A Seder is not enough

041814_editorialThe hungry, like the poor, have always been with us. At our Seders this week we declared, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” But can our words alone fight hunger? That is the question raised by the National Hunger Seder, held April 9 at the U.S. Capitol.

Being against hunger is easy. Doing something about it is much more difficult. At the Hunger Seder, one of 27 held around the country, a number of elected officials were on hand to speak out against food insecurity. In attendance were Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Jim McGovern, (D-Mass.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) as well as Matt Nosanchuk, associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement for Jewish Outreach. The Seder was sponsored by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, which has been the Jewish voice fighting hunger for nearly 30 years.

And that’s part of the problem. Mazon, the food banks and the other fine groups that are trying to ease hunger in this country and around the world can go on collecting checks and stacking canned goods, but they will never solve the problem. The solution must come from the very building in which the Hunger Seder was held — the Capitol … and the U.S. Congress.

It is our elected officials in Congress who are best able to address the persistence of hunger and poverty in this country. It was Congress that earlier this year cut $9 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also called food stamps. And, incredibly, the $9 billion cut was considered a victory for food stamp supporters, because the Republican-led House had proposed slashing up to $39 billion.

Why has Congress seemingly forgotten the extent of hunger in this country? One answer may be that the needy don’t really have that strong a voice in the halls of government. So it is hard to get the attention of lawmakers on the issue. And officials within government who speak out on these issues don’t find significant support from lobbyists and large donors who try to influence the national agenda.

A true national hunger Seder would need to begin by confronting these issues squarely. If we want to defeat hunger, we need to do something about it. Declaring “let all who are hungry come and eat” at the Capitol sounds nice. Following up with a serious commitment on the issue and programs designed to break the cycle of poverty and the pain of hunger would be a wonderful result.

Let’s hope the men and women inside the U.S. Capitol get the message and get to work.

The knockout of Ali

What do we make of the incident of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the outspoken critic of Islam whose invitation to receive an honorary doctorate from Brandeis University was revoked following protests? The school’s actions drew howls of protest from The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol and others on the right and generated discomfort from just about everyone else.

The Somali-born Ali is a complex person, with views on some issues with which the vast majority of the Western world agrees and views on other issues that are more divisive. Ali has been a forceful proponent for women’s rights and an opponent of the genital mutilation practiced on girls in some Muslim countries. But she has also been unyielding in her condemnation of Islam, the religion she was born into and later abandoned. Thus, she told Reason magazine in 2007 that Muslims are “not interested in peace” and went on to say, “I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars.”

It is her harsh, uncompromising condemnation of all streams of Islam that makes people uncomfortable. Even Daniel Pipes, a hardline critic of radical Islam who defended Ali last week, was not steadfast enough for her. Reason asked Ali if Pipes was wrong in his contention that “radical Islam is the problem, but moderate Islam is the solution.” “He’s wrong,” Ali answered. “Sorry about that.”

Much of the blame for the Brandeis pivot is directed at Brandeis itself, which apparently didn’t do much analysis or inquiry to determine whether Ali might become the lightning rod she has turned out to be. Brandeis reportedly reneged on its promised honor after 85 of its 350 faculty members wrote a letter in protest. And an online petition created by Brandeis students collected thousands of signatures from inside and outside the school, all critical of the planned honor. So it appears that Brandeis relented under pressure. That may have been the right decision, but it didn’t have to play out as it did.

Such events seem to be happening with greater regularity, and they are beginning to have a sameness to them. A scheduled speaker, performance or honoree is deemed to be offensive in some way by a group of vocal, well-intentioned and well-organized critics. Because of the orchestrated uproar, the sponsoring organization cancels the event or modifies it. Meanwhile, those in the middle, who belong to no extreme, have the event agenda hijacked by more vocal ideologues. As a result, an event that would otherwise have passed largely without comment becomes a place for rhetorical sparring, accusations and disputes. Public discourse and civility suffer.

While it may be difficult to predict every complaint or uproar which particular planning decisions may evoke, there is no question that more careful vetting of programs and activities by event sponsors would go a long way toward avoiding such divisive disputes.

My Dear Friend, Len

After reading the beautiful words of Barbara Bloom in the JT about her late husband, Leonard Bloom, I had to add a tribute to my friend. Len and I had been friends for more than 70 years. We grew up in the same neighborhood at North Avenue and Payson Street and began a friendship that lasted until his passing (Nov. 23, 2013).

Len was a brilliant scholar, who had a wonderful character. He graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute first in his class and earned a four-year scholarship to the Johns Hopkins School of Engineering, where he pursued electrical engineering. At graduation he was just a few points shy of being first in his class. He served in the Army during World War II as a lieutenant. He then worked for Black and Decker in the patent office. He attended law school at night at the University of Baltimore, and shortly after passing the bar, he became the chief patent attorney at Black and Decker. Years later, he started his own successful patent law firm.

Regardless of his success and intelligence, he was a humble person and treated everyone fairly. He always had a sense of humor, always had a joke to make you laugh. After all these many years of friendship, I miss my friend. My best wishes to his lovely wife, Barbara, and her family.

Harold Surosky
Owings Mills

With Grace

Nearly 20 years ago, a small group of women from The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore gathered together to talk about what many considered an unthinkable problem: domestic violence in the Jewish community. Sadly, there were neighbors, friends and relatives in Baltimore who were struggling with this issue and felt that they had nowhere to turn. CHANA changed that.

A program of The Associated, CHANA offered women support, guidance and protection, coupled with sensitivity to issues that were specific to observant Jewish women. The name CHANA was chosen because it means “grace” in Hebrew, and it embodied the way in which clients were treated by the remarkable women who started the organization. CHANA professionals and volunteers responded with urgency in times of crisis and always did so with great compassion.

For the women who have turned to CHANA since its earliest days, the organization has offered a lifeline in tumultuous times. We have heard from thousands of women that the services offered by CHANA literally saved their lives. As members of a community that deeply values every life, we know that our work has been both vital and transformative.

Through the years, CHANA has grown exponentially — an unfortunate outcome of both increased awareness in the community and a rise in incidences too. Today, CHANA has a very professional staff of six full-time and six part-time employees, led by a superb executive director who is both dedicated and tireless in her pursuit of justice for our clients. Over the years, we have created a Jewish crisis response to those faced with a variety of abuse in their relationships. CHANA has grown to add the Shofar Coalition, prevention and healing services for childhood trauma and sexual abuse, as well as the Elder Project, education and intervention services for older adults, to our scope of practice.

The expansion of CHANA’s reach is a testament to the driving force of lay leadership. Last summer, a strategic planning team found a way to do the impossible: put exact words to CHANA’s experience of nearly 20 years and chart where the community needs the program to go in the next decade. Our first step was creating new descriptive and dynamic mission and vision statements. Additionally, a list of 12 Jewish values was developed to illuminate the way in which our involvement in CHANA is fulfilling the moral imperatives central to our heritage.

I wish we lived in a world in which CHANA’s services were not needed, but that is, sadly, a pipe dream. Instead, as chair of CHANA’s board, I remain committed to working with professional and lay partners to ensure that these life-changing services are in place for those who need them and that we will continue to meet these problems head on.

We should all take great pride in the fact that our community has been able to offer the services provided by CHANA for nearly 20 years and will continue to do so as long as there is a need. It indicates that we are willing to face some harsh realities in our community and that we are able to serve the critical needs of those impacted by sexual abuse, trauma or domestic violence. If we do not uplift, support and care for the vulnerable, we cannot truly be a strong community.

Alyson Friedman is chair of the board of CHANA, a program of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. To learn more, visit chanabaltimore.org.

A Strategy for Jewish Continuity and Survival

For decades, study after study tells us that the Jewish community’s biggest fear remains Jewish detachment and assimilation. We remain Jewish for three reasons: religion, strong affinity and/or strong feelings of historical connection. All three of these reasons, however, are not preventing our assimilation rate, shockingly, from growing higher and higher. Those Jews who are connected are in the fold and understand why they are Jewish and why they want their families to remain Jewish. It does not guarantee their children or future generations will feel Jewish, but it provides a needed baseline. How do we all work together to stem our future losses?

Over the past 20 years, the communal world has come to understand the importance of Jewish day schools and the State of Israel as the two best strategies in combating our assimilation. The recognition and growth of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and community day schools through dynamic supporting organizations such as PARDES, PEJE, RAVSAK, SDSN and YU and federations throughout the country, as well as the growth of Birthright, is proof of these communal priorities. It is time to add the third prong to our strategy of Jewish continuity and survival.

For decades the communal response to the Holocaust has been based on perpetuation and memorials with the year-after-year promotion of Yom Hashoah, Kristallnacht, sending survivors as speakers to non-Jewish and Jewish day schools and survivor and generation groups and meetings. The day of firsthand accounts is sadly nearing the end, as our survivor generation is nearly over.

Relying on the same formula with second and third generations is not an answer. It is time for a new and bold understanding of how important the memory of 6,000,000 precious Jewish souls can have on our assimilation and continuity woes when connected and applied with similar strategies as our Jewish day schools and the State of Israel.

To succeed, those combating assimilation need to view the Holocaust through the new prism of post-survivor realities.

Combating assimilation is all about connecting Jewish souls to their feelings. Focusing in creative and unique ways on the lives of those who survived, had children, built successful lives from nothing within our local U.S. cities, and who established long and lasting relationships with the broader community, is one of many ways to reach back to the lives lost.

How we succeed in making these new and creative connections to engage our future lost Jewish souls is the question. Just 20 years ago, Jewish day schools and Israel were not believed to be credible responses to assimilation, and that has changed dramatically today.

Becoming creative with the memories of those who perished is just as vital to prevent the loss of future generations. G-d willing, may we continue to work together to find ways and methods to prevent the continuing loss of so many Jewish souls.

Harry Kozlovsky is a former chairman of the Holocaust Commission at the Baltimore Jewish Council and currently is a board member of the Jewish Community Centers of Baltimore.

Fox News Reports the Truth

Saul Edelman’s snide comment about Fox News in his April 4 letter (“Fantasy vs. Reality”) cannot go without challenge. I am a retired media executive, highly qualified to comment.

Maybe the Jewish Times is not the best forum for the following remarks, but the JT opened the door by not editing out Edelman’s outrageous statement (“Ideology is not facts, except, perhaps, on Fox News”), which had nothing to do with the point of his letter.

Fox News is No. 1 rated. Period. Not No. 1 just with Republicans or conservatives, but with all. It is No. 1 because it tells the truth. Even though thousands of viewers like Edelman may disagree with Fox’s editorial stance, they know they are getting the complete story, both from Fox’s opinion shows and in its news reports.

MSNBC and CNN are battling for the bottom of the ratings. “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox is the top-rated cable show in the world, [and] Fox employs James Carville, Bob Beckel, and Juan Williams, hardly voices of conservatism. Left-leaning guests are the norm on Fox.

Anyone who depends on liberal media for news does not have a clue to what is actually going on. Edelman and his ilk should learn that the truth will set you free. It may tick you off, but it will set you free.

Robert Z. Goldberg

Kansas Gunman Unfortunately Nothing New

runyan_josh_otAny doubts as to the danger of anti-Semitism in the United States were unfortunately put to rest this week when a gunman’s bullets — smack dab in the middle of middle America — claimed the lives of three people at Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kan.

We now know that the 73-year-old man from Aurora, Mo., police suspect of driving to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City before opening fire on a man and his grandson — and two others who were not injured — and then at an elderly woman at the Village Shalom retirement community nearby is something of a throwback to another era. What is believed to be his website paints a portrait of a rabid racist and anti-Semite, while the Southern Poverty Law Center said that in the 1980s, Frazier Glenn Miller was the “grand dragon” of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan; he reportedly later founded the White Patriot Party.

What Miller and his ilk advocate is not racial purity, as if such a thing were ever possible or much less desirable. No. What the shooter in Kansas instead stands for is the violent affirmation of such debunked “theories” as eugenics and racial superiority. People like him claim order as their rallying cry, but wish instead that anarchy prevailed. They have no place in a civilized society, much less one founded upon the ideals of life, liberty and the innate power of the individual.

That the Frazier Glenn Millers of the world have supported and perpetrated vast genocides, including the Holocaust, is nothing new. And as you’ll read in this week’s JT, today’s generation grapples with how exactly to transmit the collective memories of those who suffered through and survived the Shoah so many years ago.

What is sobering is that the Frazier Glenn Millers of the world not only continue to exist, but that many of them stand armed and ready to advance a worldview with hatred as its creed and bloodshed as its method. That two of the victims in last Sunday’s attack happened to be Christian makes no difference, for in the twisted minds of those who would open fire at a JCC and retirement center, anyone who doesn’t think like them might as well be Jewish. It’s the same baseless hatred that turned southern cities into killing zones and claimed the lives of civil rights workers in the 50s and 60s, the same vile, repugnant thought process that justified the Holocaust.

The question left for us is what to do about it. Confronting hatred takes courage and determination; it also takes love. The more the racists and bigots of the world teach their children to hate, the more we should teach them to embrace the beauty of mankind. The more they blame others for their lot in life, the more we should reach out to improve the lot of those around us. The more they wall themselves apart, the more we should bring people in.

The Jewish community in Kansas will recover, but none of us should think that normalcy has been reached until hatred is eradicated from our midst.


Freedom Doesn’t End With Exodus

I recently participated in an evening of learning at a local Lutheran church where a local imam and I were asked to discuss the ways our respective faiths were most often misunderstood. This church and their pastor sought to spend time during Lent learning about other faiths in order to help strengthen their own faith. During the question and answer period, a member of the church asked if I thought that the story of the Israelite exodus from Egyptian slavery had been misunderstood.

It was an insightful question — one that compels me to think more deeply about the Exodus and our celebration of Pesach. We’ve just gathered around Seder tables to once again remember going out from Egyptian slavery. There is little doubt that every Seder differed in some way, great or small, from other Seders taking place those nights.

One of the great benefits Seders being held primarily at home is that they yield more creativity and variation than many other synagogue-based Jewish rituals. That said, I worry that the narrative told around the table often emphasizes the freedom from slavery, the liberation from the shackles of Pharaoh, without posing the question: “What follows freedom?”

A side note. Headlines in recent months and years have been dominated by the story of one regime after another being toppled in North Africa, the Middle East and in other parts of the world as well. In virtually every example, it is a strong-man or dictator who has ruled by fear and held on to power despite the wishes of his people who yearn to breathe free. The downfall of a despot is a cause for celebration, to be sure.

Without reading too much into current events, I have to say that while approaching Passover, the image in my head is of Moses and Aaron facing down Pharaoh, declaring: “Thus says the Lord, God of the Hebrews: Let My people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness!” In the ancient case of Pharaoh over Egypt and in the modern cases around the world, the refusal of the tyrant to listen to the voice of the people brings destruction (often undeserved suffering of the general population) and ultimately downfall.

But an additional aspect should also be considered. The freedom our ancestors sought from the rule of Pharaoh was not intended to be a freedom from responsibility. The opposite is true. Our ancestors went from servitude to Pharaoh to being in covenant with God — being partners with mutual responsibility towards the ethical system embodied by the Torah they would receive 50 days later at Mount Sinai.

We can hope and pray that the people who have and will throw off the rule of tyrants around the world today will see it as an opportunity to take control of their future with the principle of ethical responsibility as their first aspiration. Rabbi Allen Maller writes: “Freedom without commitment leads to social breakdown and anarchy in our society and self-centeredness and egoism in our personal lives. We cannot value freedom without valuing commitment and duty even more.”

What is the greatest misunderstanding of the Exouds story? The false belief that it concludes with the physical liberation from slavery to Pharaoh.

Wishing you a zissen (sweet) and meaningful Passover!

Rabbi Craig Axler is spiritual leader of Temple Isaiah in Fulton.

Beware of the King

Omitted in the JT’s April 4 editorial (“A Spectacle for King Sheldon”) was consideration of the true beneficiary of the unsavory competition among GOP presidential hopefuls for Sheldon Adelson’s largesse: anti-Semites.

The casino mogul is an anti-Semite’s delight, because his political campaign behavior gives the lie to the truth about “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” “The Protocols” purports to depict a plot by Jews, operating behind the scenes as puppet masters, to control the world, which, in the 2lst century, means America.

“The Protocols’” fiction becomes reality in billionaire Adelson’s all-consuming financial effort to buy the White House for the GOP for the sake of his own ultra-hard-line “Greater Israel” agenda. Where Adelson’s behavior differs from “The Protocols’” scenario is that he is out front with his involvement, not operating behind the scenes.

As such, media coverage of Adelson’s open-checkbook attempt to purchase the presidency must make the likes of Pat Buchanan, David Duke, et al, salivate.

Steve Weissman

Giving Our Children a Chance

runyan_josh_otEvery now and then, events and timing conspire to offer opportunities for reflection. Looking back at what transpired on the world stage the past week and a half, it’s hard not to wonder: How, when, why did things get so bad?

The collapse of the so-called “peace talks” between the Israelis and the Palestinians was at once so predictable and so tragic. Last-minute breakdowns between negotiators in Jerusalem, Washington, D.C., and Ramallah have become so commonplace, in fact, that the failure of this latest last-ditch effort was taken as a foregone conclusion by most people outside of the protective bubble known as international diplomacy.

That it happened amid the backdrop of a resurgent Russia bearing down on a weak Eastern Europe — evoking memories of the Cold War in the process — only added to the perception that for all the talk of peace, ours is a world enmeshed in conflict.

Some would say that part of the problem is a failure of assumptions. Russia will always be Russia, whether led by a czar, a Communist or a former KGB officer turned reformer turned strongman, and to assume otherwise is to ignore the lessons of history. By the same token, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes back centuries, if not millennia, not decades. It’s a conflict as old as the region, pitting the fervent desires of a biblical people against a world that from time immemorial has held it in suspicion.

And the world continues to turn.

But while such a view is realistic, it isn’t very hopeful. Change is actually possible, but to achieve it requires going deeper.

Several people this week have commented that too few people, whether here locally or on a broader global scale, appreciate the responsibility thrust upon them by the presence of children. If the world’s problems are really going to be solved, it will be the up-and-coming generation — and the generations after that one — who will solve them. Shall those younger than us continue in our footsteps? Or shall we allow them to eventually lead the way?

One way we can do that is by recognizing education for what it is — an opportunity to inculcate values, not, as typified by the type of indoctrination being alleged at UNRWA-funded schools in Gaza, an imperative to create unthinking automatons. But education needn’t only be criticized abroad, as there is still plenty of work here to do at home.

That’s why it’s so refreshing to hear of community/school partnerships like the one that resulted in a refurbished library at Bnos Yisroel of Baltimore or of the examples being set by the Jewish leaders shaving their heads to raise awareness about childhood cancer. Children need to see, hear about and experience the selfless acts of those older and “wiser.” And then they need to be given the opportunity to ask questions and formulate their own views.

After all, as demonstrated by the Four Children of the Passover Seder, isn’t that what the Festival of Freedom is all about?

A kosher un freilichen Pesach!