‘Miriam The Robber’

“I can’t believe Miriam is in Mrs. Shepfield’s class with us,” I said to my best friend, as we jumped onto our swings at the park.

“Yeah,” she answered. “Last year, the girls at her old school called her trouble.”

“What do you mean?” I said, shaking my head. “Isn’t that gossip?”

“No!” Sara exclaimed. “Do you know she supposedly stole jewelry from a few of the girls in that school?”

We swung back and forth until our legs ached. All the while I kept thinking to myself, “Miriam the Robber.” But how could she? She’s so nice.

“I wonder how she was caught,” I blurted, as my friend and I jumped off the swings to lie on the grass. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw a familiar face.

“Hi girls!” said Mrs. Shepfield, as she stood up from a bench only a few feet away, behind the swings. We hadn’t noticed anyone siting near us. Mrs. Shepfield pushed her blue baby carriage and exited the park. “See you in class tomorrow!”

I was the first to speak. “I can’t believe that she was behind us.”

“Do you think she heard us?” Sara said. “I’ll feel horrible if she did.”

The very next day in school, I sat next to Miriam in Mrs. Shepfield’s history class. Throughout class we took turns reading out loud. Each time I noticed that Miriam raised her hand to volunteer. I wondered why Mrs. Shepfield never once called on her: “Could Mrs. Shepfield have heard us yesterday?”

After class I ran over to Sara to see if she had also noticed. She wasn’t sure.

One week later, a girl in our class, Leah, noticed that her favorite antique silver charm bracelet was missing. At recess, I noticed Leah asking Mrs. Shepfield to make an announcement.

“Leah is missing her charm bracelet,” Mrs. Shepfield said. Her soft voice now sounded deep like a bass drum. I thought I saw her glance directly at Miriam.

All the girls bent down to search the floor but to no avail.

I looked up and noticed Sara’s eyes open super wide as she glared at Miriam, who was checking the floor near her desk. When the bracelet didn’t show up, Mrs. Shepfield told the class that she would stay late to look for it.

The next day in school, Leah came to class with a big smile on her face. She must have repeated her story over and over about how she had found her bracelet under her bed at home. She was thrilled.

Mrs. Shepfield smiled and spoke to the class. “I’m glad that Leah found her bracelet, and I wonder how many of us thought that maybe someone in our class had taken it.”

My face felt hot, and I glanced at Sara who shrugged.

“Let this incident be a lesson to us that sometimes we might jump to conclusions,” Mrs. Shepfield said.

“And that’s how rumors get started!” Miriam said in a loud voice.

Discussion Questions
The Torah tells us, “Do not be a gossipmonger” (Vayikra 19:16) and, “Do not accept a false Report” (Shemos 23:1).
• How can some relaxed talk among friends turn into a harmful situation?
• How could the girls have stayed clear from the above prohibitions?

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.

A Balanced Look at Conflict

The JT and writer Maayan Jaffe are to be lauded for an excellent, balanced article on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (“Somewhere in the Middle,” Jan. 3). The examples used to support engagement with this issue reveal the challenges that present-day conditions and different historical narratives play in designing a future peace and two-state arrangement that can be agreed upon by all parties.

I was particularly moved by Tali Ruskin’s courage, honesty and inner struggle to better connect her service to the Palestinian community with her own Jewish identity. This commendable mitzvah on her part serves as a fine example for others in order to improve the communication and understanding among Palestinians, Israelis and Jews around the world.

After returning last January from a three-week visit to Israel after a 38-year absence, I became very involved with the discussions about the ongoing peace initiatives and re-evaluated my own views on this matter. I found helpful, as noted in the article, my attendance at the Jewish-Muslim Interfaith Dialogue sessions hosted by Beth Shalom Congregation in Howard County and organized with sensitivity by Rabbi Susan Grossman.

I also attended the excellent 10-session program “This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land” funded by the Hoffberger Foundation and hosted by Chizuk Amuno’s Melton Adult Education Program. My concern is that these excellent programs reached relatively few people —mostly in older age groups and with little media coverage — to share the wisdom offered. We need to use social media and communication access more effectively to share these messages of hope and understanding.

We need to reflect constantly upon the value of Israel to our Jewish community, increase our sensitivity to Palestinian aspirations and find meaningful involvement that can offer support to a nurturing, fair and secure Israeli/Palestinian two-state future.

Alan Rubinstein
Cantor Emeritus,
Bolton Street Synagogue

Mikvah Not Possible Without Architect

I am glad that you mentioned when the original mikvah was built at Beth El Congregation, acknowledging the work of Rabbi Mark Loeb and those who contributed the money for building the original facility (“Magic Water,” Dec. 20).

I would like to add that the mikvah would not have been there were it not for an architect to design it. I want to give credit to my father, Benjamin Brotman, who not only designed the original mikvah, but also designed other parts of Beth El.

No redesign or building can get started without someone designing it.

Dena Brotman
Montgomery Village, Md.

Kol Hakavod!

As Orthodox rabbis in both the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas, we were happy to read Nathan Lewin’s op-ed calling to attention the work of Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld at the Ohev Sholom Congregation (“A Real-life Solution To The Agunah Problem,” Jan. 3).

We applaud the work of Rabbi Herzfeld and support this and other important measures to address the agunah challenge to our communities.

Kol Hakavod, Rabbi Herzfeld.

Rabbi Nissan Antine
Beth Sholom Congregation
Potomac, Md.

Rabbi Aaron Frank
High School Principal,
Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School
Board Member, Congregation Netivot Shalom

Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz
Beth Tfiloh Congregation

Rabbi Etan Mintz
Bnai Israel Congregation

Rabbi Chai Posner                                                                                                          
Beth Tfiloh Congregation

Rabbi Uri Topolosky                                                                                                              
Beth Joshua Congregation
Aspen Hill, Md.

Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg
Beth Tfiloh Congregation

Finding Lessons in the Redwood Forest

The tree is a sustaining metaphor in Judaism. It stands at the center in the Garden of Eden, perhaps the first metaphor authored by Adam and Eve. The Torah is referred to as a tree of life, it’s teaching an illumination of meaning and happiness. The first Psalm reads that the happiness of the individual is likened to “a tree planted beside the streams of water, which yields fruit in its season, whose foliage never fades and whatever it produces it thrives.” Isaiah 11:1-10, meanwhile, imagines redemption will grow as a new shoot out of an old stump — a time still to come that will give birth to wisdom, truth and reverence for what we have failed to achieve previously.

Trees thrive as individuals and within communities. The redwood tree, which is part of the sequoia family, is the oldest and tallest in North America. While each one is awe-inspiring on its own, together they exist because they stand in groves nourished by neighboring organisms in order to maintain a healthy ecosystem. The 400-year-old Parson Jones tree that stands in Armstrong Woods in Guerneville, Calif., is a stunning example. Its neighbors feed its beauty and longevity and support the tree to pillar into the heavens.

A tree’s health depends on its ability to weather internal and external circumstances. Trees grow not only in groves, but also in families and generations. Four-century-old elders reach high into the sky, while as many as five or six adolescent trees can be found surrounding it. Still another generation of saplings, barely rooted, grows just outside the circle of the adolescent generation, blending in with the ferns and mosses that stick low to the ground of a redwood forest.

An elder tree protects the younger generation, as well as itself, by preventing them from taking over the role of tallest tree in the forest. But the moment that the eldest tree falls, naturally or not, the next generation shoots up and grows into their new role.

Until this generational shift takes place, the various generations of trees occupy their places in this chain. When the shift does take place, however, they move with ease into their new roles and new shapes in the forest. The process takes place internally unless external factors come into play and disrupt the natural order. Trees are cut down for homes, heat and development, their fellers ignorant of or lacking care for the effect on the entire system. A forest’s health and the health of the surrounding ground are profoundly affected by the simplest of changes.

The health of these trees and their forests is analogous to Judaism and Jewish life. Just as these forests stand at a crossroads in their own sustenance and viability, so too does Jewish life and identity in 21st-century America. During the season of Tu B’Shevat, let us remember the ways in which the trees and other aspects of God’s creation can inform how we think about our own individual and communal lives as we work to strengthen our ecosystem and ourselves.

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

Relevance Defined

Relevance. We use this word a great deal at the Jewish Federation of Howard County. Recently, a community leader asked me what it means. I thought it was an excellent question, one worth exploring.

In order for people to donate to any cause, they want to have some sort of meaningful connection to it. What is the value of the organization as it relates to them personally? Is it something they care about? Does the cause impact them directly? Does the organization affect the community in which they live? How will a donation make an impact on their lives? Would their lives be any different without the organization? Many of these questions are difficult to answer, because as a fundraiser, the hope is that “giving” is about exactly that, that nothing is expected in return. The challenge is to make the case for giving relevant.

Relevance as it relates to philanthropy is why survivors, after a health crisis, so easily rally around fundraising for a particular medical cause. It touches them deeply and personally. Such individuals want to ensure there is money for researching a cure, for treatment and for education about prevention.

One popular dictionary defines relevance as “relation to the matter at hand.” So it begs the question: At the Federation, what exactly is the matter at hand? But in the case of donors, the relevance of something might frequently be different depending on each one’s particular point of view.

We have a donor in the Howard County Jewish community who feels to her very core that much of our efforts and financial resources should be put toward the Jewish future. Therefore, Federation programs and initiatives that have to do with Jewish education and engaging young families are relevant to her. We have another donor whose passion is Israel. He was thrilled to hear we brought an Israeli representative to Howard County this year so that Israel had a name and a face. The program, implemented in partnership with the Jewish Agency, is relevant to him. And we have married donors who want to make sure their teenagers have other Jewish kids with whom to socialize. In a diverse community, having a BBYO program associate working at the Federation is relevant to them.

The Jewish Federation is not a simply explained organization. We do so much for Jews around the corner and around the world, and so the message can easily get lost. The case for giving can quickly become something amorphous to which no one can relate. When you take time to delve into what we do, however, I know that if you care one bit for this huge thing we call Jewish community, you will find something of relevance to you.

Michelle Ostroff is the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Howard County.

Harsh Words on Iran Sanctions

Rabbi Jack Moline, the incoming director of the National Jewish Democratic Committee, last week charged into the debate over enhanced Iran sanctions in a way that raised eyebrows and some concern. An Iran sanctions bill has won a bipartisan majority in the Senate but with not enough votes yet to overcome a promised veto from President Obama. Both sides are lobbying hard on the issue.

On Jan. 10, NJDC’s Moline was quoted by JTA as criticizing the advocacy efforts of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and AJC in favor of the bill as seeking to impose a “litmus test” on senators and of using “strong-arm tactics” to win votes for the legislation. Under any measure, those are harsh words in the delicate world of politics and diplomacy.

In an interview with the Washington Jewish Week, Moline explained his position: “We have good and faithful Democrats on both sides of this, and we simply don’t want to see this become a litmus test or wedge issue for an agenda that is in some ways supportive of Israel and in other ways, I think, a political move by people who oppose the president.”

We understand NJDC’s interest in being supportive of the president. But Moline, who was the longtime rabbi of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Va., certainly knows the power of words and the value of careful diplomacy. He also knows that much of the most effective diplomacy is played out behind the scenes rather than in the press and that quiet diplomacy usually trumps bellicose advocacy. Moline has since apologized to AJC, but the fact remains that his choice to attack AIPAC and AJC in the press shows questionable judgment — especially on an issue that is as sensitive and relevant to the future of the State of Israel as Iran’s nuclear program.

Ariel Sharon Without Apology

Ariel Sharon (Michael Thaidigsmann/ WJC)

Ariel Sharon (Michael Thaidigsmann/ WJC)

Ariel Sharon’s long, highly decorated and celebrated life in Israel’s military and political spheres is a rich source of material for constructing a meaningful remembrance. The complexity of his life and the different roles he played in service of the State of Israel have been on display since the general and former premier died Jan. 11 — in newspaper columns and articles, news releases and in the voices of world leaders who gathered in Jerusalem Monday for a state memorial ceremony.

Sharon, who was 85, was a man about whom it was impossible not to have an opinion, and usually a strong one. From his military service in the 1948 War of Independence through his tenure as prime minister in 2006, when he was incapacitated by a stroke, Sharon did things forcefully, in a big way, without apology. He became known as “the Bulldozer,” and historians will debate for some time which of his controversial actions were at the bidding of his military and political superiors and which were of his own volition.

If Sharon did not create Israel’s right wing, he was certainly its shepherd. In 1973, as virtually his first act in politics, Sharon brought together a bloc of rightward-leaning parties to form the Likud under Menachem Begin, who four years later became the first non-Labor prime minister in Israel’s history. As agriculture minister in Begin’s government, Sharon was seen as the patron of the Gush Emunim settler movement.

But decades later, Sharon was the only prime minister to dismantle settlements — in Gaza and the northern West Bank in 2005. He also took charge of the destruction of the town of Yamit in the Sinai in 1979, as Israel was preparing to leave under the terms of its peace treaty with Egypt. For Sharon, settlements were important, but not sacred.

On the simplest level, both left and right have their own narrative regarding the arc and twists and turns of Sharon’s life. For the left, Sharon was the warrior whose brutality reached its height at Sabra and Shatilla in 1982, when he allowed the Israeli army in Lebanon to stand by as Christian militia slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians. Yet, the hardline Sharon, after he became prime minister, realized that it was not enough to pound the enemy into acquiescence. He concluded that Israel could not indefinitely rule over the Palestinians and needed to begin withdrawing from territories.

For the right, which cheered Sharon through his years of settlement building and fighting the PLO and who hailed him as arik melech yisrael — “Arik, King of Israel” — the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was an unforgivable betrayal of Greater Israel and the Jews who went to settle the territories. It is disturbing that some members of this camp proclaimed that Sharon’s stroke the following year was a punishment from God.

There’s no telling what Sharon would have done next, if he had not fallen ill. His stroke occurred not very long after his founding of the Kadima Party and at a time when he seemed poised to move even more forcefully to a final, peaceful resolution with the Palestinians. In any case, eight years have passed since then, and others have taken the reins of command. Now there is no Ariel Sharon in Israel. That means there is no single leader who people believe is the only one with the authority and the political strength to push through dramatic change.

At a time of political and cultural deadlock in the Middle East, when Israel continues to face a host of existential challenges, we think back fondly on the leadership of Ariel Sharon, who showed a remarkable ability to capture a mandate and cut through the infighting to do what was right for the country. We will miss him.

Leadership Requires Being Open to Critique

2013-axler-craigThere can be little doubt that the greatest historic leader of the Jewish people is Moses. The entire Torah becomes known as “The Five Books of Moses” or Torat Moshe; the last lines of Deuteronomy remind us: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses.” But what qualities made him a truly great leader?

The arc of his story lends itself to the idea of a great leader: miraculously saved as a baby and raised in Pharaoh’s court — though never really a part of the establishment; a passion for justice that leads to his wilderness exile; the experience of a shepherd, moving the flock and paying attention to those left behind; and being observant enough to recognize revelation at the burning bush. All of these and so many other experiences prepare him to be a leader par excellence.

But one defining moment that is often overlooked occurs in Parshat Yitro, which we read this Shabbat. Jethro, namesake of the portion and Moses’ father-in-law, comes to meet Moses and the Israelites immediately after their deliverance from Egyptian slavery. Observing Moses in his leadership of the Israelite people, Jethro sees the ways the people are becoming frustrated with their leader, and he sees also that Moses is not aware of the distress he is bringing upon his flock. The text tells us: “Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening.”

Jethro, a “priest of Midian,” gives Moses the criticism that can only come from someone who has “been there” as a leader. He asks Moses in a tone that you can read as either accusatory or gently critical: “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” When Moses counters that he is making known resolutions to disputes or questions for God, Jethro pushes back: “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. The task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.”

In this moment, Moses transforms from a solitary leader who shoulders the responsibility for the entire people into a collaborative leader, one who recognizes that involving the right team in carrying out the work is crucial to the success of any grand vision. In order to accept and implement this change, Moses had to be open to the criticism levied at him by Jethro; he had to be able to hear the ways in which he, despite all of his success, was failing in one crucial way. And he had to be able to hear this advice from someone whose input he had not solicited (all right, no jokes about in-laws here!).

Rabbi Pinchas Peli writes of the encounter: “The greatness of Moses is seen in the fact that, unlike many leaders who invite expert consultants to advise them and file away their reports, Moses implemented Jethro’s plan.

“Torah tells us that Moses welcomed the suggestions made by his father-in-law. He was not afraid to admit that even he, the celebrated leader and teacher, could learn a thing or two from the world outside his own camp.”

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

Metsuda In Odessa

MetsudaMetsuda is an annual training program for Jewish next-generation leaders, coordinated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution (JDC). Thirty-five activists of the Ukrainian Jewish community are accepted to the program each year. The age of the attendants ranges from 18-to-28. During the project, the selected participants partake in trainings on management, leadership, volunteerism, Jewish history and traditions. In addition, each participant offers and completes a community project with the help of the assistant from the team of graduates.

JDC Odessa and Odessa Metsuda coordinators were excited to host the final session of the project. Nineteen participants came not only to present their final projects to the specialists to demonstrate how it was brought to life in their local Jewish community but also to get their certificates. After the three previous sessions, the students of Metsuda 2013 became a strong team. In addition to the enormous inner growth and knowledge on Jewish themes, participants learned serious professional knowledge, particularly through the Kiev International Institute of Management, one of the main partners of Metsuda. The participants learned how to form a systemic vision of business and its development strategy, mechanisms and tools for the effective implementation of the main project objectives.

The students spent one of their days during the program learning about the Odessa Jewish community. JCC Migdal, JCC Beit Grand and Gmilus Hesed organized special activities for the Metsuda members. The whole team spent one of the evenings on the beach, enjoying another aspect of Odessa as well.

This year, the project was attended by nineteen people from Ukraine and Moldova who presented eighteen projects to benefit their local communities. Katherine Shilenkova, a participant from Odessa, graduated with her project, called Party for Charity. The aim of the project is to collect 30,000 grivnas for the shabbaton for thirty children at risk through charity parties.

We wish all participants good luck with a successful implementation of their projects!