A Communal Responsibility

runyan_josh_otThree decades ago, faith communities across the Southwestern United States, seeing as their moral duty to protect the downtrodden and vulnerable from what they saw as an almost certain death sentence, decided to break the law and harbor illegal immigrants who had arrived from Central America.

Moved by a sense of humanity and an anti-establishment rebellious streak that flows through the blood of many whose cause is social justice, these brave souls, in some cases, forced social change by demanding that the United States take responsibility for the less fortunate drawn to its borders. Today, amid headlines proclaiming ever-increasing intolerance — including here in Maryland — toward children whose only crime is listening to the false promises of smugglers and cheating death in the hope of a better future, Jewish groups in Arizona and New Mexico are heeding the call and doing their part to help the unaccompanied minors who are once again flocking across the southern border.

Some of these good Samaritans are mindful of the failure of the United States to shelter Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, such as the turning back of the MS St. Louis and its 937 German Jewish refugees. And, as you’ll read in this week’s JT, groups such as the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona — like the churches and synagogues of 30 years ago — once again see it as their moral duty to help those suffering during a humanitarian crisis. As one organizer tells reporter Heather Norris in this week’s cover story, given their history of being “strangers in a strange land,” Jews should be at the forefront of the immigrant cause.

He has a point, and regardless of where you stand in the specific case of 57,000 Central Americans now awaiting their fate and what to do with them from an immigration policy point of view — 60 percent of those who took part in the JT’s online poll two weeks ago advocated deporting them quickly — you can’t help but feel that we all bear some responsibility to protect these children’s lives.

This sense of societal and communal responsibility is what is motivating Israeli citizens to send food and clothes to the tens of thousands of soldiers who are putting themselves in harm’s way to protect civilians on both sides from the actions of terrorists. It is the same sense of responsibility that likely motivated the Israeli army to open a field hospital for Gaza residents caught in the crossfire. And it is the same responsibility whose absence is manifested in the hateful demonstrations that recently set streets in Paris aflame.

Whether migrant child, Arab farmer or Israeli father, each and every human being deserves a life free from fear. That is ultimately the reason why Hamas must be vanquished and the hateful ideology it espouses will end in failure. Make no mistake, just like those who place water bottles in the Arizona desert, Israel now finds itself in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is characterizing as an existential war because of the children.


An Appreciation of Diversity

“I am now a vegetarian,” our daughter, 11, announced proudly one night in 2001. “Why now,” I wanted to know? “I just bought one of your favorite foods — hot dogs.”

To many people, becoming a vegetarian can appear to be a phase until the newness and excitement wear off. Our Gila, however, is a person who stands by her beliefs. When she is committed to a goal, she follows through no matter what. To her dismay, my husband, of blessed memory, our 6-year old son and I were not going to change with her. After all, we were already limited to what we could eat by keeping kosher and watching our weight. My husband was in remission from cancer and finally starting to enjoy food again. No way was he going to give up eating meat, chicken and fish.

Now that we had a vegetarian in the family, I had to rethink my view of vegetarians. There was, perhaps, some sense to their idealism, even though I wasn’t ready to make that change for myself. As a child of the 1960s and 1970s, I remember eating meat or chicken for dinner almost every night, except during the nine days before Tisha B’Av, a time which still is quite difficult for us carnivores.

With the transition to a vegetarian way of life, Gila developed a great interest in cooking and trying out new foods and spices. While I don’t always enjoy everything she cooks, I am amazed and fascinated by her creativity in the kitchen and the joy she finds in putting together a healthy and attractive vegetarian meal.

Do I wish to call myself a vegetarian and become a “member of the club?” I am not ready to make that commitment now, but I do consider myself to be a vegetarian sympathizer.

Vegetarianism, I have learned, has become much more common and accepted. Although eating animals is so much a part of Jewish culture, the Jewish community is more open to the ideas of those who avoid eating meat. The world of food, including the kosher industry, has also expanded, making it easier for vegetarians to enjoy creative and gourmet meals.

My family members may not all agree on our lifestyles and values, but there is room for diversity. Over the years, we have made peace with our choices, and we try to accommodate one another’s needs. Our sages had various opinions about Judaism and vegetarianism. Richard Schwartz, an Orthodox Jewish vegetarian, writes about this topic in his book, “Judaism and Vegetarianism.” I will be presenting a workshop on this subject at Baltimore’s third annual LimmudFEST at Goucher College on Sunday, Sept. 7.

As Jews, we can learn from one another and appreciate our diversity, a core value of Limmud. At LimmudFEST, Jews of all ages and levels of religious observance will unite in celebration of Jewish study, culture, and identity. Coming together to celebrate our commonalities and differences helps us build lasting connections with one another, just like my family and our vegetarian trailblazer.

Hannah M. Heller is Torah reading coordinator at Chevrei Tzedek Congregation, a Bnei Mitzvah tutor at Beth El Congregation and a standardized patient educator for Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.For more information, contact info@limmudbaltimore.com.

Let’s Choose Our Words Wisely

runyan_josh_otAccording to the biblical account, creation didn’t take place through fire or a divine wind. The world instead came into being through speech.

As taught and amplified by the Jewish tradition in the thousands of years since that seminal event, words — even when limited to the constricted realm of human speech — have retained the power to create. Have a bright idea that you want to spread to the masses? Then you better put it into words, either spoken or in print. This is a fundamental truth every editor lives by and every child accepts as a given: The most sublime way of engaging with the world around you is through words.

But words, as we’ve been reminded time and again this week, also have the power to destroy.

Observers of events in Israel have laid some of the blame for the murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir at the feet of those who called for revenge after the bodies of Israeli teenagers Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach turned up in a field near Hebron. It’s an argument made by Rabbi Benny Lau, the rabbi of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem who told The Media Line news agency that racist elements in Israeli society were to blame for Abu Khdeir’s killing. He called for a “tikkun,” a spiritual repair, by being careful in the use of language.

Although the reckless use of words likely had something to do with the tragedy, their wholesale abuse by news organizations in the days since has further painted Israel — and the entire Jewish people — as the ones to blame in a conflict that, if we’re going to be completely honest, has its roots in the mismanagement of the British Mandate long before Jews saw a homeland as firmly within their reach.

In its half-hourly reports Sunday from Jerusalem, where Palestinians had taken to the streets and where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was mulling over the details of his country’s response to a near-constant volley of rockets from Hamas-controlled Gaza, the local CBS affiliate 99.1 WNEW broadcast news of the six “Jewish suspects” arrested in connection with Abu Khdeir’s murder. The murder, the broadcasts continued, had likely come as a response to the killings of the three “Israeli teenagers.”

And again, in The Washington Post the following morning, “Israel reckoned with rising homegrown extremism … as it arrested six Jewish suspects who are believed to have burned to death an Arab teenager in revenge for the killing of three Israeli teens.”

The implication of such reporting is that when they suffer, Israel’s citizens are “Israeli.” When they commit a crime, they’re “Jewish.” It’s an ironic supposition, considering that the actions of the six suspects would be the least Jewish imaginable.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, that part of the world is quickly descending into chaos. Rockets flew over Tel Aviv on Tuesday; one reportedly struck a house in Jerusalem. Hamas has declared every home in Israel a target.

Let’s be careful with our language: Israelis are not the only ones whose lives are at stake. Suffering in war comes indiscriminately. Jews, Arabs, Israelis, Palestinians, Christians — at the end of the day, we’re all in the crosshairs when hate is fanning the flames.


Unity in Tragedy

runyan_josh_otThis column was supposed to begin on a positive note, seeing in the recent fundraising prowess of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore a message that Jewish unity is alive and strong and can be marshaled to face the challenges of poverty and generational apathy.

That all remains true, but Monday afternoon, the world learned the fate of “our boys”: Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Frenkel, 16, had been murdered, their bodies found in shallow graves in an open field just north of Hebron. Investigators indicated that they were likely slain soon after their June 12 disappearance, meaning that not only had the international campaign to bring them home come to naught, it was in all probability futile from the very start.

Responses to the tragedy, whether here in Baltimore, in Israel or elsewhere in the world, are predictably raw. These teenagers were not soldiers, they were innocent children. That their blood was spilled has only highlighted the barbarity of the perpetrators and put in focus the culture of Palestinian hatred that celebrated the crimes.

As Owings Mills JCC receptionist Tzippie Mahr told the JT, when she found out, we are all “shattered and frightened.”

But as the boys’ parents, joined by the worldwide Jewish community, mourn, the issue will invariably turn to where to go from here. The boys’ disappearance three weeks ago unlocked a groundswell of fraternal identification: They were not somebody else’s children, they were ours. It was not some distant nation’s problem, but a pain that pierced the soul of many a Jew.

The pain will of course remain, but let’s not forget the unity that revealed itself in tragedy. Let’s always remember that what happens on one side of the Jewish world affects those on the other side, that the pain — and happiness — of one is the pain and happiness of us all. At the end of the day, ours is a global community like none other; since time immemorial, the Jewish people’s strength has come to the fore when we’ve been able to look past our individual differences in responding to external threats.

In the desert, the challenge was how to channel divinity in a physical world, and it was only through the communal efforts of individuals — rich and poor, strong and weak, each contributing just a half shekel — that the Tabernacle could be constructed. Today, the challenge is how to make a community of Jews into a Jewish community, making sure that each person matters and is fulfilled, both materially and spiritually. The Associated’s annual campaign, which tellingly did not decrease despite the halting pace of the greater economic recovery, is a step in the right direction. Over the past year, the number of donors who collectively contributed $30 million in unrestricted funds increased by more than 10 percent to 10,000. Over the coming year, more people should “buy in” and do so as well at their synagogues and day schools.

The task is not easy, but building community is ultimately a communal endeavor.


No Vacation from Bigotry, Hate

runyan_josh_otIn the current economy, the concept of a vacation, especially for the working poor among us, is something of a luxury. And even among those for whom a vacation is a given, financial realities have made “staycations” a common feature of American life.

That’s why it’s great to live in a place like Baltimore, where historic sites, cultural offerings, entertainment and exotic walks — many of them free — beckon those looking to unwind. As you’ll read in this week’s JT, ours is a region bursting with life, giving plenty of options to young singles, blossoming families and senior citizens alike. Taking a personal day? You can follow in the footsteps of the neighbors quoted in our cover story and explore the city’s famous Shot Tower or embark on a local adventure of your own. And we’d love to hear about it.

But the freedom to explore one’s own town is, unfortunately, a luxury that is quickly disappearing from Jews living in one of the world’s most culturally rich locales: France. Researchers from the Anti-Defamation League have discovered that the Western European nation harbors the greatest concentration — at 37 percent of the populace — of anti-Semitic views as any on that continent. What’s worse, attacks on the Jewish community are increasing, leaving its members with little choice short of emigrating to Israel or the United States.

Those choosing to live in Israel are quite happy with their choice, for there truly isn’t anything like living in the Holy Land. But there are those elsewhere in the world, such as Rev. Larry Grimm of the Capitol Heights Presbyterian Church in Colorado, who feel that of all the places in the world Jews don’t belong, it’s Israel.

As reported in Tablet magazine, in the days leading up to his movement’s historic vote last week to divest itself from investments in companies doing business with Israel’s security forces, Grimm took to Facebook to tell Israelis that they were living on land that didn’t belong to them.

“Quit feeling guilt about what you are doing in Palestine, Jewish friends,” he wrote. “Stop it. Come home to America!”

The comment, which bore resemblance to former White House correspondent Helen Thomas’ rant that the Jews didn’t belong in the Jewish homeland, would have been a curious side note were it not for the fact that in the end the Presbyterian Church (USA) endorsed the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement seeking to delegitimize Israel.

In the minds of these critics, Jewish suffering — such as the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers, who have yet to be found — isn’t just a non-concern. In their warped view of reality, any harm befalling Jewish people necessarily follows from their being Jewish. It’s all part of the same anti-Semitic sickness that has plagued the world since time immemorial.

The best answer to such threats, even here in the peace and tranquility of Baltimore, is greater Jewish identity. Only by standing up and seeing the plight of those in France and Israel as our own will we be able to drown out the voices of hate.


Where’s the Civility?

Josh_RunyanNo sooner had the international condemnations of the kidnappings of three Israeli teenagers begun their slow trickle that the hand wringing by some in the Jewish community sought to assign blame anywhere than at the foot of the Palestinian government.

The Palestinians are an occupied people, went one argument, so outbursts of violent activity are to be
expected. Indeed, news had surfaced just before Thursday’s kidnapping that Israeli security forces had prevented several attempted terrorist attacks — including intercepting a future suicide bomber outside Jerusalem — in recent months.

Another argument castigated the wider Jewish community for appropriating the motto of the Bring Back Our Girls movement that sprung up last month after the mass kidnapping of Nigerian girls by the Islamist group Boko Haram. To use #BringBackOur Boys as their rallying cry, the Israeli Embassy, Jewish federations, JCCs, synagogues and concerned citizens had caused a grave injustice to Nigerian victims of terror, according to this particular viewpoint.

The implicit assumption, of course, in both of these cases is that no Israeli citizen is innocent — not a child, not a mother and certainly not a “settler.” That there are those who, although they won’t admit it outright, think this way is deplorable. That some of them are Jewish is inexcusable.

It is not in the nature of this column to take political stands, which is why there’s no problem in calling out the capture of Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Frenkel, 16, for the unjustified Palestinian terrorism that it is. Because there’s nothing political in condemning the purposeful targeting of innocents, especially when those targeted are children.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, it is possible to have reasoned disagreements with your fellow man. That’s why in a democracy such as in the United States — and in Israel — you will find op-ed pieces like the spread in this week’s issue written by politicians of all stripes.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose passing 20 years ago is being commemorated by a slew of books and local events, characteristically refused to mention those with whom he disagreed by name. Moved by a profound love of the Jewish people and a belief in the innate power of the individual, the Rebbe provided a model of how to find agreement between opposing parties by limiting disagreements to ideas and not people.

But those who would choose to inflict death and disorder to achieve their ends are more like the hordes of ISIS terrorists sweeping through Iraq than the freedom-loving citizenry typified by the American ideal.

When such is the choice, between chaos and anarchy on the one hand and peace and prosperity on the other, the outcome should be predicted. And yet in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa, it isn’t.

Maybe it’s time to simplify things a bit by invoking the famous choice presented to the Jewish people in the desert thousands of years ago, between “life and death, the blessing and curse.”

Let’s pray that we all — including our enemies — choose life. It’s time for our boys to come home.


A Lack of Human Respect

runyan_josh_otAs JT reporter Simone Ellin was putting the finishing touches on this week’s cover story — an examination of the battle to make the American college campus a safer one for its students — news broke of yet another school shooting, purportedly the 74th nationwide since 2012’s Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut.

This time, a gunman reportedly walked into the Reynolds High School outside of Portland, Ore., and felled a student with his rifle. Authorities later found the suspect dead in a school bathroom. Tuesday’s shooting follows an incident last week at Seattle Pacific University in Washington and the murder of six University of California, Santa Barbara students two weeks ago.

Wherever you stand on the debate surrounding the Second Amendment and the rights of Americans to own and carry guns, it’s hard not to acknowledge that something is clearly wrong with society. And as you’ll see in this week’s cover story, the challenges to campus safety aren’t merely of the firearm variety. Especially threatening to the young women who go to college, our institutions of higher learning are also the repositories of our basest behaviors.

To be sure, there are programs coast to coast, quite a few of them Jewish, that are combatting the dangers prevalent on campus. But as the rash of shootings has shown, where not even an increase in gun-control laws and a sea change in public opinion has helped to make students safer, to fix any problem, you have to get to the root of it.

So what could possibly be behind all of these ills that seem to be either claiming the lives of our young ones at an ever-increasing rate or completely scarring the ones who survive? In short, it all boils down to a lack of human respect. The Germany of the 1920s and 1930s, arguably the most advanced society of the time in the realm of philosophy and the sciences, fell so quickly into the abyss of hatred — culminating in the Holocaust — through a warped logic that dehumanized the Jewish people.

Today, by inculcating in the young the fallacious notion that what truly matters is personal accomplishment, by maximizing the value of the “me” and the “I,” our society has now fundamentally devalued the worth of the other. It is in this vacuum that weapons, alcohol and drugs can become the agents of destruction.

Thousands of years ago, the great sage Rabbi Akiva hailed as the fundamental precept of the Torah: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Typically understood as the positive reflection of the Golden Rule, this precept actually goes much deeper than not doing harm. If you define yourself by your own accomplishments, it will be impossible to ever truly identify with those around you. But if you recognize that what makes you human goes far beyond what your hands will ever create — if you identify yourself as a human being, first and foremost — then you can’t help but see yourself as a part of humanity.

To create a better future for our children, we must teach them that, like different parts of the same body, harm to one of us affects us all.


Aspire to Educate

runyan_josh_otLooking back at the just-concluded holiday of Shavuot, it’s hard not to remain in awe at the magnitude of the event it commemorates. The giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai is remarkable not just because it embodies a link between the physical and supernal realms.

What stands out when contemplating this seminal moment in the Jewish psyche is how it unfolds. There stands an entire people — 600,000 men, their children and wives — at the foot of the mountain. Not only do these newly freed slaves group themselves according to their 12 tribes, but they represent a host of leadership roles and functions. In addition to Moses, there’s his brother Aaron, the leaders of each tribe and lesser officers and administrators. But only one, Moses himself, ascends the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments.

Had the entire people joined Moses at the top, one could have argued that Jewish strength lies in the individuality of the Jewish person. The presence of a leader, however, indicates that true Jewish strength lies in being able to remain an individual — tradition teaches that although Moses received the two tablets, all of the people heard the voice of the Almighty communicate the first two commandments to him — and yet unite behind a common goal.

So there we have the dueling forces of the human condition: the innate need to assert one’s unique thoughts, drives and desires on the one hand, tempered by the necessity to achieve the greater good on the other. This dynamic continues today at home, in the synagogue, on the street, in public debate and in the pages of newspapers and magazines. This conflict — in the Jewish world, it can be found most glaringly in how people approach events in the Middle East — manifests itself when any person declares his own personal view to trump the rights of anyone else to draw her own conclusions, or similarly when people supposedly speaking for “the group” call any other opinion contrary to their own out of bounds.

At the end of the day, everyone is entitled to their own viewpoint, not by virtue of American democracy, but by virtue of the fact that he or she was created with a brain. This right to individuality can be seen in the idea that every member of the Jewish people received the Torah more than 3,000 years ago.

Ultimately, however, such individuality should be directed to a higher purpose; in a Jewish context, this means using one’s talents to make the world a fitting receptacle for Godliness.

This is where education comes in. Education doesn’t typically happen in the letters to the editor section; it happens in the home first and in the school second. Rubin Sztajer, as you’ll read in this week’s JT, was able to raise educated children and grandchildren, but even at the age of 88, receiving his high school diploma has become a crucial moment in a life scarred by the Holocaust.

We all must do more to ensure that education, especially Jewish education, is made available to all. Community institutions, such as the Bais Yaakov School for Girls and Cheder Chabad — where, in the spirit of full disclosure, my children attend — are deserving of increased support. On Tuesday, June 10, the cheder will attempt to raise $40,000 in a single day. I urge you to go to charidy.com/chederchabadbaltimore and participate.


For us, the ‘core’ is tradition

runyan_josh_otWhat would the world be like without standards?

Never mind the fact that standards imply so much more than legal dictates and cultural norms, and that because “the way we do things” also encompasses familial customs and passed-down wisdom spanning ages, such a theoretical world would be practically impossible. If we were to philosophize, like the great post-Renaissance social contract thinkers, of an anarchic state of nature — where might made right and only the strongest survived — what would that look like?

Would employees run screaming through the halls like madmen? Would violence reign supreme? Would knowledge cease to be transmitted?

The fact is that standards, whether they be yardsticks, goals, benchmarks, criteria or requirements, exist to prevent the decay of society. It’s why the Common Core — that family of educational standards determined by state governors and top educators, and backed by the federal government that you will read about in the pages of this week’s JT — was both hailed and derided when it became a part of our national consciousness two years ago.

To those who champion a national set of educational standards, such a set of “need to know” items will ensure the graduation of teenagers equipped with the basic set of tools they need to survive in the real world. To those who oppose it, Common Core’s top-down universality is the seed to its own destruction. Even its critics recognize the need for standards; it’s just that they’d prefer to be the ones to determine them, thank you very much, not a governor of a state that doesn’t reflect their views.

Ultimately, the question of standards boils down not to one of existence, but to one of process: Who determines that which is acceptable, the standard to which everything else is to be judged? In the Jewish world, of course, the determination of communal, familial and individual codes of right and wrong can be traced back, as written in the beginning of Pirkei Avot, thousands of years to when the Jewish people were first grappling with the notions of peoplehood. The point is that, whether by view to tradition or to divine command, the Jewish way of setting standards keeps the focus away from the changing mores of the present. So when day schools wrestle with how exactly to implement — or whether to implement — the Common Core, they do so with a measure of humility and respect for how education has traditionally been handled in the Jewish world. Education, in this mindset, is meant to produce adults who, by virtue of their respect of their parents, teachers, traditions and God Himself, will be productive members of society. More important than how they approach a mathematical problem, this approach reasons, is how they approach questions of ethics, of raising children, of beautifying the world around them.

In this vein, it’s important to remember that “standard” can also refer to a flag, a physical embodiment of an idea higher than oneself. Were all of us to keep standards as ideals to aspire to, rather than requirements to be fulfilled, the world would probably be a much happier place.


In a word, powerful

runyan_josh_otAs anyone who has ever lost a loved one can attest, dealing with the void created with the departure of a parent, grandparent or, God forbid, a child is never easy. The journey itself has ups and downs, moments of intense pain peppered with fond recollections of a shared smile, an inside joke or a gentle touch, but it is neither short nor determinative. Loss stays with you and, in the pre-messianic era at least, is irreversible.

While my own personal style is neither to dedicate my words nor use them in the first person in an attempt to deal with my own loss, I am charting a new path this week. For while I typically address you, dear reader, as an editor, I now write as someone in grief.

This past Sunday, I lost my grandmother.

For those who knew her as a child in Chicago or as a mother, teacher, artist and activist in Philadelphia, Barbara Lea Blinder defied definition. She could be biting in her critique but had a gift for discovering beauty in the most mundane of places. To me, of course, she was larger than life, but those around her also couldn’t help but be struck by her sense of style, her moral compass and her energetic spirit. She was, in a word, powerful; she was keenly aware of her ability to inspire high school students, synagogue members, art lovers and neighbors and of her responsibility to impart her special way of seeing the world to those who had the courage to allow themselves to be challenged.

Like those profiled in this week’s story on the 40th anniversary of the Baltimore Chavurah, my grandmother had a deep appreciation for religious investigation and social interaction. She was, along with my grandfather, among the founding members of Temple Sholom in Broomall, Pa., creating the sign that graces the entrance to the 68-year-old property. And, like those whose strong-willed spirits have become a central theme of much of the JT’s coverage in recent months, she faced adversity head-on and commanded others to do the same.

“Suck it up!” was a refrain heard throughout much of my life as was her soft-spoken way of asking to rate problems on a scale of one to 10. Not much made it past a six, so everything, she taught, was manageable. And when true disappointment or tragedy struck, her wisdom spoke with its silence as much as with its words. A student in her later years of the literature of King Solomon, she typified the ecclesiastical refrain of  “a time to speak and a time to be silent.”

Having spent a lifetime of teaching others, her time for silence has unfortunately begun, but as our tradition has taught for thousands of years, though her body has ceased to function, her soul will live on. And if there’s one eternal lesson that can be gleaned from a life that spanned 87 years — one that I try to impart to my own children — it is this: Be decisive.

Whether in politics, in a marriage or in business, don’t be afraid to take the first step, to put pen to paper or paint to canvas. There will be plenty of time to question, but now is the time for action.