Tuesday, December 5, 2023

In This Moment: Hanukkah Lights in Sderot; Can't We All Get Along? (Yes We Can)

In This Moment

As Israeli forces seem to have intensified their attack on southern Gaza, it feels like the next few days may be a crucial turning point. As the war wages, the lights of Hanukkah are getting set to glow from Sderot... A few years ago, the residents of Sderot constructed a menorah out of Hamas rockets.

Tomorrow's Headlines Today

Jerusalem Post

Ha'aretz (English)

Yediot Achronot

Can't We All Get Along?

Yes, We Can! (Yes, We Did!)

As part of my continuing series of reminiscences of my years here at TBE, I focus on those times when we did our part to bring conflicting sides together. Here are my top memories (and thanks to Aviva Maller for her photos of Hoffman lectures). Even if not at the same time, we've never hesitated to reach across the religious and ideological spectrum, to bring the likes of Ari Fleischer, Ruth Wisse and Dore Gold, and on the left side, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Jay Michaelson and Abba Eban. Also Michael Oren, Moshe Arens, Thomas Friedman, Abba Eban, Wolf Blitzer, Jeffrey Goldberg and Jodi Rudorin, rabbis like Avi Weiss, Joseph Telushkin, Neil Gillman zl, Burt Visotzky, Steve Greenberg and Yitz Greenberg. All that and (I shudder to admit) Dennis Prager, who came to speak to our teens and told them that kids stink We hosted national interfaith conference when I was president of the Interfaith Council, which brought some wonderful speakers to our community, like Karen Armstrong (who wrote "A History of God").

Did we bring about heaven on earth? Did the lion lie down with the lamb? No. But ours is not to complete the job, nor to desist from it. Here are my top five moments of waging peace (or at least trying to).

  • We had a memorable visit from a Palestinian peace partner. Issam Sa'ad, who grew up in a refugee camp in Gaza and now runs a Jewish-Arab dialogue project which got him on the Hamas hit-list. His presentation to our group in Israel blew us away, so I had to bring him to TBE when he came to the states. He brought us to tears. He is propelled the idealistic hope that meeting one's "enemy" face to face will tilt people toward co-existence. I told Issam's story in detail in my second day Rosh Hashanah sermon in 2018 (look right at the beginning of Day 2). Just a few good words – and that was enough to change everything.

  • "Three Movements, One Future" Ellenson, Eisen and Joel - This was a personal favorite of mine, because I got to moderate this conversation among the heads of the country's leading Reform, Conservative and Orthodox seminaries, the first time in history that the heads of the three movements came together under one roof in a public dialogue. Dr Eisen put it best: "We have different paths, and each one of us thinks our path is the best one," he continued, "but we respect each other's path. The Jewish people need all three, and they need us to work together." Read Stamford Advocate coverage of the event and listen to an audio recording.
  • Gordis and Beinart - Two outspoken commentators in Israel, a conservative and a progressive, came together on our bima to find common ground, There was quite a bit that they shared, keeping in mind that this was 2017 and the common threat resided in the White House. Sadly, they won't be coming back together in dialogue anytime soon. Gordis recently lambasted Beinart in a column. See the JBS video below.
  • Ben Ami and Dershowitz: October, 2010. (seen above with Rabbi Mark Golub, who, thankfully agreed to moderate!) When the entire Jewish establishment was trying to ostracize J-Street, we understood that progressive, young American Jews needed to be heard, and J-Street spoke for them. They flocked to our sanctuary that night - we had about a thousand people, and mostly they got to hear Alan Dershowitz ambush Jeremy Ben Ami with petty accusations and it was not pretty. Here's what I wrote right after the event. (I feel that my words were sadly prophetic, with what is going on across college campuses now):

"At the end of the evening, I made a plea to the young people (and there were many here) not to dissociate themselves from Israel or from the American Jewish community. As things got more and more emotional on the bima, I could sense the impact that might have on some of them. I later heard of at least one young woman who was brought to tears. It was intense. One almost got the sense that Dershowitz was trying to finish J-Street off. In the end, demonizing J-Street will not destroy it... J-Street will live or die on the merits of its message, the honesty and transparency of its administration and the conviction of its funders. But that demonization might well drive away those many young supporters who feel they have no where else to go to express support for Israel and connect to the Jewish community. People may not like the critical approach J-Street has taken regarding Israel, but without it, the dialogue among American Jews would turn into a spiritless monologue, without taste and texture.

American Jews have never spoken with one voice about Israel and we aren't about to start now. It's positively unJewish to walk in lock step about anything, much less the most important thing - which is Israel. We're not a bunch of walking talking points to be programmed."

  • Stamford's Two Beth Els. Beth El and Bethel AME did a home and home series of services on the weekend of Dec, 19, 1993. It was my second year as senior rabbi and AME had a firebrand pastor named Winton Hill. We became good friends and the weekend was very special. Here is an except from what I said at the church.

Our dream today is nothing less than to make Jacob's Beth-el a living concept in our living city. We stand together, as Stamford's two Beth-els, committed to transforming Stamford into a house of God. We must build a ladder to heaven. Right here. Right now.

Ancient holy cities, Jerusalem, Mecca, Benares, Peking, all were built around sacred spaces, which allowed for a feeling of intersection, where the horizontal plane could meet the vertical. Where people could remove their shoes in the knowledge that this place was God's place. In those days, the city came to symbolize hope, reaffirmation and resolve. In recent times, cities have lost their ability to build those sacred ladders, choosing instead to build secular palaces of concrete and glass, to be centers of commerce rather than compassion, coming to symbolize corruption, confrontation and despair. That is precisely what has happened to New York, where the politics of fear have become the only means of motivating the populace.

But Stamford is not New York. Stamford is smaller. Stamford does still care. Stamford still puts people first, or at least it can. And Stamford has two very different Beth Els who wish to bring the entire city to an understanding of how we can build that ladder to heaven.

We can become a healing city, a place where all citizens feel sustained and nurtured in its midst. We can become an organic city, not of disparate neighborhoods and conflicting groups, but a collage where the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. The great cities of the past all felt organic and whole, down to the last detail, the restaurants, the sidewalks, the neighborhoods, the gardens, the walls. In Jerusalem, for instance, there is not a single stone that is not tear-stained, whether it adorn an ancient shrine or a modern cafe, it is all Jerusalem, all reaching up to the heavens. Our city can reach heavenward too, but only if we provide the tears, the laughter, the kindness, and imprint them on every stone and girder.

It all comes together today. Today we are not African American and Jew, we are Stamford. And if we can come together, the rest of the city will have to follow. If they see that we can care for each other, we who are so different, we who still have somewhat differing agendas, but we who do care for each other, if they can see us holding hands, if we can pull this off, the rest of the city will take notice. Like the Maccabees and martyrs of old, we can change the world.

Those are my top five. What are yours?

Recommended Reading

Good News!

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All its articles may now be read for free

(though membership is encouraged).

  • ULTRA-ORTHODOX AND ARAB ISRAELIS STRENGTHENING ISRAELI IDENTITY (Marc Schulman) Two areas of light in the midst of these dark days are in both the ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israeli communities. Among the ultra-Orthodox communities, a small but significant number of men have volunteered for army service. More interestingly, in some Hasidic groups, specifically Belz and Gur (the two largest Hasidic sects) the Rebbes have instructed their followers to physically defend the community — even on Shabbat. As a result, groups of Hasidim have been undergoing training in the use of firearms. It is somewhat incongruent to see a Hasid in full Hasidic garb standing at a firing range, learning how to fire a gun. Regarding the Israeli Arab sector, a poll conducted among Arab Israelis by Tel Aviv University researchers found that when asked what was the most important aspect of their personal identity, 33.2% asserted their Israeli identity was primary, 32.1% indicated their Arab identity was most important, 8.2% cited their Palestinian identity, and 22.6% said their religious identity was of greatest import. When the same poll had been administered in May, only 21% listed their Israeli identity as paramount, while 37.7% considered their Arab identity as their foremost identity.

An Interactive Map: Where Hanukkah Happened.

Temple Beth El
350 Roxbury Road
Stamford, Connecticut 06902
203-322-6901 | www.tbe.org
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