The Joy of Becoming a Rabbi

2013_jesse_grossIn a time and place when many in my generation perceive religion and politics as one in the same and often opt out of formal community involvement rather than opt in, why would anyone want to become a rabbi? After all, on Sept. 11, 2001, as I began my final year of undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland I found myself asking the same question. I had nearly completed a degree in history and Jewish studies with the thought that I would continue on to rabbinical school. Yet, I found myself wondering if there would be a place for a progressive, culturally committed Jew to become a teacher of Jewish tradition and a translator of Torah.

The decision to go to rabbinical school was not always a clear one. There were inklings of the possibility during my youth, especially during the months I spent at Jewish summer camp and the weekend retreats intended to spark community among Jewish youth. In those places my sense of wonder and awe were awakened. I would sit upon a hill for Shabbat services, watching the sun set over the Pocono Mountains. The notes of the guitar coupled with the liturgy of the prayer book was just the thing to ignite a youthful spirit into offering blessings for the abundance of beauty and nature that surround us.

Those summers sparked my sense of wonder and awe but also taught me the importance of relationships and community built on a sense of values and ethics. My rabbis and teachers taught me the importance of asking good, rich questions and caring about the process of debate and argument, sometimes more so than the outcome. Jewish tradition was gifted to me in a way that celebrated diversity, understood the importance of seeing ourselves as guardians of the earth and one another and cared deeply about tapping into the rhythms of Jewish time and purpose.

The decision to enter into the rabbinate was a tough one. Would I be able to authentically represent Judaism while also taking the creative responsibility of translating tradition meaningfully in every generation in stride? Becoming a rabbi allows me to pay close attention to what it means to cultivate a sense of awe and wonder in others. Instead of being an unintended consequence, my work as a teacher of Jewish tradition allows me to put spiritual growth and community building on the front burner of my daily concerns and efforts. It gives me permission to immerse myself in learning the ways and debates of our tradition so that I can provide others with opportunities to do that same. With it, comes an entire corpus of stories, ideas and ways of living that emphasize the importance of being in relationship to other people, to the community at large and to the earth.

Most importantly, the decision to become a rabbi becomes a model for the secular but committed progressive Jew to find deep and meaningful ways to engage with Judaism and to make it a way of life in a time and place when others might wonder if Jewish tradition can be relevant to the world today.

Rabbi Jessy Gross runs Charm City Tribe, a program of the Jewish Community Center.

Step Forward: Your Help Is Needed

It is a great honor to become Federation president. As I told my daughter, it was a hard-fought campaign with no opponents!  My plan is to continue the efforts of Rob Cahn, my immediate predecessor, to make the Federation into a modern nonprofit organization able to sustain itself and its programs through the contributions made by our donors, by funds realized from Federation fundraising events and monies received from grants from other nonprofit entities. In this way, the Federation can assist and support our Howard County community, including individuals in need (yes, they do exist in Howard County), synagogues and organizations.

Our 2013-2014 campaign has come to an end, and, for a second consecutive year, we have had a “flat” campaign; and our Jewish community is not alone in this regard. Initially, it was thought that the decrease in giving was tied to the downturn in the economy. However, the level of giving is not growing as the economy improves. I believe that our community has lost its zeal for charitable giving.

Using Howard County, one of the richest counties in Maryland and the country, as an example, the level of giving (Jew and gentile together) is around 4 percent of compensation in a recent study. The same study showed that the rate in Prince George’s County, a much less wealthy county in terms of overall average compensation, is 10 percent.  Some of the discrepancy can be attributed to faith-based giving in PG County, which is not as strong in Howard County. However, I think a great portion of the difference is that Howard County residents, in general, do not perceive that there is great need in their community and simply don’t give because of this perception.

This is certainly true for our Jewish community. However, our Jewish community, as does every Jewish community locally and around the world, has members in dire straits, in need of support to get food, either by bringing it to home-bound seniors and disabled people or helping them buy items, medical care, shelter or assistance for financial problems that cannot be handled at the time the problems arise. Just because these problems cannot be readily seen behind the lawns and homes of Howard County does not mean they don’t exist. If these problems exist in Howard County, you can be sure they exist in every Jewish community.

I know everyone tires of hearing that the Federation is a fundraising organization, but that is the simple reality. We raise money so that we can fund programs and social services in Howard County, support communities in need elsewhere in the United States and around the world in times of emergency and assist our fellow Jews internationally. This is why the Federation exists. Our Federation is the Jewish fundraising organization in our community and engaged in tikkun olam and tzedakah at home and together with more than 150 other local Federations on the national and international level. Our tireless volunteers and professional staff need your monetary assistance so that we can make the Federation work for all.

The 2014-2015 campaign starts in September. It is our hope that our community “steps forward” this fiscal year so that we can realize our fundraising goal and expand the Federation’s ability to provide meaningful programs and assistance. We cannot do it without the help of our entire Jewish community.

Richard Schreibstein is the president of the Jewish Federation of Howard County.

Spawn of Hate

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Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using explosive rhetoric in his rants against Israel. (File)

Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan was once a promising Middle Eastern leader. He had good relations with the West and a constructive, strategic relationship with Israel. And then it all fell apart.

In the span of a few short years, Erdogan morphed into a despot who promoted a nationalist opposition to the West and a visceral hatred toward Israel. As Erdogan now moves from serving as his country’s prime minister to serving as its president, he has moved freely from a troubling hostility toward Israel to an alarming bigotry toward Jews. Thus, in the midst of his recent campaign, Erdogan said of Israel: “Just like Hitler, who sought to establish a race free of all faults, Israel is chasing after the same target.” And he predicted that “one day they will pay for their tyranny. We are waiting impatiently to see the day of justice; I believe wholeheartedly that justice will be served.”

The apparent trigger for Erdogan’s anti-Semitic rant was Israel’s actions in Gaza. He is a friend of fellow Islamist Hamas and a champion of the Palestinian cause. But he uses his explosive rhetoric and politics of hate to distract Turks from his corrupt and increasingly authoritarian rule.

Erdogan’s departure from the path of moderation has not gone unnoticed in the United States. House members who have led the cause of U.S.-Turkish relations recently sent Erdogan a letter warning that his politics of hate were jeopardizing those ties. “Remarks you have made recently have been widely viewed as anti-Semitic and are most definitely anti-Israel,” the letter states. But those warnings changed nothing.

Indeed, it is doubtful that Erdogan understood the message from his Congressional friends. Rather, he seems focused on deflecting blame for his own mistakes. Thus, in May, he reportedly kicked a demonstrator who was protesting the deaths of hundreds of Turks in a coal mine disaster. Erdogan called the demonstrator “you spawn of Israel.” And, at another campaign rally, he attacked the American Jewish Congress, which asked him to return a prize it had given him in 2004. Erdogan’s response? “The American Jewish Association [sic] threatens me in their letter,” he said. “I will reply to their letter separately, but I want to call on them from here: They are killing women to stop them for giving birth to Palestinian babies; they kill babies so that they won’t grow up; they kill men so they can’t defend their country.”

Such hostility and hatred leaves little room for diplomacy. As a result, we may be settling in for a long, cold winter in our relationship with Turkey. Because, as the letter from the House members observed, Erdogan’s words of hate are now threatening his relationship with the United States.

Use Diplomacy, Not Bombs

Civilians have paid a horrific price in the ongoing violence in Gaza. I hope my members of Congress will support and work for a lasting cease-fire that includes lifting the Israeli blockade of Gaza. The U.S. has particular responsibility to help end the killing, since U.S. weapons are fueling this conflict. The International Committee of the Red Cross has called the blockade collective punishment against a civilian population. U.S. policymakers must call for lifting the blockade to ensure  a durable cease-fire.

While it’s imperative to address the immediate crisis, I also hope the U.S. will support long-term stability by shifting from a militarized approach in the Middle East to one rooted in inclusive diplomatic solutions. The success of the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran and the agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons demonstrates that the world can be made a safer place through diplomacy, not more bombing.

Robert Frey
Harwood, Md.

For Israel, IDF, BT Answers the Call

As fellow alumni of Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and veterans of the Israel Defense Forces, we want to thank Jordan Low for his exemplary service to Israel and wish him a full and speedy recovery from his injuries (“Ground Incursion Hits Home,” July 25).

Since its inception, Beth Tfiloh has represented a beacon of high-quality academic education and intellectual stimulation that has become a cornerstone for the Baltimore Jewish community. BT not only prepares students for the rigors of advanced education but also equips them with an essential value system to succeed outside the classroom.

As proof, BT boasts an impressive list of colleges and universities into whose ranks its graduates have matriculated as well as an equally remarkable number of alumni who have decided to risk life and limb to literally defend our values and fight for freedom, whether serving in the American military or the Israeli army. Jordan is but another example of the greatness that continues to come out of the hallways of Beth Tfiloh, and we are all honored to have him as a fellow alumnus.

Elie Berman
(BT 2004, Kfir Brigade)

Yoni Rose
(BT 2004, Nahal Brigade)

Alex Simone
(BT 2006, Paratroopers)

Zach Alter
(BT 2006, Kishrei Chutz)

Traci Siegel
(BT 2007, Air Force)

Ephraim Shapiro
(BT 2008, Unspecified)

Ari Benjamin
(BT 2009, Golani Brigade)

Eitan Fisch
(BT 2009, Armored Corps)

Josh Rosen
(BT 2009, Nahal Brigade)

Aaron Edelman
(BT 2010, Golani Brigade)

Binny Goldman
(BT 2010, Paratroopers)

Josh August
(BT 2012, Golani Brigade)

Yossi Kutler
(BT 2012, Golani Brigade)

Volunteer Opportunity: Support IDF Bases

Thank you for your editorial on what we can do to help Israel (“Support for Our Beleaguered Israeli Family,” July 18).

Another way is to volunteer on an Israel Army base. Volunteers for Israel is the exclusive representative for Sar-El in the U.S. We place volunteers on IDF bases for two to three weeks (some one-week programs are available ) to do civilian work such as packing medical supplies, repairing machinery and equipment, building fortifications and cleaning, painting and maintaining IDF bases. Volunteers work alongside Israeli soldiers, live in barracks on base, wear IDF work uniforms and enjoy three kosher meals a day.

Right now, bases are full of summer volunteers, but later in the summer and fall, much work will need to be done to resupply bases from the current IDF operation. Don’t just help with your checkbook — help Israel with your hands.

For more information, go to vfi-usa.org.

Larry Feldman
President
Volunteers for Israel

Poll Results Point to ‘Forgotten’ History

I was taken aback when I saw the results from the JT poll of July 11. When asked how the U.S. should deal with the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors who have flocked across the country’s southern border the past few months, 60 percent of respondents voted to “deport them quickly.” Amazing how so many of us have forgotten our history.

I remember learning about the MS St. Louis, which was turned away from our shores in 1939, denying 937 Jewish people the chance for a safe haven and a new life away from the atrocities that were taking place in Germany. I am in no way comparing the current situation to what took place during the Holocaust. But these are children, many of whom have parents who, like parents during World War II, sent them to the U.S. in the hope that they would find a safer and better life.

As Jews who should understand what it means to be ignored by the world and cast adrift to certain death, we should know better than to just say to these innocent children: “Deport them quickly.”

I hope we’ll be able to welcome these children and help them to have the life those 937 people were denied.

Gerri Baum
Baltimore
Editor’s note: The writer is an occasional columnist for the JT.

Diplomacy, Not Sanctions, for Iran

As negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program continue, I hope my senators and representative will seize the opportunity to publicly speak out in support of diplomacy. New sanctions (“Cruz Takes Aim at Iran,” Aug.1) or other saber-rattling measures could undermine the progress our diplomats have made toward a multi-year agreement that guards against a nuclear-armed Iran and the risk of another war over this issue.

The Friends Committee on National Legislation has more information on how Congress can support a peaceful resolution of the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program at fcnl.org/iran.

Richard Golding
Baltimore

Do Not Make Yourself a Pesel, Lest Torah Become an Idol

In the next parshah, Moses will tell the Israelite people: “Thereupon the Eternal One said to me, ‘Carve out two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to Me on the mountain; and make an ark of wood. I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the ark.’ After inscribing on the tablets the same text as on the first — the Ten Commandments that the Eternal addressed to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the Assembly — the Eternal gave them to me.”

Our parashah contains this second text of the Ten Commandments. One would expect a perfect replica of the first set, an exact repetition, as Moses and God both promise. It is startling and wonderful to see that the texts are not identical. Traditional commentary, encoded in the “L’cha Dodi” of the Friday night service, tells us that both versions of the commandment to observe the Shabbat are uttered in the same instant by God; the single Divine word shatters into countless sparks as when a hammer strikes the anvil.

Biblical criticism, however, teaches that the edited text we have before us is made up of different versions of our sacred narratives. Either way, the Torah pushes back against the notion that there could ever be a singular version of Divine truth. Divine truth is always beyond human grasp; the pure light of the Divine is necessarily refracted by human experience into countless colors.

Were we to imagine that God’s truth could be concretized into any form — two tablets, a Torah scroll, a dogma, or text — that would be idolatry. It would trivialize Divine wisdom and limit God’s infinite Presence to the specific letters we see in front of us. In that spirit of “pushing back against singular truth,” I would like to share a few challenging, sometimes playful, always important insights from the Chasidic anthology “Iturei Torah.” The translations are mine as are any mistakes. These commentaries are drawn from both the Exodus and Deuteronomy versions of the Ten Commandments.

Rabbi Baruch Epstein: V’zot haTorah asher sam Moshe lifnei b’nei yisrael — “This is the teaching that Moses set before the Israelites” (Deuteronomy 4:44). When we lift the Torah scroll after the Torah reading, it is our custom to recite this verse and to add al pi Adonai b’yad Moshe — “from the mouth of God through the hand of Moses.” This is astonishing, because these two verses were combined from two stories that have nothing to do with each other.

“Sifrei Chasidim”: “I stood before the Eternal and you at that time to convey the Eternal’s words to you, for you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain” (Deuteronomy 5:5). The “I” of a person, this is the cause of the separation between a person and his Creator. As long as we are thinking about the “I,” it is difficult to get closer to holiness.

Rabbi Aharon of Karlin: “Do not make for yourself an idol (pesel)” (Exodus 20:4). Don’t make yourself into someone who invalidates (posel) the ideas of others. Do not separate yourself from the community.

Rabbi Reuven Katz: “Do not use the name of God for falsehood” (Exodus 20:7). Do not attach God’s name to things that are false and lies. Do not put the stamp of holiness on things that are completely invalid, that may look like mitzvot but are instead serious sins. It is the way of the yetzer (evil impulse) to deceive human beings, to paint a picture of righteousness that really is dreadful sin. And that is why the world was shocked when God stated, “Do not use the name of God for falsehood,” for indeed the most serious crimes and sins and all the horrible and cruel murders are committed with the veil of truth, uprightness and justice.

Rabbi Noah Mindes: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). Here tirtzach is written with the vowel patach; in Deuteronomy, it is written with a kamatz. This is to teach that there are two kinds of murder: the physical one and the one about which our Sages spoke: “Whoever whitens (humiliates) the face of another in public is as if [he] spilled his blood” (Talmud, Bava Metzia 58).

“Shem MiShmuel”: “And these words which I command you shall be upon your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:6). Why not in the heart? The Kotzker Rebbe taught: “Sometimes these words lie upon your heart like a stone. And when the heart opens, in a special moment, they will enter it.” Most of the time our hearts are closed and things don’t enter it. But this is no reason to slacken from or forsake the worship of God. Let these things lie upon your heart, on the outside, like a stone. And some day, when your heart opens, these words will enter into it and be inside.

These commentaries play at the edge between reverence and rebellion: They know and treasure each word; at the same time, no single word, no single interpretation can ever capture the whole. Torah should never become a static idol. In the ever-expanding universe of Torah, each glimpse of Divine wisdom gives birth to infinitely more.

Rabbi Shira Milgrom is a rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, N.Y., and author of articles about Jewish spirituality, education, healing and women in Judaism. This column first appeared on reformjudaism.org.

Just Add Water

runyan_josh_otIn chemistry, a solvent is a liquid capable of dissolving another substance. The resulting homogeneous mixture is known as a solution.

In this regard, water is known as “the universal solvent” because of its unique ability to dissolve seemingly impermeable things. Jewish tradition teaches that the great Rabbi Akiva was even motivated to learn Torah — he had previously been illiterate — when contemplating how water, one drop at a time, was able to carve its way through rock. And the cleansing properties of a spring rain have not been lost on the countless poets and naturalists who have marveled at the ability for life itself to be renewed and rejuvenated through water.

But when we say a business is solvent, we mean that it is able to meet its financial obligations. In both the chemical and financial understandings of the word “solvent,” we can trace it back to its roots in Latin signifying the loosening up of something. A business is solvent if it is loose, if it is flush with cash. A problem is solved — or a solution is found — when, like a stubborn knot that finally unravels, all of its constituent parts are untangled.

But here in Baltimore, the rain and waters of the Gwynns Falls and the Jones Falls rivers have been too good at dissolving and the muck of decades of growth now sits in solution at the Inner Harbor. The water quality is so bad, one local businessman tells Melissa Gerr in this week’s cover story, that tourists have taken heed of signs warning of the harbor’s health hazards and taken their business elsewhere.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, a coalition of groups thinks it has the solution and aims to make the harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020. They’ve scored some successes, although the harbor recently received another F on an environmental firm’s report card. And as demonstrated in Toledo, Ohio, over the weekend, when residents discovered that their water, sourced from nearby Lake Erie, was suddenly unusable, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Water isn’t just a great tourism resource. Since time immemorial, clean water has been a prerequisite for a functioning society. And some political scientists have been warning for years of impending global wars fought over something as simple as access to water.

Over in the Gaza Strip, where a tenuous cease-fire announced Monday appeared to return calm to the troubled region — Israeli schools opened in the south, and the Israel Defense Forces redeployed the units that took part in Operation Protective Edge’s destruction of cross-border tunnels used by Hamas — many residents have for years used salty water from the local aquifer for bathing; potable water comes desalinated from local neighborhood facilities and home-based purification units.

For sure, upgrading the infrastructure was never really a priority of Hamas, which while controlling the territory spent more time and effort on digging underneath the Israeli border to launch terror attacks. But now, Israeli military officials are speaking of rehabilitating the Gaza Strip — albeit without Hamas in control — as a necessity from both a humanitarian and strategic point of view.

Only time will tell, but perhaps peace will be achieved a drop at a time.

Editor-in-Chief
jrunyan@jewishtimes.com