Our Jewish Birthright

The biblical kashrut laws for Jews have always been a powerful tool in keeping us a “nation set apart.”

We left Jacob last week leaving Laban and Laban-land behind, heaven-bent on returning to the land of Abraham and to the house of Isaac. Jacob understands that his inner self has been overtaken by the deceitful and aggressive hands of Esau, that he must return to his ancestral home in order to recapture the Abrahamic birthright.

But what exactly are the building blocks of this birthright? Is it possible that Esau is now even more deserving, or at least as deserving, of it as is Jacob? What is the real content — and significance — of our Jewish birthright? The very first prerequisite for the carrier of the birthright is a very strong Hebrew identity, a powerful familial connection that contributes — and defines — the link to a specific and unique heritage and ancestry.

Abraham established his commitment to the Hebrew identity when he insisted upon purchasing a separate gravesite for his wife, Sarah, when he was willing to spend a small fortune in establishing a Hebrew cemetery beyond the various sites of the Hittites. He defines himself as an alien resident, sees himself as living among the Hittites but certainly not as being existentially a Hittite and therefore refuses an “of right” burial for Sarah in any Hittite plot of land.

Esau certainly is biblically described as having a strong sense of familial identity. He demonstrates strong feelings of filial respect and devotion; the Bible even records that Isaac loved Esau because he made certain to provide his father with the venison he dearly loved. He even has strong sibling ties to his brother, despite Jacob’s underhanded deception surrounding the blessings. In the Torah portion this week, the Bible tells us how Esau first seemed to have set up a greeting brigade of 400 potential warriors to “welcome” the return of the prodigal brother; but once Esau actually sees his younger brother and his family, his heart apparently melts with brotherly love: “Esau ran to meet him; he hugged him, fell upon his neck and kissed him.”

Esau even wishes for the two of them to travel together and to settle down together — “Let us travel together and move on; I will go alongside of you.” It is Jacob who politely refuses, saying, “You know that my children are weak and I have responsibility for the nursing sheep and cattle. Please go ahead of me. I shall eventually come to you in Seir.”

Yes, Esau has strong familial identity. However, Abraham had two other crucial characteristics that Esau lacks: continuity and destiny. Continuity is most meaningfully expressed in marrying a suitable mate — from our modern perspective, taking a Jewish spouse (so that the children will remain Jewish) and from the biblical perspective, not marrying an immoral Canaanite. Esau takes Hittite wives.

Perhaps he comforted himself with the fact that his first wife had a Jewish name (Judith) and the second had a name that means sweet-smelling perfume. Esau’s mentality is apparently as superficial as the name “Edom” he acquired from his exterior red complexion as well as the red colors of the lentil soup he exchanged for his birthright and the venison he gave his father. Moreover, when he realizes how upset his parents are with his marital choice, he still doesn’t look to his mother’s family in Aram Naharayim for a mate but rather chooses a daughter of Ishmael, the “wild ass of a man whose hand is over everything.” And he takes this wife not instead of but in addition to his Hittite wives.

Another test for continuity is a unique daily lifestyle, the ability to delay gratification and act with discipline, especially in the sexual and gustatory realms. The biblical kashrut laws for Jews have always been a powerful tool in keeping us a “nation set apart” that didn’t fall prey to assimilation. Esau sells his birthright for a portion of lentil soup — a thick, juicy filet mignon steak in our contemporary language. He even expresses his desire to have the broth “poured into his mouth” as one would feed a camel. To have one’s eyes on a historic mission, to realize the goal of having “all the families of the earth blessed by us” through our vision of a God of compassionate justice, morality and peace requires a lifestyle of commitment to an ideal and delayed gratification that is foreign to — and even impossible for — the character displayed by Esau. When Jacob tells Esau that he will meet up with him in Seir, our Midrash connects this rapprochement to the messianic period when “the saviors will go up to Mount Zion to judge the mountain of Esau.”

Jacob then continues to travel to Succoth, which implies the tabernacle and the Holy Temple, the place in Jerusalem from where our message to the world will eventually emanate. But before Jacob can affirm his covenantal continuity and begin to achieve his destiny, he must first disgorge the grasping hands of Esau that have overtaken his personality. After a mysteriously eerie nocturnal struggle with an anonymous assailant, he now proudly stands as Israel, the righteous representative of God and the fitting recipient of the Abrahamic birthright.

We at the BZD Mourn with Israel

The horrific slaughter of four rabbis, who were reciting morning prayers in a Jerusalem synagogue, is still one more reminder of the hatred and outrageous actions perpetrated by Palestinian terrorists in the name of Islam (“Horror in Har Nof,” Nov. 21). Equally disturbing are the wild, joyous celebrations that occurred among Palestinians, both in Gaza and the West Bank, who praised this horrendous, vile act.

This has evoked a sharp reaction from the leadership of the Baltimore Zionist District, which has urged the White House to pressure Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, not only to condemn the growing violence perpetrated by Jerusalem- and West Bank-based terrorists, but also to take concrete measures to de-escalate the climate of incitement created by his speeches and policies against Jews and the Jewish state.

While Abbas issues politically correct statements to foreign media in which he half-heartedly condemns these terrorist acts, this so-called moderate leader issues “greetings of honor and esteem” to mass murderers in praise of their “heroism” and glorifies them as “martyrs.” Such conduct is counter-productive to creating a peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians but, unfortunately, reflects the policies of the Palestinian Authority’s leadership.

We mourn with all civilized society this senseless slaughter.

Thank you, JT

Every week I look forward to reading your thorough coverage of the Jewish world. I read the heartbreaking article about the funerals of the murdered rabbis (“Horror in Har Nof,” Nov. 21). Many news organizations, even The New York Times, reported thousands came to pay the rabbis their final respects. Even the sad  photo and its caption, “Hundreds of Israelis mourn at the funeral for three of the victims,” did not do justice. Baltimore benefits each week from your award-winning journalism.

Meeting the Jewish World’s New, Urgent Need

The rise in anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activities in academia begs for an effective strategy to address this new challenge. As Jewish teens arrive on college campuses, they are thrust into a vulnerable position: unprepared, uninformed, and unable to cope with hostility, antagonism and even worse against Israel and Jews. Furthermore, the problems in academia are making their way into our high schools.

Birthright Israel is one of the Jewish world’s greatest innovations. It superbly accomplishes what it set out to do. However, when Birthright Israel started in 1999, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activities on campus were not the critical issue they have become. Consequently, teaching Jewish teens Israel advocacy skills and complex approaches to Israel before they go to college is a new, urgent need. The extension of the Birthright Israel program, by lowering the age of eligibility to 16, is the best and possibly only solution for battling the growing crisis quickly and effectively.

The effectiveness of the teen Israel experience has been demonstrated by numerous studies. Most recently, Professor Steven M. Cohen and Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz conducted a study of alumni, ages 18 to 39, of the Lappin Foundation’s Youth to Israel Adventure (Y2I), a fully subsidized Israel experience for 16- and 17-year-old Jewish teens. Recently released findings of the commissioned study found that 72 percent of the Y2I alumni in the 18-to-39 age group have married fellow Jews, and of those who are parents, 90 percent of them are raising their children Jewish.

Pertinence of the study is that Birthright Israel’s effectiveness will not be diluted by lowering the age of eligibility to 16, and it will indeed provide an opportunity for Birthright Israel to significantly improve by expanding its reach and its role in addressing one of the Jewish world’s growing crises.

A teen Israel experience before college provides the background, and ample time — up to two years, for teens to learn how to advocate for Israel, something that Birthright Israel is not able to do, given that Birthright Israel trips take place after a young adult’s college experience has started. As has been Y2I’s practice for years, local communities can develop programs that will train and equip Jewish teens with skills and techniques necessary to contend with anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activities and sentiments before, during and after their college years but only if teens have been fortified with an Israel experience. The firsthand experience of having been in Israel, understanding Israel’s role in the world and marveling at Israel’s contributions to every field of human endeavor resonates with teens, making not only Israel advocacy effective, but also Jewish life more readily meaningful.

Key to attracting Jewish teens en masse to an Israel experience is the adoption of the justly admired Birthright Israel model: a free 10-day trip. Birthright Israel is the only viable entity to meet this new challenge. If Birthright Israel agrees to lower its age of eligibility to 16 and the government of Israel helps to fund it as part of its new initiative, the Jewish world will be well on its way to meeting this new, urgent need.

Robert Israel Lappin is president of the Lappin Foundation.

We’re Young, But We Get It

Two weeks ago, thousands of American Jewish leaders from across the country gathered outside Washington, D.C., for the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly to discuss issues pertaining to Israel, Jewish continuity and campus life.

One of the more engaging programs at the GA was a plenary panel featuring journalists I admire: Jeffrey Goldberg, Aluf Benn, Steven Linde and Linda Scherzer. As the conversation drifted from the media’s coverage of the war this summer to support for Israel, Benn pointed out that American liberals, especially young people, still traditionally support Israel but are growing more critical of the occupation.

Scherzer responded with: “Do you think young people just don’t get it?” With its deep condescension toward me and my peers, that moment revealed a major flaw in the American Jewish community’s approach to young people. The JFNA, like the rest of the community, knows that it has a problem engaging with us. It was frequently discussed at the GA. But the nature of those conversations actually epitomized the problems they purported to solve.

The panel “Doing Jewish in College and Beyond: Effective Ways to Engage Young Jews” had not a single student or young person on the panel. In fact, several of the students who asked questions were told that their views were “parochial” and only representative of a tiny, insignificant minority.

The program “Generation #Hashtag” highlighted statistics about the rise of anti-Semitism on campuses, even as the students on the panel itself insisted that they didn’t feel unsafe or insecure as Jews.

The fact is, millennials are not staying away because their local federation’s Facebook page is not attractive enough; they are staying away because when they want to talk about their beliefs and goals, they are often condescended to or ignored. Assuming that by understanding Facebook and Twitter they can understand how millennials think, the organizers of the conference displayed how out of touch they really are with young people. I attended the GA because I feel a personal investment in Israel, Zionism and the American Jewish community. I’m a Pakistani-American Muslim, so I’ll forgive you if you find that confusing.

I grew up sympathetic to Palestinian rights and grievances in the heavily Jewish suburb of Potomac, Md. I decided I wanted a more substantive understanding of the Israeli narrative after some abortive arguments in high school, so when I began college, I started going to Hillel, took classes in the Israel Studies department and joined J Street U. Unexpectedly, I fell in love with Zionism. I spent a semester in Jeru-salem and started learning Hebrew.

I began to organize in support of a solution to the conflict both out of deep concern for Palestinian rights and for Israel’s security as a Jewish democracy. I am in this for the long haul.

So what does Scherzer think I and the rest of my generation don’t get? The fact that Israel is facing serious security threats? That a peace deal, though necessary for Israel’s long-term security, will also contain risks? That Israel will never be completely secure until it has internationally recognized borders and international legitimacy?

We do get it, and we want to do something about it. Our views are not infallible, but the notion that we cannot understand the complexity of the conflict simply because we are young is offensive and wrong.


Amna Farooqi is the Southeast representative to the J Street U student board.

Walking the Walk

Josh_RunyanHours after terrorists shot up the Kehilat Bnei Torah synagogue in Jerusalem two weeks ago and massacred four of its tefillin-clad worshippers, pictures and video of the American media’s initial coverage of the attack went viral. Passed along by thousands of indignant users of social networks, one clip in particular offered a window into what could arguably be termed the sorry state of journalism today.

In that clip, now removed from the website of CBS News, “CBS This Morning” co-anchor Nora O’Donnell tells viewers in a lead-in to a report from Jerusalem that “two Palestinian attackers died in a shootout with police. It happened at a contested religious site in Jerusalem.”

That O’Donnell was wrong to call a synagogue in a majority-Jewish neighborhood in West Jerusalem, far from the internationally disputed “Green Line” demarcating Israel’s 1967 borders, a “contested religious site” is an understatement. But was it revealing a larger anti-Israel bias?

Certainly, there are some who think so. Like the O’Donnell broadcast that drew attention to the death of two Palestinians and not the slaughter of four Jewish men, a screenshot of a CNN report that circulated through Facebook shortly after the Har Nof attack mentioned only the death of Palestinians. The problem beneath such grotesque misrepresenting of facts on the ground, observes former Associated Press reporter Matti Friedman, is an entire subculture of Israel-based Western journalists that hews to a storyline of Israel being the aggressor against a Palestinian population that just wants peace.

Writing in The Atlantic, Friedman — who revealed questionable editorial practices in the AP’s Jerusalem bureau in an article he wrote for Tablet magazine shortly after the conclusion of this summer’s Israeli offensive against Hamas in Gaza — argues that the revolving door between U.N. offices, NGOs and Jerusalem news bureaus has only magnified the lack of understanding that journalists have of the region’s history and its struggles. No one questions the efficacy of Oxfam or its accounting practices, he points out, let alone dives into the likely dangerous pool of uncovering Palestinian Authority corruption or the tactics of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists.

Better to feed off of the ready supply of NGO reports critical of Israel, concludes Friedman, an enterprise that because of Israel’s democratic character won’t result in your execution.

The picture Friedman paints is one more of laziness and ineptitude on the part of journalists than of any deep-seated anti-Israel animus. It’s just that the ignorant are being taking advantage of by those with an ax to grind against the Jewish state.

Back on these shores, gaffes such as O’Donnell’s should be seen for what they are: ignorance. And the only cure for such a systemic failure to try to tease out the truth is education.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, groups of Baltimoreans are regularly putting their money where their mouths are and traveling to the Jewish state on volunteer missions to help ease the demands placed on Israel’s reservist military personnel.

But they’re not just going to help; many are traveling to learn something about what a war means to those who fight it.

What they learned is that, surrounded by a hostile environment, Israel needs all the help it can get.


Understanding Conversion

With all of the talk about the technicalities of conversion and the alleged abuse of the system, the core of what conversion is and why the process seems so convoluted has been lost. For any intelligent discussion to take place, it is essential that this be clarified.

What is conversion? On the one hand, the idea of hereditary belonging — which runs counter to the concept of choosing one’s religious identity — lies at the very core of Judaism.

As recorded in the Torah, the Jewish people came into existence as the result of two hereditary covenants. “And I will establish my covenant between Me and you, and your children after you for all generations,” G-d tells Abraham in the Book of Genesis. Later on, in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses, speaking for G-d, says, “Not with you alone do I make this covenant. … It is with you who stand here this day … and with those who are not with us.”

Put simply, if you are born Jewish, you are Jewish, irrespective of what you may do or what you may profess; you are irrevocably Jewish. But detailed analysis of scriptural sources reveals the inclusion of various types of “strangers” in the fabric of ancient Jewish society, one of which is the “ger tzedek,” the righteous stranger who is indeed considered to be a full-fledged Jew.

To become part of the Jewish people, this righteous ancestor must go through the same process that our ancestors went through when the covenant establishing their peoplehood was transacted. By doing so, they join a spiritual legacy that, like hereditary transference, cannot be severed.

Belief systems lie at the very foundation of how people live their lives. Changing this foundation in midlife — as, indeed a convert must do — is like trying to straighten the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It requires planning and preparation as well as delicate execution.

Our sages determined that this process consisted of immersion in a proper ritual bath known as a mikvah, circumcision for male converts and acceptance of the Torah by the same declaration used when it was given at Mount Sinai, na’aseh v’nishma, “we will do and we will learn.” After signaling the unequivocal acceptance of all of the Torah, both the written and oral law, before a valid rabbinical court, the convert is accepted as a full-fledged Jew.

How does the court ensure the absolute sincerity of the candidate?

The clearest way to accomplish this is to initially mildly discourage the candidate and then be deliberate in the process, in order to test a convert’s resolve. Furthermore, the court must insist on the convert adopting and adapting to a proper Torah-observant lifestyle. Anything less simply makes a mockery of the enormity of the transformation that needs to take place and the seriousness of joining a legacy stretching back thousands of years.

The “price” that is charged for entrance into the covenant is exactly the same as the one our forebears paid to enter it. Giving in to the pressure of the moment and expediency is not only dishonest but also a recipe for disaster.

Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan is the regional director of Chabad-Lubavitch in Maryland.

Democrats Painfully Quiet in Primary

I respectfully disagree with Doug Gansler when he stated that the reason he lost the gubernatorial primary election was due to the Democratic establishment and machine (“Gansler Looks Ahead,” Nov. 21). I voted for Gansler in the primary, but, unfortunately, the voter turnout for that election, I believe, was less than 20 percent. The voice of the people certainly is louder than any establishment machine. I think the registered Democrats who voted for Hogan in November were correct to want change, but where was their voice in June? Shame on them for staying home and not voting for change at that time.

Look to Torah for God’s Forgiveness

I was shocked and saddened about the scandal related to Rabbi Barry Freundel (“Prominent Rabbi Arrested,” Oct. 17; “Freundel Had Planned More Student Tours,” Oct. 31). As a former Washingtonian and author of “The Jewish Community of Washington, D.C.,” I had visited Freundel’s synagogue, Kesher Israel, on a number of occasions. My great-grandfather, Morris Garfinkle, was involved with Kesher Israel and in the dedication of the current building back to the year 1931.

To the leadership and membership of Kesher Israel, I want to support you. In this day and age where many wrongdoings by leaders in the Jewish community are covered up, you had the temerity and moral courage to do what was necessary.

To those who were affected by the mikvah scandal and may be turned off by Judaism, do not let the actions of one person, or even a few, turn you away from all that is right and beautiful about our religion. For every leader who is tarnished by unacceptable behavior, there are many who strive for and achieve moral excellence.

I will not pass judgment on Rabbi Freundel since he is entitled to his day in court and is presumed innocent until proven guilty by a jury of his peers. As flawed as one might prove to be, our Torah gives us examples of how we can approach God for forgiveness. Next month, we will read the Torah portion of Vayeshev, where Judah admits openly that he was wrong in his actions related to Tamar (Genesis 38:1-28). In Samuel II, when the Prophet Nathan rebukes King David for his sin related to Batsheva and Uriah, David openly admits it and is remorseful. Our religion teaches us that we all fall prey to sin, but we strive to atone for what we have done and emerge as better people.

Shame on Hogan’s Dishonest Campaign

The election of Larry Hogan as governor is a good example of what is wrong with American politics (“Hogan Dominates, Nov. 7). His campaign repeatedly criticized the O’Malley-Brown administration for its tax increases. Let’s look at the facts. In 2008-2009, the nation went through a recession in which millions of people lost their jobs and tax revenues plummeted. The federal government racked up trillion-dollar deficits, and 48 states were forced to raise taxes and reduce services.

In Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley, in consultation with Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature, raised taxes, reduced services and balanced the state budget. In his dishonest campaign, Hogan repeatedly claimed that the O’Malley administration recklessly raised taxes. Exactly the opposite happened. Hogan owes all Marylanders an apology for his dishonest and despicable campaign.