Heed Begin’s Words From 30 Years Ago

With the looming drama surrounding the Iran nuke deal (“Iran: No Deal Is Better Than Bad Deal” and ‘Were Not Giving Away Anything,’ Sept. 4), I strongly believe as the main source of Jewish press in Baltimore, you should be required to print a speech given by Menachem Begin in May 1981. The short speech was his response when he was asked about the lessons learned from the Holocaust. Though given over 30 years ago, this speech is equally as relevant today and should be a  foundational approach to modern-day Jewish values no matter what your Jewish denomination, political party or even Jewish beliefs. One must not forget the Nazi’s did not care about any of that, and surely neither do the Iranians. Here is a link to the speech: aish.com/ho/i/Menachem-Begin-on-the-Lessons-of-the-Holocaust.html

Let’s Not Repeat the Europe of 1940

Susie Gelman is a part owner of Mid-Atlantic Media, publisher of the Baltimore Jewish Times.

Susie Gelman is a part owner of Mid-Atlantic Media, publisher of the Baltimore Jewish Times.

The images of Syrian refugees attempting to flee the unrelenting efforts by the Assad government to murder its own people in a civil war that has gone on for more than four years, resulting in one of the largest population upheavals since World War II, are searing, unforgettable and heartbreaking. Eleven million Syrians (half of the pre-war population) are displaced; 4 million are currently living in five neighboring countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Turkey); and hundreds of thousands are attempting to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece, a very dangerous and life-threatening journey.

As a people whose collective memory is marked by serial efforts to annihilate us over the millennia, most notably during the Holocaust, we have particular reason to identify with the Syrian refugees.

As a people whose collective memory is marked by serial efforts to annihilate us over the millennia, most notably during the Holocaust, we have particular reason to identify with the Syrian refugees.  The world stood by when Hitler and his nefarious accomplices wiped out the Jews of Europe.  While Bashar al-Assad is not necessarily the modern equivalent of Hitler and the Syrian civil war is not equivalent to the “final solution” to rid Europe of its Jews, the parallels in human suffering are manifest.  Unlike 75 years ago, today’s world is instantly united via the Internet, by the access to images and videos in real time, leaving the extent of human suffering undeniable.  The image of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi­­­­­­s lifeless body being carried ashore by a Turkish policeman captured the world’s attention — if only for a moment. The question is how to prevent more needless loss of life and how to give these refugees a safe haven in which to begin their lives anew.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, a similarly desperate population tried to escape Nazi Germany and the surrounding countries as they fell quickly to Nazi rule. The White Paper of 1939, promulgated by the British government under then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine to a maximum of 75,000 between the years of 1940 and 1944 — precisely the time when the ability to make aliyah was most needed.  More than 100,000 Jews attempted to illegally enter Palestine by boat under Aliyah Bet between 1939 and 1948.

Most refugees were intercepted by the British and sent to camps in Cyprus; some were sent back to their countries of origin; others drowned at sea; and only a few hundred actually managed to make it ashore to the Holy Land.  The United States was equally culpable of restricting immigration before and during the war years — a notorious example was the S.S. St. Louis, which left Hamburg, Germany, in May 1939 with nearly 1,000 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany on board.  After only a few passengers were allowed to disembark in Havana, the United States refused to allow the remaining passengers to enter via Miami, and the boat was sent back to Europe in June of 1939.

Given our own collective experience, how can we Jews turn our backs on an equally desperate population of refugees?  Our tradition teaches us that we know how it feels to be a foreigner, because [we] were once foreigners in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23:9).  The exodus from Syria is a global problem, but the United States can do its part to welcome some of the refugees who seek asylum, safety and a new life, and we can join in a Jewish response to this humanitarian disaster by supporting the ongoing efforts of the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, being administered by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

As we enter the Days of Awe, the Yamim Nora’im, and contemplate what we can do to make the world a better place in the months and years ahead — we can start by helping those most desperately in need, who inhabit our living rooms every evening on the national news.  Let us not turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, lest our own painful history be repeated with our fellow human beings — lest Europe of 2015 become Europe of 1940.

Refugees And The (Young) Jewish Problem

Neil Rubin, Ph.D., is a former senior editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times and an area educator.

Neil Rubin, Ph.D., is a former senior editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times and an area educator.

By now the haunting vision of the dead 3-year-old Syrian boy — Aylan Kurdi — on a Turkish beach is iconic. It is a horrifyingly painful representation of the plight of the world’s latest wave of refugees, but one in a year with more forced expatriates than any point since World War II’s bloody end.

Upon seeing the photograph, as human beings we responded with horror in our hearts. As Jews, we wrung our hands. What to do? We do, of course, have a never-ceasing agenda. And a handful of groups — such as HIAS and interfaith groups with Jews — are helping.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has noted that the country “is not indifferent to human tragedy.” Yet, he added, “Israel is a very small country. It has no demographic depth and has no geographic breadth. We must protect our borders against illegal immigrants and against the perpetrators of terrorism. We cannot allow Israel to be flooded with infiltrators.”

He is backed by his electorate. Polls this week showed 11 percent of the nation didn’t want the refugees; 80 percent said the country has no role in the global crisis.

But in America we can do a great deal — and it won’t cost much time or money. And it might help in the endless campaign to invigorate our younger generation, the one that sees American Jewish life and structures as “aging in place.” Indeed, a hearty number of younger Jews, those who avoid synagogues and educational opportunities, are far from bereft of universalistic Jewish values.
So this is the moment to strike.

What does that mean? Could Jewish federations — or groups of smaller ones — each sponsor at least one refugee family? It does not mean bringing them to this country (the way we brought hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews here in my youth). Rather, it means sponsoring them in Europe, partnering with our Jewish communities there. Think of teaming up here with Hillels, Moishe Houses and other Jewish operations that on a micro-level have built deep personal relationships with Jews of the younger generation.

And let’s be crass for a moment: What a wonderful opportunity for hasbarah (positive publicity).

Rather than pontificate others to action, I am willing to serve on a committee or find other ways to help.

Why do I say this? Because as a teenager I remember being so moved by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s reaching out to 300 Vietnamese refugees driven from their country — “the boat people.” As a former Polish refugee, while not personally religious, Begin had a deep respect for Jewish tradition. As he put it: “We never have forgotten the boat with 900 Jews, the St. Louis, having left Germany in the last weeks before the Second World War… traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge. They were refused… Therefore it was natural… to give those people a haven in the Land of Israel.”

In short, he showed us that one could take Jewish values and apply them to the planet. I was hooked. So it wasn’t just Soviet Jewish refugees I was to help, but I was to speak out — as the Good Book tells us — for the stranger in a strange land because once that was me. I also realized that with equal importance I must embrace one of my favorite Talmudic teachings. As Rabbi Tarfon said, “It is not ours to finish the task of creation. Neither is it to desist from it.”

Besides, it’s the Jewish thing to do.

Supporting the Deal Is Our Best Tool in Stopping Iran

We all owe Sen. Ben Cardin a debt of thanks for ensuring that the P5+1 nuclear weapons agreement President Barrack Obama negotiated with Iran will receive 60 days of careful examination by our elected representatives.

Now, with just a couple weeks to go before Congress must vote on the agreement, Cardin, the senior member of Obama’s own party on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has clearly stated the serious nature of the decision he and his colleagues face.

“This is not a matter of loyalty to a political party,” Cardin reminded constituents last month. “This is a matter of what you think is in the best interests of America, to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state.”

With the goal of denying Iran a nuclear weapon as their guiding principle, we hope that Cardin and other undecideds vote to approve the deal — which remains our best available means to do so.

The agreement imposes restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program at every level.

It neutralizes crucial components of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, including uranium mining and the plutonium-producing Arak reactor. Without uranium or plutonium, Iran will not be able to produce a nuclear weapon.

The deal does not depend on trusting the Iranians. Its unprecedented verification provisions allow inspectors full access to all aspects of Iran’s nuclear program — ensuring that if Iran makes a move toward the bomb, we’ll know about it.

It’s true, as skeptics have noted, that the deal does not address the non-nuclear activities in which Iran engages to destabilize the Middle East, harm American interests and threaten allies such as Israel. But these activities are a reason to support the deal, not reject it. A nuclear-armed Iran could wreak far more havoc than an Iran under the watchful eye of international inspectors.

Iran might indeed attempt to violate the deal in secret, or to develop a bomb once core measures of the agreement expire over the next 15 years. But if they do, the agreement only makes us stronger. Even when some of the deal’s provisions expire, Iran will still be bound by stricter limits on its nuclear program, and under greater supervision, than it is without the deal. It will be permanently committed to never develop a nuclear weapon.

Meanwhile, over the same period, our knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program — and how to target it if necessary — will grow exponentially.

As Cardin surely understands, the question facing undecided Democrats is not whether the deal is an ideal solution, but whether it is our best chance at preventing an unacceptable outcome.

By preventing the Iranians from building a bomb, opening their nuclear program to unprecedented inspections and keeping all of our options on the table, the P5+1-Iran nuclear agreement does exactly that.

We trust that Cardin will look thoughtfully at the agreement and will ultimately conclude that the deal will make us and our allies safer and vote to support it, in his words, “in the best interests of America.”

Paying to Pray? No: Supporting as Part of Belonging

We’ve all heard this story, and some of us have lived it: A Jewish individual or couple, new in town or newly seeking to reconnect with the Jewish community, walks into a worship space just before the start time of a High Holy Days service and starts to enter the sanctuary, only to be stopped by an usher, who asks, “Do you have a ticket?”

When you make a donation…you’re supporting the ability of that congregation to provide a spiritual meaningful worship experience.

If the answer is no, the would-be worshiper is directed to a table in the lobby, where he or she is offered admission to the service in exchange for a stated amount of money.

How many Jews have been turned off from participation in synagogue life because this has happened? It’s a classic recipe for alienation. The stranger may be offended by what seems to be a crass business transaction at what’s supposed to be the holiest time on the Jewish calendar. He or she may not be able to afford the amount asked for. The person staffing the table may come off as officious or unfriendly. And heaven forbid the stranger doesn’t look particularly Jewish. This doesn’t happen in our bend of the river, of course. But it happens, and it’s always a horror story when it does.

This is a time of nervousness and heightened security measures, when you don’t know what kind of nut might walk through the door. But we who gather in congregations that are outlets for our Jewish spiritual and communal impulses have a responsibility even at the High Holy Days — especially at the High Holy Days — to make sure every single newcomer who turns up on the doorstep is welcomed warmly and unconditionally.

When you make a donation to a congregation in order to attend High Holy Days services, you aren’t paying to pray. You’re supporting the ability of that congregation to provide a spiritually meaningful, aesthetically pleasing worship experience led by people who have trained for years and are working hard to express both the gravitas and celebration of the holiday season. You’re supporting the profoundly communal nature of Judaism, making yourself part of the minyan, if only for a couple of hours. And it’s tax-deductible.

The responsibility of the worship group is to offer a sacred space and atmosphere that will embrace you and make you want to come back. The congregations that do this best at holiday time enlist their friendliest, warmest members to sit at the “ticket table,” take tickets at the door, and hang out in the lobby with an eye toward spotting newbies. That’s at least three different people, all wearing big “Ask me” or “Let me help you” tags.

If congregations and unaffiliated Jews alike approach the High Holy Days in a spirit of generosity, support and welcome, worship spaces everywhere will be filled with an extra radiance of joy and wholeness. L’shanah tovah um’tukah tikateivu: May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet year. And may you find your spiritual home in 5776.

Argentina’s Unsolved Mysteries

Argentina is saddled with two unsolved mysteries. The first is the source of the 1994 AMIA Jewish center bombing attack in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people, for which the government has never brought charges.

In January, prosecutor Alberto Nisman was hours away from presenting evidence of a government cover-up of the attack when he received a bullet in the head. The death of Nisman, who was Jewish, is the other mystery that now embroils the South American nation.

Nisman had accused Argentina’s current president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, who is Jewish, of covering up Iranian suspects in the AMIA case. Fernandez rejected the accusation. Nearly a year after Nisman was found dead on his kitchen floor, it has not been determined whether he was murdered or committed suicide.

Last week at a public event that included politicians, businesspeople and foreign ambassadors, the president of DAIA, the umbrella organization of Argentine Jews, said it was high time that Argentines got some answers from their government about the twin mysteries. “At least we should know what happened to the prosecutor,” Julio Schlosser said, adding that “21 years after the AMIA Jewish center bombing we have no one guilty, no one paying for the crime in jail.”

If Iran was responsible for the AMIA bombing, that should be made clear and dealt with. If Iran was not involved, the Argentinian government should reveal the evidence that absolves Tehran of blame. In either event, Argentina needs to move more quickly.

The Obama administration has indicated that notwithstanding a nuclear agreement with Iran, the United States and its allies will continue to counter Teheran on non-nuclear issues. One of those issues is Iranian support of terror. If Iran had a hand in the AMIA bombing, this would be a good time for the U.S. government to make good on its promise to address the issue, and it would send a strong message to Argentina that the rest of the world is watching.

Let the Senate Vote

All that remains now is the vote. With Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s announcement last week that she will support the Iran nuclear deal, President Barack Obama has enough committed votes to sustain his promised veto of congressional legislation to oppose his signature foreign policy initiative.

Now, the White House is counting heads of the remaining undecided senators — a group that got smaller by one Sept. 4, when Ben Cardin, the other Democrat of Maryland, came out against the deal — to determine whether there are 41 senators willing to join together to prevent a vote on the agreement. While the filibuster is a time-honored Senate tradition, its use in order to avoid an up-or-down vote on the Iran deal would be a mistake.

It was just two short months ago that the Obama administration promised critics that the proposed Iran agreement would be fully vetted by Congress and negotiated with the leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to provide a timetable for that analysis and vote. Any move to limit the agreed review or to prevent the promised vote would not only violate that very publicly agreed protocol, but would also raise serious questions about the good faith of the administration’s approach toward the whole review process.

Secretary of State John Kerry has argued that a congressional vote of disapproval (even if overridden by a presidential veto) would hurt America’s image abroad. Kerry argues that other nations would perceive a president who couldn’t keep his legislature in line as inherently weak, and that would
impact American influence in other areas. But the nature and the extent of American opposition to the Iran deal is already well known. And the use of a procedural maneuver to avoid congressional review would do nothing to bolster the president’s image, while it would severely disappoint those who were promised a comprehensive review and an up-or-down vote.

Given the importance of the Iran issue, and the rancorous debate over it, any effort to prevent a vote threatens to remove a last chance for America’s political representatives to give voice to the public’s concerns.

The president and his supporters have won this battle. The Iran deal is going forward. We strongly encourage the “winners” to move through the agreed review and approval process with dignity, confidence and grace. Any effort to cut legislative corners or to invoke procedural maneuvers would reflect an insensitivity toward the intensity of the opposition and a reneging on the agreed protocol for the deal review. Were that to occur, we have less concern about how the administration would be perceived abroad and would be much more concerned about the credibility and trustworthiness of the administration.

The vote must go forward.

Our Guide and Our Light

This week’s Haftarah is a poem from the Book of Isaiah. It is the sixth of seven “Haftarot of Consolation,” meaning that six weeks ago was Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the
destruction of the Second Temple. What sets this Haftarah apart from the other readings preceding it is that it goes beyond just being comforting. The poet highlights in a very uplifting and exciting way that there will be hope in Jerusalem unlike during the time of exile from Babylonia. Most importantly, he expresses that God will always guide us and be our light.

Throughout the Haftarah, words of reassurance and light are overpowering. The prophet writes, “No longer shall you need the sun for light by day, nor the shining of the moon for radiance by night; for the Lord shall be your light everlasting.” If we were to talk about light literally, we would think of flashlights, light bulbs or even the sun and the moon. But those objects are not always reliable. Flashlights go out, and light bulbs do not last forever. And when the moon goes up at night, the sun sets. But the metaphorical light that is God is always present and reliable. So what is God’s light? To me, God’s light means that, just as flashlights and light bulbs provide light to help guide us in darkness, God helps guide us and provides reassurance through the darkness of bad times.

The phrase that stands out to me the most reads, “But upon you the Lord will shine … and nations shall walk by your light.” I interpret this to mean that other nations should follow in the footsteps of b’nai yisrael, people who have learned the right ways from God and are positive role models for others. But this idea does not apply only to nations. It also applies to me in my life. I can be the light or, in other words, a positive role model for others just as my parents have always been positive role models for me and my siblings. My parents have taught us how to be good people, and they have shown us the difference between right and wrong, not only by their words, but also through their actions.

Seeing the light and distinguishing right from wrong is not enough. You have to take meaningful action because that is how you can affect the world around you. Now that I am a bat mitzvah, I can try to be a good role model for others just as my parents are for me and just as God has been for b’nai yisrael. One way that you can take action is by giving up your time to help others.

This summer, my brother and I visited the Oraita Club in Jaffa, Israel. The Oraita Club is a youth center that offers at-risk teens a safe and supportive environment to spend their evenings and holidays. We donated sports equipment and games and spent time playing pool with a few of the teens. We also watched a short video about how the Oraita Club staff can influence the teenagers who live in bad neighborhoods and cannot rely on their parents to guide them toward making good decisions. To see the smiles on the teenagers faces as we handed them the games that we had collected made me realize how important it is to take a little bit of time out of my day to help other people.

Everything Old Can Be New Again Parshat Ki Tavo

A few weeks ago, in studying Parshat Re’eh, I noted that the Torah gives us a great gift of joy — a command to celebrate with one’s entire household — tucked into a long passage replete with warnings of failures and curses literally shouted from the mountaintops. This week, in Parshat Ki Tavo, our tradition tells us that joy now takes centerstage from the very first word: “When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go down to the place where the Eternal your God will choose to establish the divine name.”

Wait — what’s so joyous about this? According to an early Midrashic tradition, everything: “Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman came and drew a distinction: Wherever vayehi is stated, it denotes trouble; v’hayah denotes joy.” (Bereshit Rabbah 42:3)

That is, when the Torah introduces a recap of the past with the Hebrew phrase vayehi (“And it came to pass …”), it’s reminding us of something bad or tragic. But when it previews the future with v’hayah (“And it shall come to pass …”), it’s promising us something good. The Torah is taking the same root word — the verb “to be” — and using it in two subtly different ways that denote past vs. future. But Rabbi Samuel, a third-century sage of the Land of Israel, is certain that the subtle distinction carries great significance. He gives a host of examples from the prophetic books of Zechariah, Isaiah and Joel, each introduced with v’hayah, promising the joy of future redemption for Israel.

Rabbi Chaim ben Attar of Morocco, whose 18th-century commentary bore the name “Or Hachayim” (“Light of Life”), builds on this Midrashic tradition to teach: “When [Torah] says, ‘And it shall be, when you have come into the land,’ … the word for ‘and it shall be,’ v’hayah, is taken by our sages to denote joy. This teaches us that our greatest joy is to live in eretz yisrael, as in the verse (Psalms 126:2), ‘then our mouths were filled with laughter.”

So here we have it: The very act of setting foot in the Land of Israel — as the people are about to do for the first time — is a great joy in and of itself. Yes, obligations come with that gift, and Moses goes on to enumerate many of them in this parshah. But they too are based on joy: “You shall enjoy, together with the [family of the] Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the Eternal your God has bestowed upon you and your household” (Deuteronomy 26:11).

It makes sense, so late into his soliloquy, for Moses to emphasize the joys that spring from such responsibilities; this is, after all, the essence of mitzvah and the foundation of the nation’s sustained life in the Land. But Moses knows from experience that over time the people will forget that this joy is a gift from God and not something they have created for themselves. They will take the gift for granted or sink under the weight of its responsibilities. The thrill of finally setting that first foot into the Land will wear off, and they will exchange the joy of v’hayah for the tedium of vayehi.

And so Moses once again calls on the people: “The Eternal your God commands you this day [hayom hazeh] to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul.” As Rashi teaches: “They should always seem as new to you as on the day you were first commanded to observe them.”

Torah teaches us that every day — every event, every encounter — holds the capacity to be a moment of v’hayah, of joy and newness and amazement and inspiration, if we open ourselves to it. Every day can be hayom hazeh. It may be as momentous as that first step off the plane in Israel; or it may be as commonplace as that first step out the front door in the morning. What shall come to pass is what we make of it today, spinning potential into reality.

New Year, New Leaf



If my email inboxes — which aggregate messages not only dealing with the community here in Baltimore, but in Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh and Philadelphia (all markets served by JT publisher Mid-Atlantic Media) as well — are any indication of reality, the only thing people seem to be talking about these days is the Iran deal.

Hardly an hour goes by, in fact, without a news release, statement or letter to the editor either proclaiming the virtues of the nuclear accord, slamming it as a gateway to a nuclear Iran, castigating its opponents as warmongers or cursing its backers as kowtowing anti-Semitic charlatans.

And yet, as the clock winds down to the Sept. 17 congressional vote that will either approve or disapprove of the deal — conventional wisdom suggests that the Republican-controlled Senate and House and Representatives will both vote the deal down, but will be unable to defeat a promised veto from President Obama — for all the emotions, charges and accusations on either side, there’s plenty else to talk about as the Jewish calendar also gives way to a new year.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, rabbis across Baltimore and Howard County will not only be talking about Iran or even Israel this Rosh Hashanah, which begins four days before the Iran vote. Sure, current events provide interesting jumping-off points for larger discussions about more general themes — and when the headline of the summer, Iran, is so important, some rabbis, such as Beth Tfiloh Congregation’s Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, will tackle the Iran deal, which he calls “the most loaded issue in recent memory,” head on — but historically, the High Holidays have always been about the “big Jewish issues” of teshuvah and simchah, repentance and joy. Then, there’s the other touchstones of social justice and human dignity, not to mention the importance of Jewish identity, all of which will take central places in the sermons of Chizuk Amuno Congregation’s Rabbi Ronald Shulman.

All of which is to say that while the machinations of governments and the conduct of war and peace define and provide context to the environments in which we live as Jews, nothing is fundamentally more important than how we live as Jews. On Sept. 18, the Iran debate most likely completed, the news cycle will shift to the deal’s implementation or the specter of a new war in the Middle East. Let’s also not forget the race for the White House and what new insult might be uttered by Donald Trump or new email uncovered from Hillary Clinton’s secret server.

In the hyper-politicized world we inhabit — certainly made worse by both sides’ conduct in the Iran debate of the past couple of months — it would be easy to deceive ourselves into thinking that any of these current events are the new “most important issue.” But for thousands of years, we’ve managed to survive by focusing inward on what it means to be Jewish, what it means to be a member of the Jewish community, what it means to ensure the continuance of Judaism.

That’s not to say that all the other stuff isn’t important — much of it is — but bottom line: The High Holidays offer the opportunity to turn a new leaf in ushering a completely new year. May that year be one of peace, both from without and from within.