treason will not stop their efforts to shut us up and shut us down.

So we, too, cannot stop fighting.

The New Israel Fund has never invested resources in “building its brand” or PR for the sake of PR. Every dollar we raise that is not spent on basic operations goes towards building a better Israel, in direct or indirect investments in grassroots social change. But the days of being the strong, silent type are over.

In the coming days and weeks, we will work with you, our friends and supporters, and with the organizations we support in Israel to take a positive stand on behalf of human rights and social justice. In Israel and in the U.S., in Canada and the UK, we will take every step to emphasize the vision of Israel founders, the Jewish and universal values that must underlie a democratic state, and the real reasons that Israel can refer to itself as the “only democracy in the Middle East.”

Please, continue and increase your support. Be ready to contact the Prime Minister and Ambassador Oren. Involve your friends and families, your temples, youth groups and other progressive organizations. If ever there was a time to take a stand for the Israel we can be proud of, that time is now.

Your help last week made a huge difference. Stand by to speak out again.

Daniel Sokatch
Chief Executive Officer

And here is more background from the initial letter by Sokatch:

Several weeks ago Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of longtime NIF grantee the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal advocacy arm of the Reform movement, was hauled into a police station, fingerprinted and interrogated for her prayer sessions at the Kotel with Women of the Wall. A week later, it was the arrest of Hagai El-Ad, the CEO of NIF’s flagship grantee the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), during a peaceful demonstration in East Jerusalem that ACRI was monitoring to protect freedom of speech.

Now it is us.

A number of the civil and human rights organizations that are funded and supported by NIF have written challenging, thoughtful criticisms of how the Israeli military behaved during Gaza Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9. The most recent attacks on NIF claim that if only we didn’t exist, if only we didn’t support these organizations in their work, Goldstone would not have had the evidence needed to come to the conclusions presented in his report.

NIF has been attacked before for our role as the lead funder of social justice and human rights in Israel. We continue to be a lightning rod for those who insist that Israel is always right. But as our board member and former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk said at last Sunday’s Town Hall Meeting, perhaps many years ago the existential threats to Israel’s continued existence warranted disregard for its flaws for the sake of survival, but no longer. Today, the question is not whether Israel survives, but what kind of Israel survives. As Professor Chazan said that day, the question is not whether Israel is always right or always wrong but what we will do to solve the very real problems Israel has.

NIF stands for the efforts of thousands of Israelis and Diaspora Jews who are dedicated to working towards the Israel they know to be possible; one which upholds the dignity of all of its people.

The ugly language and personal threats against NIF and our President are all too reminiscent of the atmosphere of incitement and hatred that preceded the Rabin assassination. Sadly, these vicious attacks are being launched against the very organizations that protect Israel and its international reputation as a vibrant democracy.

The human rights organizations that examined and reported on human rights concerns during and after the Gaza operation were the first to declare that the Israeli government must launch an independent inquiry into the events of Gaza. They were acting out of a profound sense of patriotism and love of Israel. They are not monolithic and differ on many issues, including the conclusions of the Goldstone report.