Obama, Practice What You Preach

I find it disturbing and disingenuous to read that President Barack Obama compares gun violence to freedom of religion. In the JT editorial “Balance of Rights” (Jan. 15), Obama states that “the right to worship freely and safely … was denied to Christians in Charleston, S.C., — and to Jews in Kansas City, Muslims in Chapel Hill and Sikhs in Oak Creek. They had rights too.”

Obama, where are the religious rights of the Sisters of the Poor, who are being forced to buy health insurance containing contraceptive benefits? Where are the religious rights of the bakery owner, who didn’t want to sell a wedding cake with two male figures on the cake? The bakery is out of business, and both cases are in court.

On Gazelles and Pillars of Fire Parshat Beshalach

Traveling in Tanzania on safari, my husband pointed excitedly to a gazelle bending down in the tall grass. After a moment, I realized why he was so excited — the gazelle was standing over a wet, furry ball: a baby gazelle. Newborn gazelles are on their feet within a few days, but this calf was only hours old, still wet with amniotic fluid and not yet able to stand on its spindly legs. The mother stood over her tiny treasure, nestling the baby in the grass. Enchanted, we watched the sweet scene for a few minutes. It was right out of a picture book.

But suddenly to our surprise, the mother stood up — and contrary to all expectations of maternal instinct — leapt away, bounding off across the grass.

We were horrified. The mother continued running until she was halfway across the savannah. “Was there something wrong with the baby?” we asked our safari guide. “Did she abandon it because it is sick and will not survive?”

No, our guide reassured us, the newborn gazelle was healthy. “The mother is moving away as a way of protecting him,” he explained. “By himself, the calf is very well camouflaged in the grass. Predators will have a hard time seeing him. But if the mother were to stand next to him, they would see her and then would be more likely to notice the defenseless baby next to her. This way, any predators will see her, not the calf, and she can distract them should they come too close to where the calf is hiding.”

Sure enough, we looked at the mother in the distance. She was not eating, not moving, but standing sentry, protecting by keeping her distance.

In this week’s Torah portion, our ancestors experience a similar moment of protection that must have seemed at first like a moment of abandonment.

The Israelites, newly escaped from Egypt, not yet across the Red Sea, have been led by God’s Presence. As the Torah describes: “The Eternal went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light — the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people” (Exodus 13:21-22). All is well. The Israelites are journeying on their way defiantly with no concern for the Pharaoh, who had so long held them captive (see Rashbam on Exodus 14:8).

But then, in that infamous twist of the plot, Pharaoh has a change of heart, and he orders his army to chase down his freed slaves. When the Israelites catch sight of Pharaoh’s chariots approaching, they are terrified. Surely, they will die here in the desert. Behind them is the approaching Egyptian army, in front of them, the sea. “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?” they exclaim to Moses (Exodus 14:11).

Part of their terror must have come from the fact that just as their enemy is approaching, just as they are trapped between chariots and the sea, their protector seems to have abandoned them. God commands them to “go forward” (Exodus 14:15), but God is no longer leading the way. The pillar that represents God’s Presence has moved; it is no longer in front of the Israelites (Exodus 14:19). Suddenly, just when they are at their most vulnerable, they also feel utterly alone.

Fear must have seized the Israelites’ hearts in that instant, and with good reason. The Rabbis discussed how the fate of the Israelites seemed to hang in the balance when the pillar left the front of the camp. Would they be saved or would they be destroyed by the Egyptian army? In Mechilta D’Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, we read: R. Natan asked R. Shimon b. Yohai, “Why in every instance is it written in Scripture, ‘angel of the Lord,’ but here it is written ‘angel of God?’” He said to him [in response], “[The word] ‘God’ in every instance means only ‘judge.’ For at that moment the Israelites were [being judged] whether they would win or lose to the Egyptians.”

The Midrash observes that the Torah uses various names for God in these passages: When the pillars of cloud and fire precede the people in Exodus 13:21, God is called the Eternal (YHVH).

When the pillar of cloud moved behind them in Exodus 14:19, God is called Elohim, which, Rabbi Shimon notes, is a name of God associated with the divine quality of judgment. By switching to this Divine Name, he suggests, the Torah, is hinting at a moment of judgment.

In that moment, it may have seemed to the frightened Israelites that time froze — but only for a moment. Soon, God’s plan becomes apparent; the pillar has not disappeared, but has placed itself behind the Israelite camp, acting as a buffer to protect the Israelites from the Egyptian army. God has not abandoned them, but is protecting them from the rear.

In our own lives, I wonder if we always have the courage and the foresight to care for those we love in this way. Sleep training a baby means letting him cry and not being able to soothe him.

Helping a teenager become a safe driver means letting her take the wheel, even when we’re not in the passenger seat next to her: helping her become an adult means sometimes allowing her to fail. But these are rules that we can more easily apply to other people’s children, I think, even when we know them to be true.

As for the baby gazelle, the miracle of evolutionary instinct will enable him to stand up on his own legs in a couple days while his mother watches from a safe distance. When we have to take a leap of faith alone, sometimes that’s when miracles happen.

“Go forward!” God commands, and we do, even though we are terrified. “Go forward,” God commands, and we do, even though there is no one leading the way.

“Go forward!” God commands — and when we do, the sea splits before us.

‘Hostile’ Takeover?

The JT’s Jan. 8 editorial “Seeing Through the Transparancy Bill” notes how most of these government grants go to what you call “progressive Israeli” nongovernment organizations (NGOs), all of which oppose policies of the Israeli government.

It is fine for Israelis to object to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s actions; diaspora Jews certainly have opinions about the Jewish state and should make them known to Israeli politicians; Christians and Muslims can, do and should speak up for their coreligionists in the Holy Land.

But that is altogether different than having foreign, mostly European governments fund Israeli organizations seeking to change Israeli government policy. Imagine the League of Women Voters, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood or the Sierra Club taking grants from Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  Americans would rightly object, yet under  the proposed bill, Israel accepts this, only requiring any lobbyists from such organizations to clearly state where their money comes from.  Moreover, the bill only applies to NGOs receiving more than half their funds from foreign governments.

To understand the severe problem Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is trying to solve, read “Catch the Jew” by Tuvia Tenenbom. He clearly shows the persistent hostility of European and Israeli NGOs that take foreign government funds to Israeli policy and in many cases to the Jewish state itself.

No Fly, No Problem

Morton Klein’s “Don’t Endanger Americans” (Jan. 8) does an excellent job in articulating the dangers in  allowing Syrian immigrants into the U.S. — at least at this time. I understand the compassion behind permitting these refugees to migrate to the U.S., but President Barack Obama, the Democratic Party and others  advocating for accepting Syrian immigrants need to wake up to reality: Sometimes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

There seems to be a major degree of naiveté on the part of these advocates regarding the risk Syrian immigrants might pose to U.S. citizens and  Jewish Americans in particular. It is  interesting that in our president’s  passionate fight for his proposed gun-control initiatives, he admits that his proposed changes may have little impact on gun violence, but pleads that if even a few lives are saved, it is important to implement these policies. Yet, when it comes to the real risk of Syrian immigration into our land, he seems to be implying that it is OK if a few Americans die at the hands of these immigrants; it is an acceptable loss. I guess American lives don’t matter if they are killed by Islamic terrorists.

The safest, most humane and most cost-effective solution to the Syrian refugee crisis is to establish no-fly zones in Syria or other Muslim countries. True, there would be a risk of conflict between patrolling planes  piloted by the U.S. and its allies and Russian or Syrian planes, but I believe if o-ur president stood up to Russia, there would not be a major conflict. These zones would provide security, humanitarian support (health, education, etc.), religious freedom and the establishment of local governing bodies. The Muslims would still be within a Muslim country. Of course, we also would have to protect the non- Muslims within the no-fly zone from discrimination and harm by the  Muslim majority.

History Lesson Worth Repeating

It was with great interest that I read “Chinese Food for Thought” (Jan. 15) about the Jews in China, especially in Shanghai.

My late husband, Wolfgang Rotenberg, and his family left Germany in December 1939 and sailed to Shanghai, seeking asylum. After a year in that city, where the conditions for refugees were terrible, they moved to Tientsin, North China, also a port city, where there was a sizable Eastern European Jewish community. Wolfgang was a child, and he and his brother were  enrolled in the Tientsin Jewish School, where the brothers learned English, as the secular curriculum was taught by teachers from the University of Cambridge. When I met him, he had a charming British accent. The Jewish/Hebrew studies were taught by local teachers.

After he died, as I was preparing to move from a house to an apartment, I found a box full of documents  relating to this period of the Rotenberg family history. I donated the contents to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial  Museum, which gladly accepted everything. Several years ago, I received a request from the Jewish Museum  of Berlin for documents; now, that museum has copies of everything.  Included in that donation were photographs, affidavits, report cards,  receipts from the ship that took the family to China, ration certificates and marriage and birth certificates, among other items.

Here are two other interesting facts I learned from our daughter: The Rotenberg family moved from Poland to Germany in the 1920s, as the senior Rotenberg took a position as cantor of the Adath Jeshurun synagogue in Berlin; and German citizenship was hard to get at that time, so the family was given League of Nations status. This saved them from a round-up of Jews. Wolfgang and his older brother were born in Berlin.

As a Jewish educator, it is my privilege and pleasure to speak to various groups about this period in Jewish history. I look forward to sharing [my knowledge] with others.

1-Across: G-o-n-e

What happened to the crossword puzzle? It was such fun, where Jewish knowledge helped. It was a great  addition to the JT, and I hope you will bring it back.

Editor’s Note: The publishing of the crossword puzzle is on hiatus.

The Need of Appreciation for One Another

2013ftv_terrillAs we look back on the tumultuous year for our city, I am reminded of the inspired leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. This was a man of action who brought hope and healing to our country and whose values of truth, justice and compassion brought about the civil rights conversation so important at that time.

It is these values of King, whose  accomplishments we celebrated and rededicated on Jan. 18, that are at the very heart of who we are as a Jewish community. These values empower us to improve our world and foster our ongoing commitment to social justice, equality, ensuring dignity and the value of every human being.

Perhaps that is why so many Jews were instrumental in the fight for civil rights, standing side by side with King, often risking their lives, marching for equality.  And it is why, with  Baltimore facing a fragile future — as we await the trials of the six police officers in the Freddie Grey case — we must once again count on these values to build a better community for all.

It’s a tall order but one that can begin at the grassroots level in our own communities. Through sustained dialogue across interfaith and interethnic groups, we can establish respect, dispel stereotypes and develop a mutual level of trust and collaboration.

For years, The Associated, through its agencies, has been a prominent convener of these conversations. The Baltimore Jewish Council hosts dialogues between educators, religious leaders and other residents, building personal relationships and understanding, while discussing the myriad needs of Baltimore City and the region. At the same time, CHAI’s Community Conversations brings together neighbors of various ethnicities, offering a safe space to  be open and honest and building  cultural awareness.

One of the most powerful projects implemented through CHAI’s Community Conversations was a Girls’ Photography Project. It changed perceptions among Jewish and African-American teen girls, who learned from one another through the process of taking photos together — photos that reflected their unique life experiences.

Hearing one Jewish teen remark that the program helped her learn “how special my neighborhood is  and how we have a lot in common with our neighbors even if we do not go to the same schools and have the same customs” brought home the  importance of these dialogues.

In fact, it is that very statement that our Jewish teens participating in  Jewish Volunteer Connection’s Students Taking Action for Change  program echo after meeting with their Elijah Cummings Youth Program counterparts. Although they may live in different communities and attend different schools, they  ultimately share the same concerns about what the future of our community might hold and how they can make an impact for a better tomorrow.

As King said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”  On Jan. 18, as we commemorated Martin Luther King Jr., we not only remembered our mutual fight for civil rights, but recognized the need for continued appreciation for the other.

 

Marc Terrill is president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Seeking Passion

Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief

Lost to most people — at least those who were not at the Capitol last Tuesday night or were not watching President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address on C-SPAN — was a touching few minutes spent by the president as he walked up the aisle and out of the House of Representatives chamber for what might be his last time as the nation’s commander-in-chief.

Having made his way through a gauntlet of eager autograph seekers and politicos wanting a word or a handshake, including Baltimore’s own Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, Obama turned around and said he wanted to get one last look. Then, he turned to his left, where the screaming congressional pages were corralled. He told the young adults, some of whom might be voting for the very first time in this November’s presidential election, that the message of optimism he struck in his primetime address was meant for them.

“I was speaking to you,” he said.

Whether or not Obama was the right messenger to employ his original 2008 campaign theme of hope to cap off two terms of some of the most virulent political infighting in modern American history, it’s hard to argue with the fact that the message itself is a badly needed one in an age when some presidential candidates are battling over who properly gets to lay claim to the “mantle of anger.” As this column has pointed out in the past, anger might spur one to action, but it’s never a good source of potential solutions. And it’s the younger generations — from the millennials to the pages in the halls of Congress to the students in our schools to the babies being born — who face a future of enormous problems. Whether the challenges are financial, environmental, spiritual, medical, philosophical or constitutional, the coming years will demand creative solutions to ensure the preservation of all that truly makes this country great.

It’s a fact that our future leaders readily admit. As you’ll read in this week’s JT, the millennials among us are just now becoming eligible, according to the U.S. Constitution’s age restrictions of federal officeholders, for the highest position in the land. We can either be fearful of that — what parent isn’t the slightest bit nervous when her child suddenly ages into the state’s driver pool, for instance? — or we can embrace it. The problem is, many millennials themselves aren’t.

“Millennials are dissatisfied with politics,” says Nik Sushka, 32, a former president of the Montgomery County Young Democrats. “Many millennials don’t identify with the political structures of the past, and it’s difficult to get millennials excited about serving in political office.”

“People are more and more cynical about politics — and Washington in particular,” agrees Matt Dallek, assistant professor of political management at The George Washington University. “I don’t see millennials moving into political space in the traditional offices [but] more so through advocacy, given the anger and animosity toward elected officials alike and the relative suspicions of each party.”

That millennials actually care about issues is a start, but without their participation in the full political process, from supporting candidates as well as campaigns to placing their own names on the ballot, it’s likely that frustration and anger will remain. At the end of the day, democracy such as ours requires impassioned commitment on the part of the citizenry. Eight years ago, Obama inspired enough of that passion to get himself elected the country’s first African-American president. Turning to November, it’s high time that more people find that passion within themselves.

jrunyan@midatlanticmedia.com

Obama’s Efforts Are Not Enough

In the well-known story from the opening chapters of Genesis, we read the sparse narrative of an intimate  relationship that turns violent.

Writing of the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, Russel Jacoby, author of “Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence from Cain and Abel to the Present,” points out that victims are most at risk in their intimate relationships.

“Cain knew his brother — he talked with Abel — and [yet] slew him afterward,” Jacoby writes.

Statistics show not only that guns in the hands of those who commit domestic violence often lead to murder, but that violence is more often perpetrated by family members or intimate acquaintances than by strangers. Fifty-five percent of women murdered by   intimate partners are killed with a gun. Yet, current federal law fails to protect a growing population of victims and survivors of domestic violence, children as well as adults.

President Barack Obama’s recent effort through executive action to  improve enforcement and clarify definitions regarding existing regulations on the sale of firearms is a welcome step toward changing the direction of the national discussion on gun violence. We support what the president has ordered: more effective enforcement of existing laws and a clarification of language that defines who is “engaged in the business” of gun sales.

But as welcome as these steps are, Congress still needs to address the dangerous and often lethal connection between domestic violence and guns. Federal law currently prohibits only some convicted abusers from buying or owning guns. Those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence against a current or former dating partner, or misdemeanor stalking, can still legally buy and own guns. And the presence of a gun in an abusive relationship increases the homicide risk for a woman by 500 percent.

The Jewish textual tradition has long grappled with the roots of violence among intimates. But our tradition also understands that such intellectual wrestling is not enough — we also have an obligation to act.

That is why, as religious leaders, we are supporting two pending pieces of legislation — the Zero Tolerance for Domestic Abusers Act in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act in the U.S. Senate — that would prohibit the purchase or possession of guns by those convicted of any acts of domestic violence.

Perhaps Americans, still recovering from the shock of one mass killing after another and bruised by polarizing political rhetoric, will yet reach areas of consensus and cooperation.

By closing loopholes in existing laws, where the scope and intent of the act is clear, we are not engaging in polemics or in politically motivated rhetoric. Rather we are seeking to strengthen existing laws designed to protect victims of domestic violence.

Given what is known about how guns can quickly escalate domestic disputes into murder, we urge Congress to pass these bills. If Americans may still learn any lesson from the tragic story of Cain and Abel, it is that we are, in fact, our brother’s — and sister’s and partner’s and parent’s and children’s — keeper.

 

Rabbi Marla Hornsten of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Mich., and Rabbi Ari Lorge of  Central Synagogue in New York are co-chairs of the Jewish Women International’s clergy task force on domestic abuse in the Jewish community.

Obama’s Regret

President Barack Obama used his final State of the Union address to appeal for unity. (Evan Vucci/Newscom)

President Barack Obama used his final State of the Union address to appeal for unity. (Evan Vucci/Newscom)

In his final State of the Union address last week, President Barack Obama reminded the country that optimism and hope are the tried-and-true American responses to hard times and to demagogues. Although he didn’t refer to a specific Republican candidate by name, it was clear that in attempting to return to the grand philosophical vision that defined the hope of his original campaign, Obama’s  remarks were aimed at those battling to occupy the White House after he leaves next January.

“Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation and turning against each other as a people?” Obama asked. “Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for and the incredible things we can do together?”

The president appealed for unity and  inclusion. And, refreshingly, he refrained from offering a long list of initiatives that no one believes will get off the ground in this election year.

But when he cited “one of the few regrets” of his presidency — “that the rancor and  suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better” — he seemed to ignore his own role in contributing to the calcifying  gridlock in Washington and the retreat of  liberals and conservatives into two warring camps.

Obama’s handling of partisan battles in such areas as the Affordable Care Act, the Iran nuclear deal, the stimulus package and how to respond to gun violence was not  a model of congeniality, cooperation and  compromise.

Instead, his mistiming, miscues and mismanagement promoted partisan rancor and distrust, even as both sides may have been trying to address real issues and concerns. Thus, while we applaud Obama’s expressed concern about the fear and anger that characterizes so much of what passes for civil debate today, we are troubled that he appears to have completely ignored that the way he went about the job of president contributed to making such fear and anger possible.

Obama’s aspirational rhetoric of 2008 promised Americans hope and change. His last State of the Union address promised Americans an optimistic future. Both are important and worthwhile messages. The president has had seven years to build hope, effect change, promote optimism and to work in a bipartisan manner. He needs to do a better job in his  remaining year in office.