Campus questions that cannot be ignored

This week, my youngest child becomes a college graduate. As I head back to her campus for the final time, I can’t help but be stunned at how the years have flown. I think back on the many, many campuses I have toured, and I remember the many questions parents asked such as,  “Is there a Hillel?” and “Will I receive a copy of their grades?” But almost no one asked about the blue lights scattered around the campus. Or whether there was any training around the dangerous combination of alcohol, drugs and sex. Or how the college administration handles charges of sexual assault.

Maybe we don’t ask because we don’t want to think about why there are so many emergency phone booths with blue strobe lights to call security. Sure, we’ve heard stories about incidents of dating violence, but that wouldn’t happen on this campus. That wouldn’t happen to my daughter.

But the thing is … it could. The statistics are frightening. More than one in five women will be the victim of attempted or completed sexual assault during her college years. What’s being done about it?

We can’t let one more student face assault. We can’t let one more young woman be told by administrators that she needs to accept her role in what happened to her. We need to expand Title IX so it includes domestic violence and stalking. We need to stop shrugging off incidents as simply poor decisions our children make that are just part of being in college and growing up. It’s time for us to step up and do something.

President Obama has responded recently by calling for transparency and responsibility with new and stronger requirements for colleges to report on dating violence and sexual assault. We applaud the administration for these landmark initiatives through the White House Task Force to Protect Students Against Sexual Assault.

Engaging men and boys as allies is the only way to turn the tide in what is an unqualified epidemic. This is why we, along with Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) fraternities and Sigma Delta Tau (SDT) sororities, created Safe Smart Dating, the first national program on dating abuse and sexual assault for the Greek community on college campuses. We were extremely proud that the program was recently awarded the prestigious Laurel Wreath for outstanding programming for the fraternal world from the North-American Interfraternity Conference.

Through a series of discussions, scenarios, news stories, live text surveys and video, we bring young men and women together to help them define and identify dating abuse and sexual assault as well as build skills to be active bystanders at school and in their communities. This past year we piloted the program at the University of Pennsylvania, Purdue University and George Washington University.

Programs such as ours help raise the level of conversation between young men and women on college campuses, but it’s just the beginning. Let’s not be afraid to ask how the school does training, how they handle complaints and how they report incidents on campus.

Lori Weinstein is the CEO of Jewish Women International, the leading Jewish women’s organization working to end violence against women, instill financial literacy and empower women and girls to become leaders. To learn more about Safe Smart Dating, go to jwi.org.

Facebook Challenge: an Israeli-Palestinian Accord

What can Israelis and Palestinians agree on?

Everything. Or nothing.

I was asked to address this question by the moderator of a Facebook forum devoted to discussing Middle East peace. I have joined a number of such groups in recent weeks in a blatant effort to help promote my new book, “Broken Spring.”

My experience with most of the groups has been disappointing. All of them have “peace” in their titles, but the overall tone of the posts, with some notable exceptions, is extremism and hate.

The ideologues and extremists on both sides — those who truly believe that Israel is a cancer that must be removed, that everything Israel does is aimed at oppressing the Palestinians, that Israel intentionally and happily kills Palestinian babies or those who believe that all Palestinians are terrorists, that all of them believe Jews should be massacred at every opportunity, that there is no such thing as a Palestinian or Palestine, that all of them should be expelled to Jordan or the moon or wherever — those people make up the “nothing” part of the equation.

I got into a Facebook discussion with a couple of Israel-bashers who assumed that I’m a mouthpiece for the hated Zionists. I explained that, indeed, I am an Israeli, but I am a journalist and analyst who has covered the conflict hands-on for four decades and is just trying to provide some background and context. The reply was that this person has also covered the conflict for decades, although he’s never been within 4,000 miles of the region. I admit that I laughed.

There are issues and narratives that will never be reconciled. Who did what to whom, when, why? Which side has suffered more? Who has historical/religious/security rights to which sliver of land? On that basis — and that is the basis of many of the comments I’ve read — nothing ever will be achieved.

Israeli President Shimon Peres believes peace can be made by looking forward, not backward. Peres isn’t right about everything, but he’s right about that.

Israelis are sitting on the edge of their collective chair waiting for Egypt to abrogate the 1979 peace treaty that has revolutionized the Middle East far more than any accord between Israel and the Palestinians ever could.

Israelis were certain that the day after the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Cairo, the treaty would be canceled. It wasn’t. They assume the new military rulers are just as anti-Israel in their own way, and cancelation is just a matter of time.

It hasn’t happened. It won’t. The reason is that Israel and Egypt both have vital common interests at stake, interests that require that the peace treaty
remains in force and that cooperation increases.

If the principle of acting according to interests is accepted, then it’s a matter of hammering out terms that both sides can live with as opposed to what both sides believe is theirs by right.

One central part of this is, it’s a package deal. If we bring individual issues to the fore one by one, then of course each side must reject each demand of the other side.

The price of not reaching an agreement is more stalemate, more suffering, more wasted resources. Time is not on anyone’s side, because the choice is clear:

Everything. Or nothing.

When Nothing is Sacred, Moral Decline Runs Rampant

Item: The Rialto, Calif., Unified School District asks its 2,000 eighth-grade students (ages 12 to 13) to “research the Holocaust and write an argumentative essay, based on cited textual evidence, in which the students are to explain whether or not they believe this was an actual event in history or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain wealth.”

Item: Hollywood actress Alicia Silverstone, who is Jewish, explains why she did not have her son circumcised as prescribed by Jewish law, using the argument that “giving her son a brit would imply that his body wasn’t created as perfect as is.”

One wonders whether the country that has provided the freest platform in history for its Jewish community to express itself hasn’t reached the tipping point as some fear the recent Pew Research Center survey of American Jews seems to indicate.

Is it really possible that informed educators in a U.S. public school district really did not realize the negative messages being conveyed by even raising the possibility in the minds of impressionable 12- and 13-year-olds that the Holocaust never occurred?

As noted Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstat wrote in a commentary on this unfortunate decision by the authorities in California, “What this assignment shows is that, at best, the teachers and so-called educators who took part in writing this question have been duped into thinking that there is a legitimate debate about whether the Holocaust happened. At worst, they knew better and looked the other way.”

As for the misguided and misinformed Alicia Silverstone, perhaps she too thinks that the whole concept of a having a covenantal act incumbent on every Jewish parent siring Jewish boys is a devious way of creating income for ritual circumcisers. Maybe when her uncircumcised son, Bear Blu, gets to the eighth grade she could suggest a similar research project for his class. They could ask the students to write an argumentative essay, based on textual evidence, in which the students are to explain whether or not they believe that (a) God’s instructions to have every male Jewish child circumcised was an actual imperative as practiced for the last 3,500 years, (b) a political scheme created to provide an income for those professionals who perform the ritual or (c) a necessary surgical procedure to correct one of nature’s imperfections.

An America that thinks that there is nothing wrong with asking students to research historical facts in order to form their own opinions about a subject whose truth has been well documented or that finds nothing strange about the neutering of centuries-old mainstream religious obligations is an America in need of moral repair.

Machiavelli had it right when he said, “There is no surer sign of decay in a country than to see the rites of religion held in contempt.” Five hundred years later, they remain a warning sign for our times.

Sherwin Pomerantz is a 30-year resident of Jerusalem, a former national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel and president of Atid EDI Ltd., a Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm.

Condemnation of Israel Almost Laughable

012414_laudau_chaimThis is the week we Jews will have commemorated and celebrated in one week; in fact, in two successive days. On Monday, Yom Hazikaron, we remembered the thousands of Israeli soldiers who died fighting to protect their country from destruction, and on Tuesday, we celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut, the day that recognizes yet another year of Israel’s survival among the world of nations, a birthday truly to excite and emulate at 66 years young.

Five wars, thousands dead, and 66 years later, a new kind of battle engages Israel on many fronts: the war to delegitimize Israel through the use of boycotts both against its academic institutions and its economy. Having failed to destroy Israel on the battlefield, the new attacks conspire to deflate Israel’s burgeoning economy and its army of academics by isolating them in a sea of irrelevance.

It didn’t begin with mega-star Scarlett Johansson, but her presence and voice publicized the threats being aimed at famous personalities who do business with Israeli companies. Johansson, particularly, drew strong criticism from leftists and those on the front lines of the boycott Israel attack for advertising the products of SodaStream, a successful Israeli company that employs Palestinian workers in the West Bank plant that manufactures this popular product. The exceptional quality of this particular speaker was that she spoke up, stood firm and refused to buckle under withering attacks as well as the announcement that Oxfam — that great British organization of “political balance” — was expelling her as one of their spokespeople.

Those leading the attack claim that any possible interpretation of anti-Semitism motivating them in aiming their verbal and political missiles against the Jewish state is just a lot of baloney and absolute nonsense. They have only one concern in mind, and that is the legal rights being, or in their mind not being, afforded Palestinians; that Israel is an “occupying power” that practices apartheid on a huge scale, dismissing Palestinians as second-class citizens. Omar Barghouti, writes in The New York Times in January 2014 of “recognizing the fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes and lands from which they were forcibly displaced and dispossessed in 1948.”

Really? One wonders, truly wonders, where is the historical reciprocity in all of these alleged condemnations against Israel? Far more Jews were displaced within the Arab world during the first half of the 20th century than those “displaced” by Israel, yet I don’t hear any group screaming for the return of property to these Sephardi Jews or for a call to equal legal rights in Arab countries that still house pockets of Jewish communities.

It might be fair to recognize that Israel will survive these boycotts or statements from highhanded American officials, even as some left-leaning European governments — most of Europe — tackle the issue of how they should punish Israel. Clearly, Israel has not been perfect, and strategic criticism where appropriate is warranted. But who might have thought that, on its 66th birthday, it is not the threat of destruction from the Arab countries that overly concerns Israel but the European calls for boycotting the country because of policies they deem apartheid.

Apartheid? Not anti-Semitism?

Really?

Rabbi Chaim Landau is rabbi emeritus at Ner Tamid Congregation and president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.

Next Gen: the Moral Imperative of Sustainability

2013ftv_oshry_aleezaLaws are rigid, often unforgiving and created to be applied equally. They exist for our protection, our safety, our well-being and the greater good. Alternatively, moral imperatives are the ideals that govern our actions — “doing the right thing.” Although a primary purpose is to reinforce that the world does not exist for our own self-centered interests alone, they are by nature inconsistent, integrating many value systems and social pressures.

While we have many environmental laws and regulations, a question I have been contemplating is: Do we have a collective moral imperative to live sustainably and to employ sustainable best practices? To explore this question, I Googled “moral imperative” and “sustainability,” yielding more than 900,000 very diverse results: business and energy models, risk assessment strategies, divestments and more.

It’s easy to deduce that not everyone has the same sustainable moral imperative, and if there’s not a common understanding of what sustainable practices are, it’s also not too difficult to fathom how — in the economic travails of today — the integration of sustainable practices could be a perceived threat to resource availability by adding yet another thing on our to-do lists.

Is sustainability even applicable to everyone? A brief survey to help assess relevance: Do you pay bills? Do you have assets? Do you use energy? Do you like to be comfortable? Do you breathe air and drink water? Do you purchase … anything? And if so, is there a more efficient way it can be done that utilizes fewer resources, impacts the environment less and adds value and long term benefits?

And so, we have the prized question: How do we — as a community — build long-term vision and strategy for accomplishing sustainable practices, where everyone sees themselves as a stakeholder and the outcomes are tangible, practical and realistic?

The answer, I believe, resides in how we approach the Next Gen. In the Talmud tractate Berachot, we read about the rabbinical interpretation of a word used in Isaiah to describe how we should educate our generations, the result of which will be peace: “Read not banayich, your children, but bonayich, your builders.”

This is the key to vitality and to our continued existence. Our children are the builders of the future. The tools we give them will influence their efficiency and effectiveness. How do we pass down the moral imperative of sustainability when we can’t agree on a common script? The answer, I believe, is that we don’t.

Our moral imperative is not to create uniform sustainable communities where we all act with the same intention but to pass on the importance of addressing these challenges and not to hide from them. Only in this way can the next gen craft viable, more resilient communities, which will in turn foster an even more sustainable world.

Aleeza Oshry is a local geologist, educator and sustainability consultant. She enjoys working with a large cross-section of the Baltimore Jewish community in which she lives with her husband and three children.

A Seder for Yom HaShoah

050214_topolosky-uriFor more than a week, we reminded ourselves that the central obligation of Pesach is to relive the Exodus experience, as if the movement from slavery to freedom were taking place today. The selected text of the Haggadah also reflects this goal, as it is specifically about an Israeli farmer who himself is retelling the Exodus as if he too were there.

The entire passage of “arami oved avi” is written in the first person plural. The Seder’s many rituals further serve to personalize and relive our ancient story. In these ways, we as a people have succeeded in preserving the memory of our national birth and drawing timeless lessons from it to enrich our lives today, more than 3,000 years later.

This past weekend, our community marked Yom HaShoah VeHaGevurah — Holocaust Remembrance and Resistance Day. Unlike Passover, this is not an ancient story. There are still survivors who can tell the awful tale firsthand. However, the time is sadly coming when we will no longer be able to hear the story from a survivor. Instead, we will be forced to retell what we have heard.

If we are to draw a lesson from Pesach, the key to memory is through ritual that allows us to personalize in a small, but meaningful way, what those who came before us experienced in the flesh, as if it were taking place today. As unimaginable as it might seem just three-quarters of a century removed from the Shoah, my teacher Rabbi Avi Weiss would claim that the Holocaust will only be remembered if all Jews can declare, “Although we were not physically there, we too are survivors.”

As communities, we must continue to build upon the meaningful commemorations that already take place, which generally feature a survivor’s testimony, or more and more, the child of that survivor’s testimony. These evenings should include participatory rituals such as singing the songs of the partisans and the ghetto dwellers; reading the testimonies of survivors; re-enacting the burning of books (or a symbolic single Hebrew page); re-experiencing the separation of children from adults and men from women; and perhaps eating foods that serve as a reminder of the awful rations in the camps. In all these ways and more, may we merit to preserve Shoah memory for all generations.

Rabbi Uri Topolosky is rabbi of Beth Joshua Congregation in Aspen Hill, Md.

In Howard County, a Federation that Cares

In 1976, my husband and I moved to Howard County. I was 24 years old, had been married for four years and had just purchased a home. I was called by a representative to pledge money for the Jewish Federation of Howard County. Our first pledge was for $50. I can remember this because at the time my husband had just graduated from law school, and I was beginning my second year of attending law school at night while working full time. Suffice it to say, we did not have a lot of money. I have never regretted the decision to support our Federation.

We raised our three children in Howard County, and we all benefited from the Federation. Our synagogue received Federation funding for vari-ous programs, and our children attended the Jewish preschool Bet Yeladim along with Purim carnivals and holiday festivals.

Over the years, my husband and I have held various positions on the executive board of the Federation. Our children, now in their 30s, witnessed our involvement in the Federation and our commitment to our Jewish community in much the same way that my husband and I learned from the example of our parents.

My parents are both Holocaust survivors, so Yom Hashoah has always been an important day to commemorate. Each year, the Federation spearheads the poignant and solemn Yom Hashoah program, and I have seen it develop into an educational experience for the community, where survivors have an opportunity to share their special stories with others.

In 2010, I moved both of my parents from Montgomery County, where they had lived for more than 50 years, to Vantage House in Columbia. My mother received some services from Jewish Community Services in Howard County. At Vantage House, the Federation funds the services of hospice chaplain Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, who conducts Shabbat services each month. When my father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, first came to Vantage House, those Friday night services were truly a highlight for him. He would often return to his room carrying a siddur because the liturgy of the service was so familiar to him and, therefore, enjoyable. For my mother, the Shabbat services helped her to meet other Jewish residents and connect with them for social events and friendship.

I continue to participate in Federation programs such as the Red Tent, where my mother and I held A Conversation with a Survivor program, community missions to Israel and the annual Federation Live fundraiser. My youngest daughter recently became a member of jLEADS, a Federation leadership training program for young adults.

My granddaughter Emma, 2, receives a book every month from the PJ Library in Howard County program, and she will attend Bet Yeladim this fall, just like her mother did.

We are four generations of one family living in Howard County, all having been touched in the past, are being affected in the present and looking forward to connecting with our Federation in the future.

Brenda Fishbein is a past president of the Jewish Federation of Howard County.

A Lurking Identity Crisis Beneath Pollard Debate

I often imagine a day perhaps in the not-too-distant future: A prisoner is released, but I don’t see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas jumping with joy. Quite to the contrary, I don’t see the nation of Israel — American Jews included — feeling like it is being stabbed in its ever-growing and ever-paining wound. And perhaps most defining of all, I don’t see this prisoner being released after a murder; instead he is released after committing espionage against the country of my birth.

This prisoner’s name, Jonathan Pollard, invokes more upheaval among American Jews and Jewish Americans alike than the mere name Israel itself, testing my own identity as a Jew, as a Zionist and as an American.

Many of my friends await the day to see a sadly frail Pollard released. They say songs will be sung and dances will danced, as he boards an El Al plane destined for a much stronger, more advanced and hardly recognizable Israel. I understand their pride, but I don’t know if I will feel it.

Am I betraying America if I cheer at the release of someone who went behind America’s back? Am I betraying Israel if I don’t advocate for Pollard’s release? Am I betraying Israel if I don’t cheer as he prophetically walks onto Ben Gurion Airport’s cement runway? Pollard’s eventual released cannot be mired only by political and legal undertones; the whole story goes far deeper than most individuals passionate about his fate realize. For the Pollard issue for American Jews — or Jewish Americans, depending on how one identifies — speaks to a much larger identity crisis, a crisis that perhaps led Pollard to engage in espionage and lose, so far, 27 years behind bars.

Americans who identify as Jews and/or Zionists walk a tight rope and Pollard has only magnified the stakes. Are we Jewish Americans? American Jews? Israeli-Americans? Jewish Zionists? American Zionists? Zionist Americans?

On the surface, these words and their infinite combinations seem identical and even meaningless; however, we must refrain from simplifying and shaming these identities. These words and their combinations have meaning and to downplay their significance is to downplay the infinite amount of identities that establish past political and religious precedents, in Israel and beyond. Identity is man-made and never static. Through the testing of identity, as the Pollard case has proved for Jews worldwide, we refine ourselves. Many of us have already refined our visions of Zionism because of it.

Personally, I connect with Pollard’s urge to help Israel, but I will never be able to rationalize spying against my country. My call is not for any one person to change his or her view regarding Pollard, but for every one of us to challenge our views of ourselves so that at the end of the day we at least have something more than a figurehead — whether reviled or championed — on which to hold onto in the challenging years ahead.

A native of Baltimore, Justin Hayet is a pro-Israel student leader at Binghamton University studying political science. He has been published in The Jerusalem Post and can be contacted at jhayet1@binghamton.edu.

American Jewry must reclaim Hebrew

A key component that unifies a people or nation is a common language. The Jewish people are no exception; the Hebrew language is an essential element of what constitutes the Jewish nation.

Hebrew often is the only common language in the room — the lingua franca — when Jews from different parts of the globe get together (native English-speaking Jews aside, for the most part). Conversely, the lack of a unifying language creates a great gulf between people. It leads to misunderstandings and frustrations on both sides and ultimately lessens the fraternal bond.

So for the sake of the Jewish future, the American Jewish community needs to reclaim Hebrew.

Hebrew is more than simply a medium of communication. It is our heritage. It’s a Semitic language that has its roots in the Middle East, thus linking the Jewish people to the region. It’s the liturgical language of Judaism, thus connecting the Jewish people to their faith. And it’s the biblical language, thus binding the Jewish people to their history.

Unfortunately, however, Hebrew is lost on the American Jewish community as a whole. Leon Wieseltier of the The New Republic writes, “The American Jewish community is the first great community in the history of our people that believes that it can receive, develop and perpetuate the Jewish tradition not in a Jewish language. By an overwhelming majority, American Jews cannot read or speak or write Hebrew, or Yiddish. This is genuinely shocking. American Jewry is quite literally unlettered.”

Indeed, many Jews are averse to learning Hebrew. They are turned off when they hear it spoken or see it written in the public domain because they see it as elitist and exclusionary. This could simply be a result of not being accustomed to seeing a second language in public. Yet many societies around the world are bilingual, even trilingual.

The issue of Hebrew in the American Jewish orbit may cut to a far deeper question: If one’s American-ness is paramount to an American and speaking English is the “American thing to do,” then is promoting another language, by definition, un-American? By promoting Hebrew, does the Jewish community run the risk of undermining all it has done to achieve its place in general society, or is the American Jewish community finally secure enough to freely embrace its own heritage?

For those who are scared of Hebrew or its elevated status outside of Israel, they need not fear; Hebrew is not going to replace English as the everyday language of the Jewish community in North America anytime soon. It could, however, be the bulwark against assimilation.

So how do we go about promoting Hebrew? Many will be relieved to learn that it doesn’t simply translate into mandatory, universal ulpan. It means appropriately encouraging Hebrew in a variety of formal and informal settings, supporting Hebrew literature, film and the like and generally taking pride in the unique place Hebrew should hold within all of our communal institutions, synagogues and schools. And yes, speaking Hebrew would help.

The time has come for a serious discussion of the place Hebrew should occupy in the Jewish world and how we can best leverage Hebrew as a common and unifying force. Bringing Hebrew to the Jews of North America will be no small task but nothing compared to the miraculous revival of Hebrew itself.

Ari Rudolph is a planning executive for the UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on the Jewish People.

With Grace

Nearly 20 years ago, a small group of women from The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore gathered together to talk about what many considered an unthinkable problem: domestic violence in the Jewish community. Sadly, there were neighbors, friends and relatives in Baltimore who were struggling with this issue and felt that they had nowhere to turn. CHANA changed that.

A program of The Associated, CHANA offered women support, guidance and protection, coupled with sensitivity to issues that were specific to observant Jewish women. The name CHANA was chosen because it means “grace” in Hebrew, and it embodied the way in which clients were treated by the remarkable women who started the organization. CHANA professionals and volunteers responded with urgency in times of crisis and always did so with great compassion.

For the women who have turned to CHANA since its earliest days, the organization has offered a lifeline in tumultuous times. We have heard from thousands of women that the services offered by CHANA literally saved their lives. As members of a community that deeply values every life, we know that our work has been both vital and transformative.

Through the years, CHANA has grown exponentially — an unfortunate outcome of both increased awareness in the community and a rise in incidences too. Today, CHANA has a very professional staff of six full-time and six part-time employees, led by a superb executive director who is both dedicated and tireless in her pursuit of justice for our clients. Over the years, we have created a Jewish crisis response to those faced with a variety of abuse in their relationships. CHANA has grown to add the Shofar Coalition, prevention and healing services for childhood trauma and sexual abuse, as well as the Elder Project, education and intervention services for older adults, to our scope of practice.

The expansion of CHANA’s reach is a testament to the driving force of lay leadership. Last summer, a strategic planning team found a way to do the impossible: put exact words to CHANA’s experience of nearly 20 years and chart where the community needs the program to go in the next decade. Our first step was creating new descriptive and dynamic mission and vision statements. Additionally, a list of 12 Jewish values was developed to illuminate the way in which our involvement in CHANA is fulfilling the moral imperatives central to our heritage.

I wish we lived in a world in which CHANA’s services were not needed, but that is, sadly, a pipe dream. Instead, as chair of CHANA’s board, I remain committed to working with professional and lay partners to ensure that these life-changing services are in place for those who need them and that we will continue to meet these problems head on.

We should all take great pride in the fact that our community has been able to offer the services provided by CHANA for nearly 20 years and will continue to do so as long as there is a need. It indicates that we are willing to face some harsh realities in our community and that we are able to serve the critical needs of those impacted by sexual abuse, trauma or domestic violence. If we do not uplift, support and care for the vulnerable, we cannot truly be a strong community.

Alyson Friedman is chair of the board of CHANA, a program of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. To learn more, visit chanabaltimore.org.