Pray for Our Country

In the “Give Trump a Chance” Your Say letter (Jan. 27), Z. Lois Madow wants to know what there is to protest against. Here are just a few things:

> For planning to throw thousands of people off their health plans.

> For planning to foul our air, water and soil by overturning regulations that protect us.

> For planning to botch our children’s education.

> For planning to have taxpayers pay for his stupid wall and ridiculous investigation into illegal voting.

> For planning to defund Planned Parenthood and overturn Roe v. Wade.

> For fouling our relationship with our nearest neighbor and trading partner — Mexico.

> For trying to silence the EPA and other government agencies.

> For not being remotely interested in learning about current events and refusing daily briefings.

> For promoting the fantasy of reopening factories and restoring blue-collar jobs that can be done by robots in many cases.

> For spouting “alternative facts.”

> For hiring people with no knowledge or experience to run our most important agencies.

> For not knowing what on earth he is doing.

I am ashamed that we elected this man and am embarrassed that he is the president who represents our country to the world. I have seen the damage he has done in just one week. I agree we have to pray — but not for him. We have to pray for ourselves and our country.

Punishing Muslims for Being Muslim

Most of the organized Jewish community, along with most civil libertarians, shuddered as the new administration issued an executive order effectively targeting Muslims who want to immigrate to the United States.

The order suspends the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days for review. It permanently bans immigration of Syrian refugees. It calls for a blanket 30-day ban on visas to people from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. And it prioritizes claims of religious persecution that essentially favor Christians who seek refuge in the United States from majority-Muslim countries.

This slash-and-burn approach to an otherwise manageable security situation — on full view last weekend, when even legal permanent residents attempting to enter the United States were sent back to their points of origin — support the conclusion that the White House, despite repeated assertions to the contrary, wants to punish Muslims for being Muslim.

Our community takes pride that the United States is a land of immigrants. Most of us are children or grandchildren of immigrants, as is the president himself. So we cringe when blanket immigration restrictions are imposed in a wholesale manner and especially when the effect of the restrictions is to consign a religious group to unjust treatment. As explained by the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, the umbrella agency for Jewish community relations councils, “These pronouncements not only severely restrict immigration, they instill fear among existing immigrant populations that they are not welcome and may be at risk.”

The Interfaith Alliance and American Jewish Committee joined many other Jewish organizations in criticizing the ban — calling it “deeply un-American” and an effort to improperly target Muslims fleeing violence and oppression. The outlier was the Zionist Organization of America, which commended the president for “understanding and acting on the need to keep all of us safe from radical Islamist terrorism.”

The immigration ban, coupled with another order to start building a multibillion-dollar wall on the Mexican border has, in one week, sent a disconcerting international message of American intolerance and isolation. And similar concerns have developed on the domestic side, with the administration signaling its intent to deny federal funds to so-called “sanctuary cities” that do not cooperate with federal immigration officials. In other words, the White House will make local governments pay for the feds’ inability to overhaul broken U.S. immigration policy. That shifting of responsibility makes no sense. And for that reason, we agree with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who said last week, “The only real solution to reform our immigration system is to pass comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for the 11 million” undocumented immigrants already in this country.

We encourage an approach that shows concern, compassion and understanding toward immigrants and those seeking refuge from persecution and that furthers the image of the United States as the indispensable nation, rather than the new global bully.

Rabbi for Rent

Rabbi Yona Metzger, the man who was the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel from 2003 to 2013, is going to jail. Although he pleaded guilty to charges of fraud, breach of trust and tax offenses — which earned him a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence and a fine of $1.3 million — he was actually charged with far more serious moral, ethical and financial crimes, which he was alleged to have carried out while exercising the extraordinary power of the rabbinate over the religious bureaucracy of the State of Israel.

Among other things, Metzger is alleged to have stolen a portion of a donation to an organization that provides food to poor children, pocketing about one quarter of the 105,000 shekel gift. In another “deal,” Metzger and another rabbi allegedly received $380,000 to convert the children of a Russian businessman who had made aliyah. Metzger is said to have pocketed $180,000 of that sum. And he is also alleged separately to have received $500,000 in bribes disguised as gifts in 10 cash payments.

Metzger has been under a cloud of suspicion for corruption since 2005. And while justice will now be served in some fashion, Metzger’s case is another disturbing example of the corruption that seems to permeate Israeli politics.

We expect more from our rabbis and certainly expect more from the chief rabbi, a position that intimately entwines the religious and political realms. So it is disturbing to learn that Metzger was acting like an oily ward boss, allegedly skimming 30 to 40 percent of donations to charitable organizations in exchange for his support of those groups. He reportedly even sent his driver out to pick up the bribes.

As a politician, Metzger is the highest Israeli official convicted of corruption since former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went to prison a year ago to serve a 19-month sentence for bribery. And his conviction comes at a time when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is juggling several scandals of his own, including a much publicized police investigation.

None of this is likely to change the status quo in Israel. But before the corruption concerns are dismissed as unimportant — and the argument is made that Israel has more consequential things to worry about — it might be useful to recall the events of 1977. That was when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin resigned from office after reports surfaced that he and his wife held a foreign bank account. While the foreign bank account was illegal at the time, no one challenged the fact that the money in that account was legitimately theirs.

If Israel and its leaders are truly to serve as a light unto the nations, they need to do so untainted by the glare of scandal and away from the disquieting image of politicians and moral leaders with their hands in the cookie jar.

Genealogy Only Goes So Far Parshat Bo

Why is the killing of the firstborn the final, and most significant, plague? True, it brought death into every household, rattling Egypt at its foundations, but certainly the plagues of hail — really, fire in blocks of ice falling from the sky — or total, crippling darkness for three days and nights were not inconsequential demonstrations of God’s power. Any of these plagues could have dealt a knockout punch to the most cold-hearted of dictators. What, then, is it about the killing of the firstborn that proved most effective?

I suggest that it is because it destroyed a certain institution of ancient culture that God found objectionable — primogeniture, the primacy and veneration of the firstborn. Turning to the earliest pages of Genesis, we find the theme of the firstborn early in the Torah, when sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel is translated into the rejection and acceptance of their respective sacrifices to God: The hypocritical gift of the firstborn Cain is rejected, while the more sincere offering of the younger Abel is accepted.

Part of Cain’s vexation is due to the fact that he sees his firstborn status as having been overlooked — and indeed it was, since sincerity of devotion is ultimately more important than order of birth.

Thus, Abraham’s eldest son, Ishmael, must step aside for the younger Isaac because the former is a metzahek — a scorner and an adulterer — which renders him unfit for the birthright. Of Isaac’s two sons, Esau must give way to Jacob, since the former scorned the birthright, first by selling it for a mess of pottage and then by taking Hittite wives.

With the birth of the Jewish people in the Book of Exodus, a revolutionary concept emerges: The prevailing rule of the firstborn rapidly comes to an end.
From the moment it began its ascent in the world, Judaism’s message has been that an individual’s merits are more important than an individual’s genealogy.

Many generations later, the rabbinic sages emerged as the leaders of the Jewish people. These scholars taught — and demonstrated — the principle of meritocracy: One becomes a leader through study and devotion, not as a result of yichus (ancestry). A prime example of this can be found in the teaching from the Mishnah, “a mamzer [person born of adultery or incest] who is a Torah scholar takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest.”

This revolutionary message is one of Judaism’s great lessons for humanity. This concept should empower all people to throw off their shackles of
genealogy and birth order.

Ultimately, only those who dream the impossible will ever achieve the incredible.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

Three Important Things about Inclusion

I am a college student in the Washington, D.C., area and throughout the years have thought extensively about inclusion and disabilities. When I was 4, my family learned that I was on the autism spectrum; and I’ve attended a variety of special education programs, such as the Sulam program housed at the Torah School of Greater Washington and Berman Hebrew Academy. (I studied at the program housed at the Berman Hebrew Academy for high school from 2008 to 2012.) I regularly advocate for the full inclusion of individuals who have special needs.

Although there are many important lessons about inclusion, I will be focusing on three that are especially important.

Inclusion truly means that one treats all people in a way that is respectful and kind; it means that a person who has special needs is regarded as a person who, like other individuals, has unique gifts and talents in addition to experiencing certain difficulties. Those difficulties can require extra help, and many people, regardless of whether one has special needs, need extra assistance in different ways.

When people encourage me, help me to address difficulties and even offer constructive criticism in a way that preserves my dignity and is respectful and kind, I do not feel judged. For instance, in high school, several friends who noticed that I struggled with reading Hebrew not only offered to help me improve my Hebrew reading skills, but they did so with extraordinary kindness and sensitivity.

Additionally, listening is an essential aspect of inclusion and communicates that one is genuinely interested in others’ ideas and opinions. Conveying that interest and respect is a critical way of helping people to feel included.

Another element of inclusion is helping one to find opportunities to continue developing his or her talents and gifts. Because connections with others are increased, opportunities to use gifts and talents are an important way in which people can feel fully included.

Although continued improvement is always important, the Jewish community has made incredible progress regarding inclusion. Sulam and the connections nurtured through it are examples of that. People must bear in mind that even though individuals who have special needs might at times need extra assistance, it is critical to do your very best to be inclusive of all individuals, regardless of whether one has special needs. That knowledge will be one of the biggest steps to continuing to achieve the goal of inclusion.

Nathan Weissler, 24, lives in Chevy Chase, Md.

People of the Book Never Change, Pikesville, Never Change

Last year, to my astonishment, I started attending a synagogue. I won’t say its name, but it’s an urban synagogue full of exemplary people of principle who realize that Jewish values mean little unless they can be practiced in the world, ministering to people who do not have the advantages of the smug isolation that Pikesville privilege can bring.

Don’t misunderstand, I love Pikesville, and whether or not Pikesville ever loved me back, I’m more a son of this town than the thousands from my generation who left Pikesville in search of better jobs and better lives. If I’ve ever said bad things about my town of origin, it’s because I’m a radical who’s secretly conservative and wants to turn the town upside down so that it stays exactly as it is.

There’s no such thing as an unmemorable interaction in Pikesville. People live more vividly here. They make you feel like they hate you — and at that moment they probably do — and two minutes later, they love you again and forget what the fight was about.

You can take Jews out of Pikesville, but you can never take Pikesville out of Jews. My bubbie, who is 96 going on 30 and my hero, has a friend who goes to my shul. For reasons passing my understanding, she did not say hello to me for an entire year. I was slightly hurt, but I figured she didn’t recognize me. I then hear from Bubbie that not only did her friend recognize me, but she told Bubbie that I’m always late for shul, underdressed and wear bad shoes.

Last month, I had my first column in the Jewish Times. I thought it was pretty tactful — barely controversial enough to be noticed and no more. I was happy to see a letter to the editor; it shows that people care, but I was shocked to find out that it was from a married couple at my shul to whom I talk every week. Their complaint? That I said Jews are bad at getting along with each other.

I don’t think people who live in Pikesville realize that it is a different place from anywhere else in the world — it should be a UNESCO historic site. Of course, the closest place to the spirit of Pikesville is Israel, but even Israel isn’t quite like this. Pikesville is “Curb Your Enthusiasm” come to life.

Two millennia of trauma have made us completely unable to cope with privilege. Therefore, every interaction in Pikesville is its own novel. So now that a writer gets to address the subject that gave him everything, he says to you: “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Evan Tucker is a North Baltimore-based writer.

People of the Book Barack Obama: Jew

When you read “Dreams from My Father,” the first thing to strike you is the freedom with which Obama’s family shaped its identity. Obama’s story is one of self-discovery. No Jew discovers himself, he’s told what he is from birth and discovers his place within his roots. The Dunhams, uprooted by the Great Depression, move from state to state in an era when relocating was torture. Ann Dunham, raised without roots, looks for roots in foreign husbands. Barack Sr. treats Ann like an imperial conquest in reverse; when better opportunities arise in Kenya, he abandons his American family without a second thought. The bi-racial, quadri-cultural Obama comes to the post-racial semi-oasis of Hawaii. Even if he wasn’t happy, he’s free to explore all his facets and grow into a great man. Until Obama’s a teenager, his family was barely lower-middle-class, yet he felt no need to ‘make it’ to a higher class. All this points to one thing: Barack Obama is the most goyish man in America.

Obama may be 55, but his grandparents are younger than mine. He came to us in 2008 like a time traveller from a future America when races and cultures synthesize. In 2017, Jews still ask themselves: where is the place for Jews in Obama’s America? The Obama of memoirs argues for a relativist country where cultural identities are not defined by White America, rather, everyone’s identity is accepted for what it is without society imposing any cultural standard from above.

But the idea that there’s no system to define your identity sounds ludicrous to Jews. Wherever the country, the “system” in Judaism never disappears, and our lives are binaurally defined by acceptance or rejection of our religion. Reject Judaism, and we spend our lives stopping our heads from screaming in guilt for its abandonment. Judaism doesn’t proselytize, but take universal morality from Judaism and it ceases to exist. Judaism without systemic standards is impossible, and not only mutually exclusive with the multicultural America of Obama’s dreams, but a reproach to it. Nevertheless, Obama’s writings and Obama’s policies seem created by different people.

The only Jew appearing in his memoir is his boss as a community organizer. Obama describes him as “smart… too sure of himself… no particular attachments… cynical… calculating… tactless… and ‘right.’” Given everything since, it’s difficult to imagine that this couldn’t describe his relationship with Jews in general — what must his private relationships with Axelrod, Plouffe, Summers or Rahm be like? Candidate Obama was a progressive clinging to misbegotten ideals, President Obama was a liberal who embraced realism. Even now, it’s not difficult to imagine something begrudging about his admiration of Jews, but it’s still admiration. His entire background is so unconnected to the Judaism that you have to wonder — is Jewish hostility to Obama from Israel policy, from racism, or bewilderment that a president can be so different from us yet so similar?

Jewish and black histories are similar as only two completely different experiences are: the difference between a culture of no hope, and a culture of hopes dashed. African-American history’s a culture kept alive in a single place for the purpose of being oppressed by it. Jewish history is a culture doomed to thrive everywhere, and again be mass murdered the moment before our security becomes permanent. Admiration between Jews and blacks will always have grudges within it — the grudge of two peoples thinking they suffered worst. Postcolonial ideas about creating identities without imposed systems sound like gibberish in Jewish brains. Jews have to meet the standards of Jewish identity before they can even worry about fitting into their countries of origin. But Obama, as he does to so many worldviews, synthesizes black with Jewish. His heart is goyish, but his brain bespeaks a yiddisher kop. At every point, when time to decide between ideals and results, he compromised ideals to bring them closer to reality.

Candidate Obama was as thoroughly a goy as President Obama’s a Jew. Jews can say that President Obama stabbed us in the back all they want, but when President Obama lifted the U.S.’s Veto to the U.N. Settlement condemnation, he long since gave Israel more money than any president in history. The Great Recession shrank America’s economy 4.6 percent, but Israel’s shrank 0.2 percent. Jews think Obama negotiated a bad deal to get rid of Iranian nuclear capability, but if the deal is bad, then Obama gave Israel all the tools they need to fight Iran — including the bunker busters and the Iron Dome that even George W. Bush kept from Israel. He never wavered in his support of an Israel that thrives. He’s more “Jewish” than most critics of his Israel policies, and much of what he knows about getting results is from Jews.

Evan Tucker is North Baltimore-based writer and composer. He is the violinist and lead singer of the Yiddish rock band Schmear Campaign and has a monthly podcast, “Tales from the Old New Land,” which is a Jewish version of A Prairie Home Companion. Listen at podomatic.com/podcasts/oldnewland.

Too Many Lines Being Drawn

One of us is Orthodox; the other Reform.

One of us is active in J Street and the other is a member of the Zionist Organization of America.

On matters relating to peace and security in Israel, our perspectives are vastly different.

What draws the two of us together is recognition that we are each deeply committed to the State of Israel, if in entirely different ways. We are also bound by a common concern over the shrillness of the Israel debate.

Also of deep concern is the readiness of too many in our community to demonize and assume the worst in those with whom we disagree.

These danger signs hit home for us over the past few weeks in a direct and personal way.

We are both members of Woodmont Country Club who were disappointed and alarmed by the stridency of opinion surrounding President Obama’s supposed interest in becoming a member of the club.

Despite having profound differences on the former president’s record on Israel, the two of us relished the idea of having the Obama family join the ranks of our club, and we encouraged the club leadership to consider the high personal standards Barack Obama exemplified in office, as well as his numerous endeavors on behalf of the Jewish community.

Most of the members with whom we broached the subject strongly agreed and felt it would be a great honor to welcome any former president. To our mutual chagrin, a vocal minority within the club turned this matter into a referendum on Israel.

We are both saddened and concerned, both for what it means for our club and what it says about our community. It’s troublesome and sadly ironic that a club created as a haven for Jews who couldn’t play golf elsewhere may have effectively turned away the nation’s first black president.

We also worry that admission to our social club has become politicized and a forum for members to advocate their individual views toward Israel, an increasingly fraught topic across the Jewish community.

At a time when Americans are splintered into self-reinforcing bubbles, our community is too often guilty of the same thing. And Israel seems to be the epicenter of these dangerous fault lines.

The Jewish community is multifaceted and diverse. Let’s find neutral space and common ground where we can. Let’s not allow politics to infuse our leisure activities and dominate our social interactions.

Adam August is a Potomac resident and Daniel Kohl is a Bethesda resident. Their views do not express the official view of Woodmont Country Club or its leadership.

Appreciating Jewish Connections

Mazel Tov! I am helping my daughter plan her wedding in Israel. She has lived in Israel since she went on a gap year and she is surrounded by many of her closest friends from Baltimore who, like her, made aliyah, served in the IDF, attended university and established their lives in the Jewish state. She is marrying a man who is not from Baltimore, but is an American Israeli who followed the same path. As a mother, I am so filled with joy and anticipation. As an educator, I can’t help but reflect on what brought us to this day.

As I was scrolling through Israeli wedding websites for inspiration, I came across an incredible story. In 1991, Mossad agents arrived in Ethiopia to facilitate the airlift of Ethiopian Jewish children to Israel. As the boy cried for his parents, a Mossad agent hugged and comforted him. That kindness sparked a lifelong friendship, and that little boy became the first Ethiopian rabbi ordained in Israel. And in an “only in Israel” story, Rabbi Shalom performed the wedding ceremony for the Mossad agent’s grown son.

What do you have to know to understand this story? You have to know that the Jewish people have longed for Israel no matter where we wandered — Egypt, Europe or Ethiopia. You have to know that Jews are part of a great nation and that when one of us celebrates, we all celebrate, and when one of us is sad, we are all sad. And when one Jew is suffering, no matter the distance, another Jew is scheming of saving him. You have to feel that G-d has given us a land so precious that we have children who are willing to die protecting it. You have to recognize that a tough Mossad agent, an Ethiopian immigrant, a groom and a Torah scholar are all serving Israel and the Jewish people — and there could in fact be one person who plays all of those roles at once!

Too few of our children know and feel these deep truths connected to Israel. Rather, they see news of riots and demonstrations, fires and rockets. They have not discussed Israel at the dinner table. Their parents are focusing on the challenges, climate and realities of our home in America to the exclusion of our homeland in Israel. And then these children might wait years only to join a Birthright trip and have to make sense of what they are experiencing when critical early learning periods have passed. And then it just may be too late to be an articulate advocate for our epic story.

I am proud that my daughter represents American Jews next to the Mossad agent, the Ethiopian immigrant and all of the other magnificent members of Israeli society. I am proud that she has grabbed on to this piece of her Jewish identity. I can’t wait to dance under the stars in a never-ending circle. As a Jewish people, our story continues. Celebrate with us!

Amian Frost Kelemer is the chief operating officer at the Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education.

Embracing the Jewish Pirate

Joshua Runyan

Joshua Runyan

I’ve been to several Purim parties where more than one guest, capitalizing off of the black beard that is common to many an Orthodox man, has worn colonial getup and an eye patch to attend as the dreaded pirate Schwartzbord. The premise is tacitly hilarious, for who, excepting maybe Mel Brooks, would think of a Jewish pirate?

But this week’s cover story is no Purim shpiel. Indeed, Jewish pirates — historically speaking, at least — are more fact than fantasy, and local historian Harry Ezratty is more than happy to share their stories, as well as those of other famous seafaring Jews.

Fleeing Spain, and later Portugal, many Sephardic Jews ended up in the Caribbean in the 16th and 17th centuries, says Ezratty. Privateering was a way to both make money and get back at the colonial powers whose Inquisitions killed, tortured and subjugated the Jewish people.

“If you wanted to make money in the early Caribbean, there were two ways to do it,” he tells JT reporter Daniel Nozick. “You did it in the shipping business or you did it with sugar because sugar was like petroleum at the time — Jews made fantastic fortunes in sugar in Jamaica and Barbados and Antigua.”

I don’t want to give away the story, but Baltimore itself has a unique part in the history of Jewish seafaring. There’s even several locals who trace their lineages to Jewish Caribbean ship owners.

It would be easy to read these tales solely for their pure entertainment and educational value, but there’s also a message for each of us in the lengths that our coreligionists went to in the quest to survive during the transition from the Old World to the New World. The history of Urijah P. Levy or Isaac Rodriguez Marques or Zacuto are inspiring in and of themselves; but they also provide evidence to the notion that no matter what the challenge, we have an innate ability to turn circumstances to our advantage.

Those among us who feel despondent with the current state of things, be it the failure of the peace process, the location of the U.S. Embassy in Israel, the one-party rule in Washington, D.C., the anger being shown the new presidential administration, would do well to remember that ultimately, whatever challenges we perceive are merely opportunities to be seized and overcome. That’s true whether you’re on the right or the left, are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist, are a peacenik or are of the settler camp.

Aside from the Jewish people’s history of near-constant persecution — it is, after all, the driving force that took some of us seaward — the other unique element in our story is our survival. That was true for the Jews of Curaçao and for the passengers of the Exodus, and it will be true for us.

jrunyan@midatlanticmedia.com