My Personal Response to Israel’s 66th birthday

I am not normally supportive of new Jewish/Israeli-based organizations, as we seem to have more than our share.

Yet, the time has come for a new effort that will restore the greatness and vitality of the Zionist movement. The time for change is here.

Israel and the Jewish people are under attack from the outside and, more alarmingly, from the inside. Support for Zionism is the weakest I have seen. Support for Israel seems to be getting weaker every day, especially from within our Jewish community.

The Zionist Spring is a new effort with which I am very impressed. It is not a political party or a fundraising organization. It is rather a new voice for Jewish people demanding that Zionism become relevant in our daily lives again.

The Zionist Spring is a grassroots initiative that is dedicated to restoring the greatness and vitality of Zionism. It aims to involve and endorse and support every other organization that shares this vision. Unity has been sorely lacking in the Zionist world, and I think that this new endeavor is a much-needed breath of fresh air. Theodor Herzl, the founding father of modern Zionism, once famously said, “If you will it, it is no dream.” We do have a way to make this a reality.

Through the Zionist Spring, we can demonstrate our passion and commitment practically by shaping the decisions of the Zionist movement through the upcoming World Zionist Congress, the “Parliament of the Jewish people.”

There are four pillars on which the Zionist enterprise is built:

> The unity of the Jewish people, which is sorely lacking. Almost three decades ago, Rabbi Irving ‘Yitz’ Greenberg’s Center for Learning and Leadership developed an ad announcing that “the last time the Jewish people were so divided, we lost 10 out of 12 tribes forever.” Today, we are so divided, that we may lose Israel — forever. We need to stop this building divide. There is a place for everybody in the Zionist tent.

> Making or supporting Aliyah. Although the numbers of people making aliyah are holding up or increasing, the vast majority seem to be coming from the “traditional” community. We need to develop a plan that will attract Jews of all stripes to make aliyah as well as help integrate new olim into Israel’s very diverse society.

> Strengthen Israel. There are too many among us that think the best way to strengthen Israel is to constantly criticize it. I’m reminded of something Rabbi David Hartman z”l use to say: It is okay to criticize Israel, but do it as a mother, not a mother-in-law.

> Ensuring the future. Without a strong Israel and a strong Diaspora there will be no future.  We need to develop a grassroots effort to work from the inside to make things better in both Israel and in the Diaspora.

As we celebrate Israel’s 66th birthday please join me by working to return Zionism to the level of importance it used to occupy. The future of Diaspora Jewry, the future of Israel, the future of the Jewish People may depend on your involvement and support.

Based in Los Angeles, Paul Jeser is an experienced fundraiser for leading Jewish organizations. For more information on Zionist Spring, visit zionistspring.org.

JNF editorial: ‘shoddy journalism’

Your editorial, “Bringing openness to JNF” (May 16), demands a response from us and a clarification (apology) from you to your readers. Your editorial purports to describe certain recent political and legal issues in Israel relating to what you misleadingly identify as the “Jewish National Fund.” In fact, the Israeli debate is all about Keren Keyemeth Leisrael (KKL), the historic Israeli legal entity. On this side of the pond, the Jewish National Fund, Inc. (JNF) is a legally and financially separate US entity, listed by the IRS as an independent section 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

JNF has an independent board of directors composed entirely of U.S. citizens and independent U.S. management. JNF fully complies with all applicable U.S. disclosure and fiduciary requirements. Our many donor-designated public projects and programs in Israel are funded by hundreds of thousands of U.S. donors, and they are carefully developed and monitored from start to finish with strict accountability. We are proud that JNF and KKL work closely together to strengthen the land and people of Israel, but the Israeli political debate does not apply to JNF. Suggesting otherwise is shoddy journalism at best.

Finally, and most importantly, whether judged by Charity Navigator or the Better Business Bureau as among the best Jewish and non-Jewish charities fiscally and administratively, or judged by its acclaimed Israel-centric projects — from the bomb-proof playground at Sderot to world-class facilities for the disabled at ALEH Negev and the transformational Alexander Muss High School in Israel — JNF can only be described as an “open book” to which we should all subscribe.

Kenneth J. Krupsky
JNF National Board of Directors
JNF Washington, D.C., Region President
Chevy Chase

Baruch Fellner
JNF National Board of Directors
JNF Midatlantic Zone President
Washington, D.C.

Pope in the Holy Land

Pope Francis is greeted by Israeli president Shimon Peres at a ceremony held at the president's residence in Jerusalem. Pope Francis recently completed a three-day visit to Jordan, the West Bank and Israel. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Pope Francis is greeted by Israeli president Shimon Peres at a ceremony held at the president’s residence in Jerusalem. Pope Francis recently completed a three-day visit to Jordan, the West Bank and Israel. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Pope Francis’ three-day visit to Jordan, Israel and the West Bank was not merely a religious event. He is, after all, the head of a state. And even more than the charismatic John Paul II, Francis is everyone’s pope. He came, as one commentator put it, “mostly to do what he does best — project friendliness to the world.”

He seems to have succeeded. His visit balanced countries and faiths with a kindness and humility that we have come to expect from Francis during his short tenure. From Jordan, where he met Syrian refugees, the pope went to Bethlehem, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. He held mass at the spot on Mount Zion where Christians believe Jesus held his last supper and also prayed at the Western Wall, visited Yad Vashem and made a special trip to Israel’s national cemetery on Mount Herzl and to the grave of Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl.

These were potent symbolic acts of reconciliation — recognizing the Jewish connection to the Holy Land’s holy places, paying respect at Israel’s memorial to the Shoah and affirming the State of Israel. His message was clear and most welcome.

But the pope also veered off the expected course, telling a crowd gathered in Bethlehem that he prayed for the “State of Palestine” and then, a short time later, stopping his entourage to pray alongside Israel’s security barrier, his arms outstretched alongside graffiti with the words “free Palestine.” While it is hard to be critical of a man who preaches peace and who exudes kindness and compassion, these two events, coming on the heels of the latest failure of peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, understandably raised the hackles of Israelis and their supporters throughout the world.

Before ending his pilgrimage, Francis extended an offer to Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to join him next month at the Vatican for a peace/prayer summit. While the invitation was a nice gesture, no one appears to be terribly optimistic about this papal initiative. Indeed, it borders on naive to expect much to come from the planned Vatican visit.

Sure, it will be nice to see Peres and Abbas talk and pray together. And we expect Francis to be an active, welcoming host. But peace rests on a lot more than recognition of each side’s aggrieved status and joint prayer. Indeed, as we have learned from the past many efforts to bring the parties together and to an agreement, it will take a sustained effort to get them back to the same negotiating table that fell apart so unceremoniously last month.

At the end of the day, however, Francis’ soothing words and gestures, coupled with his warm personality, resonated with all those he visited. As noted by Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a colleague of Francis’ from Argentina who accompanied the pope on his visit, “This was a very delicate trip.” Yes it was.

Rabbi Wohlberg Cares

In contrast to letter-writer Richard B. Crystal, I have found Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg’s posted sermons not only profound and inspiring but timely (Your Say, May 16). While Crystal may object to Wohlberg’s support of John McCain and more recently giving Dr. Charles Krauthammer a venue, both have a long record of being pro-Israel, a position that has not been characteristic of President Obama or his subordinates.

I would hope that a rabbi would have the safety and continued existence of the State of Israel as one of his top priorities. Apparently Crystal does not.

Nelson Marans
Silver Spring

Finding Balance in Life

At first Parshat Naso seems nothing more than a disassociated combination of random laws. The adulterous sotah must drink before the Beit Din, while the spiritual nazir must refrain from shaving and drinking wine.

The laws of the sotah, an accused adulterer, and the laws for a nazir, one who seeks to live an ascetic lifestyle, are found right next to each other, yet do not correlate at all. Why then, does the Torah place them next to each other?

Rashi claims that this placement “teaches you that whoever sees a sotah in her disgrace will make a Nazirite vow to abstain from wine, because wine leads a person to adultery.” This explanation would suffice if not for a miniscule detail within the Nazirite laws: According to the text, the nazir, upon completing his vow, must provide a sin offering for refusing to drink the wine that the Torah advised him to avoid. Although the nazir seeks spiritual elevation, the Torah labels him a sinner for abstaining from enjoying the pleasures of life. Polar opposites, the sotah and nazir do not relate to one another; so why does the Torah discuss them together?

The Sotah lives in the moment, enjoying God’s pleasures to excess; while the nazir epitomizes the height of spirituality, isolating himself from materialistic temptations. According to the text, both have sinned. For the sotah, having committed adultery, halacha automatically brands her a “sinner,” but what about the nazir? He centers his life around service to Hashem but still must offer a sacrifice for “sinning.” Why? The text accuses him of distancing himself from pleasure and seems to penalize the nazir for exercising caution to avoid succumbing to adultery, as Rashi elucidates.

God put us on this world to benefit from life’s pleasures. Although people should appreciate Hashem’s gifts, they must recognize His power and awe. However, people cannot base their lives on only pleasing Hashem, disregarding life’s pleasures entirely.

A story about a blind woman who seeks a husband demonstrates this quality. After countless failed dates with various suitors, she falls in love. She and this man eventually wed, and he treats her like a goddess, viewing her blindness as a challenge to overcome rather than as a dilapidating ailment. But the woman soon feels like a burden and seeks a cure to her blindness. The couple finally hears of a treatment. Waiting for the doctor, the husband says to his dear wife, “You should know that there are a lot of surprising things you will see in this world, one of which will be that I am blind.” Hours pass, and the operation is successful. But soon after, the woman feels she has missed out on life’s adventures. She wants to see the world but feels her husband thwarts her chances of advancing in life, so she divorces him. However, upon leaving to explore the world, she sees a note from her ex-husband that reads “I never meant to become such a burden. I just wanted you to see the world as I did. Please treat my eyes well.”

The husband represents God. Without Him, we would not be able to enjoy life. We cannot just leave Him out of the equation like the sotah does, only living to explore the world’s pleasures. However, we cannot just be like the nazir who abstains the world’s pleasures. Life is about finding balance. The Rambam said, “[Aim] for a balanced course, avowing extremes.” The sotah sinned because she enjoyed life too much, while the nazir sinned for not enjoying it enough. The two portions are placed together to demonstrate the two extremes of living life, encouraging us to find a balance within ourselves.

Shelter Cleanliness Is Imperative

The meet-and-greet room for cat socialization and area dog parks spread more of the diseases already running rampant at Baltimore County Animal Control — thus leading to more euthanasia (“Group Protests Animal Shelter Conditions,” May 9). A cat who is positive for feline leukemia and not tested when brought in should not be allowed access to common areas. Since BCAS does not do mandatory testing, any cat being handled after one that’s infectious would be at a much higher risk of contracting the deadly disease. And then the domino effect sets in.

Karen Laschinsky
Baltimore

Branch: Dead Wrong!

As the media contact for Reform Baltimore County Animal Services, I find it necessary to set the record straight regarding your article “Group Protests Animal Shelter Conditions.” Director of the Baltimore County Department of Health Dr. Gregory Branch’s claim that “all animals are actively adopted” is just dead wrong. The truth is, the Baltmore County Animal Services shelter has no adoption standards, euthanasia is used instead of adoption, most rescues have been banned and euthanasia is not saved for only sick animals or when the facility is full.

Euthanasia actively used instead of adoption is a much more accurate statement. Branch falsely reports a kill rate of 23 percent for dogs and 59 percent for cats, when the county’s own statistics reveal the last published 2012 kill rate was 63 percent. Our reform group requested 2013 documentation to substantiate Branch’s claims of a lower kill rate, but he refused to release that information. The fact is, this shelter has a strongly held belief that killing is cheaper and easier for the county, especially because the employees who have no knowledge of animal behavior, such as the difference between a frightened animal and an aggressive one, cannot accurately assess any incoming animal for adoptability. There is evidence to prove that because veterinary care and sanitation have been so deficient, many animals have become seriously ill.

In addition, the management has retaliated not only against volunteers, but against rescue groups as well by refusing to allow them to save animals from the facility. Branch and the shelter are too quick to accuse the many people who have seen firsthand the appalling conditions and suffering in that shelter of lying.

This is not just an animal issue but a community issue, as it clearly reflects the manner in which the county government responds to the concerns of its citizens. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and Branch are much too quick to rationalize and defend the killings and poor protocol and fight to maintain control rather than stand up and do the right thing, which is to form a public/private partnership as was done in Baltimore City, thereby saving money and lives.

Lynn Greene
Baltimore

Ugly Muslim Bashing

As in some secret society, the thought and logic driving the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), led by Pamela Geller, are becoming increasingly difficult to understand. Certainly, the anti-Muslim message in the group’s new bus ads, which, although confined to Washington, have earned national headlines, are clear: They urge, in no uncertain terms, that the U.S. should suspend aid to Muslim countries.

But there is more to the ads than this simplistic demand. They include a picture of the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, in a meeting with Adolf Hitler along with the words, “Islamic Jew-hatred: It’s in the Koran.”

To boil down the entire Muslim civilization to the relationship between two despicable men, and in the process seek to discredit the entirety of the Muslim holy book, makes no sense. The ads are AFDI’s answer to earlier bus ads sponsored by American Muslims for Palestine (AMP). Those ads sent the message that Israel was living the high life and taking it easy at the expense of American taxpayers. For the record, we opposed that message, which sought to recycle old anti-Semitic tropes of venal Jews into AMP’s anti-Israel message. And with AFDI’s response ads, we have the classic example of two wrongs not making a right.

Beyond the outright offensiveness of AFDI’s response — which supposedly is in defense of Israel — the ads have a fundamental problem: Muslims are not a monolithic group. To condemn all Muslims because of the hateful views of some of their co-religionists is no less offensive that those who condemn all Jews because of the hateful views or criminal activities of some Jews.

Moreover, bashing Muslims indiscriminately in the name of supporting Israel is simply ineffective. It also undermines our response to anti-Israel groups that defend their anti-Semitic positions by saying they are only being anti-Zionist. When people seek to “explain” their anti-Semitism by saying they just hate Israel, we need to call them out. And when groups such as AFDI spew anti-Muslim hate in the name of defending Israel, we need to repudiate them, as well.

Israel has a strong, compelling and morally satisfying story to tell. Her supporters should focus on those positive, uplifting and meaningful messages and engage Israel’s critics on the merits of their arguments. Group hate has no place in that discussion.

A Firsthand Experience of the March of the Living

The March of the Living is a two-week educational trip in which teens and adults from all over the world travel from Poland to Israel to learn about the Holocaust and beyond. Participants visit concentration camps, tour cities in Poland and Israel and listen to stories about the Holocaust. The March of the Living proves that world Jewry outlived the Nazis and is still prevalent today.

On Yom HaShoah, thousands of teens and adults march the three-kilometer distance from Auschwitz to Birkenau. The goal of the march is not only to fight anti-Semitism, intolerance, injustice and indifference, but also to establish a sense a pride and heightened sense of Jewish identity in the participants who partake in the march.

When I first began my journey to Poland and Israel with BBYO’s teen delegation on the march, I was not sure what to expect and how I was going to react when we visited the concentration camps. If anything, I thought I was going to gain a better understanding of what the Jewish people had to endure during the Holocaust and what effect the Holocaust had on Europe and the world. However, after coming home, I know for sure that I will never be able to understand the entirety of the Holocaust and what the Jewish people and other victims had to endure.

Even though the march itself was very powerful for me, I was extremely moved when we visited the concentration camp of Majdanek. Today, Majdanek is the most well-preserved camp and could be up and running within 24 hours. With the camp being so well preserved, it truly felt as though we were not just visiting a concentration camp but that we were experiencing firsthand the remains of the atrocities of the Holocaust. This felt even more emotional and struck me harder than anything else we experienced before and after the trip. It was at Majdanek that I realized I would never be able to wrap my head around the entirety of the Shoah. However, after witnessing the remains of Majdanek and the other concentration camps, I can say that my Jewish identity and pride have been strengthened dramatically. I now know that we as Jews are capable of surviving and that the hope, hatikvah, is alive and real.

Evan Elkin is a senior at Friends School of Baltimore and a member of the Gideon AZA Northern Region East: Baltimore Council, serving as programming vice president. To learn more about BBYO or the March of the Living, contact the BBYO Baltimore Council program director, Danielle Hercenberg, at bmore@bbyo.org or 410-559-3549.

For us, the ‘core’ is tradition

runyan_josh_otWhat would the world be like without standards?

Never mind the fact that standards imply so much more than legal dictates and cultural norms, and that because “the way we do things” also encompasses familial customs and passed-down wisdom spanning ages, such a theoretical world would be practically impossible. If we were to philosophize, like the great post-Renaissance social contract thinkers, of an anarchic state of nature — where might made right and only the strongest survived — what would that look like?

Would employees run screaming through the halls like madmen? Would violence reign supreme? Would knowledge cease to be transmitted?

The fact is that standards, whether they be yardsticks, goals, benchmarks, criteria or requirements, exist to prevent the decay of society. It’s why the Common Core — that family of educational standards determined by state governors and top educators, and backed by the federal government that you will read about in the pages of this week’s JT — was both hailed and derided when it became a part of our national consciousness two years ago.

To those who champion a national set of educational standards, such a set of “need to know” items will ensure the graduation of teenagers equipped with the basic set of tools they need to survive in the real world. To those who oppose it, Common Core’s top-down universality is the seed to its own destruction. Even its critics recognize the need for standards; it’s just that they’d prefer to be the ones to determine them, thank you very much, not a governor of a state that doesn’t reflect their views.

Ultimately, the question of standards boils down not to one of existence, but to one of process: Who determines that which is acceptable, the standard to which everything else is to be judged? In the Jewish world, of course, the determination of communal, familial and individual codes of right and wrong can be traced back, as written in the beginning of Pirkei Avot, thousands of years to when the Jewish people were first grappling with the notions of peoplehood. The point is that, whether by view to tradition or to divine command, the Jewish way of setting standards keeps the focus away from the changing mores of the present. So when day schools wrestle with how exactly to implement — or whether to implement — the Common Core, they do so with a measure of humility and respect for how education has traditionally been handled in the Jewish world. Education, in this mindset, is meant to produce adults who, by virtue of their respect of their parents, teachers, traditions and God Himself, will be productive members of society. More important than how they approach a mathematical problem, this approach reasons, is how they approach questions of ethics, of raising children, of beautifying the world around them.

In this vein, it’s important to remember that “standard” can also refer to a flag, a physical embodiment of an idea higher than oneself. Were all of us to keep standards as ideals to aspire to, rather than requirements to be fulfilled, the world would probably be a much happier place.

jrunyan@jewishtimes.com