Israel, Racist?

Miles Hoenig’s attempt to justify a boycott of Israel (Your Say, March 7) by stating that “Israel’s policies toward its Palestinian residents is nothing short of outright racism” is false on two levels. Only Palestinian residents of what is known by some as East Jerusalem can qualify to be Israeli residents (as opposed to Israel’s Arab population who are citizens). Palestinians who live in Judea and Samaria are either citizens of the Palestinian Authority, Jordan or both. In addition, the number of Palestinians in East Jerusalem who are applying for Jerusalem residency are increasing in greater numbers every year. Polls have shown that the most stated reason for this is that Israel affords Palestinians greater rights and freedoms than the PA does. This belies Hoenig’s spurious charges of racism. Why would you want to become an official member of an entity that has racist policies against you?

Muslims are free to live, work, worship, vote and own property in Israel, whereas Mahmoud Abbas has declared on numerous occasions that any future state of Palestine will be “Judenrein,” free of Jews; and a Palestinian that sells land to Jews is not only breaking the law but is committing an offense punishable by death. I’m confused; Israel is the racist in this discussion?

Joshua Gurewitsch

In Search of Contemporary Heroes

The Jewish community is threatened. Queen Esther not only is silent, but also opposes the activism of Morde-chai. The response of Mordechai is blunt: “If you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from elsewhere, and you and your father’s house will perish.” A chastened Esther intervenes with the king and foils Haman’s evil plot.

This passage from the Megillah is directly applicable to the current campaign to enact legislation in Maryland that will bar taxpayer funding for boycotts of Israel. While a few Jewish organizations are following Morde-chai and Esther’s example by supporting the bill, all too many are either silent or worse yet, on the wrong side of this critical issue.

Last December, the American Studies Association, of which the University of Maryland, Baltimore County is a member, voted to boycott Israeli institutions and scholars. The boycott is part of the pernicious BDS movement, which seeks to isolate Israel politically, culturally and economically through boycotts, divestment and sanctions.

The Baltimore Jewish Council deserves tremendous credit for its quick and forceful response to the BDS threat. The BJC worked with legislators to  introduce legislation in Maryland’s General Assembly that would prohibit public institutions of higher education from using public funds to pay for membership, travel expenses or other costs to organizations boycotting countries with which Maryland has a declaration of cooperation. This measured and appropriate response is supported by the Baltimore Zionist District, Agudath Israel of Maryland, the Maryland Israel Development Center and the Baltimore Israel Coalition.

Unfortunately, the response of others to the ASA boycott has been deafening silence. At the recent legislative hearings considering the anti-boycott legislation, the leadership of the UMBC Hillel and Jewish members of the university’s board of regents were conspicuous in their absence. The failure of these individuals to take even the minimal step of issuing a public statement denouncing UMBC’s continued membership in the ASA bespeaks a timidity and passivity that is the antithesis of the character traits exhibited by Mordechai and Esther so long ago.

Even more contrary to the teachings of the Megillah, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee have condemned the proposed legislation for violating academic freedom. Setting aside the sheer perversity of ostensibly pro-Israel advocacy groups actively campaigning to defeat anti-BDS legislation, the stated basis for their opposition is bogus.

Academic freedom protects academics from having their scholarly work judged according to extraneous moral, religious or political criteria and from being punished for expressing controversial or unpopular ideas. It does not require taxpayers to fund such purely political activities as university membership in groups that boycott Israel.

Should pending anti-boycott legislation fail to pass or be enacted in a watered-down form, credit will go to the contemporary leaders who lack the resolve exhibited by the hero and heroine of the Megillah so long ago.

Jay Bernstein is chair of the advocacy committee of the Baltimore Zionist District and host of Shalom USA Radio.

Finding Community in Howard County

In 1994, I moved to the Baltimore area to attend dental school. Aware of the large active Jewish community in Baltimore, I longed to become involved, but as a student I had limited free time. I promised myself that I would, when time allowed, make involvement in Jewish organizations a priority. It was not until I got married and had a family of my own that I fulfilled the promise I made to myself.

I moved to Howard County in 2005. At that time I was still searching for a way to get involved. As a busy working mother with young children, I suppose I was looking for an opportunity to find myself rather than seeking an avenue for participation. It was at that time that I learned about Dor Tikvah, a women’s leadership program under the auspices of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. The program, which “takes its inspiration from the Jewish traditions of tzedakah and tikkun olam,” was designed for women just like me. I was able to explore my Jewish identity and learn how to get involved in the programs The Associated offered.

I made it a point to take away something from each monthly meeting that would help me become a better leader, both personally and professionally. At the end of the two-year program, when asked how I wanted to get involved at the next level, my first thought was I wanted to do something in Howard County.

I knew that there were many people like me who were just looking for an outlet to get involved. Quite honestly, for nine years I had lived in Howard County and yet I still did not feel connected to the Jewish community there. Inspired by my experience, I wanted to find a way to use the leadership skills and motivation I received from Dor Tikvah to become involved with the Jewish Federation of Howard County.

During the next year I was approached by the federation to work on a leadership program called jLeads: Jewish Leadership Education and Development Series. It seemed like the perfect avenue to contribute in a meaningful way. I was excited to set up a program that allows adults between the ages of 22 and 45 to learn more about their Jewish identity and find a connection as Jewish leaders in Howard County.

The jLEADS program began in January 2014. At our first meeting each participant shared the stories that made up his or her own Jewish journey and explained why he or she had chosen to participate. Again I was inspired.

Our group is made up of lawyers, a teacher, a marketing professional and even a chef, and all of us are looking for ways to get involved in our community and bring Judaism into our lives. The Jewish community in Howard County is growing and thriving, and it is evident that there are many people who are looking for ways to help unite the community and find ways to stay connected to Judaism.

I hope all young adults in Howard County will step forward with me. Donate. Participate. Volunteer. You can make a difference!

Rachael Simon is chair of jLEADS: Jewish Leadership Education and Development Series at the Jewish Federation of Howard County.

A man apart

Bernard Madoff insists he “made more money for Jewish people and charities” than he lost.” (BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS/Newscom)

Bernard Madoff insists he “made more money for Jewish people and charities” than he lost.” (BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS/Newscom)

As he serves a 150-year sentence for running the biggest Ponzi scheme in American history, Bernard Madoff surely has a lot of time to think about his crimes and their ramifications. But in an interview last week with Politico, Madoff showed that he was a man apart — imperious, disconnected, unrepentant and surprisingly lacking in empathy. These troubling traits may help explain how he was able to maintain such a fantastically large fraud — estimated by investors to be as high as $65 billion — until it crashed in 2008.

Among the more prominent of Madoff’s victims were Jewish organizations and individuals. The Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation, Hadassah, Yeshiva University and the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles were all hit hard. The American Jewish Congress was reduced to a shoestring organization. These and other organizations and individuals invested money with Madoff, a man who convinced himself and others that he was a devoted and caring Jew.

Based upon the interview, however, it doesn’t appear that Madoff feels particular remorse for what he did to the Jewish community he was a part of for decades, or to the Jewish institutions he had a hand in ruining, or for the predominantly Jewish retirees and investors who put their fortunes in his hands only to see them disappear. Thus, he told the interviewer: “I don’t feel that I betrayed the Jews; I betrayed people.” It’s almost as if Madoff thinks he ran an equal opportunity fraud.

And then he went further. “I don’t feel any worse for a Jewish person than I do for a Catholic person,” he said. “Religion had nothing to do with it.”

Not quite.

While it is true that Madoff betrayed “people,” the disproportionate impact of his fraud was on the Jewish community and on Jewish clients. Those clear results belie his rationalization. Madoff hurt Jews in many different ways, not all of them financial. But in the financial realm, the hurt to the Jewish community and to Jews was far greater than any other group.

Madoff did admit: “I betrayed people that put trust in me — certainly the Jewish community.” But he then muddied his confession with another rationalization: “I’ve made more money for Jewish people and charities than I’ve lost.”

Madoff’s claimed gains don’t bring much comfort. First, we don’t know whether he made that money or stole it. Second, we don’t really know whether the claimed gains are true.

Madoff comes closest to the personification of the hateful stereotype of the cheating Jew than anyone in recent memory. We wonder where that fits in his analysis.

There is, however, one thing we can learn from the interview: Bernie Madoff needs to do a lot more thinking about what he did and who he hurt. He has plenty of time.

More Than Words

Although leprosy isn’t a concern today, the timelessness of this biblical ailment’s message deeply resonates. After explaining the purity rituals of childbirth, Parshat Tazria dives into a lengthy and detailed description of the skin-condition tzara’at, commonly known today as leprosy.

Essentially, if people developed white discolorations on their skin, they were brought to the kohain. The kohain examined them to determine whether they were ritually clean or unclean and quarantined them during an examination period of varying lengths. If the kohain determined that the person had tzara’at, the sinner repented through a process involving sacrifice, mikvah immersion and the shaving of all their hair.

Considering how God inflicted Miriam with leprosy after she denounced Moshe for marrying Zipporah, a dark-skinned woman, our sages stated that leprosy was the punishment for lashon harah, derogatory speech of another person using true facts. When someone developed the symptoms of tzara’at, the kohain quarantined him or her, because spreading negative gossip may turn families, friends or acquaintances against one another.

Although lashon harah specifically denotes demeaning another person, the Lubavitcher Rebbe brings another relevant perspective. In one of his stories, a man approaches Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch and describes himself as a horrible villain while listing all of his moral and spiritual insufficiencies. “Surely,” the Rebbe replies, “you know how grave is the sin of lashon harah, speaking evilly of a human being. Nowhere, to my knowledge, does it say that it is permissible to speak lashon harah about oneself.”

As people, we constantly belittle ourselves. Either out loud or internally, we bemoan and feel devastated over our self-perceived deficiencies and blemishes. But if we wouldn’t judge someone else so harshly, or want him or her to perceive us in such a negative, lacking way, why do we relentlessly critique ourselves?

Words are never “just words”; they transform thoughts and concepts into reality. It’s one thing to have a moral essence tainted with some imperfect thoughts or tendencies — we’re all human. We’re not expected to be flawless, only to try and conquer our undesirable inclinations. However, if another person gossips about these faults, it actualizes them and cements them as a part of our identity. Once you gossip to someone, it will spread, and it’s impossible to take back your words.

Conversely if you exercise speech to spread encouragement and positivity, the subject of your speech may feel empowered and motivated to live up to the positive expectations now verbalized, and by extension, believed about them. You still affect the original three; yourself, the person you’re speaking to and the object of your speech, but for the better.

The tzara’at infliction wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it granted sinners a chance to repent and cleanse themselves. Today, with social media, it’s realistic to assume we commit more lashon harah than our biblical ancestors. However, we don’t have the warning that tzara’at provided. It’s dependent on us to look out for ourselves and each other to stop the harm constantly perpetrated though damaging words. Perhaps today’s lack of leprosy displays God’s faith in us to speak kindly about ourselves and each other without His unsightly reminder. That’s an expectation we should strive to achieve.

Strength in numbers

No one denies that Wayne Stephen Young murdered Esther Lebovitz, the 11-year-old girl who disappeared on her way home from the Bais Yaakov School for Girls in 1969. And in a perfect world, the question of Young’s freedom — he was sentenced to life in prison in 1970 — would not be an issue almost 45 years after the killing brought horror to Baltimore’s Jewish community.

But this is not a perfect world, a fact laid bare last week when an obscure legal precedent known as the Unger ruling set in motion a process that culminated in Young’s appearance before Baltimore Circuit Judge Edward R.K. Hardagon. The jurist will now decide whether Young, who admitted to the police officer administering his polygraph test years ago that he “killed that little girl,” will get to go free.

The judge’s decision will surely be driven by the law. But even he could not ignore the presence of 250 members of our community who carpooled and rode buses and trains to attend the hearing.

“It does not go unnoticed how many people are here,” Judge Hardagon said from the bench. “Thank you for coming.”

The busloads of concerned citizens, clutching books of Tehillim and listening intently to the proceedings, made a statement even in silence. Most of those in attendance didn’t know the victim, whose family moved to Israel shortly after her murder. Many weren’t even born when the murder occurred. But they somehow felt the impact of the events of almost a half century ago.

Why they felt compelled to attend — and why we feel compelled to applaud their attendance — is a testament to their shared humanity and to the idea that when the imperfections of the world place even one Jewish family in danger, ours is a community that can rise together to demand that justice be done.

Rachel’s True Performance

My name is Goldie, I’m in the sixth grade, and I can’t wait to tell you my story. Ever since second grade, my best friend, Rachel, and I wanted to be in the Shara Girl’s Choir. Everyone knows that only sixth-graders and above are allowed to try out, and only the good singers make it in. Landing a solo in the Shara Choir is also pretty competitive. Not everyone can get one, period.

Well, G-d blessed Rachel with a beautiful mezzo-soprano voice. My voice varies. Sometimes it sounds like a recorder blown a bit too hard; other times it sounds like a flute. Rachel and I laugh about it, but the truth is, when I really practice singing, my voice has potential.

You can imagine how really nervous I was when I tried out, but a week later I was accepted into the choir. Both Rachel and I had solos and a duet to end the concert. Some of the other girls didn’t land solos, and I heard that they were a bit jealous of me. I ignored some of their comments. I just kept on working to get ready for my part.

When the concert finally arrived, the auditorium’s seats were filled. The concert began, our choir danced and sang, and the audience loved it.

And then came our turn at the end. I dragged myself, weak legs and all, out front and grabbed my microphone and looked at Rachel, who held hers. I shook but took a deep belly breath. And then I heard a little burst, almost like a balloon popping.

I noticed that my microphone stopped working. Rachel sang, and when it was my turn, I sang into nothingness. No one could hear me. My face turned beat red, and I looked over at Rachel. She smiled and continued, then turned to face me. I stood there completely stunned and wanted to be buried under the stage, never to be seen again.

I looked to face some of the other girls, who just shrugged their shoulders. Maybe I didn’t deserve this solo. But that’s when Rachel ran next to me, handing me her microphone toward the end of her solo. Now it was my turn to sing, and she was to sing again after me. She stood with my broken microphone while I stood and sang clearly and beautifully into her perfectly good one. I couldn’t believe it. Rachel was giving up a bit of her solo to help me sing mine. I closed my eyes and sang as beautifully as I could, and then I put my arm around Rachel, and I tried handing her back the mike. She leaned into it, but let me hold it, and we ended with a duet that sounded mostly like my singing.

I was shocked. I stood on stage frozen, not knowing what would happen next. My eyes moved out to the audience, which was standing and clapping for us. “What?” I thought. “They really liked our song, even though we messed most of it up.”

And then I saw how Rachel actually saved me from embarrassment by giving up her solo for the sake of mine. That night as I stood there smiling, I realized how lucky I was to have such a sensitive friend and how together we had shown the audience much more than anyone had thought possible.

The Torah teaches us that we are not allowed to embarrass another. How praiseworthy it is then to save another from embarrassment.

Discussion Questions
1. Why is it so important to save someone from embarrassment?
2. How would embarrassing someone be like murder?
3. What are other ways we can help prevent others from being embarrassed?

Danielle Sarah Storch is a local freelance writer. “Shabbat Table Talk” is a monthly feature synthesizing Torah insights and lessons for children of all ages.

The Stories That Connect Us

runyan_josh_otAt a time in life when others get lost in music or drugs or the high school social scene, one particular headstrong 16-year-old decides that his teenage rebellion requires wearing a yarmulke.

He knows little about kashrut, even less about Jewish history and practice, but he knows that he’s Jewish. And so he makes a statement, proudly declaring his identity in the form of a blue knit kippah while meandering through the sometimes conflicting worlds of religious practice and modern life. He is naïve and lost, but his search is pure.

One day, this headstrong young man finds himself at a Target, standing in the checkout line, when a figure from what appears to be another era — a bearded rabbi dressed in black — spots the boy from amid the crowd.

“You’re Jewish!” the rabbi exclaims, but it doesn’t take him long to realize that the adolescent standing before him is somewhat of a puzzle. He stands there in jeans and a T-shirt, clutching his purchases, and, save for the skullcap, clearly inhabits a “non-Jewish” existence.

“Rosh Hashanah is in two weeks,” the rabbi tells the young man. “You must spend it at my house.”

And so propelled a Jewish journey that continues now, almost two decades later. The young man’s story might never have been shared were it notfor a workshop at the Owings Mills JCC sponsored by Limmud Baltimore. What the gathering — which you’ll read about in this week’s JT —illustrated is that everyone has a story, everyone grapples with their role in Jewish life and Jewish community, everyone continues on their journeys.

It is only through sharing these stories that we develop an appreciation for not only what others have gone through, but also how similar our own journeys appear to others. And so, you’ll find in this week’s pages the tales of Ben Hyman, whose love of Baltimore has planted him in what could be the most un-Jewish of locations; and Mike Peisach, whose love of family and familiarity has made him one of the last sewing machine repairmen; and even the tragedy of Esther Lebovitz, the 11-year-old whose murder stunned a community and in whose memory hundreds of people turned out to protest an appeal by the man who took her life almost a half-century ago.

It takes a lot to share a story; because of the difficulty of introspection, it’s even harder to share your own story. It requires careful reflection, an openness to critique and a willingness to be vulnerable.

But it’s through stories that we learn of obstacles overcome, of loves gained and lost, of achievements and failures. It’s through stories that we inspire ourselves and each other, take stock of our lives and the world around us and find answers to the questions that plague us.

More importantly, stories provide the fabric that binds each of us to our past and future, to our family members and friends, to our community and neighbors.

What’s your story?

Lifting of Hands as One

2013-axler-craigAmong the events recorded in this week’s Torah portion is the initiation of sacrifice, the first communal worship of the ancient Israelites wandering in the wilderness. Having been prepared both in procedure and in all the necessary elements, Aaron and his sons are consecrated as kohanim — priests — with the offering of the first sacrifice. The text tells us that after he arranged multiple animals on the altar: “Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them.”

This “lifting of hands” is reminiscent of a tradition that passes through generations of kohanim in the days of the Tabernacle and then the First and Second Temples. It is reflected in the maintenance of a priestly line in Jewish families to this day. Among the most sacred continuing functions of the kohain is the responsibility to bless the people of Israel. Done differently in various communities of Jews, and depending on locations inside of the land of Israel or in the Diaspora, this blessing always includes the aspect of “lifting of hands.”

Though the full blessing and procedure will be fleshed out in the book of Numbers, our parshah alludes to the physical element of the blessing, the hands used to convey God’s blessing. The next verses tell us: “Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. All the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.”

This was the very first manifestation of God’s acceptance of the sacrifice offered on behalf of the priests and on behalf of the people as a whole — an awesome moment to be sure! In a beautiful comment, Nefesh Yehonatan points out a difference between the way that the Torah is written in Leviticus 9:22 and the way that it is to be read. The ketiv or written text for “his hands” is yud-daled-vav, yielding yado, or the singular “his hand.” But it is read as yud-daled-yud-vav — yadav, “his hands.”

The commentator notes: “Israel is blessed when they are united in fellowship. Accordingly, Aaron’s two hands were made as one. All of the hands [of the priests] were made into one hand, outstretched to the heavens to bring down upon Israel the flow of blessings from the highest places.”

While it is traditionally the kohanim who stretch out their hands in blessing before the congregation when they pronounce the words of the Priestly Benediction, the custom has developed that we include these words and this aspect of blessing with hands when we gather our children to bless them before the Shabbat or festival meal. Making us a “nation of priests,” we place our hands upon the heads of our next generations, bringing God’s blessing upon them and stretching back to the moment when the entire people first witnessed a confirmation of that blessing, the sacred fire that emanated from God in this week’s Torah portion.

We pray that our outstretched hands will bring blessing, unity, acceptance and holiness — that our hands together with all of the hands stretched forth in kindness will become as one, causing blessing to flow on us and all Israel.

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

Embracing the Purim Spirit

runyan_josh_otYou certainly don’t need to be reminded, but there’s nothing like spending Purim in Baltimore. As if last week’s pre-holiday carnivals weren’t enough, entire streets became parking lots on Sunday, bumper-to-bumper traffic competing with costumed revelers in the race to deliver precious shlach manot to neighbors and friends.

The scene was one of tremendous unity, of Jewish joy and celebration. It served as reminder of what can be accomplished when the Jewish people focus within and celebrate their shared identity. That was the spirit that saved the Jews in Persia thousands of years ago and is the spirit behind many of the community’s initiatives at home and abroad.

That spirit can be seen in the flow of money and support to Jewish residents of Odessa and other cities throughout Ukraine, a communal effort you’ll read about in the pages of this week’s JT. By committing hard-earned dollars, donors are collectively acknowledging a common bond between Jewish Baltimore and those caught in the crossfire between nationalist Ukrainians on the one hand and the hegemonic desires of an expanding Russia on the other.

People around the world, whether in Ukraine or in Israel and beyond, need help.

But as this week’s cover story demonstrates, people also need help right here in Baltimore. Spousal caregivers can benefit from several programs, including support groups and counseling organizations, but as Simone Ellin discovered in her reporting, many of those who have found themselves caring for a chronically ill spouse feel isolated and alone.

That state of affairs might be caused by the fact that this growing phenomenon — one rabbi in Cherry Hill notes that long-term care issues will only multiply as baby boomers age and medical advances lengthen lifespans — has traditionally taken a back seat to other pressing concerns, be they addressing the needs of children with special needs and their families or helping families taking care of aging parents and grandparents, issues that the JT has covered recently.

It could also be that spousal caregivers occupy a unique environment, a world of round-the-clock needs, mourning the loss of what could have been and coping with the reality of what is. In the words of a 56-year-old spouse who preferred to remain anonymous: “You have to accept that the person you married is here, but not here.”

It comes as no surprise then that such people are tremendously lonely.

And so it falls on the surrounding community to reach out. Many are already doing a tremendous job, as one reader pointed out recently: Caring residents regularly flock to the Levindale complex off of Northern Parkway to bring patients and their family members a sense of community. The program, though, could always use more volunteers.

We need more of such programs. We need more helping hands, more shoulders to cry on and more gestures of support.

In short, we as a community need to keep that Purim spirit of unity going, on through Passover and beyond, so that everyone knows he is not alone.