Boycotts Much Ado About Nothing

A recent news item quotes a Knesset member from the Labor Party as saying that if Israel does not quickly agree to the creation of a Palestinian state, Israel will have “an image as a state worthy to isolate” (“Not Losing Sleep,” Feb. 14).

Yet, Gallup’s annual world affairs survey, conducted in February, found that fully 72 percent of Americans have a “very favorable” or “mostly favorable” view of Israel. By contrast, only 19 percent think favorably of the Palestinian Authority.

Israel is not isolated — at least not here in America, where it counts most. Israel’s decisions in the negotiations should be based on its national security needs, not on fear of a boycott movement that is more smoke than fire.

Moshe Phillips, president
Benyamin Korn, chairman
Religious Zionists of America
Philadelphia Chapter

State Bill Ill-Conceived

Israel’s policies toward its Palestinian residents is nothing short of outright racism (“Jewish Organizations Face Off,” Feb. 28). It humiliates men, women and children at checkpoints; its civilians beat, shoot and kill civilians; it steals their land to make room for those making Aliyah and all along screams “anti-Semitism” anytime people of conscience, Jews and non-Jews, challenge these practices.

The anti-boycott bill in the Maryland Senate will punish higher academic institutions that support a singular academic association — the American Studies Association — that showed courage by resolving to boycott Israel because it continually persecutes Palestinian scholars.

This bill should not be brought up even for a vote. It condones racism.

Miles Hoenig

Rabbi’s Message Hits The Mark

What an inspiring message from Rabbi Ari Israel about respecting fundamental differences while forging common goals and positively challenging each other (“A Lesson in Communal Relations,” Feb. 27). This is the underlying mission of Limmud Baltimore, an entirely volunteer-driven nonprofit organization, which is now in its third year.

At its core, the Baltimore Jewish community is richly diverse, chock full of different opinions about Jewish practice, thought and belief. Like Rabbi Israel’s nuclear family, a profound understanding and acceptance of each member’s unique differences fosters strength of the overall unit. We at Limmud Baltimore, through events and the development of programming, aspire to create community unity. To Jews who might not otherwise meet or interact, we offer the opportunity to celebrate Jewish study, culture and identity in a warm and welcoming environment.

We invite Rabbi Israel and the entire Jewish community to join us on Sunday, March 23 for a Taste of Limmud workshop at the Owings Mills JCC and at Goucher College on Sunday, Sept. 7 for our third annual LimmudFEST.

Cheryl Taragin

Letter Presents Flawed Reading of History

I had to read Mr. Cohen’s letter several times to truly understand the mistaken information about the land of Israel’s place for the Jewish people (“Why the Need for a Nation-State?” Feb. 21). If, as Mr. Cohen says, a Jewish state was needed to give us self-awareness and security, why Israel?

Go back in history and you’ll see that Israel belonged to the Israelites — the equivalent of the Jewish people — thousands of years ago. This is well documented by archeological findings along with biblical sources. Even their coined money was named the shekel, as it is today.

The Israelites were driven out of their land against their will by outside forces. There are songs depicting them sitting at the riverbanks of Babylon crying as they remembered their home in Zion, another name for Jerusalem. It is misleading to say, as our enemies do, that it was only the Holocaust that had demonstrated the need for a Jewish homeland. The yearning began a long time ago.

Of course, the Holocaust made it clear that it’s time to go back to our roots in the land of Israel, which Mr. Cohen calls by its Hebrew name, eretz yisrael. It’s a known fact that there were Jews who stayed there throughout the generations and had never left the country. As for the rest of us, where else will the people whose forefathers and foremothers lived there go if not to their own home?

It adds insult to injury to say that any place will do. No one can change history. All one can do is go back and learn it for himself or herself.

Ada Grodzinsky

Drawing Closer to the Almighty

This week we begin the third book of the Torah, Vayikra, which means “God called.” This book of the Torah talks about how our ancestors praised God by sacrificing animals in the Temple.

I believe that the Israelites brought sacrifices because they thought they needed to express thanks to God, thanks for everything that He did and also make requests for a better life.

Why did we sacrifice to God? Did God need our sacrifices? God didn’t need our sacrifices to use them for anything, but the people needed them in order to feel God’s nearness.

In the opening verse of the Haftarah, God recognizes that the Israelites have brought sacrifices but have not yet honored God. He does not want the people to feel burdened with sacrifices meant simply as an atonement for sins they may have committed. Instead, God wants the people to understand the wrongs they have committed against others and to repent and to do better. God tells the people to think not only about what happened in the past but also about a new relationship with God.

Today, we don’t sacrifice, but we pray. I believe praying is very important, because it’s a personal time to thank God for something or to ask God for something based on whatever is going on at the time. Also, we are commanded to perform mitzvot for people and in our relationship with God. It is important to volunteer and to help organizations that are dedicated to the needy, because not all people in the world are as fortunate as we are; by helping other people, we can thank God for everything we have.

For my bat mitzvah project, I am asking for donations for a family shelter called Night of Peace. This is a shelter for women and children that provides care and a warm and safe place to sleep.

The Hebrew word sacrifice, korban, means to come closer. This relates to my bat mitzvah project, because the closest person to a child is his mother. In this way, I am helping to bring children and their mothers closer to one another. By helping to create closer relationships between people, we can also help ourselves become closer to God.

Anya Litofsky is a seventh-grade student at Krieger Schechter Day School.

Reporter’s Notebook

gerr_mellisa_blogIn the short time I’ve been writing for JT I have met some truly remarkable people in Baltimore’s Jewish community. Jake Levin, who passed away March 1 at the age of 98, was one of them.

I met Jake last October, and like other people I have had the good fortune to profile, I was allowed to peer into the window of his life for a few hours: to learn about who and what he loved, his fondest memories and some of his personal challenges. In the few months since that time, I came to know some of his family and also visited him in the hospital shortly after a surgery. He was still full of life, even in recovery. He excitedly interrupted himself tell me a joke in fact.

Today, after writing his obituary for the JT, I attended his funeral. There were people of all ages there to pay tribute to an exceptional life well lived, and words were shared about him that were full of love and even laughter.

When I met him last year he shared all sorts of stories and quips during our interview; one has really stuck with me. It was his answer to this question: What is your secret to longevity?

“I tell people, please don’t be negative; be positive,” said Jake. “That’s how you have longevity. It takes people. They say in Jewish nor a steyn zol zayn aleyn — only a stone should be alone, not people. Be with people.”

And today, at his final tribute surrounded by loving family and friends, he was definitely not alone.

Birthright Change Not a Panacea

While changing Birthright Israel’s eligibility requirements to include young adults who previously participated on a teen Israel experience appears to be a worthy addition to the ubiquitous free trip program, it is, in fact, a mirage and a misstep.

The change has the appearance of bringing more young people to Israel, but because the experience will be duplicated, increased participation is an illusion. A second free trip is not a bad thing. The misstep is that the precious funding can and should be used to actually increase the number of participants who have not been to Israel simply by lowering the minimum age of eligibility from 18 to 16. This would be consistent with Birthright Israel’s goal of getting as many young Jewish adults to Israel as possible.

Expanding the program’s minimum age to 16 would dramatically boost teenage enrollment, especially among the approximately 70-plus percent of underserved Jewish teens who are not involved in an intensive Jewish experience, including Jewish overnight camp or Jewish day school. This change would enable an explosion of exciting pre- and post-trip Jewish programming, which is difficult for Birth-right to provide effectively, including Israel advocacy, leadership development, public speaking training, conversational Hebrew classes and more.

A life-changing teen Israel trip before entering college prepares and empowers teenagers to deal with the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism on college campuses, enabling them to stand up to protestors, rather than run from them. Jewish life on campus would become a priority in college searches, spurring interest in Hillel, Jewish studies courses and semesters spent in Israel.

Our community’s Youth to Israel Adventure (Y2I), the most successful community teen Israel experience in North America per capita, is proof of the impact a free trip has on the rate of participation. We send an average of 100 Jewish teens, ages 16 and 17, to Israel every year on a fully subsidized community trip. This represents more than 60 percent of the identified pool of Jewish teens in our community of the North Shore of Massachusetts, with an estimated Jewish population of 16,500.

We provide exciting pre- and post-trip programming for teens and parents focused on Israel. We take full advantage of having access to our teens for two years before they go to college, providing them with opportunities to engage educationally and socially. Key to our success is the full subsidy. The subsidy is made possible by a winning combination of funders — the Lappin Foundation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies and more than 800 donors and business that support our annual campaign.

The Lappin Foundation calls upon Birthright Israel to lower the minimum age requirement to 16. This would reverse the trend of declining Israel attachment among young people, as reported in the Pew study. The outcome will be a Jewishly stronger, Jewishly prouder and more connected- to-Israel generation than we now have. Jewish continuity will be assured.

Robert Israel Lappin is president and Deborah L. Coltin is executive director of the Lappin Foundation in Salem, Mass.

My Involvement in Jewish Life on Campus

Having grown up at a Reform Jewish summer camp and in the Reform movement’s youth group NFTY, I knew Jewish life was something I wanted to hold onto in college. I attended the first Shabbat dinner of my freshman year, where I met peers who have become my close friends, and was motivated to apply to be on Goucher Hillel’s student board.

I began as co-Shabbat chair with another girl who had also been raised in the Reform community. Together, we learned about making Shabbat a pluralistic and accommodating experience for students who practiced their Judaism to varying degrees. I have come a long way since the beginning of my college experience in terms of working to make Hillel an inclusive, pluralistic space for students from a variety of Jewish backgrounds, from secular and cultural to Modern Orthodox.

This year, as religion chair, I have worked to make connections between Jewish values and human values. Recently, we brought in Rachel Laser, the deputy director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, a Washington, D.C., organization that does a plethora of social justice work for many groups of people.

Being involved with Jewish life on campus has forced me not only to learn about, but also to interact with Jews from different places and denominations, and I am grateful for this. Having a leadership position has allowed me to explore new things such as leading songs at Reform services.

Hillel has opened my eyes to what the meaning of pluralism is and taught me how to work with a team.

A Kingdom Too Weak To Let Fail

President Barack Obama and Jordan’s King Abdullah II met last month in California. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama and Jordan’s King Abdullah II met last month in California. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The Kingdom of Jordan has made a virtue of its weakness. Ruled by a canny monarchy that manages to balance competing forces within the country and kept afloat by international aid, Jordan has always seemed fragile.

Yet, Jordan is pro-Western and a close and reliable friend of the United States (the notable exception being Jordan’s siding with Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War). Jordan and the U.S. have close military and intelligence ties. The kingdom is one of two Arab states to have a peace treaty with Israel, and it has long served to secure Israel’s eastern flank. Surrounded by more powerful neighbors, Jordan is strategically vulnerable yet a valuable buffer in a volatile neighborhood. Simply put, it is too weak to let fail.

The importance of continued stability in Jordan was reinforced by the recent visit of King Abdullah II to the U.S. to meet with President Barack Obama and other officials. The chief threat to Abdullah’s rule is the Syrian civil war, which has driven hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring countries, including half a million into Jordan. That influx has increased the country’s population by 10 percent. A single refugee camp has become Jordan’s fourth largest city.

Jordan is resource poor. Its official unemployment rate is 13 percent but thought by many analysts to be 25 to 30 percent, according to a congressional report. It is clear that continued strong U.S. support is vital to maintain Jordan’s stability and its pro-Western, pro-Israel stance.

A five-year deal for the U.S. to provide $660 million in annual foreign assistance to Jordan is ending and is due for renewal. Last summer, the House of Representatives passed a resolution expressing a “firm commitment to support the Government of Jordan as it faces regional challenges and works toward a more peaceful and stable Middle East.” And a section in the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2014 authorizes up to $150 million on a reimbursable basis to Jordan for security along its border with Syria.

As important as this monetary and moral support is in its own merit, it is also an indication that the U.S. is not staging a strategic withdrawal from the Middle East. We encourage that continued involvement and the exercise of a consistent policy with clear objectives in the region.

The key word here is “consistency.” We need that consistency with regard to Israel, we need it in Jordan, and we need it to manage events in Egypt. We needed it, but failed, with regard to Syria, and a consistent policy is necessary in order to stay the course in Iran. Far from making the Middle East a lower priority, the United States will need to be engaged there — with adroit diplomacy — for the foreseeable future.

A Draft For The Greater Good

To a small group of the reported hundreds of thousands of haredi protesters that demonstrated in the streets of Jerusalem this week, the prospect of a law drafting haredim into military service is no different than what the Nazis subjected Jews to in the Holocaust. That a thinking person could even compare the two is very troubling and shows just how far some in the haredi camp are from reasoned thinking on the issue. These fringe elements are clearly in the wrong.

Even without the radical views of a small group of the demonstrators, however, the massive protest shows a deep distrust of the Israeli government and its institutions by a growing group of citizens. They simply want to preserve the status quo and aren’t interested in any effort to “equalize the burden” of defending Israel.

Military service is considered a rite of passage for a majority of Israelis. With the exception of the existence of small haredi units in the Israel Defense Forces, the wholesale exemptions granted to the haredi community for the past 65 years seems to most to be an unacceptable state-sanctioned exceptionalism. According to that view, a military draft of haredim makes sense and goes hand in hand with haredi efforts to achieve political representation and to benefit from governmental largesse.

But even that argument can be taken too far. For example, some supporters of the bill, which last month passed a critical legislative committee and is expected to soon pass the full Knesset, tend to blame haredim for all of Israel’s problems. That’s nonsense. Many haredim play an active, positive role in the life of the state, just as many are willing enlist in the IDF. But the notion that a certain segment of the Jewish state’s population is not shouldering all its responsibilities remains a problem.

The bill under consideration is designed to address that issue, even if it will not penalize haredi draft dodgers until 2017. The hope is that during a multiyear transition period, the haredi draft will go from being viewed as evil incarnate to something closer to a duty to defend one’s family and home.

In order for Israel to function as an integrated society, all segments of that society need to make the same effort to work for the greater good. To the extent that the haredi draft bill is meant to bring the haredim into Israeli society’s mainstream, we support it.