At Hillel, Fostering a Culture of Disabilities Inclusion

Standing before the burning bush, Moses asks of God, “Mi anochi?” “Who am I to be the one who goes to Pharaoh?” Though there are many reasons why Moses may have asked the question, a tip-off to what is really on Moses’ mind comes just a few verses later when Moses reminds God that he is “slow of speech and tongue.”

In most commentaries, this is interpreted to mean that Moses has a severe speech impediment. God’s
response to Moses’ disability is powerful. God wants him for his leadership qualities notwithstanding his disability, and Moses draws strength from having his brother, Aaron, stand beside him and support him.

Noah Weiss is a 2015 graduate from a doctoral program at my alma mater, Northwestern University. Noah writes in the new issue of Hillel College Guide magazine that his Asperger’s syndrome had often stood in the way of building strong connections with his peers, but the community he found at Hillel helped change that.

“Hillel events helped me to break out of my Aspie shell,” he writes. “I could feel a sense of community that didn’t discriminate against others because of their background or human conditions.”

That’s why Hillel International is launching a multiyear campaign, through a generous partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation, to build cultures of inclusion on college campuses. We can all be Aarons who make it possible for students with disabilities, including mental illness, to find their voice. We can work together with all students to break down barriers to participation in the Jewish community and on the broader campus. And we can be among the ones who students turn to as a resource when they are grappling with mental illness, depression, anxiety and trauma. We can create welcoming spaces, and we can make it clear that they too are Jewish leaders.

With Hillel staff from around the world gathering this week in Orlando, Fla., for the second annual Hillel International Global Assembly, inclusion of students with disabilities and mental illnesses will be top among our major focuses. Research shows that the college years are the time when many mental illnesses first manifest, the result of both biological and environmental changes and stresses.

This year, we are undertaking a series of trainings to equip Hillel staff with the skills to recognize and lower barriers to inclusion and be a partner for students struggling with mental illness. In addition to skills training, the Hillel International Global Assembly will feature a session on inclusion of students with disabilities and mental health awareness, featuring several recent graduates sharing their stories about mental illness on campus. These stories include themes of depression, anxiety, suicide and
eating disorders.

Moses was certainly not alone among our forebears having a disability that could make it difficult for him to connect with and lead the Jewish community. Today, there are still plenty of people like Moses, plenty of young Jews with disabilities waiting to take leadership. We all must be Aarons and commit ourselves to helping them do just that.

Kaddish and My Dad: a Celebration of Life

When I embarked upon the sad journey facing a new life after losing my Dad, Neil Israel, one year ago, I was nervous about the necessity to recite the mourner’s Kaddish multiple times every day as an avel (mourner). However, I found that its rote repetition never became a burden; but rather a bracha (blessing). The ancient Kaddish prayer is an affirmation of G-d’s presence in this world and a call to G-d to bestow peace upon us.  Personally, Kaddish became a yearning for a structured connection to spiritually talk to Dad, as I had almost every day of his living life.

Although I felt early on, and certainly feel now, that Dad’s neshomah (soul) is in a better place, closer with G-d, I still had to face that he was now distanced from me.  But each time I said Kaddish, I was
enveloped in warm memories of Dad’s encouraging, loving support, as it conjured my childhood memories of sitting next to Dad in shul (synagogue), where he was a lifetime regular

Fortunately, I never had to bear the responsibility of remembering Dad alone, as my journey was shared with my mother, brother and sister; I was lovingly supported by my life partner, Suzy, and tolerated by my six children. I also remembered Dad with my fellow mourners. I came to better appreciate the phrase, “Bitoch shaar evlay tzion v’yerushalayim” (amid the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem) that we commonly recite to an avel in a shiva house. Each new avel was
welcomed in to our Kaddish Zugger’s (reciter’s) club, and together, we set the tempo and emotional pace of Kaddish recitation, lifted each other’s spirits and recalled our loved ones.

But alas, after the year-long journey that provided me so much comfort from and within Jewish Tradition ended on Dad’s first yartzeit (the anniversary of his death), Jewish law demanded of me that I abruptly cease my ritualistic mourning. All I felt was an empty chasm and faced a void of emptiness. Although I was no longer inconsolable in the emotional sense, my entire being and neshomah cried out to keep going, to retain a strong connection to my Dad through the medium of prayer kavannah (focused intent).

Over the past few weeks, I shifted from simply reciting words to internalizing their message. I comprehended that Kaddish is much more than a spiritual slogan, but rather it’s a call to action. Not just believing in Kaddish’s power of Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying G-d’s name) as I confidently feel my Dad did on a daily basis through his honesty; not just reciting about Kiddush Hashem as so many of my dad’s friends and relatives shared with me about him. But by
living for Kiddush Hashem.

While my tears of grief have slowly dried up and been replaced by loving memories of my Dad that inspire me to celebrate and live a fuller life, I can no longer simply remember Dad during tefillah (prayer), but must emulate his life in everything I do. I need to transfer my mourner’s journey of words from my lips to my hands and from my tongue to my feet: to incorporate Dad’s life lessons into action for all upcoming voyages that lie ahead.

Is a Jewish Dentist a Security Threat?

The crime of practicing dentistry while Jewish would be funny if it wasn’t true. But by all appearances, that’s exactly what led a retired dentist, Dr. Gershon Pincus, to be denied a needed security clearance to continue treating patients at an off-base naval clinic in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. We would normally question such accounts as being rooted in the kind of much-ballyhooed conspiracy theories that appear in our spam filters or email inboxes every day. But in this case, at least some of the facts have been confirmed.

This much we know: Pincus, a New York City resident, found a federal job working part time at the clinic in 2014. Later that year, he underwent a routine interview to obtain a security clearance for civilian employees. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, “As part of the interview, [Pincus] made note of his familial connections in Israel.” Those connections include two siblings, his mother and a son, who had served in the Israel Defense Forces and died from a drug overdose. Pincus himself also visited Israel three times in the last decade but made clear that he is not interested in moving there. In September, Pincus was denied a security clearance and was forced to quit his job.

In explaining its decision, the Office of Personnel Management told Pincus, “Foreign contacts and interests may be a security concern due to divided loyalties or foreign financial interests, may be manipulated or induced to help a foreign person, group, organization or government in a way that is not in U.S. interests or is vulnerable to pressure or coercion by foreign interests.”

It is offensive and unfair that OPM has raised the question of Pincus’ dual loyalties merely because he has family in Israel. How many Jews would be deemed poor security risks on that basis? Is it now necessary for Jews seeking security clearances who have relatives there to renounce Israel? And must those Jews also refrain from traveling to the Jewish state or risk being denied security clearances? Indeed, are all Jews inherently suspect when it comes to Israel?

Pincus has appealed the OPM decision to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. The OPM isn’t talking about the case. But just from the contours of the whole affair, we must cry foul. Pincus was filling cavities and doing other dental work in Upstate New York; he wasn’t working on the Manhattan Project.

What is it about Pincus’ ties to Israel that have disqualified him? The government better have a very good answer. And, unless he is somehow complicit in illegal activity, Pincus should be reinstated immediately with back pay and an effusive apology.

In these hypersensitive times, OPM can ill afford to make a stupid mistake.

Justice, Not Vengeance, for Freddie Gray

A protester carries a sign outside the City Circuit Court House during jury deliberations in the trial  of William G. Porter.

A protester carries a sign outside the City Circuit Court House during jury deliberations in the trial of William G. Porter.

The mistrial of Baltimore Police Officer William G. Porter, who was on trial for the death of Freddie Gray, likely satisfied no one. Most disappointed appear to be those who wanted to see Porter convicted of the charges against him: involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.

The fact that there was no rioting following the announcement — as there was after Gray’s funeral in April — is a testament to the commitment of the residents of Baltimore to see the Gray case through the justice system. Five more police officers remain to be tried in Gray’s death, and the prosecution has scheduled a retrial for Porter.

The day before the mistrial was announced, civic leaders called for a peaceful response to whatever was to come. “We, who struggle for greater justice in our society, must be prepared to do justice as well,” said U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-District 7). “We must be just whether we agree or disagree with a jury’s verdict in a single criminal trial.”

In calling for justice, Cummings and others were also encouraging all members of the Baltimore community to respect the system, even if they feel that the system has long been stacked against them. A similar sentiment was expressed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake after the mistrial was announced, when she declared: “All of us, if we believe in justice, must have respect for the outcome of the judicial process.”

Yet, in some of the protests following the announcement of the hung jury, there were some who asserted that anything less than a full conviction on all counts was a miscarriage of justice. And there were others who were even more provocative and who sought to equate justice with vengeance. We disagree, and we believe that most Baltimoreans disagree. Our system of morality and justice continues to believe that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. That is so no matter how deep the sense of wrong actually is or how forcefully a community believes that crimes have been committed.

Thankfully, the calls for justice drowned out the calls for vengeance, and our community is fortunate that the protests were peaceful. There is still a long way to go to secure justice for Freddie Gray, but one thing has become very clear: The complex and deeply divisive problems facing Baltimore will not be solved by sending six police officers to prison. Rather, resolution of the problems will depend on a comprehensive overhaul of the entire system, starting with a mismanaged police department.

Our Choice to Improve



Among the many movies bombarding television sets this time of year are two American cinema classics, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Trading Places.” Some might balk at placing such disparate titles together in the same sentence, but each film in its own way had a remarkable effect on the viewing public in the generations after its release.

“It’s a Wonderful Life,” perhaps the best-known of Jimmy Stewart’s movies, tells the story — written by Jewish-American Philip Van Doren Stern — of George Bailey, a hardworking, but not overtly successful businessman who almost succumbs to the pressures and injustice of life. Through a clerical error in the 1970s, it entered into the public domain; it has since become perhaps the most-watched holiday film ever made.

“Trading Places,” on the other hand, is arguably one of comedian Eddie Murphy’s best films. A riff on Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper,” it tells the story of an aristocratic stockbroker played by Dan Akroyd, who due to the conniving of his bosses, the Duke Brothers,  becomes a homeless criminal. At the same time, the Dukes are able to  entice the homeless character played by Murphy to become a successful titan of industry. At the center of the ruse is a $1 bet between the Dukes on whether or not nature or nurture  determines the character of mankind.

Other than the fact both movies take place around the same time of year, each makes an earnest comment on human nature. While the George Bailey of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an inherently good figure, he contemplates suicide during a crisis. When saved by his guardian angel, he goes so far into his own despondency as to wish that he’d never been born. And in the case of the main characters of “Trading Places,” while neither is  inherently good, each grows into a new role of guardian, overcoming such evils as racism and classism to bring justice to the authoritarian Dukes.

That good can comingle with evil (or at least bad) in the heart of man is nothing new. And yet, were we  to believe all of the commentary surrounding the death of Freddie Gray — this week’s cover story looks at the Jewish community’s response to the hung jury in the trial of Baltimore police officer William Porter, the first of six officers charged in Gray’s death — we would conclude that Gray was either an angelic soul cut down in his prime by evil police officers for whom beating suspects is a matter of course or that Porter, whom the prosecution is retrying, was merely doing his job in transporting a man who, if not a hardened criminal, was a drug addict with little hope of redemption.

Of course, neither narrative is true. The environments and circumstances that ultimately led to Gray’s death while in police custody will still need to be fixed whether or not Porter and five other officers are convicted. And the tragedy can — I would argue it must — serve as a cautionary tale in how sacrificing our own judgements to circumstance can bring out the worst in ourselves.

At the end of the day, every single one of us, if put in the right (or wrong) environment, may make (or contemplate) some horrible choices. But we also have the ability to rise above our environment and let the good that exists within to shine brightly. If the next calendar year is to be better than this one, it’s going to require all of us resolving to do the  ultimate good and to improve not only ourselves, but our community  as well.

The Importance of a United Front Parshat Vayigash

It’s not always easy to get along with your brothers and sisters, especially if they are younger than you.  They disturb you when you’re trying to do your homework. They interrupt you when you’re trying to have a conversation with your friends. They tease you about all sorts of things. They mess with your belongings.

My parents insist that my siblings and I love each other, be nice to each other and always stick together, no matter what. The truth is that — sometimes — brothers and sisters can be helpful and nice to have around. Sometimes, it can even be fun to take care of them and help them too. As a united family sitting together, my siblings and I are much stronger, smarter, more capable and
better off than as individuals scattered in our rooms.

This week’s sedra, Parshat Vayigash, begins with Yehuda offering himself up as a prisoner in exchange for the freedom of his baby brother, Binyamin. It is noteworthy that this is the same Yehuda who — just two weeks prior, in Parashat Vayeshev — was the one who suggested that his self-absorbed brother, Yosef, should be sold as a slave to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites. Clearly, after seeing how the separation of his siblings had brought sorrow to his father, Yaakov, Yehuda has finally learned his lesson. Sometimes, I catch myself being the “not-very-good” Yehuda who mistreats his younger sibling. Sometimes, I see myself as the honorable and “better” Yehuda who protects his younger sibling.

In Parshat Vayigash, we see how much Yehuda has matured from when he sold Yosef into slavery. But even Yosef has changed for the better. He is no longer the self-absorbed boy who longs to have his siblings bow down to him. Fortunately for the Jewish People, the now mature Yosef is impressed by Yehuda’s new sense of family values. If being forgiving will help keep my family united, I think I could give it a try more often.

In this week’s haftarah, God instructs Yehezkel to take two branches, one for the kingdom of Yehudah and one for the kingdom of Israel (or Ephraim), and hold them together, making them into one branch for all the people to see. God promises that, in a similar fashion, He will gather up our people from wherever they have been dispersed and make them into one strong nation again, united forever in the Land of Israel. Clearly, it is important to God that all of Jewish People stay united.  It seems to me that God sounds a lot like mom and dad.

The last thing I would want to do is to bring sorrow to my parents or to God. As a bar mitzvah, I know that it is expected that I will be responsible for my actions, that I will be a righteous person and a good brother too.  Wondering how — after 13 years of only sometimes being a good brother — I might all of a sudden manage to become so wise, I am encouraged by how far Yehuda had come since his misdeeds of just two weeks prior. If he could come so far so fast — I suppose I can too!

Why Campus Anti-Racism Protests Are Bad for Jews

A day before University of Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler made headlines with a hunger strike protesting racism on campus, a coalition of 36 Jewish and civil rights organizations contacted the university’s chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin, to protest a vile act of anti-Semitism that had recently occurred at Mizzou: Someone had used feces to smear a swastika on a bathroom wall.

In our letter, we criticized Loftin for not promptly and publicly addressing this act, which targeted Jewish students and made them feel threatened and unsafe. Little did we know that Butler, in an open letter to the university’s leadership in early November, would cite the swastika as his last straw, the latest in a “a slew of racist, sexist, homophobic” incidents that drove him to swear off all food unless the university president was removed.

The threats worked. Less than a week after beginning his hunger strike, Mizzou president Tim Wolfe stepped down. Hours later, Loftin followed suit.

Unfortunately, the current rash of campus protests has shown itself to be far more likely to hurt Jewish students than to help them. There are two main reasons why.

First, university administrators are less likely to address anti-Semitism in the wake of the Mizzou-inspired protests. In part, this is because administrators are so overwhelmed with meeting or deflecting the demands of protesters, they simply do not have the time or energy to focus on Jewish students.

Administrators are also afraid of appearing to favor Jewish students. Recently, I called a top administrator at the University of Central Florida to discuss some neo-Nazi fliers that had been posted in and around UCF dormitories. I expressed my dismay that although the fliers had been discovered several days before, the university had yet to make a public statement about them. The administrator responded that he was afraid to do so lest it be seen by campus protesters as pandering to Jewish interests and lead to further campus unrest. University administrators too busy or too scared to address anti-Semitism leave Jewish students vulnerable and unprotected.

Second, anti-Israel student groups who often target Jewish students for harassment and discrimination have opportunistically aligned themselves with anti-racism protesters to more forcefully promote their anti-Zionist agenda. At the University of North Carolina, anti-Israel groups have insinuated into the protesters’ demands a call for UNC to immediately divest from “Israeli apartheid.” The manipulative injection of such demands into the anti-racism movement and the alliances being forged will likely make the campus climate even more hostile, threatening and unsafe for Jewish students.

While no one knows for sure how long the current campus unrest will last or how much impact it will ultimately have, there are clear signs that Jewish students will not be among its beneficiaries and are quite likely to be among its greatest casualties.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is a lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz and co-founder and director of the Amcha Initiative, a nonprofit that combats campus anti-Semitism.

A Choice That Needs Protection

The recent violent assault on a Planned Parenthood center in Colorado is a cause for concern among all people of goodwill, regardless of political or religious affiliation. The staff members and clients who were killed or injured are spouses, parents, siblings, children. Their families are left to mourn, to try to recuperate and to heal and to come to terms with the sudden violence that has changed their lives forever. We extend our condolences to the families of those killed and our prayers for healing for those injured.

But as in so many tragically similar events, “thoughts and prayers” are inadequate responses if they do not lead to action that reduces the chance of more such events occurring. As members of the clergy we want to move beyond compassionate concern to explanation, clarification and advocacy.

Both routinely and recently, charges of medical and ethical malpractice have been made against Planned Parenthood. The alleged evidence documenting such behavior has been shown either not to exist or to be inaccurately edited to present a false impression.

Planned Parenthood provides a wide range of services including, but going beyond, contraception and abortion. For many women, children and families, Planned Parenthood is the only available, accessible and affordable route to such services as screening for diabetes, high blood pressure and anemia. These services, as well as those relating to reproduction, need to be protected.

The clients who choose Planned Parenthood for medical and related consultations and treatments are accessing legally protected services. While violent physical assaults on Planned Parenthood centers are thankfully rare, many women visiting a Planned Parenthood center are subject to harassment, intimidation and emotional assault, most often by those opposed to abortion. Regardless of one’s ethical convictions, we are responsible for maintaining a civil as well as lawful level of debate and dissent.

Jewish tradition affirms that life begins at birth. A fetus is a potential life in formation until the moment of birth, not an “unborn child.” Until the actual birth, according to Jewish law, the health and safety of the mother take precedence.

Jewish tradition both allows for and in some cases mandates abortion, most clearly when the life of the mother is at risk as a consequence of a pregnancy. Jewish religious authorities differ as to how narrowly or broadly to interpret “the life of the mother,” but all would agree that abortion in certain cases is a choice that can be made and needs to be protected.

As members of the clergy, we express our strong support for the work of Planned Parenthood and our solidarity with the professionals and volunteers who provide a wide range of medical and related services for women, children and families. We condemn the targeting of Planned Parenthood in current political discourse. We oppose the misleading and especially the untruthful accusations made against Planned Parenthood. We support the right of women to make legally protected profound and difficult personal decisions, and to be supported when they choose by Planned Parenthood in making those decisions.

Rabbis Marla Hornsten and Ari Lorge are co-chairs of JWI’s Clergy Task Force on Domestic Abuse, a multi-denominational group committed to providing leadership by speaking publicly, developing and disseminating resources and training and providing guidance to clergy working with families experiencing abuse.

Progress in the Absence of Peace

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin: “Cultivating channels of communication … improves our situation.” (Itzike via Wikimedia Commons.)

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin: “Cultivating channels of communication … improves our situation.” (Itzike via Wikimedia Commons.)

In an op-ed in The Washington Post last week, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin outlined a kinder, gentler right-wing approach to the Palestinians living under Israeli control that would focus on improving basic services and quality of life in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In the absence of “a viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he wrote, “Israel must take steps to improve the situation independent of the geopolitical territorial debate.”

Rivlin’s recommendation set the stage for his U.S. tour, which included an audience with President Barack Obama, an appearance at one of the White House’s two annual Chanukah parties and stops at major Jewish institutions in Washington and New York. By all accounts, his pronouncements fell on eager ears.

Rivlin, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, touted the new planned Palestinian city of Rawabi as an example of the progress that can be made even without negotiations toward a final settlement of the conflict. Rawabi, a green, tech-savvy middle-class town, was constructed almost entirely in “Area A” — land which is under full civil and security control by the Palestinian Authority and, according to the defunct Oslo accords, will become part of the Palestinian state.

While the Israeli government initially delayed connecting Rawabi’s water pipeline to Israeli sources as a concession to settler demands, Netanyahu intervened last spring to bring water to the city. That’s a good thing, Rivlin wrote, because fundamentally, a city such as Rawabi is in Israel’s interest. “Likewise, it is clear that cultivating channels of communication and cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian businessmen, educators and cultural figures improves our situation.”

And he encouraged more comprehensive services for residents in East Jerusalem, asking rhetorically: “Does anyone think that dealing with the sewage, roads, schools and medical centers of eastern Jerusalem can or should wait until the end of the conflict?”

It is heartening to hear Rivlin’s focus on the welfare of the Palestinians under Israel’s control. And his urgings make sense. In doing so, he joins other prominent Israelis who are suggesting ways to respond to the absence of formal peace negotiations: For example, retired Brig. Gen. Udi Dekel, the lead Israeli negotiator in the failed 2008 round of talks, was also in D.C. last week. At a J Street presentation he suggested that Israel unilaterally declare a Palestinian state. While that suggestion goes further than the Palestinians themselves seem to want, and isn’t particularly practical, it highlights the desperate need for some movement in the absence of peace negotiations.

We applaud Rivlin’s focus on improving the lives of Palestinians in the here and now, even without granting them a state, since doing so will make the path to a future state much easier once both sides are ready to return to the bargaining table.

Key to Student Success?

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law last week, was a triumph of bipartisan cooperation between Congress and the administration. The successor to No Child Left Behind, the new law will affect some 50 million students and 3.4 million teachers.

Like No Child Left Behind, which President George W. Bush proposed to reverse the “soft bigotry of low expectations” in education for poor and non-white students, ESSA continues to require mandatory testing. But unlike the earlier law, ESSA returns to the states the ability to develop methods to assess school quality.

“The goals of No Child Left Behind were the right ones — high standards, accountability, closing the achievement gap, making sure every child was learning,” Obama said at the signing ceremony. “But in practice, it often fell short. … It led to too much testing during classroom time, [forcing] schools and school districts into cookie-cutter reforms that didn’t produce the kind of results that we wanted to see.”

We applaud the bipartisanship of the ESSA effort. Notwithstanding the all-too-familiar political bickering on other issues, Congress and the administration came together on this effort for the purest of reasons: our children. They recognized that an educated citizenry is key to a prosperous future and a secure country and that depriving young Americans an adequate education is an injustice.

We are also encouraged by the enhancement of local control over education under the new law. Local government is better able to effectuate change than the federal government. But that power comes with a responsibility and accountability.

The unfortunate history of education in this country is that those tasked with preparing future generations for an uncertain world often fail at the task. For example, it wasn’t the federal government that wasted taxpayer money, time and other precious resources to pursue false-science and social-
engineering approaches in curricula. Rather, it was the very same local school districts who are now going to be invested with new responsibility under ESSA.

The primary reason for No Child Left Behind was that states were leaving millions of children behind. Now that control has returned to municipalities, we urge them to rise above the social wars of the past. Under ESSA, there must be no backsliding. For if we can’t educate our children, what good is everything else?