Letters Debate Continues

I have one question for Ada Grodzinsky (Your Say, March 7, March 28). She categorically asserts that “it adds insult to injury to say that any place (but the land of Israel) will do” and that “no one can change history.”

I call upon her to please explain then, why it is that the two most pre-eminent Orthodox Jewish luminaries of the latter half of the 20th century  – the Rav, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson – both neither resided in the land of Israel nor are even buried there.

Clearly, not for these two giants is it the case that, in her phrasing, “the present land of Israel remained the final objective.”

Moreover, we should also remember that Maimonides, the greatest Jewish thinker of all time, did not count settlement in Israel as one of the 613 commandments.

Who is more knowledgeable, not to mention authoritative, in this area? She or the Rambam, the Rav and the Rebbe?

Just saying.

Rachmiel Gottlieb

Synagogue Embraces Digital Age

040414_sharff,-benjaminOver the last several years, the world has indeed changed with the power of social media and the Internet and all the revolutionary new ways of connecting people interactively. Synagogues today need to stay in tune with the times and learn how to connect congregants to the synagogue community and each other. Communication today focuses around reaching members where they are and in ways that they can relate to — whether on their smartphones, iPads or laptops. People want real-time information and want to be able to respond and be part of the dialogue, and we at Har Sinai want an engaged congregation.

A robust interactive website is a given these days and must be kept current and updated for people to return to it. At Har Sinai Congregation, however, we have also tried to embrace other new ways of communicating and engaging, both with our members and the Jewish community at large. We use social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and hashtags.

We are especially excited about the new mobile app we have launched, which has allowed us to communicate with our congregants in real time and keep congregants informed and connected to the synagogue. We created the app to make congregants’ lives easier and information more readily available to them. Available free on iPhone and Android devices, the app features instant congregational news updates, a calendar of events and event registration. We’re one of first synagogues in the Baltimore area to offer a mobile app. In addition to news and event information, the app offers a marketplace directory in which users can list their businesses. The app also features photos, direct contact to the synagogue office and links to the congregation’s social media sites. We are very pleased to see how many of our members have signed up for this new app.

I have a weekly rabbi’s blog, which can be accessed through our website, and people can also sign up to receive it via email. I discuss a range of topics from religious practices and issues to more contemporary subjects such as the Jewish connection to Wonder Woman and superheroes. Recently, I started a video blog.

The use of technology in the synagogue is a true work in progress. I would like eventually to be able to do virtual tefilah. At services, I envision having the prayer service projected on a screen during worship as people are so comfortable today looking at screens. Congregants can easily follow the service and always know where they are in the “prayer book.” They will be looking up at the bima and, I believe, will be more engaged. There are so many possibilities in today’s interactive world, and we have to start thinking out of the box to keep people engaged and grow our congregations. It is important to remember, however, that we must also keep the lines of communications open for our congregants who have not embraced the digital age, and we at Har Sinai Congregation continue to be sensitive to those congregants’ needs when we discuss our communication methodology.

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff is the rabbi of Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills.

Why I Love Being a Modern Orthodox Rabbi in Baltimore

040414_shapiro,-yerachmielIt was very kind of the JT to provide members of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis a forum to express their views freely. I had absolutely no guidelines for what I was to write about in this article. I thought, should I write a political article trying to convince readers to support my views on various issues, as if my rabbinical stature added reliability and credibility to my words? Should I write about a topic in Torah, though I know some readers will just gloss over it? In the end, I decided that I wanted to talk about how lucky I feel to be in the position I’m in writing this article. It’s not a puff piece, but the honest truth I feel in my heart. I love being a Modern Orthodox rabbi here in Baltimore.

I have the opportunity to lead an amazing shul. Real old-fashioned Modern Orthodox shuls are a rarity these days. Mine is a gloriously preserved 1950s bastion of Modern Orthodoxy. Sure, we’ve updated the service and added some Carlebach, but at its core, MMAE is still the same shul Rabbi Max founded in 1952. MMAE is unapologetically Orthodox, mechitza and all, but also completely open and nonjudgmental. Anyone … I mean it… Anyone could walk in the doors of our sanctuary and be greeted by caring faces and soft sweet Torah. And the beautiful thing is this is probably true for the vast majority of synagogues in town.

A rabbi alone is a very lonely rabbi. A famous Talmudic dictum is o chavruta o mesuta, “give me friendship or give me death.” I have a tremendous chevre of Baltimore rabbis I can trust and rely on, including one of the largest groupings of Modern Orthodox rabbis in the country. Between Baltimore and D.C., there are at least 15 Modern Orthodox rabbis who meet up to support one another every other month. But it’s deeper than that. In some other communities, Orthodox rabbis have tried to exclude and marginalize Modern Orthodox rabbis as “not Orthodox enough” or “outside the tent.” Here in Baltimore, this has never been the case. The leadership of Baltimore’s Orthodox community has its eye on the lofty goal of communal peace.

I love Baltimore’s strong Jewish community with its sense of history and connectedness. Everyone is everyone else’s third cousin. The Associated and its agencies carefully tend to the needs of my congregants and their families. As a community rabbi, I know they have my back. The choices for Jewish education are superb. I’m at Beth Tfiloh at least twice a day. The Park Heights JCC takes care of my physical health while all the delicious kosher restaurants and Seven Mile work hard to ruin it.

Baltimore has world-class yeshivas. I study multiple times a week in the Mesivta of Baltimore, a center of Jewish intellectual energy and spirit. It is open 24/7 as a place to come and learn. When I walk through the door, I am filled with yirat shamayim and the deep desire to learn and grow as a human being and as a Jew.

The aspect of Baltimore I love most is my friends. There are so many people I can relate to. I am overwhelmed by the friendliness and welcoming nature of every segment of Baltimore’s Jewish community. In the short four years we’ve been here, I and my family have made friends I am certain will be friends for life. The bottom line is that excluding Israel or Tahiti, Baltimore is the sweetest paradise this Modern Orthodox rabbi could ever ask for.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro is the spiritual leader of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah — The Greengate Jewish Center.

Giving Thanks for the Memories

runyan_josh_otMemory is a particularly powerful faculty. It helps us learn, it can provide a guide by which to judge future actions and, along with emotions, serves as the foundation upon which human experience is built.

Memory is frequently passive, but in a Jewish context it is seen more in terms of a positive act. That’s why the Torah exhorts people to remember the Exodus, to remember Amalek, to remember what transpired in the desert.

But how can someone be commanded to remember? Psychologists speak of a subconscious effort by those suffering abuse to not commit certain events to memory and of a conscious effort to keep certain memories locked away. But the tradition invoked during the fast-approaching holiday of Passover to recall the deliverance from Egypt is not addressing such concepts.

How is memory preserved, accessed and used? Through the sensations that defined the experience in the first place. That’s why the mere sounds of the tiles clicking together bring back so many memories of grandmothers and great-grandmothers sitting around card tables over drawn-out games of mah jongg. For some people, the sight of the tiles’ elaborate and colorful designs evokes — like the smell of matzah balls simmering or the taste of a particular recipe of charoset — a longing for the past, a desire to reclaim the feelings of childhood and the embraces of a community of yesteryear.

Perhaps that’s why a national resurgence of mah jongg has made the game so popular. Today, there are cruises devoted to the game. There’s even an exhibit devoted to the game and its cultural significance at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, which you’ll read about in this week’s cover story.

Could it be that the best way to reach back to the past, the best way to preserve memories of departed loved ones and bygone eras, is to bring it into the present?

That’s exactly what every Passover Seder, from the Haggadah and the cups of wine to the Seder plate and the matzah, is designed to accomplish. While each year’s experience is an opportunity for families to create their own memories, Passover as a whole demands that every participant re-create the events of thousands of years ago. That collective reliving is a defining characteristic of the Jewish people, because it’s only through re-experiencing the formative moments of our peoplehood that we can face the future recharged and re-energized. It’s what preserved our identities long ago, and it’s what will enable us to survive a barrage of assaults from without and within.

The beauty of matzah is its stark simplicity. Whereas the outside world is a cacophonous mess, matzah is quite distinctive. It has a signature crunch, a signature sound when broken, a signature feel and a very simple taste. The whole experience of eating it — and baking it, if you happen to be among the many kids traveling to the model bakery in Columbia this week — screams, “Remember!”

As we all rush to clean our homes and polish our Seder plates — or mah jongg sets — let’s all take a moment to cherish the memories.


A spectacle for King Sheldon

There are no current kings in Israel. But there are kings in politics — and Jewish kings as well. Most prominent of these is casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who, with his fortune, is the financial backbone of the Republican Party, along with the non-Jewish Koch brothers.

Last weekend, a gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas became an Adelson love fest, as one potential Republican presidential candidate after another made his case before 400 Jewish Republicans. The main target of each presentation was Adelson, who spent a reported $93 million on the 2012 presidential race. Indeed, Ohio Gov. John Kasich made no bones about it and frequently directed his remarks to “Sheldon.”

If this smacks of political brownnosing — with presidential hopefuls focused on the money — it was. But that’s nothing new. Virtually everybody does it.

Since the Supreme Court struck down Citizen’s United in 2010, the pay-to-play voices belonging to the richest and most powerful have drowned out those of ordinary people. Public election finance is essentially dead. What is left are mega-givers, who hope to buy election results with their dollars.

It isn’t just the Republicans, of course — although Adelson and the Kochs are particularly prominent. The Democrats are just as addicted to big money. The fact is, big money is just about the only way to get elected. And although there may be fewer super-rich mega-givers in the Democratic Party, the liberal side does benefit from the deep pockets of George Soros and others.

Having to spend most waking hours in the “soul-crushing” pursuit of money is a situation no politician wants. Moreover, that process shortchanges the public.

There are some campaign finance proposals circulating that are designed to address the problem. Last year, Rep. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) introduced the Grassroots Democracy Act. It would match every donation of $100 or less with $5 in public matching funds. In addition, it would provide voters with up to a $50 tax credit for contributions to a political candidate.

That same public-private concept is behind legislation proposed by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Rep. David Price (D-N.C.). Among its provisions is a 5-to-1 match on the first $250 of any contribution up to $1,250 for congressional candidates.

The problem is not a shortage of solutions. The problem is that no one knows when the public will get angry enough at the current state of affairs to demand that the system be changed. Last week’s Sheldon Spectacle should hasten that day.

Stop Ignoring Candidate!

I am complaining about the very incomplete coverage of Ralph Jaffe’s gubernatorial campaign and his ongoing movement as compared with that of his opponents, who have been able to exploit your readers and the wider public for years (“Candidates Game for Decriminalization,” Feb. 21).

Are you aware that the Jaffe movement has thousands of students? Many are JT subscribers and readers who do not understand why you are ignoring his campaign as the voting days approach.

For example, Jaffe filed a $1 billion lawsuit against Baltimore Gas and Electric to prevent customers from being ripped off by the company’s power restoration record. Any money that the court awards in the lawsuit will be distributed in full to the needy citizens of our state.

While the politicos and the Public Service Commission approve the steps in the utility’s carefully forced installation of smart meters, Jaffe openly opposed them.

As Jaffe leads a movement to end the morally bankrupt practices in our political system, his opponents continue to fit comfortably in it.

Kindly inform your readers that they can see more information about Jaffe’s movement and where he stands on major issues at fedupwithcrooked politics.com.

Walter Weinstein
Owings Mills

No Other Homeland

Baruch Shaw’s letter suggesting that 19th-century proposals that Uganda or other places, as opposed to what was then Palestine, should be a final home of the Jewish people is very disturbing (Your Say, March 21). Those proposals were brought up only as temporary solutions serving as a nachtasyl — a “night refuge” — for the persecuted Jews of Europe.

The present land of Israel remained the final objective. For every leader that Shaw has mentioned, we can bring up hundreds that disagreed with those proposals.

The proof is in the pudding. Those ideas did not work, while the existence of the magnificent State of Israel is here to stay, because in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people there are significant historical, religious and traditional ties that are undeniable.

Jews who think otherwise should go and see for themselves.

Ada Grodzinsky

Jewish Brief a Questionable Exercise

Forget about what Newt Gingrich calls the “Shariazation of America”; make way for the “halachization” of the U.S. legal system (“Not a Passing Hobby,” March 21).

The point man in this bumptious enterprise is legal eagle Nathan Lewin acting on behalf of the Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs and aided and abetted by groups such as Agudath Israel, the Rabbinic Council of America and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

Lewin boasts how his brief in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. is “original in its intent to bring a strictly Orthodox perspective on the issue as opposed to interpreting precedent.” In this, he straight out challenges “the government’s theory that there should be a distinction between whether you run a business individually and whether you run it as a corporation.”

What Lewin conveniently omits is that Halachah recognizes only partnerships, not corporations. Lewin further observes that “there have been very, very few briefs in the Supreme Court that have cited Jewish halachic authorities.”

Indeed, for very good reason.

Halachah does not recognize bankruptcy, for example. As a matter of principled Orthodox consistency, will Lewin now argue for the elimination of Chapter 7 and Chapter 11 as legal options? The debt collection agency lobby would certainly be in favor.

Issachar Friedmann

A Picture of a Friend

Seeing the picture of Esther Dubin (“In Sickness and In Health,” March 21), and the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease filled me with immense sadness.

As a 15-year-old newcomer to Baltimore from Queens, N.Y., and raised in a secular home, I knew nothing about Judaism. I felt totally lost in my new Jewish neighborhood, where everyone seemed to be so religiously connected.

Esther befriended me and took me to Beth El Synagogue, then located on Hilton Street, where I entered a synagogue for the first time in my life. She taught me the Shema and how to behave and pray as a Jew. Thanks to Esther, I was launched on my Jewish journey.

This is the picture of Esther Dubin that I choose to remember and cherish.

Shoshana Harris

Simply Amazing!

A scant three months after the passing of Nelson Mandela, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) impudently calls for the “Bantustanization” of the Palestinian territories (Your Say, March 21).

In Marc Caroff’s recent letter, simply replace “Palestinians” with “black Africans,” and substitute “white Afrikaner” for “Jewish” and “Zionist,” and you have a concise summary of the official policy of the white South African apartheid regime in its efforts to, borrowing from the letter’s phraseology, “guarantee maximal security.”

As such, the ZOA is firing blanks — whose ricochet plays directly into the hands of the boycott, divestment and sanctions crowd.

Barry Hashem