The Choices We Make

This Shabbat, we read the beginning of the Torah, Parashat Bereishit. This text is about creation. On the first day, God created light and darkness. Each day God created something new such as the waters, the grass and the trees. After that, He created the sun, the moon and the stars, followed by birds in the sky and fish in the sea. The last creations were the animals on the land and finally the first people.

We understand that if the people were created first, they would have no resources to help them exist. Throughout the six days of creation God gave us a beginning for life. Just like Parashat Bereishit, there are new beginnings in my life. After becoming a bar mitzvah I will be considered a man. This new beginning began nine months ago when I started studying to become a bar mitzvah. Our lives will have many more new beginnings, and I think they will all build upon what has happened before.

In this parasha we also read about the Garden of Eden. The snake represents temptation in the world and approaches Eve with a fruit, telling her to eat from it. He tells Eve that nothing will happen to her except that she will be able to distinguish good from bad and that she will not die. Was Eve aware that she was making a choice that would affect the rest of her life? This text relates the real world to me as a young adult, because every day we face many choices, and we have to decide between doing good or bad. Sometimes people will try to influence us to do wrong. It is important to try to do good and to do the right thing.

The Light That Is Israel

This week’s haftarah is from the Book of Isaiah, chosen because it refers to the creation of the world. In the Torah portion, G-d creates light and darkness for the entire universe. In the haftarah, Isaiah says, “I will turn darkness before them to light.” Here, the darkness refers to the Israelites not obeying G-d’s laws and the covenant. So the Israelites find themselves in the darkness of exile out of the land of Israel. In contrast, G-d reminds the people that He created them to be “a light of the nation, opening eyes deprived of light, rescuing prisoners from confinement, from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.”

Isaiah refers to the people Israel as the covenant people, a light of nations. What does it mean to be a light of nations? Does it mean to be better than the other nations? Does the light refer to the ideas of the people of Israel?

There are several opportunities for Israel and the Jewish people to be a light of the nations. For example, the prophet Micah speaks to the people and says, “Only do justice, love goodness and walk modestly with your G-d.” This is certainly an ideal to work toward.

Another example where Israel serves as a light of the nations is found in the kiddush we recite on Shabbat. The kiddush teaches us to treat our animals, servants and strangers as we do ourselves — with a day of rest. In today’s world, Israel has developed technology and medical advances that have helped the world. In the area of politics, Golda Meir set a good example for women trying to reach high goals.

As I become a bat mitzvah, I hope also to contribute to Israel, the light of our nation. I plan to do this by continuing to contribute to our sister city, Ashkelon, and to other projects in Israel and to take as many trips as possible there, where I can continue to make connections with my homeland.

Sophie Getz is a seventh-grade student at Krieger Schechter Day School.

History Lesson, Part II

Baltimore City College (previously known by other names) was at more than the two locations described in “Baltimore City College Celebrates 175 Years” (Oct. 10) — primarily Courtland Street, Holliday and Fayette streets, Howard and Centre streets  (not Eutaw & Centre streets as mentioned in the article) and The Alameda.

 
“The Castle on the Hill” on The Alameda opened on April 10, 1928, after nearly two years of construction, not in 1939 as stated in the article.While Wikipedia is not an authoritative source, a comprehensive history of City College appears there at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Baltimore_City_College.

 
Erwin A. Burtnick
City College, Class of 1960
Baltimore

History Lesson, Part I

I enjoyed reading “Baltimore City College Celebrates 175 Years” (Oct. 10), but a correction is in order. “The Castle on the Hill” opened in 1929, not 1939. It cost about $3 million to build. [Editor’s note: The school at that location — The Alameda — actually opened in 1928, according to the school’s website.]

Jerome Ross
City College, Class of 1953
Pikesville

A Story of Inspiration

I found Allie Freedman’s article on Ben Goldstein (“Beyond the Stutter,” Oct. 10) very inspiring. He is a wonderful role model for positive thinking. Keep up the good work, Ben.

 
John Heyn
Owings Mills

Two Associations Target Jewish Stutterers

As a person who stutters I was thrilled to read your article “Beyond the Stutter” (Oct. 10) about Baltimore native Ben Goldstein, whose story is inspirational and puts a human face to stuttering.
Goldstein’s personal journey with stuttering is compelling and will serve to help other people who stutter. I would also like to mention two great organizations that would be of interest to your readers.

 

First, the Israeli Stuttering Association (ambi.org.il) has been doing great things, especially for children who stutter, in Israel and beyond. Second, here in the U.S., the Jewish Stuttering Association (jstutter.org) supports people in the Jewish community who stutter, and it promotes Torah-oriented activities for children who stutter.

 
I also want to mention the Stuttering Foundation (stutteringhelp.org) that is famous for giving out diverse free resources to children, adults and parents. One brochure on its website is “Special Education Law and Children Who Stutter” that explains how every child has the right to free speech therapy, thanks to federal legislation over 40 years ago. The free therapy is available to all children who are enrolled at any type of school, whether public, private or religious. This free therapy covers all speech problems.

 
Adam R. Lichter
Springfield, Mass.

Targeting the Islamic State’s Bottom Line

Speaking before the United Nations last week, President Barack Obama pledged to lead a global coalition of countries committed to degrading and destroying the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Alongside airstrikes, train-and-equip programs for moderate rebels and efforts to stop the flow of fighters into and out of the region, the president added that “we will work to cut off their financing.” That, however, may prove hard work.

The U.S. government has already kicked efforts to target ISIS financing into high gear. Airstrikes targeted a few dozen small oil refineries in Eastern Syria that were processing oil seized by ISIS, and other strikes hit a building U.S. Central Command described as an ISIS “finance center” in the Raqqa area. And there’s more to come: “This organization, even after the hits they’ve taken, still have financing at their fingertips,” Rear Adm. John Kirby said after the refinery airstrikes. “This is just the beginning.”

That’s good, because ISIS controls resources such as oil, wheat, water and ancient artifacts that it plunders for its own financial gain. Airstrikes aimed at thwarting its territorial expansion would have counter-terror finance benefits of its own.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury continues to designate terrorist financiers and logisticians supporting ISIS (and other groups), including 12 “foreign terrorist fighter facilitators” from Georgia, Indonesia, Qatar, Kuwait, Turkey and Jordan.

Unlike al-Qaeda, which is heavily reliant on major Gulf donors, ISIS has been financially self-sufficient for at least eight years by virtue of engaging in tremendously successful criminal enterprises in Iraq. According to a November 2006 U.S. government assessment cited in The New York Times, al-Qaeda in Iraq and other groups had created a self-sustaining insurgency in Iraq, raising $70 million to $200 million a year from illegal activities alone.

The problem is that we have tools — from military force to Treasury designations and more in between — to deal with oil smuggling and extremist sugar daddies in the Gulf, but our ability to counter ISIS’s criminal enterprises is severely limited. Coalition forces are no longer on the ground in Iraq, and there is no interagency Iraq Threat Finance Cell to collect financial intelligence and feed operators timely targeting information to take down ISIS financiers. Nor are Iraqi law enforcement agencies able or willing to effectively combat what amounts to local criminal activity.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 2170, passed in August to much acclaim, calls on all U.N. member states “to suppress the flow of foreign fighters, financing and other support to Islamist extremist groups in Iraq and Syria.” That is indeed a step in the right direction. But at least as important will be pressing and empowering the Shia-led government in Iraq to forgo sectarianism and corruption in favor of governance and the rule of law. The most complicated front in the financial fight against ISIS will be fought domestically against the vast criminal networks funding it within Iraq.

What the Gaza War Taught Us

I was in Israel with my congregation when the Gaza War broke out. We had just sat down for our farewell dinner when we heard the red alert. Rockets from Gaza were on their way. The staff calmly directed us to its safe room. Thankfully, Iron Dome intercepted all the rockets, and we returned to dinner.

Some of us stayed in Tel Aviv after the rest of the group returned home. Another congregant and I were in the water when the red alert again sounded. We were too far from the shelter so we ran for cover under a cement overhang. Within 38 seconds we saw the incoming rockets. We watched as Iron Dome missiles found their marks. We had other red alert moments during our post-Mission stay. This is what I learned:

Miracles still happen. Iron Dome is reported to be 90 percent effective. Yet, not one Hamas rocket struck a populated area. Analysts believe if not for the rockets, Israel would never have discovered Hamas’ plan to launch a major terrorist attack on Rosh Hashanah through its tunnels. Miracles or coincidences?

Israelis are tremendously resilient. We quickly learned the basics: shoes and a bag with water and medications next to the bed. At any moment an alert could sound. Despite tremendous stress, Israelis stayed calm and carried on.

Israel still makes us proud. How can we not feel for the Palestinian people’s suffering? Hamas relies on us to. Hamas knows it cannot destroy Israel militarily, so it seeks to delegitimize Israel. Its main weapon is not the rocket but the sound bite and graphic image. That is why Hamas plants rocket launchers among civilians and tells them not to leave when Israel warns them to evacuate. How do you deal with an enemy who hates you more than it loves its own people? Israel responds by doing what it can. What other military telegraphs its intentions by warning of an impending attack or continues to send humanitarian aid to reduce civilian suffering? Israel is not perfect. No nation is. But the lengths to which Israel goes to protect civilians is unprecedented, even if unappreciated, on the world stage. We have many reasons to be proud of Israel. I am most proud that, even under fire, Israelis retained their compassion for the enemy.

Israel needs us now more than ever. Even during the Gaza War, European Jews fleeing rising anti-Semitism in Europe made aliyah. What if Israel were not there for them? Israel relies on American support. Iron Dome is just one example. Rampant anti-Israel bias on college campuses is shaping the next generation of voters and policymakers. Main-line Protestant churches have already divested from Israel. What if Israel ever lost American support? Israel needs us to be more passionate in our support. Israel needs us to educate ourselves and our children about the issues and share what we know with others. Israel needs us to give what we can, show up when we can and advocate however we can.

We don’t have to agree with everything Israel does in its fight to existas a Jewish state, but we must do everything we can to support Israel’s success. As the great sage Hillel taught: “If I am only for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

Searching for Opportunities Among Contradictions

In the Middle East today, the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy, and every action — including doing nothing — produces a negative reaction.

For example, American disengagement in Iraq and refusal to intervene in the Syrian civil war have been identified as the root causes of the rise of the so-called Islamic State terrorists. Now American air attacks in support of those fighting those terrorists are being blamed for strengthening the genocidal regime of Bashar al-Assad of Syria as well as for stirring anti-American sentiment among Syrian rebels enough to make them join forces with the Islamic State.

These times appear to require the United States to wield its military and diplomatic prowess with the subtlety of a neurosurgeon, teasing out opportunities among the high-stakes contradictions. Which begs the question: Is our current leadership up to the task? While we have been told that the fight against the Islamic State will take a long time, we see little evidence of any meaningful plan or pursuit of a long-term solution. Although President Barack Obama announced on Sept. 10 a four-part “comprehensive and sustained counter terrorism strategy” to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, our prevalent strategy does not appear to be all that well developed and is certainly lacking in clarity or consensus.

The recent crisis over the Syrian town of Kobane, across the border from Turkey and whose residents are threatened with slaughter by Islamic State fighters, is a case in point. While the Islamic State is at the gates, Turkey refuses to engage its powerful military because a weakened Islamic State will strengthen the hated Assad regime.

Turkey has long called for a no-fly zone against Assad along the border. The Obama administration has resisted that option. Now that U.S. fighter planes are flying over Syria, the idea is worth revisiting. Would such a move bring Turkey into a more active role in the fight? That is a question probably worth testing.

Over the weekend, Turkey agreed to make its air bases available to the U.S.-led coalition and to be a training ground for Syrian opposition fighters. But even with that encouraging move, this war has an obvious lack of boots on the ground. While we donít think American troops should become directly involved in the conflict, we do think that American leadership is essential. But any such leadership needs a coherent and credible plan. We encourage the U.S. to step forward with such a plan. Thousands of lives depend on it.

Staying Ahead of Crises

 hazardous material crew cleans the apartment of Thomas Eric Duncan. Duncan was the first Ebola case  diagnosed in the U.S. He died on Oct. 8.

hazardous material crew cleans the apartment of Thomas Eric Duncan. Duncan was the first Ebola case diagnosed in the U.S. He died on Oct. 8.

Recent news of the first transmission of the Ebola virus in the U.S. — a nurse in Texas infected by the disease while treating the now-deceased Thomas Eric Duncan, with the CDC attributing her infection to a breakdown in protocol —
is spreading fear in a way that the reality of the 4,000 dead in West Africa did not.

With no cure, the highly contagious Ebola has an 80 percent kill rate. Every victim appears to infect another two people. And according to some, the disease could become a pandemic to rival the influenza outbreak of 1919 or the Black Plague. If so, it is sobering that officials, always at the ready to urge calm and profess to have things under control, have appeared surprised at each new twist in the Ebola story.

What the spread of hemorrhagic fever is demonstrating is that while an interconnected world of free trade, electronic networks and porous borders offers tremendous promise, it also presents fearful dangers. We’ve been seeing a lot of those dangers lately, and Ebola is just one of them. Whether it’s the continued growth of the so-called Islamic State, aided by the unimpeded flow of Western recruits, or the mass migration of tens of thousands of undocumented children across a wide-open border in the American Southwest, recent events have underscored the seeming inability of the United States to stay ahead of developments here at home, let alone half a world away.

The surge of the Islamic State, which has enslaved and beheaded its way through the Middle East, seems to have surprised the West. Some of the foreign fighters who have filtered through porous borders into the war zone are bound to return to their home countries, including the United States. Should they still possess their nihilist zeal, they will pose a worrying terror threat. Is America’s security apparatus ready for that?

Earlier this summer, a lack of planning seemed to surround the influx of children escaping deadly gang violence in Central America. Although the gang violence was not a sudden phenomenon, our government was apparently caught off guard, as 10,000 children crossed the border per month and turned themselves in to authorities. Some of the blame can be placed on Congress, which has spurned immigration reform since the George W. Bush presidency. But what this summer’s crisis showed is a U.S. leadership that appears unprepared.

Whether responding to threats of public health or national security, those in power should be anticipating threats that loom on the horizon. And because perception is reality, we need leadership that not only is thinking three moves ahead, but also is believed to be doing so by the American public and the world.