First, We Must Perfect Ourselves

101014_riskin_sholmo_rabbiThis magnificent three-week festival period — Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot — may be viewed and experienced in two dimensions simultaneously: the universalist, nationalist dimension and the particularistic, individual family dimension.

Rosh Hashanah is the day on which the world was born, when the sigh-sob truah sound of the shofar cries out against the tragedies and injustices of an imperfect world, and the sharp, joyous tekiyah sound reminds us of our responsibility — and ability — to help perfect the world by conveying the moral message of ethical monotheism, a G-d who demands justice, compassion and peace.

On Yom Kippur, the Almighty declares His readiness to forgive the nation Israel of its great sins.

Sukkot is the climax of the season, taking us out of our egocentric, partisan lives and ordaining that we surround ourselves with fruits of the Land of Israel, living beneath a roof of vegetation through whose spaces we look up at the stars. Seventy bullocks were sacrificed in the Holy Temple during the Sukkot festival, symbolizing the 70 nations of the world.

Finally, Shemini Atzeret announces the onset of the rainy season: Rain is, after all, a gift from G-d to the world.

Shemini Atzeret moves into the uninhibited joy of Simchat Torah, when all Torah scrolls are taken out of the ark and become the focus of frenzied dancing not only in the synagogues, but also outside in the public domain.

However, Judaism understands only too well that one dare not focus on humanity without concentrating on individuals. One cannot be a concerned universalist without hearing the cries of one’s next-door neighbor. Yes, it is the Jewish mission to convey the message of ethical monotheism to a world. The people of the covenant must perfect the world in the Kingship of our G-d of justice, compassion and peace. But first we must perfect ourselves: not only our nation, but also our community; not only our community, but also our family; and not only our family, but also ourselves.

A disciple once approached Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, founder of the Mussar Movement in Judaism, seeking permission to spread the ethical and moral message of the Master to Germany and Austria. The rabbi responded: “And is the City of Salant so imbued with my teachings that you can afford to leave Lithuania? And is the street on which you live so morally inspired that you can teach in another community? And is your own family so careful in their conduct that you can preach to other families? And what about you, my beloved disciple? Are you on such a high level of ethical integrity that no one could criticize you?”

And so Rosh Hashanah ushers in a 10-day period of repentance and introspection when we must be mindful of the need to perfect the world, but we must first attempt to perfect ourselves. Rosh Hashanah is the day on which the world was born, but it is also the “day of judgment,” when everyone passes before the Almighty to be evaluated and judged, when each of us must evaluate and judge ourselves from the perspective of Divine standards.

Yom Kippur may be a historic and national day of forgiveness, a day on which we invoke our Holy Temple as a “House of Prayer for all nations,” but it is first and foremost a day in which the individual stands in isolation from the world in the presence of the Divine. No food, no drink, no sexual relationship — with almost the entire day to be spent in G-d’s house. Each of us rids ourselves of all materialistic encumbrances, separates ourselves from physical needs and blandishments, enters a no-man’s land between heaven and earth, between life and death, dons the non-leather shoes worn by the mourner and, in effect, feels what it’s like to mourn for oneself asking what legacy would I leave, were I to be taken from the world today?

And then comes Sukkot. For one week leave your fancy surroundings, go back to basics. Spend seven days with your family in a simple hut.

Remember that “when familial love is strong, a couple can sleep on the edge of a sword; but when familial love has gone sour, a bed of sixty miles does not provide sufficient room” (Sanhedrin 7a). Forget the televisions and videos; bring the special guests of the Bible into your simple but significant space, commune with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Lea, Miriam, Deborah and Ruth. Introduce them to your children, and sing and speak and share together.

Remember — and communicate — that important is values not venues, content not coverings, inner emotions and not external appearances. And let the sukkah lead you to Simchat Torah, to the love and joy of Torah, which will help form the kind of individuals and families who can build communities and ultimately change the world.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

Looking Back on a Leap Year

Melissa_GerrA year ago I changed professions and joined the Baltimore Jewish Times. Anticipation and aftermath of such a leap can conjure terrifying thoughts or much worse — experiences to match.

But I was fortunate where I landed, at a gateway to a community that consistently presents me with moments of inspiration, humility and delight. As a reporter, part of my job is to find and follow stories, which has allowed me access into lives that span the breadth of Baltimore’s Jewish community.

At an interview with Gary Rosendorf, he recounted (with great humor) how he practically tripped onto his dream just by trusting something very simple that he loved to do — baking challah for family and friends — and inadvertently grew a family business that offers some of the most sought-after challah in the Baltimore/D.C. area.

The compositions of Gilbert Trout, world-class musician, composer, data mining genius and commercial realtor, illustrate what can happen when unconventional paths are taken, even within devout religious beliefs — which he was brave enough to do and has found fulfillment and success.

Rabbi Menachem Goldberger of Tiferes Yisroel, so moving as he spoke gently and eloquently as he explained the significance of beauty in a house of prayer at his congregation’s beit midrash dedication — where no detail was left undone to create an awe-inspiring reverent atmosphere; and 25-year-old powerhouse (not hyperbole here) Chaya Appel Friedman, a wife, mother, and soon to be lawyer who had the courage to identify a gap and fill with her successful organization Jewish Woman Entrepreneur, a network that supports creative, enthusiastic observant Jewish women in all aspects of their business ventures.

Or Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin and Baltimore Harbor Water Keeper David Flores, both dedicated and impassioned environmentalists, who have helped improve water quality for all Baltimoreans; and 9-year-old record breaking swimmer Alan Cherches with his parents Olga and Dmitry—Russian immigrants who as a family, model what is possible with the combination of dedication, determination and love.

I learned of countless far-reaching ripple effects within the community too, like the Attman family legacy which encompasses much more than corned beef; the staggering, quiet philanthropy of Willard Hackerman and all he made possible for the religion and city he loved; the brilliance and creativity of Dr. Paul Gurbel at Sinai Hospital who leads a cutting edge research facility that has impacted thousands of heart patients worldwide; and the unshakable spirit of Frieda Pertman, a 96-year-old Holocaust survivor who lost her whole family in Poland during World War II but survived to become the loving, powerful matriarch of her progeny here on the other side of the world and still approaches life with deep gratitude.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I look forward to many more stories Baltimore has to offer.

Blood Money

A memorial plaque for the victims of the 2003 suicide bombing at Mike's Place in Tel Aviv. (Avishai Teicher via Wikimedia Commons)

A memorial plaque for the victims of the 2003 suicide bombing at Mike’s Place in Tel Aviv. (Avishai Teicher via Wikimedia Commons)

With its recent judgment against Arab Bank, a New York jury has potentially paved the way for justice in the form of significant financial penalties against the bank and compensatory payments to victims of terror and their families.

We see this as a significant decision — one that through the legal process will enable victims of terror to accomplish results that have not been achieved through orchestrated economic sanctions.

On Sept. 22, a unanimous jury in the case entitled Linde v. Arab Bank found that the Amman-based lender — the biggest in Jordan — knowingly funded Hamas-affiliated terrorists and terror organizations during the Second Intifada. The bank’s financial support led to 24 attacks in Israel from 2001 to 2004, including suicide bombings, and violated the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act.

The plaintiffs in the Linde case — about 300 victims and their relatives — established that a portion of the funding for the terror attacks was provided through front organizations operating as “Islamic charities” that disbursed funding and cash payments through 22 Arab Bank branches in the West Bank and Gaza. The evidence further established that, in many instances, cash payments were given to individuals who were not account holders.

The Arab Bank has said that it will appeal the jury’s findings. And the bank asserts that the decision “exposes the banking industry to enormous liability for nothing other than the processing of routine transactions.” But the case has already sent an important message: Banks have a responsibility to ensure that the funds they hold do not end up in the hands of terrorists and that they cannot turn a blind eye to such activity.

By being the middle men in the channeling of blood money, it is as if those bankers are shedding the blood themselves. And for that, it is appropriate for participating banks to be held accountable and liable.

A Hunger for Justice

By many indicators, America is recovering from the recession that hit six years ago. The reported rates of employment, the GDP and the stock market are all moving in a positive direction. But when it comes to food security — the ability of Americans to feed themselves and their families — things are still far worse than before the market crash of 2008.

In 2013, one in seven households had trouble providing food for everyone at least some time during the year, according to a report released last month by the U.S. Agriculture Department. That’s more than 49 million people, including 15.8 million children, struggling to pay for healthy, affordable meals in one of the wealthiest nations on earth.

Yet, the real picture is likely even worse than the report suggests. In November 2013, Congress allowed an automatic cut to funding for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that serves millions of low-income individuals and families. Again in early 2014, Congress and the White House slashed the program by an additional $8.55 billion over a decade, a reduction of around $90 per month for each of 850,000 households. The hardship imposed by these SNAP cuts were not reflected in the food insecurity report.

What these cuts do is privatize hunger relief.

Whenever the public safety net — SNAP, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the National School Lunch Program and Older Americans Act nutrition programs such as Meals on Wheels — is weakened by our elected officials, food banks become overwhelmed with demand. The work they and groups such as Mazon, the Jewish response to hunger, do is commendable, but they are not solutions to a societywide problem and a national shame.

Strengthening the public safety net is a matter of fairness. But the root causes of food insecurity are the insufficiency of jobs that pay a living wage, adequate child care that allows parents to work to feed their families and better transportation and urban planning to reduce the time and expense for workers to commute to places of employment.

As we approach a time of introspection on Yom Kippur and think of how we can help address the needs of those less fortunate, we should consider the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Offer your compassion to the hungry, and satisfy the famished creature.” That’s the expectation Congress needs to hear from us when it considers legislation such as the 2015 Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act.

Don’t Lose Sight of Terror’s Human Impact

In the wake of the historic verdict by a federal court in Brooklyn that found Jordanian Arab Bank liable for knowingly providing financial services to Hamas, it’s important to remember that the decision can be more than just a message to financial institutions doing business with terrorists.

This landmark ruling should also be an incredible message to the 297 plaintiffs in the case — who were either injured themselves or have family members who were killed in 24 different Hamas attacks during the Second Intifada — that we recognize their suffering and losses as well as the travails of all other terrorism survivors, victims and victims’ family members whose claims derive from other acts of Palestinian violence not yet been addressed in a court of law.

The Brooklyn court’s decision also has more than just legal and financial implications. We must focus on the human impact of terror on surviving individuals and the families — the physical and emotional scars they will carry for the rest of their lives. How can one forget the aftermath of a bomb detonated in a crowded bus or café, bullets flying through a car windshield or a rocket crashing through an apartment building?

Over the past decade, I have interviewed terrorism survivors and their families, as well as victims’ families, while compiling my book, “Living Beyond Terrorism: Israeli Stories of Hope and Healing.” I have heard the voices and passions of otherwise ordinary people performing ordinary activities — Jews, Christians, Muslims and Druze riding in buses, dining in restaurants, shopping in markets, studying at college, visiting hotels or walking on the street — who suddenly become victims of suicide bombings, shooting attacks and rocket attacks.

I have delved into their stories: how they were able to cope, or not able to cope, with experiencing acts of terrorism.

I was privileged to hear and tell the stories of 16 of the plaintiffs from the Arab Bank case. They were victims of some of the worst Palestinian terror attacks in the history of Israel, including the Sbarro pizzeria bombing in Jerusalem, the Park Hotel Passover Massacre in Netanya, the Mike’s Place bombing in Tel Aviv and the Hebrew University cafeteria bombing. While these attacks have been etched into the memory of most Israelis, the experiences of the plaintiffs are more than a memory; they are the events that shaped the rest of their lives. For the plaintiffs, the verdict was likely a significant step in their emotional journey of healing and trying to make their voices heard.

As we approach the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, let’s remember those who have fallen due to acts of terror and pray for those who have survived and for their extended families. Let them hear our voices and understand that we have not forgotten. Let’s also hope and pray that those who have perpetrated, abetted and defended terrorism will take this court decision seriously and finally say, “I’m sorry.”

Dr. Zieva Dauber Konvisser is a fellow of the Institute for Social Innovation at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif. Her new book, “Living Beyond Terrorism: Israeli Stories of Hope and Healing,” looks at how 48 survivors of terrorism have moved forward from terrorism to hope and optimism.

Give People Hope: Restore Federal Funding for Medical Research

The failure of Congress to approve funding for the National Institutes of Health for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 is yet another blow to patients and families whose hopes for alleviating their burden of disease and disability are intertwined with groundbreaking biomedical research.

On behalf of all the physicians, scientists and health professionals who are committed to improving the health of America’s communities, I call on Congress to pass an NIH funding bill that restores the indiscriminate budget cuts enacted two years ago as part of budget sequestration.

For nearly 70 years, the nation’s research investment through NIH has improved our understanding of the causes of disease, increased life expectancy and enhanced the health and well-being of Americans everywhere. Every day, physicians and scientists at the nation’s medical schools, teaching hospitals and universities see the promise that biomedical research brings.

Over time, NIH-funded research has led to a decline of more than 60 percent in deaths from heart disease and stroke. NIH-supported advances have led to tests to predict breast cancer recurrence and to the discovery of genetic markers for complex illnesses. These and many other medical breakthroughs have saved tens of thousands of lives, while new prevention methods and treatments continue to save countless more.

With support from the federal government, University of Pittsburgh researchers, for example, are developing new gene tests to identify which prostate cancers require aggressive treatment; they are exploring how brain health is influenced by lifestyle choices, depression and other factors to possibly prevent dementia and cognitive decline; and they are creating new insights into pancreatitis treatment by identifying unanticipated relationships to cystic fibrosis. These are just a few examples of the hope that NIH-funded studies give the nation’s patients and families.

Physicians and scientists at U.S. medical schools and teaching hospitals conduct more than half of all external research funded by NIH.

Despite the many important life-saving discoveries resulting from NIH-supported research, recent budget cuts slashed NIH’s budget by $1.7 billion over the past year, which led directly to an estimated 1,000 fewer research labs being funded than the year before.

In 2012, NIH-funded research supported more than 400,000 jobs across the country. The nation’s investment in NIH also is the foundation for long-term U.S. global competitiveness in industries such as biotechnology, medical device manufacturing and pharmaceutical development.

The United States is the world’s leader in medical innovation. Nobody doubted that fact when the NIH appropriation doubled between 1998 and 2003.

Now, China, India and other countries are challenging our dominance by vastly increasing public funding for medical research.

By failing to sustain our commitment to medical research, we risk losing our leadership position at the most critical scientific frontier of the 21st century. Americans deserve cures, not cuts.

Arthur S. Levine, M.D., served at the National Institutes of Health for three decades and is both senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and the John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

Join Us for Joyful Jewish Experience

Simone Ellin’s article on the East Bank Havurah (“A Time for Renewal,” Sept. 19) reflected well the history and character of our group. I received a warm welcome upon visiting the group three years ago. As a dues-paying member since then, I have participated actively, hosting Shabbat services in my home and learning Mussar (an ages-old Jewish spirituality practice to refine one’s character traits) with fellow members. I encourage people seeking a joyful Jewish experience to visit or call 410-358-3694; then, visit us
in person.

Consider joining our unique Yom Kippur worship at the Pearlstone Conference Center on Oct. 3-4.

Susan London Russell

Quarry Not Represented By Dissatisfied Few

Rabbi Shapiro’s article “Please Be Kind” (Sept. 19) quite properly and effectively urges that, as Jews, we remember where we came from, that we treat each other with kindness and respect and that we should look out for one another. Rabbi Shapiro referenced an incident involving a small number of residents of the Quarry who failed to live up to that standard.

The rabbi was accurate in his observation, and he, as well as the larger community, should be assured that the wrongful comments of a few do not represent the views of the majority of the residents of the Quarry nor those of the officers and board of directors of the Greenspring Quarry Association, Inc.

Stuart Hirsch
President, Greenspring Quarry Association, Inc.

Holocaust Plaque Is a Must-Read

Basically hidden behind Joseph Sheppard’s sculpture at Baltimore’s Holocaust Memorial is a raised plaque. It bears the best, most concise explanation of the Holocaust I have ever read, just four paragraphs, written by Dr. Deborah Lipstadt. I recommend that the plaque be moved in front of Sheppard’s sculpture so that people passing by on Lombard Street may read it and be educated. Otherwise, there is minimal attention paid to the memorial, and I’m guessing that very little is learned from either the sculpture or the quote from Primo Levi on the memorial wall.

Bob Jacobson

Rice, Repentance Go Hand-in-Hand

In this High Holiday period of reflection, the Ray Rice imbroglio (“It’s Never Too Late to Do the Right Thing,” Sept. 12’s Opening Thoughts) offers a rare opportunity for an illuminating
exploration of comparative religion.

Taking nothing away from the hideous nature of domestic violence, still, the Rice case nicely crystallizes the difference between rabbinic Judaism and Pauline Christianity. The sweeping condemnation of Rice — including the NFL’s indefinite suspension of him, the Ravens’ jersey exchange, etc. — percolates a mindset that there should be no tolerance whatsoever of mistakes.

Such echoes the apostle Paul’s view that to violate a single commandment is no different than violating them all, with the punishment being absolute and eternal damnation. (The only remedy being acceptance of Jesus.) On the other hand, it is important to take into account Rice’s exemplary record of prior public service (for instance, the anti-bullying campaign), his expression of deep remorse and his pursuit of counseling: more like the Jewish idea of tshuva, repentance.

S.R. Cohen