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!

Our Commitment to Israel

The JT has covered the American Studies Association (ASA) academic boycott of Israel and the local response. We agree that it’s important that JT readers be kept fully informed on this issue.

That’s why we are pleased to report that the Maryland General Assembly took action to address this. We voted for the budget that just passed today [April 5], and the text in this area speaks for itself. Here’s an excerpt:

“The General Assembly declares that it is the policy of the State to(1) reaffirm our Declaration of Cooperation with State of Israel that has resulted in the successful exchange of commerce, culture, technology, tourism, trade, economic development, scholarly inquiry, and academic cooperation; (2) oppose Maryland public institutions’ support of the … movement Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions; (3) condemn the American Studies Association’s boycott against institutions of higher education in Israel.”

We will continue to work with our community and its organizations to support Israel, to restate that support whenever and wherever possible and to oppose any attempts to weaken the relationship between Maryland and Israel.

Delegate Dan Morhaim (D-District 11)
Delegate Dana Stein (D-District 11)
Delegate Jon Cardin (D-District 11)
Delegate Adrienne Jones (D-District 10)
Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11)
Baltimore County

The collapsed talks

The Palestinian leadership votes for a request to join 15 U.N. agencies during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah amid Secretary of State John Kerry's last-ditch effort to revive peace talks with Israel. (Thaer Ganaim/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

The Palestinian leadership votes for a request to join 15 U.N. agencies during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah amid Secretary of State John Kerry’s last-ditch effort to revive peace talks with Israel. (Thaer Ganaim/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

The recriminations and told-you-so’s that followed the apparent breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations last week are well- founded. Each side pointed to the other in an effort to cast blame. At least with respect to the particular accusations made, each side was right: The Palestinians acted contrary to agreed protocol by signing 15 U.N. treaties, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu charged. And Israel reneged on its agreement to release a fourth round of Palestinian prisoners, as President Mahmoud Abbas complained. But neither “violation” caused the talks to fail. Rather, the nearly nine months of talks failed because they were led by people who were apparently too weak to transcend their own political limitations.

So, where do things go from here?

Suggestions on the Israeli side have come from left, right and center. Tzipi Livni, the lead Israeli negotiator, called on Netanyahu and Abbas to start talking directly instead of relying on their underlings. The nine-month window doesn’t formally close until April 29, so there is still time for such talks. But would the effort lead to some kind of grand gesture or a breakthrough? We doubt it. And there has been no sign that either man has it in him.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s political partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, called for new elections in Israel as a way to break the stalemate. Perhaps Lieberman thinks that the failure of the talks will produce gains for the right wing and propel him to the prime minister’s office. We doubt that as well.

And from the left, former government minister Yossi Beilin urged the two sides to stop trying to reach an elusive final status agreement. Instead, Beilin said that with U.S. help, the two sides should negotiate the creation of a Palestinian state with temporary borders. Under Beilin’s plan, the prisoner release would go through and the Palestinians would freeze their applications to the U.N. We don’t think that suggestion has much likelihood of success either.

That said, we find it encouraging that even in the face of the collapsing talks and mounting frustration, almost all factions of the Israeli government are actively proposing alternative approaches. New ideas present new opportunities, and that is good.

We are discouraged, however, that we hear nothing similar coming from the Palestinian side. In that regard, we urge Abbas to recognize that the politics of rejection only gets his cause so far. Without at least some give, there is a limit on what one can take. And in a true negotiation, one needs to learn how to say “yes.” We have seen no indication that Abbas and his “negotiators” subscribe to this view.

While we would like to believe that Secretary of State John Kerry’s intensive effort to bring the two sides to an agreement was not in vain, we aren’t so sure.

Looking for the Seder Jew

2013_jesse_grossSince the release of the Pew Study of Jewish Americans last fall there has been ample discussion in the Jewish community about the vitality of the Jewish people. Despite all the scary statistics, however, the Pew Study also revealed some information that may give us a sense of where the good stuff is happening.

According to Pew, more than 70 percent of American Jews attend a Passover Seder. This statistic is definitely one for the ìit’s good for the Jewish peopleî column. We have heard about the bagel-and-lox Jew, the gastronomic Jew, the cultural Jew. When I ask around my circles, I often hear tropes of family being together, with Bubbie’s matzo ball soup, stories, tradition and feeling cited as reasons to participate. So it does not seem too odd that someone would religiously attend a Seder every year but remain absent from Jewish life for the rest of it.

I often tell the stories of preparing for Passover meals with my mother and grandmothers as a main influence in my decision to become a rabbi. I did not grow up in a religious family, but my family was religious about our culture and our tradition. The stories I would hear about the Jewish people and my own individual family while preparing kugel and gefilte fish with the women of my family are at the foundation of my own Jewish identity. I only came to love the stories of the rabbis and the Torah because of the oral Torah I collected while my hands were elbow deep in matzo meal.

This year, Charm City Tribe is hosting a second night Seder. While it is not for the halachically observant, it is an effort to bring together a critical mass of folks who are looking to participate in and act out the rituals of our tradition as it relates to the Passover meal. The Seder is scheduled to take place at Area 405, an art gallery in Station North that currently has an exhibit in which half of the space is covered in pink sand and the other room — where we will dine — contains  multiple wooden structures that capture the feeling of the building the Israelites did before they left Egypt. We have taken the staples of the entire Haggadah and crafted a placemat that our participants will use for the evening. Perhaps most exciting is the Holy Hallel Band we have put together for the Find the Afikomen Hallel after-party.

I have mentioned time and again that one value of Charm City Tribe is that everyone will always leave with something they didn’t have before. I didn’t know about Hallel or the Seder that takes place after the meal until well into my 20s. No one is to blame, it was just not my journey. I believe most secular, unaffiliated Jews may also not know. So what better way to introduce the masses to the most amazing collection of Jewish music that we sing on joyous occasions than to get musicians from some of Baltimore’s greatest bands to perform Hallel after our festive meal?

As we enter into the season in which we move along the continuum from narrow places to liberation, it is my hope that this year’s Pesach season will be an unforgettable one for our Charm City Tribe community and one that reminds us of our holy task this time of year — that each of us should see ourselves as if we have left Egypt and be inspired to pursue issues of justice and liberation in our own time.

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

Newspaper ownership consolidation

News this week that the Jerusalem Post would buy the troubled Hebrew daily Maariv for $1.5 million comes on the heels of word that American Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson will purchase the Israeli weekly Makor Rishon and NRG website for nearly $5 million. Adelson, a casino mogul, high-profile political contributor and prolific philanthropist, also owns the daily Israel Hayom, bankrolling it at a reported $14 million a year.

In this sense, the dream that Israel would be a nation like all others has come true. Israel appears to be going through the same print media consolidation as we are seeing in the U.S. and many other western nations. Thus, what some optimistically call “creative destruction” is now a fact of life in Israel, with all the attendant advantages and disadvantages for news and media consumers. Closer to home, we’ve seen Amazon founder Jeff Bezos snap up The Washington Post for $250 million.

What are these billionaires thinking? Are they buying these vehicles for their investment value or for some other purpose? And if the latter, what for?

To be sure, the newspaper industry’s quarter-century decline, which picked up speed after the Internet radically changed our expectations about how we get our information, isn’t likely to stop. Readers now expect to pay nothing for the information they get and do much or most of their reading on electronic devices. Hard copies, with bleeding newsprint, are becoming much less popular. But getting enough eyeballs onto phones, tablets and computer screens in order to attract advertisers hasn’t proved as easy or as profitable as older-fashioned print advertising in the golden age of print media.

There was unquestionable value to “old media,” and maybe that is what the new wave of purchasers is seeking to regain. Newspapers and other “old media” traditionally served as the arbiter of public debate. They were the forum for the reports and opinions that helped shape public perception and views. Despite their private ownership, print newspapers and “old media” were considered quasi-public institutions that performed a civic good. With the proliferation of outlets like the Huffington Post, Drudge Report, Facebook and Twitter, there seems to be less need for “traditional” news sources, and much less demand for it.

But media ownership in fewer and fewer hands runs the risk of a homogenization of coverage and a reduction of competition between the remaining media companies. This is a concern that was expressed lately in Israel, where a thriving newspaper industry once existed. It is also a worry here as well.

While we admit to being old-fashioned enough to enjoy a printed copy of the daily paper, and a weekly copy of this one, what is really important is that the information we read is deep, well-researched, well-written and balanced. Let’s hope the new group of news moguls agree.

Passover Provides Lessons on Leadership

041114_demattos_joeMy oldest son,who is 8, recently joined with friends to lead a Rosh Chodesh service. Of course I was proud of them all, and they got me thinking about the new beginning that comes with the new moon and of the seminal Jewish new beginning we celebrate at Pesach.

I also began thinking of the Four Questions as they apply to leadership in our lives as Jews, and about how we led yesterday, how we lead today and how we plan to lead tomorrow.

An Internet search on leadership and Passover revealed an piece written by Samuel Bacharach, co-founder of the Bacharach Leadership Group. Bacharach lists the five leadership lessons of our Passover Seder: talk on the same level; remember what you all have in common; do not let the strongest dominate; do not rush; and welcome everyone. All valuable insights worth remembering and applying.

But again, with regard to my oldest son and his friends, I continue to wonder how Pesach could provide clues regarding the attributes of effective leadership, today and tomorrow.

Perhaps the first and most important of these attributes comes from all that is intertwined within the First Question: Liberation is powerful, individual freedom is arguably the chief universal value, the past must be actively remembered, the present must be viewed as a time for thoughtful and urgent action, and the future must not be taken for granted.

And while in celebrating Pesach we remember, give thanks and celebrate the seminal moment in the history of our people, my aim at our Seder table this year and my hope for the future Seder tables of my boys and their friends is that we all remember that the story of Passover is one of individual and collective action.

Some of those individual characters and stories: Miriam protected Moses; Moses himself evolved and grew into his leadership and his faith; Aaron led in ways that were difficult for Moses; and Joshua, of course, apprenticed and continued the quest to the Promised Land.

Perhaps we can find within the stories and actions of Miriam, Moses, Aaron and Joshua some clues on the universal attributes of leadership:

Leaders have vision and take action. Leaders recognize that leadership and followership go hand-in-hand. Leaders recognize their weaknesses and co-lead with others. Leaders study. Leaders listen. Leaders build team. Leaders are not perfect. Leaders evolve. Leaders adapt. Leaders are driven by values.

Among the most inspiring Jewish leaders is Shoshana S. Cardin.

At a recent ACHARAI event, Cardin said, “Leaders recognize the urgent need for understanding, vision and action. Good leaders are also good followers.”

So during Pesach, I will recall the leadership lessons of our most critical liberation 3,000 years ago. But, more importantly, my mind and heart will focus on how to build on that narrative with right action today.

Joseph DeMattos is 1st vice president at Har Sinai Congregation. He is the CEO of the Health Facilities Association of Maryland and owner of the Triple Latte Leadership consulting agency.

Mankind’s Fresh Start

More insightfully than was perhaps intended, Michael Fox’s film review of “Noah” (“Opening the Floodgates,” April 4) characterized the saga as a “reboot of civilization.”

In other words, Noah is a reset, a fresh start for mankind. With Noah, the world starts over. This is theologically monumental and a point inexplicably overlooked by most students of the Bible.

Even reading Scripture in a literal, chronological and fundamental fashion, it means that whatever happened previously — whatever did or did not transpire in the Garden of Eden and (mis!)understood by Christianity as “original sin” — is now overridden and canceled out. Noah is the second Adam, not Jesus, as the New Testament (1 Cor. 15:45) contends. The biblical text explicitly supports such a view, describing Noah as if he were the “new Adam” (Gen. 9:1, 9:6b). Logically then, since the state of affairs encompassing “original sin” has been rendered null and void, there is no need for a countervailing atonement or savior to obviate it.

No wonder that Christian ultra-traditionalists are so upset with this movie, even in [director Darren] Aronofsky’s catawampus rendering of the biblical tale. For the flood narrative presents nothing less than an energetic refutation of a core theme of Christian dogma.

S. R. Cohen

Thanks for Writing

The March 21 article by Leah Fishman (“BBYO and AIPAC: Leading the Next Generation”) was one that I could relate to. Leah and I have had many BBYO experiences that were similar. I also was a Jewish teen leader for BBYO. I also was a teen chapter president for BBYO.

There was an article in the JT a few months ago about me being the first woman state president of B’nai B’rith and winning the Outstanding District President’s Award in July 1990 at a district convention in Florida. That article was the result of a JT story about BBYO last April. It is great that I can write to you about two BBYO articles that were in your paper.

Frada A. Wall