Monday, May 31, 2010

Israel's Early Days: Rare Color Footage

See below some rare color footage of Israel's early days, at a time when almost everything was filmed in black and white. This except, shown on Israeli TV several months ago, is a preview of a full length film that is being prepared. These vivid images remind us of simpler times - though no less perilous - and of the courageous spirit of those who forged the Jewish state. Enjoy!

A Difficult Day for Israel - Tough Times for American Jews

Here's a link of that same video, but with sound and subtitles

The events this morning involving Israel and the Gazan flotilla have created yet another difficult diplomatic situation for Israel. Since it is so important that we be informed, and given Israel's historical inability to explain things and the world media's propensity to portray the Gazans as victims, I've assembled at the end of this posting links to articles to help you gain some perspective. Several of these articles come from the Daily Alert of the Conference of Presidents. After that I've included a briefing from the Federations of North America.

What seems clear at this point is that Israel's soldiers boarding the boat were surprised at the violent reception they received (see Ha'aretz: Israeli commandos: Gaza flotilla crew tried to lynch us) and they acted in self defence. Whether it was wise to board the boats in that manner is another matter.

But there are larger trends worth considering as well...

See Marc Schulman's Daily Analysis, which discusses the flotilla situation prior to today's events, plus Israel's other setback, where the US did not completely back Israel in the nuclear non proliferation talks at the UN. What's going on here? For an interesting assessment, see this Ha'aretz piece: Israel Does Not Understand the New World. Schulman's view:

The explanation for Israel's diplomatic defeat have varied. Those defending Prime Minster Netanyahu claim it was expected, and it was the price the US (and by implication) Israel was willing to pay for World Wide support for strong sanctions against Iran. Other observers (and they seem to be the majority), believe Israel was blinded. Some say the Israeli government does not seem to understand that when President Obama talks about multi-lateral actions, he truly believes in them, and will do all he can to avoid unilateral actions. For an even less charitable explanation, I heard a number of times in the last 24 hours, if you decide to defend Jewish building in Sheik Jarah, you may be doing that at the expense of Israel's truly strategic issues; such as the nuclear program. In other words, getting into a fight with Obama over building in Jerusalem has precluded the intimate relations Israeli leaders need to have with America's Presidents.

This has been a time of real soul searching for American Jews regarding Israel. Peter Beinart's essay in the New York Review of Books, "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment" has caused quite a stir in Jewish circles. A former editor of The New Republic, Beinart's claim can be summarized in this paragraph from the essay:

Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel. And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included. But the two groups are increasingly distinct. Particularly in the younger generations, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster -- indeed, have actively opposed -- a Zionism that challenges Israel's behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism's door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.

The JTA has summarized many thoughtful responses to Beinart here and here. They are must reading for all of us.

Below are the articles about today's events:

At Least Ten Killed on Gaza Flotilla - Amy Teibel and Tia Goldenberg
Israeli commandos on Monday stormed six ships carrying hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists on an aid mission to Gaza. At least ten people were killed and dozens were wounded after IDF forces encountered unexpected resistance. Turkey's NTV showed activists beating one Israeli soldier with sticks as he rappelled from a helicopter onto one of the boats. The Israeli military said troops only opened fire after the activists attacked them with knives and iron rods, and one activist wrested a serviceman's weapon. Two of the dead activists had fired at soldiers with pistols, the army said. Organizers included people affiliated with the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian group that often sends international activists into battle zones, and the IHH, a Turkish aid group t hat Israel accuses of having terrorist links. "We did not want to see confrontation," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Netanyahu. "We made repeated offers to the boats that they come to the (Israeli) port of Ashdod, unload the humanitarian cargo, and we guaranteed to pass all humanitarian items through the crossings to the Gaza Strip. Unfortunately, they rejected our offers and chose the path of confrontation." (AP-Washington Post)
See also Israeli Soldiers Attacked While Boarding Gaza Flotilla (Israel Defense Forces)
See also IDF: Soldiers Met by Well-Planned Lynch - Yaakov Katz

According to IDF reports, over a dozen Israeli personnel were wounded, some of them from gunfire, and at least two were in s erious condition. (Jerusalem Post)

See also Video: Flotilla Activist Stabs IDF Soldier (Channel 2-Maariv-Hebrew)

See also Defense Minister Barak: Flotilla Organizers Responsible for Activists Killed - Tovah Lazaroff and Yaakov Lappin
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Monday that while he was sorry for lives lost, the organizers of the Gaza-bound protest flotilla were solely responsible for the outcome of the IDF raid earlier in the day. Barak said that the soldiers tried to disperse the activists aboard the ship peacefully but were forced to open fire to protect themselves. (Jerusalem Post)

NPT Review Meeting Calls for Conference on Nuke-Free Middle East in 2012 - Neil MacFarquhar
The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference in New York ended Friday with a call for holding a regional conference by 2012 to eliminate unconventional weapons from the Middle East. "People are not going to come to a disarmament conference voluntarily if they are at war with their neighbors," said Ellen O. Tauscher, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, who led the American delegation. Washington's support for such a conference does not supersede the longstanding U.S. policy that disarmament requires a comprehensive peace in the region first, she said. (New York Times)

See also Obama: "We Strongly Oppose Efforts to Single Out Israel" at UN Nuke Conference - Louis Charbonneau
U.S. officials, disappointed at efforts at a conference of signatories of the global anti-nuclear arms treaty to single out Israel, made clear that the Middle East could not be declared WMD-free until there was broad Arab-Israeli peace and Iran curbed its nuclear program. While welcoming agreements on a range of non-proliferation issues at the UN meeting, President Barack Obama said: "We strongly oppose efforts to single out Israel, and will oppose actions that jeopardize Israel's national security." Gary Samore, who oversees policy on weapons of mass destruction at the White House, said, "The political symbolism of mentioning Israel in this way is very destructive." The White House insisted it would not put the Jewish state under any pressure nor encourage it to do anything that would undermine its national security. It also denied entering into a deal with Egypt and other Arab states on the WMD-free zone. ( Reuters) See also Text: Final Document of NPT Review Conference (NPT Conference)

From the Jewish Federations of North America:


As many of you may be aware, a major confrontation took place off Israel's coast earlier today. We wanted to bring you the most up-to-date information from JFNA's Israel office, for your background. We have summarized the major points below. This is followed by additional facts and links to other important materials on this incident.

Early this morning (May 31), Israel Defense Forces naval forces intercepted six ships attempting to break the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The intercept took place after numerous warnings from Israel and the Israel Navy that were issued prior to the action. The Israel Navy
requested the ships to redirect toward Ashdod, where they would be able to unload their cargo which would then be transferred to Gaza over land after undergoing security inspections. The IDF stressed that the passengers could then return to their point of departure on the same vessels.
During the interception of the ships, the demonstrators onboard
attacked the IDF naval personnel with live gunfire as well as light weaponry including knives, crowbars and clubs. The demonstrators had clearly prepared weapons in advance for this specific purpose.

According to reports from sea, on board the flotilla that was seeking to break the maritime closure on the Gaza Strip, IDF forces apprehended two violent activists holding pistols. These militants apparently grabbed the pistols from IDF forces and opened fire on the soldiers.

The activists were carrying 10,000 tons of reported aid to Gaza. Israel provides 15,000 tons of aid weekly to Gaza.

As a result of this life-threatening activity, naval forces employed riot dispersal means, including, when they determined that their lives were in immediate danger, live fire. According to initial reports, these events resulted in over 10 deaths among the demonstrators and numerous injured.

A number of Israeli naval personnel were injured, some from gunfire and others from knives and crowbars. Two of the soldiers are moderately wounded and the remainder sustained light injuries.

All of the injured, Israelis and foreigners, are currently being evacuated by a fleet of IDF helicopters to hospitals in Israel.

Reports from IDF forces on the scene are that some of the participants onboard the ships had planned a lynch-mob attack, using lethal force on the boarding forces.

The events are still unfolding. Israeli Naval commander, Vice Admiral Eliezer Marom is overseeing the activities.
In the coming hours, the ships will be directed to the Ashdod port, while IDF naval forces will perform security checks in order to identify the people on board the ships and their equipment.

The IDF naval operation was carried out under orders from the political leadership to halt the flotilla from reaching the Gaza Strip and breaching the naval blockade.

Other important facts:

The provocateurs were organized by an Islamist organization that has links to fundamentalist jihadi groups.

The extremists brought small children on board knowing that they intended to violate international maritime law.

The activists were carrying 10,000 tons of what they said was aid. Israel transfers about 15,000 tons of supplies and humanitarian aid every week to the people of Gaza.

"We fully intend to go to Gaza regardless of any intimidation or threats of violence against us, they are going to have to forcefully stop us," said one of the flotilla’s organizers.

Using the Arabic term ‘intifada,’ Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said "We call on all Arabs and Muslims to rise up in front of Zionist embassies across the whole world.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said this week: "If the ships reach Gaza it is a victory; if they are intercepted, it will be a victory too.

Israel left Gaza in hopes of peace in 2005 and in return received more than 10,000 rockets and terrorist attacks.

Israel has said that it will deliver any humanitarian aid to Gaza, as it does daily.

No country would allow illegal entry of any vessel into their waters without a security check.

Earlier this week, Noam Shalit, father of Hamas-held Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, approached the flotilla's organizers asking them to take supplies to Gilad.
He was refused.

Here are additional resources for further background on this issue:

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Danny Ayalon's press conference on the flotilla incident:

Israel Goes on High Alert in the Wake of Flotilla Incident:

IDF Met with Pre-Planned Violence When Boarding Ship:

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s Statement: Activists Had Weapons:,7340,L-3896588,00.html

Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement about the humanitarian situation in Gaza:

MFA legal expert Sarah Weiss Maudi explains why the flotilla was not allowed to dock at Gaza:

Legal Backgrounder on maritime law and other related issues, from MFA:

A fascinating Al-Jazeera report on the flotilla before they left that offers insight into who was on board. One says: "We are now waiting for one of two good things -- either to achieve martyrdom or to reach Gaza:"

Video of a "peace activist" stabbing an Israeli soldier as he boards the boat:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Expresses Full Backing for the IDF:

Prime Minister Netanyahu today spoke by telephone with the relevant security ministers and officials, and was updated on the action and subsequent developments. In his discussions with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Minister Moshe Yaalon, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi and ISA Director Yuval Diskin, the Prime Minister issued security, diplomatic and information directives, reiterated his full backing for the IDF and inquired about the well-being of the wounded.

The National Security Council Counter-Terrorism Bureau (NSCCTB) has released the following statement:
"In response to the events surrounding the protest flotilla, there are growing protests by the government and public in Turkey. At this stage, relatively quiet demonstrations are taking place around the Israeli Consulate General in Istanbul and the Israeli Embassy in Ankara. This delicate state of affairs is liable to deteriorate into violent outbreaks against Israelis in Turkey.

The NSCCTB's recommendations are as follows:

Israelis due to leave for Turkey should – at this stage – refrain from travelling until the situation becomes clear.

Israelis currently in Turkey should remain in their places of residence, avoid city centers and sites in which demonstrations are being held, and monitor developments out of concern that the situation could worsen.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Shabbat-O-Gram for Memorial Day Weekend


I've just returned from the Rabbinical Assembly convention at JTS, culminating in yesterday's Convocation where I was privileged to receive my honorary doctorate.  My thanks to Eileen Rosner and Steve Lander for giving up a good chunk of their day to make the trip, along with my family, representing the congregation.  The ceremony was quite moving, as I shared with over 50 colleagues the chance to celebrate the contributions that have been made over the past quarter century in service of the Jewish people.  The accomplishments reflect a breadth and depth that is staggering, but the common denominator was how each rabbi has touched individual lives.  Tens of thousands of lives, one life at a time, moment by moment, year by year.

It's an awe-inspiring profession.  As daunting as it is to look forward, it is equally humbling and gratifying to reflect back on what has been accomplished.  Still, I know that the title "Doctor of Divinity," nice as it is, means little.  As our sources state, our deeds are our monuments...not our titles.

For the first time, some of the convention was videostreamed.  I've embedded two keynote lectures on my blog, presented by Rabbis Harold Kushner and David Wolpe, prime spokespersons for Conservative Judaism.  With the movement at a crossroads, it's not only rabbis who need to hear their inspiring messages. 

Join us this evening at 6:30 outdoors (weather permitting) as Rabbinic Pastor David Daniel Klipper will lead a special "Nefesh" service to welcome Shabbat.

Tomorrow morning, we have no b'nai mitzvah, and we'll be discussing models of leadership in times of crisis, inspired by the portion of Beha'alotcha and various current catastrophies. See also David Brooks' column in today's Times: Drilling for Certainty.

Also featured this week:

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Sydney Katz on Naso

Jewish Baseball Site - this one gives up to date stats on the "home" team

Civility Wars  - At this week's convention, a resolution was passed calling upon people of all political bents to be more civil toward one another. It echoes a resolution recently put forth by the ADL (see Jewish Groups Call for Civility), which was signed by the directors of both the National Jewish Democratic Council, and the Republican Jewish Coalition. With the political season clearly underway - did the last one ever end? - the ideals of this statement will surely be put to the test.

Also, see TBE teen Jackie Schechter's article in this week's Jewish Week, on last week's Israel Day Parade in NYC. Jackie wrote is part of the Write on For Israel project, which trains budding journalists in the intricasies of Israel advocacy as they prepare to enter college campuses.  See the article here.

Also on the Jewish Week site, this week's Hammerman on Ethics column: The Ethics of Giving: Jewish vs. Non-Jewish?

Finally, on this Memorial Day Weekend, please take the time to reflect on the heroism of those who made the supreme sacrifice. See: A Rabbi's Sermon on Iwo Jima: A Memorial Day Tribute. 

Here is a brief excerpt:

Thus do we memorialize those who, having ceased living with us, now live within us. Thus do we consecrate ourselves the living to carry on the struggle they began. Too much blood has gone into this soil for us to let it lie barren. Too much pain and heartache have fertilized the earth on which we stand. We here solemnly swear: this shall not be in vain! Out of this, and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this, will come-we promise-the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere.

Warm wishes for a meaningful and enjoyable Memorial Day and Shabbat (and don't forget minyan is at 9 AM on BOTH Sunday and Monday)

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

G-dcast for Beha'alotcha

It's raining chicken! Hallelujah! Beha'alotcha, the parsha so eventful you can't pronounce its name without going to rabbinical school. Jon Madof and Charlie Buckholtz strapped on their banjos and wrote a folksong about it. It's AWESOME.

Parshat Beha'alotcha from

More Torah cartoons at

Dr. Hammerman

I've just returned from the Rabbinical Assembly convention at JTS, culminating in the convocation yesterday where I was privileged to receive my honorary doctorate. My thanks to Eileen Rosner and Steve Lander for giving up a good chunk of their day to make the trip, along with my family, representing the congregation. The ceremony was quite moving, as I shared with over 50 colleagues the chance to celebrate the contributions that have been made over the past quarter century in service of the Jewish people. The accomplishments reflect a breadth and depth that is staggering, but for everyone the common denominator was touching individual lives. Tens of thousands of lives, one life at a time, moment by moment, year by year.

It's an awe-inspiring profession. As daunting as it is to look forward, it is equally humbling and gratifying to reflect back on what has been accomplished.

But no matter what happens, As far as I'm concerned, at my house I'm still the not the real Dr. Hammerman in my home. An honorary degree is nice - nicer than I thought it would be. But "rabbi" is title enough for me.

Below are some photos from the day. The one at the bottom features me with three colleagues from my home synagogue of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, Mass., all of whom were honored at the Convocation. KI has been a prime breeding ground for Conservative rabbis and educators - well over 30 over the past half century. Must have been something in those delicious knishes they served at the kiddush each week!

A Rabbi's Sermon at Iwo Jima: A Memorial Day Tribute

It has been called one of the great battlefield sermons to come out of World War Two. On this Memorial Day weekend, I share with you the words of Rabbi Roland Gittlesohn in a speech delivered in dedication of the 5th marine Cemetery on Iwo Jima, in March 1945.

Having recently watched the HBO Series on the war in the Pacific, these words carry even more weight as I read them:

Thus do we memorialize those who, having ceased living with us, now live within us. Thus do we consecrate ourselves the living to carry on the struggle they began. Too much blood has gone into this soil for us to let it lie barren. Too much pain and heartache have fertilized the earth on which we stand. We here solemnly swear: this shall not be in vain! Out of this, and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this, will come–we promise–the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere. (see the full text at the link above)

My colleague, rabbi and chaplain Arnold Resnicoff recently recounted the back story behond Gittlesohn's famous sermon:

He was the first Jewish chaplain to be attached to a Marine division full-time, and served with honor with the Fifth Marine Division in Iwo Jima and elsewhere. He was chosen to deliver the sermon at the dedication of the cemetery -- but many Christian chaplains complained, saying in part that the number of Jews who died was small compared to those of other religions. His senior chaplain wanted to hold his ground, but Gittelsohn said he would step down, rather than create animosity at a time when all men there should be coming together -- so the compromise was to hold three separate dedication ceremonies, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish, with Gittelsohn delivering his sermon at the Jewish ceremony. However, "the end of the story" (as Paul Harvey would have put it) was that some of the Christian chaplains were so incensed by the fact that Gittelsohn was not able to deliver that sermon at one ceremony, for all the men who had died, that they made copies of his speech, sharing it with all the Marines, who then shared copies with their friends and relatives at home. Slowly but surely, if it can be said that there was one sermon of WWII, this became that sermon -- written by a rabbi, but shared and made famous by his Christian colleagues.

Chaplain Resnicoff also reminds us that this would be an appropriate weekend to reflect on another heroic account from WW2, that of the four chaplains who who gave their lives to save others, going down with the ship, the USAT Dorchester, ministering to the wounded and dying until the very end, on the fateful morning of Feb 3, 1943. Two Protestant ministers, a Catholic priest, and a rabbi. In today's military, Resnicoff reflects, "I have no doubt but that there might have been other religions and faith groups represented in that group, side by side -- symbolizing as the Four Chaplains organization calls it, "Interfaith in Action." In a world with so many stories of religious fighting, I don't have to tell rabbinic colleagues how important stories are in terms of teaching us to keep faith in interfaith cooperation -- and to "keep faith in faith," believing that religion can still be part of the solution, not only (as so many believe) part of the problem. (I always remember the Maureen Dowd column after 9-11, that described a sentence scribbled on a building near the Pentagon: "Please God, protect us from those who believe in you.")"

We have come a long way in terms of interfaith cooperation in the military, thanks in large part to the service of individuals like the four chaplains of the Dorchester, and Rabbi Gittelsohn - and, may I add, Rabbi Resnicoff.

May this holiday be a time of meaningful reflection for all.


The full text of Gittlesohn's sermon is below:

Eulogy by Lt Roland B. Gittelsohn, ChC, USNR at the dedication
of the 5th Marine Division Cemetery, Iwo Jima–March 1945

"This is perhaps the grimmest, and surely the holiest task we have faced since D-Day. Here before us lie the bodies of comrades and friends. Men who until yesterday or last week laughed with us, joked with us, trained with us. Men who were on the same ships with us, and went over the sides with us as we prepared to hit the beaches of this island. Men who fought with us and feared with us. Somewhere in this plot of ground there may lie the man who could have discovered the cure for cancer. Under one of these Christian crosses, or beneath a Jewish Star of David, there may now rest a man who was destined to be a great prophet–to find the way, perhaps, for all to live in plenty, with poverty and hardship for none. Now they lie here silently in this sacred soil, and we gather to consecrate this earth in their memory.

It is not easy to do so. Some of us have buried our closest friends here. We saw these men killed before our very eyes. Any one of us might have died in their places. Indeed, some of us are alive and breathing at this very monent only because men who lie here beneath us had the courage and strength to give their lives for ours. To speak in memory of such men as these is not easy. Of them too can it be said with utter truth: "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here. It can never forget what they did here."

No, our poor power of speech can add nothing to what these men and the other dead of our Division who are not here have already done. All that we even hope to do is follow their example. To show the same selfless courage in peace that they did in war. To swear that by the grace of God and the stubborn strength and power of human will, their sons and ours shall never suffer these pains again. These men have done their jobs well. They have paid the ghastly price of freedom. If that freedom be once again lost, as it was after the last war, the unforgivable blame will be ours, not theirs. So it is we the living who are here to be dedicated and consecrated.

We dedicate ourselves, first, to live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in this war. Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors generations ago helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and men, negroes and whites, rich men and poor–together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.

Any man among us the living who fails to understand that will thereby betray those who lie here dead. Whoever of us lifts up his hand in hate against a brother, or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and of the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this, then, as our solemn, sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the rights of Protestants, Catholics and Jews, of white men and negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them here have paid the price.

To one thing more do we consecrate ourselves in memory of those who sleep beneath these crosses and stars. We shall not foolishly suppose, as did the last generation of America's fghting men, that victory on the battlefield will automatically guarantee the triumph of democracy at home. This war, with all its frightful heartache and suffering,is but the beginning our our generation's struggle for democracy. When the last battle has been won, there will be those at home, as there were the last time, who will want us to turn our backs in selfish isolation on the rest of organized humanity, and thus to sabotage the very peace for which we fight. We promise you who lie here: we will not do that! We will join hands with Britain, China, Russia in peace, even as we have in war, to build the kind of world for which you died.

When the last shot has been fired, there will still be those whose eyes are turned backward, not forward, who will be satisfied with those wide extremes of poverty and wealth in which the seeds of another war can breed. We promise you, our departed comrades: this too we will not permit. This war has been fought by the common man; its fruits of peace must be enjoyed by the common man! We promise, by all that is sacred and holy, that your sons, the sons of moners and millers, the sons of farmers and workers, the right to a living that is decent and secure.

When the final cross has been placed in the last cemetery, once again there will be those to whom profit is more important than peace, who will insist with the voice of sweet reasonableness and appeasement that it is better to trade with the enemies of mankind, than by crushing them, to lose their profit. To you who sleep here silently, we give our promise: we will not listen! We will not forget that some of you were burnt with oil that came from American wells, that many of you were killed with shells fashioned from American steel. We promise that when once again men profit at your expense, we shall remember how you looked when we placed you reverently, lovingly, in the ground.

Thus do we memorialize those who, having ceased living with us, now live within us. Thus do we consecrate ourselves the living to carry on the struggle they began. Too much blood has gone into this soil for us to let it lie barren. Too much pain and heartache have fertilized the earth on which we stand. We here solemnly swear: this shall not be in vain! Out of this, and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this, will come–we promise–the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere. Amen."

Rabbi Gittelsohn was assigned to HQ, 5th MarDiv as the Jewish divisional Chaplain. He ministered to Marines and Sailors of all faiths. He was the first Jewish Chaplain ever to serve with the Marine Corps.

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Sydney Katz on Naso

Imagine not having your computer for four whole days! And then, when the computer finally comes back… no internet! Could anything possibly we WORSE???

YES. No cable! No TV at all!

And worst of mall….no cell phone to text your friends! And then, on top of that, imagine having all your food go bad with the refrigerator not working.

Well, all this is not simply something that I imagined. It actually happened - to me – and many others – a few months ago….

Some of you may recall that we had a pretty big storm last March. Pretty big, is an understatement. Remember all the trees that fell, all the wires, the blocked streets, the wind the rain? If you don’t recall it, maybe when you have to go to school until the end of June, you’ll remember why.

Not only did we lose power, but several trees fell down in my neighborhood. Some friends had trees fall in their yards, very near their houses. In some cases, ON the house. There were also some live wires that came down almost touching the ground, right around the corner to my

Despite all this, I felt lucky. I still had my house, where many others suffered real damage from wind, trees and flooding. I still had my family. Everyone was safe. And I still had all my electronic gadgets! I had them… they just weren’t working.

But they are now!

My portion contains the famous blessings recited by the priests in ancient times. These three blessings remind us how important it is for all of us to count our blessings.

In fact, Jews traditionally recite up to 100 blessings every day. As we learn in that famous Jewish play, “Fiddler on the Roof,” there is a blessing for everything. Not just for the Czar, for food, for wearing something new or for seeing a flower bloom. Just like apps, there’s a blessing
for everything.

In fact, I’ve written a few new ones of my own.

Here’s a blessing recited by my cats: Blessed are You Lord our God, for providing us with all the scratching posts we need, especially the one named Sydney.

Here’s a blessing for the last day of Hebrew school: Blessed are You, Lord our God, who has given us the chance to learn about being Jewish with Mrs. Hammerman, who is an excellent teacher and just had birthday two days ago.

Here’s a blessing for my family. Blessed are You, Lord our God, for giving me parents and a sister who have loved me for 13 years, even though I can be difficult at times.

Because of the blackout, it is easier for me to count my blessings. I can appreciate what I have much more.

The blackout has also helped me to begin to appreciate what the people in Haiti are going through. Of course their situation is much worse. Their power never went back on, because for many, their homes were destroyed. Many also lost close relatives and friends.

And yet despite this, the people of Haiti are known for how much faith they have, for their ability to count their blessings. When the quake happened, I was sick at the time and felt very lucky to have good medical care. Then I heard amazing stories of how people would be rescued from the rubble after many days and come out praising God and singing. It was as if they thought THEY were lucky.

I’ve learned from all this, that, if you look at the big picture, things for us are never as bad as they seem. If we stop to say a blessing, we’ll feel blessed – and very lucky.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Jewish Baseball Site

For those who can't get enough baseball and Jews, here's the site for you:

A Bumper Sticker for Conservative Judaism?

Speeches made by Rabbis Harold Kushner and David Wolpe to the Rabbinical Assembly, challenging us to redefine Conservative Judaism in a single statement, a bumper sticker.

Civility Wars

At this week's Rabbinical Assembly convention in New York, a resolution was passed calling upon people of all political bents to be more civil toward one another. It echoes a resolution recently put forth by the ADL (see Jewish Groups Call for Civility), which was signed by the directors of both the National Jewish Democratic Council, and the Republican Jewish Coalition (although not without some quibbling over the text of the document, especially the term "mean spirited," which was eventually taken out). With the political season clearly underway - did the last one ever end? - the ideals of this statement will surely be put to the test:


We stand together today to call for civility in our national public discourse.

Let our debate on the issues of the moment be thoughtful and reasoned.

Let us look to our elected leaders for leadership, whether or not we support their policies.

Let all of us, across the political spectrum, encourage advocacy that is vigorous and pointed, but not personal or hostile.

We reject appeals to bigotry, racism and prejudice.

We reject calls to violence.

In our national public discourse in 2010, let us cast American democracy in the best possible light.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Hammerman on Ethics: The Ethics of Giving: Jewish vs. Non-Jewish?

Q: My wife and I disagree about charitable giving. I believe most of our charitable dollars should go to helping our own Jewish people; she wants to give to local non-Jewish groups, like the homeless shelter and food bank. What's the magic formula about Jewish v. non-Jewish giving, according to Jewish law?

A. Nothing magical, but the Talmud actually does give us a formula for prioritizing our giving. It’s in Bava Metzia, page 71a, where Rabbi Joseph states that, in lending money, Jews take precedence over non-Jews, the poor over the rich, your relatives over the general poor of the town, and the local poor over the poor of another town.

That’s all fine and good, but what happens when we live in a more assimilated society, one where the lines separating Jew from non-Jew have blurred considerably?
Click here for the complete response.

Monday, May 17, 2010

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Maura Welt on Bemidbar

Many of you know that I have a real interest in photography. From the moment I got my first camera a couple of years ago I have enjoyed taking and editing photos. I have taken hundreds of photos and have come to realize that it is not just a matter of pointing and clicking. When I take a picture I am looking for something that truly makes the scene or person come to life. Given a choice between scenery and people I much rather would choose people. Many of my friends have asked me to take or edit pictures of them, especially now that I have gotten good at using digital editing tools. I especially enjoy making double and triple images, which I can make the subject of the picture appear in several different poses in the same picture. I also touch up photos to eliminate any kind of blemishes, which my friends happen to like very much, and I put filters on photos to enhance the image.

So you might be wondering what this has to do with my portion, B’midbar that begins the book of Numbers. After all, the portion has no pictures and it’s true that the Ten Commandments prohibit graven images, which some people interpret to include pictures of people.

Actually, I don’t think that photos of people are graven images at all. If they were like idols we would look at a picture and say, “that person is god”, unless you’re a twilight fan looking at a picture of Robert Pattinson or Taylor Lautner. I don’t see god in any of those pictures but, there is a little bit of god in each picture because there is a little bit of god in each person, and that’s why pictures move us so much. Pictures help us to understand that life is very precious.

My portion faces a dilemma. Moses is asked to count the amount of people in each of the tribes. In order to count them, people in a sense, become a number. Jews have always rejected the idea of turning people into numbers. It takes away their humanity and identity. Of course the worst case of that happening was during the holocaust. When everyone was not just assigned a number, that number was tattooed into his or her arm.

It is interesting to know that the phrase used to instruct Moses to do the census was “Se-u Et-rosh”. That means to count heads but, literally it means to lift the head. In lifting someone’s head you see their eyes and you truly get a glimpse of who they are and; who they are, is a lot more then just a number.

That brings us right back to photography. Some people say “A picture is worth a thousand words.” I know that from some of my favorite pictures. For instance for me, the holocaust can be summed up in that one classic picture of a little boy with his hands raised in the air, at gunpoint in the Warsaw Ghetto. Also, not to long ago I was looking at a picture of a little boy that really inspired me, that of John F. Kennedy Jr. He is saluting his fathers casket at his funeral.

Now that I am a bat mitzvah I have learned that numbers may be important, but it’s the faces that truly matter. Maybe, through my photography I will be able to lift up many faces, and lift their spirits as well.

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Julia Fruithandler on Emor

My Torah portion, Emor, begins by describing for us qualifications for the Kohanim, the ancient priests. We already knew that you could become a priest only if your father was a priest, but this chapter goes much farther. You could be disqualified from serving if you have almost any blemish or imperfection imaginable, ranging from a poorly shaved beard to a broken leg to who he can and cannot marry.

In other words, priests has to be as perfect as they come, at least physically. It would be easy to get upset about the fact that the Torah seems to be discriminating against people with disabilities. Until you think about it and realize that Moses had a speech impediment. Yes, it’s true that Aaron his brother, who was a priest, often spoke on Moses’ behalf. But Moses was the more important leader. And maybe he was the better leader BECAUSE of the speech impediment. Perhaps he was more empathetic because he knew what it was like to suffer, even though he personally had never been a slave.

So one could say that a message of this portion is that nobody is perfect. Yes the priests had to be close to perfect physically, but even they weren’t perfect morally. Aaron really blew it with the Golden Calf, and at that point, as we all recall, he was voted off the island.

Judaism has always understood that no one is perfect. Including Moses, all our great heroes were flawed people. But part of what made them great leaders was that they learned to understand their own weaknesses and even occasionally to laugh at them. Jewish comedians like Mel Brooks and Adam Sandler, two of my favorites, love to poke fun at themselves and at their people. In “Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” Sandler poked fun at the Israeli obsession with hummus and even at the hatred that exists in the Middle East.

A Jewish specialty has always been the ability to laugh at ourselves, even at our weaknesses.

This past summer, I got to experience firsthand what it is like to live with restrictions, just like the ones that disqualified priests from serving. I was sick for a couple of months and was unable to do all the things I love to do, like horseback riding or even just running around. But I managed to get through it and now I feel I can be a more empathetic person because of it – and maybe a better leader.

In part because of what I experienced last summer, for my mitzvah project, I am making blankets for kids in hospitals. Some of them are going to Hospice Care in Stamford Hospital, in memory of my grandmother, who was cared for in hospice during the last days of her life. Also, some of the money that we raise from the sale of blankets will go toward research for a cure for Pancreatic cancer.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hammerman on Ethics: Should I be concerned about my kid's non-Jewish friend?

Q. My daughter, 10, goes to a Jewish day school, but her best friend is a non-Jewish neighbor. Should I be concerned? What should I tell her?

A. There might be underlying reason for concern, though not specifically because her BFF isn’t an MOT (Member of the Tribe).

See the rest of the response here

Letter from Netanya: Jan Gaines on Jerusalem Day

Dear Friends,

Today, May 12, was Yom Yerushalaim, 43 years since the 6 Day War liberated and unified our capital. The day is gaining in significance every year, and so we here in Netanya celebrated it with an evening of music--outdoors, overlooking the sea and sky.

They say Jerusalem is two entities: the Heavenly Jerusalem and the Earthly Jerusalem. And tonight I felt that Israelis themselves are two entities as well. In our daily lives we deal with the mundane, the frustrations, and always the threats. But when Israelis come together to celebrate, we turn into heavenly beings, singing together, being together in joy and peoplehood.

So the evening started off with an hour of Chopin outdoors on our Tayelet or promenade, with the pianist giving the audience a history of Chopin's life and times as well as his Preludes and Nocturnes. We listened as the sun went down and the birds sang which reminded me of Caramoor with one difference. We had army helicopters flying on their nightly patrols!!! Since my apartment is only a block away from the concert, I'm used to these nightly forays and I heard only the Chopin.

After Chopin we had a break for a snack or schmoozing and then we went over to the amphitheater, also on the sea, for another concert. This one was with a youth orchestra, local kids, two youth choirs, and a fabulous singer whom you've probably never heard of, who gave us all the old songs about and for Jerusalem, "Ir Kodesh:. Israelis love to sing and especially with each other, so almost all our entertainers encourage group singing along with them. And so we did, for 2 hours, young and old, Sabtas, French, Anglos, Ethiopians, Russians, lots of kids with parents and grandparents.

Forgotten were all the daily troubles. We were now Israel Lemala. heavenly Israelis, celebrating heavenly Jerusalem. And we were one, as the worn out UJA slogan used to claim.

If I sound lyrical, that cannot begin to capture the emotions that washed over me as we ended the evening singing Jerusalem of Gold, 700 people in the audience, a couple of hundred kids on stage, the breeze blowing softly off the sea, pictures of the 6 day war's capture of the City flashing on screens, people standing for what has become our 2nd national anthem. And following this, Hatikva of course. Everyone standing. Everyone savoring those precious moments of understanding why we are here, and at least for me, how lucky I am to be a part of this country.

Shabbat Shalom and come and visit. Jan

Friday, May 7, 2010

Jewish History in Four Minutes

The Jewish Indie Movement

"Empowered Judaism," the title of a new book by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, has become a generational watchword for those watching the growth of the Independent Minyan movement. I'm going to be discussing this book on Shabbat morning, reacting to some of its more challenging assertions. You can read an excerpt, entitled: The Real Crisis In American Judaism Also see: Minyans, Synagogues In New Dynamic, Get Serious About Your Jewish Life: An Interview with Elie Kaunfer, and Rabbi Gordon Tucker's Rebuke To Kaunfer (it is noteworthy that Rabbi Tucker's son Ethan is a partner of Kaunfer's in the Indie Minyan movement).

I take Kaunfer's challenges seriously, though, like Tucker, I find his critique of the traditional synagogue weak. There is no question that there is much that is good about synagogue life but also that there is much that should change. But having grown up Jewishly under the tutelage of Elie Kaunfer's parents (his mom was my all time favorite Hebrew School teacher), I take his words especially seriously. They challenge not only the ways of the large synagogue, but also those of the small havurah groups that have proliferated over the past generation. Having met last week with JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen and fellow rabbis of the Chancellor's Leadership Council, I know that there is much work to be done in revitalizing the synagogue.

I look forward to an interesting discussion of the topic at services this Shabbat.

Jerusalem Day 5770

Wednesday is Jerusalem Day, and it could not be more timely. This year, as it has for the past 3,000 years, Jerusalem's status is contested and controversial.

(Click here to listen to the historic live Hebrew broadcast on Voice of Israel Radio, June 7, 1967, of the liberation of the Temple Mount and Western Wall by Israel Defense Forces. Also read the English language transcript of the historic moment)

Having spent a few days there reminded me of what is so spellbinding about the city. Even though our hotel was on the outskirts, overlooking not the Terra Sancta of the Old City, but overgrown apartment complexes, the mall and the latest and perhaps greatest scandal to stain the hilltops, the Holyland Affair (see a collection of news stories here); despite this, the view was breathtaking. Below are photos I took of the city's eternal but ever-changing landscape, including the dreaded Holyland (click on photos to enlarge).

We also passed the two neighborhoods that have been in the news lately, Ramat Shlomo, which is part of Jewish (albeit post 1967) Jerusalem and should not be a source of controversy, and Sheikh Jarrah, which is an Arab neighborhood being populated by right wing Jews, an act that should.

As Bradley Bursten wrote in Ha'aretz, "Sheikh Jarrah is where the settlement movement has come to die.
Even the pro-settlement right has begun to realize that there is something different and dangerous here. That the circumstances of the creation of this settlement not only have the effect of turning all of Jerusalem into the status of a settlement, but of turning all of Israel into the status of Occupied Territory.

"The entrance of Jews to Sheikh Jarrah is a crazy and irresponsible act," rightist Jerusalem City Councilman Yakir Segev was quoted as telling a Hebrew University panel discussion last week."

The New York Times has also featured several stories on the neighborhood this week, including several letters today (see In a Neighborhood of Jerusalem). The controversy cuts right to the core of who has a right to live where - can Arabs and Jews return to old pre-1948 homes, and can this city ever possibly be shared. See also Abraham Rabinovitch's thoughtful commentary in the Jerusalem Post, "What United City?"

He writes: "There is widespread realization today that neither Israel’s vital interests nor the international community can indefinitely tolerate the current status quo. It is time for solutions that would permit two disparate populations to live in mutual respect in proximity to each other, not in a contrived “united city.”

Our claim to Jerusalem is historic and justifiable. Elie Wiesel stated it beautifully in his recent ad in the Washington Post. Since the city has come under Israeli control, Jews and Arabs alike have flourished there. His saying that our connection to Jerusalem transcends politics is not accurate, though there is no doubt a real Jewish consensus on Jerusalem's centrality to Jews. But the ongoing battle for demographic dominance within the city bespeaks the need to seek a negotiated solution, even though none seems forthcoming. I agree with those who want to place Jerusalem on the back burner and deal first with less thorny issues, like the eventual borders of two states. Those issues are thorny enough, but the alternative of doing nothing is untenable.

Wiesel's "apolitical" love for Jerusalem was so convincing that he was able to have an apolitical tete a tete with our apolitical President this week, which evidently was very successful (in an apolitical sort of way), as he reported today to the Jewish Week. He may have helped Obama to understand the need to avoid such confrontations regarding Jerusalem. Meanwhile, on the Israeli end, there seems to be a tacit slowing of the construction process, without an official declaration that would be politically suicidal. For once, maybe for once in 3000 years, let's get Jerusalem out of the front pages.

Israel feels very safe these days. It was a pleasure to walk freely in locations that a few years ago were essentially off limits. The country is thriving economically. But all this lends to a false sense of security. If last month's trumped up tension between Israel and the US can now give way to some real movement on the indirect peace talks, leaving Jerusalem out of it, maybe it will help us to get beyond the sloganeering and panic that has yielded more heat than light.

Speaking of heat, I fully expect to be flamed by those who refuse to see what's wrong about Sheikh Jarrah, hope that people might think before doing that. There is a huge difference between Ramat Shlomo and Sheikh Jarrah. How can we expect Joe Biden and his boss to understand that - if we do not?

Jerusalem has no shortage of both heat and light. To brighten your day, feast your eyes on the scenes below (except for the top one, which is the Holyland mostrosity)...

Jerusalem Street Food

Thursday, May 6, 2010

What's So Jewish About Mother's Day?

What's so Jewish About Mother's Day?

A man calls his mother in Florida. "Mom, how are you?""Not too good," says the mother. "I've been very weak."The son says, "Why are you so weak?"She says, "Because I haven't eaten in 38 days."The man says, "That's terrible. Why haven't you eaten in 38 days?"

The mother answers, "Because I didn't want my mouth to be filled with food if you should call."

When I was growing up, I used to love the little satiric book by Dan Greenberg, "How to be a Jewish Mother." It contained the typical jokes about dominating, overprotective mothers and obedient, castrated sons. There's still lots of Jewish Mother jokes on the Web.

Here's a typical one:

A Jewish young man was seeing a psychiatrist for an eating and sleeping disorder. "I am so obsessed with my mother... As soon as I go to sleep, I start dreaming, and everyone in my dream turns into my mother. I wake up in such a state, all I can do is go downstairs and eat a piece of toast." The psychiatrist replies: "What, just one piece of toast, for a big boy like you?"

Some of the jokes are downright offensive, but many just seem dated.

Of course, Jews didn't always stereotype their mothers negatively. When Rabbi Yosef heard his mother enter the room he would say, "I must stand up, for the glory of God enters." Rabbi Tarfon used to help his mother get into bed by bending down and allowing her to use his back as a step ladder (nowadays, most people prefer to tell their mothers to get OFF their backs). For Jews, it used to be that every day was mothers day.

In 1907, Anna Jarvis campaigned for a national day to honor mothers. It is said that she was at odds with her mother at the time (ah… the power of maternal guilt). For Jews, the "patron saint" of maternal figures would have to be the matriarch Rachel, who stands watch over her children even in death, as in life. At, you can read how Rachel's Yahrzeit has been transformed into a national Mothers Day of sorts in Israel, especially among pre-schoolers (it occurs in the fall, on the 11th of Heshvan).

To read the fifth commandment is to understand that Mother's Day is indeed a daily occurrence for Jews -- or at least it should be. Sometimes it isn't easy to respect our moms. Take this Talmudic account, as related in a sermon by Rabbi Elan Adler of Baltimore (with whom I shared many great times when he lived here in Stamford):

The Talmud tells of Dama the son of Netina, who was once wearing a gold-embroidered silken cloak sitting among Roman nobles. It is clear that Dama ben Netina was highly regarded and respected. One day, his mother came to where he was sitting, tore off his elegant gown, struck him on the head, and spat repeatedly in his face. The Talmud says that with all this, he did not shame her. For he knew that the Torah demanded, "kabed et avicha v'et imecha," honor your father and your mother in all circumstances. The word "kabed" without vowels can also be read as "kaved", meaning a heavy load or burden. Sometimes, it is a heavy burden to respect our parents, especially when they are no longer capable, or when we don't see eye to eye with them.

And indeed, there are also times when we can't honor our parents as much as we would like, specifically when they are abusive. Aish's Web site discusses these limits in an article found at

But, for the most part, mothers are due the highest respect and honor. As the saying goes, "God could not be everywhere, so God created mothers."

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Hammerman on Ethics: Animal Cruelty and Jewish Law

Q: This may sound weird, but I think my neighbor is cruel to his pet beagle. I know that if this was a person we were talking about, Jewish law would obligate me to go to the authorities. But this is a DOG. What's my obligation here?

A. You need to pursue this. I say this not merely because I am life-long pet-o-phile, a vegetarian with two cuddly standard poodles. I say this also because it is the right thing to do. Jewish culture has long championed animal rights. For the rest of the answer, click here