Pushing Harder on Disability Inclusion

In her victory speech after the Nevada primaries, Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton said itís time to invest in marginalized communities by “ensuring that people with disabilities have the same opportunities to work and fully participate in our society.”

That may seem like the standard campaign rhetoric of a serious presidential candidate, but what many people donít realize is that disability rights have rarely been mentioned by name in national campaigns.

Fortunately, Clinton is not alone. Sen. Bernie Sanders, another Democratic candidate, has also urged the full inclusion of people with disabilities in
society. Among the Republican hopefuls, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio has named workers with disabilities as a target for programs to increase employment. Jeb Bush, before ending his run for the nomination recently, had featured a child with a disability in a campaign video. The video followed a campaign speech in which Donald Trump made jerky movements that mocked Serge Kovaleski, a reporter with a disability that restricts the mobility of his arms, prompting a widespread public outcry.

While pundits donít agree on how much such rhetoric lines up with voting records and possible presidential initiatives, at the end of the day, the rhetoric of inclusion is in and of itself important. It is important for our society to hear political candidates say, as Sen. Marco Rubio did in January, that “most countries in the world, if you are disabled or you are born with a disability, you never go to school. They basically write you off and walk away. We have never done that and we will never do that.” And it is important for people to hear that Sen. Ted Cruz finds the fact that 70 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed appalling and wants to change that number, as he said last November.

During this yearís contentious race for the White House, it is rare to find an issue that cuts across our bitter party lines, but disability inclusion is precisely such an issue.

We will not always agree on the concrete ways to achieve change, but this inclusion climate is certainly a long way from when Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for president while hiding the fact that he had a disability.

As thought leaders and — on a good day — as role models, presidents, candidates and members of Congress can impact our thinking and our actions. Even the best-intentioned candidate may find it daunting to implement new policies once in office. As American Jews, we can draw inspiration from the increased visibility for our community and for the disability cause. Then we must turn around and push our leaders — and American society — to do even better.

Connecting with Israel Up Close and Personal

In Israel, I had no immediate family, no meaningful experience of the culture, society or language, a small social network and barely a professional network. Very few jobs in  Israel would provide me the same salary as what I was making in New York, and moving to Israel would mean starting largely from scratch.

And yet, something so deep drew me to Israel. It stemmed from my deep sense of Jewish identity and my Zionist  upbringing, from my community at my synagogue, years at day school and time spent at University of Maryland’s Hillel. I grew up learning about how the Jewish people and our identity grew out of our relationship with Israel. I came to understand how the re-establishment of  Israel gave the Jewish people the chance to once again live and develop the land that characterized our identity and our tradition.

Despite the reasons not to go, a sense of responsibility characterized my feelings.  I felt that moving to Israel and participating in its national  future surpassed considerations about “professional stability” and “making money” in America, because I had a responsibility to build a closer relationship with the people and land of  Israel.

Ultimately, I had the incredible opportunity to transfer from Deloitte America to Deloitte Israel, which provided a foundation and the ability to start realizing my dream.

Most remarkably, I have found that people in Israel have much warmer, deeper  relationships than I expected from my experience in America, and it influences all parts of life. I have found that people in Israel often have multidimensional relationships with their colleagues that sometimes feel more familial than collegial. They often enjoy more overlapping connections. They engage in more intense debates and regularly offer advice. They also give more compliments, more hugs, discuss their families more frequently, and attend the simchas of their colleagues more commonly. Work conversations in Israel take on a more genuine, connected feeling.

My journey began with  Zionism, yet my relationship with Israel continues to deepen as I experience more aspects of the people and the country. This sense of belonging wraps itself into every part of everyday life and enhances my  experiences with more positive consequences than I could ever have imagined.

Jacob Silvermetz made aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh in 2012 and now lives in Rehovot, Israel, with his wife. Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Baltimore-area Aliyah Fair will take place March 7 at 6:30 p.m. at the DoubleTree Pikesville. For more information, visit tinyurl.com/j8ljxzx.

Bipartisan Voices Behind Restitution Efforts

Last year in Washington, D.C., we marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. We celebrated the 25th anniversary of German reunification. We awarded the Monuments Men — made famous by Hollywood — with the Congressional Gold Medal.

As the children of immigrants and members of the House  Foreign Affairs Committee, we have taken a special interest in more nuanced foreign policy  issues that do not always make the headlines.

Like many of our colleagues, we applaud the valuable alliance our nation has built with Germany. We applaud Chancellor Angela Merkel’s keen awareness of anti-Semitism and President Barack Obama’s recent visit to the Israeli  Embassy to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Congress has played and will continue to play a valuable role in fostering this alliance. We know that in April our deep commercial ties will take center stage when Obama visits the annual Hannover Messe.

On Jan. 30, 1933, the 12 years of Nazi terror known as the Holocaust began. “On the anniversary of Kristallnacht, we hosted back-to-back widely attended expert panel discussions in our districts. We called attention to the countless works of art belonging to Jewish families that were prolifically looted and ‘sold’ under duress during the early years of the Holocaust.” We learned how looted art helped fund the initial war budget of the Axis powers. We learned lessons that can be applied today as the self-proclaimed Islamic State loots — and resells for profit — cultural artifacts. We also publicly released a letter we spearheaded with 27 other members of Congress to Bavarian Minister President Horst Seehofer encouraging further alignment with Germany’s policy towards restitution of artwork.

In order to facilitate the return of property confiscated from victims of the Holocaust, especially cultural artifacts, the governments of the United States, Germany, its 16 states, and 42 other nations signed the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art in December 1998. In 2009, the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust-Era Assets and Related Issues recommitted the United States and Germany to these important issues.

Across the country, Holocaust survivors are dying without  justice. Their pleas are going unanswered by foreign government bureaucrats. They are faced with silence and inaction.

We continue to remain concerned by the slow pace of restitution efforts and lack  of transparency about these important issues. In the spirt of cooperation, we hope that this year will bring greater  dialogue with Holocaust survivors and their heirs. Indeed, it is only through dialogue that justice is served.

U.S. Reps. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) and Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) are members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Climate Change Is a Jewish Racial Justice Issue

ftv_RechtmanLiyaFebruary marks Black History Month, an opportunity to learn about and share African-American history and consider how we, as a Jewish and an American community, can continue pursuing racial justice in the coming year.

We also read Parshat Mishpatim, which expounds on the earliest Jewish laws, including how and when to set both Israelite and non-Israelite slaves free. In some ways, this is one of those sticky portions that reminds us our tradition was part of the historic system of slavery. However, read an alternate way, the parsha insists on treating disempowered slaves as humans, also created in the Divine Image. Mishpatim is a mandate to act with respect and dignity to all.

What does this mean in 2016? In the age of rising rates of asthma and cancer among black Americans as well as unequal impacts of extreme weather disasters on communities of color, the fight for racial justice is multifaceted. Climate change is a racial justice issue, and, as Jews of all colors, we must advocate for climate justice.

Decreased air and water quality and extreme weather events have lead to illness and disability, physical displacement, cultural erosion, food insecurity and criminalization, according to the NAACP Climate Justice Initiative.

The American Jewish community plays a valuable and well-documented role in standing up for our African-American neighbors from marching with black church leaders in the 1960s to participating in the NAACP’s Justice Summer for equal rights and protection under law. So too must we advocate for equal access to clean water, clean air and a habitable planet.

This Black History Month, the Jewish community should speak from its historic position of support to our black church brethren and also in spirit of inclusion of Jews of color by acting on climate change, and so should we move our communities to action.

Allocations for the Green Climate Fund are included in the 2017 budget announced by President Barach Obama this month, a resource to help vulnerable developing nations adapt to rising sea levels and other negative impacts while mitigating root causes through sustainable development. We need the Green Climate Fund in order to help reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions and stem the tide of our changing climate.

This Black History Month, tell your elected officials that you support the Green Climate Fund and that, as a Jew, you care about climate justice.

Liya Rechtman is a manager at the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and a policy associate at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Connecting Our Jewish Teens

ftv_Himmelrich_ZoletLast week, hundreds of community leaders, philanthropists, teen professionals and teens converged in Baltimore for the Summit on Jewish Teens to discuss how to engage the next generation. The ideas they generated were dynamic, the teens were passionate, and the opportunities to be innovative were encouraging. It was amazing to see such energy and creativity in one place.

Unfortunately, the group of teens in attendance at last week’s events represented only a small number of Jewish teens in our communities. There are so many others we are not reaching through our current engagement platforms.

According to the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study, commissioned by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, from the 6,700 non-Orthodox teens (ages 10-17) in the Baltimore Jewish community, about two-thirds are either not connected or have limited connection to a Jewish teen program.

To counter this, The Associated created a Teen Connection Task Force to investigate ways to deepen teen Jewish connections. We engaged a wide range of stakeholders, from teens to professionals to lay leaders, and brought in national experts to talk about trends and listen to teens’ concerns about what was lacking.

First, it appeared that current programs primarily attract teens whose families were already engaged. We needed to broaden our reach to teens who are on the periphery.

Second, we realized the best approach was a year-round holistic concept that harnesses teens’ natural inclination for creativity, their interest in peer-to-peer interactions, their desire to craft projects and their commitment to social justice.

Thus, the Center for Teen Engagement was born. This communitywide program, funded in part by a matching grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation, will be directed by and housed at the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC.

Initially, programs include a Baltimore Jewish Teen Innovation Internship, which will provide teens with social innovation training and Jewish content and feature parallel social innovation experiences for teens in Baltimore’s sister cities of Ashkelon, Israel and Odessa, Ukraine.

There will also be a Jewish Teen Professionals Fellowship to deepen the skills of professionals who work with teens, and the Lay Teen Advocates Program will train lay leaders and board members effective advocacy for programs supporting teen Jewish education and engagement.

When we expose teens to meaningful Jewish connections, they are more likely to sustain a commitment to the Jewish community as adults.

Ned Himmelrich and Morry Zolet served as co-chairs of The Associated’s Teen Connection Task Force.

Kotel Compromise: Israelis Need American Jews

The relationship between Israel and American Jews is a complicated mix of good news and bad news, and last week’s government compromise on the Western Wall, or Kotel, is a case in point: It’s a step forward in providing access for non-Orthodox Jews but may also reinforce the reality that the main plaza doesn’t welcome Reform or Conservative Jews, who comprise the majority of affiliated American Jews.

The main Kotel plaza may never accommodate non-Orthodox prayer, but a new poll by the Ruderman Family Foundation provides some hope and direction for more positive developments on other fronts. (The poll, conducted by the Dialog research firm, surveyed 500 Israeli adults; the margin of error is 4 percent.)

The good news: Behind some  dismissive statements and controversial actions by members of Israel’s government, average Israelis genuinely value the involvement of American Jews.  In our poll, 82 percent of Israelis agree with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent pledge that “every Jew should feel that the Western Wall belongs to him, and every Jew should feel welcome in Israel.” Two-thirds agree that the relationship between Israel and American Jews directly  impacts Israel-U.S. relations, and 88 percent think their leaders should work to strengthen that relationship.

The bad news: For Israel to be  secure, it still needs a strong and  vibrant alliance with the United States in which American Jews play an obvious and integral role. And if Israel wants to remain the Jewish state, it must find ways to recognize and accommodate, rather than alienate, the bulk of America’s committed Jews.

It is easy to assume wrongly that American Jews either don’t matter or they will continue supporting Israel because they have no other Jewish homeland. In the United States,  Reform and Conservative Jews remain very supportive of Israel, and both movements have a strong showing in programs like Taglit-Birthright Israel and longer summer and yearlong programs. So yes, despite being treated  occasionally as second-class citizens, American Jews still identify with  Israel. In the long run, however, enough insults and humiliations leave a bitter taste, and it becomes more challenging to see Israel as a pathway to Jewish meaning for all.

The hope: Clearly, Israelis — including at least some Orthodox Jews — overwhelmingly value American Jews and their connection to Israel. Beyond the Ruderman Foundation’s own efforts to concretize this commitment among Knesset members and within the next generation of government and business leaders, there is a growing awareness among Israel’s elite that Israel needs American Jews at least as much as we need Israel — and this necessarily includes Reform and Conservative Jews.

With this new poll, we see that most Israelis don’t just need American Jews on board, they also want American Jews as part of Israel’s Jewish family. Any Israeli who says there’s no place for non-Orthodox Jews or American Jews in Israel can no longer claim to be speaking for more than a sliver of Israelis.

No matter how many delegations and conferences we organize, it’s ultimately up to Israelis at all levels of society to hold their leaders — political, religious, cultural — accountable. This isn’t just because American Jews  expect it, but because Israelis do.

Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.

We Are All God’s Children

During President Barack Obama’s historic address at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, he said, “At a time when others are trying to divide us along lines of religion or sect, we have to reaffirm that most fundamental of truths: We are all God’s children. We’re all born equal, with inherent dignity.”

The idea that we are all God’s children is rooted in the closing verses of the first chapter of Genesis. The Torah proclaims that God created the world and that He created human  beings — male and female — in His image.

Each human being then is unique because he or she embodies in some way the image of God. Unlike trees or animals, God created human beings individually, not in groups. This has moral significance since it means that all of us are special and different from each other.

By describing that God created the first man and woman individually, the Torah is teaching us that no person can say that my father or mother is greater than yours, since we are all  descended from the same father and mother. Another implication of these verses is that no one individual should be stereotyped because he or she belongs to a particular group or tribe. Our individuality transcends the groups we may be born into or to which we freely associate.

Respect for the dignity of each human being is an essential value of the Torah and our faith.

We live in a time when too many political, religious and public figures have ignored this teaching. By casting suspicion on the entire American Muslim community or on Islam itself, these figures are rebelling against this teaching and implicitly denying that each and every one of us is created in the image of God.

It is true that there are Muslims who have succumbed to fantasies  of dominance through resorting to brutality, torture and murder. Often these fantasies are motivated by a  distorted reading of the Koran. But we should not jump to the conclusion that all Muslims read the Koran this way. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in America are peaceful and law-abiding citizens just as the overwhelming majority of Christians and Jews are peaceful and law abiding.

Interfaith Action for Human Rights, a group of people of faith from Maryland, D.C. and Virginia, is calling upon all religious communities to show support for our Muslim neighbors, co-workers and friends who are feeling attacked and isolated. We are asking communities of faith to display on their property banners that read “Honor God — Say No to anti-Muslim bigotry,” or “We stand with Muslim Americans.”

In addition to affirming the dignity of each human being, we are also committed to opposing and changing policies and practices that promote torture in our society. To that end we are part of a broad coalition that wants to put an end to the abuse of solitary confinement in state and  federal prisons.

Respect for the dignity of each human being is an essential value of the Torah and our faith. It can be challenging to be respectful of people have done horrible deeds. It is not at all so to be respectful of those who live among us.

The Torah charges us to remember that, as the president said last week in Baltimore, we are all God’s children.

Rabbi Charles Feinberg is executive director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights.

Eugene Borowitz Defined Dilemma of the Modern Jew

Rabbi David Ellenson

Rabbi David Ellenson

In “Ethics of the  Fathers,” the rabbis teach that we must grant respect and honor to an individual who teaches us even the smallest bit of knowledge.

For those of us who were the students of Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, who died last week at the age of 91, the obligation is increased a thousandfold because of the wisdom and insight, the counsel and the judgment, the inspiration and direction he provided us. He was, for generations of his students and for so many others, moreinu vírabeinu — our rabbi and our teacher. My soul is bound in so many ways to his.

I first encountered Eugene Borowitz as many people have — through the words of his voluminous writings. In 1969, when I was 21, I came across his book “A Layman’s Guide to Religious Existentialism.” I had just completed a course in Christian religious existentialism at the College of William and Mary, and I eagerly devoured its contents.

His words on Kierkegaard, Tillich and other thinkers excited me and  ignited a passion for the life of the mind and the life of the spirit that I had never previously felt. I hoped that one day I could be his student.

Nearly five years later, that aspiration was realized. In 1974, I enrolled in his course Modern Jewish Thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish  Institute of Religion. It was in that class as a second-year rabbinical student that I was introduced to a vocabulary that helped me define and understand the religious struggle I was then experiencing.

In his initial lecture in the course, Rabbi Borowitz said clearly and simply, “The problem of modern Jewish thought is one of how we affirm the best of what the modern world has taught us while simultaneously maintaining our commitment to the covenantal tradition that is at the base of genuine Jewish belief and practice. How can we be both simultaneously modern and authentically Jewish?”

His unadorned statement of the dialectical dilemma confronting the modern Jew attempting to navigate between the poles of tradition and the contemporary world resonated in the very depths of my being. His words struck me as clear and profound — as true. He gave me an intellectual-theological framework for analyzing the “intellectual arrangements” that Jewish thinkers and movements have advanced over the past 200 years in their attempts to affirm Jewish meaning in a world where being Jewish is no longer required.

The passion and love Rabbi Borowitz had for God and the Jewish people, for the imperatives of the covenantal tradition, made him my most powerful religious mentor. He challenged my fellow students and me to act upon what it means to live in covenant with the Holy One and to transform the duties that flow from that covenant into real life.

My heart is torn by the death of my teacher. Yet, I am more grateful than I could ever express that he was my teacher. Rabbi Borowitz will continue to speak to us as his lips will move through his writings from the place of his eternal rest.

Rabbi David Ellenson is director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. He served as president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion from 2001 to 2013.

Nearly 1 Million Jews Erased From History

In an act more reminiscent of magician Harry Houdini than a major U.S. newspaper, The Washington Post omitted nearly 1 million Jewish refugees from Arab lands in a chart “A visual guide to 75 years of major refugee crises around the world” (Dec. 21, 2015).

The online infographic, claiming to provide a “brief guide to the major refugee events in recent history,” offers short descriptions of various refugee crises throughout the last 75 years. The displacement of persons from World War II to the ongoing Syrian civil war are noted as “major” events. Inexplicably, the more than 800,000 Jewish refugees who fled Arab lands in the Middle East and North Africa in the period following Israel’s War for Independence do not qualify.

Ron Prosor, Israel’s immediate past ambassador to the United Nations, has written: “At the end of World War II, 850,000 Jews lived in Arab countries. Just 8,500 remain today. Their departure was no accident. After Arab leaders failed to annihilate Israel militarily in 1948, they launched a war of terror, incitement, and  expulsion to decimate their ancient Jewish communities.”

According to the Huffington Post in “The Middle East’s Greatest Untold Story” (July 5, 2012): “In Iraq, Jewish businessman Shafiq Adas, then the country’s wealthiest citizen, was  immediately arrested on trumped-up charges and publicly lynched. This was followed by bombings targeting Jewish institutions, arbitrary arrests of Jewish leaders and massive government seizures of property. Within years virtually all of Iraq’s 2,500-year-old Jewish community had fled. … Similar scenes played out across the region, from Egypt to Syria to Libya to Yemen. … The total area of land confiscated from Jews in Arab countries amounts to nearly 40,000 square miles — about five times the size of Israel’s entire land mass.

And in Arieh Avneri’s “The Claim of Dispossession,” an estimated 586,000  Jewish refugees settled in  Israel at great expense to the Jewish state and without recompensation by the Arab countries, which, like Nazi Germany less than a decade before, seized Jewish real estate, businesses and personal belongings.

While Jews fleeing Arab countries are vanquished from The Post, an  inflated figure of Palestinian Arab refugees from what became Israel is provided to readers. The paper claims that 750,000 “Palestinians from newly established Israel” went to the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon between 1948 and 1950.

However, the difference between the last census by the British, the ruling power in the U.N.’s Palestine mandate, in 1945 and the first official census by Israel in 1949 indicates 650,000 Arabs fled what became Israel. A 1949 report by the U.N. mediator on Palestine reached an even lower figure: 472,000.

Although the United Nations Refugee Works Administration (UNRWA), the agency tasked with Palestinian Arab refugee management, provided much larger figures of Palestinian Arab refugees in subsequent years, it also includes the descendants of refugees in its classification. This contradicts the U.N.’s own definition of the term in its 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. UNRWA also has admitted that its own figures are unreliable.

Omitting Jewish refugees from Arab lands and spurning two requests from CAMERA for correction, The Washington Post implicitly supports  a narrative that erases the history,  and possible future, of Arab countries tolerating more pluralistic societies.

Sean Durns is media assistant in the Washington office of CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in  Middle East Reporting in America.

It’s the Jewish Thing to Do

Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief

As I’m writing this, my family is running around the three floors of a house that is not ours. We traveled up I-95 before the dreaded Snowzilla hit in advance of last weekend to attend a friend’s son’s bar mitzvah on Sunday.

The blizzard made sure that the party was pushed off, and here we are, overstaying our welcome, waiting for a plow truck to dig our car out of a veritable mountain of snow.

And from what I can tell from the pictures online, ours is not an isolated story. Up and down the East Coast, from Washington to New York, Jonas — purportedly the worst winter storm to strike Baltimore in recorded history — stranded motorists, imprisoned residents and blanketed roads beneath feet of snow. All of a sudden, life, it seemed, ground to a halt. Woe is us!

Actually, these are decidedly first-world problems, no matter the “hardships” most of us had to endure, what with all the shoveling and making due with leftovers. But as this week’s JT reminds us, there’s an entire globe of people for whom spending days cooped up with family beside a warm fireplace or throwing snowballs at each other would be a blessing.

The Jewish community’s embrace of some of these people, refugees from war-torn Syria, has not been without controversy. Although very few will eventually call Maryland home, Jewish organizations here in Baltimore and D.C., allied with the movements representing Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews, have been pushing the United States to welcome more Muslim refugees. They’ve been fighting calls from various politicians — and some Jewish voices as well — to shut down our borders for fear of allowing a future terrorist to make his or her home on U.S. soil.

The detractors’ concerns for our safety should not be dismissed out of hand. As terror attacks in Paris and elsewhere in Europe have shown, there are many with ties to homelands in and around Syria who see nothing wrong with killing indiscriminately in the name of Islam. But walling off the blessings of liberty to an entire people is wrong.

And it isn’t Jewish.

As it turns out, the United States already has a vetting mechanism so onerous that today’s arrivals first applied for resettlement here almost two years ago. Is it foolproof? Probably not. Can it be improved? Almost certainly. But if we fail to provide a home for the downtrodden — and that’s what these refugees are — we as Americans will fail the defining creed of our nation, to confer upon humanity the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

These outsiders, though, weren’t born here, some might say. To them answers the distinctly Jewish command to “love the stranger.” For us, who know all too well the curse of slavery and rejection to the point that it’s almost a part of our spiritual DNA, there can be no greater calling than offering a home to the homeless, food to the hungry and hope to the hopeless.

I believe we will, but if we don’t, what good will first-world prosperity be if by denying its promise to others, we sow the seeds of third-world enmity?

jrunyan@midatlanticmedia.com