Cloudy skies in Sochi?

As much as the Olympic Games are about athletic excellence, they are also about pride: national pride for the host country and pride for the teams representing their homelands. No doubt there is pride among smaller groups, as Jews can attest. We wonder how the Israeli team will do at the 2014 Winter Games, which open tomorrow in Sochi, and if there will be any breakout Jewish stars who will bring us joy because we’re members of the same tribe.

But the Games in Sochi are opening under a cloud of concern. There have been terror threats against the Black Sea location at the western edge of Russia’s restive Caucasus Mountains. The United States has taken these threats seriously and has offered to help Russia with security. The Russians, in a display of national pride, rebuffed the offer. But the Munich Games in 1972 showed what happens when terrorists hijack the Olympics and inflict a terrible loss of life.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not the open society that a spectator, whether in person or watching TV, can feel warm and comfortable about. With its dismal human rights record, corruption and adversarial relationship with the United States on a host of major issues, including Syria and Iran, Russia is not an ideal venue.

Putin’s government has spent more than $50 billion to get Sochi ready for the world spotlight. There are reports of mud, unfinished hotels and cost overruns. And more than 300,000 of 1.1 million tickets are reportedly still available.

While the Olympics are getting more expensive, and the political implications of the venue selection and implementation process seem to be increasing, the Games themselves are appearing to diminish in importance. Sure, world records are still the focus, and individual achievements on any stage are always sources of high entertainment, accomplishment and national pride. But in a world of 24-hour sports reporting and play, and the proliferation of sports teams playing every game with intensity and skill, the Olympics is becoming just another set of games. It all seems a lot different than it was two decades ago.

Even acknowledging the foregoing limitations, however, we look forward to the pleasure of seeing the world’s finest athletes compete in skiing, skating, hockey and other cold-weather events. While Russia will remain Russia, we hope our security fears remain unfounded and that the Games take place under blue skies. Let the Games begin!

Scarlett Johansson takes a stand

Scarlett Johansson (SodaStream Facebook page./JNS)

Scarlett Johansson (SodaStream Facebook page./JNS)

The skirmish over actress Scarlett Johansson’s relationship with the Israeli company Soda-Stream seems to have ended in a draw — although a largely satisfying one — with some short-term winners and losers but no real change in the fundamentals that are driving the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel.

The big winner was SodaStream, which the BDS movement has targeted because it has a factory in the settlement of Maale Adumim to produce its at-home seltzer makers. Soda-Stream couldn’t have bought the publicity that the humanitarian group Oxfam gave it when Oxfam tried to pressure Johansson to break her ties with the Israeli company, including a much-touted ad during the Super Bowl. The actress had been a world ambassador for Oxfam for eight years, during which time she raised money and traveled the world to highlight the problem of global poverty.

Bur Oxfam opposes trade with Israeli settlements, so it pushed Johansson to make a choice: SodaStream or Oxfam. Johansson chose SodaStream. In choosing not to buckle to the boycott, Johansson is another winner. She has won plaudits for demonstrating her backbone against the bullying of the BDS crowd. She has also maintained what must be a lucrative relationship with SodaStream. And if there is a loser, it is Oxfam — although it is questionable whether the group sees it that way.

This was a feel-good moment for the pro-Israel crowd, after weeks dominated by votes for academic boycotts of Israel. And yet, as Johansson was making her stand, Norway’s government instructed a state-run pension fund not to invest in two Israeli firms because of their activity in eastern Jerusalem.

The Israeli government has been talking about a response to the BDS effort, but it can’t seem to agree what the response should be or even how serious the situation is. A faction led by Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz contends that Israel’s “delegitimization is a grave, widespread trend” and recommends a PR counter-campaign, Haaretz reported. The foreign ministry, however, looks on decisions such as Norway’s as legitimate criticism to Israel’s policy in the territories, something Israel needs to manage rather than fight.

All of which is to say that the BDS campaign is likely to continue. As long as it does, we’ll need as many Scarlett Johanssons as we can get.

We Can Do Better

runyan_josh_ot$10.10 an hour. It’s quite a rallying cry, something we can all get behind — a living wage for hard-working Americans who, by circumstance or fate or a combination of the two, are living paycheck to paycheck and are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

Whether or not raising the minimum wage is a religious imperative, as argued by Gov. Martin O’Malley, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders Monday, is beside the point. Establishing an hourly wage more in keeping with the rising costs of living in the United States has, with President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address last week, become one of the top domestic policy issues currently facing this country.

In this week’s JT, you’ll read about the debate between those on either side of the question, the small business owners who fear a rising cost of labor negatively impacting their already slim profit margins and the workers of all stripes for whom a higher minimum wage means not having to choose between food and heat or rent and a car payment.

Unfortunately what tends to get lost in discussions of this type is the realization that living paycheck to paycheck is a reality not just experienced by those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. In the Jewish community in general, and in Baltimore in particular, droves of two-income families who could be classified by any objective standard as firmly entrenched in the middle class find the idea of improving their economic lot as little more than a dream. Two seemingly simple things prevent these families from advancing further: children and the education to support them.

In Jewish tradition, having children and educating them in Jewish ways are two fundamental mitzvot, right alongside the prohibitions of murder and idolatry. Just as idol worship is the ultimate negation of a belief in the Divine, bringing children into the world is the ultimate affirmation of one’s faith. And whereas murder robs the world of life, education preserves it, ensuring a better future not only for the student, but for all of his descendants as well.

The problem is that while we as a community have affirmed Jewish education as an ideal worth preserving, we have families who, while not poor, struggle day in and day out to afford the rising costs of tuition. Maryland falls woefully behind other states in terms of freeing up public dollars to make private education more affordable. And while communal organizations led by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore disburse millions of dollars to day schools, it’s still not enough.

This is not to suggest that families with means are not helping. To be sure, Baltimore is one of the most giving of communities, with a wealth of programs designed to help those on the margins and in need; it’s even a place where the Jewish community has begun to look outside its borders to bring economic vitality to the predominantly non-Jewish neighborhood south of Northern Parkway.

Nor is this an attempt to argue against raising the minimum wage. In these trying economic times, hard-working Americans need more than ever to know that society is behind them in their struggle to attain and maintain the American dream.

My hope is instead that economic progress not be relegated to either the top 1 percent or those straddling the poverty level. Not being able to afford the chance to impart a Jewish future to one’s children is a nightmare no God-fearing person deserves. The global Jewish community can, and will, do better.

Alternative Break in Kiryat Gat: Aryeh’s Story

Group shotUniversity of Maryland sophomore Aryeh Kalender from Fairfax, VA, blogged after spending a week in Israel on an Alternative Break trip with Maryland Hillel and Yahel. While there, students worked with the Ethiopian Israeli community to build community centers, gardens and more. Students stayed with Ethiopian host families as part of the experience.

The Day After
I’m sitting around the apartment in Katamon, a neighborhood in Jerusalem. It’s nearly 11:30 in the morning and I’ve only recently woken up. No 6:45 alarm followed by six exuberant and excited children running around the house yelling. No 8:00 a.m. meeting time at a nearby high school. No morning bus rides in a mini bus to a farm on the outskirts of the city. No digging soil, wrapping tires or cement making. No, today is very quiet.

I’m back in the Israel I grew up in. The one that involves much less Hebrew and relaxing wonderful morning’s with amazing grandparents. The one without six children running around literally jumping on top of me. And yet, even though this Israel is the one I am most used to, the aftereffect of 10 days of hard work, and harder reflection can be one of longing. Longing for the hectic atmosphere the engulfed my life for a short period of time. That is the picture of the “other” Israel.

As I reflect on the past 10 days living in the Kiryat Gat among the Ethiopian minority, learning their story and empathizing with the fight they wage every day to become assimilated into Israeli society without losing their heritage, I cannot help but feel as if I’ve just passed through a rainstorm. A million different perspectives were thrown at us from trips near the Gaza strip, to Ethiopian deputy mayors, to our host families. And now suddenly it’s all over. Or at least, it is for now. Because what would these experiences mean if they were just fragments of time. Each experience that I and the rest of our group had translates into a different part of our lives, whether it is a personal transformation, or an outward change that we can bring back to share with the people around us.

I’ve learned a lot from this Hillel trip. The potential for changes is always around us, as in our wonderful world, nothing is ever, or should be perfect. But sitting in front of the computer now, ideas are constantly racing through my mind of how to make a difference and bring about change. I cannot wait to bring what I’ve learned back to the University of Maryland Jewish community.

Stores Are Replaceable!

The JT’s articles about the closing of Loehmann’s shocked and disappointed me (“For the Love of Loehmann’s,” “Finding One’s Place in a World Without Loehmann’s,” Jan. 17). How can we, in our troubled world and difficult economy, obsess over a retail store closing to the extent that we “want to lie on the floor and cry” and refer to a final shopping spree as a “shopping shiva?”

These descriptions are an insult to anyone who has lost a loved one. The closing of Loehmann’s is a loss for Baltimore, but it is by no means a tragedy. Unlike human beings, stores are replaceable.

I remember the closures of Gimbels and Korvettes in the 1980s and Caldor in the 1990s. I was upset when these stores closed, but I certainly didn’t lie on the floor and cry!

Let’s get real here. Instead of lamenting that we can’t shop at Loehmann’s anymore, let’s mourn for the store’s owners and employees who now have to find other jobs. What a blessing it would be if this world’s biggest problem was a shortage of stores.

I’m sorry for those who loved Loehmann’s. I wish you all the best of success in finding your bargains elsewhere. But please, put it in its proper perspective, and get a life!

Hannah Heller

Jewish Values, Refugees And Lost Opportunities

Nearly 60,000 Africans fleeing war, oppression and violence have sought refuge in Israel, a prosperous and democratic country established in 1948 by refugees themselves.

These asylum seekers were not just fleeing from oppression but to a prosperous and democratic country. While Israel’s courts have protected them and new Israeli friends have defended them, the welcome asylum seekers have received has been less than warm. In fact, the official government term for these individuals is “infiltrators,” and they are unofficially known as “illegal work migrants.” Concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods, supporting themselves by working only in the gray market, labeled a threat by the government and living on the margins of society, their treatment has exacerbated social tensions in places such as south Tel Aviv.

The Israeli government’s response was to build a fence to prevent new unauthorized border crossings. By all accounts, the fence has been a success with crossings now close to zero.

The success of the fence, by limiting the potential for new arrivals, presented Israel with an opportunity to demonstrate the Jewish values of human dignity, refugee protection and treating the stranger among us as thyself. The Israeli government could have pursued this opportunity simply by ceasing to call asylum seekers “infiltrators” and by allowing those already in Israel to remain and work legally until it is safe to return home.

That opportunity was squandered.

The Knesset instead amended the “anti-infiltration law” that, in effect, allowed the government to detain “infiltrators” in prison for up to three years. Consequently, thousands of asylum seekers were arrested and jailed until Israel’s High Court unanimously struck down the detention provisions on Sept. 16, 2013. The court ruled that “since ancient times, people have always fought for freedom. Denying the freedom of the infiltrators by imprisoning them for a long period of time is a critical and disproportionate limitation of their rights, their bodies and their souls. We must not forget our basic principles that flow from the declaration of independence and our moral duty toward every person, as a person, as they are etched on the basic pattern of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

As the Jewish homeland, Israel has made the job of HIAS, established 130 years ago to provide a welcoming new home for Jewish refugees and migrants, much easier. Israel was est- ablished to do the same and has succeeded. HIAS and the global Jewish community have no better friend than Israel, a democratic state that much of the time sets a positive example for the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, Israel’s treatment of African asylum seekers is not worthy of a free and democratic Jewish state. The Knesset reacted to the unanimous court ruling by passing another law, this one placing asylum seekers in what it calls an “open” facility. These internment camps, located in a remote corner of the desert, require check-ins three times a day with violators moved to prisons.

With the new law, the government of Israel squandered yet another opportunity to demonstrate Jewish values to the rest of the world.

Recently, approximately 20,000 asylum seekers held a peaceful demonstration to protest the new law and the government’s latest actions against them, and they staged a national strike to protest their treatment.

“We fled because our lives are in danger in our home countries; we are asylum seekers,” the protesters said in a news statement. “We call on the public not to believe the government’s lies.”

The Tel Aviv office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees also asked the government to stop “sowing fear and chaos” among the migrants, who, it said, should be referred to as “asylum seekers” and not “infiltrators,” and urged the Israeli government “to examine the asylum requests of the foreigners and stop the large-scale arrests in south Tel Aviv.”

How has the government reacted? By missing still another opportunity to show the world how asylum seekers should be treated. Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar said he was “not impressed with all the crying and complaining” and further fanned tensions by suggesting that we should “think about the Israelis who have lost their jobs [to the migrants].”

Prime Minister Benjamin Net-anyahu further argued that “we are not talking about refugees with whom we deal according to international treaties; we are discussing illegal migrant workers who will be brought to justice.” Yet, the Netanyahu government’s misnamed National Status Granting Body stacks the deck against asylum seekers, denying more than 99 percent of all applicants asylum, the highest rejection rate in the developed world.

The American Jewish community should not miss this opportunity to encourage our friend Israel to lead by example on Jewish values about the treatment of others, particularly the persecuted and the stranger among us.

Mark Hetfield is president and CEO of HIAS, the international Jewish nonprofit agency that advocates on behalf of refugees.

Birthright Welcomes the ‘Veterans’

013114_editorialBirthright Israel was created with the idea that every Jew is entitled to a free trip to Israel. It operates on the premise that if a Jew experiences the Jewish state as a young adult, between ages 18 and 26, he or she will develop an attachment to the country and become a more committed Jew.

And it works. Since 2000, Birthright has sent more than 300,000 Jews to Israel. A 2012 Workmen’s Circle study suggested the existence of a Birthright “bump” in Jewish identity and attachment to Israel after participation in the program.

But until now, young Jews who had previously visited Israel — on a high school trip, for instance — were not eligible for the 10-day Birthright trip. Last week, though, the Taglit-Birthright Israel steering committee voted to change the rule and to welcome Jews to the program regardless of their past Israel experience. The change will go into effect this summer.

It’s a good move. It means that several thousand more young Jewish adults will become eligible to participate in the program each year, according to Birthright. And not only will there be a larger pool that will benefit from the Birthright experience, but each Birthright group can be seeded with Israel “veterans,” who can lend a greater depth to the first-timers’ experience.

And these veterans will not be taking opportunities away from the unaffiliated Jews who are Birthright’s traditional focus. The trips of the second-timers will be funded solely by donors; the trips of first-time visitors to Israel are one-third funded by the Israeli government.

The new policy should answer the concerns of the operators of high school programs in Israel. They had complained that the heavily subsidized Birthright trips have hurt enrollment in their programs. Now there will be no Birthright penalty for having visited Israel previously, a penalty that was in nobody’s interest.

Birthright’s decision is a good one for everyone.

Searching For Harmony

runyan_josh_otLast week, the prestigious SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y., made waves and headlines with the announcement that its leadership had allowed selected girls to don tefillin during morning prayers. It led many within and outside of the “Orthodox” world to take sides; some suggested that the decision could well lead to a deep schism between the haredi right and the more liberal streams of Modern Orthodoxy.

But those who identify as Orthodox aren’t the only Jews ever to face off over questions of ritual, interpretation or politics. In the not-so-distant past, the Conservative movement faced its own internal challenges; the same can be said for the Reform and Reconstructionist movements as well. What’s interesting about the whole affair isn’t so much what happened — several strains of the Orthodox movement have been moving toward greater inclusion of women in traditionally male-dominated ritual for quite some time — but what people’s reactions to the SAR decision say about themselves.

There are Reform Jews who wear kippot all day, every day, just as there are those for whom wearing a head covering would be anathema to their Reform identity. There are Conservative Jews who would never think to drive on Shabbat, and there are self-identified Orthodox Jews who are strict about kashrut at home and not so much outside of it. No movement is monolithic.

To borrow from an oft-used phrase: You really can’t judge a book by its cover. But is it really our place to judge at all?

Intolerance, in whatever form, breeds contempt. Left unchecked, such destructive disregard for the rights of another can lead to outright violence. And while sociologists uniformly peg poverty as the underlying cause of violent crime — the scourge of which you’ll read about in this week’s cover story — we can’t discount the idea that if people would respect each other more, they would be less likely to resort to arms to settle their differences.

Far be it from this column to suggest that people not have an opinion or that the threat of violence looms behind genuine communal religious disputes. But it behooves us to learn lessons from the outside world. With the chaos that exists on the outside, we as a global Jewish community would be much better served by figuring out ways to live in harmony instead of searching out and capitalizing off of the things that divide us.

February offers an excellent opportunity to develop and demonstrate that spirit of inclusivity and harmony. Jewish Disability Awareness Month calls attention to those so often ignored or prejudged by society for no fault of their own. As highlighted in these pages, organizations throughout the community are hosting events on behalf of adults and children with special needs; and an advocacy day in Washington, D.C., will show legislators just how important special-needs issues are to the physical and spiritual health of countless individuals and their families, friends and communities.

Reaching out and supporting these special souls and their caregivers is truly an admirable task. The verses in tefillin declare that “Hashem is One.” There is no better way to affirm that oneness than by revealing the unity of the Jewish people.


Only Israeli Scholars Are Complicit In The Actions Of Their Government

As the recent calls for boycotts and sanctions against Israeli universities by the American Studies Association and the Modern Language Association clearly indicate, an ideological imbalance in the professoriate has resulted in a collective antipathy toward Israel as the latest villain in the academic left’s panoply of oppressors — this time the victim of the moment, the Palestinians.

This view of the colonial oppression by the occupier, Israel, against a guiltless indigenous people, the Palestinians, is, of course, nothing new on campus. What is unique about the MLA’s and the ASA’s approach is the breathtakingly Orwellian notion that not only is the Jewish state itself guilty of the many alleged transgressions assigned to it by its libelers, but a boycott against Israeli academics is warranted because the academic establishment itself is complicit in Zionism’s excesses and a core element of the bemoaned occupation, oppression and denial of Palestinian self-determination.

This fatuous notion, in fact, is one of the core principles of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, articulated in its “Academic Freedom or Academic Privilege: In defense of the Academic Boycott of Israel,” which suggests that Israeli universities “are part and parcel of the prevailing ideology that accepts and treats the political regime in all its aspects — the military, the intelligence agencies, the government — as a benign feature of the social-political landscape.”

At the MLA annual conference in Chicago this month, one of those on a panel addressing a resolution to chastise Israel was Omar Barghouti, the co-founder of the Palestinian academic boycott campaign. His view is that Israeli academia not only has a moral obligation to right the wrongs in Israel, but it also is a co-enabler, if not co-conspirator, in the continued occupation and oppression of Palestinians.

“For decades,” Barghouti writes, “Israeli academic institutions have been complicit in Israel’s colonial and racist policies,” and “not only do most Israeli academics defend or justify their state’s colonial narrative, they play a more active role in the process of oppression.”

Making academics responsible for — even complicit in — the machinations of the current government and justifying a boycott as a result is normally an anathematic proposition for professors. Besides applying a perverse double standard to Israeli academics by making them liable for the actions of their government, and punishing them for this perceived liability, the idea that universities in Israel are any more influential in shaping government policy, administering the nation’s laws or overseeing its defense is itself a radical departure from what is ever blamed on a university and the people who comprise it.

As the academic boycotters might have noticed, like Israel’s universities, U.S. universities rely on and frequently accept billions of dollars of defense-applied contracts from the Department of Defense; specifically, between 2000 and 2006 the total number of contracts to universities rose from 5,887 to 52,667 with $46.7 billion granted to universities in 2006 alone.

In fact, many of the universities where some of the foremost defamers of Israel teach benefit from the largesse of the Defense Department and could, by the same logic being applied to Israeli universities, be condemned for facilitating and contributing to the creation of the military/industrial complex that many on the left decry as emblematic of U.S. imperialism, colonialism and militarism.

David Lloyd, another anti-Israel, pro-boycott speaker who spoke on the MLA panel, is a professor at UC Riverside, part of the California university system that in 2009 received $766,179,039 in defense-related research funding. That embarrassing detail about his own university system aside, Lloyd is still content with denouncing any connection between Israeli universities and the country’s military.

“By endorsing the boycott,” he writes, “we withhold our consent from collaboration with academic institutions that are part and parcel of Israel’s ongoing occupation, furnishing its technical infrastructure and expanding onto stolen lands.”

As another example, Stanford University, which in 2011 received nearly $72 million from the Defense Department, is home to Joel Beinin, professor of history and Middle East history. Beinin’s intent, as it is for Israel-haters worldwide, is to make any defensive actions on the part of Israel seem an overreaction, regardless of how many of its citizens have been murdered or how many threats against its very existence have been proclaimed.

“According to both Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon,” Beinin writes dismissively, “Israel is engaged in a war despite the spectacularly unequal military balance in the conflict,” as if a nation reacting to unprovoked attacks on its citizens is compelled to ensure that its enemy is equally armed and that the fight will be “fair.”

In 2011, the University of Michigan was awarded almost $15 million in defense contracts, which ought to have been upsetting to the school’s conspiracy-frenzied Juan Cole, whose regular rants in his blog, Informed Comment, take swipes at Israeli and American defense while simultaneously excusing Arab complicity for violence and terror. In fact, according to Cole, it is the militancy of the West that causes the endemic problems in the Middle East and makes America guilty for its moral and financial support of Israel.

At Harvard University, which annually receives some $44 million of DoD funding, Sara Roy, a researcher at the Center for Middle East Studies, is an apologist for Hamas, intent on absolving Hamas from any wrongdoing. She and Boston University professor Augustus Richard Norton co-authored an article for the Christian Science Monitor in which they conjured up the fantasy of a “New Hamas,” a now-benign political group the authors felt was deserving of recognition by Western diplomats. And in Roy’s own op-ed in the Monitor, she only started counting rockets lobbed into Israel from Gaza after, she said, Israel violated some illusory cease-fire of which apparently only she and the “new” Hamas were aware.

The current accusation made against Israeli scholars that imputes a moral responsibility on Israeli academics for the political behavior of their government is particularly baleful. In this perverse assault on academic integrity, and even good sense, a whole nation of scholars is tarred with the same brush of virulent anti-Israel activism, so, as commentator Howard Jacobson put it, “All are guilty by association with the heinous ideology of their country, that is to say, guilty by simple virtue of being Israelis.”

Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., author of “Genocidal Liberalism: The University’s Jihad Against Israel & Jews,” is president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

Finding The Meaning Behind Seemingly Mundane Laws

There is an almost humorous anecdote mentioned in the Talmud in Tractate Brachot. In describing the possible superficial reality of one’s faith in G-d, the Talmud creates the surreal scene of a thief about to secretly break and enter into his victim’s home, whereupon he utters a silent prayer for success in his forbidden activity: “Please, G-d, just this one time, don’t let me get caught!”

Is this scene that surreal after all? Are there not times when we all might engage in questionable behavior of which we would be quick to accuse another but defend the action when it is our own? And then we pray to G-d, “just this one time, don’t let me get caught.”

The Torah addresses this very human condition in the portions of Yitro, Mishpatim and this week’s Terumah. The main event of Parshat Yitro is, of course, the Revelation at Sinai. The tenets of our religion were founded on the witnessing, by sight and sound, by every Jewish man, woman and child, the declaration by our Creator that “I am the L-rd, your G-d, Who took you out of Egypt.” Yet, at this moment of incredible revelation of Divine Truth, the rest of the Commandments issue forth instructing us how to behave: “Thou shall not murder,” “thou shall not steal,” “thou shall not covet,” etc. Is this not amazingly counterintuitive? Wouldn’t this have been a perfect moment for an intense lesson on the deepest philosophical and ethical issues to be shared by our Creator?

The very next Torah reading, Mishpatim, continues down the same path. We are introduced to the body of laws that detail responsibility for compensation of injury and damages by one person to another or to his property. Could that not wait until after we exhaust the deeper mystical treasures of Judaism?

Then we have this week’s reading of Terumah. The Jewish people are instructed to build a mishkan, a “sanctuary” or “tabernacle” that shall serve as the central place of worship. This is a material edifice with specific dimensions for its construction and precise measurements for the manufacturing of its vessels and their placement. Is this, as well, not counterintuitive? Is not prayer and worship a spiritual function?

Why the need for physical symbolisms and defined spaces? Even to this very day, Jews around the world pray three times a day facing the defined space of our Holy Temple in Jerusalem. If prayer is a service of the heart — and it is — why the need to be focused to a limited geographical area?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, shares a profound insight: The ultimate expression of our Jewish values is in how we seamlessly weave the deepest ethos of our faith into our day-to-day behavior. The message of Judaism is that there is not one area of our material lives that is not enriched by a Torah value. Even a simple drink of water becomes a moment to bless our Creator. Clearly, therefore, the Revelation at Sinai immediately discusses our very human impulses and teaches us to consecrate the mundane. The laws of torts and civil responsibilities immediately follow the Revelation. And then, this week, we are taught how to elevate the mundane items of gold, silver and copper and use them to build a Holy Temple. After all, in G-d’s world, there really is no mundane. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Rabbi Elchonon Lisbon is the director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Park Heights and Cheder Chabad of Baltimore.