Enjoy the Jewish experience

runyan_josh_otTom Steyer, it seems, is making a play for the libertarian and politically active Koch brothers. Speaking to National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” earlier this week, the California billionaire investor spoke of his plans to invest $100 million to influence the debate surrounding the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada’s Tar Sands region to America’s Gulf Coast, and thereby scuttle the project.

Back when the U.S. Supreme Court deliberated on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, people were worried about the influence of unfettered corporate money on political discourse. Now, the worry among many observers concerns the influence of unfettered personal largesse on America’s political processes. Without commenting on the merits of Steyer’s contribution to public service or his politics — it should be noted that no less than a former head of the U.S. Geological Survey recently came out in favor of the Keystone pipeline in the pages of Science — it’s worthwhile to draw from the issue a lesson for how the Jewish community tackles its own dilemmas.

In the wake of the Pew Research Center’s analysis of American Jewry some months ago, communal professionals almost uniformly declared intermarriage to be the No. 1 problem. But as you’ll read in the pages of this week’s JT, young Jewish adults — exactly those for whom the idea of intermarriage poses a very real and potentially personal phenomenon — waver on the issue. Some agree that current demographic trends portend doom, others are optimistic, and still others remain apathetic.

As it did in the wake of World War II and in response to the needs of Israel for worldwide support, the global Jewish community has marshaled its collective resources in the war against intermarriage; over the past few years, gobs of money have been spent in a top-down fashion to solve the current crisis. While there have been successes, the approach hasn’t worked.

What many today realize is that if the problem of intermarriage is to be solved, it’s going to be the youth who will solve it. And so we have student-led programming at Hillels across the country; one-on-one learning sessions at Chabad Houses; organizations such as Charm City Tribe that bring a Jewish flavor to the downtown Baltimore bar scene — in effect, a smorgasbord of Jewish options from which today’s young adults can sample, taste, explore and digest, and, most importantly, to which each is expected to contribute.

What will ultimately win in the “numbers game” of Jewish affiliation is Jewish content. But, as the community has learned, Judaism’s truths mustn’t be shoved down unwilling throats. At the most basic level, what matters is the personal one-on-one connection — between rabbi and congregant, teacher and student, parent and child, friend and friend.

Once that is established, the community must let the currently unaffiliated and under-affiliated take the ball of Jewish identity and run with it. We must let each wandering soul be a Tom Steyer, as it were, making a positive choice as to how to contribute. It’s a process that has gone on for millennia, and thanks to the blessings of the Almighty, we’re still around today.

Next Friday night, thousands of Jews across the continent, unaffiliated and affiliated alike, will flock to synagogues in celebration of Shabbat Across America and Canada. But people shouldn’t feel like they have to wait to enjoy the Jewish experience; wherever and whenever you find yourself, do something Jewish today.

A Lesson in Communal Relations

012414_israel_ariPlease indulge me as I reveal a not so well-kept secret that I don’t mind professing to the world, or at least to this small corner of the global Jewish community: I love my family.

I love my wife, Suzy. I love my kids. And in our particular home, we dispense a lot of love. You see, we have six beautiful children ranging from a high school senior to a preschooler. Biologically, they share almost an identical DNA pattern, and yet, their genetic makeup has produced such varying results. They are all unique worlds unto themselves with separate interests, outlooks, circles of friends and even food tastes. The latter makes dinner table conversation ever the more interesting.

For the past 18 years, I have lovingly invested myself in my family and have watched each child develop at his or her own pace and distinct natural inclinations. While we don’t quite have the seven dwarves, and, although I am married to Sleeping Beauty I am no Prince Charming, we do have happy, bashful, sleepy, bookworm, sensitive, rambunctious and even serious children.

As any parent will tell you, no two children are ever the same. So what is it that we as parents do to nurture such a broad range of expression, attitude and behavior in our little domestic patch? Perhaps, according to our rabbinic tradition, not as much as we think we do. The Talmud (Berachot 58a) states: “If one sees a crowd of Israelites, one says, ‘Blessed is G-d who discerns secrets,’ for the mind of each is different from that of the other, just as the face of each is different from that of the other.”

This profound understanding inspires the potential within each of us. Although all are created equal in the “image of G-d,” we are not factory-assembled creatures, but rather are distinctly handcrafted and divinely infused three-dimensional masterpieces of dynamic art.

At the dinner table and in the family room, my family and I explore common goals and spend time with each other, learning together and positively challenging one another. Family supper time is critical to checking in, sharing a story, kibbitzing and helping each other develop.

My literal microcosm of B’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel, as our clan is sometimes referred to, is how I see the broader Jewish people as well. Outsiders and newcomers perceive us as being one tightknit Jewish mishpacha, one family, one cluster. Insiders know differently.

In our Jewish communal home, we too have a critical need for separate private rooms, as represented by different synagogues and critical Jewish organizations. But a healthy family unit can’t be built upon separate bedrooms alone. Where the action of Jewish unity needs to heat up is in the family room. There we can engage one another around a common historic past along with shared contemporary experiences to craft a collective Jewish future.

I am not naive to warrant putting aside our differences; I want to celebrate and learn from them. I look forward to meeting you, my cousins and friends, in our communal Jewish home at JCCs, public Israel celebrations and other opportunities. After all, who isn’t up for a fun celebratory family reunion?

Rabbi Ari Israel is executive director of Maryland Hillel.

When We Are God’s Witnesses

I am writing this on a bitterly cold day. It was 3 degrees when I left for the gym before sunup, and now, at noontime, it is not noticeably warmer. I cannot stop thinking about those who do not have a warm, comfortable home as their refuge in this kind of adverse weather.

Homeless shelters are permitting people to remain there throughout the day; exposure could be deadly at these temperatures. But soon homeless people will be back on the streets. The Mishnah records that each day as he left the study house, no doubt to return to his own home, Rabbi Nehunya ben Hakaneh would say, “I give thanks for my portion.” I too am grateful. And shouldn’t gratitude propel us to seek the blessings we enjoy for others?

Not long ago, John Stossel of the Fox Business Network, costumed in a fake beard and worn clothing, went out begging on the streets of New York City. He reported: “I just begged for an hour, but I did well. If I did this for an eight-hour day I would’ve made 90 bucks: $23,000 for a year, tax-free.”

The purpose of the segment was sadly not to encourage generosity, but rather brand panhandlers as “scammers” and accuse generous people of being enablers.

In fact, the only identifiable scammer on the streets of New York that day was Stossel, who once made the outrageous claim that beggars make $80,000 a year. He neglected to mention that not only is $23,000 a high estimate based on his one prime-time hour on the street, but it is not possible to live in New York City on $23,000 a year.

I cannot imagine God saying, “They’re just greedy scammers; don’t give them a penny.” Rather, our prayers call God malbish arumim, matir asurim, zokef k’fufim, “the One who clothes the naked, releases the bound, raises the downtrodden.”

Midrash Sifre, commenting on a verse from Isaiah — “You are My witnesses, declares the Lord, and I am God” — expounds that “When you are My witnesses, then I am God, but when you are not My witnesses, then I am, as it were, not God.” We are God’s agents in this world, God’s eyes, ears and hands, as it were.

Recently, I heard someone assert that those who are homeless and hungry are lazy and irresponsible, so why should others take care of them? Midrash Tanhuma recounts that once Rabbi Akiba encountered a man covered with soot who was carryng wood. The man explained that when he had lived, he had committed every imaginable violation of Torah; now he was serving out his punishment in the afterlife. Rabbi Akiba asked if the man had a son. He died leaving a pregnant wife.

After much effort, Rabbi Akiba located the child, saw to his brit milah and taught the lad himself. The first time the boy read from the Torah and recited, “Blessed are You, Lord, Who is blessed forever and ever,” his father was delivered from Gehenna to Eden. Beliefs about the afterworld and divine punishment aside, let us not lose sight of the fact that through Rabbi Akiba’s commitment and hands-on generosity — not Stosselian judgmentalism — the son also was delivered from Gehenna to Eden in this world. Rabbi Akiba saw himself, as we all can, as God’s witness. Do you?

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman is immediate past president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis and the Jewish hospice chaplain for Howard County.

You Want Their Parents to Hear You’re a Rabbi

2013_jesse_grossI often get asked how I find people in my work. Who are these young adult Jews we know to be roaming the secular gathering spaces of Baltimore but aren’t showing up in shul?

It’s surprisingly easy to identify unaffiliated Jews here in Baltimore. That said, there definitely are certain tactics I rely on to increase those moments in which someone realizes I am a rabbi and doing the work of community building; this is often the point at which someone’s interest is peaked and a conversation ensues. Here are a few examples from the field:

The Wing Man: When a person goes out looking to meet someone, he or she will often bring a “wing man,” whose role is to help find someone with whom to spark a conversation. As it pertains to engagement work, I depend on a “wing man” often. Recently while together at the local brewery, a friend pointed out two Hebrew words tattooed on another patron’s arm. My buddy sparked up a conversation with the patron by asking me if I could read the letters. We all joked for a few minutes before I translated the words am echad — one people. I joked that having a master’s degree in Hebrew Letters surely positioned me to translate two simple words.

My friend then chimed in: “She’s being modest, dangling her master’s in front of you. She’s really a rabbi.” Our conversation moved from tattoos to growing up Jewish in Pikesville and the Birthright trip he had gone on two years earlier. Jacob joined the Charm City Tribe mailing list that day and attended a recent Shabbat dinner and the Hannukah Brew Ha Ha since.

The Eavesdropper: A few weeks back, CCT’s Ellie Brown and I were sitting in the local coffee shop discussing the week’s order of business. As our meeting was winding down, a gentleman, who had been dining with his two grown children, stood up to leave. He turned to me and said, “I promise I wasn’t listening to your entire conversation, but I wanted to tell you that I think it’s really cool you’re a rabbi.”

People overhear that I am a rabbi all the time, but in this case, the gentleman went on to introduce me to his two children, both of whom had attended the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community Day School. The man left. Ellie obtained contact info from both the man’s son and daughter. I met the daughter at the same coffee shop one week later to explore opportunities for her with Charm City Tribe.

Engagement professionals often say to “meet the people where they are” as a guideline for how to do outreach work. Rather than wait for potential participants to show up at a specific program, our job is to spend time in the places where these folks already frequent and, when the timing is right, extend an invitation to get involved in the community we seek to build. Ideally, that first spark of recognition when a person realizes she has something in common with the rabbi or the organization is just the beginning of a connection we aim to strengthen over time.

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

Why the Need for a Nation-State?

Rev. Chris Leighton’s wording about “the Jewish yearning for their own homeland” was meticulously chosen (“The Presbyterian problem with Israel,” Feb. 14). In the clash of narratives percolated by the Arab-Israeli conflict, spin and fact often seem interchangeable.

Amid this epistemological morass, however, there abides the following historical truth: There is nothing in the traditional Jewish desire to return to the Land that necessitates it take the form of the modern entity we know as the nation-state.

All that is required, at least in pre-Messianic times, is that Jews may worship freely and observe the commandments on the soil of Eretz Yisrael, regardless of which political entity, Jewish or gentile, exercises sovereign jurisdiction over the territory. In my view, what has now altered this calculation is the Holocaust, with the lesson learned from that unfathomable tragedy being that the Jewish people can only rely upon themselves to guarantee their own political safety and welfare.

This is a practical consideration, not a theological one. The bottom-line rationale is that something like a Jewish state is needed to ensure that there be at least one place on earth where the phrase “dirty Jew” merely refers to an  individual who has not bathed for a week.

Stanleigh Cohen

An escalating stalemate in Syria

U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi sent the Syrian people a heartfelt apology. (DENIS BALIBOUSE/REUTERS/Newscom)

U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi sent the Syrian people a heartfelt apology. (DENIS BALIBOUSE/REUTERS/Newscom)

The second round of Syrian peace talks ended in Geneva last weekend with very little progress reproted. In recognition of that failure, the U.N.’s Arab League mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, sent an apology to the Syrian people: “I am very, very sorry, and I apologize to the Syrian people, [whose] hopes were very, very high,” that nothing happened.

Since the Syrian civil war began four years ago, a stream of apologies have gone out to the Syrian people. But those words haven’t made much of a difference. According to some reports, more than 140,000 Syrian civilians have been killed in the fighting, including some 7,000 children. Millions more have been displaced and have fled the country, stretching resources and increasing instability in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.

Syria itself has been left in what has been called an “escalating stalemate,” where the only change in the conflict is that it gets uglier and bloodier.

While the U.S. intended the Geneva talks to address a transition to a post-Assad Syria, it couldn’t find a negotiating partner on the other side of the table. Indeed, according to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, rather than focusing on peace and transition, Assad’s forces have done “nothing except continue to drop barrel bombs on their own people and continue to destroy their own country.” Kerry also observed that Assad continues his agression “with increased support from Iran, from Hezbollah and from Russia.”

In the face of these realities, can the diplomatic approach work? We think so, but only if the effort is accompanied by a new sense of urgency on the part of the U.S., Europe and Middle East friends. That urgency needs to face the stark reality that Russia’s political goals and efforts to preserve influence in the region shouldn’t be tolerated at the expense of a never-ending cycle of worsening violence. But in order to make that point, America and its allies need to feel, and then express clearly, the deadly reality that an escalating stalemate in Syria translates into both a humanitarian and strategic disaster.

Among the options being suggested are nonlethal approaches. For example, in an op-ed in The Washington Post, former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger called for imposing “carefully targeted sanctions on banks that finance arms shipments to the regime and on financiers of al-Qaeda.” It’s a wonder this isn’t already being done. But even if such sanctions were in place, could they succeed without unifed international support?

As far as possible lethal support is concerned, Americans and the Obama administration have been leery of getting tangled in “another war.” And even the effort to arm trusted rebel groups has been halfhearted. So what can be done?

Perhaps the administration should consider increasing support for trusted rebels and orchestrating symbolic actions that challenge the Assad regime, like dropping food on cities under siege. The goal here would not be to bring about the collapse of the Assad government, but to end the escalating stalemate and to help facilitate productive negotiations. We urge consideration of these and other creative approaches, because while Mr. Brahimi’s apology to Syrian civilians may have been heartfelt, it will take a lot more than words to halt the tragedy befalling the Syrian people.

Finding Rest Amid Creation

010314_bergman_nitzan_rabbiWe rest on the Shabbos because G-d rested on Shabbos.

What does this mean?

When G-d created the world he created it ex nihilo, something out of nothing. Before creation there was absolutely nothing besides G-d. With each of the 10 statements of creation (“Let there be light,” etc.), G-d brought our world and everything contained in it into existence. He did this during the six days of creation. On the seventh He rested.

This means that He no longer created anything out of nothing. Now, because no existence beside G-d existed before creation, even after G-d created it, it does not exist by itself, it needs to be constantly maintained in existence. As the Talmud puts it, “The world is not the place of G-d, rather G-d is the place of the world.” Rambam puts it this way, “G-d’s existence is not dependent on any of the creations, but all creations’ existence is constantly dependent on G-d. He is the only true existence.”

Rabbi Dessler compared it to a film projector and the film. As long as the projector light is shining, the film will play on the screen, but should the projector light go out, the characters on the screen do not die, they simply disappear. So too, as long as G-d wills anyone or anything to exist it will exist, but should He stop willing it to exist it would simply disappear. This means that although new things are not appearing all the time, there is a constant creation ex nihilo going on to keep everything in existence.

The creation that we are capable of is ex materia, something out of something. We cannot create or destroy things, we just change their forms.

Obviously, we have no power to create ex nihilo, but we do have the power to create ex material, and so our Shabbos takes the form of resting from this type of creation. To be exact, rest on the Shabbos is defined in this week’s parshah. The parshah is really about the commandment to build the Tabernacle, but it starts with the commandment in which we are warned not to do any melachah, loosely defined as work. The Torah does not explain what this work is; that task is left for the Oral Law.

The Talmud explains that the juxtaposition of the two commandments, to keep Shabbos and to build the Tabernacle, tells us that whatever work was needed to build the Mishkan should not be done on Shabbos. These are the 39 categories of work needed to build the Tabernacle, and later, the Temple. Shabbos is it defined by the Temple because the Temple is a microcosm of the world.

By resting on Shabbos, we are acknowledging that we live in a world created by G-d. Beside what this means historically, it also means that we live in G-d’s constantly created world. We are the characters in G-d’s film and what makes us fascinating is that He created us with free will.

Rabbi Nitzan Bergman is executive director of Etz Chaim: The Center for Jewish Living and Learning and founder and president of the WOW! program for young professionals.

Uncomfortable Conversations Valuable

Congratulations to Janet Kurland and Gail Lipsitz from Jewish Community Services on their article that appeared in The Associated insert Jewish Boomer (“5 Key Conversations With Your Parents,” Jan. 31). Their advice and observations are right on target and something we encounter every day with visits from families considering a move for their loved ones.

These conversations, though often uncomfortable, are of huge importance. And while there is every temptation to put off these issues until “the right time,” that right time is often too late.

If children wait for a significant event such as a broken hip, stroke or death of a spouse, there are diminished options for their parent or parents to maintain, or at least to maximize,
their independence and dignity. Thank you for bringing more awareness of these important issues to our community.

Mark E. Pressman
Executive Director, North Oaks

Investing in Our Community

2014_Shapiro-JasonIn every community, people expect certain rights as well as obligations. In civil societies, people expect good government and public schools, well-maintained highways and parks and responsive police and fire departments. Citizens’ obligations include being good and law abiding and, of course, paying taxes in order to support the services provided by government.

In the Jewish community, there are no taxes. Services provided by the Jewish Federation of Howard County, for instance, are underwritten by the generous contributions of the members of our community who continually step forward to ensure that the Jewish community has the funds not just to survive, but to thrive.

As a young lawyer, I began my career as an assistant state’s attorney with a modest income and a growing family. As a result, I was unable to donate any sizable sum to support the Jewish community of Howard County. But because of the nature of my job, I had time. I was home every night around 6, and I did not need to engage in evening phone conversations with clients. I was able to spend at least one evening per week using my time to raise funds for those in need, to volunteer on projects and otherwise to perform tikkun olam.

Now as an attorney in my own firm, I not only give my time to the Jewish community, but I also make a meaningful gift to the Federation’s annual campaign. However, I don’t stop there — because I know that doing good is also good for business. My firm, Shapiro & Mack, has sponsored numerous events and programs provided by the Jewish Federation of Howard County, everything from the spring gala “Federation Live!” to a movie night screening of “Follow Me — The Yoni Netanyahu Story.” I do this because I recognize that it is important to be a leader in our community.

The continuity of the Jewish people for several millennia just didn’t happen. It occurred because some members of our community stepped forward, holding themselves out as leaders and examples to others — in word and, most importantly, in deed.

As campaign chair, I envisioned a way for other businesses in Howard County to donate to the federation. We put together a corporate sponsorship program called StepTogether. It’s another way for members of the greater community to gain exposure and connect to a thriving Jewish community of more than 20,000 people.

The good work that the Federation performs in our own community, in Israel and throughout the world is undeniable. The more money that the federation raises, the more lives it can positively enhance. This new business sponsorship program, StepTogether, recognizes businesses that help fund the federation’s mission and is a call to action allowing our community to support those businesses that allow the federation to serve the Jewish people.

Jason A. Shapiro is campaign chair for the Jewish Federation of Howard County.

Preserving Our Jewish Family

runyan_josh_otYou have to hand it to the sisterhood of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Greengate Jewish Center in Baltimore. The Tuesday afternoon meeting was billed as a chance to meet the JT’s new editor, but in the space of about an hour, the group of about 40 women — and one man — cut to the heart of the dilemma facing Jewish communal life.

Do we want to be inclusive or do we want to preserve tradition?

Their question, of course, was specifically directed toward the challenges faced by publishers in the Jewish press, but it speaks of a larger issue facing each and every one of us. If the conclusions of the oft-discussed Pew Research Center’s recent study of Jewish American life are correct — if the American Jewish community is losing its members to a rising tide of assimilation, intermarriage and religious apathy — shouldn’t the response be to strengthen our numbers?

Some have indeed endorsed that approach, sometimes seeming to embrace a whatever-the-cost strategy in widening the Jewish communal tent.

Still others, though, have apparently circled the wagons, adopting what some pejoratively have termed a “ghettoized” approach and whose adherents call protecting tradition.

Such an environment certainly amplifies the crossroads at which American Jewry finds itself. But since when are inclusivity and tradition mutually exclusive ideals?

This might be a revolutionary statement, but I would venture that Jewish youth, who have always been searching for truth, have migrated out of the fold not because our traditions need updating, but because we as a community haven’t been doing a good enough job of communicating those traditions’ essential core. The Jewish people aren’t unified because each of us calls himself or herself “Jewish”; Jewish unity instead resides in the shared experience of being Jewish. So to the extent that vast swaths of the Jewish community are searching — and they are — at least they’re doing a quintessentially Jewish thing: They’re looking for truth.

Now comes the task of providing it, and doing so can take an inclusive approach.

For years, the social sciences focused on how individuals responded to various conditions, from physical handicaps to learning disabilities. Now, however, psychologists, therapists and social workers — some of whom you’ll read about in our cover story about siblings of children with special needs and in an article about a new addiction treatment center — talk about how a family collectively copes with a challenge.

“Families need to step back and look at their schedules,” Owings Mills-based psychologist Eve Band advises those who have children with and without special needs. “Make arrangements to spend time alone with the other siblings, even if it’s just for a Sunday morning bagel run.”

The same advice can be applied to larger communal issues. As members of the global Jewish community, each one of us has special needs, whether they be financial, familial, spiritual or physical. Above all, each of us has a need to belong.

In meeting those challenges, it would be easy to forget how each part of the community works as part of the whole. So let’s collectively take a step back; instead of throwing our communal net wider or letting those departing fend for themselves, let’s think of ways we can preserve that which makes us a Jewish family.