Synagogue Equals Community Parshat Pekudei

This shabbat we read Parshat Pekudei, and the Haftarah is from the Book of Kings. The connection between the Torah and Haftarah portion is the building of the tabernacle and the first temple. The tabernacle was built in the desert by Bezalel, and the first Temple was built in Jerusalem by King Solomon. We may ask, “Why do we need a special place to pray to God? Why do people believe that God’s presence can be contained in a physical structure? Is the worship center a place for us or for God?”

I think the answer is that we needed a place to pray, and God wanted a place for us to come together and develop a community. From its earliest time, the synagogue has been a center of Jewish life. For over 2,000 years, the synagogue has served as a place of study for young and old, as a yeshiva, as a place to house the poor, needy and homeless. Perhaps the most important aspects of “synagogue” are the sense of community that exists when we come together as a people for prayer, bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, weddings and mourning and to celebrate a birth. We understand that the synagogue is part of celebrating our life-cycle events. Synagogue has also taken on additional purposes, where members have helped to create projects for our people and for others in our community.

A community lives by certain ideas and values. Communities help and protect each other. For example, for my bat mitzvah project, I have chosen to collect clothing, toiletries and letters to send to the IDF soldiers in Israel. I am doing this through an organization called A Package from Home. This organization will pick up the packages in Israel and deliver them to the soldiers. They also use donations to buy other necessities for the soldiers. They buy the goods in Israel to support the Israeli economy. We support the IDF, and the IDF protects the Jewish communities in Israel and at large.

Today, the synagogue serves as a center of community, where we come together for three things: al shlosha devarim haolam omed, al HaTorah, al Haavoda, v’al gemilut hasadim, as it says in Pirkei Avot  In this case, our Baltimore community is working together to help a other community in our homeland, in Israel. Together, we have continued to build sanctuary and community as discussed in this week’s Torah and Haftarah portions.

Stay Alert!

The JT’s Feb. 26 editorial “How to Answer Strange Questions” when strangers come to your synagogue was very informative. In the course of questioning, one of the hijab-wearing women, who identified as Muslim, pulled out a Quran. I agree with the JT: “There is no crime in carrying a holy book, but the logistical nature of the pair’s questions raised concern with one of the congregants who spoke to them,” and so a call to security was made when they left. We all should be concerned if we encountered this kind of visit. Why?

Because of what the rest of the JT’s story reveals and the questions it raises. The editorial says: “One of the women, Nabila Quakka, told a television reporter that she has terminal cancer” and she just “wanted to get in touch with my brothers and sisters.”  Right away my antenna went up, and I realized that something was not kosher here. If one is thinking of a possible terrorist attack by women indoctrinated by extreme radical Islamic teachings via ISIS, we have to keep in mind that they are taught from the cradle (womb to the tomb) that they can lie, cheat and deceive all in the name of Allah. So my first thought was, if this woman has terminal cancer, then she is the very one that her leaders would choose to send on a
suicide mission. She’s going to die soon anyway, and she would die a hero.

Also, why did the women want to know when Yizkor would be observed in the synagogue? Because that is a very important time when we pray for our beloved ones who have passed away, and only a terrorist would get pleasure in attacking us at a time like that.

This is a pattern that we can’t ignore. Our places of worship should always be a welcome place for all people of goodwill. But we are living in an age when there are murderous extremists not just in the Middle East, but in Europe, Asia, Africa and, yes, now in the United States. If we don’t take them seriously, we will continue to be their victims, and they will be more emboldened to continue their evil deeds. The JT’s editorial was quite correct: We must stay vigilant, and we have every right to question.

Feel Falls Short

One can understand the need for economy, but the Jewish Times now looks like a cheap pulp magazine. It feels cheap, and photos don’t show up well. It is distinctly not a pleasure to read.

Not only is the JT half the size it used to be, but now it is totally unappealing. I wonder why I even continue my subscription at this point. Typos continue uncorrected and unabated, as does the common but absolutely incorrect lumping of every location within the perceived Jewish community as Pikesville.

Why are these inaccuracies allowed to exist?  Why are you tolerating the downgrading of this venerable publication?  What has happened to my Jewish Times?

Where’s the Passion?

I applaud the yeoman efforts of those dedicated to “The Power of Engagement” (Feb 10), but much more is needed than rearranging deck chairs if the USS Judaism is to avoid memory-lane dry dock and be turned around and headed in the right direction.

After investing in an adolescent and young adult project aimed at fostering a cadre steeped in Jewish knowledge and observance known as Leaders’ Training Fellowship, the Conservative movement decided in the mid-1970s that the money people are always right (“Democratic? Not Hardly,” Nov. 5, 2015), thus extravasating the LTF alumni/ alumnae who were traditionalists into Orthodoxy and the freer spirits into the Chavurah/Renewal movement. In doing so, the Rabbinical Association’s brain trust won the votes but forfeited its strategic compass. Reform Judaism today is a falafelized version of liberal Protestant social action theology. Yet, despite massive outreach efforts, gentiles — even including many involved with Jewish partners — aren’t buying into Reform, because one does not need to be Jewish in order to be progressive.

In other words, since the 1970s and ’80s, non-Orthodox movements have morphed into culture accessories, failing to generate what anthropologists refer to as “thick culture” — the absolute lifeblood of any durable grouping.  On a lay level, there is little literacy and even less ardor or commitment. Laws and standards flex and even splinter to accommodate the views of the Jews in the pews who pay the dues. At the same time, under constrictive autocratic (gedolim) leadership, the Orthodox are enamored of a tunnel-vision fervor that has converted
tradition-for-its-own-sake (mesora) into an idolatry.

And so, it is the case in 2016 that in America, “open” Orthodoxy — i.e., LTF with a mechitza — is in its infancy; mainstream Orthodoxy has become smug and insufferable; the Conservatives have disgorged any pretense to moral authority; Reform has a major packaging problem; the Haredim are cryogenically seeking to re-create 19th-century Eastern Europe shtetl life; and the Reconstructionists are struggling to recapture their original vision and excitement.

Judaism needs to be a passion, not a preference.

It is designed to be a foundation narrative whose laws/ standards help us choreograph our lives and infuse our existence with significance and meaning, as reticulated in a dynamic, gemutlich and Judaically informed wellspring of community.

On this score, Jewish denominationalism in America has failed resoundingly. Just ask the millennials.

Hadassah: Accomplishments to ‘Cell-A-Brate’

I feel so fortunate to step into the role of president of Hadassah Greater Baltimore at such a momentous time.  Just recently, the 20 ultra-modern operating rooms in Hadassah Hospital’s Sarah Wetsman Davison Hospital Tower opened in Israel. These aren’t ordinary operating rooms, and this is no ordinary hospital. The unit is located four floors underground with safeguards to handle biological or chemical attacks. Hadassah Hospital is now prepared for the most complex procedures while ensuring the safety of patients and families. This is a first for Israel, and Hadassah makes it all possible.

Hadassah Medical Organization’s two hospitals in Jerusalem are known for their  health care expertise, but let’s not forget the role they play in research. HMO physicians are researchers. The researchers are physicians. Among the many firsts, Hadassah was the first to bring modern medicine to the Middle East, the first teaching hospital, the first nursing school and the first embryonic stem cell research center in the country. Hadassah has come so far in its efforts to use human adult embryonic stem cells to repair damage and combat the most life threatening diseases such as ALS, MS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and macular degeneration. Last month, a recent clinical trial provided strong indication that stem cell treatment inhibits ALS disease progression in 90 percent of the patients in the study. World-renowned Hadassah neurologist Dimitrios Karussis leads this team, and now this identical protocol is being replicated in three U.S. hospitals. The world is watching as Hadassah continues to lead the way.

As my tenure begins, I’m honored to represent Baltimore, giving me the opportunity to thank our community for the critical role it has played in Hadassah and in Israel. As a community we have raised over $1 million for stem cell research, and we are saving lives, helping children at risk and advocating for women. We have so much to celebrate.

And celebrate we will!

On Sunday, April 10, we will hold the 10th annual Cell-A-Brate event, as we look back on the past 10 years of medical miracles and the hope for magical breakthroughs. In celebration of a decade of Baltimore’s support of Hadassah’s stem cell research and advocacy, we will be honoring several of our own community members who are courageously facing illness. These “faces of Cell-A-Brate” remind us of all the individuals who may be the beneficiaries of the magic and miracles of Hadassah. I sincerely hope you will join us, and I look forward to greeting you on April 10.

Pushing Harder on Disability Inclusion

In her victory speech after the Nevada primaries, Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton said itís time to invest in marginalized communities by “ensuring that people with disabilities have the same opportunities to work and fully participate in our society.”

That may seem like the standard campaign rhetoric of a serious presidential candidate, but what many people donít realize is that disability rights have rarely been mentioned by name in national campaigns.

Fortunately, Clinton is not alone. Sen. Bernie Sanders, another Democratic candidate, has also urged the full inclusion of people with disabilities in
society. Among the Republican hopefuls, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio has named workers with disabilities as a target for programs to increase employment. Jeb Bush, before ending his run for the nomination recently, had featured a child with a disability in a campaign video. The video followed a campaign speech in which Donald Trump made jerky movements that mocked Serge Kovaleski, a reporter with a disability that restricts the mobility of his arms, prompting a widespread public outcry.

While pundits donít agree on how much such rhetoric lines up with voting records and possible presidential initiatives, at the end of the day, the rhetoric of inclusion is in and of itself important. It is important for our society to hear political candidates say, as Sen. Marco Rubio did in January, that “most countries in the world, if you are disabled or you are born with a disability, you never go to school. They basically write you off and walk away. We have never done that and we will never do that.” And it is important for people to hear that Sen. Ted Cruz finds the fact that 70 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed appalling and wants to change that number, as he said last November.

During this yearís contentious race for the White House, it is rare to find an issue that cuts across our bitter party lines, but disability inclusion is precisely such an issue.

We will not always agree on the concrete ways to achieve change, but this inclusion climate is certainly a long way from when Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for president while hiding the fact that he had a disability.

As thought leaders and — on a good day — as role models, presidents, candidates and members of Congress can impact our thinking and our actions. Even the best-intentioned candidate may find it daunting to implement new policies once in office. As American Jews, we can draw inspiration from the increased visibility for our community and for the disability cause. Then we must turn around and push our leaders — and American society — to do even better.

The Perils of Social Media

An email exchange between the head of a pro-Israel organization and a “Voice of America” producer that appeared to degrade an Israeli-Palestinian journalist is a reminder, even now, that what you put into social media never goes away.

The exchange between former AIPAC official Josh Block, now CEO and president of The Israel Project, and Hooman Bakhtiar of VOA took place in October but was published last week in The Intercept. That outlet obtained the emails as part of a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy.

The underlying conversation was hardly newsworthy. Bakhtiar contacted Block in an effort to get suggestions for a pro-Israel speaker who could go up against former MSNBC foreign affairs analyst Rula Jebreal, a dual Israeli-Italian national who identifies as a Palestinian, in an on-air debate. In his reply, Block described Jebreal as a “crazy person” and said that the challenge is to find someone “who wants to fight with a slanderous anti-Semite and doesn’t mind imparting their credibility to a non-entity like her.”

Bakhtiar answered that “Lady Rula’s” credentials as a Middle East analyst “are quite questionable, but my editor was keen on having her on because of her looks (although she is hardly my type).” Block’s response: “Now that makes sense!”

Block was wrong to buy into Bakhtiar’s sexist comment and to have done so in writing no less. He then compounded his mistake by boasting of it on Twitter: “Read how to decline a @VOANews interview w/ a lunatic Jew hater while agreeing she is good TV!” he wrote above a screenshot of his original email. Perhaps that showed poor judgment. But the “journalism” behind The Intercept’s report — which sought to make a big deal out of the insults and commentary — and the follow-up stories by the English edition of Ha’aretz and The Forward, which repeated The Intercept’s claims, were worse. The outrage, finger-pointing and accusatory rhetoric in those articles was overstated and seems to have been driven more by Block’s longtime association with AIPAC than real concern over his comments or debate partner suggestion.

In fact, there is no underlying story here. Block wasn’t the one who denigrated Jebreal because of her looks; he castigated her for her politics — a time-honored practice of the movers and shakers in Washington. Nonetheless, Block should have been more careful in his response. And there is a clear lesson: While these kinds of exchanges between journalists and talking heads aren’t really news, the publication of trash talk and sexist commentary is simply bad form.

Trump’s Reality Candidacy

With mounting vehemence and desperation, Republican and conservative politicians and pundits are denouncing Donald Trump and his appeal to what is characterized as the lowest instincts of the American electorate. From Mitt Romney (“Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud”) to columnists George Will (“Trump is a presidential aspirant who would flunk an eighth-grade civics exam”) and Michael Gerson (“Trump roots his intimidation in a worldview — the need for the strong hand”), the cry against Trump is rising.

A number of prominent Republican Jews were among the 60 conservatives in think tanks and alumni of Republican administrations who signed a letter last week listing the ways Trump would “make America less safe” including “hateful, anti-Muslim rhetoric” that “undercuts the seriousness of combating Islamic radicalism.” “As committed and loyal Republicans, we are unable to support a Party ticket with Mr. Trump at its head,” the letter said.

And according to former George W. Bush speechwriter Noam Neusner, Trump “has built within our party the nearest thing America has ever seen to a European nativist working-class political movement. Such movements, to put it mildly, have never been good for the Jews or allies of free thought and the free market.”

It is clear that the Republican establishment underestimated Trump. The rest of us shouldn’t. He appeals to a demographic that is frustrated and expanding. Like those European nativists cited by Neusner, Trump is tapping into a well of Americans, a number of whom are racist, who want to turn their backs on “outsiders” and bestow generous social benefits on the rest. If Republicans want to challenge Trump, they need to find a strong alternative — but it may be too late.

It remains to be seen how many Republicans will stick with Trump out of spite for the Democratic nominee, whether it be Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, or whether some will choose to support another party or stay home on Election Day. But the fact that these issues are even being raised shows what an unusual — and potentially treacherous — election year this is turning out to be.

No matter what your political affiliation, Trump is a force today. That is our new reality.

With Eye to Past



Location, location, location.

It’s the secret to so many real estate transactions, the explanation to why a two-bedroom ranch in Silicon Valley can sell for $1 million, but a five-bedroom center-hall colonial can go for $500,000 in Pikesville. Go farther down Park Heights Avenue, and that same large house might be had for $200,000 or less.

Similarly, where once massive stone and brick synagogues served a turn-of- the-century Jewish community in East  Baltimore now sit, in some cases, hollowed-out shells. Save for one, the synagogues have moved on — to Druid Hill, to Park Heights, to Pikesville, Owings Mills and Reisterstown.

Their stories, told this week in the first of two features on Jewish Baltimore’s architectural history, are the stories of Jewish migration and upward mobility. But unlike the real estate market, where location means everything, the changing façades of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Temple Oheb Shalom, Har Sinai, Chizuk Amuno and others trace not only the physical path of an immigrant community becoming firmly “American,” but that community’s changing values, priorities and world views.

As the JT’s managing editor, Melissa Gerr, writes, “To reflect on some of Jewish Baltimore’s architecture is to walk a path through its past. Whether the desired outcome was to  culturally assimilate or stay true to faith, to differentiate from other immigrants or simply to embrace the modern, Jews have fervently proclaimed their identity and maintained a strong physical presence in a cityscape that is constantly evolving.”

Founded in 1845, the original home of BHC’s Federal style signifies, according to Morgan State University professor Jeremy Kargon, a community stating unequivocally, “We are now Americans. We’re participating in the white American political history.”

But the more traditional style of the original shuls of Eastern European immigrants, such as the abandoned Tzemach Tzedek synagogue on East Fairmount Avenue, likely points to an identification closer to the home they left than the home they embraced in North America.

It’s a fascinating topic of discussion. But at the end of the day, while a building may be a reflection of where a community came from, where it is or where it wants to be, it doesn’t necessarily tell the story of where a community is going. For that, we have to look to the congregation — meaning, the people — itself to determine its vibrancy.

Like houses, which though in some cases may be beautiful are really only designed for one purpose — to provide physical shelter to their occupants — synagogues, whatever the size, shape or look, are ideally built to provide spiritual shelter to their congregants. We can  always keep an eye to the past, but it helps to also ask ourselves, where do we exist now and where are we going? The answer to those questions is the real story of the Jewish community.

Time to Plug Out Parshat Vayakhel

EFRAT, Israel — Why can’t I go on Facebook on Shabbat or text my friend? I understand that it is forbidden for me to get involved in a physical action such as bricklaying or even working an eight-hour day in the office, but what kind of work is involved in a simple text to a friend? Is not such human communication the very purpose of Shabbat rest? There certainly is not even a hint of “kindling a fire,” nor even the creation of a spark or the turning on of a light, in sending a text, so why is it forbidden? These are the questions I am receiving from more and more of the youngsters who are part of our age of the Internet.

What is the proper response? A careful study of these opening verses to this week’s portion of Vayakhel clearly teaches that Shabbat is more than a respite from the physical activities in which we are engaged during the rest of the week, is more than a welcome day of physical rest from a six-day work week of physical exertion. But if that were to be the whole point of Shabbat, then one could spend it
comfortably relaxing in bed without any activity whatsoever. And that is not what the biblical text is teaching when it states, “The seventh day shall be holy for you, a Sabbath of Sabbaths [Shabbaton, a special day of more than physical rest] for the Lord [of love],” a sacred day dedicated to God on High and not only to the comfort of your aching body!

If you study the second Mishna in the seventh chapter of Tractate Shabbat, you will see that the very order of the listed 39 forbidden creative activities go from the production of bread to the production of garments to the production of leather to the acts of building structures.

In effect, the Mishna is teaching that although it is legitimate to provide for the basic necessities of human existence — food, clothing and shelter — during the six workdays of the week, Shabbat must remind us of the essence and purpose of human life: to communicate with our family members and with our community members, to make sensitive and sentient contact with the glories of nature surrounding us (the God without) and with the “soul of life inspirited within us” (the God within). Shabbat is a day put aside
for reflecting upon and for
expressing the very purpose of our being, the “why” for which I am living, rather than the how to continue to exist as comfortably as possible.

Indeed, our generation has more human communication but less real communication than ever before. We constantly text message but before we can read what came a minute ago, two more new messages have already arrived. Shabbat provides the opportunity to “plug out” for one day a week in order to more successfully “plug-in” the other six days; without that Shabbat respite, you just may become “plugged up.”