Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Wednesday, March 16, 2022
In This Moment: March 16 2022: Profiles in Courage (Why Stay in Sodom?); Understanding Jewish Ukraine; Ideas for Giving;First Bat Mitzvah - 100 years Ago This Week (Or Was It?); Purim Spoofs and Mad Magazine;
Jewish groups, led by Hillel, are calling for a pre-Purim fast day on Wednesday, the Fast of Esther, in support of the people of Ukraine. Ta'anit Esther, as it's called in Hebrew, is when many observant Jews fast from sunrise to sunset. It is an an echo of the fast that Esther, the heroine of the Purim story, asked the Jews of Shushan to observe before she petitioned the king to save them from a murderous villain intent on their destruction.
Pre-Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim
As hard as it is to be happy these days, it's a mitzvah on Purim, which falls on Wed. night and Thursday in most places. There are so many strange aspects to this holiday, and one of them is how we express that happiness. There is a custom,mentioned in the Talmud, to have one's court cases tried during the month of Adar, so as to increase our joy. Come again? The idea is that, at a time of our greatest vulnerability, Purim enables us to tap into a power, a positive energy, that has swept Jews to unexpected victories times and again throughout history. While Vladimir Putin is the enemy of many millions of people who aren't Jewish as well, this current battle feels very personal and very Purim-esque, especially with Putin's arch enemy on the Ukrainian side being the modern equivalent of Mordechai.
We can question whether it is appropriate to be bringing up Putin and Zelensky at all in relation to Purim, or is it premature? i discussed that here last week, and then in the Times of Israel.But regardless, with or without Putin or Bruno, or Covid, for that matter, Purim must go on. And so it will.
But Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, so closely associated with the Jews of Ukraine, spoke of joy as a prime Jewish value:
Rebbe Nachman teaches: It is a great mitzvah to be happy always! Strengthen yourself to push aside all depression and sadness. Everyone has lots of problems and the nature of man is to be attracted to sadness. To escape these difficulties, constantly bring joy into your life – even if you have to resort to silliness (Likutey Moharan II, 24).
Of course, no discussion of American Jewish parodies would be complete without including Mad Magazine. Somehow, their 1963 take on "West Side Story" seems perfectly apt right now, with Putin going full-Nikita Khrushchev on us and Spielberg's re-imagining of the original, Bernstein, Sondheim, Robbins, Laurents masterpiece which originally was intented to chronicle gang wars between Jews and Catholics on the Lower East Side.Mad functioned like a secular Talmud for Jews and non-Jews alike, but it had a truly Jewish vibe. Never more than with "East Side Story." So, in honor of Purim, the Ukrainian people and Spielberg's "re-imagining," here are the remade lyrics to the "Jet" song - which could have easily been taken from one of Putin's recent speeches. ("When you're a Red and some land you invade. Always say your attack's just a new kind of aid.") Perfection.
When you’re a Red
You’re a Red all the way
From your first Party purge
To your last power play!
When you’re a Red
You’ve got agents galore;
You give prizes for peace
While they stir up a war!
You set off a test,
And when you’re halfway through it–
You point at the West
And say they drove you to it!
That’s how you do it!
We are the Reds … With a punch in the face … Which we’re aiming today … At the whole human race … At the whole–! Ever–! Trusting–! Human–! Race!
Understanding Jewish Ukraine
These three helpful videos open a window to the remarkable ways Jewish and Ukrainian history have intersected
Jewish History in Ukrainian Maps: An excellent historical primer, from the middle ages to two weeks ago. Simplifies a complex subject.
Virtual Tour of Jewish Ukraine: A heartbreaking tour, in that it was recorded last year, before Putin's invasion, when the sites were pristine and lovely
Volodomyr Zelensky: His Presidency in the Context of Ukrainian-Jewish History
Give for Ukrainians
As we force ourselves to look at the mass graves of Mariupol (see left) we need find ways to lessen the suffering of the people of Ukraine. Adding to last week's listof worthy charities, here's a local organization that does a world of good for a lot of people: Americares. Also, here's a detailed list of ways to help the people of Ukraine, from Forbes. There's been much discussion of the donations of helping Ukrainian refugees find housing through Airbnb. There are plusses and minuses to this, so before you give, read this article in Vox,Is booking Airbnbs really the best way to help Ukrainians?"In his NYT column today, Thomas Friedman calls the idea transformative and novel. "In about the last two weeks, according to the company, people from 165 countries have booked more than 430,000 nights at Ukrainian homes on Airbnb with no intention of using the rooms — but simply in order to donate money to these Ukrainian hosts, most of whom they had never even heard of. Airbnb has temporarily waived all guest and host fees for bookings in Ukraine, so those reservations translated into $17 million going directly to the hosts. Guests from the U.S., Britain and Canada are the biggest bookers. Australia, Germany and several other European countries round out the top 10. In addition, as of Sunday, about 36,000 people from 160 countries signed up through Airbnb’s nonprofit affiliate, Airbnb.org, to welcome refugees fleeing Ukraine to their homes."
In addition, below is a list of specifically Jewish charities, from the New York UJA-Federation page, showing the allocations they've made thus far. If you are looking to support specifically the Jewish population, look at some of these organizations. And while there is pain being felt in so many quarters these days, it's no small thing that an estimated 100,000 Jewish refugees are expected to knock on Israel's door to make aliyah as result of this catastrophe, both Ukrainian and Russian Jews. Thankfully, there is an Israel to receive them. I will continue to donate to some of these organizations from the Rabbi's Mitzvah Fund, as I announced last week.
Humanitarian Aid in Ukraine
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) — $2 million to ensure uninterrupted humanitarian aid including food, medicine, winter relief, shelter for the displaced, and emergency assistance for the most vulnerable Jews throughout Ukraine — JDC support is now expanding to help non-Jews as well, as the demand for assistance is immense.
Project Kesher — $35,000 to support single women and single mothers by providing emergency assistance to assure they have adequate food and supplies and the capacity to seek safe passage to other parts of Ukraine. Project Kesher is a grassroots organization with a significant presence in Ukraine.
The Afya Foundation — $175,000 to provide urgently needed medical supplies including surgical kits, wound care supplies, PPE, and portable biomedical equipment.
Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine (FJC) — $280,000 to support food delivery and first aid packages to the 30,000 neediest members of the Jewish community throughout Ukraine. Each package will have 1-2 months’ worth of dried food and other essential supplies.
Ukrainian Humanitarian Fund — $500,000 for emergency aid. UHF was established to help meet the most critical needs of the conflict-affected population in eastern Ukraine. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), it is one of the quickest, most effective ways to directly support the most urgent lifesaving humanitarian aid in Ukraine.
Moishe House — $60,000 for emergency relief for participants and staff who remain in Ukraine and assistance with evacuation and relocation.
JUICE — $40,000 for temporary housing so that people can have access to food, hygiene, and a decent night’s sleep, as well as emergency kits and psychological support for those in route to neighboring countries. JUICE is a grassroots organization that creates innovative social activities for Jewish young adults and their families, enabling them to discover and develop their own Jewish identities.
Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) — $800,000 to assist large numbers of people who want to make aliyah very quickly by providing shelter, food, supplies, transport, and safe passage out of Ukraine by land and ultimately by air to Israel, including moving the aliyah processing center out of Kyiv.
Israel Trauma Coalition – $150,000 to provide trauma training and support to therapists, care providers, and local mental health experts in Ukraine, where ITC has established and maintained relationships with professionals and organizations on the ground since the conflict in 2014. They are also supporting local communities under stress in neighboring countries that are taking in thousands of refugees.
IsraAid — $50,000 to support refugees in Moldova by providing water, sanitation, hygiene, and psychological first aid.
JCC Krakow — $37,500 for general support/relief for refugees, including partnering with local NGOs to provide legal services and psychological counseling.
HIAS — $500,000 to meet refugees’ medium-term needs such as focus on mental health services, gender-based violence support, and legal aid for women and girls, children, and those identifying as LGBTQ+. HIAS is also providing food and shelter to refugees, as well as those who are still in Ukraine.
Hillel International — $80,000 to Hillels in Ukraine, Poland, and Germany to provide emergency cash for staff and families to cover costs of displacement and resettlement, and emergency assistance for food, shelter, and mental health support.
Odessa Chabad — $10,000 for food, shelter, and evacuation support.
Office of the Chief Rabbi of Poland — $150,000 for emergency crisis management services for Ukrainian refugees in Poland, including temporary housing and food; a day center at Hillel in Warsaw, including furniture, toys, and computers, along with staff and security; and temporary shelter at the Ukrainian-Polish border through the purchase of RV campers.
NATAN Worldwide Disaster Relief — $100,000 to support this Israeli, volunteer-lead humanitarian aid organization that disperses teams of medical professionals during global crises. An initial delegation from NATAN is currently in Poland, near the Ukrainian border, and has begun to treat refugees with medical and trauma care. This work will soon expand to a full-scale medical and psychosocial center to aid refugees.
Charity Taxi — $10,000 to support the collection and distribution of donated items from the Jewish community in Hungary (food and other supplies such as space heaters, blankets, and hygiene kits).
We Don't Talk About Haman...
Or Do We?
Here are two more Purim parodies of the Disney hit song,
"We Don't Talk About Bruno"
"We Don't Talk About Haman"
Maccabeats "Encanto Purim"
The First Bat Mitzvah, Exactly 100 Years Ago...
Or Was It???
What is the origin and history of the Bat Mitzvah ceremony? (David Golinkin, Schechter)The first Bat Mitzvah ceremony which most people have heard of is the one arranged by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983) for his eldest daughter Judith (1909-1996) on March 18, 1922. There are conflicting accounts as to what exactly transpired. She was 12-and-a-half at the time. Although people were invited in advance, the actual ceremony was only improvised on Friday night. On Shabbat morning, after the regular Torah and Haftarah reading, Judith, who was sitting in the men’s section with her father, stood up below the Bimah after the lifting of the Torah, recited the blessing before the Torah reading, read part of the portion of Kedoshim (Leviticus 19-20) from a Humash, and recited the blessing after the Torah reading. Purists argue that technically this was not a Bat Mitzvah ceremony since Judith did not read from a Torah scroll and did not read the actual weekly portion of that Shabbat. I believe that they are missing the point. Other than the little-documented example of Ida Blum, this might have been the first time that an individual girl aged 12+ stood before a congregation and read publicly from a Humash with the Torah blessings.
Turkey agrees to return ancient Hebrew inscription to Jerusalem (Times of Israel). if it comes to pass, this is a huge deal, the return to Israel of the Siloam Inscription, The 2,700-year-old Siloam inscription, taken by the Ottomans and still held in Istanbul, marks direct evidence of Bible’s account of King Hezekiah’s tunnel-building in Jerusalem. A replica is found at the end of the famous water tunnel in the City of David, seen by many in our congregation.
Could Putin lose? Here’s why the ‘End of History’ author is optimistic (WaPo) -Francis Fukuyama, the political theorist who developed the famous “end of history” thesis, is generating some buzz with a new piece that makes a stark prediction: “Russia is heading for an outright defeat in Ukraine.” Fukuyama argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin badly miscalculated, underestimating Ukrainian resolve to resist annexation, and that Putin doesn’t have the military resources to subjugate the whole country. Of course, Fukuyama also thought we reached the end of history back in 1991.
One-legged skier Sheina Vaspi finishes 15th in her first and only event . She was the first athlete ever to represent Israel in the Paralympic Winter Games, finished the giant slalom in 15th place out of 22 skiers on March 11 in Beijing. That was her only opportunity to represent her country because the other event for which she’d qualified was moved to Saturday from Sunday due to weather considerations, and Vaspi does not compete on the Sabbath.
A man stood at the entrance of Sodom crying out against the injustice and evil in that city. Someone passed by and said to him, "For years you have been urging the people to repent, and yet no one has changed. Why do you continue?" He responded: "When I first came, I protested because I hoped to change the people of Sodom. Now I continue to cry out, because if I don't, they will have changed me."
On this eve of St Patrick's Day, here's yesterday's front page from the Irish Examiner. Let's bypass the story about 31,000 Covid cases for the time being (though we should take it as a warning to keep our masks close at hand) and focus on that extraordinary scene of the protester on Russian TV. I can not imagine having the courage to do that. And had I been President Zelensky a few weeks ago, I probably would have hightailed it to a safe place to set up a government in exile when offered that chance by the Americans. If I were the leaders of the three nations that visited Kyiv yesterday, would I have gone? What profiles in courage we are seeing!
Their courage helps us to put things into perspective. Compared to having your schools blown up and hospital patients turned into human shields, our lives, even the threats to our wellbeing, pale in comparison. But we still have much injustice here, many deep concerns, and the courage of our Ukrainian and Russian neighbors to risk death should embolden us to take stands that are also important, even if not nearly as courageous. Signing a petition or writing to your Congressional representative might put us at risk of getting donation requests until the end of time. But the woman on Russian TV, Marina Ovsyannikovawas risking far more. I wondered, why didn't she just leave when she had the chance? I would have left Russia long ago. Hey, if 2020 had gone differently here, well... But Putin's Russia is fast becoming the equal of any police state we have ever seen, this side of North Korea. So the question remains: Why stay in Sodom?
I read this article and asked myself whether I could ever be a rabbi for a congregation in a state that does not share my basic values. It's fine for a clergy to have differences of opinion with individual congregants, but if an entire state were lined up in opposition to the clergy person's core values, is that situation untenable - or is it in fact necessary to stay? If I were in Texas now, would I stay and fight the good fight or cut and run to greener pastures.
This question also came to mind after the recent attack in Colleyville, when it came to light that Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who is a hero, is leaving the congregation, and one reason given for the non-renewal and decision to leave was his reluctance to accept a open-carry, a policy desired by some congregants. “We don’t feel that open carry should be a part of a synagogue service,” the rabbi said.
Now presumably, the topic of open carry would simply never come up at a synagogue board meeting here in Connecticut, even in these times of shootings at synagogues.
And why would any rabbi who believes in LGBTQ inclusivity (or inclusivity in general) want to serve in a state like Florida, where a something like the "Don't Say Gay" law is likely to be passed? What is the "Don't Say Gay" bill? Here's how the Daily Beast explains it:
In Florida, the Parental Rights in Education bill—more commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill—would prohibit any teaching concerning sexual orientation or gender identity “in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” The bill would also grant parents the right to sue teachers and schools for exploring these topics. Its incredibly vague language has those who support LGBTQ+ equality very worried. Can an LGBTQ+ teacher be sued by a parent if they discuss their personal life? What about a student with LGBTQ+ parents? Now, Florida Republicans—including Governor Ron DeSantis, a big proponent of the bill—have argued that it would not discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community. But a previous version of the bill contained a provision requiring schools to out students to their parents if they found out they were LGBTQ+, and when Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-FL) attempted to amend the bill to only prevent schools from conducting lessons “on human sexuality or sexual activity” so as not to marginalize all LGBTQ+ students and teachers, Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-FL), the bill’s sponsor, argued that such a change would “gut” the bill. (He refused to elaborate.) “So, it’s pretty clear what he thinks the guts of this legislation are,” said John Oliver on his show Sunday night. “It’s not about sex at all. It’s about denying the existence of gay people.”
I will allow that some will disagree with my position on how horrible this bill is. But the point here is not what others think; it's that I think it is heartless and unwise, which is why, were I serving in Florida, I'd be out protesting right now - or packing up. And were I in Tennessee...Well, how could I serve in a state that contains within it a county that bans "Maus?"
I happened to have said the verboten word "gay" just this week in a conversation with a student (one old enough to understand what it means). Should I now fear a lawsuit, dismissal, or worse? That probably won't happen, because I preach to the choir here - we were, after all, the first mainstream Conservative congregation with openly gay clergy.
But were I in Florida right now, I'd be screaming to the rafters about this policy - and probably not making many friends. Were I in Tennessee, I would be reading my copy of "Maus" aloud on street corners (and if book bannings ever get momentum here, as has been suggested, I will be out there). And...is it really conceivable that someone here in Stamford is proposing a mechanism which would facilitate banning of books like "Maus?" Say it 'aint so!
So I wonder, is it worth it to spend one's entire allotment of divinely granted spiritual energy protestingat the gates of Sodom, when you can live in very well in Haifa. Or is that precisely what clergy should be doing, as those Texas ministers are and as Rabbi Cytron Walker did. Rabbi Cytron Walker landed on his feet, in North Carolina, where the local newspaper greeted his arrival with banner headlines. He'll face challenges there as well, no doubt. Maybe even a push for open carry.
Should clergy only serve where many people already agree with them? Or is it incumbent upon us to fight the good fight, come what may, wherever we happen to be? There are a heck of a lot of rabbis in Florida. I've yet to see a rabbinic petition against "Don't Say Gay." Hopefully there is one, or will be soon, and I just haven't seen it. But if I don't see one, frankly, sitting up here, who am I to criticize?