After the Tel Aviv Attack

Last week’s terrorist attack, in which two Palestinian men shot and killed four Israelis in a Tel Aviv food court, came after the country’s least violent month since May 2015.

Still, the brazen, almost cinematic  nature of the attack — “They dressed in suits and ties and posed as customers at a restaurant, ordering a drink and a chocolate brownie before pulling out automatic weapons and opening fire, sending diners fleeing in panic,” AP reported — raises the fear that more attacks by both ordinary and trained terrorists are returning. And the fact that the attack was in the heart of cosmopolitan Israel, not in the contested West Bank or the capital of Jerusalem, will reinforce the convictions of those who fear, justifiably, that the Palestinians will never accept Israel’s existence.

But then came the reactions — the condemnations of the murders of civilians. The United States, the chief guarantor of Israel’s security, condemned the “horrific terrorist attack in Tel Aviv in the strongest possible terms.” The U.N. Security Council likewise condemned the attack “in the strongest terms.”

We frequently hear complaints such as, “Where are the moderates?” or “Why don’t they condemn violence against Jews?” So consider Dahham al-Enazi, a member of the Saudi Journalists Association, who tweeted: “The Tel Aviv attack is terror and thuggery. Our solidarity and support for the Palestinian people does not mean that we accept the killing of innocents and civilians. We would like to extend our condolences to the families of the victims.”

Of course, one wonders what al-Enazi thinks of the scores of attacks that preceded the Tel Aviv shootings. Does he also consider Israelis living in Judea and Samaria, or the men, women and children stabbed in the streets of Jerusalem, to be innocents? If he doesn’t, then what transpired in Tel Aviv is unfortunately more of the same — symptomatic of a refusal of the Palestinians and their allies to bring the conflict to a close.

We would welcome a clear condemnation from the Saudi government, as well as from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Neither has been forthcoming.  Instead, the Palestinian Authority issued a carefully worded statement condemning terror attacks against civilians, without mentioning the Tel Aviv shootings. That just isn’t good enough.

If we are ever to experience peace, Abbas and his allies are going to need to go at least as far as Shua Mansour Masarwa, the mayor of the Arab village of Taibe, who called “to every moderate person in the country and say to them that it’s important for us to denounce and to overcome  extremism and hate to continue our lives in the best way and without violence.”

We couldn’t agree more.

We Are One Community

040315_Neumann-MarkWe often hear that Baltimore is a special community. But it is when I travel to other Jewish communities that I am truly reminded about the incredible community we’ve built in  Baltimore.

One of the secrets to our success is that we have worked hard to engage all parts of our community. So many times, I will hear from professionals and leadership who wonder how we bring these diverse voices together to listen  respectfully to one another’s opinions. How do we use those different opinions to develop policy and programs that benefit our Jewish community?

I think part of it is the realization The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore made years ago, that we are stronger working  together than working independently. It’s the recognition that we all understand that, as Jews, no matter what our  denomination or proclivity, we share the same values, even if we may interpret things a bit differently.

During my past two years as chair of the board of The Associated, I’ve seen this numerous times when I look and observe who is sitting around the table. From a teen program to a task force meeting on senior citizens, people of all denominations and ages are present, discussing issues of mutual concern. Whether we are talking about Israel, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement or our growing senior population, I like to think everyone has a voice.

What we’ve discovered in Baltimore is that the best programs and strongest community result from a cross-fertilization of ideas. After all, how can we create positive Jewish programming for our teens, if we don’t have them at the table? Or address the best way to  engage individuals with disabilities if educators and parents of children with disabilities from all denominations aren’t sharing their ideas?

In Baltimore, I think there is another layer. Having only one umbrella organization — The Associated — to focus on overall community priorities helps us come together to tackle the largest issues. Because of the centrality of our campaign, we can eliminate competition and bring together diverse groups to focus on the broader picture with universal goals.

Finding common ground to solve our problems takes time, takes trust and takes commitment. It doesn’t happen overnight. But the ultimate  reward is the ability to understand our issues from multiple perspectives and to include these diverse viewpoints in the solutions.

That does not mean that we are able to satisfy everyone all of the time. But it does result in a strong community where we are building mutual respect and trust. It is this community that I have had the honor to serve and am proud to call home.

Mark D. Neumann is chair of the board of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Daring to Dream

101014_riskin_sholmo_rabbiThere are very few passages of the Bible that are as well-known as the  “Priestly Benediction.” In Israel, the kohanim,  “priests,” rise to bless the congregation every single morning. However, in the Diaspora, the Ashkenazi Jews include this special benediction only on the Festivals. Nevertheless, there are many life-cycle celebrations, such as circumcisions, redemptions of the first born, bar and bat mitzvahs and even weddings that are punctuated by this Priestly Blessing. In effect, the Kohen stands as G-d’s representative, as the  agent of the Compassionate One,” as the spiritual leader and as the Torah teacher — and in this function as teacher and guide, he calls upon G-d to bless the congregation. As Moses declares in his final blessing to the Israelites,  (the Priests and Levites) shall guard Your covenant, shall teach Your laws to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel.”

The Talmud (in the 9th chapter of Berachot) as well as our Prayer Liturgy declare,  At the time of the priestly blessings, the congregation responds, ‘Master of the Universe I am Yours and my dreams are Yours.’” Apparently, our Sages saw a profound connection between the dreams of the Congregation of Israel and the function of their priest leaders. Exactly what is the nature of that connection?

I would suggest that first and foremost a leader and an educator must inspire his students/congregants/nation with a lofty vision, with an exalted dream. The Psalmist and sweet singer of Israel, King David, declares in the Psalm that we recite each Sabbath and Festival before the reciting the Grace after Meals,  When the Lord returned with the restoration of Zion we were as dreamers;” after all, had the Jews not dreamt of the return to Israel throughout their long exiles, we never would have returned to our homeland.

One sees the same idea from the opposite vantage point when one realizes the cause of the great tragedy of the Book of Numbers. In Numbers, the Jewish people descends from the great heights of the Revelation at Sinai to the disastrous depths of the sin of the scouts, the rebellion of Korah, the sin of Moses and the destruction of that entire generation in the desert. What caused such a mighty fall? The 18th-century Netziv says simply that the  Israelites had lost the dream and the vision that they felt at Sinai. They descended into destruction because they lost the dream.

Those who believe in a G-d who is invisible may well dare to dream the dream that is impossible but only those who dream the impossible will ever achieve the incredible.

Of Swiss Handshakes, Restricted Swimming

We are so used to thinking that the world is growing steadily more homogenous, particularly in the West, that it’s a surprise to learn about local customs that continue to thrive. Last week, we learned that in Switzerland it is customary for students to shake their teacher’s hand before and after class. It is a show of respect, if a bit too formal for looser places like the United States and Israel.

We might never have heard about this custom were in not for two male Swiss Muslim students who did not want to shake their female teachers’ hands at their high school graduation. In the Jewish community, this sensitivity is familiar: Many observant Jews will decline a handshake from someone of the opposite sex out of modesty (although others will shake hands).

Switzerland’s 400,000 Muslims comprise 5 percent of the country’s population. Faced with the students’ religious sensitivities, the school made a reasonable  accommodation: It exempted them from shaking the hands of women, and to ensure there was no sex discrimination against the women teachers, the students were not to shake their male teachers’ hands either.

The local education department overturned this compromise. Then it threatened to slap a fine of up to $5,000 on the family of any student who refuses to shake hands. According to reports, the education department justified its position with the questionable assertion that “the public interest with respect to equality between men and women and the integration of foreigners significantly outweighs the freedom of religion.”

If the modest religious accommodation for Muslim students on shaking hands is common sense in a public school setting, what about a religious accommodation for Orthodox women in public swimming pools in New York?

Last month, the New York Parks  Department canceled women-only swim periods at a public pool in the heavily  Orthodox Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, after an anonymous complaint was made to the city’s Commission on Human Rights. It then reversed itself following objections by Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an Orthodox politician. Advocates on both sides are up in arms over the issue and are drowning in rhetoric.

While both stories have to do with  religious sensitivities about mixing genders, that’s where the similarity ends. Should the Swiss students have been forced to violate their religious sensibilities by shaking hands? No. But in the case of the swimming pool, no one is forcing anyone to do anything.

If the pool was being used in a school setting, and boys and girls were required to swim together, that would be another matter. But in a public facility, maintained for public use, the reasonable accommodation for someone who isn’t being forced to swim there is for them to seek out a private pool.

A ‘Rupture’ Over the Wall?

The stalled implementation of the plan to bring pluralistic Jewish prayer to the Kotel probably won’t cause a major rupture  between American Jews and Israel, but it is further proof of the complaint that  Israel guarantees religious freedom for all, except many Jews.

Emerging from a meeting on June 1 with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,  Reform movement leader Rabbi Rick  Jacobs warned about a breakdown between Israel and American Jewry if the Kotel plan, approved by Netanyahu’s government in January, were not executed. Conservative movement leader Rabbi Steve Wernick was equally frustrated, even if less dire: “Until it’s done, it’s not done,”  he said.

The plan was designed to be a compromise over the prohibition of mixed-gender and women’s prayer at the Western Wall, which under Haredi Orthodox control  is run essentially as an Orthodox synagogue. The agreement would have created a mixed-prayer area to the south. But it caused a furor in the Haredi community, with Haredi members of Netanyahu’s government opposing it after they supported it and the Haredi rabbi of the Kotel similarly walking back his agreement to the plan.

In March, Netanyahu initiated a 60-day period to re-examine the deal. The 60 days were up last week. And so Wernick, Jacobs and other progressive leaders held what they said was an “emergency meeting” with the prime minister. But it’s unlikely that Netanyahu — who again voiced support for the plan — sees the Kotel plan and its implementation as an emergency, since the unhappiness of several liberal religious leaders is nothing compared to the pressure of two Haredi political parties whose dissatisfaction could imperil  Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Shas and United Torah Judaism have nothing to lose by opposing streams of Judaism they don’t believe in. And Netanyahu is stuck in the middle.

In addition, the Kotel and religious pluralism (for Jews) are not key issues for most Israelis. So, there is little on his  domestic front that Netanyahu needs to fear. And with issues such as BDS, Iran, Palestinian terror and other threats  besieging Israel, vocal American supporters of pluralism and the Kotel plan are going to be very careful about painting  Israel in too negative a light.

Perhaps it is, as Wernick suggested, that progressive Jews must be prepared to play the long game on Kotel pluralism. Or maybe they should start walking the walk — or praying the prayer — as one columnist suggested, by returning to some form of civil resistance similar to what Women of the Wall had been doing for years.

We are faced with an unfortunate reality: A year short of five decades since the Kotel was brought under Israeli control, it is still not a place for Jews to worship freely. That has to change.

Shabbos at the JCC: Crossing The Line

Last week, the board of the JCC voted overwhelmingly to open the Owings Mills JCC for the full day on Shabbos, expanding on the afternoon opening that was initiated seven years ago. This is a troubling decision.

During the broad communal debate over the initial Shabbos opening of the JCC, many asserted that it would be inappropriate to initiate, within a communal facility, a practice or program that trampled on the deeply held sensitivities of a significant segment of the community. That argument was rejected by the JCC and The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, which claimed that the Orthodox had their JCC in the Park Heights building, while the Owings Mills campus belonged to the local non-orthodox population. The argument — made by a community that functions under the slogan of “We Are One” — was disturbing then and is disturbing now, but it is what it is.

As a result of this premise, this latest decision should have come as no surprise. But it, nevertheless, is both surprising and profoundly disappointing and concerning.

It is surprising because the initial opening was undertaken with a clear red line, that in deference to Shabbos the facility would open only in the afternoon, and with a pledge that the Shabbos experience at the JCC would be enriched with meaningful and substantive elements that would make that day at the J different than any other. This latter pledge was never fulfilled, and now, seven years later, the red line has been crossed.

It is disappointing and concerning as we consider the frightening trends of disaffiliation in the Jewish community. This should be the dominant concern of Jewish leadership and the thrust of communal investment — financial and human — as we face the crisis of continuity exposed most recently by the Pew study, but lived and witnessed by Jewish communal professionals and leaders each and every day.

The challenge of continuity grows stronger as connections grow weaker, as new generations of Jews come of age without memories of their Yiddish-accented Bubby and her Shabbos candles and Holiday recipes. Yet in Baltimore, the trends of disaffiliation in the non-Orthodox community, while alarming, have always been slower and better than in other communities. This does not appear to be a result of uniquely creative local programming initiatives, but rather can be attributed to our “Bubby substitutes,” i.e. The Associated’s commitment to maintaining a traditional structure and feel in its many robust organizations and facilities, and the unique cohesion and connection between the community’s various segments. These have provided the community with both structural and human anchors of Jewish identity and continuity.

The challenge faced by the JCC leadership is significant and understandable. The Owings Mills Jewish community is shrinking and not attracting young Jewish families, such that a significant percentage of new JCC members in Owings Mills are from outside the Jewish community. These members are joining the JCC not for Jewish community but for recreational convenience, and to attract them the JCC feels the need to compete with a brand new LA Fitness opening in the area. The result is a Jewish communal organization and facility that, in its struggle for financial viability, has chosen to drop critical elements of its traditional structure and to become less of a place of Jewish cohesion and connection, with the wishful hope of compensating for that profound loss with well-meaning promises of effective Jewish programming.

If we are in the business of keeping our fitness facilities operating in the black then this may be a good business decision. But, if we are in the business of maintaining, building and nurturing a Jewish future, and stopping the alarming erosion in the parts of the Jewish community that the JCC was created to keep connected, it appears to be a very poor business decision.

In the past, The Associated recognized that these decisions were not local to the JCC’s membership, finance and planning committees, but represented existential questions that needed to be addressed by a broader conversation with communal leadership. This time, they have not stepped forward to do that. They should.

All of us in the Jewish community face a challenging future and must share a commitment to do what we can to keep all Jews identified with the Jewish community. We need to put our heads together and consider what has worked and what has not; to choose how to invest our human and financial resources in ways that make sense for the real business at hand – maintaining, building and nurturing our Jewish future.

Rabbi Moshe Hauer is the spiritual leader of Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion Congregation and a member of the board of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.


An American Interest



Check your Facebook page or your Twitter feed and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the fate of Israel and of the wider Jewish world hinges on the outcome of the U.S. presidential election this November. The messages, while discordant — presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump (or presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton or longshot candidate Bernie Sanders) is either the greatest defender of the Jewish state or a dangerous opportunist who cannot be trusted — seem to agree on one thing and one thing only: Never before has Israel been in so precarious a position; never before has the Jewish community stood in the balance.

But for all the ink that’s been spilled in print over the outrage du jour from any of the candidates and their campaigns, the fact is, little stands to change in the U.S.-Israel relationship come January, when the next president, whomever he or she is, takes office.

“Israel’s security isn’t a Democratic interest or a Republican interest,” U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice told attendees Monday at the American Jewish Committee’s annual Global Forum in Washington, D.C. “It’s an American interest.”

You’d expect Rice, who bore the brunt of the criticism surrounding last year’s Iran nuclear deal, to trumpet the current administration’s preservation of the American-Israel military alliance. But as you’ll read in this week’s JT, the crowd at the Washington Hilton, despite their political differences, didn’t seem to separate into warring camps. There was even an air of that rarest of qualities in today’s political climate: bipartisanship.

“I would love to say … Republicans are much more supportive of Israel than Democrats are, but that’s not true,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the Foreign Relations Committee chairman who led the fight against the Iran deal, announced during a panel discussion. “Thankfully, that is not true.”

Could it be that the dire predictions flooding our email inboxes and keeping us up at night are merely election year bluster? Chances are that is exactly the case.

To bring it closer to home, take a look sometime at the cars belonging to our Jewish friends and neighbors. Some sport bumper stickers backing the now-failed campaign of Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist who has been vociferous in his criticism of Israeli policies in Judea and Samaria; others urge votes for Clinton or Trump. Many others, however, lack any bumper stickers.

It’s important to remember, especially in the middle of a campaign commentators are already likening to a knife fight, that for all of the rhetoric, we’re all Americans. And here in the Jewish community, we all support Israel. We might differ in the details, but at the end of the day, we all want what we think is best for our country and for our homeland.

And to achieve both, we’re going to need to work together as soon as the election results are in.

The Wrong West

In his Your Say letter of June 3 (“At Odds with Party”), Ben Mirman claims to be a “lifelong Democrat,” but he writes like a Trumpkin. How else to explain a tendency to believe that “they” are all the same? Contra Mirman, the individual named to the Democratic Platform Committee is Princeton academic and progressive gadfly Cornel West. The Colonel West that Mirman has in mind must be retired Lt. Col. Allan West, the extremist former  Republican Congressman from Florida who now serves as a Fox-TV commentator and who was once encouraged to run for president by Glenn Beck.

Shavuot, Sex, Teens

OMER, Israel — As Jews, we tend to pride ourselves on our tradition’s values and how we pass them on to future generations. But if you were to start a conversation today with a teenager, would you be ready to articulate Jewish values  related to dating and sexuality?

Several such values can be gleaned straight from the Book of Ruth customarily read during the holiday of Shavuot. Best known for its embrace of Ruth as a convert to Judaism and its emphasis on loving-kindness, the Book of Ruth also includes interactions that have a potentially sexual  cast to them. It is a text that names what it sees rather than sugarcoats.

For example, here we read about Boaz, a wealthy kinsman of Ruth’s destitute, widowed mother-in-law, Naomi. Boaz invites Ruth, along with other young women, to collect  unharvested produce in his fields. He tells Ruth that he has instructed his men not to  molest her. Naomi, hearing later that day about Ruth’s gleaning in Boaz’s fields, admits her relief that young men from another field won’t be touching her daughter-in-law.

Later Naomi counsels Ruth to make herself as attractive as possible, to seek out Boaz after his dinner and to “uncover his feet and lie down.” Boaz was a sexual hero to our ancestors — one who manages to restrain himself for the sake of the dignity and welfare of another. When Ruth identifies herself that night, she calls Boaz her redeemer — someone who can save her, legally, from continued widowhood. But he points out there is an even closer relative in the town, whom he goes to look for as soon as day breaks. We can also infer that nothing of a  sexual nature happens between them because of what we know about Boaz from the start: He considers everyone created in the image of God.

This basic Jewish value, in turn, can lead us to Judaism’s view of the potential sacredness of all relationships, including sexual ones. Finding a potential for divine connection in sexual encounters does not make Jewish tradition averse to sex and sexuality; it encourages sexual pleasure. But the Jewish context is bigger than two consenting adults in a bed. It includes remembering in whose image we are created, that we are God’s partners in improving and sanctifying life and that freedom and responsibility are both  essential for authentic relationships that help both partners grow.

Jewish teens need to hear that the more they are able to connect sex to love and love to respect, the more deeply satisfied and whole both they and their partners will feel.

Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum is a member of JWI’s Clergy Task Force on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community.

Branching Out

This Shabbat, we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah, Sefer Bamidbar. In English, it is called the Book of Numbers because this parshah, also called Bamidbar, begins with a census of the Israelites. It was necessary to count all the men of age 20 and above so that there would be an army to defend the nation in case of an attack. All of the tribes except for the Levites were counted because the Levites would not take part in serving in the military. Their service was different. The Levites served in the Tabernacle assisting the Cohanim, the Priests.

Life in the desert for the  Israelites was very difficult  because resources were limited. There was little water and food, hardly any shelter and severe heat. Bamidbar sets the tone for the complaints and the fact that the people wanted to return to Egypt where they had been slaves. They remembered the tasty meat, fish, melons, onions and garlic. In contrast, in the desert, they only ate Manna, which was provided for them from God.

As I become a bat mitzvah, a Jewish adult, I can relate to the situation in this parshah. At my age, we start to experience multiple changes in our lives, similar to how the Israelites transformed into an independent nation. In the desert, the Israelites depended upon God for their food, yet they complained that they only had manna to eat. They missed what they had in Egypt.

As adolescents, we also complain a lot because of all of the transitions that we go through. For example, we might complain about having to take on more responsibilities and to be more independent. We want to be in charge and make our own decisions.

The Israelites also had to prepare to enter the land of  Israel where God would expect them to be independent and to take care of their specific needs, such as food and self-protection. Just like the Israelites who faced a new beginning as they prepared to return to their land, I am faced with new situations and decisions. When the  Israelites first left Egypt, they needed Moshe to guide them and to teach them how to live in the desert. Yet, when they approached the Promised Land, they did not rely on Moshe anymore.

Children need their parents. Parents take care of them, feed them and provide shelter for them. But when children grow up, many move out and start a life on their own, not relying on their parents as much. As I become a bat mitzvah, I look forward to making my own decisions and to learning from all that I have been taught  to help make those good  decisions.

Eve Seidman is a seventh-grade student at Krieger Schechter Day School.