Limmud Means Learning

2013_Lipsitz_GailFor as long as I can remember, I’ve been hooked on learning, especially Jewish learning. My first stumbling steps toward reading Hebrew led to a fascination with our people’s living ancient/modern language. Fortunately, my parents supported my desire to go to Camp Ramah, which in the 1950s immersed youth in eight weeks of Hebrew as the language of everyday conversation, prayer, and song.

Our rabbi, Harry Z. Zwelling, z”l, encouraged me to become a bat mitzvah and made no distinction between what girls and boys could do, which was unusual at that time so soon after the first b’not mitzvah in the Conservative movement. Rabbi Zwelling also invited me to join a small group to study the commentaries of Rashi each Shabbat after services. I credit this teacher with planting and nurturing in me the love of learning biblical text. From classes on the weekly Torah portion to challenging study at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, this kind of learning has been a lifelong joy.

In my small New England college with a few like-minded Jewish students, we sought out a professor of Bible, Ernest Lacheman. He was an ordained minister and archaeologist who could read Hebrew and Greek. But most wondrous, he read the cuneiform on the pottery tablets and fragments littering his dusty basement office and told us about the ancient Meso- potamian Nuzi civilization. For four years we looked forward to our weekly sessions with him. No course credit, no cost, just the excitement of studying.

Since moving to Baltimore in the 1970s, I’ve become an “equal opportunity” learner. I’ve taken classes at Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist congregations, taught by rabbis and educators from all of these denominations, and I participate every fall in Baltimore’s Adult Institute of Jewish Learning as well as the Institute of Christian and Jewish Studies. Baltimore offers an amazing number of learning opportunities open to all, many at no or minimal cost.

LimmudFEST, a celebration of Jewish study, culture and identity, invites us all to be learners and teachers for a day, to appreciate the diversity of our community and to connect with fellow Jews. Welcoming participants of all backgrounds, levels of knowledge, lifestyles and ages, Limmud’s motto is: “Wherever you are on your Jewish journey, Limmud will take you one step further.”

This is my third year as a Limmud volunteer planner and student. Limmud is like a smorgasbord of appealing dishes to sample, whetting your appetite to learn more. Presentations from Jewish poetry to Jewish composers of classical music have attracted me. This year, I’ll be presenting “Bat Mitzvah: More Than a Day in Our Lives.” Women of all ages are invited to share their stories and reflect on how becoming a bat mitzvah has influenced their Jewish identity (men are also welcome).

Treat yourself to a day of presentations, performances, food and fun at LimmudFEST on Sunday, Sept. 7 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Goucher College Athenaeum. For more information, visit limmudbaltimore.com.

Gail Josephson Lipsitz teaches Jewish literature to adults and previously taught high school and college English. She recently retired as coordinator of public relations at Jewish Community Services in Baltimore.

Fueling Our Future or Our Destruction?

2013ftv_oshry_aleezaDespite outlining my topics for this column months ago, the events this summer in Israel have lead me to change course and address a critical issue that, although related to environmental sustainability and our use (or misuse) of natural resources, more closely aligns with our sustainability as a people.

For weeks I’ve been sifting through posts, articles and comments about the nightmare our Israeli brothers and sisters are living through as well as the critique of America’s duplicitous stance with regard to Israel’s need for self-defense and castigation over “disproportionate response” due to civilian deaths. I’ve watched and read in horror of the accounts of anti-Israel and anti-Jew rallies both in the U.S. and abroad, accompanied by varying degrees of hostilities and violence. And with growing trepidation, I have been reading about the growing threat of the Islamic State, as it pillages its way through the Middle East.

Which got me thinking: How do these violent, murderous factions wield so much power and demand so much attention? Why does the U.S. continue to bend in any direction to appease them, send them money and demand one-sided concessions?

It cannot be ignored that a primary reason for the continued involvement in the Middle East and tolerance toward tyrannical leadership is oil.  Our dependence on oil hinders our ability to maintain foreign policies that adhere to our country’s values, creates double standards and compromises our ability to offer unwavering support to the only democracy in the Middle East. Instead, we capitulate to the true violators of peaceful coexistence, allowing fanatical militants to remain in control, amassing resources for themselves and thus keeping their populations in abject poverty.

With our modern technology and industrial ingenuity, there is absolutely no need for our dependence on foreign oil. Yet, we continue to purchase barrels of crude oil pumped out of the ground in war-torn countries led by people who call for our destruction. We then pay to have that oil shipped half way around the world, expend even more (dirty) energy to refine it for use, then dispense to the public using — basically — the same technology that was invented over 125 years ago.

After so much war and bloodshed with this “overseas investment,” how is there not a plan in place to stop our energy dependence from these sources?  Is the “cheap” price of oil worth the real cost of keeping terrorists in power and preventing the more expeditious implementation of alternative energy sources? Our vehicles, factories and businesses should be utilizing energy that can be extracted and distributed domestically, contributing to a home-grown economic boom and jobs.

Communities of faith and conscience have begun weaning themselves off conventional fuel sources and are seeking alternative choices, but Jewish participation is noticeably absent. Foreign oil dependence threatens our security as a nation and as a people; the Jewish community should be the leading advocates for this change. Rather than pushing for economical severance from the source of the problem, our complacency is quite literally supporting our enemies.

It’s time to demand that our organizations lead by example and take a strong stance against our financial investment and dependence on foreign oil, which will diminish the power that these countries wield and, in turn, diminish the violence.

Aleeza Oshry is a local geologist, educator and sustainability consultant.

Time to Make My Feelings Known

To my Facebook friends, I apologize.

If you knew me before the latest war between Israel and Hamas you would know I was a good Facebook friend, sitting politely and quietly in a corner of your social media cerebral cortex, generally speaking only when spoken to or when something more interesting or important than what I had for breakfast crossed my mind.

These last few weeks, however, I have inundated you with posts about Israel’s latest war with Hamas. Day after day, as the conflict went on. And I apologize to you who run the gamut from “Wow, I didn’t know that,” to “Typical Shia,” to “I really don’t care” to “Let them kill each other, now get me a beer.”

I must admit that I was worried about what some of you might think. But I should not have hesitated even for a moment. It is not just because I worry day and night for those I hold dear who race to bomb shelters or are wearing the Israel Defense Forces uniform and hunting down terrorists. It is because when it comes to an existential threat to Israel, the war of public opinion is important.

With so much anti-Israel and anti-Jewish media, with so many Jew-haters taking to the streets, at times violently and with so many timid Jews staying silent, I had to speak up. People are being murdered, hundreds of thousands of them all around the world, all the time, many of them Muslim, by Muslim dictators and terrorist states and groups. And a tiny Jewish nation dares to fight back, and the world goes nuts.

“It’s genocide!”  Really?  If Israel wanted to, it could have flattened Gaza in less than an hour and killed everyone there. “Gaza is occupied and needs to be free!” True. Gaza is occupied, by Hamas terrorists who enslave their own people.

Even today, as nutty as it sounds, Hamas, as well as other Jew-haters, unabashedly pronounce that Israelis kill Arab children to get their blood to bake into Passover matzohs. Again, dealing with crazies such as that who are trying to murder your child, what would you do? The choices are bad, but you would be forced to choose, and you would choose the one that saved your family. And, as Israel does, you would call it self-defense.

My Facebook friends, I am so grateful to live in the United States, a country I deeply love, a place where I can use my voice and my computer for mutual comfort and support and for counterbalancing and educating when I can. Some of you shared what I shared, added your voice to mine as I have my voice to yours, some of you have asked questions about posts and shares, others have learned and sympathized.

I apologize if it has been a lot, and I hope those of you who have not appreciated my prolific “Facebooking” can forgive me, that is if you haven’t already un-followed me. I promise you, as things settle down, so will I.

The Moral Psychosis of Demonstrating in Support of Hamas

As an example of what the insight-ful commentator Melanie Phillips referred to as a “dialogue of the demented” in her book, “The World Turned Upside Down,” since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge some four weeks ago, the streets of American and European cities have been crammed with activists intent on expressing their collective indignation for Israel’s perceived crime of defending its citizens from slaughter from the genocidal thugocracy of Hamas.

Rowdy demonstrations have taken place in Berlin, Paris, Toronto, London and Madrid, where blatantly anti-Semitic chants of “Death to Jews!,” “Hitler was right!” and “Gaza is the real Holocaust” could be heard, with similar events taking place in majot U.S. cities.

Joined with Muslim supporters of those wishing to destroy Israel and murder Jews were the usual suspects of peace activists, Israel-haters, social-justice advocates and labor unionists. These radical, Israel-loathing groups include the corrosive ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), the Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine.

What was particularly chilling about the hate-filled rallies was the virulence of the chants and messages on the placards, much of it seeming to suggest that more sinister hatreds and feelings were simmering slightly below the surface. Several of the morally self-righteous protestors, for instance, shrieked out, to the accompaniment of drumbeats, “Long live Intifada,” a grotesque and murderous reference to the Second Intifada, during which Arab terrorists murdered some 1,000 Israelis and wounded more than 14,000 others.

That pro-Palestinian student activists could publicly call for the renewed slaughter of Jews in the name of Palestinian self-determination demonstrates quite clearly how ideologically debased the human rights movement has become. Activists on and off U.S. campuses, who never have to face a physical threat more serious than getting jostled while waiting in line for a latte at Starbucks, are quick to denounce Israel’s very real existential threats and the necessity of the Jewish state to take counter measures to thwart terrorism. And these well-meaning but morally blind individuals see no contradiction in their calls for the renewed murder of Jews for their own sanctimonious cause.

When pro-Palestinian activists and critics of Israel repeat the claim that Palestinians somehow have an internationally recognized legal “right” to resist occupation through violent means, they are both legitimizing that terror and helping to ensure that its lethal use by Israel’s enemies will continue unabated. Those who lend their moral support to terrorism have helped introduce a sick moral relativism into discussions about radical Islam and Palestinianism. And the notion that Israel cannot, or should not, retaliate against these rocket attacks until a sufficient number of Israelis has been murdered is equally grotesque.

That these activists are willing to sacrifice the Jewish state, and Jewish lives, in the name of social justice shows how morally corrupt and deadly the conversation about human rights has become.

Richard L. Cravatts is president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

The Joy of Becoming a Rabbi

2013_jesse_grossIn a time and place when many in my generation perceive religion and politics as one in the same and often opt out of formal community involvement rather than opt in, why would anyone want to become a rabbi? After all, on Sept. 11, 2001, as I began my final year of undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland I found myself asking the same question. I had nearly completed a degree in history and Jewish studies with the thought that I would continue on to rabbinical school. Yet, I found myself wondering if there would be a place for a progressive, culturally committed Jew to become a teacher of Jewish tradition and a translator of Torah.

The decision to go to rabbinical school was not always a clear one. There were inklings of the possibility during my youth, especially during the months I spent at Jewish summer camp and the weekend retreats intended to spark community among Jewish youth. In those places my sense of wonder and awe were awakened. I would sit upon a hill for Shabbat services, watching the sun set over the Pocono Mountains. The notes of the guitar coupled with the liturgy of the prayer book was just the thing to ignite a youthful spirit into offering blessings for the abundance of beauty and nature that surround us.

Those summers sparked my sense of wonder and awe but also taught me the importance of relationships and community built on a sense of values and ethics. My rabbis and teachers taught me the importance of asking good, rich questions and caring about the process of debate and argument, sometimes more so than the outcome. Jewish tradition was gifted to me in a way that celebrated diversity, understood the importance of seeing ourselves as guardians of the earth and one another and cared deeply about tapping into the rhythms of Jewish time and purpose.

The decision to enter into the rabbinate was a tough one. Would I be able to authentically represent Judaism while also taking the creative responsibility of translating tradition meaningfully in every generation in stride? Becoming a rabbi allows me to pay close attention to what it means to cultivate a sense of awe and wonder in others. Instead of being an unintended consequence, my work as a teacher of Jewish tradition allows me to put spiritual growth and community building on the front burner of my daily concerns and efforts. It gives me permission to immerse myself in learning the ways and debates of our tradition so that I can provide others with opportunities to do that same. With it, comes an entire corpus of stories, ideas and ways of living that emphasize the importance of being in relationship to other people, to the community at large and to the earth.

Most importantly, the decision to become a rabbi becomes a model for the secular but committed progressive Jew to find deep and meaningful ways to engage with Judaism and to make it a way of life in a time and place when others might wonder if Jewish tradition can be relevant to the world today.

Rabbi Jessy Gross runs Charm City Tribe, a program of the Jewish Community Center.

Step Forward: Your Help Is Needed

It is a great honor to become Federation president. As I told my daughter, it was a hard-fought campaign with no opponents!  My plan is to continue the efforts of Rob Cahn, my immediate predecessor, to make the Federation into a modern nonprofit organization able to sustain itself and its programs through the contributions made by our donors, by funds realized from Federation fundraising events and monies received from grants from other nonprofit entities. In this way, the Federation can assist and support our Howard County community, including individuals in need (yes, they do exist in Howard County), synagogues and organizations.

Our 2013-2014 campaign has come to an end, and, for a second consecutive year, we have had a “flat” campaign; and our Jewish community is not alone in this regard. Initially, it was thought that the decrease in giving was tied to the downturn in the economy. However, the level of giving is not growing as the economy improves. I believe that our community has lost its zeal for charitable giving.

Using Howard County, one of the richest counties in Maryland and the country, as an example, the level of giving (Jew and gentile together) is around 4 percent of compensation in a recent study. The same study showed that the rate in Prince George’s County, a much less wealthy county in terms of overall average compensation, is 10 percent.  Some of the discrepancy can be attributed to faith-based giving in PG County, which is not as strong in Howard County. However, I think a great portion of the difference is that Howard County residents, in general, do not perceive that there is great need in their community and simply don’t give because of this perception.

This is certainly true for our Jewish community. However, our Jewish community, as does every Jewish community locally and around the world, has members in dire straits, in need of support to get food, either by bringing it to home-bound seniors and disabled people or helping them buy items, medical care, shelter or assistance for financial problems that cannot be handled at the time the problems arise. Just because these problems cannot be readily seen behind the lawns and homes of Howard County does not mean they don’t exist. If these problems exist in Howard County, you can be sure they exist in every Jewish community.

I know everyone tires of hearing that the Federation is a fundraising organization, but that is the simple reality. We raise money so that we can fund programs and social services in Howard County, support communities in need elsewhere in the United States and around the world in times of emergency and assist our fellow Jews internationally. This is why the Federation exists. Our Federation is the Jewish fundraising organization in our community and engaged in tikkun olam and tzedakah at home and together with more than 150 other local Federations on the national and international level. Our tireless volunteers and professional staff need your monetary assistance so that we can make the Federation work for all.

The 2014-2015 campaign starts in September. It is our hope that our community “steps forward” this fiscal year so that we can realize our fundraising goal and expand the Federation’s ability to provide meaningful programs and assistance. We cannot do it without the help of our entire Jewish community.

Richard Schreibstein is the president of the Jewish Federation of Howard County.

There’s a Word for That

We recently read a funny article in Business Insider —  “14 Untranslatable Foreign Words We Should Use in English.” These are words with no corollary in English.

Yiddish is filled with untranslatable words, too — words such as mishpachah, which means the whole family, the whole clan; it includes relatives by blood and marriage and even close friends. It conveys a warm feeling; you’re happy to see the whole mishpachah at cousin Lenny’s bar mitzvah. To cover the same ground in English, you would have to specify aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, children, etc.

Nosh is another example of a useful all-inclusive Yiddish word that has spread beyond the deli counter. You don’t have to confess that you ate cheese and crackers, a handful of pretzels, a leftover knish from the frig and some baby carrots before dinner. You can just say, “I had a little nosh.”

We realized long ago that sometimes you just need a good Yiddish word. In fact, when the College of Cardinals met in Rome in 2013 to choose a new pope, more than one journalist described the papal conclave as including “meetings, lunch and a lot of shmoozing.” Really? Catholic cardinals were shmoozing?

As self-described word mavens, we couldn’t resist taking a closer look at some of these farkakteh foreign words:

Badkruka is a Swedish word that means someone who is reluctant to jump into the water outdoors. No wonder they are reluctant; in Scandinavia, there are all those freezing-cold fjords. In Atlantic City, we’re only badkruka when the ocean temperature dips below 68 degrees.

Zapoi is Russian for two or more days of drunkenness usually involving waking up in an unexpected place. There’s no Jewish equivalent for this kind of drunkenness; we like to wake up in our own cozy beds. The only thing comes to mind is custom on Purim, when Jews are supposed to drink until they can’t distinguish between Haman and Mordecai.

Uitwaaien is Dutch for going out for a walk in the countryside in order to clear one’s mind. Our uitwaaien is going down to the basement to put the wet clothes in the dryer and realizing that it’s so nice and cool and quiet down there that there’s no reason to hurry back upstairs.

Ikigai is the Japanese term for a reason to get up in the morning, a reason to live. We’re Jewish mothers. Our word for that is “children.”

Then there’s the Inuit word iktsuarpok. It’s described as the feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’ve arrived yet. It’s curious that the Inuits, the native people of the Arctic Circle, coined this word. Isn’t it too cold to leave the igloo and stand out on the tundra waiting for the dogsled?

We iktsuarpok all the time — waiting for the school bus to drop off the kids, the UPS guy to deliver the coffee we ordered and the plumber to show up. We love this word so much that we have adopted it. Since the English language has appropriated so many Yiddish words, we think it’s only fair that we take one word back in.

Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic are the authors of the “Dictionary of Jewish Words.”

FIDF Helps Soliders

As expressed by your many poignant articles and cover story (“Witnesses to Conflict,” July 18), there are many means that our community can and has generously responded to the crisis in Israel.

One profound way is exclusively focused on the welfare and well-being of the courageous men and women of the IDF. To date, hundreds of individuals have generously contributed online and by mail to the Friends of the IDF (FIDF) Rapid Response Fund. Funds raised are currently being used for care packages to combat soldiers to provide for basic hygiene and personal relief.

In addition to their essential physical needs, the FIDF is collecting letters, cards and pictures from area youngsters for delivery to the soldiers to lift their spirits by expressing their support and solidarity.

To make a donation or to volunteer for these efforts, please go to fidf.org/donate or contact us directly.

Joshua Mauer
President, FIDF Baltimore Chapter

Ronald Eisenberg
Chairman of the Board, FIDF Baltimore Chapter

William Z. Fox
Regional President, Midatlantic FIDF

Lighting a Spark

080114_schlaff_barbara-_weinberg-debbiThis summer, thousands of children and teens are discovering the joy of being Jewish, as they swim, climb, jump, run and sing their way through the hundreds of Jewish camps across the country.

Amid the craft projects and color wars, they are immersed in Jewish experiences that happen so organically at camp that the campers may hardly even realize they are learning something. But learn they do. Just listen to the blessings these children sing when they return home. Eachreflects the flavor of the camp they attended and is the tune that willresonate in the campers’ heads well into their adulthood.

Research has shown that young Jews exposed to Jewish summer camp are more likely to feel connected to their Jewish identity as adults and engage with their community. A study of the long-term impact of Jewish summer camp conducted by the Found-ation for Jewish Camp indicated that campers come home from summer camp with an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives, from lighting Shabbat candles to using Jewish websites to appreciating the importance of being Jewish.

In addition, they are more likely to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community. The immersive experience of living in a vibrant Jewish community at camp seeps into the campers’ souls and stays with them for a lifetime.

As such, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore has established a Center for Jewish Camping to encourage parents to consider Jewish summer camps for their children and help them find the right camp for their needs.  Additionally, the center works closely with the national Foundation for Jewish Camp office to keep abreast of the latest and cutting-edge camp opportunities regarding affordability and incentive initiatives being launched.

Nurturing the spark of Jewish identity that is ignited around the campfire at Jewish camps is very much in keeping with The Associated’s mission, vision and values. The Associated is investing in children and teens today to ensure that these young people will help lead and sustain our community in the future.

There are hundreds of Jewish camps across the country, ranging from general day and overnight camps to specialty camps offering arts or sports programs to camps for children with special needs. Each offers the traditional summer camp experience coupled with the unique celebration of Jewish traditions.

Jewish camping provides a passion for Judaism that is unlike any other outlet these young people may experience. As campers, they are creating memories and forging friendships that can last a lifetime. Camp counselors and song leaders may be inspired to become rabbis and cantors. And every camp will also tell you of summertime couples who are now married and raising children together.

That is all part of the lore of Jewish summer camp and why so many families embrace this tradition for their children. While camp is still in session this year, it is the perfect time to visit camps in this area to see what options await your children next summer. Witnessing firsthand the spirit that permeates a Jewish summer camp is surely the best way to discover how Jewish camp can impact your family.

Barbara Schlaff and Debbi Weinberg are co-chairs of The Associated’s Center for Jewish Camping Advisory Committee. Learn more about Jewish summer camps at livecamp.org.

Against anti-Semitism, self-defense is no offense

080114_cohen_benThe debate about whether Jews have a future in Europe has once again surfaced, as Israel’s Operation Protective Edge has gained momentum and the deadly fighting with Hamas rages on.

The two issues are connected for a simple reason: In mid-July, a large number of pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Paris decided to attack a synagogue in the French capital, thereby demonstrating that these days, aspiring pogromists are more likely to wear a Palestinian keffiyeh than a swastika armband.

I had originally intended to add my own views on whether Europe’s Jews should stay where they are or make aliyah to Israel. But while I was sifting through the various news articles concerning the attack in Paris, I came across an alternative version of that episode that persuaded me to change my focus.

In this tendentious narrative — embraced by the left-wing anti-Semitic website Mondoweiss and the right-wing British Daily Mail tabloid alike — the violence was in fact provoked by Jewish extremists on the scene. According to Mondoweiss, the French branch of the Jewish Defense League and its allies initiated the clashes “in support of Israel’s ongoing bombing campaign that has thus far claimed the lives of almost 200 Palestinians.”

What isn’t in doubt is that a mob of violent anti-Semites tried to storm the Don Isaac Abravanel Synagogue in central Paris. Equally, there is no doubt that a group of brave young Jews associated with Betar, the Jewish Defense League and the SPCJ, the official defense arm of the French Jewish community, repelled the attempted pogrom through a show of physical force. Writing in Commentary magazine, my friend, Michel Gurfinkiel, noted that “older Jewish men and women, some in their late 40s or early 50s, fought back as well.”

Hence, there is a question that is more pressing than whether Jews should leave Europe, and it’s this one: Should we take more responsibility for the defense of our community and its property, even if that means we land on the wrong side of the law?

There are many reasons why we should avoid such an outcome, some of them credible, others less so. In America, Jewish advocacy revolves around gala fundraising dinners, conferences and photo opportunities with foreign leaders. Throwing tables, chairs, kicks and punches at anti-Semitic thugs isn’t quite our style.

But what happens when you have demonstrators chanting in Arabic, as they did in Paris, “Itbah al Yahud!” (“Death to the Jews!”)? How do we respond when some politicians, as was the case in France, claim that we should expect such attacks if we turn our synagogues into adjuncts of the State of Israel?

In those circumstances, I think, we have to fight back. We shouldn’t provoke violence, but we should be ready to defend ourselves against attacks, particularly when the police fail to do their job.

Used sparingly and when necessary, self-defense is no offense. And if it contributes to the authorities taking pre-emptive action against anti-Semitic demonstrations, then so much the better.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and other publications