Tuesday, January 30, 2024

In This Moment: The Face of UNRWA; the Face of the Stranger; TBE's B'nai Mitzvah Booklets


In This Moment

The Face of UNRWA

The latest from Eretz Nehederet

Here's the problem with the UNRWA scandal. There is documented proof that at least a dozen of these UN workers participated in the massacres of October 7. Like the clergy sex-abuse scandals that have struck the Boston archdiocese and other religious groups, it is almost impossible to gain trust back after such a betrayal. If relief agencies moonlight in terrorism, the ultimate losers are the innocent people whose lives depend on them. For that reveals a painful truth. Now that we've got the goods on them, we can't live without them. As Ha'aretz's Anshel Pfeiffer noted, UNRWA Is riddled with Hamas, but Israel has no alternative.

Israel is not about to suspend its ties with UNRWA. It certainly can't do that after the International Court of Justice ruling on Friday, warning Israel that denying humanitarian assistance to Gaza could be constituted as an act of genocide. Unless the Israel Defense Forces decides it wants to distribute the food, water and medical supplies to over 2 million Palestinians in Gaza, it needs UNRWA to do it.

So how can Israel work with these people? It will happen because it has to happen. But a world that now has seen the evidence of this complicity, as well as the complicity of hospitals, schools and mosques, is shifting the ground, even as Israel fights off false accusations of genocide. Nine countries paused funding when this news came out. Last I checked, nine is nine more than zero. Beneath the surface - literally - the truth of Hamas's reign of terror is slowly emerging, being flushed out by this filthy but necessary operation, just as the tunnels are themselves being flushed out with seawater. And the weary Gazans themselves are starting to say the quiet part out loud. They want to be rid of Hamas.

I don't know whether the P.A. can be reformed - but can the U.N.?

Wed on JBS / Cablevision channel 138

Remembering Mark Golub

See the preview below. I was honored to participate in this tribute, which will be aired on Mark's first yahrzeit, Wed Jan. 31 from 8-10 PM on JBS (Optimum channel 138).

Wednesday's Front Pages

Jerusalem Post


Yediot Ahronot

The Face of the Stranger

This Friday at services, join us as we welcome

guests from Building One Community.

On Refugee Shabbat, we pause to acknowledge and honor the hard work of pursuing justice, and to recommit our resources moving forward. As always, we raise our voices together as a Jewish community to say that we will welcome and protect those seeking safety from violence and persecution.

At the beginning of this week's Torah portion of Yitro, we meet Moses’ children: Gershom and Eliezer. Gershom’s name is explicitly from the Hebrew words “ger” and “sham” – glossed in the text as meaning, “I was a stranger in a foreign land.” Moses’s “strangeness” – an Israelite among the Egyptians, an Egyptian among the Midianites, is highlighted here, just before he facilitates the most profound experience of human-Divine connection in the Bible, the giving of the Torah. Following in the path of Moses, Jews have been “strangers” in many lands and over many centuries. 

And now in Israel, hundreds of thousands of Israelis are displaced and unable to return to their homes, in the south and along the northern border. Many have no home left to go back to.

At a time when 110 million are displaced worldwide, from wars, persecution, poverty or climate - we need, more than ever, to see God in the face of the stranger. Join us this Friday evening as we, along with many other synagogues, observe HIAS Refugee Shabbat.

Another TBE Memory

B'nai Mitzvah Booklets

I'm a collector, and I don't think anything I've collected during my time at TBE has as much personal meaning as all the B'nai Mitzvah booklets created by our families over the years. I was inspired to incorporate this family project into the experience by a mentor, Rabbi Gary Glickstein, who did something similar in Worcester, Mass.

My goal was to use the booklets to help introduce this newly minted Jewish adult to their family and to the community in a way that could be fun and deeply meaningful. Few congregations that I knew of were doing this, at least so elaborately, so I felt like we were inventing the wheel. From the start (which was in my prior congregation), we had the "All About Me" (autobiographical sketch), a family tree, letters, artwork, photos, a "scorecard" of the honors, a description of the mitzvah project which in the early years would also include a Soviet or Holocaust "twin." I'd usually put in a summary of the Torah portion and possibly some supplementary background material about an upcoming holiday or historical anniversary.

As you can see from the montage above, each booklet is unique - as unique and special as each of our precious students. And not just the kids. The personal letters written by parents and grandparents found in these booklets are also collector's items. I often refer to them at other lifecycle moments.

When parents first heard about them, a few complained, but once they saw the results, they loved it, despite the toil. I know I spent hours and hours working on my kids' booklets. We've had families research their family trees back to the middle ages; my favorite was the family that had the medieval sage Rashi on one side of their tree - and Daniel Boone on the other!

Here's a call out to all our TBE b'nai mitzvah from the past four decades: Let me know how you are doing! What is your favorite memory of your TBE B'nai Mitzvah?

One thing all those students share is having had a booklet; THE hallmark of a TBE B'nai Mitzvah. Believe it or not, I fit the hundreds of booklets I've saved into a single large box, each and every one. While many files and books will be remaining at my new office in TBE, these booklets will be coming with me to Madison. I'll reach over from time to time and pick out a few randomly, flip through the pages, think of the kids, and smile.

Recommended Reading

  • GAZA WAR DAY 116: Hostage Deal? Water in the Tunnels, Jenin (Marc Schulman) - There now appears to be a genuine possibility to make a deal, albeit only a possibility. The current discussion is focused on the first phase, which would involve a significant reduction in hostilities. In exchange, the sick, elderly, and women would be released. In return, a certain number of prisoners held in Israeli jails would be freed, although the exact number is unclear. Foreign media reports suggest around 2,000 prisoners in the first stage. At this moment, right-wing elements of the government, namely Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, have stated their intent to bring down the coalition if terrorists with blood on their hands are released. They also threaten to topple the government if Israel’s military action in Gaza is halted. As a result of these threats, Netanyahu delivered a speech today asserting that Israel will not cease fighting in Gaza until achieving complete victory over Hamas and will not release thousands of prisoners. As usual, Netanyahu seems to be telling different people different things: on the one hand, Netanyahu allowed negotiators to potentially consider an agreement that would allow the release of a significant numbers of prisoners; on the other hand, this same Netanyahu, in speaking to the right-wing audiences declares that such releases will not happen.

  • Trapped by Trauma: Transcending the Dragon’s Gaze (Irwin Kula) - We can not fix the issues around this violent conflict with explicit first-level correctives because that is not where these issues live – though stopping the present eruption of violence is an absolute priority. The issues inhabit raw scars of previous generations, in things that happened so that we could actually be here and now…alas, we are here and now in trauma, suspicion, and bitterness that has grown in wounds that have never healed.

  • The International Court of Justice ruling on Israel got it right (Forward - Jay Michaelson) - Israel is neither the genocidal demon I see regularly depicted in far-left social media posts, nor the blameless angel I see depicted in many pro-Israel ones. Oct. 7 was a horror, Hamas’s use of sexual violence was a horror, all civilian hostages should be immediately released without conditions and an Israeli military response is justified. And also: the suffering in Gaza is appalling, and millions of Israelis and American Jews are rightly dismayed at the ways in which this response has unfolded. There is plausible cause for concern. And if both sides can find something wrong with today’s ICJ ruling, that’s a good sign that it’s correct.

My argument with Michaelson is that, yes, the suffering in Gaza is appalling, but that Hamas deserved a large proportion of the blame for that as well. Any suggestion that acts of genocide are happening there (and they aren't) must take Hamas's complicity into account. But we should not be arguing either that the Gazans aren't suffering as. much as claimed (even if the death counts come from questionable sources) or that Israel is blameless.

Temple Beth El
350 Roxbury Road
Stamford, Connecticut 06902
203-322-6901 | www.tbe.org
A Conservative, Inclusive, Spiritual Community

Friday, January 26, 2024

In This Moment: Not Genocide; Scarsdale Shopping Center Vandalized; Holocaust Memorial Day


In This Moment

Three major stories on our radar today...

Story #1

It was disturbing to see a full page ad in today's print version of the NYT by the "Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council," which states unequivocally that Israel "was committing a genocide." Not even "acts of genocide," but "a genocide." This on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day. Curiously, the letter itself is not to be found at the address listed on the ad, or anywhere else that I could detect as of Friday mid-morning. There is a small list on the JVC site about 50 who who claim to be members of the Rabbinical Council - including some students.

I object strongly to their claims of genocide, especially in the face of clear acts of genocide committed and pledged by Hamas. But as Ezra Klein writes today in the NYT, Israel is not blameless in what has gone from a trickle over the past few decades to a massive hemorrhaging of support for Israel among Gen Z. We can't just blame social media or the Chinese, or a Jewish establishment that shunned all dissenters from the left. Those Jewish leaders indeed were Netanyahu's enablers, but to blame them is to ignore that the root cause goes back to Israel's shifts over the past two decades. Klein writes that this "is one reason I think the response to the protests on campus has been misguided. This is not a problem you can solve by firing college presidents or blackballing student radicals. Israel is losing the support of a generation, not a few student groups. And it is losing it because of what it does, not what it is."

Still, the headline for today is that the court is not calling Israel's actions genocide and is not calling for an immediate ceasefire. Israel has some time left to continue to degrade Hamas (while aiming to protect the innocent) and plan next steps - ideally, in partnership with their real allies and partners and not on their own. As Daniel Gordis demonstrates today with some viral Israeli social media posts, IDF reservists are raring to finish the job - and they also blame Bibi.

This week's new polling reconfirms that a disdain for their Prime Minister is what's uniting Israelis more than anything else. See below. Benny Ganz' party is the "State Camp," which has 12 seats in the current Knesset, projecting to go up to 40, while Likud, which now has 32, would shrink to half its current size. The ruling coalition would go down from 64 seats to 44, and the opposition, led by Ganz, up to an unimpeachable 76 seats. A sea-change is happening in the Israeli electorate before our eyes. But while they oppose the government, they do not oppose the current fighting and want - need - a conclusive victory. But not genocide.

Story # 2

I was at Seasons yesterday afternoon and aside from a modest police presence you would never have known that an incident had occurred at the Golden Horseshoe. It was as busy as ever, with the pre-Shabbat bustle in the air.

Story #3

Friday's Front Pages

Jerusalem Post


Yediot Ahronot

Next Wed on JBS / Cablevision channel 138

Remembering Mark Golub

See the preview below. I was honored to be asked to participate in this tribute, which will be aired on Jan. 31, Rabbi Golub's first yahrzeit.

Recommended Reading

  • Modi Opens a Giant Temple in a Triumph for India’s Hindu Nationalists (NYT) - Here's an interesting scenario. A Hindu holy place becomes a mosque when Muslims rule the area centuries ago. In the 1990's, radical Hindus destroy the mosque and when those an extremist religious party comes to power, they build a new Hindu temple on the grounds and tell the Muslims tough luck. Is this how to promote co-existance? Not in Modi's India, before an election. And don't think some people in Jerusalem aren't taking notice of how India just got away with it. Their newspapers proclaimed this a triumphant moment. Religion can either mend or destroy our scary world. In the wrong hands, it can become, in the words of Hindu sacred writ, the god Shiva, and Robert Oppenheimer, "death the destroyer of worlds."

Here's what the Times reported:

The Babri Mosque, which the Hindu side argued was built after Muslim rulers destroyed an earlier Hindu temple in the spot, was brought down in 1992 by Hindu activists, unleashing waves of sectarian violence that left thousands dead. The manner in which the mosque was razed set a precedent of impunity that reverberates today: lynchings of Muslim men accused of slaughtering or transporting cows, beatings of interfaith couples to combat “love jihad” and — in an echo of Ayodhya — “bulldozer justice” in which the homes of Muslims are leveled by officials without due process in the wake of religious tensions. The Hindu right wing has ridden the Ram movement to become India’s dominant political force. The opening of the temple, built over 70 acres at a cost of nearly $250 million, marks the unofficial start of Mr. Modi’s campaign for a third term, in an election expected in the spring. That it was Mr. Modi who was the star of the inauguration of the temple in Ayodhya — which Hindu nationalists have compared to the Vatican and Mecca — captures the right’s blurring of old lines. India’s founding fathers took great pains to keep the state at arm’s length from religion, seeing it as crucial to the country’s cohesion after the communal bloodletting wrought by the 1947 partition that cleaved Pakistan from India. But Mr. Modi has unabashedly normalized the opposite.

Shabbat Shalom

Temple Beth El
350 Roxbury Road
Stamford, Connecticut 06902
203-322-6901 | www.tbe.org
A Conservative, Inclusive, Spiritual Community

Jewish Voice for Peace Full Page ad in NYT

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

In This Moment: The Price of War; Jews, Palestinians, the Land and the Planet


In This Moment

Today has been a tragic day in this already tragic conflict. In the war's deadliest battlefield incident (from an Israeli standpoint), 21 IDF reserve soldiers were killed as buildings collapsed in a blast. See "Wide swath of society: The stories of some of the 21 troops killed in Gaza blast (TOI)."

Click to see pdf of the whole page

Wednesday's Front Pages

Try again later this evening if the pages aren't appearing yet

Jerusalem Post


Yediot Ahronot

Tu B'Shevat 5784

Jews, Palestinians,

the Land and the Planet

Above: A field of sunflowers in Slovakia, taken from the bus of our 2017 TBE Europe trip

Tu B'Shevat, which falls on Wed. night and Thursday, has shape-shifted in a number of ways over the past two millennia, with vastly different but complementary messages.

Right now we need to bring together the national Zionist theme with the more universal ecological one, and incorporate the most salient aspects of both. We need to take that tight spiritual bond that Jews have for our Land and direct that passion outward, toward those who also share bonds with that Land, with other lands, and with the entire planet.

Buber and Gandhi: Were the early Zionist pioneers "colonialists?"

In a landmark "open letter" between two giants of the spirit, written at the outbreak of World War Two, Martin Buber wrote to Mahatma Gandhi about a topic that is sadly still being discussed today: Are Jews in the Land of Israel foreign interlopers invading an alien country (as the British were doing in both Palestine and India), or are they returning to cultivate their ancestral, sacred soil? Buber's entire letter is well worth reading, but the excerpt below responds powerfully to the "colonialist" question:

Our settlers do not come here as do the colonists from the Occident to have natives do their work for them; they themselves set their shoulders to the plow and they spend their strength and their blood to make the land fruitful. But it is not only for ourselves that we desire its fertility. The Jewish farmers have begun to teach their brothers, the Arab farmers, to cultivate the land more intensively; we desire to teach them further: together with them we want to cultivate the land —to “serve it,” as the Hebrew has it. The more fertile this soil becomes, the more space there will be for us and for them. We have no desire to dispossess them: we want to live with them.

Martin Buber, An Open Letter to Mahatma Gandhi 1939

A.D. Gordon was a pioneer of early Zionism, known for expressing the organic connection of the people to the land. See this excerpt from one of his essays:

We are engaged in a creative endeavor the like of which is not to be found in the whole history of mankind: the rebirth and rehabilitation of a people that has been uprooted and scattered to the winds. The center of our national work, the heart of our people, is here, in Palestine. Here something is beginning to flower which has greater human significance and far wider ramifications than our history-makers envisage, but it is growing in every dimension deep within, like a tree growing out of its own seed. Here, in Palestine, is the force attracting all the scattered cells of the people to unite into one living national organism. The more life in this seed, the greater its power of attraction. . . . We seek the rebirth of our national self, the manifestation of our loftiest spirit, and for that we must give our all.

A.D. Gordon, “Our Tasks Ahead,” 1920

A Shared Love, a Shared Sadness

So we need to feel that deep connection to that sacred Land, and we need to do it in a way that reinforces our collective human connection to all the earth and those who dwell upon it. Here are love poems to the Land written by Zionists and non Zionists. They should be seen as complementary - not competitive - visions. We are two trees growing from the same seeds.

See first this sobering reflection by the Palestinian national poet, Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008). It could easily have been written by Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), perhaps Israel's greatest poet - who in fact wrote the poem directly below it.

Sunflowers on Kibbutz Re'im

The natural beauty of the Land becomes a burning, sun-scorched funhouse mirror of the terrible toll of human suffering that has taken place amidst that beauty. A bucolic natural setting becomes a hell-scape, which is precisely what happened last October at the rave adjacent to Kibbutz Re'im. A pre-October 7 website explains that initially, the lovely, peaceful kibbutz was called “Tel Re'im” (Tel – Hill, Reim – Friends) after the nearby hill called in Arabic, “Tel al-Jama” (the hill of the friends). And then 364 were massacred.

Spilled blood is the closest thing to roots we have.

You can see the intimate connection of land, life and death in this work by Zelda (1914 - 1984), one of Israel's great poets:

The Invisible Carmel

When I die,

moving into a different mode,

the invisible Carmel that is wholly mine –

wholly the essence of joy,

where the needles and cones of the pines,

the flowers and clouds are engraved in my flesh –

will split from the visible Carmel

and its avenues of pines sloping down to the sea.

Does delight in the crimson sunset

come from death’s hidden nexus within me?

And delight in the fragrant herbs,

the moment of the water’s haze

and the moment of return

to the stern gaze of Jerusalem’s skies,

to the Supreme over all –

do these come from the hidden nexus of death?

Zelda imagines becoming one, in death as in life, with her beloved Carmel forest, which she could see from her home in Haifa. That "invisible Carmel" is her afterlife, and for her, immortality is a communion with the Land. Is this heaven? No, it's Haifa.

The Carmel slopes heal even as Jerusalem's sun scorches.

Love poems to nature come from all parts of the world, not just the Land of Israel.

Psalm 24 presents a more universal view:

Rashi comments that the word "aretz" implies the Land of Israel, and "tevel" the entire world. Our narrow focus on nurturing the soil of the Holy Land must not end there, but lead to the preservation of the entire planet. Poetically, this verse is a classic synecdoche, where, in Rashi's view, the part, Israel, stands in for the whole, the planet.

Earth is on loan from God and we are all its custodians. A pure devotion to just one land, no matter how singularly holy, is pointless, since God sees the whole world as being to some degree sacred and in every respect fragile.

After all, the seeds that fly in the wind know no national borders. The sunflowers are everywhere, in the killing fields of eastern Europe and the killing fields of Re'im.

This poem, by Chinese poet Yi Lei from the inspiring collection, Five Nature Poems by Women of Color, picks up on that theme of nature transcending borders.

Not everything flying into northern Israel these days is a Hezbollah rocket. It has been estimated that over 500 million migratory birds fly over Israel every year. A large number of them make a lengthy stop in Israel's Hula Valley. They know no national borders. Over 450 species of birds are navigating these crossroads of the sky, including these cranes.

Tu B'Shevat reminds us of our escalating obligations. For when, God willing, the current fighting finally ends, the hostages are released and Hamas's reign of terror ends, we will still be left with a planet that just completed its hottest year by far.

We need to remind ourselves that this sacred, beautiful and tragic Land is holy to Israelis and Palestinians - and to cranes and sunflowers too.

Recommended Reading

  • GAZA’S UNDERGROUND: HAMAS’S ENTIRE POLITICO-MILITARY STRATEGY RESTS ON ITS TUNNELS (Modern War Institute) - The sheer size of Hamas’s underground networks may, once fully discovered, be beyond anything a modern military has ever faced. . . . For the first time in the history of tunnel warfare, . . . Hamas has built a tunnel network to gain not just a military advantage, but a political advantage as well. . . . Hamas weaved its vast tunnel networks into the society on the surface. Destroying the tunnels is virtually impossible without having an adverse effect on the population living in Gaza. Hamas’s strategy is . . . not to hold terrain or defeat an attacking force. Its strategy is about time. It is about creating time for international pressure on Israel to stop its military operation to mount. . . . It wants the world’s attention on the question of whether the IDF campaign is violating the laws of war in attacking Hamas tunnels that are tightly connected to civilian and protected sites. It wants to buy as much time as is needed to cause the international community to stop Israel. Its entire strategy is built on tunnels. Arguably, no military in the world is as well prepared for subterranean tactical challenges as the IDF. But the strategic challenge is entirely different. To destroy many of the deep-buried tunnels, the IDF has required bunker-busting bombs, which Israel is criticized for using. And most importantly it has required time to find and destroy the tunnels in a conflict in which Hamas’s strategy is aimed at limiting the time available to Israel to conduct its campaign. Hamas’s strategy, then, is founded on tunnels and time.

  • Poll: Most Israelis would back US plan tying Palestinian state to freeing hostages, Saudi normalization - A slight majority of Israelis would back a US plan for ending the war that would see the release of all remaining hostages, Saudi Arabia agree to normalize relations with Israel, and Jerusalem agree to the eventual establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state, a new poll indicates. In the survey conducted by the Midgam Institute on behalf of the dovish Geneva Initiative, 51.3 percent of respondents say they would back such an agreement, while 28.9% said they would oppose it, and 19.8% said they didn’t know.

Ofir Liebstein, an Israeli politician who headed the Sha'ar haNegev Regional Council, was killed on October 7. As the spring anemones are soon going to blossom to beautify the stricken south, he'll be remembered in a fitting way.

Temple Beth El
350 Roxbury Road
Stamford, Connecticut 06902
203-322-6901 | www.tbe.org
A Conservative, Inclusive, Spiritual Community