Stop the Cycle of Violence

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Emor, contains a well-known verse allocating punishment on the level of “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” This verse has been mistakenly associated with the brutal image of torn-off limbs, ripped-out eyes and a lot of blood. Luckily, as Jewish people, we do not generally believe that physically harming someone is a proper form of punishment.

But there are many reasons why this particular rule is important. The main one is that if you didn’t have this rule about equal compensation or paying for physical damage, then a cycle of violence would erupt and continue to brew. What I mean by this is that if Person A was walking down the street and mistakenly pushed Person B and broke his finger, then Person B or his family could get mad and maybe, on purpose, break Person A’s arm. Then Person A’s family might break Person B’s legs. This would evolve in a long cycle of escalating violence that would result in an injury to both people instead of one.

This applies to typical teenage life because teenagers don’t always successfully contain their emotions. Let’s start with a group of two kids arguing: They are in line at a lemonade stand. One accidentally cuts in front of the other. So the person who didn’t cut says, “Move, I was in line first.” The other kid then says, “No, I was here first!”

Eventually name calling happens, and then physical contact erupts, and finally, neither kid winds up getting lemonade; but both get physically hurt. If the kids had controlled their emotions, then the situation wouldn’t have spiraled out of control. This is why Parshat Emor applies to adults and teens, to keep small conflicts contained and not let them become bigger than they are.

Jeremy Cohen is a seventh-grade student at Krieger Schechter Day School.

See also, Accepting Communal Responsibility

A Hillel home run

As our son’s four years at Johns Hopkins University come to a close, we have been reflecting upon his experience (“Bonds that Bind,” April 25). Baseball has always been an enormous part of his life, made all the more meaningful by his connections with coaches and teammates, but we never anticipated that he’d make a connection with Hillel through baseball.

And while he has formed connections with Hillel in non-baseball related ways, kudos really go to Rabbi Debbie Pine and assistant director Jon Falk and their staff for finding and welcoming Jewish students wherever they may be — on the field and off. The Hopkins Hillel is wonderfully inclusive and offers wide opportunities for student involvement and initiative. We cannot say enough positive things about its efforts to strengthen college students’ Jewish identity, whether or not they play baseball.

Shelly and Jeff Hettleman

People over property … always

The wisdom of our precious Torah sages always bears repeating.

With reference to the safety and welfare of the State of Israel and its inhabitants, the apparent choice is between the hawkish territorialism and revanchist, one-state pro-settler agenda of Marc Caroff and the Zionist Organization of America (Your Say, April 11) and the courageous and nuanced “land for peace” optic of the great Joseph B. Soloveitchik (of blessed and sainted memory), the illustrious Rav.

For rabbinic Judaism, people come before territory — or, for that matter, property. Halacha speaks of pikuach nefesh and knows nothing of pikuach cheftza.

In sobering comments all the more remarkable for having been made during the period of euphoria after the triumphant 1967 war, the Rav made it clear that when it comes to the matter of land, it is the people of Israel who are holy, not the land. The people of Israel — their welfare and well-being, safety and security — take precedence. In the Rav’s own words “Our Judaism is not a religion of shrines; that as dear as [even] the Western Wall is, the 2 million lives of Jews [the population of Israel in 1967] is more important.”

Like any authentic Jew, privileging people over property and peace over lebensraum, I proudly side with the Rav over Caroff and the ZOA.

Issachar Friedmann

Fighting a language barrier

In Avi Rudolph’s column “American Jewry must reclaim Hebrew” (April 25), the key word is “American.”

Joke: What do you call someone who knows multiple languages? A multilingual; What do you call someone who knows two languages? A bilingual; What do you call someone who knows only one language? An American.

Joke: An American is someone who, when he goes abroad, forgets who the foreigner is.

Joke:  An American is someone who, when In Paris, can’t figure out why people there refer to a window as a fenetre.

Americans, by nature, are foreign language aversive, expecting the rest of the world to accommodate them by speaking English. This is why Rudolph’s well-intentioned project is doomed to failure.

Steve Weissman

Give Levinson his due

I enjoyed reading the article about Paul Reiser (“Still Funny After All These Years,” April 25), and I look forward to seeing and hopefully meeting him at BHC’s Night of the Stars. However, having gone to school with film director Barry Levinson and having followed his climb to fame, I respectfully point out that “Diner” was not the first of a trilogy tribute to Baltimore, as stated in the article, but the first of his four films about his hometown. The others were “Tin Men,” “Avalon,” and “Liberty Heights.”

It’s comforting to know that Baltimore “will always hold a special place in Paul Reiser’s heart.” Perhaps some of us will be able to show him why we feel the same way.

Dr. Ira Kolman
Mount Washington

For Jews, a Russian threat

When confronted by a foreign crisis, my first concern is whether it is better or worse for Jews in the region (“Compromise of sorts in Ukraine,” April 25). Certainly, while troubling, the unprovoked action of Russia in seizing the Crimea did not directly affect the Jewish population of that area, instead fulfilling an anticipated long-term goal of Vladimir Putin.

However, now the new threat to Eastern Ukraine independence from Russia does threaten the indigenous Jewish presence in that region with the specter of pogroms reminiscent of the Cossacks in the massacre of Jews in 1904 and 1905. Unfortunately, the more recent record has not been more tolerant, as Ukrainian units collaborated with Adolf Hitler during the Holocaust, and after World War II Stalin murdered thousands of Jews.

For the sake of peace in the region, I would hope that a combination of pressure and biting sanctions would bring at least a temporary armistice between the two parties without impacting unfavorably against the dwindling Jewish population in Crimea, Ukraine and Russia.

Nelson Marans
Silver Spring  

A Seder for Yom HaShoah

050214_topolosky-uriFor more than a week, we reminded ourselves that the central obligation of Pesach is to relive the Exodus experience, as if the movement from slavery to freedom were taking place today. The selected text of the Haggadah also reflects this goal, as it is specifically about an Israeli farmer who himself is retelling the Exodus as if he too were there.

The entire passage of “arami oved avi” is written in the first person plural. The Seder’s many rituals further serve to personalize and relive our ancient story. In these ways, we as a people have succeeded in preserving the memory of our national birth and drawing timeless lessons from it to enrich our lives today, more than 3,000 years later.

This past weekend, our community marked Yom HaShoah VeHaGevurah — Holocaust Remembrance and Resistance Day. Unlike Passover, this is not an ancient story. There are still survivors who can tell the awful tale firsthand. However, the time is sadly coming when we will no longer be able to hear the story from a survivor. Instead, we will be forced to retell what we have heard.

If we are to draw a lesson from Pesach, the key to memory is through ritual that allows us to personalize in a small, but meaningful way, what those who came before us experienced in the flesh, as if it were taking place today. As unimaginable as it might seem just three-quarters of a century removed from the Shoah, my teacher Rabbi Avi Weiss would claim that the Holocaust will only be remembered if all Jews can declare, “Although we were not physically there, we too are survivors.”

As communities, we must continue to build upon the meaningful commemorations that already take place, which generally feature a survivor’s testimony, or more and more, the child of that survivor’s testimony. These evenings should include participatory rituals such as singing the songs of the partisans and the ghetto dwellers; reading the testimonies of survivors; re-enacting the burning of books (or a symbolic single Hebrew page); re-experiencing the separation of children from adults and men from women; and perhaps eating foods that serve as a reminder of the awful rations in the camps. In all these ways and more, may we merit to preserve Shoah memory for all generations.

Rabbi Uri Topolosky is rabbi of Beth Joshua Congregation in Aspen Hill, Md.

In Howard County, a Federation that Cares

In 1976, my husband and I moved to Howard County. I was 24 years old, had been married for four years and had just purchased a home. I was called by a representative to pledge money for the Jewish Federation of Howard County. Our first pledge was for $50. I can remember this because at the time my husband had just graduated from law school, and I was beginning my second year of attending law school at night while working full time. Suffice it to say, we did not have a lot of money. I have never regretted the decision to support our Federation.

We raised our three children in Howard County, and we all benefited from the Federation. Our synagogue received Federation funding for vari-ous programs, and our children attended the Jewish preschool Bet Yeladim along with Purim carnivals and holiday festivals.

Over the years, my husband and I have held various positions on the executive board of the Federation. Our children, now in their 30s, witnessed our involvement in the Federation and our commitment to our Jewish community in much the same way that my husband and I learned from the example of our parents.

My parents are both Holocaust survivors, so Yom Hashoah has always been an important day to commemorate. Each year, the Federation spearheads the poignant and solemn Yom Hashoah program, and I have seen it develop into an educational experience for the community, where survivors have an opportunity to share their special stories with others.

In 2010, I moved both of my parents from Montgomery County, where they had lived for more than 50 years, to Vantage House in Columbia. My mother received some services from Jewish Community Services in Howard County. At Vantage House, the Federation funds the services of hospice chaplain Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, who conducts Shabbat services each month. When my father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, first came to Vantage House, those Friday night services were truly a highlight for him. He would often return to his room carrying a siddur because the liturgy of the service was so familiar to him and, therefore, enjoyable. For my mother, the Shabbat services helped her to meet other Jewish residents and connect with them for social events and friendship.

I continue to participate in Federation programs such as the Red Tent, where my mother and I held A Conversation with a Survivor program, community missions to Israel and the annual Federation Live fundraiser. My youngest daughter recently became a member of jLEADS, a Federation leadership training program for young adults.

My granddaughter Emma, 2, receives a book every month from the PJ Library in Howard County program, and she will attend Bet Yeladim this fall, just like her mother did.

We are four generations of one family living in Howard County, all having been touched in the past, are being affected in the present and looking forward to connecting with our Federation in the future.

Brenda Fishbein is a past president of the Jewish Federation of Howard County.

The Postal Service’s easy button

Think about the U.S. Postal Service and the words “bloated,” “bureaucratic” and “broke” come to mind. The agency has been in the red for years, as the age of the Internet has matured and the use of electronic mail has overtaken and largely replaced the use of first-class mail for almost everything except bill payment. Meanwhile, Congress has done very little to address the Postal Service’s problems. The result has been deteriorating service at ever higher cost. Indeed, many readers of the Baltimore Jewish Times are reminded of the situation every time their copy of this paper arrives days late.

So, any news that USPS is trying to do better is welcome. One innovation is a recently announced plan to let the Staples office-supply chain open USPS retail counters at 82 locations around the country — a pilot program that the Postal Service says could boost convenience and increase business. Whether Staples employees prove to be more helpful and efficient than the USPS workers behind the post office counter remains to be seen. Still, we welcome any action by the USPS to expand its service capability, make its products and services more user friendly and make postal operations more reliable.

Predictably, the deal is opposed by the American Postal Workers Union, whose members last week demonstrated outside Staples stores in cities around the country, including Baltimore. Labor supporters argue that the Staples agreement is a step toward privatizing the post office that will compromise users’ privacy and replace middle-class jobs with low-paying ones.

The union’s refrain about leaving postal services in the hands of the highly trained professional letter carriers and service personnel rings hollow. The real issue is the protection of union jobs. While that effort is laudable, it doesn’t address the concern of the exorbitant cost of running the post office and the difference in hourly price of paying a postal union employee versus a lower-cost alternative at Staples and other private businesses.

We want to see a solvent Postal Service. But we think it will get there faster without having its hands tied or otherwise restricting its ability to innovate and enhance service. Along with possibly ending Saturday mail service, Congress should revisit its 2006 mandate that requires the postal agency to prefund its retirement benefits at a cost of about $5.6 billion a year.

But let’s be clear: The front line in the battle for a better Postal Service is not Staples. It lies with Congress and the agency’s own management. We call on them to lead the way and can only hope that timely and better-priced delivery of this newspaper will follow.

Assessing Palestinian unity

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets with the media in Ramallah on April 22, a day before his Fatah party signed a reconciliation agreement with Hamas.  (Palestinian Press Office via Getty Images)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets with the media in Ramallah on April 22, a day before his Fatah party signed a reconciliation agreement with Hamas. (Palestinian Press Office via Getty Images)

The agreement reached April 23 by Fatah and Hamas apparently caught both the United States and Israel off guard. But with Israel-Palestinian negotiations sputtering to a disappointing ending last month, the “unity accord” gave everyone something to talk about.

Under their agreement, rival Palestinian groups will form a unity government in five weeks. Since a brief 2007 civil war, Hamas has controlled Gaza, and Fatah has ruled parts of the West Bank through the Palestinian Authority.

In responding to the news, the U.S. and Israel restated why Hamas is an unacceptable negotiating partner: The Islamist group is considered a terrorist organization by both countries, it doesn’t recognize Israel’s existence, and its aim is the destruction of the Jewish state. Any Palestinian government that includes Hamas is therefore unacceptable.

Although Israel and the U.S. issued denunciations, they shaved off the hard edges of complete rejection. Israel “suspended” peace talks, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netan-yahu held out the possibility of reviving them should the deal with Hamas fall through. And in a contentious cabinet meeting, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is lead negotiator in the peace talks, reportedly persuaded the government to impose “measured sanctions” rather than pursue a nuclear option
that would bring about the Palestinian Authority’s collapse. Perhaps part of the reason why a more measured approach prevailed is because economic sanctions on the Palestinian Authority could ultimately hurt Israel’s security by threatening the paychecks of Palestinian security forces whose cooperation is a bright spot in existing bilateral relations.

For its part, the Obama administration is officially “disappointed” in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ embrace of Hamas. And on the Hill, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) called for an immediate suspension of U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, with other Israel supporters of both parties not far behind.

Yet, as of this writing, nothing has changed on the ground. And it might not.

Perhaps that’s because the announced unity effort has a distinct element of déjà vu: Fatah and Hamas have announced unity agreements before only to scuttle them over turf and ideological differences. Many pundits are betting that will happen again.

Nonetheless, to the optimists, the Fatah-Hamas unity effort may present an opportunity to help the moribund peace effort. Until now, Hamas has always been viewed as the wild card in the peace process. But, as observed by Hillel Frisch of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, the involvement of Hamas in a unity government that reached some agreement with Israel “would be much better, because any peace talks could possibly result in a peace agreement with all the Palestinians, rather than half the Palestinians.”

But first, of course, Hamas would have to learn to say the word “Israel.”