Friday, May 27, 2011

Men Behaving Badly: Hammerman on Ethics

Men Behaving Badly

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Special to the Jewish Week

Q - In the wake of recent sex scandals involving Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Time Magazine ran a cover story asking the rhetorical question, "What Makes Powerful Me Act Like Pigs?" Ethically speaking, how does Judaism account for this constant abuse of power by piggish men?

A- Yes, both Time Magazine and The New York Times Week in Review ran cover stories equating men with pigs last week. With all the apocalyptic events going on these days, from firestorms in the Middle East to thunderstorms in the Midwest, it's almost comforting to have been preoccupied for a brief time by good old fashioned lechery. But these two situations involve more than just men getting caught with their pants down.

It's important to note that there are significant differences between the Schwarzenegger and Strauss-Kahn cases. One has admitted to fathering a child in an extramarital affair with a maid and the other has been jailed for alleged rape. That said, the common threads are infidelity, the abuse of power, and society's response to it. Remember that power is a relative term. Any boss has power over his employees. You don't have to be a Governator to be a predator. But it helps.

The answer to your question is that not all men are livestock. At the risk of sounding Nixonian, I am not a pig. Psalm 8 makes the claim that we are just a little lower than angels (literally it says "gods") with dominion over sheep, oxen and beasts of the fields. One would assume that also means we potentially have dominion over ourselves - and the beasts within us. But Judaism recognizes that we often fail to live up to that potential. David's abduction of Bathsheba (his defense attorney would probably claim, incorrectly, that it was consensual and that she seduced him by bathing on the roof) and murder of her husband Uriah (2 Sam. 11-12) virtually combine the sins of Schwarzenegger and, allegedly, Strauss-Kahn. The prophet Nathan brilliantly recalibrates David's moral compass - otherwise, David would not have been fit to lead.

Judaism has always seen marriage as a microcosm for all social bonds. It is the grand experiment. The Sheva Brachot (Seven Blessings) at the wedding ceremony proclaim that marriage is our last best hope, that, to paraphrase Sinatra, if commitment can make it here, it can make it anywhere. Break trust with your spouse, and you've broken it with God. So how could you possibly expect to be trusted by the rest of the people?

We've come a long way since the days of "Mad Men," when affairs were an expected perk for powerful men, including US Presidents, and everyone turned a blind eye. Now even the French seem to be getting it. Infidelity has become a scarlet letter for candidates - just ask John Edwards and Newt Gingrich.

But are men sexual predators by nature? The Talmudic rabbis seemed to think so, so they proceeded to create barriers to keep men from succumbing to their temptations. Unfortunately, most of those barriers came at the expense of women. More recently, in Israel we are seeing this in its most extreme forms, with segregated buses and separate shopping hours for men and women in some post offices and supermarkets. The ancient rabbis both revered and feared women (although Jewish thought also recognizes feminine characteristics in God), but this current trend toward misogyny-gone-wild indicates that what Jewish males might fear most is their own lack of self control.

Are men pigs? Only if they allow themselves to be.

A Proposal for Mideast Talks and Other Reflections on the Washington Week that Was

A Proposal for Mideast Talks and Other Reflections on the Washington Week that Was

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Special to the Jewish Week

It's been a crazy week in the ongoing soap opera, "Bibi and 'Bama," and given the reception Prime Minister Netanyahu got in Congress, I think the GOP wishes Netanyahu could be their standard bearer in 2012. There are so many fascinating dynamics at work here that it would make for a top notch TV comedy if the situation weren't deathly serious.

First, let me make a modest proposal.

For two sides that speak about wanting to get to the table with no preconditions, now both the Israelis and Palestinians have set-in-stone preconditions. So call me naïve, but isn't it now possible to strike a grand bargain to get us back to talks, one that would allow both Netanyahu and Abbas to save face with their own people? All they have to do is give in on the other side's preconditions.

Here's the grand tradeoff. A six month Israeli moratorium on settlement construction (outside Jerusalem and the three core settlement blocs) for a Palestinian pledge not to go to the UN or declare statehood unilaterally, plus an agreed upon formula to marginalize Hamas. Six months would get us beyond September and give peace a chance.

Yes I know that both sides would likely reject it. It makes too much sense. But it's worth calling their bluff to see who is dumb enough to reject it first. For Israel, accepting this bargain would score some needed brownie points with the Europeans. It could help Obama procure a few more votes this fall at the UN - and every vote will be important.
If the Palestinians reject it, they will pay the price in September when they seek overwhelming endorsement of their unilateral declaration of statehood.

But if Abbas accepts this simultaneous moratorium and Netanyahu refuses, Bibi would pay a steep price domestically and an even deeper one internationally. He would be roundly declared a rejectionist and even his allies in Congress would get antsy.

At one AIPAC session I attended, a speaker summed up the situation perfectly. Israel has no partner to talk with and no creative ideas to share. So all sides seem content to run out the clock to September.

The lack of creativity on Israel's part is disturbing, but so is Abbas' apparent shift to the Dark Side. Everyone believes that the West Bank is more peaceful, free and prosperous than it ever has been, but most also believe that more violence is inevitable without an agreement.

Memo to Dennis Ross: it's worth a shot. It would provide what the Administration is looking for, a credible alternative to Palestinian unilateralism.

Some other observations from the AIPAC conference:

- Despite the tensions between Obama and Netanyahu, the US-Israel relationship is, as both leaders kept saying, "iron clad." Strategically, more is being shared than ever.
- One can only be in awe of what AIPAC has accomplished in cementing that relationship.

When Netanyahu addressed members of Congress at the Capitol, he had already seen more than two-thirds of them the night before at the AIPAC banquet. Many of the applause lines were the same, the bipartisanship was the same - it was almost as if the address on the Hill was an extension of the AIPAC policy conference itself, and the members of Congress have become just a few hundred more AIPAC delegates.

And when the Prime Minister was finished and the members of Congress returned to their offices, thousands of AIPAC attendees were there to greet them. The timing was breath-taking. The lobby is powerful, but that power stems not from any cynical manipulation of the system, but from the rightness of the cause and the power of the dream that is the state of Israel, a vision that Americans and Israelis share.

- AIPAC has its flaws, but we would be in sorry shape without it. Iran would possibly have a nuclear weapon by now. Israel would likely be a wedge issue in American politics. And the polls would not be showing astronomical support for Israel that cuts across the board among American demographic groups.

- But it's annoying that the conference sometimes looks more like an "Up with People" concert. Yes, the plenaries are drained of spontaneity, but they stay on message and that message is for the most part good.

- That message could also be interpreted as a blank check for a government with some questionable policies. Staying on message means that little or no criticism of the government is allowed (even Tzipi Livni, the opposition leader, was remarkably tame), and the veneer displayed is one of Jewish unity along with Israeli-American partnership. Yet we all know that the image is illusory.

AIPAC's job is neither to represent American Jewry nor to pass judgment on Israel's policies. They keep their eyes on a bigger prize. But that expensive façade comes at a cost. What kind of cost? We'll see in September - or beyond.

- For rabbis, AIPAC conferences are a rare opportunity to meet with a large group of rabbis from all denominations - as well as other clergy. That in itself makes the trip worthwhile. Once you get away from the big hall, lots of interesting things are happening.

- At AIPAC, noone mentioned J Street by name. It was as if, by some unwritten rule, it has become the Voldemort of the Jewish establishment. People alluded to "other lobbying groups" of course; it was the elephant not in the room.

One rabbi said something that resonated with me. J-Street and AIPAC are complementary. AIPAC is about Israel's supporters impacting the policies of the American government and J-Street is about influencing the policies of the Israeli government. I'm sure neither J-Street nor AIPAC would agree with that formulation, but it works for me. While this AIPAC conference had more college students than ever before (1,500), J-Street’s recent conference had a thousand.

Wouldn’t it be nice, I wondered, to have a conference that all 2,500 could have attended.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Netanyahu and Obama: Observations from Washington

It’s been a crazy week in the ongoing soap opera, “Bibi and ‘Bama,” and given the reception Prime Minister Netanyahu got in Congress, I think the GOP wishes Netanyahu could be their standard bearer in 2012. There are so many fascinating dynamics at work here that it would make for a top notch TV comedy if the situation weren’t deathly serious. It has all the earmarks of a classic sitcom: miscommunication, contrasting personalities, awkward moments and bad timing (as Carol Burnett said, “Comedy is tragedy plus time”), and the all important smooch ending, at least until next week.

What are the pundits saying? The links below run the gamut of opinions, which naturally range widely. I can’t stress enough how important it is for all of us to be acutely aware of what is happening and to try to be open to differing views. The abusive invective spewn off this past week has hit an all time high. When Abe Foxman, the child of survivors, is being told by a Jew ‘Why did God save you from the Holocaust,’ simply because he defended the President (see the top link from James Besser) things are really bad. BTW, if you are thinking of emailing me anything attacking the President or anyone else in a personal manner, I have one request: Don’t.

There is a fear of clear thinking in the Jewish world these days. We have real clear reasons to be fearful: of a nuclear Iran, of the train wreck that could occur when the UN likely will endorse a Palestinian state in September and of other things as well. But that fear should not keep us from thinking critically and and we need to resist succumbing to hysterics.

So with that in mind, some observations about the President, the P.M. and my few days in Washington. I also listened in to a conference call this afternoon between Jewish leaders and Dennis Ross at the White House. He had some interesting things to say. This is a long posting, so take it to the beach with you on your iPad and chew on it for a while.

· Ari Fleischer spoke here last Friday night (to a throng of 450 people). I am glad we can continue to be the only address where all sides of this issue can be heard. I found Fleischer to be articulate and on point with many of his observations here last Shabbat, and he was able to demonstrate some concrete differences between what the President had stated on Thursday and the Bush letter of 2004. But he failed to convince me that what Obama said had compromised Israel’s bargaining position to any substantial degree. And he had no better plan to deal with the unilateral declaration of statehood, short of that Obama had better stop it. I was also disappointed that he could find no way that the Bush administration might have done things any differently with regard to Israel and the Middle East, to have helped to put Israel in a better position today.

· I’ve read and heard much from all sides of the “1967 lines” flap. Obama’s error was not so much in saying those words out loud but in failing to explain them clearly last Thursday. He did explain them on Sunday, but to this day, people (who obviously weren’t listening) are claiming that Obama said he wants Israel to go back to those indefensible borders. That’s not what he said at all, but he should have explained that land swaps need not be 50-50 and will take into account security needs and demographic changes since 1967 – i.e. settlement blocs like Ma’aleh Adumim and the Etzion bloc near Jerusalem and Ariel near Tel Aviv. See David Makovsky’s proposed map above, just one example of a possible land swap. Both Obama and Netanyahu are looking at similar maps (though the Prime Minister’s would also include a military presence along the Jordan River for a duration of time – and it should).

· Obama’s two big mistakes had nothing to do with “1967 lines.” They were: 1) his springing this language on the Israelis without warning and 2) his proposing a two–stage resolution, determining borders and security now, refugees and Jerusalem later. That was the Oslo formula and gradualism didn’t work because the hoped for good faith and mutual trust did not materialize. Too many forces on the ground wanted to scuttle the process and they succeeded. “Borders first” also forces Israel to give up its greatest bargaining chip right off the bat.

· But in his conference call today, Dennis Ross, speaking for the Administration, made it clear that the Israelis have known since October that the ’67 thing was being considered by the Administration. He also backed away from any notion of a two stage process, saying that there would be overlap, that the security and territory issues would not necessarily be completely resolved before the more difficult “narrative” issues (Jerusalem and refugees) were addressed. It is their feeling that progress would be made on those first two issues more easily, which would lend momentum toward resolving the others. So we are not talking about years of implementation before addressing the core issues, as was present in the 90s (when gradualism didn’t work).

· The Administration really believes that they need to provide, in Ross’s words, a credible alternative to Palestinian unilateralism, both for the Palestinians and, just as importantly, the Europeans and others in the Quartet. And indeed, today French President Sarkozy, a staunch defender of Israel, declared that the agreement with Hamas is “good news.” Obama wanted to go to Europe with creative Israeli ideas in hand as a means of luring everyone away from a September disaster at the UN. That did not happen.

· In fact, there appear to be no new Israeli ideas. Netanyahu was powerful and charismatic in selling his vision to Congress, and he did go farther than he ever had before in expressing a willingness to give up settlements (though Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon actually did give up settlements). I would liked to see him be more genuine and less patronizing in his extending a hand to the Palestinians, but that would have been dramatically out of character. Given that Netanyahu knew that Obama was not implying a return to the actual 1967 borders, it’s hard to understand why he allowed this situation to get out of control. Was he punishing the American President for his surprise with an aggressive broadside of his own? If so, it was not wise, and it also did a disservice to AIPAC, creating an artificial and inflammatory distraction, forcing delegates to choose up sides between the President and Prime Minister (for more on that, see the Forward editorial, “Don’t Make Us Choose.” Why he did that, I have no idea, but it undermined the “We are One” message of AIPAC – and threatened its bipartisanship too.

· All that said, the US-Israel relationship is, as both leaders kept saying, “iron clad.” Strategically, more is being shared than ever – of particular significance is the military cooperation on the Iron Dome defensive shield. And at AIPAC we learned about the Israeli-made armor that protects American tanks in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the miracle bandage that saved Gabby Giffords’ life. Meanwhile one can only be in awe of what AIPAC has accomplished in cementing that relationship. When Netanyahu addressed Congress at the Capitol, he had already addressed more than 2/3 of them the night before at the AIPAC banquet. Many of the applause lines were the same, the bipartisanship was the same – it was almost as if the address on the Hill was an extension of the AIPAC policy conference itself, and the Congress has become just a few hundred more AIPAC delegates. And, timed perfectly, when Netanyahu was finished and all the senators and reps left the House floor, who was waiting for them at their offices? Thousands of lobbyists, their constituents (us), trained by AIPAC to drive home Bibi’s talking points.

· Modern communications…. While we waited for Senators Lieberman and Blumenthal, we heard Netanyahu’s speech. I opened my iPhone’s “Tune in Radio” app and listened to the speech on Israeli radio, with simultaneous Hebrew commentary, while the Prime Minister spoke just a few hundred yards away.

· AIPAC always keeps things simple, and our lobbying efforts focused on only three items, two of which are consensus issues, the other, somewhat more complex. Read about all three here. The first is a bill to strengthen the sanctions on Iran. Senator Lieberman’s staff has been instrumental in putting it together and it has just been prepared. Essentially, it will hit the Republican Guard hardest and target shipping companies that transport weapons and nuclear equipment. We also lobbied for the foreign aid bill, not simply for Israel but the entire bill. To cut one would open the door to reducing Israel aid – it was noted that 75% of Israel’s aid is spent right back here, helping the US economy, and that foreign aid represents only 1 percent of the US budget.

· Foreign aid would be cut for the Palestinians, however, if Hamas enters the government and refuses to renounce terrorism and accept Israel (and prior agreements). That is fine, but it begs the question of how Abbas will be able to negotiate on behalf of Gaza when he isn’t running Gaza (and if you look at the map on top, any land swaps would have to involve territory adjacent to, you guessed it, Gaza).

· At one AIPAC session I attended, a speaker summed up the situation perfectly. Israel has no partner to talk with and no creative ideas to share. So all sides seem content to run out the clock… to September. The lack of creativity on Israel’s part is disturbing, but so is Abbas’ apparent shift to the Dark Side. Everyone believes that the West Bank is more peaceful, free and prosperous than it ever has been… but most also believe that more violence is inevitable without an agreement.

· I still think that the two sides could be brought back to the table if each side’s preconditions were met in a grand tradeoff. A six month moratorium on settlement construction (outside Jerusalem and the three core settlement blocs) for a pledge not to go to the UN or declare statehood unilaterally, plus an agreed upon formula to marginalize Hamas. Six months would get us beyond September and give peace a chance.

· Won’t happen. It makes too much sense. It also assumes both parties are willing.

· AIPAC has its flaws, but we would be in sorry shape without it. Iran would possibly have a nuclear weapon by now. Israel would likely have become a wedge issue in American politics. And the polls would not be showing astronomical support for Israel that cuts across the board among American demographic groups. Yes it’s annoying that the conference sometimes looks more like an “Up with People” concert. It was amazing to see a Mormon student from Brigham Young locking arms with a student from an African American University on the stage (something that could never have occurred on Brigham Young’s campus only a few years ago). The message was unmistakable: All Americans are united behind Israel – and support of Israel unites America like nothing else. Didn’t see lots of Muslims or Palestinians, though. But maybe I didn’t look hard enough. Yes, the plenaries are drained of spontaneity, sort of like a Republican convention. But they stay on message and that message is for the most part good.

· Yes, that message is also a blank check for a government with questionable policies, albeit a democratically chosen one. Because there is little or no criticism of the government allowed (even Tzipi Livni, the opposition leader, was remarkably tame), the veneer displayed is one of Jewish unity along with Israeli-American partnership. Yet we all know that the image is illusory. AIPAC’s job is neither to represent American Jewry nor to pass judgment on Israel’s policies. They keep their eyes on a bigger prize. But that expensive façade comes at a cost. What kind of cost? We’ll see in September – or beyond.

· For rabbis, AIPAC conferences are a rare opportunity to meet with a large group of rabbis from all denominations – as well as other clergy. That in itself makes the trip worthwhile. Once you get away from the big hall, lots of interesting things are happening. One could compare it to the ancient pilgrimage festivals in Jerusalem, the one time all year when everyone got together. It isn’t meant to be that, but it has become that. But I couldn’t help but wonder who wasn’t there. While this conference had more college students than ever before – 1,500, J-Street’s recent conference had a thousand. Woudn’t it be nice, I wondered, to have a conference that all 2,500 could have attended.

· Speaking of J-Street, no one would mention it by name. It was as if there was some unwritten rule. It has become the Voldemort of the Jewish establishment. People commented on it, of course, and at times it was the elephant not in the room. One speaker said something that resonated with me. J-Street and AIPAC are complementary. AIPAC is about Israel’s supporters influencing the policies of the American government and J-Street is about influencing policies of the Israeli government. I’m sure neither J-Street nor AIPAC would agree with that formulation, but it works for me. And 2500 college students at the same pro-Israel conference would be nice.

See commentaries below:

’67 Border Flap Deepens Rifts: James Besser, The Jewish Week
Experts Weigh In on Obama's Middle East Speech Lessons from Tahrir Square: Thomas Friedman
Poll: Netanyahu, US congress & AIPAC stand to the right of Israeli public
Netanyahu at AIPAC – More popular than the President?
Congress to the Palestinians: Drop DeadHuffington Post
Same Netanyahu, Different Israel: Foreign Affairs
Who Made the "Hard Choices" on Peace? - Jonathan S. Tobin
Peace Comes Only with Arab World's Acceptance of Israel - Rep. Eric Cantor. WSJ
Why the Palestinians have time on their side: Jeffrey Goldberg on
The Anti-Israel President: Bret Stephens, WSJ
U.S. and Israel: Partners for Peace - David Harris (Boston Globe)
Officials fear 'Palestine' declaration will bring boycott
Israel Seeks Coalition of Democracies Against PA Statehood Bid - Herb Keinon
Israelis See Netanyahu Trip as Diplomatic Failure - Ethan Bronner (New York Times)
What Bibi Gains by Misrepresenting Obama's Mideast Policy – Joe Klein, Time
An Insider's Look At AIPAC Conference: Just Me And 10,000 Other Attendees – Gary Rosenblatt, Jewish Week

Seventh Graders: What Being A Jew Means to Me

-Essays from our Seventh Graders-

Alexa Baer
The reason why I love being Jewish is because of the importance of community. I really want to congratulate all of my class. I love you all and I cherish the Jew Crew memories, all of the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and all of our stories at story time. Thank you all for these memories. Mazel Tov today and every other Jew Crew day!

Sarah Druckman
I have had so many great memories with all of you, from rocking out at Bar/Bat Mitzvah parties to the mock wedding. I especially like our Thursday chit-chats. We are all different so I love hearing everyone’s stories. Everyone is so supportive. We have become so close this year and I hope that we will continue to see each other in the future.

Being Jewish means so much more than just learning Hebrew. I have learned so much about my history. I studied my Jewish background and learned about my parents’ wedding, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in my family, and my family history. It has opened my eyes to so many things, from marriage to death. I am aware of so many more things. This year has been amazing!

Noah Durica
What do I like about being Jewish? Well, I like the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, holidays, and the Purim Carnival that happens once a year. I also like throwing candy at the Bar/Bat Mitzvah student. But most of all, I like the fantastic history that the Jews have.

It all started out with the creation of the universe. G-D created everything organic on earth in a week. G-D created two people called Adam and Eve, but they got tricked by the snake and disobeyed G-D and ate from the tree of knowledge. G-D got angry and banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and He punished the snake by cutting off his legs. So that’s why the snake slithers.

What I was more curious about is the story of Noah’s Ark, and not because the protagonist has my name. Noah brought two of every animal onto the ark, but what about the fish and other aquatic creatures? Did he fish them out and put them into little jars? In fact, they would be fine anyway because they have gills and need water to breathe.

However, my all-time favorite is Chanukah. Chanukah is about the miracle of light. More specifically, the Maccabees only had enough oil to keep the eternal light going for one day. Surprisingly, it lasted for an entire week and they got a brand new shipment of oil for the lamp. I like the Maccabees because they are rebel soldiers who fought for religious reasons and I think that is really neat.

Those are some of the exciting parts of history that make Jews who they are. More people like Moses, Samuel, and Jacob helped Jews in one way or another. These stories inspire me to be who I am today.

Lucas Ehrlich
Wow! I can’t believe that seven years have gone by since I started Hebrew School. Learning from all of the five different teachers was great. But making these friends was great too. This year we all connected and now we’re great friends.

I really liked learning about the Holocaust. Many had painful experiences or were killed, but it was so good to see how the Jewish people survived. I can’t imagine going through that.

Hebrew School was really fun. I can’t believe it’s over. I am going to miss it.

Ethan Finkelstein
I can’t believe that Hebrew School is almost over. The seven years have gone by so fast. There were many great times, but my favorite has to be seventh grade. Hebrew School has been so much fun this year and we have had the best teachers. My favorite subject in Hebrew School has to be the Holocaust. It is a very interesting and very important subject, because many people were killed and it changed Jewish history.

I enjoyed the m&m’s we got this year. But my favorite part of the year was my Bar Mitzvah. It was such a great day. My whole family was there and afterwards there was an awesome party. It was also a very important day as I became a man.

Zoe Finkelstein
I love being Jewish for lots of reasons, one being Hebrew School. I have met so many awesome people over the years. After all the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Hebrew School classes, and class events we have all grown so close. I want to thank everyone for being such amazing friends. I love you guys!

I remember Kindergarten with Mrs. Bailer. We were all so small! From the beginning, I knew we would all be great friends. In first grade we had Darren who rocks and we were lucky enough to have him for fourth and seventh grades too. He has taught us so much, so thanks Darren! In fifth grade we met Rachel the squirrel. In sixth grade Mrs. Elkies started our Bar/Bat Mitzvah prep, which helped me a lot. That brings us to this year which has been so memorable and awesome. Mrs. Hammerman and Darren, thanks for everything you’ve taught us. This has been the best year by far. We have all grown so close and I hope we stay that way. Vanilla Ice!!!

Jacob Goldberg
This has been my eighth year at Hebrew School and it has been a blast. I have made many great friends along the years and have had many memorable moments. Our teachers have always been great, like Darren who we have now had for three different years. Some of my favorite events from Hebrew School were the Shabbatons where we would stay somewhere for the night and sing Jewish songs and just have a good time. I remember on our last Shabbaton we all stayed in log cabins where we would play games and stay up all night.

To me being Jewish is awesome. To be Jewish is very special. I love being Jewish because it is such a unique religion and has many fun holidays to celebrate. One of my favorite holidays is Passover because I like matzah, especially chocolate-covered matzah, and I eat lots and lots of matzah ball soup. Hanukkah is one of my favorite holidays because I get to see all of my family and receive lots of presents. Even though presents are great I know the real meaning of Hanukkah is that it was a miracle because the eternal light burned for eight nights instead of one.

In conclusion, Hebrew School is so fun and I am glad that I have been going here for seven years. I will be excited to come back for Kulanu. This year has been hard because I have been practicing for my Bar Mitzvah, but I still love coming every Tuesday and Sunday. Even though Hebrew School is over, for me it is not the end of my Jewish education.

Stephanie Hausman
Although I only joined Hebrew School this year, I feel like I’ve been here forever. I’ve heard all of the stories, so I’m updated on all of the other years here. Everyone has been so inclusive and I really appreciate that. I’m so glad that I’ve gotten to be friends with everyone. I came from Bi-Cultural, so I didn’t know what to expect when I came here. I’m so glad I came though, because I love it.

At my Bat Mitzvah in April, I had so many great experiences with everyone. I learned so much too. Being Jewish is cool because you’re considered in the Jew Crew. I also like celebrating the holidays. Overall, I’ve made so many friends over the past year and have learned many inside jokes!!

Hannah Katz
Being Jewish is a commitment. It’s a part of you, and you are a part of it! This year has made me appreciate being Jewish so much more. This is because I love my Hebrew School friends and get so much support from them. We love to talk to each other at Hebrew School, and I am proud to stand by them as a Jew and party with them at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. I have watched my classmates grow up and celebrate their Bat and Bat Mitzvahs, and this year I even saw them get married! I have learned Jewish values from all of the stories. From reading the Torah at my Bat Mitzvah I am able to appreciate the Cantor and the Torah readers. It’s been awesome to share the great experiences with my Hebrew School friends. I will miss you guys like crazy! And I’m like “Barchuuu, I’m a Jew!”

Matthew Kobliner
To me being Jewish means being strong and never giving up. The Jewish people have gone through so many hardships, from Egypt to the Holocaust to so many forms of anti-Semitism. It is surprising that we still exist. That is what it means to me. Also, we embrace our heritage and don’t push it away. I am proud to be a Jew and to have had my Bar Mitzvah so I can say I’m a man. My Bar Mitzvah was a huge achievement for me.

Shaina Lubliner
“Shaina get up for Hebrew School!” used to be my least favorite sentence. However, this year my perspective on Hebrew School has totally changed. With the help of Mrs. Hammerman and Darren, I have come to love my Jewish heritage. Partying with my “Jew Crew” at all the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and then coming to Hebrew School half asleep the next morning has been great! During my seventh grade year I feel like I have bonded with the class, and have also learned some interesting things. My favorite subject to learn about was the Holocaust. Learning about this unbelievable bad thing that happened has helped me realize that worse things can happen than something like a bad grade on a test.

On a brighter note, the “slumber party” was a blast, and our little discussions on Thursdays are a highlight of my week. And of course m&m’s make learning ten times better! This has been the best year ever. Happy Graduation!

Ilana Olin
I love Hebrew School. Wow, I never thought I would say that. It has taught me about dedication, along with many other interesting things. Due to commitments that I have made, I have missed many moments that I would have loved to experience. I cherish every minute at Hebrew School. I receive guidance from my teachers and friends at every class. The bonds I’ve made at Hebrew School will last forever. Everyone has impacted me in one way or another. The stories, laughs, and memories have made this year of Hebrew School my favorite.

On a more serious note, I have learned to value my Jewish heritage and culture. Throughout my years, I have studied holidays, ceremonies, the Holocaust, and places to visit when I go to Israel. I have discovered information about the many generations that came before me. I never would have learned about these important connections to the Jewish community if I didn’t go to Hebrew School.

All in all, being a part of this Hebrew School class has changed my life, and I appreciate everything my classmates do for me. I love you guys!

Sean Rose
I love being Jewish for a ton of reasons. We have so many holidays. My favorite is Purim, when we did a funny Purim spoof and had a carnival. The Purim story is a little weird because it has evil and is happy at the same time. There is a bad guy (Haman) and a good guy (Mordechai), and Mordechai the good guy wins.

Jillian Rutstein
I have gone to Hebrew School for eight years and I have had many memorable experiences. Each year we get a new teacher and each year it gets closer to my Bat Mitzvah. After all my years of Hebrew School I have been lucky enough to have two amazing teachers my last year, Mrs. Hammerman and Darren! I have had Darren a total of three years and each year has been fun and enjoyable. This is my first year having Mrs. Hammerman and I feel like I have known her through my whole Hebrew School experience. This year has been amazing. Not all of my teachers have been as good as Mrs. Hammerman and Darren but I will never forget what I learned. During these years I have met and made new friends.

All of my teachers in Hebrew School always taught me to try my best. They told me to be open to new things. Every year they taught us about all of the Jewish holidays, what the traditions are, and why we follow these traditions. Each teacher at Temple Beth El has made it fun to learn how to read Hebrew and to learn about the prophets. Darren, Mrs. Hammerman, and Mrs. Elkies have made Hebrew School fun in their own unique ways. For example, by playing Hebrew baseball and being on separate teams and competing against each other. My favorite Jewish holiday is Rosh Hashanah because this is the time of year when all of my family comes together and celebrates the beginning of the New Year. My Hebrew School teachers have always been there for me. Mrs. Hammerman and Darren have taught me so much and I will never forget them.

Rebecca Satz
Hebrew School means a lot to me. Here I have made many new friends and learned all about my past. Hebrew School is my home away from home. At Hebrew School I always feel comfortable and all the kids are welcoming and friendly. This year has been very special. First I had my Bat Mitzvah and look forward to doing more for the Jewish community. Another reason this year is special is because over all the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs we have been able to bond.

Being Jewish is something that I really enjoy, whether it’s our bonds of friendship or our ties to Judaism. At Hebrew School I have learned about my ancestors. Something that really meant a lot to me was learning about the Holocaust. Everybody talks about it and associates it with the Jewish people, but this year I really learned about it. I think the Holocaust was the defining moment for the Jewish people. It was our do or die moment. We proved to everyone that we will survive. This is why being Jewish means so much to me!

Simone Teich
I love being Jewish. Being Jewish means being a good person. Hebrew School is a fun place to learn and be with my Hebrew School friends. Even though I don’t like getting up early on Sundays, I love coming here. After a hard week, coming to Hebrew School really makes me happy on Thursdays and Sundays.

From being Jewish, I’ve learned that it makes you a stronger student and person. Becoming a Bat Mitzvah will mean a lot to me. Even if you don’t understand some of the prayers, it’s always good to follow along. Being Jewish has taught me a lot, and will help me later on.

I will miss my Hebrew School class a lot next year. I am going to try and keep in touch with the class. I really do like being Jewish!

Rachel Wolff
Hebrew School and Judaism mean a lot to me and are a big part of my life. As a Jew I feel different from others, but in a good way. People always ask me questions about my religion and it feels good to be able to answer them in detail.

I feel that I was blessed to be put in a class with other kids that I have become very good friends with. I feel that when our Bar/Bat Mitzvah season started, we all became closer and bonded more. I know that even some of the parents noticed this too. I’m so sad that this is my last year with everyone, but hopefully we will think of an idea to see each other every so often. I would like to thank Mara and Darren for making this year the best it could be, and for being the best teachers in the world. Lastly, thank you Mara for reaching out to your friend so that I could see a monkey. It was very thoughtful.

Andrew Young
I remember eight years ago, most of us came together and met each other for the first time. Just from that first class in Kindergarten with Mrs. Bailer, we all knew that we would be great friends. The next year, in first grade, we had Darren as our teacher. OK…now other than our seventh grade teacher Mrs. Hammerman, he is the absolute best teacher we ever had. He was so great that we somehow got him to be our teacher in fourth and in seventh grade! Darren has taught me to be proud to be Jewish. We had so many fun times, and everyone in our class will miss him. In second grade, so many kids joined us. Mrs. Bahar was our teacher, and she was amazing. From Mrs. Bahar, I learned about the Jewish holidays and the basics of Hebrew. In third grade, Mrs. Shapiro was amazing at teaching us how to read Hebrew. She gave me the important Hebrew foundation I needed later to study for my Bar Mitzvah. In fifth grade we met Morah Raema, and learned that there can be a spiritual side to many everyday activities, including yoga! In sixth grade, I had my first teacher with purple hair. What a treat! Mrs. Elkies taught me so many amazing things, including a different perspective on being Jewish. Seventh grade has been the best year yet (Shh…don’t tell our other teachers!). Darren and Mrs. Hammerman have really helped our class to bond. We’ve eaten m&m’s and laughed together. We studied together, cheered each other on at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and learned about important life cycle events. Together, we’ve been to a bris, a baby naming, a funeral, and I even got married! I have formed a strong Jewish identity throughout my years at Temple Beth El, and I had so much fun along the way!

Michael Zielinski
I love Mrs. Hammerman! She is my favorite teacher at this Hebrew School. Hebrew School was a big part of my life. It was so much fun because we learned so much. My favorite part of Hebrew School is that we learned a lot more Hebrew than before. I remember when Mrs. Hammerman helped me with all the stuff for my Bar Mitzvah. I worked really hard on it, and I couldn’t have done it without her. She helped me with every single thing for my Bar Mitzvah.

Everybody in my Hebrew School class was supporting me with my Bar Mitzvah and all my Hebrew work. They are all like my siblings. I feel like they are my family members. When I’m at Hebrew School they’re very supportive. They are all very kind to me. I wish we could all know each other forever; I wish Hebrew School would never end.

Tyler Zielinski
I love being Jewish because you get to go to Hebrew School for about seven years. Also you have many great teachers here, such as Mrs. Hammerman, Mrs. Elkies, and Darren. And you get the amazing snacks that they all bring. They are the best teachers in the whole world. If I could choose them to be my teachers outside of Hebrew School I would have them be my regular teachers. Mrs. Hammerman, you are the best teacher ever. I wouldn’t have learned anything if I didn’t have you. Thank you. Also, I would like to thank Al Treidel for being a great role model.

Noah Zussman
I love being a Jew! It is awesome, amazing, and fun. It means so much to me, and this past year my life has revolved around it. Between Bar Mitzvah lessons and Hebrew School, I have had a very busy life. I have also made amazing and unbreakable friendships. My Hebrew School friends are the core reason why I love being Jewish. All my Hebrew School friends are AWESOME!!!!! I thank them so much for being amazing and always being there for me. You guys rock! Another reason why I love being Jewish is that I love the way Hebrew sounds. Also, it is very spiritual. I feel like I can connect with God. One life lesson I learned is that there is more to being Jewish than just saying you’re a Jew. My favorite subject is Holocaust studies. It is very important to learn what we as a Jewish people went through. It is so important to learn about it because we must never forget. Thanks to all my teachers and friends. I love you all!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Notes from AIPAC

I'm sitting at the final plenary session of the AIPAC conference. It's been an historic couple of days and I'll have a much more complete report when I get home. Since I am doing this on an iPhone, some quick notes:

· PM Netanyahu was very forceful and persuasive last night, saying, "Israel is not what's wrong with the Middle East. Israel is what's right with the Middle East." In saying that, he affirmed the widespread assumption that the Arab spring uprisings have nothing to do with Israel. That implies that anti-Semitism is not the driving force of the Arab Street, which means that Israel can be seen as a model for democracy rather than as an alien interloper in the region.

· This might be a more optimistic perspective about Arab spring than he wished to convey, because it highlights the opportunities Israel now has to influence positively the voters in Cairo and Ramallah.

· Bibi addressed Congress this morning and he alluded to that address several times. The enormous buildup carries with it the hope that the vision of a new Middle East he reveals will take the peace process off of square 1.

· Largest turnout ever at AIPAC. Huge focus on expanding the tent, especially among non-Jews. The conference achieves the miraculous - we leave here thinking that America's very survival depends on Israel (as well as the reverse) and that Israel is the only issue that unites all Americans: Dem or GOP , Christian and Jew, Black and White - everyone. Thanks in large part to AIPAC, it is true - especially in Congress.

· We are lobbying today with three main agenda items: Crippling sanctions on Iran, uncut foreign aid for all countries, and no negotiating with an unreformed Hamas.

· Call me naive (you won't be the first), but it seems to me that if the sides really want talks, a face saving deal is there to be had. The Palestinians put off unilateral statehood and Hamas is marginalized or reformed and Israel imposes another freeze in settlement construction (not including Jerusalem). That would give each side what it has stated is its prerequisite for getting back to the table. These are desperate times. A UN vote for statehood, if overwhelming, would isolate Israel as never before, even with rock solid US help. This proposed deal would put both sides to the test. Many here feel that Abbas has gone over to the dark side. I'm not so sure. But he now needs to prove it.

We will all be listening to what Bibi says this morning.

Off to the Hill.

You can sign up for next year's AIPAC conference online at half-price now.

Goodbye from DC

Friday, May 20, 2011

Kulanu and TBE Hebrew School Graduates for 2011

Mazal tov to our Kulanu 12th grade graduates and to our Hebrew School 7th graders (bottom photo), who will be graduating tomorrow. (Top photo courtesy of Aviva Maller)

Hammerman on Ethics: The Holocaust and Tattoos

Q – I recall reading several years ago about a survivor’s son who had engraved a tattoo on his arm to match the one borne by his father at Auschwitz. I understand that he meant it as a gesture of solidarity, but doesn’t Jewish law prohibit tattoos?

A – Your recall correctly and the concerns are justified, but not simply on halachic terms.

Yes, tattooing is explicitly banned in the Torah[i] primarily, according to Maimonides, because it was seen as a form of idolatry. One professor suggests[ii] that non idolatrous tattooing may have been permitted and certain types of tattoos used for medical procedures today are totally OK. There is also no truth to the rumor that those with tattoos can’t be buried in Jewish cemeteries. And of course, Holocaust survivors bearing tattoos are exempt from this prohibition because the engravings were forcibly administered.

The case[iii] you speak of involves Dr. Ron Folman, whose father was initially appalled at the idea but eventually relented. Yeshiyahu Folman actually went to the tattoo studio with his son and rolled up his sleeve so that an exact duplicate could be made. The father called it “an act of solidarity,” but a painful one that would burden his son for the rest of his life. No doubt it has added to the father’s burden as well.

As if there weren’t enough to burden him. In fact, to a degree, we all carry that burden – and we should. Just not on our arms.

At a time when so few survivors remain, I can sympathize with the Folmans’ thinking. A generation from now, we’ll need all the physical reminders we can find in order to convey the message “Never forget” in as powerful a manner as possible, and no visual is as powerful as that. In a strange twist of irony, this sign (“ot” in Hebrew) parallels the phylacteries that Jews wear daily, as a symbol of the binding nature of the covenant. When you take off the tefillin, it leaves a mark, almost like a temporary tattoo. I call it “tefillin arm” and it is a physical reminder that I have communed with God that day (but don’t wrap so tightly that you cut off circulation!). Here’s a case where the Torah of Sinai and the Torah of Auschwitz come into direct conflict. One commands us to aspire to the triumph of life, the other marks humankind’s deep descent to the realm of death.

One reason to forgo tattoos is that our bodies are divine gifts, fashioned in the image of God. What right do we have to abuse that gift? Doesn’t that diminish our humanity? Since God is ever evolving, so are we (we are more human “becomings” than human beings). But a tattoo is fixed; it never changes, and that runs counter to the Jewish message of always growing and embracing change. Branding people like cattle only serves to dehumanize us, diminishing the godliness within us. By imitating despicable Nazi practices like branding arms (and for that matter, cremating bodies) aren’t we perpetuating the evil rather than remembering it?

There are better ways to perpetuate the memory of the Shoah’s victims. And those young’ns who think tattoos are sooo cool, who plan to burn a butterfly on their back or a snorting bull on their arm, might pause for a moment first and think about what’s on Yeshayahu Folman’s arm…and who put it there.


Will the Arab Spring Lead to Israel’s Fall? (What I’ll be looking for at the AIPAC Conference)

Ari Fleischer will be addressing us on Friday evening at the conclusion of our 7:30 service (word to the wise – get here early, we’re expecting a crowd); Then, I’ll be going to the AIPAC conference in Washington on Sunday, along with a record 10,000 others. President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu will be speaking. Already we’ve heard Obama’s speech, and here are oodles of reactions culled by the right-leaning Daily Alert, a Jerusalem Post commentary on why Bibi acted so peeved, one on why the Palestinians are dismayed and here’s the text of the speech itself. As they say, “You decide.”

My first questions to Ari Fleischer, which I suspect he’ll have already answered, is whether Obama’s declaration of the 1967 cease fire line as a baseline, with land swaps to account for core settlement groups, differs substantively from the Bush pledge in 2004. Is it a real change in American policy? That’s a key question that will be discussed over the coming week. What really is the Obama Peace Doctrine? See ambassador Susan Rice’s response to that question here. And will all this lead to another Intifada? Ha’aretz commentators say no.

This could well be one of those weeks that will define the next few decades. Yes, we’ve heard that so often before, but we are heading into something so new and so dangerous that for once, virtually all of Israel’s supporters agree on something, whether they are from the left or the right. This is a time of existential peril for the Jewish state.

Google “existential threat” and you’ll see how cliché the expression has become, and how, if you add “Israel” you get 149,000 results (by contrast, add “climate change” and you get only 144,000). The word “existential” has been bandied about so often lately that I half expect Prime Minister Netanyahu to meander into the House chamber wearing a beret, smoking incessantly and lugging his tattered copy of “No Exit.”

Unfortunately, for the Peace Process, the problem is that there is No Entrance.

Still, it’s nice to see everyone agreeing on the existential nature of the threat. The left and right also agree on something else: that the Palestinians are absolutely serious about going to the UN this fall for international recognition of statehood, unilaterally if need be. It is hoped that President Obama, in flexing his post bin-Laden muscles today, now has enough influence to forestall that effort.

The left and right divide on how to respond to unilateralism.

Right wingers, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, feel that Israel needs to hold firm on not negotiating with the Palestinians as long as Hamas is part of a governing coalition, or until Hamas recognizes the Jewish state and ceases to endorse terror. A reasonable request, but where will that leave us in the fall? Prime Minister Netanyahu was much more forthcoming this week in addressing the Knesset and is now openly willing to give up most (Much?) (Some?) of the West Bank to establish two states, depending on how you define the term “blocs.” His goal now is to deny the Palestinians recognition from the Big Powers should they make their unilateral push in the fall, but to do that he must convince them that he is willing to make major concessions. Without a big power block on Palestinian statehood, Israel’s isolation will magnify and erode its own legitimacy – a mortal threat.

And let’s not forget Iran. Giving in to Hamas only opens the door to greater Iranian influence in the region.

The left feels that this right wing government has squandered an enormous opportunity to negotiate a deal and that Israel is being held hostage by extremist parties with apocalyptic visions. Once a Palestinian state is declared, not only will Israel lose legitimacy, but two states will no longer be a possibility. Israel will face a new kind of intifada, and we saw a glimpse of it last weekend (with more promised for this Friday). Its borders will fill with hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians symbolically marching back to their “homes” in Israel. This non-violent mass movement, modeled on the Arab Spring, will gain world wide support, including that of the U.S. (since it is precisely that type of grass roots movement that Obama has endorsed) and Israel will be cornered into making far greater concessions than it would need to make now – or face mortal danger.

And let’s not forget Iran. More isolated than ever, Israel will become more vulnerable than ever to the Iranian threat.

So there is great consternation right now, and both sides are ready to pull out all the stops, as has been evidenced most recently by the ads placed in Thursday’s New York Times, from the ADL on the right (Can’t talk to Hamas) and J-Street on the left (Israeli generals and other dignitaries saying we need a two state solution now). We’ll continue to see the battle of the ads play out over the coming days, plus the hyperbolic press releases (ZOA called the 1967 ceasefire line as the "Auschwitz indefensible armistice lines"), along with the battle to delegitimize the other side. We saw that play out in the nasty treatment accorded the newly designated head of the Reform movement, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, because of his left-leaning views.

The problem is that although both sides agree that Israel faces a mortal threat, they also think that the other side’s blindness is part of that very threat. So the demonization of the other side becomes prerequisite to resolving the problem. We’re in a terrible spot, where for many of Israel’s strongest supporters, the only way to save Israel will be to utterly discredit others who also love Israel – primarily fellow Jews.

I will be very interested to see how this plays out at AIPAC. A couple of weeks ago, I was convinced that the tone of conference would tilt dangerously to the right, in lockstep with the Netanyahu party line and assertive in its willingness to challenge any Obama efforts to pressure the Israelis. But since then, the Palestinian reunification and the killing of bin-Laden have shifted the landscape dramatically, and last week’s protests on Israel’s borders have too. Plus, the continued bloodbath that has become Syria has also changed the equation.

Now I see an emboldened Obama holding added clout that could move Netanyahu off of square one – and possibly some significant support among AIPAC delegates to do that; but he also demonstrated a greater sympathy with Israel’s position regarding Palestinian unity and unilateral statehood. Because of the pending UN action, along with elections in Egypt and the Palestinian territories, there will be extraordinary pressure to get a deal done, at least defining borders and security guarantees, as Obama described today, leaving Jerusalem and refugees for later. I am wondering just how much Netanyahu will resist that – and how these signals are read by Democratic and Republican leaders, who will also address AIPAC.

There are no votes at AIPAC conferences. Everything at the plenary sessions is extremely scripted, and the speakers will pander, as they always do. But I’ll be especially interested in listening to the nuances, and to what people are saying in the halls and over coffee. I’ll be spending lots of time with rabbis there, many of whom have been directly in the line of fire as the left / right tensions have risen. This will be an interesting week.

I believe that Netanyahu is playing a dangerous game in expressing his anger at Obama so publically. He is banking that by circling the wagons, AIPAC delegates will fall into line, voicing full support (and possibly giving only respectful applause to Obama) and this will be seen as a sign that American Jewry fully supports his positions and will punish at the polls those who do not. I hope – beyond hope – that he is not doing that, because if he is, he is misreading both American Jewry and underestimating the popularity and political skill of the President. And I hope that, at least behind the scenes, the leaders of AIPAC are counseling him against such a tactic.

So how do we respond to all the confusing signals and to the tremendous upheaval that is today’s Middle East?

Here’s a rule of thumb, modeled after one of my heroes, my car’s GPS. Accept no knee-jerk clichéd responses from pols and pundits. When my car veers off the planned trajectory, the GPS flashes frantically “recalculating” and then offers an alternate route. The pols and pundits tend to respond to these earthquakes by regurgitating rather than recalculating, trying to shoehorn these new events into their tired old theories. That is as true on the left as it is on the right. Bret Stephens and Tom Friedman always sound convincing, but lately it’s as if they’ve been trying to fight World War Two from behind the Maginot Line. None of us has any idea what is going on. There are no experts.

But the ones I will listen to are the ones who are constantly recalculating, like my GPS. It’s not about how to fit the Palestinian march to Majdal Shams into my preconceived theories about Assad, Lebanon, and Arab Spring; it’s about how each new event has now reconfigured everything else.

But all of this recalculating should not lead to paralysis. I personally believe that the unfolding big picture presents enormous opportunities for Israel, despite the known risks. At the very least, the prime modes of acceptable protest in the Middle East right now are ones that don’t involve guns and suicide belts. I’ll take 10,000 peaceful marchers any day.

My hope and prayer that brave leaders will emerge that will take their people to a better place, and that Israel and all nations of the region will emerge from the Arab Spring with more freedom, more security and the promise of a brighter future for all.

PS - Some required reading: For some balanced dialogue on the contrasting historical narratives of Israelis and Palestinians, take a close look at this month's Sh'ma, and from the Forward, Two Narratives for Two Peoples.

May 21: The End of the World and This Week’s Torah portion

So I hear the world will be coming to an end tomorrow, according to all those rapturologists (see the website) who can’t even spell “Judgment Day.” If that is indeed the case, I hope the fire and brimstone holds off until we conclude tomorrow’s Torah reading, at the very least. Because tomorrow’s portion of B’hukotai contains one of the most apocalyptic sections of the entire Bible, a doomsday scenario of what will happen to the Israelites if they fail to live the holiness code laid out for them in the prior sections of Leviticus. These 33 vicious verses are known as the Tochacha (see more details here).

A little sampler:

26:15. If you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant,

16. I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you - consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for you enemies shall eat it.

17. I will set My face against you: you shall be routed by your enemies, and your foes shall dominate you. You shall flee though none pursues.

18. And if you do not obey Me, I will go on to discipline you sevenfold for your sins. (Translation: JPS Torah Commentary, Etz Hayim)

But these verses take the cake:

30 And I will destroy your high places, and cut down your sun-pillars, and cast your carcasses upon the carcasses of your idols; and My soul shall abhor you.

31 And I will make your cities a waste, and will bring your sanctuaries unto desolation, and I will not smell the savor of your sweet odors.

32 And I will bring the land into desolation; and your enemies that dwell therein shall be astonished at it.

33 And you will I scatter among the nations, and I will draw out the sword after you; and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste.

Pretty bad, so bad that it sounds almost like what some pundits are predicting will happen to Israel if it accepts the Obama parameters. But it still isn’t the end of the earth.

To make it clear, Judaism rejects these prophecies of doom, partly because they are directed in part against Jews (recalcitrant non believers that we are), but mostly because we’ve been there, and every time Jews and others have tried to predict when apocalyptic visions will be fulfilled, the result has been disastrous. Even from a Christian perspective, as this posting from Beliefnet shows, “there have been thousands and thousands of Christian predictions of the end of the world since Jesus’ time. None of them have been correct. NONE. Zero-for-thousands is a horrible batting average, and to think YOU are the only one who’ll be correct, in all the history of mankind, is the Mt. Everest of arrogance” (see other Beliefnet commentary on this here).

Judaism is a profoundly optimistic faith. It likes life, and this world, flawed though it may be, ain’t so bad after all. Look at how the commentators dealt with those foreboding verses. Like Monty Python, they were always looking on the bright side of life. So yes, we’ll be scattered among the nations, BUT…we’ll accumulate lots of frequent flyer miles! And, as the Talmud states, that way no one will be able to destroy us all at once. Yes, the land will be in total ruins, but then at least our enemies won’t enjoy the spoils – Rashi saw merit in that one.

The Maharal adds that Rashi was troubled by God’s saying “I” will bring the land to devastation. How could a God so full of lovingkindess do that? So for Rashi, this action must be guided by kindness.

Ramban gives historical elaboration: It’s true, God has indeed made the land a wasteland – the place has been a mess since we left it! He had seen it first-hand, having made that treacherous journey to the Holy Land. His feelings shared much later by Hovevey Zion and the early Zionists. The land would wait patiently in ruins for 2,000 for the redemptive hand of the Jewish people.

That theory of course presupposes that no one was actually living in the land at the time of the Jews’ miraculous return, which was a fallacy. Which brings us to current events.

So, to repeat, the world will not come to an end tomorrow. You can take it to the bank. But if you are not sure, why not come here to pray with us this Shabbat? The experience will be comforting as we read about…. all the disasters that await us.

Yiddish Curses in Honor of Bechukotai

This week's portion contains a torrid section of prospective curses to Israel should they fail to live by the convenant. We have a long history of coming up with great curses, dating back to the bible. Here are some more modern ones, from Yiddish sources (and curses were a great way to deal with powerlessness in the face of constant persecution.)

A Selection of Curses from Nahum Stutchkoff's Thesaurus of the Yiddish Language

1. "May your head be full of lice but your arms too short for you to scratch."

2. May you grow so wealthy you can afford only the finest specialists.

3. "You should own a thousand houses,with a thousand rooms in each house,and a thousand beds in every room. And you should sleep each night in a different bed, in a different room, in a different house, and get up every morning, and go down a different staircase, and get into a different car, driven by a different chauffeur, who should drive you to a different doctor--and he shouldn't know what's wrong with you, either."

4. May they find thousands of new cures for you each year. .

5. Gut zol oyf im onshikn fin di tsen makes di beste.
God should visit upon you the best of the Ten Plagues.

6. A groys gesheft zol er hobn mit shroyre: vus er hot, zol men bay im nit fregn, un vos men fregt zol er nisht hobn.
He should have a large store, and whatever people ask for he shouldn’t have, and what he does have shouldn’t be requested.

7. May you lose all your teeth, except for one -- and *that* one should hurt!

8. Migulgl zol er vern in a henglayhter, by tog zol er hengen, un bay nakht zol er brenen May you be transformed into a chandelier, to hang by day and to burn by night.

9. Es zol dir dunern in boykh, vestu meyen az s’iz a homon klaper.
Your stomach will rumble so badly, you'll think it was Purim noisemaker.

Conservative Judaism: A Community Conversation

Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Arnold Eisen has launched a blog called "Conservative Judaism: A Community Conversation" The blog features essays on the JTS chancellor's vision for Conservative/Masorti Judaism in the 21st century, responses by Movement leaders and members of the community, and encourages a conversation with all of us.

Go to the chancellor's blog and participate in this exciting dialogue.

Monday, May 16, 2011

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Alexa Baer on Behar

Shabbat Shalom!

Those of you who know me know that I love history, I love to collect things and most of all, I love to read. So it’s no surprise when, in 2nd grade, I heard about the American Girl Dolls and their books. I begged grandma and grandpa to get me one for my birthday. Friends of my grandma and grandpa know that they love to spoil their oldest granddaughter . . . so before you know it, there I was, in the American Girl store on Broadway, holding my first American Girl doll.

My first American Girl was specially ordered to look just like me. Most American Girl dolls are created to represent how people lived in America in different times. You can also get some boy dolls, but it’s more a girl thing, and they are designed to help instill pride and confidence among girls. As I began collecting the dolls, I realized each one represented something unique about me. What I didn’t know at the time was that they also represent different lessons taught in my Torah portion.
Take Rebecca, for example (hold up picture). I can relate to her. Rebecca has to deal with the challenges of being Jewish in a country where most people are Christian. She lived in the Lower East Side of New York City in 1912 and her grandparents speak Yiddish. She comes from a large family, with four sisters and her dad owns a shoe shop. Her family always celebrates Shabbat – and Shabbat is a key concept in my portion.

I also can really relate to Addy (hold up picture), who is African American. She lived in the north after the Civil War, having been a slave when she was a young child. My portion talks about the slaves that existed in Biblical times and how important it was to treat them with dignity and let them go free after seven years. It’s interesting that I can relate to her in another way as well. My great grandfather was a slave in Mississippi. I never met him but he died just a few years ago at the age of 103. So I have had slaves on both sides of my family, only on my Dad’s side, it was in biblical times.

And then there’s Felicity, who lived during the Revolutionary War in Yorktown. Did you know that a verse from my portion was engraved on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia? “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof.” It’s true that the verse only applied to white males until the 1900s, but it helped inspire our founding fathers to free themselves from the British.

And then there’s Kit, who loves baseball, like me. She lived in Chicago during the Great Depression, which was similar to our time, because the economy isn’t doing too well now either. But she was able to get by on her quick wits, and the help of family and friends. My portion talks about the importance of the community in supporting those in need – when lending money, we are supposed to treat others in fairness and compassion.

Then there’s Molly, who lived during World War Two. One of her friends is a girl from England, who was sent here by her parents to escape the war. It was a time of food stamps and Molly couldn’t always get what she wanted. Her dad was a soldier in the war – like my grandpa, who served during the Korean war, and my great uncles Marty and Leonard, who fought in World War Two. And of course my dad is in the Army now.

Finally, Julie. She lived way back in 1976, before they invented the cell phone! She learned that she shouldn’t judge people, having befriended a girl who was hearing impaired. She also loved animals and the environment, as I do. And my portion does too! It talks about the need to give the land a chance to rest every seven years. Also, I can relate to Julie in one other way. She likes to speak her mind!

And, yes, I’ve read most of the American Girl books.

For my mitzvah projects, I am donating to the Wounded Warrior Project, which helps soldiers that were wounded or physically impaired while fighting in wars. It helps them to regain their confidence as they struggle to return to normal life. The Wounded Warrior Project helps them physically, mentally and spiritually. I’m also supporting the “Hole in the Wall Gang.” My mom, brother and I are all carriers of Sickle Cell Anemia, and this camp helps children with serious diseases like that one, as well as cancer and many others.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Chabad rabbis denounce one of their own for lighting torch at Israel Independence Day ceremony

It's interesting to see how various movements debate their position re. Zionism. For the Reform, the question is whether it is right for its leader to assiciate with human rights groups. For Habad, it's whether to sing Hatikva and participate in Independence Day ceremonies....

See full article here

A group of Chabad rabbis in Israel this week signed a letter denouncing one of their own for lighting a torch in the State of Israel’s official Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration.

While Chabad has a strong presence in Israel, the movement has complicated relationship with modern political Zionism that varies among its different factions, from refusing to recognize the state to serving in the army.

This year, Israeli officials invited Rabbi Shimon Rosenberg, whose daughter was the Chabad rebbitzen killed in the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008, to light one of twelve torches Monday evening at the Mount Herzl military cemetery. The candle lighting is part of an annual ceremony that separates Remembrance Day from Independence Day. Rosenberg, who lives in Israel, is raising his grandson, Moishe, who survived the attack.

Rosenberg accepted the invitation and told the Israeli radio station Arutz Sheva:

“This whole event is very exciting. To light the torch on such an auspicious day, especially this year, when the theme uniting the torch-bearers is ‘all Jews are responsible for one another.’ For me, this is a special Shlichus [mission]. The fact that they chose me is not a simple thing. I am not representing myself, rather, all the Shluchim [emissaries] of the Rebbe in Israel and the Diaspora.”

Twelve Jerusalem Chabad rabbis, including six members of the Chabad Rabbinic Court in Israel, signed a letter denouncing Rosenberg’s torch lighting. The letter was printed in the Charedi newspapers Hamodia and Hamevaser Monday morning.

“Let it be known that the participation of a Chabad Chossid (R’ S. R.) at a ceremony which is foreign to the spirit of traditional Judaism, is at his own initiative, and does not represent the Shluchim or Lubavitch Chassidim. The Chabad Beis Din opposes his actions.”

The Chabad Rabbinic Court itself did not sign the letter, and a spokesman at Chabad international headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, said the organization was not involved in the decision.

“There were various opinions from the rabbis, and headquarters was not consulted and did not weigh in on the decision to issue an opinion on this,” Yaacov Behrman, media liaison for

The rabbis who signed the letter eventually backed off their demands that Rosenberg withdraw from the ceremony, saying it would be a “Chilul Hashem,” desecration of God’s name, according to reports on They advised Rosenberg to participate as an individual, not as a Chabad representative, and Rosenberg inserted the word “Eretz,” “land of” into the official text, rendering it “L’tiferet Medinat Eretz Yisrael,” “For the glory of the State of the Land of Israel.”

S. Crombie, who edits the blog, denounced Rosenberg. is not an official Chabad Web site, according to the Chabad media office in Brooklyn, and is run by adherents to the belief that the deceased Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson is the Messiah.

“Unfortunately, as the days went by it became clear that this was not just a horrible nightmare. Indeed, it became known, that for the first time a Chabad Chossid was to take part in a ceremony which stands for, first and foremost, the denial in Hashem and His Torah,” Crombie wrote. “Now there is no choice, but to publicly declare to the world: You do not represent the Shluchim of the Rebbe! This act is a public war again Hashem and his Moshiach [Messiah]!”

Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, director of Orange County’s North County Chabad Center in Yorba Linda and a staunch supporter of Israel, said Chabad’s stand on the modern State of Israel is complex and nuanced. Early in the history of Zionism, Chabad was concerned that Zionism would replace Jewish identity based on spiritual values with one rooted in secular nationalism. But when Israel became a reality, Chabad made the decision to actively engage in Israeli society, while many other Chasidic sects opted to distance themselves.

Eliezrie said Chabad men serve in the army, and Chabad is engaged in religious outreach and social welfare projects that reach all sectors of Israeli society. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was a confidante of nearly every prime minister and president of the State. Chabad, which does not have a political party in Israel, takes a strong stance against giving back any strategic land the loss of which might endanger Jews. Some Chabad schools celebrate Yom Haatzmaut, Eliezrie said.

“We have tremendous support for and involvement with Israel. At the same time, we want Judaism to be the cornerstone of the Jewish state, not secular nationalism,” Eliezrie said. “We try to be good citizens to the best of our ability, we contribute to the society on many levels, our children serve in the army. Still we would like to see Israel be more than it is today, a society enriched with Jewish values and ideas, and we are still awaiting the arrival of Moshiach.”

An essay on offers another perspective. Rabbi Dovid Meir Drukman, a signatory on the letter and chief rabbi of Kiryat Motzkin near Haifa, notes Chabad’s extensive involvement in Israeli society, but he said that does not translate into support for the state.

He notes an instance in which the Rebbe protested the singing of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, at a Chabad gathering, and says the Rebbe refused to use the words “Medinat Yisrael,” the State of Israel. Drukman reports that the Rebbe forbade the Star of David from being printed on Chabad books.

“We are Zionists. But not the so-called Zionists who created the State of Israel, rather we are Zionists who pray thrice daily that ‘G-d lay His eyes upon Zion,’ “ Drukman wrote. “The difference is immense.”