Large Shoes to Fill

This year’ s presidential primaries have been intense. There is, of course, a lot at stake. And while some may have hoped that the shouting, finger pointing and recriminations might abate as the field of contestants narrows, the sudden passing last Saturday of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia changed all that. Scalia, an iconic figure of great intelligence and influence, was a leader of conservative jurisprudence throughout his colorful tenure on the court. He prided himself in being “an Italian kid from Queens,” but he was much more than the first Italian-American appointed to the Supreme Court.

His passing leaves a void that will be felt for a long time, but the opportunity politicians in Washington now have to mold the court by appointing a successor cannot be ignored. And it isn’t clear just how it will all play out.

Barely an hour after news of Scalia’ s death spread across social media, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky made a bold pronouncement, warning President Barack Obama against nominating a replacement for the late associate justice. “The American people? should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” he said. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

Apparently, McConnell forgot that the American people did have a say: In 2012, they re-elected Obama by a wide margin. Two years later, the same American people granted control of the Senate to the Republicans. So what the people have set up is a checks and balances reality whereby the president and the Senate will have to work together to fill the Supreme Court vacancy.

We urge both sides to work quickly to appoint Scalia’ s replacement. Doing so would demonstrate trust in a value Scalia himself held dear: the rule of law. As a strict constructionist, Scalia knew what the Constitution says about Supreme Court vacancies. He would have laughed at the suggestion that the country should wait until a new president is elected for a replacement to be nominated — even though he would have been very aware of the political calculations in the suggestion.

Once the president makes his nomination known, we hope the Republican-controlled Senate will take its job seriously, rather than react with knee-jerk opposition or follow Donald Trump’ s suggestion of “delay, delay, delay.” Instead, they should vet the nomination fairly and honestly. With a host of consequential cases pending before the court, a 4-4 split among justices isn’t in anyone’ s interests.

While the likely heated political process that will follow Obama’ s nomination will create great theater, it will threaten good government. And it is anyone’s guess which segment of the electorate will become more antagonized by the opposition’ s actions. Wouldn’ t it be ironic if in a push to replace the iconic Scalia with someone just as conservative, Republicans unwittingly galvanized the electorate to vote for a Democrat for president?

The Lowly High Priest Parshat Tetzaveh

I’ve always been amazed at the complexity of the Hebrew language. One of the most profound examples is the word ga’avah, which can be translated as pride — something we all wish to possess, something we’re taught is an important sought-after trait; but ga’avah can just as easily be translated as arrogance, a repugnant trait, one from which we’re all taught to steer clear.

What’s the message of a word so easily confused? Why not have two completely distinctive words for contrary concepts?

The message is profound in its simplicity: They really are the same trait, just exercised differently. And in the blink of an eye, an admirable pride can easily become an off-putting arrogance. People are naturally attracted to self-pride. We love knowing someone cares about himself and recognizes his talent and ability. We love when someone projects a powerful confidence, an awareness that they have something special to contribute to the world. And just like that, with a few simple words or the slight change in a smile, that pride converts into an arrogance we can’t help but loathe.

These two concepts — pride and arrogance — are forever intertwined, and we must struggle daily to have tremendous amounts of pride in ourselves and our accomplishments without inadvertently veering across the line into the distasteful realm of arrogance.

I think this message finds itself hidden within the many details of Parshat Tetzaveh. In this parshah we learn all about the clothing worn by the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest of the Jewish people, one of the most important leadership roles and arguably the most central religious figure of his generation. The Kohein Gadol, fitting so auspicious a position, wears an elaborate outfit, distinct from the one worn by the many other individuals who work alongside him in the Temple.

We might expect that such an admired role would be filled with even more pomp and circumstance on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. But that day yields no special outfit. In fact, quite the opposite. Not only does he spend large portions of the day wearing the clothing normally worn by the other priests, he has to be inconvenienced by switching back and forth between the two outfits several times throughout the day.

Furthermore, despite that he holds so lofty a position and fasts alongside the rest of the Jewish people, his day is inundated with labor from start to finish, while the rest of us look on as mere inactive spectators. I can’t help but be reminded of one my most inspiring and incredible neighbors, who despite being a generous and influential doctor in the community (and not a young man at all), spends Tzom Gedalya, a minor fast day shortly after Rosh Hashanah, driving all over town helping community members build their sukkot. What a message to the young and healthy among us who would prefer to sleep a fast away! We are left with no excuse to be lazy, whether fasting or otherwise.

I’m also reminded of every quality employer I’ve ever had. The best among them universally shared a trait: They were always willing to get their hands dirty. How different this is than our typical mental picture of the CEO of the corporation who sits with his feet on his desk in an air-conditioned office, hands behind his head, contemplating his next vacation, sponsored by the rigorous and lengthy labor of the little guy.

The great people of this world work hard, and consistently, even when it would least be expected of them.

Perhaps it’s all inherent in the system: The Kohein Gadol is assisted in resisting the temptation to cross the line from pride to arrogance. You have a man of incredible worth, having risen to the top through a coveted blend of inheritance and worthiness, on a day like no other, with all eyes upon him. How easy it would be to feel on top of the world and better than those not receiving such tremendous honors. But the day is Yom Kippur. To be certain, it is a day replete with splendor, but also a day in which we cannot risk the possibility of the Kohein Gadol not being his ideal self. The entire nation is dependent upon him, and we cannot risk one of the basest of personality flaws tainting him at such a critical moment.

Yitzchak Jaffe is a former resident of Baltimore and teacher at Beth Tfiloh. He lives in Kansas City, Kan., works as a quality assurance analyst and is the father of four children.

Change at the JT



To death and taxes we can add one other certainty of life — change. It’s a constant force, and for those of us unlucky enough to remain stagnant, want of it can prod us to action.

But if change is a given, it needn’t be feared. We needn’t be apprehensive when we appreciate it but can instead embrace it as signaling the departure from one plateau to an imminent arrival at a higher achievement.

As you’ll see in this week’s JT, change has once again arrived at the publication of record for Baltimore’s Jewish community. The paper stock has changed, the presentation of some features looks slightly different, some elements of the JT have been shuffled around or have departed altogether. I’ll admit that the issue you’re reading now may look and feel very different (it’s probably heavier, actually) from the one you read the week before. That’s not a bad thing. On the contrary, it means that the JT is growing with the times and is adapting to new environments, all in an effort to stay relevant, successful and a force for Jewish continuity in Baltimore.

Among the changes to the inside pages, in addition to stories now appearing on newsprint, each and every feature of the JT will now be presented in color. And the decision to do away with the Mishmash page means that more space will be devoted to community news, primarily in the form of a new “You Should Know” feature that will showcase an interesting young Jewish Baltimorean each week.

What hasn’t changed? Well, for starters, this column remains where you’ve come to expect it, just across from our “Seen” page of entertainment news. And we’re still focused on giving you the news that matters, the news that makes a difference, the news that informs and inspires. We’re even investing some of the savings these changes are bringing into new delivery models and staff development.

When I came to Baltimore in December 2013 to take the helm of one of the greatest and most storied Jewish publications in North America, I did so with trepidation. Could an “outsider” ever fully grasp what it means to be a member of the Jewish community here?

While I’ve learned that an “outsider” can never fully grasp anything on the inside, the embrace (as well as critiques) of readers in letters to the editor and hugs at Accents, Goldberg’s and the now-shuttered Umami Bistro have made me honored to be a member of Baltimore’s tribe.

But I also came here wondering what the JT’s future would look like under my watch. I’m proud to say that more of you are reading, more of you are interacting and more of you are engaging with the JT than in recent memory. Together, you and I, as well as the publication’s staff and advertisers, are continually molding the JT, making sure it remains as an exemplar of Jewish journalism for years to come.

That’s a mission that will never change.

Kudos to Devorah!

The JT’s “The Ability to Succeed” (Feb. 5) highlighted Devorah Lieberman. Her family were congregants of the Young Israel of North Bellmore, where my late parents were founders. From the moment Devorah was born, her parents mainstreamed her and treated her the same as their other daughters. She was a curious and charming young child and has grown into an active, productive member of Klal Yisrael. Kudos to her!

Kotel Compromise: Israelis Need American Jews

The relationship between Israel and American Jews is a complicated mix of good news and bad news, and last week’s government compromise on the Western Wall, or Kotel, is a case in point: It’s a step forward in providing access for non-Orthodox Jews but may also reinforce the reality that the main plaza doesn’t welcome Reform or Conservative Jews, who comprise the majority of affiliated American Jews.

The main Kotel plaza may never accommodate non-Orthodox prayer, but a new poll by the Ruderman Family Foundation provides some hope and direction for more positive developments on other fronts. (The poll, conducted by the Dialog research firm, surveyed 500 Israeli adults; the margin of error is 4 percent.)

The good news: Behind some  dismissive statements and controversial actions by members of Israel’s government, average Israelis genuinely value the involvement of American Jews.  In our poll, 82 percent of Israelis agree with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent pledge that “every Jew should feel that the Western Wall belongs to him, and every Jew should feel welcome in Israel.” Two-thirds agree that the relationship between Israel and American Jews directly  impacts Israel-U.S. relations, and 88 percent think their leaders should work to strengthen that relationship.

The bad news: For Israel to be  secure, it still needs a strong and  vibrant alliance with the United States in which American Jews play an obvious and integral role. And if Israel wants to remain the Jewish state, it must find ways to recognize and accommodate, rather than alienate, the bulk of America’s committed Jews.

It is easy to assume wrongly that American Jews either don’t matter or they will continue supporting Israel because they have no other Jewish homeland. In the United States,  Reform and Conservative Jews remain very supportive of Israel, and both movements have a strong showing in programs like Taglit-Birthright Israel and longer summer and yearlong programs. So yes, despite being treated  occasionally as second-class citizens, American Jews still identify with  Israel. In the long run, however, enough insults and humiliations leave a bitter taste, and it becomes more challenging to see Israel as a pathway to Jewish meaning for all.

The hope: Clearly, Israelis — including at least some Orthodox Jews — overwhelmingly value American Jews and their connection to Israel. Beyond the Ruderman Foundation’s own efforts to concretize this commitment among Knesset members and within the next generation of government and business leaders, there is a growing awareness among Israel’s elite that Israel needs American Jews at least as much as we need Israel — and this necessarily includes Reform and Conservative Jews.

With this new poll, we see that most Israelis don’t just need American Jews on board, they also want American Jews as part of Israel’s Jewish family. Any Israeli who says there’s no place for non-Orthodox Jews or American Jews in Israel can no longer claim to be speaking for more than a sliver of Israelis.

No matter how many delegations and conferences we organize, it’s ultimately up to Israelis at all levels of society to hold their leaders — political, religious, cultural — accountable. This isn’t just because American Jews  expect it, but because Israelis do.

Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.

You Can Count on Chaverim

On the Sunday of the big snow (“The Blizzard that Battered Baltimore,” Jan. 29), I received an automated call from the MTA saying that all special vans for disabled people had been canceled for the next day. My father, who lives in assisted living on Park Heights Avenue, would not have a ride for his dialysis appointment off of Wabash Avenue. Our cars and streets were snowed in. One of my sons, who has four-wheel drive, was also snowed in. I called Chaverim, and the volunteers there said they would take him. The community should be thankful that Chaverim exists.

Listen, Converse!



At first glance, it’s so obvious that it’s a wonder anyone considers it revolutionary: If you want to increase your community members’ level of engagement, ask them what they think and what they want, and then empower them to do it. Put it another, albeit circular, way: If you want to increase engagement, engage!

That’s a major takeaway from a partnership between six Baltimore and one Washington synagogue, several community groups and The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, along with the Darrell Friedman Institute for Professional Development, that aimed to make participants more relevant in their members’ lives. But hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, and the truth is that while the project reached a seemingly obvious conclusion, the fact that partner agencies and synagogues are reporting promising results means that even obvious lessons are worth inculcating in communal leadership.

It’s also a lesson that badly needs to be taken to heart in all segments of the Jewish community and in the society at large.

Hardly a week goes by when I don’t receive some type of email, letter or voicemail from a reader or community leader castigating one of my publications for having the temerity to publish an article referencing or an opinion piece endorsing a point of view contrary to his or her own. And that’s not the worst of it, although refusing to allow a debate on issues is bad enough as it is. Much of the time, such complaints center on an accusation that the article or op-ed in question is advocating an invalid viewpoint.

One recent exchange, for instance, went so far as to label a college student as an enemy of the State of Israel because she advocated for an eventual withdrawal of an Israeli presence in areas of the West Bank designated for a future Palestinian state. And don’t think that such criticisms are the stock, trade and currency of those on the far right of the political spectrum. I’ve received complaints from those on the far left that supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are racists and warmongers. It’s not that people who hold such views also feel that debate in the pages of a Jewish community news publication is not worthwhile; it’s that people who hold such views make debate inherently impossible.

At the root of all of this is a refusal among people to listen to one another. In such an environment, engagement, whether in the political process or in communal conversations, is pointless.

That’s not to say that the challenges aging synagogues face are in any way similar to the kind of invective being thrown around in the political arena. Synagogues have been and continue to be safe havens from such hatred. But many synagogues’ challenges can be solved by the same antidote — the simple act of listening.

Clearly, leaders and members of Temple Oheb Shalom, Beth Am Synagogue, Beth Israel Congregation, Chizuk Amuno Congregation, Beth El Congregation and Temple Micah have not only discovered a principle they’re now using to strengthen their congregations, they’re creating an example each and every one us should follow in our own lives, conversations and interactions with others.

“Listening to congregants was interesting, rewarding, and we learned a lot, and those that were listened to definitely said it was a positive experience,” reports David Lunken of Beth Am. “We did get some insights into specific things that were working that we could do better. We also learned about people’s passions and interests and things they’d like to be doing.”

May such conversations only continue.

My House, and His House Parshat Terumah

There is a well-known joke that is told about the Jews that I find particularly sad. The joke tells of a group of explorers who find a Jew who has been stranded on a desert island for years. As he takes them around the island and shows them how he survived, they find that he built two synagogues for himself. When asked why he needs two since he is all alone, he says that one is the one he prays in, and the other is the one he would never walk into.

This joke, if you can call it that, makes a discouraging comment about some of our people. Some of us to seem to have a favorite house in which to worship and another house that we stubbornly shun.

It is true that every Jew needs at least two houses of worship. But he must enter both of them. One is his synagogue, and the other is his home.

Jewish worship takes place in the home to an even greater extent than in the synagogue. It is in the home that we recite grace after meals, prayers upon awakening and before bedtime, special prayers before Shabbat candle lighting, and countless informal prayers and benedictions.

The synagogue, on the other hand, is the place for formal prayer and for communal worship.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Terumah, we learn of the very first house of worship: the Mishkan, or Tabernacle. We also learn about some of the furnishings that were essential to the construction of this house.

I want to suggest that these furnishings are not merely of historical import but are necessary in both the public synagogue and the private home.

The first three components mentioned in this week’s Torah portion are the Ark, in which the tablets with the Ten Commandments, and according to some, the entire Torah, are contained; the holy Table upon which 12 breads were placed every Sabbath; and the golden Menorah, exquisitely decorated.

These three vessels are also prominent features of both synagogue and home and indeed should be so.

Like the Tabernacle of old, every synagogue today has an ark in which the Torah scrolls, often along with scrolls of the Prophets and of the Megilot, are contained.

In our faith, traditional holy texts are at the core of our worship. The original holy texts were housed in the Tabernacle’s Ark, and later in the Ark of the holy Temple in Jerusalem. So too, in the contemporary synagogue, the holy texts are central to our worship experience, and every occupant of the synagogue faces those texts as he or she prays.

Where, you might ask, is the analog of the Ark in one’s private home? I maintain that the bookcase is the Ark of one’s personal dwelling. Ideally, that bookcase contains the entire Jewish Bible, along with essential commentaries and classic Jewish texts.

So the Ark, which was situated prominently in the Tabernacle, is a feature of both of our “houses of worship”; our synagogue and our home.

So too, with the table. A wooden table covered over with a layer of gold occupied a place of honor in the Tabernacle. The food kept there, the “shew bread” was distributed to the priests on duty every Sabbath. This table symbolized the divine blessings of sustenance.

Every synagogue has a bima that is analogous in many ways to the table in the Tabernacle. The synagogue’s table is the place from which the Torah is read and from which God’s spiritual nourishment is shared.

In traditional synagogues, this table is not placed up front, on stage as it were, for spectators to behold. Rather, it is placed in the middle of the synagogue sanctuary, among the people. The message is clear: The table symbolizes God’s spiritual providence and bounty and as such is something of which every member of the congregation should partake.

The table in the home, equally sacred, is the place for physical nourishment. A beautiful Talmudic expression has it that “the table is like an altar.” Whereas the Jew of old expressed his ultimate sense of worship by offering a sacrifice upon the altar, the contemporary Jew worships God by sharing the food on his table with other individuals.

Again, like the Ark, the table that glorified the ancient tabernacle persists as a central feature of both of our modern houses of worship, our synagogues and our homes.

Finally, the golden Menorah that beautified the historic tabernacle and the later Beit Hamikdash. Just about every synagogue I ever attended features a menorah in a very conspicuous place. And Chanukah menorot occupy a place of honor in the Judaic art collections of even the humblest Jewish home.

There is a symbolism to the Menorah that is even more apt when applied to the two houses of worship we have been discussing. The Menorah symbolizes light; the light of wisdom, the light of the intellect. A central feature of Judaism is that it is not a mystical religion based upon blind faith or irrational emotions. Quite the contrary. Our faith is largely based upon reason and is respectful of the power of the intellect and the gift of true wisdom. Thus, many commentators see a connection between the seven branches of the Menorah and the seven classical sciences, or categories of knowledge. The Torah is pre-eminently sacred, but other sources of wisdom are important and have their place.

So too, in our two houses of worship. Our synagogues must allow for the expression of knowledge from all human sources. As Maimonides put it, “We must accept the truth from wherever it comes.” For him, that meant even from the ancient Greek philosophers.

Our private homes must be open to the truths of science, of literature, and of other cultures. The intellectual life should not be seen as threatening to our religious belief. A life of Torah is made more sublime when it is appropriately enriched by the wisdom of the world.

When some people read this weekís portion, they are frequently put off by the details of an ancient religious structure that seems to have little relevance for their lives. But by looking a little more deeply, and with a dose of creative contemplation, there is much to be learned from even the most technical and seemingly outdated passages of our Torah.

We Are All God’s Children

During President Barack Obama’s historic address at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, he said, “At a time when others are trying to divide us along lines of religion or sect, we have to reaffirm that most fundamental of truths: We are all God’s children. We’re all born equal, with inherent dignity.”

The idea that we are all God’s children is rooted in the closing verses of the first chapter of Genesis. The Torah proclaims that God created the world and that He created human  beings — male and female — in His image.

Each human being then is unique because he or she embodies in some way the image of God. Unlike trees or animals, God created human beings individually, not in groups. This has moral significance since it means that all of us are special and different from each other.

By describing that God created the first man and woman individually, the Torah is teaching us that no person can say that my father or mother is greater than yours, since we are all  descended from the same father and mother. Another implication of these verses is that no one individual should be stereotyped because he or she belongs to a particular group or tribe. Our individuality transcends the groups we may be born into or to which we freely associate.

Respect for the dignity of each human being is an essential value of the Torah and our faith.

We live in a time when too many political, religious and public figures have ignored this teaching. By casting suspicion on the entire American Muslim community or on Islam itself, these figures are rebelling against this teaching and implicitly denying that each and every one of us is created in the image of God.

It is true that there are Muslims who have succumbed to fantasies  of dominance through resorting to brutality, torture and murder. Often these fantasies are motivated by a  distorted reading of the Koran. But we should not jump to the conclusion that all Muslims read the Koran this way. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in America are peaceful and law-abiding citizens just as the overwhelming majority of Christians and Jews are peaceful and law abiding.

Interfaith Action for Human Rights, a group of people of faith from Maryland, D.C. and Virginia, is calling upon all religious communities to show support for our Muslim neighbors, co-workers and friends who are feeling attacked and isolated. We are asking communities of faith to display on their property banners that read “Honor God — Say No to anti-Muslim bigotry,” or “We stand with Muslim Americans.”

In addition to affirming the dignity of each human being, we are also committed to opposing and changing policies and practices that promote torture in our society. To that end we are part of a broad coalition that wants to put an end to the abuse of solitary confinement in state and  federal prisons.

Respect for the dignity of each human being is an essential value of the Torah and our faith. It can be challenging to be respectful of people have done horrible deeds. It is not at all so to be respectful of those who live among us.

The Torah charges us to remember that, as the president said last week in Baltimore, we are all God’s children.

Rabbi Charles Feinberg is executive director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights.

Bernie Sanders and the Jewish Question

Thanks to Bernie Sanders’ strong showing in the early Democratic presidential primary races, America is finally having its Jewish moment. While American Jews are relatively well-to-do and integrated into the country’s social, political and economic fabric, the Vermont senator’s predicted win in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary has raised questions of what role his being a Jew will play in a campaign and a possible Sanders presidency.

America — and Jews generally — had no problem understanding what kind of Jew Joseph Lieberman was when he ran on the ticket with Al Gore in 2000, nor when he made his own run for the White House four years later. Lieberman is a religious Jew. He believes in God, keeps kosher and doesn’t work on Shabbat. Viewed through that lens, Sanders is a different kind of Jew — one who doesn’t go to synagogue and doesn’t identify with organized religion.

Yet, Sanders’ lack of practice and identification makes him like most American Jews. And we easily identify him as a particular kind of Jew — the leftist, crusading, civil rights Jew of the 1960s and ’70s. He’s a Jew defined by his political beliefs, actions, associations and his ethnic heritage, but not by his religion.

But will America get it? And are Sanders and his supporters ready for a tidal wave of inquiry, misdirection and character assassination that is likely to develop about his Jewishness? Some worry that the answer is “no.”

But whether they are ready or not, the scrutiny has already begun. Last summer, radio host Diane Rehm asked Sanders about his Israeli citizenship, even though he has no Israeli citizenship. And just last week, after President Barack Obama’s address at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Sanders, “You, of course, are Jewish. Do you think that potentially could be a problem working with the Muslim world out there and trying to get help, for example, in this war against ISIS?”

Later, CNN’s Anderson Cooper pointed to Sanders’ Jewishness and secularism: “You’re Jewish, but you’ve said that you’re not actively involved with organized religion,” Cooper said. “What do you say to a voter out there who … sees faith as a guiding principle in their lives and wants it to be a guiding principle for this country?”

This kind of scrutiny will increase the longer Sanders’ run continues and the more successful his  effort. Some of it will shed light on Sanders’ fitness to lead and what it means to be a Jew in 2016. But some will be wholly inappropriate and malicious. The question is, are Sanders and his supporters ready for that questioning? They need to be.