Are Jews From India?

I am about to publish my new book, “From Neanderthal to Moses: The World Before Religion, War & Inequality.” This brief history of humanity looks at our origins from the beginning and follows a cognitive development course of history. In other words, it begins by asking the question, “How do we learn?” Not how do we learn in the modern world, but how do we start learning when there are no words for things or even the idea of words?

We learn by cooperation and the open sharing of knowledge and skills. There is no other way to create a common language for interactions and trade.

Did you know that everything you know about early human civilization is probably wrong?

Before it was a symbol of the Nazis, did you know the Indian swastika was used by the Hebrew people to decorate synagogues in ancient Israel because the Hebrews came to the Middle East from India’s Indus Valley 4,300 years ago?

Did you also know that 30,000 to 400,000 years ago prehistoric people had their versions of websites such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook and developed knowledge and language together the same way scientists solve advanced problems of physics at the CERN particle laboratory in Switzerland?

Did you know that the Pharaoh of the Exodus story (Akhenaten) was not native Egyptian but of mixed Indian-European background like the Hebrews and that he may have been related to the Biblical character Joseph who saved Egypt?

Among the artifacts of Stone Age history — a period lasting more than one million years — there are no weapons of war. As a result, the world’s first free public schools and universities were built 12,000 years ago, the first art was created 40,000 years ago, and long-distance trade between humans and other prehistoric people was launched as far back as 400,000 years ago.

Seven years ago, I read a quote from Aristotle claiming the ancestors of the Jews — the Hebrew people of the early Bible — came to the Middle East from ancient India. I began investigating and found all the evidence agreed with Aristotle. According to ancient Jewish authorities, the land where the Biblical Eden was located — Havilah — was ancient India.

The fall of Eden was the world’s first war about 3000 B.C.E. This was followed by the first anti-war state, the Indus, founded about 2600 B.C.E. on the principles of multiculturalism, free trade, the separation of church and state and a bathroom in every home. Genetic research into the people of the Indus Valley has revealed Semitic and Middle Eastern backgrounds among them. After a flood destroyed the Indus (the story of Noah), many migrants moved west to Mesopotamia and the Middle East. Some were called the Hebrews or “wanderers from the East.”

The world divided into East and West, as Near Eastern cultures with roots in old India — the Hittites, Babylonians and the Hyksos of ancient Egypt among others — were supplanted by western-rooted ones.

The divisions in the world today are modern, but in many ways the solution may be the most ancient one used by our common ancestors — cooperation.

Are you interested in learning more? Visit shalomaste.com.

Barry Brown is a veteran Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist who has written for The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Times, among other publications. Contact Brown at barry17@rogers.com.

Inspiring Community

2013ftv_terrillAt this time of year, fundraisers are extra busy encouraging people to make their contributions before Dec. 31. It adds an additional layer of hustle and bustle to a role that is already somewhat challenging.

But, when you are a fundraiser — either as a professional or a volunteer — and you believe very deeply in the organization you represent, it is much easier to ask other members of the community to do their part too.

As president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, I have countless conversations all year about the importance of The Associated in Jewish Baltimore and the wide-reaching impact of a single gift to The Associated.

When I ask someone to support our community through The Associated, I draw my inspiration from the many people I see who directly benefit from the critical work of The Associated agencies and programs.  These programs are enhanced by The Associated’s Annual Campaign.

I think about the members of our Russian-speaking community whose families were helped 25 years ago as they settled into life in Baltimore, where they discovered their Jewish identities and today are giving back as leaders in our community.

I think about the students with learning differences in area day schools who are now able to fully participate in Jewish education because they are receiving the educational support they need from Shemesh.

I think about the older adults who are tending to a community garden at CHAI’s Weinberg Village with help from the Pearlstone Center and the Jewish Community Center and the sense of fulfillment they experience through this project.

I think about the families with young children who are receiving the beautiful books provided by PJ Library through the Macks Center for Jewish Education and the exciting programs these families enjoy together.

I think about the people who have lost their jobs and have benefited from both career counselors and financial assistance through Jewish Community Services.

I think about the individuals whose lives have been shattered by abuse and who are guided on a path toward healing by the volunteers and professionals at CHANA.

I think about the thousands of students connecting to each other for Shabbat dinner and Jewish holidays through Hillel at our area colleges and those discovering the majesty of Israel on a Birthright trip.

I think about the new immigrants in our sister city of Ashkelon whose dreams of freedom are being realized in Israel.

And I think about the thousands of Jews who survived the Holocaust and now live in isolation in the Former Soviet Union. Were it not for our community, which provides home visits and food, they would literally waste away in their desolate homes.

It is very easy at this time of year to get overwhelmed. But I choose to view this as a time of reflection and celebration of all we have accomplished in the past year. In the fall, The Associated began using the tagline, Inspiring Jewish Community. This reflects who we are and what we want for Jewish Baltimore, both to inspire and to beinspirational to all who get involved as volunteers, donors or recipients of services made possible by The Associated.

Thank you to this incredible community for knowing that things don’t just happen. They happen because we collectively dedicate ourselves to making it so.

Marc B. Terrill is president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. To get involved with The Associated, visit associated.org.

Keeping Kosher Competitive

Competition is a good thing, right? That question always comes up when the subject being discussed is competing kosher businesses in what is often a small market. And that question is going to be asked quite a bit in Baltimore with the news that Seasons, a New York-based kosher supermarket chain, plans to open in Pikesville.

But it’s not just that Seasons is coming to town. It is planning to open in very close proximity to the venerable Seven Mile Market on Reisterstown Road.

We all know Seven Mile Market. It has been serving our community’s kosher food needs and more since 1988. And since it moved to its new location two years ago, Seven Mile has expanded its business to include a full-scale kosher bakery and has increased its meat, fish, dry goods and other offerings. The Seven Mile store has become very popular, and it draws customers from as far away as the Washington suburbs. But if Seasons lives up to its self-billing as a “kosher Whole Foods,” it will almost certainly be a strong competitor to Seven Mile. That competition could be good for consumers, as the two stores are forced to compete on range of products, quality, price and service.

Seasons has obviously concluded that our vibrant Jewish community can support a second major kosher market. We hope it is correct. But we know that in order to survive, each of the stores will be working hard to outdo the other. And that should also be good for consumers.

Although we welcome competition, and the expanded benefits it offers, there is an interesting communal dynamic when it comes to kosher businesses that differs from our allegiance to other shops, services and brands. We tend to feel that our kosher businesses are a part of us. And when we lose one, we feel that it diminishes our community. We don’t want to see that happen with our kosher markets.

So, we welcome Seasons to Baltimore and wish it well. At the same time, we are hopeful that both Seven Mile and Seasons will thrive and prosper and help bring new levels of quality and value to our community.

Lingering Questions For The Reform Movement

Rabbi Rick Jacobs (Ian Spanier)

Rabbi Rick Jacobs (Ian Spanier)

At the Reform movement’s biennial gathering in San Diego last week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ), came out swinging. In his keynote address to some 5,000 participants, he called for his movement to offer a welcome to the unaffiliated so inclusive that he termed it “audacious hospitality.” Reform must embrace the LGBTQ community, multiracial Jews, intermarried families and Gen Xers and millennials, “all of whom have much to teach us,” he declared.

Rabbi Jacobs’ presentation was also bullish on the recent Pew study of American Jews and the opportunities that its findings presented the Reform movement — even though the report found a steep drop in affiliation and a rise in intermarriage along generational lines. He seemed to find validation in the fact that the study revealed that Reform is “not just the largest stream of American Jewry, but larger than all the other streams combined.”

But another part of Rabbi Jacobs’ speech belied his muscular assessment and pointed to the hard questions confronting his movement. In the course of his remarks, Rabbi Jacobs announced that the URJ will sell half of its New York headquarters and will move its staff to nearby Hebrew Union College. A total of $1 million from the building sale has been earmarked for expanding Reform’s youth programs.

The designation of funds to the movement’s youth programs sounds like a positive step — “to reinvest our own assets from bricks and mortar to people,” as Rabbi Jacobs put it. But underlying that move is the well-known weakness that the Pew study revealed: Reform, like most of the Jewish community, is struggling to keep its number up.

To be sure, Rabbi Jacobs announced a number of programs that were planned for the near term: expansion of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) movement; a partnership with the Ruderman Foundation to make Reform institutions more welcoming to people with disabilities; and participation in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage program to connect young American Jews to Israel. All good ideas, of course, but none particularly audacious or innovative.

And none addresses the fundamental issue of the consequence of selling half of the movement’s headquarters or how that retrenchment move squares with any planned growth. Indeed, what funding model is based upon the sale of hard assets? And once the headquarters building is sold, where will the next tranche come from?

Further, if the Reform plan is simply to recruit more people to the movement, how is that going to protect against further attrition in the years ahead? What is the plan for retention? Why are new recruits expected to stay with the movement longer than their older siblings and parents?

We are confident that Rabbi Jacobs and the Reform movement have answers to these questions. Some of them may even be audacious. We are disappointed, however, that they didn’t share those thoughts on the biennial stage.

Challenging God

My bar mitzvah parsha is Shemot. Shemot is an action-packed parsha. Moses is rescued from the Nile as a baby. Then, he kills an Egyptian taskmaster. God appears to Moses through ancient Skype, a burning bush. Moses is called on by God to speak to Pharaoh on behalf of the slaves. From all of these stories, one verse in particular speaks to me. After Moses asks Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go into the wilderness, Pharaoh responds by increasing their workload even more. As a result, the Hebrews complain bitterly to Moses. Moses turns to God saying, “Lamah hareotah la’am hazeh lamah zeh shelachtani.” Loosely translated, this means, “Why have you made things worse for this nation; why did you send me if it is just going to make things worse?”

This verse stands out to me because it illustrates how in Judaism we are allowed to ask questions to God directly, without an intermediary. I am comfortable praying to God, asking God, blaming God and challenging God, and I am unsure that these opportunities exist in the same way in other religions. In Judaism, rabbis help fellow Jews with philosophical and religious problems and teach as Torah scholars, but we do not need rabbis to form a congregation to worship to God. This is important to me because I do not want to have my rabbi shape the exact nature of my prayers. I value being able to pray in my own way. I can pray in a haiku or in a question; they are all valid prayers in the Jewish religion. It is also important to me that I am allowed to pray to God sometimes with questions. In Judaism, in my family, in my shul, in my school and in my community, questions are praised to foster learning. Moses’ challenge to God shows his leadership skills because having the willingness to challenge God takes massive amounts of chutzpah, a bravery that is important in a leader.

In many places in the Torah, Jews ask God or challenge Him. Jonah goes against God’s instructions. He is supposed to go to Ninveh but instead runs the other way to Tarshish. Even though he runs away and gets punished, he is still comfortable questioning God. The father of our people bargains with God. Abraham negotiates with God not to kill a lot of righteous people in Sodom. He uses very strong language. He says, “Far be it from you to do such a thing.”

We have a tradition that direct communication between individual Jews and God is not only allowed, but something to be encouraged.

All of this is an important lesson for me. This parsha teaches me that we, as a Jewish people, are very lucky to be part of a nation that can ask questions and challenge God and grow to be better people because of it.

A Promising Future

2013_Runyan_-JoshFor the first time in eight years, I had to scrape snow and ice off the windshield of my car.

I realize that you, dear readers, are probably snickering by this point. I mean, after all, you deal with this kind of thing every winter, year in and year out. And by all standards, what I had to clear from my car wasn’t much. But the experience got me thinking.

I can’t believe that I’m back up North. I’ve gotten used to the tropics, but I’ve also realized how much I miss the weather up here. It’s also great to be back in Jewish journalism, at the helm of a terrific paper. And while this is my first move to Baltimore, I can’t think of a better place to come home to.

Like our community, the Baltimore Jewish Times has a promising future. But there will be many challenges along the way. To a certain extent, the same questions that Jewish leaders grapple with on a daily basis — issues such as how best to engage our youth while protecting our links to the past, or how to handle the ever-changing landscape of technological advances — are the questions that editors must answer in order to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world. In my 16 years of being a journalist and throughout an adulthood immersed in the Jewish community, I’ve learned that no issue is too big to be solved, no question too dangerous to be discussed.

This is the place to find those discussions, to join the debate and to hopefully be enlightened.

I’ve got a terrific team to work with — talented, professional reporters, designers and editors in whom you’ve already placed your trust and whose work you enjoy reading week after week. Like them, I bring a range of different experiences to the table. At different points in my career, I’ve called Philadelphia, Dallas, Jerusalem, Bet Shemesh and Fort Lauderdale home. I’ve studied in some great yeshivas and received my rabbinical ordination along the way.

I’ve noticed that in addition to a strong and supportive family, a person needs a strong and supportive community to fulfill all that he or she was meant to achieve. As dinner tables are frequently the place where the family convenes, newspapers can be the avenue through which community members learn about each other and tackle things together. And although this industry is currently engaged in probably its most challenging time, there will always be a crucial place for Jewish journalism.

That means that your paper bears a tremendous responsibility. It can be, should be and already is, in many ways, glue that holds the various parts of the community together. It needs to inform as well as inspire, engage as well as entertain.

Over the next few weeks, I’m looking forward to speaking to as many of you as possible about what you’d like to see in your community publication. The JT has a long and storied history as one of the best Jewish newspapers, but we can always do better at keeping you informed, at representing your views and concerns and at serving as an engine for strengthening an already strong community.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for welcoming me into your community.

Joshua Runyan is JT editor-in-chief
jrunyan@jewishtimes.com

Bedouin Relocation: Unjust and Unnecessary

As a rabbi and a Jewish community leader who cares deeply for Israel and its people, I have a moral obligation to speak out against an Israeli government plan to forcibly relocate and resettle 30,000 to 40,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel because they are a non-Jewish minority.

Bedouin communities trace their historical connection to the Negev for centuries. By the 20th century, most Bedouin settled in permanent areas, used their own system of land ownership recognized by the Ottoman Empire and later by the British Mandate and engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry.

The Bedouin who remained in the Negev after Israel’s War of Independence were forced to live within an arid zone known as the Siyag under martial law. The government then confiscated most Bedouin land outside of this area as state land.

In the 1960s, the government’s master plans failed to acknowledge Bedouin residential areas in the Siyag and zoned the land in the area for industrial, military or Jewish agricultural purposes. These measures essentially wiped Bedouin villages off of maps and made every existing and future Bedouin structures “illegal.”

At the end of the martial-law era, the government began relocating Bedouin into seven urban townships, which remain at the bottom of every economic and social indicator to this day. The approximately 90,000 Bedouin who remain in villages unrecognized by Israel do not receive even basic services from their government, including electricity, water, plumbing, health care and education.

Legislation currently before the Knesset, known as the Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev or the Prawer-Begin Plan Bill, perpetuates Israel’s legacy of unjust treatment of its Bedouin citizens. The plan threatens to uproot the residents of as many as 25 villages, demolish their homes, resettle most of them in highly concentrated urban areas and impose a one-sided solution to longstanding land disputes between the state and its Bedouin citizens.

That is why I and more than 780 of my rabbinic and cantorial colleagues have joined with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and Rabbis for Human Rights urging the Israeli government to set aside the Prawer-Begin Plan.

I have had the joy of visiting several Bedouin villages. The people I met are proud people. They want to maintain their way of life while coping with the modern world around them. And they want to maintain their community structures and places of residence.

The government’s plan is costly and unnecessary. It is causing friction and instability in the Negev. An alternative plan produced by Bedouin communities, along with the Israeli NGOs Bimkom and ACRI, allows for recognition of 35 unrecognized villages and meets professional planning standards.

One of the most important moral principles in Judaism is proper treatment of the poor and the stranger. The Bedouin are poor, but they are not strangers. They are part of the polyglot of people who make the modern democracy of Israel so vibrant. I believe the Begin-Prawer Plan violates those Jewish values and the democratic principles that make Israel what it supposed to stand for.

View full list of rabbinic signatures >>

See related article, “Prawer Must Be Stopped.”

Rabbi Floyd L. Herman is the rabbi emeritus of Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore.

An Alternative To Peace?

From left: Israeli Regional Development Minister Sylvan Shalom, Jordanian  Water and Agriculture Minister Hazem Nasser and head of the Palestinian Water Authority Shaddad Attili, shake hands after signing an agreement at the World Bank in Washington on Dec. 9. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom)

From left: Israeli Regional Development Minister Sylvan Shalom, Jordanian Water and Agriculture Minister Hazem Nasser and head of the Palestinian Water Authority Shaddad Attili, shake hands after signing an agreement at the World Bank in Washington on Dec. 9. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom)

The current round of Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations, restarted in July by Secretary of State John Kerry, is at the halfway point of an agreed-upon nine-month timetable. While it is unclear whether the parties have made any real progress in their negotiations, it is clear that the complaints and finger pointing from the Israelis and Palestinians are in sharp contrast to Kerry’s upbeat pronouncements.

Last week, Kerry articulated some “thoughts” about Israeli security. Among other things, he suggested that Israel should retain control of the Jordan Valley for a limited time after an agreement is reached. Of course, neither side was happy with that suggestion: Israel wants permanent control of the valley. But an Israeli presence on the Jordan is a de facto Israeli border, and that was unacceptable to the Palestinians.

Shortly thereafter, President Barack Obama echoed Kerry’s suggestion, telling the Saban Forum in Washington that a peace deal would have “to happen in stages.” At least with respect to that particular piece of the agreement puzzle, the administration is apparently leaning on the Palestinian Authority to reconsider its opposition. On Monday, a Palestinian official charged that Kerry was “blackmailing” the Palestinians into accepting an agreement by using Israel’s imminent release of Palestinian prisoners as leverage.

Then, of course, there are the familiar disagreements: The Palestinians continue to complain about Israel increasing its settlement presence. And Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu continues to demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Speaking by satellite to the Saban Forum, Netanyahu predicted that an agreement with the Palestinians will result, at least at first, in a “cold peace.” With that in mind, Israel needs “ironclad security arrangements,” he said.

Netanyahu’s domestic critics charge that he is only giving lip service to the negotiations as a way of fending off international pressure and U.S. displeasure. Former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin repeated his warning that time is running out on a two-state solution that will allow Israelis and Palestinians to pursue their independent destinies.

Then, amid all the rancor, hand wringing and finger pointing came an unprecedented agreement on Monday between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians to lay a pipeline between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea that will provide all three with fresh water. Apparently the parties are able to agree when it is in their interests to do so. That’s a hopeful sign for those who want to see a peace agreement reached.

But it’s a mistake to conclude that a patchwork of technical agreements can replace a final settlement. In the long run, in the absence of some comprehensive agreement, no one will be happy — except for those who make a career out of the existence of the conflict. Without an agreement, Israel will have to fend off orchestrated Palestinian challenges at the U.N.; the potential for violence in the West Bank and Gaza will increase; and the “occupation” and overall dissatisfaction on both sides will continue.

There is a lot of noise surrounding the negotiations at this time, and there is a lot at stake. We hope that some of the peace efforts will succeed and that meaningful progress will be made toward a comprehensive agreement. Some agreement is necessary. No agreement only means bad news for both sides.

See related story, “A Piece Of Peace?

Preservation and Sacrifice

Last week, the world lost a great man, Nelson Mandela. One of my favorite Mandela stories happened to a friend of mine in Cape Town. She was standing under her chupa and felt a slight tug on her wedding dress. She looked around to see what was going on. Nelson Mandela was straightening out her train! Greatness is often revealed in the details.

In this week’s parsha, Joseph dies. He is one of the most prominent figures in the Chumash. Mandela’s story is not dissimilar to Joseph’s. Joseph’s brothers hated him. Mandela grew up under the oppression of apartheid. Joseph landed up in prison, so did Mandela. Joseph was freed from prison and became the viceroy of Egypt. Mandela was freed from prison and became the president of South Africa. Joseph did not take revenge on his brothers. Instead, he drew them close and helped them as much as he could (he actually saved their lives in the years of famine). Mandela did not take revenge on his oppressors. Instead, he drew them close and worked together with them to make a peaceful revolution and a new South Africa.

There are some experiences we wish never to have, but if we have them and manage to survive them, they can be of tremendous benefit. I was once on an airplane that prepared for a crash landing. At the time, it was an awful experience, but when we managed a miraculously landing it became — and remains — one of the most defining moments in my life.

I found something absolutely fascinating written by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the Lubavitcher Rebbe from 1920 to 1950, describing the jail sentence he suffered in 1927 in Leningrad. It was the seventh time he had been jailed by the Russian authorities. It sheds a lot of light on how a person can go through so much torment and yet emerge compassionate:

“I will not deny that from time to time the seventh imprisonment brings me particular pleasure. Even now I set aside time to spend alone, to picture in my mind’s eye the sounds and words, the sights and the dreams that I heard, saw and dreamed in those days. In the course of a lifetime, Divine Providence engineers particular periods that sometimes change a man’s very nature. They develop his abilities and set him up at a particular height, so that he can gaze upon the ultimate purpose for which a man lives his life on the face of the earth. Above all, a man’s personality and abilities are most intensely escalated by a period rich in suffering, which is inflicted on account of his vigorous endeavors for an ideal. This is particularly so if he struggles and battles with his pursuers and persecutors for the sake of preserving and advancing his religious faith. Such a period, though fraught with affliction of the body and suffering of the spirit, is rich in powerful impressions. If imprisonment is involved, the resultant spiritual benefit is so great, for every hour and minute of torment gives rise to inestimable benefits: It makes a man so resolute that even a weakling is transformed into the most courageous of men.”

We would do well to learn from this principle without having to go through what these men went through.

One of my students commented recently that Judaism requires effort, work and often sacrifice. It does. But expecting Judaism to be an enjoyable recreation is going to land up in one of two things: either disappointment or the watering down of Judaism until nothing meaningful is left.

It’s not recreation, it’s the preservation and advancing of our values and beliefs. For those we must be prepared to sacrifice.

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.

A Letter To Hague

On Nov. 19, a Jewish woman in Britain, Mindy Wiesenberger, sent the following letter to [British Foreign Secretary William] Hague. The letter has been published in many newspapers, including The Times of Israel, and I would like to share it with the readers of the Baltimore Jewish Times.

“Dear Mr. Hague,

You have stated that if Israel tries to defend its population through a ground offensive in Gaza, ‘it risks losing the sympathy of the international community.’

“Let me tell you something about the sympathy of the international community, Mr. Hague. My father was liberated from Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945, having lost his entire family but gaining the sympathy of the international community at the time. After six million Jews had been annihilated at the hands of the Nazi regime, the international community had plenty of sympathy for the Jewish people. There is always plenty of sympathy for victims.

“Israel doesn’t need the sympathy of the international community. What it needs is to defend its citizens.

“When as a tiny country it gained its independence in 1948 it had to absorb 800,000 Jews who were thrown out of Arab lands in the Middle East, and it did so without fuss and with dignity, giving them shelter and a place of security in which their children could grow up to become productive citizens. When Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria tried to destroy Israel in 1948 and again in 1967, they took in hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs, but did they give them dignity or shelter? No, they left them to rot in refugee camps in order to maintain a symbol of grievance against Israel and use them as a political tool against the Jewish state. What has arisen in those camps is a complicated situation, but it is what has led to Gaza today.”

Kenneth Wolfson
Reisterstown