Jewish Dems: Wake Up!

So first there was our “great Israel supporter” Nancy Pelosi, who during the Obamacare vote, immediately supported it after saying, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” Now, we have “great Israel supporter” Ben Cardin who just announced he will vote against the Iran Deal (It’s Not Over Till It’s Over,” Sept. 11) but only after months of delay and only after “great Israel supporter” and fellow retiring (how convenient) Md. Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s decision made the deal’s passage assured, stating that “he had to deliberately work his way through the details.”

What “really” took so long, Sen. Cardin? Obvious backdoor politics? Shameful.

What has happened to the Democratic Party of decades ago, the one I knew and loved when we had so many national and local Democratic leaders such as Hubert Humphrey and William Donald Schaefer, who never wavered in their support of Israel and never allowed party politics to trump that support.

Decades ago, it would have been Russia that would have proposed such a deal, and every Democrat in the U.S. and many of our allies in Europe would have laughed at it while condemning it as both foolhardy and an obvious threat to Israel’s survival.

Today, so much has changed in the Democratic Party. Now, even Israel’s previous supporters, when their political backs have been put against a wall, put party politics over Israel’s security. Shame on all of them. Wake up Jewish-voting Democrats. Wake up before it is too late.

‘Pillar of Stability’: Not Israel

Second verse, same as the first: The ZOA’s penchant for misinformation continues.

Marc Caroff (Your Say, Sept. 4) makes a gantze tzimmus over the fact that “the present Iran deal makes a mockery of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons” — a venerable document, he insists, that “almost every nation on earth is party to.”

He forgets to mention, however, that one country — whose nuclear arsenal is alleged to be in the hundreds — that is not a party to the NPT is Israel.

If the NPT is, in his words, such a “pillar of stability … a miracle of international diplomacy,” why has the Jewish state, whose policies the ZOA automatically defends as infallible, seen fit to forgo participating in it?

In short: Caroff takes Iran vigorously to task for reneging on commitments to an agreement that Israel itself has completely turned its back on and tuned out, either because the Jewish state has no time for it or because it regards it as inimical to its welfare. In other words, in its glorification of the NPT, this letter comes off more as a cheap shot against Israel than as an indictment of Iran.

Dems Beware!

Feeling grateful for an act that a senator did more than 30 years ago and continuing to support her after taking our community for granted is not wise (“The Right Path,” Sept. 11).  At the time when Sen. Barbara Mikulski helped the Persian Jews come to the United States, it did not cost her any political risks. Likewise, Sen. Ben Cardin waited until there was a veto-proof majority guaranteed by Mikulski’s support of the Iran deal to come out against it; he also was part of the Corker-Cardin bill that undercut the power of the Senate to review the agreement.

Both of our senators have taken our votes for granted and will learn that no matter what they do, we will still support them. We are at a point where, if we continue to support the Democrats, we will have lost any political influence.

There are Republicans who are looking for our support. Dr. Mark Plaster and Richard Douglas are very much against the Iran deal and are busy meeting in our community because they want our support. They will work with us and be grateful for our help. We need to learn from the experience of the eastern part of Baltimore County. It was once a loyal Democrat area, but when the
Democrats failed to listen to their constituents, they were voted out.

Yom Kippur Message: Take Nothing for Granted

On Tuesday last week, exactly one week before Rosh Hashanah, Israel awoke to a blinding sandstorm which strangely emanated from the east, from Syria and Iraq. Local meteorologists said that in the 75 years they had been keeping records, they had never seen a sandstorm coming from that direction.

Generally we are affected by such storms from time to time that have their source in the Sahara, to the west. But this particular event, which continues even until today, albeit somewhat abated, was stronger than most. It was impossible to see the sun during the day and, at times, even impossible to see the building next door through our windows.

What are we to make of that? As a traditional Jew, and somewhat of a mystic as well, I could see this as a direct message from God. After all, this was not a natural occurrence in meteorological terms, no one could remember such a thing happening previously and even the intensity of the storm was stronger than one would expect here. So there are a number of possibilities.

The first is that the good Lord is not so happy about the way his children are taking care of his world and is sending us a message: If you don’t take proper care of My world, including observing My directions to you personally and as a community, I will make it impossible for you to see even that which is front of your eyes.

There is a second possibility. God is simply but forcefully reminding us that we should take nothing for granted.

After all, everything we do in our lives that depends on sight has been impacted this by the sandstorm.

This, therefore, is indeed the essential message of this period of introspection, that we should absolutely take nothing for granted. Not our health which can deteriorate in a heartbeat (or lack thereof), not our families for whom we should be grateful every moment, not our livelihoods which can be negatively affected by forces out of our control, and certainly not our relationship to God and his earth, which is already showing significant effects of our misuse of the planet.

So next week when we traditional Jews spend endless hours in the synagogue beseeching the One above to grant us another year of life, and we make all those promises about how we will change our lives, perhaps we should make a series of other, equally important commitments. That is, to be more mindful of how we take care of ourselves, to express our love for family more often, to be kinder and more considerate of our business associates, to be more mindful of how we treat the planet and, of course, there is no end to this list.

For at the end of the day, we all want sunshine in our lives, and would prefer not to be blinded by sandstorms independent of how they may have generated.

Is Migration Crisis Really a Holocaust Comparison?

Chaim Landau is past president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis and rabbi emeritus at Ner Tamid Congregation.

Chaim Landau is past president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis and rabbi emeritus at Ner Tamid Congregation.

I have written previously of this crisis with the warning that the millions of Muslim migrants that Europe allows to enter its borders could very well radically change the entire continent, changing the cultural, social and indeed religious foundation of Christian Europe as we know it.

And now the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Saks, my teacher, mentor and paradigm of not only a Jewish leader, but of a spiritual leader for the world, has written that we Jews should feel the strongest toward these people because of our unique tragic Holocaust experience. The Hungarian chief rabbi remarked:

“It was horrifying where I saw these images (of migrants in Europe). It reminded me of Auschwitz.”

Others, too, have jumped onto the band-wagon of the Holocaust to intimidate others, especially Jews into doing all they can to assist the sorry plight of these hundreds of thousands (soon to be millions) of human cargo.

I must disagree. They are truly all wrong, and any comparison with the Shoah desecrates the souls of the 6 million who were gassed, tortured, shot, raped and annihilated in terms too horrific to comprehend.

Let’s remember that Jews were rounded up by Nazis all over Europe for the sole and focused intention of being exterminated en masse by whatever methods then available to the murderers. The refugees of Syria, Libya and others are leaving their countries because their own governments have turned on them.

They are leaving voluntarily for economic betterment, to prevent themselves being further statistics in the Middle East disaster that continues to claim so many lives. There is no Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen or Majdanek to temporarily keep them before gassing them all; there are no gangs of SS killers to shoot entire families in the tens of thousands in a horrific paradigm of mass murder.

Rather, Europeans have appeared at train stations around Europe where these individuals have been dropped off and have brought anything they can buy, find or collect in order to help alleviate the conditions of the migrants. And this is to remind us of the Holocaust? Are these so-called leaders absolutely off their rocker?

Most of the migrants are from Muslim countries, and they have been brought up on a diet of hatred for the Western civilization, hatred of America, hatred of Israel, hatred of Jews, hatred of Christians. And you want Christian Europe to absorb the stratospheric numbers of these people?

The critical question no one has asked is: Why are these migrants choosing to go to Christian Europe … and not Muslim dominated countries such as Morocco, Tunisia or even the oil-rich states of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates? What is the moral obligation of Europe to accept them? It seems all comparisons with the Holocaust have psyched them into action that may put their future, and the lives of their people, at great risk.

Any further comparison with our Holocaust must be neutralized and expunged, because there is absolutely no comparison. It truly is a sorry picture watching the ever-increasing numbers of these unfortunates; but it is an even bigger tragedy thinking that the crisis deserves a parallel comparison with the Holocaust. Nothing could ever be so further from the truth.

Treating the Cause of the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Migrants and refugees with temporary documents board a ferry to take them to Athens at the port of the Greek island of Kos.

Migrants and refugees with temporary documents board a ferry to take them to Athens at the port of the Greek island of Kos.

There is no question that Europe should take in refugees fleeing violence in Syria, as should the United States. Israel also could take in refugees, as opposition leader Isaac Herzog has called on the government to do — even though we recognize the issues of concern that must be addressed before such a move is made. But even before the world saw the heartbreaking photo of the body of a Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach, the largest refugee crisis since World War II demanded more of the world community than the stop-gap refugee placement measures being discussed now in world capitals.

In the four years since Syria’s civil war began, 250,000 of its citizens have been killed and 4 million have fled. Most are in camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan waiting for the world to act. Now Syrians are fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea to a hoped-for safe haven in Europe. But merely welcoming those who survive the harrowing journey is not enough, since it does nothing to address the cause of this human catastrophe.

The root of the crisis can be traced to the 2011 decision of Syria’s Assad regime to meet a peaceful protest movement with guns and tanks, and later, as the protests morphed into a radical Sunni-led insurgency, with barrel bombs and chemical weapons. That insurgency, which now wears the face of the so-called Islamic State, terrorizes the people, beheads its prisoners and destroys the country’s antiquities.

Who wouldn’t want to escape from such a terrifying environment?

There is plenty of blame to be shared for the outrages in Syria. The United States deserves its share, for setting red lines and not enforcing them, and for creating the impression with its tepid response to this crisis that the Middle East region is no longer of strategic concern to the White House. Russia is to be blamed for lending the Assad regime diplomatic support, just as Iran continues to support the regime militarily. To their own discredit, oil-rich Gulf states who backed rival Sunni militias have joined Egypt in refusing to take in refugees. And Europe has largely stood by as the death and destruction in Syria have continued for four years; only now is it just beginning to react.

A renewed international effort needs to be developed. But the plan needs to focus on more than just desperate refugees. Instead, the international effort must aim for a far more complex and difficult political solution in Syria. Let history be our guide — if the world community doesn’t solve the problems at the root of this metastasizing crisis, all we are going to get is more death and more refugees.

The Meaning of Religious Freedom

In the American folk-hero sweepstakes, Kim Davis doesn’t come close to Norma Rae or Rosa Parks. Davis is the clerk of Rowan County, Ky., who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and served five days in jail for contempt of court. In playing out her act of defiance, Davis was not speaking religious-freedom truth to power. Instead, she was flouting the law of the land, enshrined in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legalized gay marriage.

We don’t question Davis’ claimed religious belief. Nor would we support an effort to force her to do something that violates her religious dictates. But there is nothing unique about Davis’ religious dilemma.

Our country has always made room in law and in custom for conscientious objectors. Be it Muslims who don’t want to distribute alcohol, Jehovah’s Witnesses who don’t want to raise flags or Jews who don’t want to work on Saturday, we have supported “workarounds” — in which another worker performs the duties that the employee feels violate his or her religious conscience. These kinds of religious accommodations make the life of our citizenry more comfortable, without threatening the cohesion of our government or society. Just such a workaround could easily be implemented in the Rowan County Clerk’s office.

The real threat from the Davis situation comes from those who have tried to exploit the case and tried to elevate it into a threat to religious freedom. For example, former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has described the Davis case as “the criminalization of Christianity in this country,” saying that “we must defend religious liberty and never surrender to judicial tyranny.” Huckabee’s call against “judicial tyranny” is demagoguery, and his claim that that Christianity is under attack rings false. Obergefell v. Hodges is no more tyrannical than the landmark campaign finance case Citizens United, with which many people disagreed. But not every disagreement needs to be elevated to an existential confrontation.

Polls show that more religious Americans approve of same-sex marriage than not. Whether the Kim Davises of the country are in the majority or the minority, their rights must be protected. But that protection cannot come at undue cost to everyone else.

Twice Born Parshat Nitzavim

We have lately become accustomed to reading accounts of clergymen, teachers and rabbis who take advantage, in very ugly ways, of the young people who are in their charge. Whenever I read these accounts, I think back to when I was a young boy and to some of the rabbis and teachers that I experienced. Let me tell you about one of them.

He was the young rabbi of a small congregation in Brooklyn, NY, far away from the neighborhood in which I grew up. He invited a small group of high school students, some tenth-graders and some eleventh-graders, to meet with him once a month. I was one of those students. We came from what seemed to us to be a random variety of different Jewish parochial high schools. I no longer
remember how we were chosen, or how we were first informed about this monthly group.

He told us that this would be a discussion group, not a class, and that we would focus on ways to become better. He told us that if we were asked what the sessions were all about we should simply say that they were about “self-improvement.” I must admit that we were suspicious when he emphasized that the group was to be a “secret” one, and that everything that transpired within the group session would have to remain confidential.

The rabbi did not have much of a public reputation then, and indeed it would not be exaggerating to say that his name was obscure. Much later, he became quite well known, even famous. Today, long after his death, he has gained world-wide popularity because of his books and audio recordings.

I still treasure the notebook in which I recorded summaries of each of the sessions over the course of nearly a year and a half. The first session was held at this time of year, just at the beginning of our school term and shortly before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

The sessions were held in his synagogue study, which was illuminated only by his desk lamp, lending a mysterious aura and setting a solemn mood for what was to ensue. He opened the session by asking us to introduce ourselves, one by one. He then began his introductory remarks:

“The month of Elul is drawing to a close. We will soon experience Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the sacred days between them. We are called upon to repent, to do teshuva. Tell me, boys — what, in your opinion, is teshuva?”

I don’t recall precisely what any of us said and don’t even remember if I responded at all. But all who spoke up used the word “sin” in their responses. And each and every time the word “sin” was uttered, the rabbi shook his head vigorously, exclaiming, “No! No! No!”

He then asked each of us to take a Chumash, or Bible, from the shelf in his study. He asked us to turn to the pages of the week’s Torah portion, which was the very Torah portion we read in synagogue this week, Parshat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20). He directed us to read aloud the opening verses of chapter 30. I was assigned to read the first verse, and then my companions were each to read the subsequent verses, one at a time. And so we read about “returning to God … with all your heart and soul.” And that then “the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love.” In short, we learned about the relationship between repentance and redemption.

He then explained to us, using a pedagogical approach that none of us had ever experienced before, that redemption was just another word for a new beginning, a rebirth, a new life. “Repentance, teshuva, is not really about sin at all. It is about choosing to be reborn, to begin a new life, to become a different person.”

Every year, at this time of year, I think back to that dimly lit room and to that mentor of mine who helped me come to grips with the real challenge of this season in the Jewish religious calendar. Yes, we have all sinned during the past year, and we must repent for those sins. But that is not the essence of our mission as the New Year approaches. Its essence, he taught us, is not about sin. It is about life, new challenges, and a time for us to redefine ourselves as extensively as we can.

As I matured, I began to come across texts in my readings, some sacred texts and some secular ones, which supported that rabbi’s contention. Not more than a year or two after that experience, when I was a senior in high school, I chose to write my senior thesis on the book “The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.” This was my first encounter with James, whose writings are now among my lifelong favorites.

James’ masterpiece is a treasure chest of wisdom. One of his wisest insights is the distinction he makes between the “once born” and the “twice born.” The “once born” person takes life as it comes. He has no doubts and is not troubled by questions such as, “Is this all there is to life?” He is unconcerned about life’s purpose and is basically content to, using a contemporary idiom, “take each day as it comes.”

Not so the “twice born.” James calls him the “sick soul,” not because he is ill, but because he is constantly discontent. He cannot be satisfied with a superficial life. He constantly asks himself questions about the meaning of his life. He struggles with inner conflicts, with uncertainty and doubt, and, yes, even with episodes of depression and despair. His solution to his quandary is to periodically
redefine his life in his search for answers to his existential questions.

Using different language, of course, the rabbi of my early high school years was encouraging us to consciously and conscientiously choose to number ourselves among the “twice born.”

It was much later in my life when I first heard the inspirational sermons of Rabbi S. M. Schwadron, of blessed memory, who was known throughout the Jewish world as the great Maggid, or preacher, of Jerusalem. I heard him talk just prior to the Shabbat when we read this week’s parshah. I still retain my notes of that sermon and, quite frankly, “borrow” from it frequently in my own sermons. He had many insightful, even prescient, comments to make. But the one comment that dominates, and quite literally haunts, my conscience at this time of year was the sentence he used to emphasize his oration:

“Teshuva iz nisht besser tzu verren, nahr anderish tzu verren.” Teshuva is not about becoming better. It is about becoming different.

That group of adolescents of which I was privileged to be a member certainly did not experience any abuse at the hands of our wonderful mentor. Quite the contrary, he imparted to us guidelines that were immensely helpful to us in our teenage years and became even more helpful to us as we matured.

But wait! Perhaps he did manipulate us. After all, he promised us that we would be learning about self-improvement. Did he not deceive us? His lessons were not about self-improvement. They were about self-transformation.

No, he surely did not deceive us. He merely told us, in his own words, what Maimonides wrote more than eight centuries ago: “The one who repents is advised to change his name, as if to say, ëI have a different identity. I am no longer the same person who once acted that way.’ He must change his actions thoroughly for the better and walk a different and straighter path.”

Adapt and Move On

Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief

Pay as you go. Do it yourself. Steady as she goes.

Take a look around and you’ll likely see a challenging world out there for your neighborhood synagogues, and the above options are only some of the new models “old” institutions are trying in order to keep up with the times. Even in the Orthodox community, brick-and-mortar institutions are beset by a multitude of pressures, including how to provide for members who are financially challenged and serve the needs of a rapidly expanding pop-ulation of children, all while keeping the lights on and the air conditioning running.

On the brink of a new year, the JT reached out to every single synagogue in our “Baltimore Guide to Jewish Life” — as well as other institutions that didn’t make the list — to see how they are grappling with the challenges of a downturn economy and a membership less likely than in generations past to view the synagogue as the be-all and end-all of communal life.

As you’ll read in this week’s cover story, reporter Justin Katz was able to connect with more than 25 percent of the roughly 80 synagogues reached. They ran the gamut of denominational affiliations and stretched from Howard County to Harford County, and while each one’s circumstances were different, they all acknowledged that Jewish life today is not like Jewish life of yesteryear.

Many have realized in their own ways that the traditional model of dues-paying members is not enough to keep massive institutions going.

“We’ve been followings studies about affiliations, and [the current] membership-dues model is a disincentive,” reports Rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom Congregation, a Conservative congregation in Columbia. “To a certain extent, it is more similar to a business model like a health club, and it equates synagogue membership as a discretionary income decision rather than an identity.”

Beth Shalom’s response has been a hybrid model that allows members to pay what they can. Elsewhere, Chabad-Lubavitch congregations, such as the one led by Rabbi Kushi Schusterman in Bel Air, have for years eschewed the concept of membership in favor of an “all are welcome” approach. And other synagogues, such as  Temple Emanuel, have looked to space-sharing arrangements .

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky identifies the phenomenon as generational: “It’s a cultural shift taking place,” he writes in “New Membership & Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue.” “What was once an innovation is now, like other American institutions, being challenged.”

Which brings up the natural question: Is this bad for the Jews?

While on the one hand, traditional walled synagogues’ loss of influence in American Jewish life should be regarded with concern, it’s not as if American Jews are without Jewish affiliation or religion. All over the country, do-it-yourself models of Judaism are popping up in urban apartments and suburban community centers.

It certainly poses a challenge for rabbis and educators to enlighten and inspire new generations of followers, who are much more likely than their parents to question authority and assert the power to define Jewish life as they see fit.

But in reality, these kinds of generational divides and cultural shifts have been taking place for a long time. It’s part of the fabric of our history and the animating spirit behind individuals claiming Judaism as theirs.

As so much else in life, we needn’t waste time debating the reality. We just need to learn how to adapt and live with it.

jrunyan@midatlanticmedia.com

Support Iran Deal and Help Wage Peace

Waging diplomacy, in concert with other major powers, has resulted in an agreement to dramatically shrink Iran’s nuclear program and to give unprecedented, detailed access to international inspectors. I am thrilled that Sen. Barbara Mikulski has joined those senators who have announced their support in favor of the Iran diplomacy! Unfortunately, Sen. Ben  Cardin failed to join her in voting for this major diplomatic achievement toward enduring peace.

We are subjected to fear-inducing TV ads that fail to address the consequences of defaulting from this international deal.  We listen to the thundering of those who are said to represent us but who see fighting as the best and only solution to every difficulty.  We feel belittled by the intrusion of an aggressive, non-U.S. governmental figure urging our Congress toward yet more war.  However, after 13 years of our wasteful, ineffective warfare in other people’s countries, we keep in mind that our oceans do not protect us from the personal consequences of warfare anywhere in the world.

We must support international negotiations that effectively reduce the possibility of nuclear warfare erupting in the Middle East.  Furthermore, such resolute diplomacy on the part of our State Department and those of the other major powers has opened channels to actively address enduring conflicts there and elsewhere.

Please urge your congressional representatives to support the Iran deal and help wage peace!