A Building Block at the Kotel

Controversy still surrounds the Western Wall, even with the compromise. (Deror Avi via wikimediacommons)

Controversy still surrounds the Western Wall, even with the compromise. (Deror Avi via wikimediacommons)

You can tell that a true compromise was reached on a matter by the number of people on both sides of the issue who are dissatisfied with the result. And so it is with the agreement on egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall compound below the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. While hailed as a breakthrough compromise by the government and many involved in the delicate negotiations, there are vocal critics who disagree.

Those Jews who do not recognize the validity of liberal Judaism, condemn the Israeli government’s agreement with the Kotel’s Haredi Orthodox leadership, the Women of the Wall, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Reform and Conservative movements to expand the wall’s egalitarian section and place it under the authority of a pluralist committee, even though it solidifies Haredi control over the site’s traditional Orthodox section.

Thus, for example, the Haredi Agudath Israel of America responded to the compromise by  saying that allowing egalitarian prayer at the compound “defames” the site. And Moshe Gafni, a Haredi lawmaker who chairs the Israeli Knesset’s Finance Committee, reacted by calling Reform Jews “a group of clowns who stab the holy Torah.”

Indeed, even the Muslim Waqf, which administers the Temple Mount above the Western Wall plaza, criticized the agreement for its “defaming” nature of allowing egalitarian and mixed-gender prayer.

But there was criticism from other sides  as well. Some maintained that the agreement  didn’t go far enough and were critical of the  second-class status of the egalitarian site. And then there were complaints from Orthodox women who yearn to pray in women-only groups at the Wall. Writing in Tablet, Phyllis Chesler  recounted a quarter-century of activism by Women of the Wall to do just that. They endured harassment and arrest for carrying a Torah to their monthly prayer services at the Kotel’s women’s section. And they complain that the Reform and Conservative movements sold out these women in their push for egalitarian space.

We prefer to see the agreement as a welcome first step — a kind of building block — but hardly the last, in the drive for religious freedom in Israel and the wresting of Israel’s religious apparatus from a narrow-minded and uncompromising Chief Rabbinate.

And there are signs that other compromises may be in the making. Commenting on an online criticism of the agreement, Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md., who chairs the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, proposed that at the pluralistic prayer area, time be set aside for all-women prayer. “Then it will truly be pluralistic,” he wrote. We agree.

Steps in Restoring Justice

Today, there are an estimated 100,000 Americans in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. Ten thousand of them  are federal inmates. A fraction of those federal prisoners will benefit from President Barack Obama’s recent executive order to remove the most vulnerable from solitary  confinement.

The president’s directive is an important step but just a start, in reforming a U.S. criminal justice system that  imprisons 2.2 million people. Although the U.S. has only 5 percent of the world’s population, we hold 25 percent  of its inmates at a cost to taxpayers of some $80 billion  annually.

Obama’s order will remove juveniles and the mentally  ill from solitary confinement. Thus, rather than being  deprived of almost all human interaction “for their own protection,” minor and mentally ill prisoners will be  assigned to special units, where they should not be threatened. And prisoners with mental illnesses will have access to expanded treatment.

The policy change comes at a time when there is bipartisan interest in revisiting the harsh laws passed in the three-strikes-you’re-out days of the 1990s crime scare, which  resulted in lengthy prison terms for nonviolent (but third strike) lawbreakers, a disproportionate number of whom are African-Americans.

As a small way of rectifying that overreach, the president pardoned 46 prisoners last October. In announcing those pardons, he said: “These men and women were not hardened criminals, but the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years; 14 of them had been  sentenced to life for nonviolent drug offenses.” And he noted that if “they’d been sentenced under today’s laws, nearly all of them would have served their time.”

At the time, the pardons were welcome, but they were largely symbolic. Real reform is the job of Congress.  Members of the House and the Senate have introduced bills, but neither chamber has brought the legislation up for a vote. This could be a year for genuine progress in this area, if legislators on Capitol Hill decide to make it so.

Obama expressed hope that his orders will be the model for states and municipalities, where the majority of inmates in solitary confinement are held. Under this approach, the goal is justice, not perpetual or unnecessary punishment. With this standard in mind, we urge the Maryland state Senate to overturn Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of a voting rights bill for released felons, who have served their time and seek a more complete reintegration into society. The House of Delegates has already voted to override  the veto. Similar Senate action would return a measure of justice to the system.

Eugene Borowitz Defined Dilemma of the Modern Jew

Rabbi David Ellenson

Rabbi David Ellenson

In “Ethics of the  Fathers,” the rabbis teach that we must grant respect and honor to an individual who teaches us even the smallest bit of knowledge.

For those of us who were the students of Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, who died last week at the age of 91, the obligation is increased a thousandfold because of the wisdom and insight, the counsel and the judgment, the inspiration and direction he provided us. He was, for generations of his students and for so many others, moreinu vírabeinu — our rabbi and our teacher. My soul is bound in so many ways to his.

I first encountered Eugene Borowitz as many people have — through the words of his voluminous writings. In 1969, when I was 21, I came across his book “A Layman’s Guide to Religious Existentialism.” I had just completed a course in Christian religious existentialism at the College of William and Mary, and I eagerly devoured its contents.

His words on Kierkegaard, Tillich and other thinkers excited me and  ignited a passion for the life of the mind and the life of the spirit that I had never previously felt. I hoped that one day I could be his student.

Nearly five years later, that aspiration was realized. In 1974, I enrolled in his course Modern Jewish Thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish  Institute of Religion. It was in that class as a second-year rabbinical student that I was introduced to a vocabulary that helped me define and understand the religious struggle I was then experiencing.

In his initial lecture in the course, Rabbi Borowitz said clearly and simply, “The problem of modern Jewish thought is one of how we affirm the best of what the modern world has taught us while simultaneously maintaining our commitment to the covenantal tradition that is at the base of genuine Jewish belief and practice. How can we be both simultaneously modern and authentically Jewish?”

His unadorned statement of the dialectical dilemma confronting the modern Jew attempting to navigate between the poles of tradition and the contemporary world resonated in the very depths of my being. His words struck me as clear and profound — as true. He gave me an intellectual-theological framework for analyzing the “intellectual arrangements” that Jewish thinkers and movements have advanced over the past 200 years in their attempts to affirm Jewish meaning in a world where being Jewish is no longer required.

The passion and love Rabbi Borowitz had for God and the Jewish people, for the imperatives of the covenantal tradition, made him my most powerful religious mentor. He challenged my fellow students and me to act upon what it means to live in covenant with the Holy One and to transform the duties that flow from that covenant into real life.

My heart is torn by the death of my teacher. Yet, I am more grateful than I could ever express that he was my teacher. Rabbi Borowitz will continue to speak to us as his lips will move through his writings from the place of his eternal rest.

Rabbi David Ellenson is director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. He served as president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion from 2001 to 2013.

Something To Cell-A-Brate!

Thank you for bringing Hadassah Hospital’s exciting announcement of a breakthrough in ALS research to your readers (“ALS Clinical Trials at Hadassah Hospital ‘Very Encouraging,’” Jan. 22. As president of Hadassah Greater Baltimore, I am prouder than ever of the researchers and doctors at our state-of-the-art hospitals in Israel who are dedicating their lives to critical stem cell science. This remarkable breakthrough gives us so much hope for those suffering from ALS as well as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. Imagine a life free of pain and suffering. It is possible that in the next three to five years this dream will  become a reality.

Clearly, funding is needed, and our Baltimore region has played a vital role in providing funds for this life-saving research. We encourage JT readers to join us for our 10th annual Cell-A-Brate Gala on Sunday, April 10 at 5 p.m. at the Woodholme Country Club. All funds raised will allow this research and the clinical trials to continue. Together, we will  celebrate 10 years of medical miracles and the hope of magical breakthroughs. Contact us at 410-484-9590 to buy tickets or make a donation.

Nearly 1 Million Jews Erased From History

In an act more reminiscent of magician Harry Houdini than a major U.S. newspaper, The Washington Post omitted nearly 1 million Jewish refugees from Arab lands in a chart “A visual guide to 75 years of major refugee crises around the world” (Dec. 21, 2015).

The online infographic, claiming to provide a “brief guide to the major refugee events in recent history,” offers short descriptions of various refugee crises throughout the last 75 years. The displacement of persons from World War II to the ongoing Syrian civil war are noted as “major” events. Inexplicably, the more than 800,000 Jewish refugees who fled Arab lands in the Middle East and North Africa in the period following Israel’s War for Independence do not qualify.

Ron Prosor, Israel’s immediate past ambassador to the United Nations, has written: “At the end of World War II, 850,000 Jews lived in Arab countries. Just 8,500 remain today. Their departure was no accident. After Arab leaders failed to annihilate Israel militarily in 1948, they launched a war of terror, incitement, and  expulsion to decimate their ancient Jewish communities.”

According to the Huffington Post in “The Middle East’s Greatest Untold Story” (July 5, 2012): “In Iraq, Jewish businessman Shafiq Adas, then the country’s wealthiest citizen, was  immediately arrested on trumped-up charges and publicly lynched. This was followed by bombings targeting Jewish institutions, arbitrary arrests of Jewish leaders and massive government seizures of property. Within years virtually all of Iraq’s 2,500-year-old Jewish community had fled. … Similar scenes played out across the region, from Egypt to Syria to Libya to Yemen. … The total area of land confiscated from Jews in Arab countries amounts to nearly 40,000 square miles — about five times the size of Israel’s entire land mass.

And in Arieh Avneri’s “The Claim of Dispossession,” an estimated 586,000  Jewish refugees settled in  Israel at great expense to the Jewish state and without recompensation by the Arab countries, which, like Nazi Germany less than a decade before, seized Jewish real estate, businesses and personal belongings.

While Jews fleeing Arab countries are vanquished from The Post, an  inflated figure of Palestinian Arab refugees from what became Israel is provided to readers. The paper claims that 750,000 “Palestinians from newly established Israel” went to the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon between 1948 and 1950.

However, the difference between the last census by the British, the ruling power in the U.N.’s Palestine mandate, in 1945 and the first official census by Israel in 1949 indicates 650,000 Arabs fled what became Israel. A 1949 report by the U.N. mediator on Palestine reached an even lower figure: 472,000.

Although the United Nations Refugee Works Administration (UNRWA), the agency tasked with Palestinian Arab refugee management, provided much larger figures of Palestinian Arab refugees in subsequent years, it also includes the descendants of refugees in its classification. This contradicts the U.N.’s own definition of the term in its 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. UNRWA also has admitted that its own figures are unreliable.

Omitting Jewish refugees from Arab lands and spurning two requests from CAMERA for correction, The Washington Post implicitly supports  a narrative that erases the history,  and possible future, of Arab countries tolerating more pluralistic societies.

Sean Durns is media assistant in the Washington office of CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in  Middle East Reporting in America.

Reality Check on Crime Problem

After reading the JT’s “Wanted: Safe Spaces” (Jan. 15), I would be remiss if I did not make the following comments about the serious crime problem in Baltimore City. Until Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake admit there is a shortage of at least 300 officers in the city’s police department, we will not get a handle on the crime problem. This can be accomplished without raising taxes; all it requires is some bold and creative thinking on the part of those in charge.

For example, cut out wasteful spending in various government departments and shift the saved money to the police force. Do away with the PR units in all city government offices. City Council members should not require any aides; let volunteers provide help. Conduct yearly telethons to raise money for the police force; on a rotating basis, each of the city’s four major TV stations should be involved in conducting these annual telethons.

Thanks to the governing of phony career politicians including Rawlings-Blake and former mayors Sheila Dixon and Martin O’Malley, Baltimore City has had some lackluster police chiefs who have really missed their mark on running an efficient and effective police department. Doesn’t it speak volumes for the lack of continuity and stability within the department when you’ve had seven police chiefs in the last 15 years?

The last time I checked, the starting annual salary for a police officer was  approximately $48,000. For these earnings, officers do their jobs every day not knowing if they will return home safe and sound, as they perform their duties to protect us. Such uncertainty is now compounded with  an added concern of consequences confronting them should they make an arrest of a criminal with a rap sheet two pages long.

The long-term solution to the crime problem is a return to Judaic/Christian values and a resurrection of the family with a loving father and mother, or at least respective surrogates.

A Clear Message



Ted Cruz. Marco Rubio. Bernie Sanders.

The Iowa caucuses are over, making the 2016 presidential election one for the history books well before its conclusion. For the above three candidates, the quadrennial Hawkeye State ritual was truly historic, as each one in his own way defied the predictions of the political prognosticators of both the left and the right.

Cruz, who scored a resounding victory on the Republican side — besting businessman Donald Trump and his campaign of rising inevitability by 4 percentage points — saw a clear message in the results: “Iowa has sent notice,” he said, that the GOP nominee “will not be chosen by the media, will not be chosen by the Washington establishment, will not be chosen by the lobbyists.”

Rubio, as well, stuck it to the so-called “fourth estate” in his speech Monday night. Though he placed third, he came within striking distance of Trump and emerged with the momentum on his side heading into next week’s New Hampshire primaries.

“They told me that we had no chance, because my hair wasn’t gray enough and my boots were too high,” he said.

And over on the Democratic side, Sanders, the independent Vermont senator and self-proclaimed democratic socialist who has been a thorn in the side of front-runner Hillary Clinton since beginning his insurgent candidacy last year, emerged from the Iowa contest in a near tie with Clinton. Media reports indicated that final tallies in some precincts were decided by coin flips.

Put simply, the story out of Iowa is one of trouncing expectations.

With that in mind, we can add another name to the triumvirate of champions mentioned here: Devorah Lieberman. Though the 31-year-old New Yorker is not a politician, her story is equally one of overcoming obstacles and achieving the unthinkable.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, Lieberman is among the many special needs adults who faced the judgments of society and the closed doors of employers when looking for a job. She has Down syndrome and needed the assistance of the Jewish Union Foundation and Yachad to finally land employment. Today, she works three jobs, at a Manhattan clothing store, at the Foundation for Jewish Camp and at Yachad.

“People should not be afraid to let your child do something,” says her mother, Andrea. “They are very optimistic about what they can do. Just let them try and go far as they possibly can.”

But while Lieberman’s mother’s advice applies to parents, Lieberman herself has a message for society at large. People should “not make fun of my syndrome,” she says. “They should treat me with the same respect [as anyone else] and not judge me by [my] disability.”

Powerful words. And that’s why having a month dedicated to embracing and raising awareness of people in our community with special needs is so important. It’s why Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, year after year, garners more attention from the community.

The achievements of people such as Lieberman are historic not because they succeeded where others thought they couldn’t, but because their success demonstrates in a tangible way the backwardness of consigning anyone — a person with special needs, an elderly grandmother, a wayward youth, a down-and-out politician — to defeat before a challenge even begins. Ultimately, by limiting others, we place limits on ourselves.

This month, let’s recognize such boundaries and limitations for what they really are — falsehoods.


We Are All Jews, and More

President Barack Obama: “We’re called to live in a way that shows that we’ve actually learned from our past. And that means rejecting indifference.” (AUDE GUERRUCCI/UPI/Newscom)

President Barack Obama: “We’re called to live in a way that shows that we’ve actually learned from our past. And that means rejecting indifference.” (AUDE GUERRUCCI/UPI/Newscom)

President Barack Obama delivered a historic address last week at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Speaking on International Holocaust Remembrance Day as medals were given to families declared righteous gentiles by Yad Vashem, Obama spoke passionately about “the reality that around the world, anti-Semitism is on the rise,” even going so far as to repeat the defiant words of imprisoned U.S. Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, who, when his Nazi captors sought to separate the Jews from non-Jewish prisoners, replied, “We are all Jews.”

“When we see some Jews leaving major European cities, where their families have lived for generations, because they no longer feel safe; when Jewish centers are targeted from Mumbai to Overland Park, Kan.; when swastikas appear on college campuses; when we see all that and more, we must not be silent,” Obama said. And he spoke, as well, about the need for heightened support of aging Holocaust survivors: “Meanwhile, governments have an obligation to care for the survivors of the Shoah — because no one who endured that horror should have to scrape by in their golden years. So, with our White House initiative, we’re working to improve care for Holocaust survivors in need here in the United States.”

Obama is the first president to deliver an address at the Israeli Embassy, although then-President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, visited the compound in 1995. In his speech, Obama highlighted that the Holocaust’s first and foremost goal was the genocidal elimination of the Jews. But without watering down that message, he also spoke of the Holocaust’s universal lesson.

“We’re called to live in a way that shows that we’ve actually learned from our past,” Obama said. “And that means rejecting  indifference. It means cultivating a habit of empathy and recognizing ourselves in one another; to make common cause with the outsider, the minority, whether that minority is Christian or Jew, whether it is Hindu or Muslim or a nonbeliever; whether that  minority is native born or immigrant; whether they’re Israeli or Palestinian.

“It means taking a stand against bigotry in all its forms,” he added, “and rejecting our darkest impulses and guarding against tribalism as the only value in our communities and in our politics.”

Yes, we are all Jews, and proudly so. But our memory of the millions of Jewish lives lost is not diminished by also saying — particularly in this election year of scapegoating and fear mongering — we are all Muslims, all Latinos, all African-Americans, all immigrants. Doing so will help us recognize ourselves in one another and might just forestall  future genocides.

It’s the Jewish Thing to Do



As I’m writing this, my family is running around the three floors of a house that is not ours. We traveled up I-95 before the dreaded Snowzilla hit in advance of last weekend to attend a friend’s son’s bar mitzvah on Sunday.

The blizzard made sure that the party was pushed off, and here we are, overstaying our welcome, waiting for a plow truck to dig our car out of a veritable mountain of snow.

And from what I can tell from the pictures online, ours is not an isolated story. Up and down the East Coast, from Washington to New York, Jonas — purportedly the worst winter storm to strike Baltimore in recorded history — stranded motorists, imprisoned residents and blanketed roads beneath feet of snow. All of a sudden, life, it seemed, ground to a halt. Woe is us!

Actually, these are decidedly first-world problems, no matter the “hardships” most of us had to endure, what with all the shoveling and making due with leftovers. But as this week’s JT reminds us, there’s an entire globe of people for whom spending days cooped up with family beside a warm fireplace or throwing snowballs at each other would be a blessing.

The Jewish community’s embrace of some of these people, refugees from war-torn Syria, has not been without controversy. Although very few will eventually call Maryland home, Jewish organizations here in Baltimore and D.C., allied with the movements representing Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews, have been pushing the United States to welcome more Muslim refugees. They’ve been fighting calls from various politicians — and some Jewish voices as well — to shut down our borders for fear of allowing a future terrorist to make his or her home on U.S. soil.

The detractors’ concerns for our safety should not be dismissed out of hand. As terror attacks in Paris and elsewhere in Europe have shown, there are many with ties to homelands in and around Syria who see nothing wrong with killing indiscriminately in the name of Islam. But walling off the blessings of liberty to an entire people is wrong.

And it isn’t Jewish.

As it turns out, the United States already has a vetting mechanism so onerous that today’s arrivals first applied for resettlement here almost two years ago. Is it foolproof? Probably not. Can it be improved? Almost certainly. But if we fail to provide a home for the downtrodden — and that’s what these refugees are — we as Americans will fail the defining creed of our nation, to confer upon humanity the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

These outsiders, though, weren’t born here, some might say. To them answers the distinctly Jewish command to “love the stranger.” For us, who know all too well the curse of slavery and rejection to the point that it’s almost a part of our spiritual DNA, there can be no greater calling than offering a home to the homeless, food to the hungry and hope to the hopeless.

I believe we will, but if we don’t, what good will first-world prosperity be if by denying its promise to others, we sow the seeds of third-world enmity?


Candidate Lennon Deserves Better

How is it that an article promoting Yitzy Schleifer’s candidacy in the City Council’s District 5 race ends up with a headline alleging anti-Semitism, based on one unsubstantiated quote from a Facebook post (“Alleged Anti-Semitism in Council Race,”  Jan. 15)?

The accused, Derrick Lennon, also a candidate, is a longtime community leader who has worked well with people of all races and religions as president of the Glen Neighborhood Improvement Association. The headline and accusation would even be inappropriate for the National Inquirer, much less  the Jewish Times. Lennon has served the association with dedication for many years and certainly deserves better.