A Lot to Fear, but I Choose Hope

Another secular year has ended and a new secular year has begun. It’s time to review and time to plan. What can be different in the coming year? And while the yearly refrain of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” repeats in our thoughts, I can’t just accept what has been.

For Jews, the activity of evaluating the secular year is difficult. Our New Year begins at the end of summer or early fall and is viewed with anticipation, beginning a yearly cycle, accented with holy days and agricultural and historical holidays, and, in a sense, it commands us to renew our commitment to our community and each other.

Try as I may to put the secular year behind me, it is difficult. The war in Gaza hangs heavy in my heart, and although it found unanimous support by American Jews, like a broken record, we saw the nations of the world criticize the Jewish state in a way they would never allow against themselves. More incidents of anti-Semitism in Europe followed, and recently, several European nations “recognized” the nonexistent state of Palestine. Radical Islamists, under the name of ISIS, kill whoever is different from they are and display barbarism rarely seen. Iran remains on the verge of becoming a nuclear power. At home, the Pew study occupied sessions at conference after conference projecting the demise of the American Jewish community or, at a minimum, casting fear in the minds of those working to enhance the community. It seems like 2014 was a year to forget.

My view of our world and our community isn’t to ignore what has occurred but to view it in context. The Jewish People, my people, have been on a long journey, and in our travels we have experienced both joy and misery. Pew suggests our community is becoming less Jewish, but programs such as PJ Library, Birthright Israel and numerous Jewish camps indicate to me that the fight is far from over. Israel appears to be always alone; yet, our efforts through the Jewish Agency, FIDF, AIPAC and our own JFNA continue to funnel support and encouragement. The Joint Distribution Committee continues to provide care for generations of Jews in the former Soviet Union and in other lands. Our own Howard County Jewish community is constantly growing and maturing. Our federation, once an afterthought, is now vibrant and provides opportunities to enhance our Jewish spirit.

What will 2015 bring? This coming year will provide me the opportunities to further our Jewish community in Howard County and in Israel. I know I can make a difference. The New Year can be filled with hope or despair. I choose hope.


Gary Perolman is a past president of the Jewish Federation of Howard County and serves on its executive board as assistant treasurer.

Tikkun Olam in Baltimore

Recently, I broke off a little before the end of the powerful Millions March against police brutality in Baltimore to warm up with tea and chili at the Lost City Diner. I was proud to have joined Baltimoreans of all walks of life, including many of my fellow organizers of Jews United for Justice (JUFJ was not an official cosponsor of the event). While New York and Washington, D.C., certainly received more attention than Baltimore, we fail to understand the times when we focus solely on mass spectacle and ignore singular human interactions.

On the way to the diner, I passed a man asking for money for a hamburger. Apparently the people walking behind me gave some, because a couple minutes after I arrived at Lost City he came in and sat down next to me at the bar. I learned a lot about Baltimore — a city notoriously segregated, not only black/white, but black/Jewish/gentile — by talking to Billy.

He grew up in a neighborhood destroyed by the construction of Martin Luther King Boulevard in the 1970s and ‘80s. He told me about how easy it was to get produce on the Westside back in the day when the Arabbers — grocers who, like my great- grandfather, Jacob Silverman, after he arrived in Sedalia, Mo., from Czestochowa, Poland in 1913, sold from horse-drawn carts — were commonplace, before the city destroyed the produce wholesale market and the waterfront to build the touristy Inner Harbor. He told me about all the jazz and blues joints on Pennsylvania Avenue and how when the Palace closed, that was the beginning of the end.

My food came out before they even offered him water. I ordered us waters and he downed two-and-a-half big glasses, clearly dehydrated. We shared the chili and a couple bananas, and still his food hadn’t come out. When he went to the bathroom, I asked the server about the status of my new friend’s burger. He said something about having to start over because the cheese had been messed up then rushed back to the kitchen to put in the order.

While we waited for his food, Billy, some of the other people at the bar and I talked about police brutality and the march, as we watched cop cars with sirens blaring whiz by on Charles Street to kettle my friends. We talked about Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old black child gunned down by Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehman while playing in a park, and Anthony Anderson, a 46-year-old father, also black, beaten to death by Baltimore police officers in 2013. Both deaths have been deemed homicides, but none of the officers have been charged.

Some of the people sitting at the bar had been stuck in traffic when we blocked MLK. When I told them about why we had protested, they were supportive. Let’s not pretend that all or even most people whose lives are inconvenienced by direct action are upset by it. If someone was more upset by sitting a few extra minutes in traffic caused by people bringing attention to important issues than they were about the traffic caused by the mindless Army-Navy football game, no one should care about convincing them of anything.

Billy’s burger came out, and we parted ways. I’m grateful for moments like these. We can repair this world and this city but only by listening and acting forcefully on what we hear.


Owen Silverman Andrews is a member of Jews United for Justice.

The Interdating Challenge

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency recently found itself embroiled in controversy when it reported on the annual international convention of the Conservative movement’s youth arm in Atlanta. In a Dec. 23 story titled, “USY drops ban on interdating,” JTA characterized an amendment adopted by United Synagogue Youth voters as relaxing longstanding rules precluding the group’s teenage board members from dating non-Jews.

Barely had the report been disseminated across the wire service’s subscribers than the denunciations and clarifications streamed in from Conservative leaders. The movement had not decided to allow interdating, Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, explained. It had instead swapped out a negative injunction for a positive statement encouraging teenage USY leaders to “strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices.”

Such choices “include recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community,” according to the new standard.

While we appreciate the subtle distinction made by Conservative leaders in response to what they feel was inaccurate reporting, we can’t help but feel that the movement is splitting hairs. The fact is that the previous standard expected USY leadership to “refrain from relationships which can be construed as interdating.” It wasn’t an outright ban, of course, but it led some Jewish teens dating non-Jews to refrain from seeking board positions.

But who are we to judge? Fundamentally, what every Jewish group is grappling with today is how to be relevant to young people. What the Conservative and Orthodox streams are also struggling to contain is an explosion of intermarriage, which they view as a precursor to the bigger problem of assimilation and loss of Jewish identity.

In the case of USY, it appears that the Conservative movement is acknowledging that youth engagement is either more worrisome or more manageable than intermarriage. And while the new policy doesn’t encourage interdating, it doesn’t outlaw it either. So when it comes to its youth, the Conservative movement is opting to keep kids engaged by broadening the tent, which is an admirable goal.

The challenge the movement faces, however, is how to achieve a broader embrace and greater engagement while still staying true to its core principles. That is a very difficult line to walk.

European Hypocrisy

Dutch Ambassador Jesper Vahr (BJARNE LUETHCKE/EPA/Newscom)

Dutch Ambassador Jesper Vahr

The past month has been difficult for Israel. With its government in turmoil as the nation girds for the next election, the country has seen a disturbing flare-up of Palestinian violence — including a brief exchange of rockets from Gaza and the firebombing of Israelis in the West Bank during the past week. But as much as Israelis have accustomed themselves to internal turmoil, they have yet to adjust to the vitriol directed at them from European capitals and from European diplomats. A little more than a week ago, a top European Union court ruled that the terrorist group Hamas, which rules Gaza, should be stricken from the E.U.’s list of terror organizations. On the same day, the European Parliament adopted a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state.

Those moves followed an announcement by Dutch Ambassador Jesper Vahr at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference that Europe holds the Jewish state to a different standard than the Palestinians. According to Vesper, Palestinian violence, while regrettable, is justifiable, while Israeli reprisals and policies designed to protect its citizens are not. From Vesper’s perspective, since Israel is part of the Western world, it is held to a different standard of behavior than the non-Western Arab world.

In a penetrating reaction that has gone viral in pro-Israel circles on the Internet, syndicated columnist Caroline Glick, who was a co-panelist with Vesper, went ballistic, declaring that “this patronizing attitude toward us, that we should be happy that you have a separate standard for Israel is … a statement of contempt for our intelligence.” She also accused European powers of basing their policies on a nascent anti-Semitism dating back to early Christianity.

Glick’s emotion-charged response was a bit over the top. But she correctly identified the hypocrisy of the leaders of what is supposed to be the most “enlightened” of continents, who assert that the only proper Jewish response to Palestinian terror is to turn the other cheek. Such a ridiculous posture would be understandable if the Europeans set that kind of example themselves. But they don’t, and they can’t. Indeed, no nation would dare shirk its responsibility to protect its citizens.

What went unnoticed as this argument unfolded is that Israel’s Supreme Court recently ruled that the government must dismantle the illegally built settlement of Amona, in a case brought by Palestinian owners of the land on which the settlement was built. Although the case took several years to reach resolution, it demonstrated, once again, that Israel, like other Western democracies, is a nation of laws. Palestinians who felt their rights were violated brought suit and were vindicated.

The fault for Palestinian violence lies with the Palestinians themselves. No settlement activity or other perceived wrongs of government can justify the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians. We urge all Palestinians, like their brethren in the Amona case, to embrace the rule of law. Were that to happen, a state of their own would not be too far away.

Freedom of Religion As a Power Grab

Saul Edelman was spot-on in noting that “For Maccabees, Goal Was Power” (Your Say, Dec. 26).

Judah Maccabee was an advocate of freedom of religion in the manner of “freedom of religion” espoused today in America by many Christian conservative groups: namely, the freedom to impose one’s own dogma and practice of religion upon everybody else, even at tax-payers’ expense. The same holds true in the State of Israel, where “freedom of religion” only exists for the Orthodox, with other forms of Judaism being officially discriminated against.

Secondly, let us recall that the Maccabees/Hasmoneans, being of priestly lineage, were illegitimate rulers to begin with, inasmuch as the Torah insists upon a separation of priestly and royal power. Once in charge, they then fell prey to the same corruption of which they accused their foes, eventually embarking upon an alliance with, and subsequent takeover by, Rome, the imperialist hegemon of the day.

The end result was Judea being consigned to backwater provincial status for centuries, politically and especially economically. Which explains how a psychopath such as Pontius Pilate wound up stationed there. First-century Judea was where the Roman Empire bureaucracy sent the trouble-makers, head cases and malcontents it was stuck with, because it could find no legal basis to discharge them.

Menorah Claim ‘Baseless, Hurtful’

In response to your article “Right to Light Denied” (Dec. 19) in which both Dr. Gary Pushkin and his wife, Kathy Abbott, accuse the board of managers of the Guilford Association and the trustees of Stratford Green Inc. of being motivated by anti-Semitism in making their decisions regarding a request to place a menorah in Sherwood Gardens, such allegations are baseless, indefensible and hurtful.

I have been an active member of the board since 1995 and served as the first Jewish president of the association for seven years (1999 to 2006). At the present time, two board members are Jewish, and two others have Jewish spouses. This 20 percent representation on the board far exceeds the percentage of Jewish families living in our 800-plus home community.

A longtime Jewish board member was given the task of chairing the committee that worked for two years to run the year-long Guilford centennial celebration. She was Guilford’s representative to the public for this major commemorative and fund-raising event.

The final decision to allow only the holiday tree in Sherwood Gardens was made by association president Tom Hobbs and the other trustees following the board of managers’ recommendation for such a policy. The Pushkins seem to be saying that Tom Hobbs is the leader of a group that is anti-Semitic and has allowed anti-Semitism to rear its ugly head in the Guilford community. No one has worked harder than Tom Hobbs to ensure that the board remains sensitive to all issues relating to the racial and religious diversity of our Guilford families.

One cannot reasonably conclude that the board as presently composed is anti-Semitic or that it made an anti-Semitic decision in this instance. It seems more likely that the Pushkins are using the tactic of playing the race-religion card when they receive an unfavorable decision.

Chanukah Glitz? It’s Not Our Way

When I worked in offices, I was often the only Jewish girl. Come holiday time, I used to help decorate the office’s Christmas tree as a goodwill gesture. Why should I offend my Christian co-workers when they simply did not understand what a Jewish person was expected to do or not to do.

In that regard, I was invited to bring in my menorah to the office as well. I always declined because to my way of thinking, Jews did not observe Chanukah in any over-the-top way, at least while I was growing up. I observed my holiday by lighting my menorah at home at night and giving presents and retelling the story and celebrating with other Jews. That was enough for me.

In attending Rabbinical lectures, I learned that Jews do not need a humongous menorah or dazzling Chanukah fixtures in order to celebrate our holiday. Yes, Chanukah palls with Christmas, but so what? We should not try to compete with Christmas trees and the glitz and glamour of the holiday decorations. It is for them, and not for us. We are happy and content with the
way we celebrate our own holidays. Or should be.

The subject of the article “Right to Light Denied” (Dec. 19), Kathy Abbott, takes offense at her neighborhood board’s rejection of her putting up a menorah near the community’s holiday lights-only tree. She lives in a community where there are rules and regulations drawn up by a board. This board has outlined what its requirements are. Abbott decided to live in an area that is more Christian than Jewish. If she is not happy with the board’s decision, she could move. They are not being anti-Semitic. The lighted tree is not a Christmas tree, unless a star of Bethlehem is placed on top.

What Abbott should consider is goodwill. What she is doing is presenting herself as an argumentative and not-so-nice Jewish person. The mere fact that she is Jewish, whatever she does and says is reflective of Jews. We must always present ourselves as people who show loving kindness and tolerance toward others.

How Shall We Bless Those Who Come After Us?

According to Jewish tradition, on the eve of Shabbat and holidays, before reciting Kiddush, parents bless their children.

You can find these blessings in your siddur. There you will see that sons are blessed with these words: “May God inspire you to live like Ephraim and Manasseh.” Rashi teaches that the blessing for boys is based on Genesis 48:20 in this week’s parshah, when Jacob blesses his grandsons, the sons of Joseph.

There is no equivalent blessing for daughters in the Torah. But there is a blessing in the Book of Ruth that comes close: “May God make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the House of Israel.” And so in many Jewish homes today, one or both parents offer this blessing to their daughters: “May God inspire you to live like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.”

I remember the first time that I witnessed this ceremony. When we were graduate students in Israel, my wife, Terry, and I were invited to Shabbat dinner at the home of dear friends in Tel Aviv. I was spellbound as the father placed his hands on the heads of his children and spoke those blessings. At that moment, I felt a profound connection to my Jewish past and future, and to my family. I promised myself in that dining room that if we were fortunate enough to have our own children, I would offer those blessings to our offspring.

Beyond my own family, the most powerful moment that I have experienced with these blessings was in 1983 when Terry and I sat in the Moscow apartment of Itzik Kogan, one of the leaders of the refusenik movement in the former Soviet Union. We had flown to there to bring support to the women, men and children who were demanding the right to emigrate to Israel in order to lead full Jewish lives. Itzik placed his hands upon the heads of his children and offered roughly the same blessing as Jacob had pronounced. As he did so, this father was saying, in effect: “We will make whatever sacrifices we must in order to live freely
as Jews. We are determined that our children will live proudly in the Jewish state.”

Itzik never knew when the KGB, the Soviet secret police, might knock on his door and take him away for interrogation, or worse. The threat we face in North America is not such a knock on the door. But we do confront the real possibility that our children and grandchildren will not be Jewish.

If we want there to be Jews in North America a hundred years from now, we need to do everything we can to make Judaism joyful and relevant. One great way to do that is to place our hands on the heads of our children and grandchildren. With this blessing, we ask God to inspire them to perform acts of tikkun olam, and to experience the joy that flows from Shabbat and the wisdom that streams from study of Torah.

You don’t have to be a rabbi or a cantor to offer a blessing. You do it when you say the blessing over bread or over candles. You can make up your own blessing. But most of us probably don’t do it often enough, or at all, because we feel self-conscious or uncertain about what it means.

With his blessing, Jacob asked God to help him do what he could not do by himself. At the Shabbat table, we cannot take God’s place, but neither can God take the place of a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle. Offering a blessing is an opportunity to be in a covenantal partnership with God.

Rabbi Laura Geller asks why we bless our sons in the name of Ephraim and Manasseh? Perhaps, she says, “because these are the first two siblings in the Bible who do not fight. With Ephraim and Manasseh, the family pathology that unfolds in the Book of Genesis, in which siblings struggle with each other, finally comes to an end. They teach us that we do not have to fight over blessings: There are enough of them to go around.”

That’s quite a nice thing to remember about those two fellows. What do we want our lives to teach those who come after us? After we have passed on, when those who knew us and loved us invoke our name, how would we like to be remembered? What values of ours do we hope will be passed down to the next generation? What are the things we have done that we hope will live on in the lives of those who follow us? What will be our immortality?

I wish for you the blessing of being part of a synagogue and Jewish community where we strengthen each other and the world around us.

An Unsettling Future

runyan_josh_otBefore battlefield technology evolved to the point that warfare could be conducted remotely, before Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos dreamed up the concept of deliveryman-less delivery of goods, drones were much different animals.

Animals quite literally, in fact, with the term drones referring to male bees who did not make honey and did not possess a stinger. The other definitions for the term in the pre-Predator and pre-Amazon days signified just as much. Used in the pejorative, it could either describe a person who lived off the labor of others or who performed menial and unimaginative work.

Today, of course, drones, specifically those designed for commercial use — as opposed to those that continue to destroy during times of war — signify a more imaginative evolution of society, with people like Bezos betting that the day will come when you order your groceries online and within hours, an aerial robot drops them at your door. This week’s cover story examines the still-evolving regulatory and ethical framework behind this future. While the Federal Aviation Administration, which governs America’s airspace — the very environment in which drones operate — has yet to finalize regulations and procedures to make drone flying a safe enterprise, people such as Yosef Shidler have already made it a profitable one.

Melissa Apter reports that Shidler, owner of CJ Studios in Brooklyn, N.Y., used a drone to photograph this year’s picture of thousands of Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis in front of the movement’s headquarters, a first in the 31-year history of their annual gathering. Hollywood movie studios, as well, have adopted the technology, seeing in the unmanned aerial photography platforms a cheaper alternative to either posting a cameraman on a crane or aboard a plane.

But what happens — or more to the point, who is responsible — when something goes wrong? Just last week, a Hollywood drone left the confines of its shoot and, without direction or control, crash landed in a neighboring ranch. A couple of weeks before, a drone carrying mistletoe over the heads of diners at a TGIFridays fell on an unlucky customer and cut up her face.

The fact is, without government oversight, the air 100 feet above your head could well become clogged with whirring quad-copters and winged robotic craft. Who operates them, how they’re operated and under what training regimen are all questions that have yet to be unanswered. One Jewish businessman in Florida, Howard Melamed, has a plan for an industry-wide standard, but nothing on the order of the legal framework and courses of study governing the certification of aviators yet exists.

But there’s another question to ask. If the expansion of drone technology is just another step toward a world in which commerce and other societal activities are less reliant on human beings being a part of the system — driverless cars are already legal in California — how real is the danger that we may yet become the embodiment of what drones originally signified? Some printers already automatically order toner for you when they run low — the concept could be expanded to include any number of household goods — but isn’t there value in a person recognizing for themselves when there’s a need?

Judaism has always believed in the power of human potential to perfect an imperfect world, but we are fast developing ways to remove ourselves from the equation. The forward march of progress has always been a source of inspiration, but the future ahead, for drones at least, is an unsettled and sobering one.


The Bond of Brotherliness

Why does Joseph suddenly wake up to his familial ties and reveal himself as the long-lost son and brother? Apparently, he was inspired by Judah’s stirring speech that opens our Torah reading. How did Judah strike such a responsive chord in a Joseph, whose heart had previously been so impervious to filial and sibling sensitivity?

I believe the crucial phase is, “because your servant guaranteed my father that I would serve as a surety for the youth.” Judah informs Joseph that he is an arev, a co-signer, a stand-in for Benjamin. This concept is quite radical for these warring siblings and resonates in subsequent Jewish legal and ethical literature in the axiom that “all Israel are co-signers (or sureties) for each other.”

Joseph was born into a family of jealousy and hatred.

The six sons of Leah, the “hated” wife who had been forced upon Jacob under false pretenses, refused to recognize the beloved wife Rachel’s son as a legitimate brother; hence, the  17-year-old Joseph had no recourse but to find his companionship with the younger brothers and compensated by “shepherding” his siblings, the sons of Leah, acting the big shot, and reporting all their foibles to his adoring father.

Joseph always refers to his siblings as his brothers, but they never refer to him as “brother”: “And he [Joseph] said, I am seeking my brothers … and Joseph went after his brothers … And they saw him from afar. The men said, each one to his brother, behold, that master of dreams is coming, let us kill him and throw him in one of the pits and say that an evil animal devoured him.”

The young Joseph was desperately seeking a brotherly relationship with his siblings ñ but he was constantly rebuffed. When he tried to overcome their rejection of him by recounting his (perhaps compensatory) dreams of grandeur, it only caused them to hate him even more.

Even Reuben, who attempts to rescue Joseph, never calls him “brother,” only referring to “him” as a pronoun. It is only Judah who refers to him as a brother, but since he is desirous of making a profit by selling him as a slave, the use of the term may be ironic: “What profit have we in killing our brother? Let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, for he is our brother, our flesh.”

As the story progresses, the lack of brotherliness toward the sons of Rachel is emphasized even more: “And the 10 brothers of Joseph [they felt toward each other as brothers] went down to Egypt to purchase grain, but Jacob did not send Benjamin, brother of Joseph” (but not the brother of the other 10).

And when the sons of Jacob stand before the Grand Vizier, the Bible stresses the inequality in their relationship with a ringing declaration, pregnant with a double meaning, “Joseph recognized his brothers [their identity as well as a sibling relationship to them], but they did not recognize him.”

The Hebrew word ach, “brother,” means to be tied together, the verb achot meaning to sew or to stitch, even, if you will, to patch up. It derives from a sense of unity, oneness which comes from the understanding of having emanated from one father.

Since the source of their unity is their common father; they should not want to cause pain to each other and certainly not to their father. Apparently, the hatred of the 10 brothers for Joseph even overwhelmed their filial concern for their father’s welfare — and so they seemingly had no difficulty in telling Jacob that his beloved Joseph had been torn apart by a wild animal! When Judah declares to their father, Jacob, that he will stand as surety for Benjamin, he is expressing his newfound recognition that this youngest son of Rachel is truly an ach, a brother, an inextricable part of him, Judah, even though he was born of a different mother. When he tells the Grand Vizier that he is willing to be a slave instead of Benjamin — so that this son of Rachel may be restored to his loving father in order to save Jacob further pain — he is demonstrating the bond of ultimate unity between siblings, and between them and their father. This is brotherliness and unity that creates an indissoluble bond. It is at this point of Judah’s self-sacrifice for Rachel’s youngest son that Joseph recognizes his brothers’ repentance and is ready to forgive and reunite with them.

The prophet Ezekiel provides the ultimate vision of a united Israel when he is told by God to take one stick and write upon it, “For Judah and the children of Israel his friends,” and to take another stick and write upon it, “For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim and the entire house of Israel his friend,” and to join both sticks so that they are united in his hand. This is the Jewish goal, learned from Judah, when every Israelite sees themselves as a co-signer for every other Israelite for the greater glory of our common Father in heaven.