A Rabbi Is ‘Lynched’

Twelve years after his death, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader and arch-terrorist, is still causing Jews grief. This time, we’re relieved to report, no one died. But there’s no doubt that the life of Rabbi Neil Blumofe, senior rabbi of Agudas Achim in Austin, Texas, was badly shaken. And all because he included a visit to Arafat’s grave in  Ramallah in a draft itinerary for a congregational trip that would include Christian clergy that the rabbi knew well.

“I do a lot of work in the non-Jewish community, where we are losing support for Israel,” Blumofe told a Jewish newspaper in New York. Blumofe saw himself in the position of providing “a pro-Israel narrative for those who question and want to be challenged.”

Instead, Blumofe, was attacked — largely online — as a traitor. It began when a  congregant called on him to resign. The congregant’s letter went viral. And then came others, including an open letter to the rabbi that asserted that “your actions have opened up an entirely new page in the history of treachery.” Blumofe responded and said that the visit to Arafat’s grave had been removed from the itinerary.

But the story had legs. One Austin resident who had served in the Israel Defense Forces called on area philanthropic donors to “withhold further funding” of Blumofe and the JCC, where Agudas Achim is housed, “until anti-Israel activities come to a stop.”

Protesters also connected the rabbi to a number of organizations of which Blumofe is not a member. Such disregard of facts is one symptom of the coarsening of discussion in the Jewish community and in society at large. Another symptom is the rush to judge people without a full understanding of the context of challenged activity. We see this all the time in letters to the  editor of this publication.

In the Blumofe affair, it has been  reported that many of the rabbi’s strongest attackers are not themselves active in the community. While not every Jew participates in the community, of course, this sort of vigilantism — from anyone — is not good.

We’ve seen similar things in our own community, although the virtual lynching of Blumofe was particularly disturbing. And, of course, there is that recurring painful irony of those who call for a boycott of this or that Jewish institution being among those who shout the loudest against boycotts of Israel.

This is one we can’t blame on Arafat. He’s dead and buried. But as we approach the High Holidays, this unfortunate story should serve as a reminder that humility is a Jewish value. Rabbi Blumofe hasn’t lost sight of that: He admitted that a visit to Arafat’s grave would have been a mistake.

Would that his critics have such a gentle soul.

A Setback in Space

The Israeli Amos 6 communications satellite that was destroyed in an explosion on the launch pad last week was reputed to be the country’s most advanced. But what Israel —and the world — lost during the spectacular fire in Cape Canaveral, Fla., was much more than a $200 million piece of equipment.

In addition to serving television providers in Israel, the Middle East and Europe, Amos 6 was to set to provide Facebook the means to beam its stripped-down internet service to Africa. The loss of the satellite atop the Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket is thus not only a major setback for Israel’s communications satellite industry and a loss to its private investors, but a setback for the development of parts of the third world as well.

“This is a very severe blow which could place the future of the industry in doubt if it is not dragged out of the mud,” said Isaac Ben-Israel, chairman of the Israel Space Agency, which built the satellite with Israel Aerospace Industries. We share Ben-Israel’s concern for the future of this particular industry. But we also focus on a different concern that arises from these developments.

IAI is one of the most advanced aeronautical firms in the world. It has helped to elevate Israel into the rarified atmosphere of a global technological leader. Many of us remember the young, nascent Israel that, like many countries in Africa today, was an emerging third-world nation. It was a small state with a much-needed national military which struggled to grow from its agrarian roots to what is today a robust industrial economy and high-tech powerhouse. But upon achieving those levels of success, the challenge is to stay there.

There is worry within Israel’s aerospace industry that the country will begin to lose its qualitative edge in space. The government has said it will decrease its funding  of the program, something that may lead  to its collapse. And it will not fund a  next-generation Amos 7 satellite. None of this affects Israel’s military satellite program.

Israel is still a small state with a big military. But what it produces agriculturally, economically and technologically benefits countries around the globe — a fact to be kept in mind by those who would seek to impose their vision of what the modern Middle East should look like.

Israel’s leadership needs to think long and hard about what to do following the failure of the Amos 6. How, if at all, does this impact Israel’s ability to retain its edge and continue to punch well above its weight? Does the Jewish state’s role on the world stage require Israel to be in space? Or are those intellectual, economic and human resources better allocated elsewhere? These are certainly questions worth considering, and there are no simple answers. But the debate is certainly not just about dollars and cents.

False Accusations

The authors of “Black Lives Platform Gives Hope, Not Fear” (Sept. 2) are quite misguided. They are saddened and pained by the Jewish responses to the M4BL platform and contend that Jewish outrage at the policy platform is dividing the black and Jewish communities and preventing the communities from building relationships. Such a position by these social justice organizers is just plain wrong.

The M4BL platform, without any provocation, decided to  include in a document  that deals with black complaints against the police department, and American society in general, language that is inflammatory, hateful and false. It accuses Israel of being an apartheid state and calls for termination of aid to Israel, which would put the state in grave, mortal danger. But even worse, it accuses Israel of committing genocide, which equates Israeli treatment of the Palestinians with the Nazi  extermination of a third of our people. The platform calls for supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which is tantamount to calling for the economic destruction of Israel.

I ask these social justice  organizers why these false accusations against Israel are  included in a document of black complaints against racism in America. How do attacks against Israel further the black narrative of racism in America?

The M4BL platform does not include specific accusations against any other country. Singling out Israel can only be termed anti-Semitic. As Martin Luther King Jr. said so eloquently, being anti-Israel is being anti-Semitic. We should not be embracing the M4BL movement. It attacks the country of our Jewish brothers and sisters and by association, us, no matter how noble other parts of its platform may be.

Meeting the King Parshat Shoftim

101014_riskin_sholmo_rabbiWhat is the essence of the exalted Hebrew month of Elul, the auspicious 30-day period of time prior to the Days of Awe in which, according to Chasidic philosophy, “The King is in the field,” when God is, as it were, more accessible to us than throughout the year?

How might we best prepare ourselves to meet the King while He is “in the field?” I  believe that the story of Velvel, a Soviet refusenik I met in Riga, Latvia in the month of Elul 5730 (1970), offers an  answer to this question.

In the late 1960s, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory, asked me to be his shaliach, his “emissary,” to  establish centers of Torah learning in several cities in the Soviet Union.

On Friday a night in Riga, I met a man named Velvel in the city’s main synagogue. Velvel told me that there was nothing he wanted more than a new tallit, since the tallit that he had received when he turned bar mitzvah was in tatters. I gave one to him discreetly, which brought an ear-to-ear smile to his otherwise forlorn face.

The next day, during Shabbat morning services at the synagogue, as the cantor led the Torah processional through the cavernous, mostly empty sanctuary, Velvel drew near and lifted the tzitzit of the brand-new tallit in order to touch them to the Torah scroll and then kiss them.

The cantor, seeing Velvel, dramatically stopped the procession and stared at Velvel with disdain. Velvel reciprocated, keeping his arm extended in the direction of the Torah scroll.

The minute-long staring match went on for what seemed forever, with neither the cantor (who it turns out was also a KGB agent) nor Velvel giving an inch. Abruptly, Velvel screamed at the cantor in  Yiddish:

“Ich hob nit kein moyreh! (I am not afraid!) You’ve already taken everything that you can take away from me! When I began to come to shul and I lost my job as a result, my wife left me, and she took the children with her. I have no job; I have no family. The only thing I have is my Jewish tradition. The only thing I have is this tallit. I am not afraid!”

The cantor, lowering his eyes in acknowledgment of Velvel’s position, resumed the procession. Slowly and triumphantly, Velvel touched the Torah with the tzitzit and delicately kissed them. Ultimately, we have nothing in life except for God, His Torah, and His commandments. Nothing else truly matters.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

‘Time’ for School

Editorial Director

Editorial Director

Only one thing compares with the glee of children streaming out of hallways the end of each school year — the heady delight of parents knowing that their children will be someone else’s problem at the beginning of the school year.

Now don’t think that I’m a heartless or inattentive father. I truly cherish the extra time I get to spend with my kids from late May to early September, but there’s just something about the end of summer — is it the pent-up stress from shopping for school supplies or keeping everyone engaged in that last week when there’s no classes or camp to spur young minds and test young muscles? — that sometimes has my wife and I exhaling deeply this time each year.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, that window of parental bliss may be coming later for us all now that Gov. Larry Hogan has announced a statewide initiative mandating public schools to begin after Labor Day starting next year. There are other issues as well surrounding school openings this year: Baltimore County has decided to remain open on important Muslim holidays, and the lack of proper air conditioning in many public schools in the area has meant the shuttering of facilities on days when the mercury climbs too high. (Already, 37 of 173 schools in the county had to close two of the first five days of the year when the temperature exceeded well over 90 degrees.)

Taken together, the battle over when to stay open — elsewhere in the country, the Collingswood, N.J., school district earned headlines for its decision to drop Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur from the calendar — can get tempers flaring. It already has in the case of Hogan and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. (Although, it’s not as if the two have seen eye-to-eye on much until now.) In addition to religious sensitivities, health and the length of summer vacation, there’s the very real question of how teachers will fit all of what they need to teach in a finite space of time.

Ultimately, that’s the most important question, in the sense that it’s not about the number of days — the minimum is mandated by law — but how each day gets filled. Come to think of it, that’s a lesson for us all. Whether or not the school year begins after Labor Day or before it, summer will begin sooner or later. Whether or not schools have window units or central air, the main concern is that kids should be learning in an atmosphere maximized for their success. And whether today is a holiday, school day or weekday, we all have key things to accomplish in our personal relationships and  individual growth.

It’ll be nice that next year — assuming all of the private schools follow suit — we can plan our beach trips well into the first week of September, but even at the beach, we need to maximize our time. That’s one duty that doesn’t disappear along with teacher’s dirty looks.


The ‘Altruistic Evil’ of Social Justice for Palestinians

As yet another indication that the university campus has  become “an island of repression in a sea of freedom,” last March a pro-Israel group, Hasbara Fellowships Canada, was barred from participating in a Social Justice Week event organized by the Student Association of Durham College and University of Ontario Institute of Technology. The stated reason for the  exclusion? The student association (which, not coincidentally, had just approved a pro-boycott, divestment and sanctions resolution against Israel) informed the Hasbara group that since the “organization seems closely tied to the State of Israel … it would be against the motion to provide any type of resources to your organization.”

While the term “social justice” has a seemingly benign and positive connation, the reality is that, as columnist Jonah Goldberg observed, social justice is actually “an empty vessel to be filled with any and all leftist ideals and then promptly wielded as a political bludgeon against any and all dissenters.”

So while social justice warriors on campus are quick to welcome a collection of perceived victim groups into their tent — Muslims, African-Americans, gays, Hispanics, women — they have been decidedly more hostile when dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the result being that pro-Israel groups are regularly excluded as being part of the oppressor class responsible  for such evils as imperialism, colonialism, racism and sexism.

Like other members of the academic left who believe their worldview is correct because it seeks to create a world in which social equanimity will be realized by the downtrodden, members of Students for Justice in Palestine, Black Lives Matter and other victims’ rights grievance groups and movements are content to support such intellectually dishonest campaigns as BDS  because it enables them to  denounce Israelis as “white,”  imperialistic, colonial, racist, militaristic oppressors of wholly innocent “brown” Palestinians dispossessed and victimized by the Jewish state’s very existence.

In debating the conflict, social justice activists, of course, demonstrate their hypocrisy by endlessly dwelling on the many evils of Israel without bothering to examine or measure the Palestinians’ own central role in contributing to the many pathologies endemic to their civil society and institutions.

We should be careful that, despite their claims to a moral uprightness, the truth is not being lost in the intellectual darkness created by these self-appointed purveyors of social justice.

Richard L. Cravatts is former president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

Never Like a Child

“You know old people are just like children,” said the professional athletics director who works with all ages.

As someone in the former category, I felt a chill go down my spine and a rush of adrenaline course upwards.

How could I convey to this woman that even though older people may have diminished abilities, they are never to be treated — or even thought of — as children. When I taught assisted living staff, I brought in the used water filter from my kitchen sink. Layers were revealed with one sediment on top and six or seven varying strata beneath. Today, we see the top layer, I instructed, but we need to be cognizant that even when seemingly dormant, other layers of personal history and life experience exert their influence.

Nowhere is this more profoundly evident than in working with severe dementia patients. Initially seeming to be nonresponsive, after sensory stimulation and close interaction, they can  respond to music and song of years ago and to smiles and softness in the presence of those with whom they have been in close relationship.

Often faces of elders seem to freeze into one or two set expressions. Yet, it would be false to assume they are not having variations in feeling. Consider that whatever the situation, those who have lived 70, 80, 90 years have probably experienced something very similar before. In a sense, there is nothing new under the sun. While not every person who lives long develops guru-like wisdom, most have a repository of experience that is rich and can be instructive to us if we will listen.

A developmental task of aging is life review. People may like to express regrets, angers, sadness or appreciation for the preciousness of what they lived through. Sometimes they may want to continue to “prove” their physical strength or cognitive prowess in an endeavor. Other times they may be brave enough to try to undo a pattern that has held them in its clenches for their whole life. This does not mean they are silly or have lost their mind; instead, it can be viewed as an effort to rectify what seemed off base. As Jews, this push for teshuva is a mitzvah.

Before we tell elders they can’t do something, let’s try to understand the meaning of this activity and find a creative way to both help them stay safe and keep their dignity intact. This may actually teach us patience and reverence for all life, not a bad exchange, as we progress through our own continuum of aging.

Joyce Wolpert is a Baltimore-based  licensed counselor and movement therapist.

No Friend of Israel

Ben Cardin (File photo)

Ben Cardin (File photo)

Sen. Benjamin Cardin’s Aug. 26 column in the JT, “Why Tim Kaine Is Good for Israel, Jewish Values,” was the ultimate in chutzpah.

Cardin, who voted against the Iran agreement, was supporting Sen. Kaine as being a friend of Israel when, in fact, Kaine helped forge the agreement with Iran.  That the Iran agreement is bad for Israel is evidenced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of Congress. Further, a friend of  Israel would not have been one of eight senators (all Democrats) who walked out of  the prime minister’s address.

Kaine, a friend of Israel? Hardly!

Stepping Up to Help Those in Need Parshat Re’eh

This week’s reading, Parshat Re’eh, includes the laws of kashrut and how to observe the three harvest festivals:  Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuot. I will be focusing on another theme from the reading, however: tithing. Tithing is when farmers take 10 percent of their yield and donate it to the priests and the poor. This is a version of tzedaka. Tzedaka comes from the root tzedek, which means righteousness. In this case, the right thing to do is to help people in need.

Tzedaka comes from the root tzedek, which means  righteousness. In this case, the right thing to do is to help people  in need.


The Torah portion expands on the idea of tzedaka: “If … there is a needy person among you … do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your kinsman.  Rather, you must open your hand. … Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return, the Lord your G-d will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: Open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”

This past year, our congregation, Chevrei Tzedek, volunteered at an urban farm in and around Clifton Park called Real Food Farm. It is located in a challenged part of Baltimore on lots that used to be old abandoned houses. The farm sells the food they grow in food deserts to people who normally could not afford  to purchase fresh food at a  reasonable cost. This farm is a part of a growing movement to educate and provide access to healthy and affordable food for the disadvantaged.

I spent time at the farm harvesting, painting, mulching, planting and weeding. During the hot summer days, I thought more about how I could drive just miles from my house and be in a totally different environment with people of different races and different socioeconomic backgrounds. We, the Jewish community, need to step up for neighborhoods that are so close to us and still need help. The Torah is trying to remind us that we shouldn’t take our food for granted.

Challenges, Rewards

Editorial Director

Editorial Director

I remember  my first Nefesh B’Nefesh flight like it was yesterday. My wife and I and packed up all of our belongings a few days before, sending them off on a steel container. We sat in the back of the plane — along with all the other families with young children — and left New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport full of energy.

As it turned out, we needed that energy, my wife’s ears failing to adjust to the pressure and our three kids — two toddlers and an infant — reacting to the excitement of making aliyah with a plane full of other new olim by staying wide awake for most of the flight. Moving to Israel is not for the lighthearted.

The whirlwind, followed by days of shuttling back and forth between banks and government offices — the process is mostly automated now, with Nefesh B’Nefesh clients getting their paperwork before deplaning — was a hearty  introduction into life in the Jewish homeland and helped us develop a tough exterior (as well as a soft inner core, much like the native-born and native flora, the sabra). Life, despite such hectic beginnings, was good in Israel. It was for reasons of education and family that we returned to the United States.

These memories — of the flight, of the exhaustion, but also of the thousands of people who welcomed us at Ben  Gurion Airport with open arms — came flooding back when I read this week’s cover story. Accompanied by a first-person account by writer Jon Marks of what it was like to  accompany the latest Nefesh B’Nefesh immigrant transport after a half-century of not stepping foot inside Israel, the article features Baltimoreans transfixed by the prospect of life among Jewish neighbors in the Jewish state.

Last month’s passengers  included 75 young men and women who were inducted into the Israel Defense Forces soon after their arrival. Among the young recruits was Jacob Roshgadol, a 21-year-old recent graduate of the University of Maryland. He said the decision to make aliyah had been stewing for some time.

“It’s really been in my head for four years or so,” said Roshgadol, who studied  mechanical engineering. “When I wanted to go then, I was  already in Israel studying in the yeshiva in Jerusalem. What’s changed is now I go to the army coming in with a skill they want me to have. It’s a major incentive for them to take me.”

To be sure, there will be myriad challenges ahead for Roshgadol and all of the others now carrying their identity cards, known in Hebrew as teudot zehut. My family and I know many of those challenges well. But their sacrifices are sure to be rewarding, and the JT will be checking in with them periodically.

Who knows? Some of you just might be joining them someday.