‘Net Zero’ Leaves Many Questions

Regarding “Net Zero Means Surplus for Nonprofits” (June 26), writer Aleeza Oshry states that the new sustainability building (Brock Environmental Center) will have a surplus energy to sell because of its use of wind, solar and geothermal energy.

I find the “net zero” concept intriguing, but I never read anything beyond the predictions. Oshry states that “donors have a right to know how their money is being spent.”

I would like to know what surpluses will be “stored and supplied” and to whom. I want to know the  construction cost of the center, the operating and maintenance costs of the “solar roof panels, wind turbines, geothermal wells and rain cisterns.” Oshry does not provide any information except for glittering generalities.

Safety a Concern with Stevenson Chabad

An important fact omitted in “Hearing on Stevenson Chabad Begins” (July 3) is the danger that the proposed location poses to both Chabad congregants and the neighboring community. The lot is located within a dangerous stretch of Stevenson Road, along a blind curve leading from the south (Garrison Farms Road) and atop a blind hill leading from the north (Old Valley Road). It also sits directly across from a stop sign at the bottom of hilly Keyser Road — a sign that drivers often creep beyond to look for traffic coming from both blind areas.

There is currently little street lighting and no shoulder or sidewalks along Stevenson for pedestrian use. The lives of congregants walking in the road will be put at unnecessary risk. We hope that the Ariel Jewish Center and Synagogue recognizes the danger that this particular lot poses and selects another site that guarantees greater safety for its members.

My Uncle Marty Deserves a Mention

I wish to add the name Martin Wahlberg to those who played a significant role in the life of the Congregation of Israel Synagogue in Pocomoke City (“The Changing Face of Eastern Shore Jewry,” June 26). For several decades in the mid-1900s, my Uncle Marty served the small Jewish community tirelessly in doing so many things in and out of the synagogue that helped keep the congregation functioning.

Fond Memories of Life in Salisbury

After reading “The Changing Face of Eastern Shore Jewry” (June 26), I thought back to my life growing up in Salisbury, Md. In the 1950s and 1960s Salisbury was the hub of Eastern Shore Jewry. There were at one time 120 Jewish families who belonged to Beth Israel Synagogue, a Conservative congregation that had the only full-time rabbi on the Eastern Shore. It attracted congregants from all over the Shore. I had my bar mitzvah there in 1961, and my parents had Schleider Caterers come down from Baltimore to cater the kosher dinner. Most Jewish families in Salisbury lived in the Riverside Drive area, and at one time I could count more than 20 Jewish homes within approximately one mile of my home on Woodland Road.

Unfortunately, with the opening of the Salisbury Mall in 1970 on the outskirts of town, many Jewish merchants closed their downtown stores and eventually moved away. Although it’s sad to hear there are only about 70 Jewish families living in Salisbury now, I can always say I have fond memories growing up Jewish in Salisbury.

It’s Time to Stop Demonizing Michael Oren

Michael Oren is my friend. During his nearly five years as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, we’d speak on an almost daily basis. Often those phone calls would come at 3 or 4 a.m., Washington time, and Oren, enduring another sleepless night, would share his fears about how the Obama administration was compromising Israel’s safety. While too discreet to reveal confidential information, he’d repeatedly say: You won’t believe what the administration is doing. It’s worse than you can possibly imagine. But I can’t talk about it …”

In his new book, “Ally, My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide,” Oren has gone public with his anguish. “Ally” has been burning in him for years. It is an impassioned critique of the Obama administration — including some of the details Oren couldn’t reveal as ambassador, when his job required him to publicly insist that American-Israeli relations were strong and unbreakable.

Oren’s accusations need to be debated. And a few who’ve critiqued the book have engaged with its ideas. Too many others, though, have turned personal and vicious. I have been pained almost physically to read and listen to the ways in which the Michael Oren I know has been distorted beyond recognition by an assault on his integrity, his credibility, even his honesty. Oren has been called everything from a publicity hound to a virtual traitor sacrificing Israel’s relations with its most important ally for the sole purpose of selling books.

Oren, currently a member of the Knesset, is one of the most selfless public servants of the Jewish people I’ve been privileged to know. What impelled Oren to write “Ally” is revealed in what I see as the book’s crucial passage, when Oren learned that America had been secretly negotiating with Iran: “Most disturbing for me personally was that our closest ally had entreated with our deadliest enemy on an existential issue without so much as informing us.” That is the decisive moment when Israel felt betrayed by Obama. The negotiations — in which America deliberately weakened its hand and allowed Iran to dictate terms — were the sin. A deal is merely the consequence.

What’s been overlooked though is that “Ally” also contains criticism of Israeli attitudes toward American Jews and laments the lack of religious pluralism in the Jewish state. Still, “Ally” does offer the harshest critique of American Jewry that any Israeli has offered in a long time. If Oren feels that American Jewry is failing Israel at the most dangerous moment in its history, he has the obligation to say so. Ironically, the Israeli-American Jewish relationship has become the reverse of its old problematic dynamic. Where once it was forbidden for American Jews to criticize Israel, now apparently it is forbidden for an Israeli to criticize American Jewry.

Is Oren wrong in his assessment of American Jewry? Is he wrong about the Iranian deal? By all means, argue with him. But argue the argument, not the person. Stop demonizing a man whose essence is service to Israel and the Jewish people.

Actions Always Speak Louder Than Words

In the very midst of negotiations with Western powers, Iran has stepped up its involvement in regional proxy wars, overtly supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen. It is attempting to open a new terror front in the Golan Heights. It continues to bolster Bashar al-Assad’s regime, spending what some experts estimate to be up to $15 billion a year of its sanctions-strained economic resources to do so. It funnels arms to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and bankrolls Hezbollah in Lebanon. Imagine what Iran will be able to do if sanctions relief frees up $150 billion for its misuse. If Iran is willing to spend so much on fomenting regional instability while strapped for cash, it is hard to believe that it will direct this windfall toward the betterment of its population as opposed to stepping up its historically aggressive activities.

Iran’s intention to attain regional hegemony neither is coy nor has it abated. Rather, Iran’s notorious rapaciousness for attaining regional footholds, undermining neighboring regimes, and fomenting widespread destabilization appears only emboldened by the nuclear talks. Commander of the Quds force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Suleimani is running rampant through the region, with media reports of him appearing in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq to organize and train local militias and regular armed forces in those countries.

Furthermore, Iran’s track record of adherence to agreements belies the likelihood that we can trust its adherence to any new agreement. Since signing an interim nuclear agreement in 2013, Iran has failed, per the agreement, to convert 3,800 kilos of enriched uranium into an oxide form that cannot easily be converted into weapons-grade material. As we negotiate a new deal, we ignore Iran’s failure to abide by previous agreements and its concurrent active pursuit of a nuclear program.

Most disturbing, however, is the testimony this month before Congress regarding Iran’s burgeoning ballistic missile program. This issue is not part of the current deal framework, and its omission is catastrophic. Intelligence leaders including former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency Lieutenant General Michael Flynn are openly excoriating the Iran deal for its failure to address Iran’s ballistic missile program, which serves as an unambiguous indication of the ill intent of its nuclear program. Such missiles are intended for delivery of nuclear weapons, and Iran’s arsenal is of increasing quality and number. The links between medium and long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear payloads are known.

Our leaders have taken their eye off the ball. Iran is employing a formula used by both Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad — poor company, at best — of preoccupying the West with negotiations over nonproliferation while simultaneously persecuting the people of the region. And in the end, a deal meant to stymie proliferation in one country is going to spark an arms race in one of the most unstable regions in the world, with Saudi Arabia and other countries seeking at best increased conventional weapons arsenals and at worst nuclear capacity to deter their emboldened main enemy in the region — Iran.

Iran is sending two, incongruous messages: one to negotiators in Switzerland and another through its everyday actions. In deciding whether to approve a final agreement, Congress should be paying attention to Iran’s actions.

Sobering Thoughts about BDS

In its annual survey of the Jewish world, the Israel-based think tank Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) considered the de-legitimization threat posed against Israel by the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. The think tank, which is chaired by longtime U.S. diplomats Stuart Eizenstat and Dennis Ross, submitted its assessment last month to the Israeli government. And while it may achieve the same fate as many other blue-ribbon reports, the assessment represents a thoughtful, nuanced approach to BDS that declines to paint BDS supporters with the broad brush of anti-Semitism.

According to the JPPI assessment, Students for Justice in Palestine, the backbone of the BDS movement, has chapters on 300 U.S. campuses. And while “severe anti-Israel activity is limited to 20 campuses,” the report considers the threat of de-legitimization serious enough to recommend that Israel commence “an appropriately budgeted comprehensive strategy” to battle de-legitimization, led by a point person who reports to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and who will embark “on an offensive-minded campaign.”

But in an interview, Eizenstat didn’t stop there. He went on to present a conventional but focused three-part strategy to battle BDS: better education about Israel (traditional hasbarah); greater Jewish unity; and support for anti-BDS legislation. He then became a little more creative by recommending that Israel take steps to change the dynamic that now feeds the BDS movement, including the suggested announcement that Israel will not build outside of the settlement blocs that, by agreement, will likely formally become part of Israel when a peace agreement with the Palestinians is reached.

We have no doubt that Netanyahu’s government will approach negotiations with the Palestinians on its own terms and according to its own timetable. And no matter how well-meaning and well-informed JPPI’s thinking is, it remains to be seen how much Israel has to gain from making concessions when the other side appears wholly unwilling to make difficult choices of its own. That said, there is real value in the JPPI report and the sobering reality it paints: For all of the full-throated and high-pitched cries of alarm coming from across the Jewish community, JPPI confirms that the BDS movement is not the omnipresent phenomenon that many think it to be. In that sense, there’s no need to panic.

Nonetheless, BDS activity on 300 U.S. campuses is 300 too many. And although severe anti-Israel activity is reportedly limited to 20 campuses, those vocal centers of student unrest are making a lot of noise. There seems to be a growing consensus that the time has come for a coherent strategy to battle those who wish to make a pariah out of Israel. The JPPI report is a step in the right direction.

Applauding the Panthers



What exactly is hand and foot canasta and what does it have to do with Judaism?

To an untrained audience, the exact same question could be asked of mah jongg, but I digress. In the context of this week’s JT, the card game, of which apparently there are many variants, provides fodder for an ongoing debate within the Jewish community concerning the value we place on Jewish continuity, what exactly it looks like and, most importantly, how we achieve it.

Much ink has been spent on stories — you’ve read many of them in this publication — addressing the idea of continuity being an external thing. For the Jewish community, for Judaism, to thrive and continue into the future, we must place more emphasis on engaging and inspiring our youth.

This much you already know.

But when Melissa Gerr pitched a story about the 75th anniversary of a local “boys only” club today reserved specifically for the older set — the famed Panthers will only consider those 65 and older — the idea occurred to me that Jewish continuity can also apply internally. If the sum total of communal efforts are focused on the young and the progeny yet to be born, we ignore adult community members already here. To borrow from the Constitution, sometimes we risk focusing on “our posterity” at the expense of “ourselves.”

As it turns out, the Panthers, whose wives have a club of their own and regularly play the hand and foot card game, have been doing just fine without our help. And as a “strictly social” enterprise, in the words of 84-year-old Alvin Singer, founded during the heyday of the Jewish Educational Association, there’s not much “Jewish” — religion-wise, that is — about their every-other-Tuesday meetings. But as has been written so often before in this column, you can’t have an engaged community without individuals going outside of their homes and businesses to socialize with others.

Political scientist Robert D. Putnam more than a decade ago documented the phenomenon of Americans “bowling alone,” of civic organizations, social clubs and religious institutions losing volunteers, members and souls to a new paradigm of technology-driven hyper-individuality. But what the longevity of the Panther Club demonstrates — as does the recent 100th anniversary of the Menorah Lodge of B’nai B’rith — is that “bowling together” is just as important as ever.

In a Jewish context, it’s not enough to simply boost our numbers; at the same time, we need to be strengthening the numbers we already have. To borrow a metaphor used frequently in traditional Jewish texts, it’s not enough to simply plant seeds in the ground and watch them sprout trees, we must continue to water the orchard. Put simply, there should be more clubs like the Panthers, for every age and strata within the Jewish community, so that everyone feels engaged and actively engages others.

The Panther Club is by no means the only social club to have been born during the heyday of the JEA — there was the Greyhound Club, the Titans, the Trojans and the Olympic and Pioneer clubs — but it is the most enduring. Maybe it’s because it’s strictly social. Maybe it’s because hand and foot canasta is a really great game.

Whatever the reason, the Panthers of Jewish Baltimore — and their wives — should be applauded for keeping it going for so long and should serve as an inspiration for the rest of us.


An Untimely Objection

State Department  spokesman John Kirby (DoD Photo by Glenn Fawcett/Public Domain)

State Department spokesman John Kirby
(DoD Photo by Glenn Fawcett/Public Domain)

Why did the State Department move from celebrating President Barack Obama’s legislative victory a day after the passage of the Trade Promotion Authority bill to “clarifying” a provision in the legislation that treats Israel and “Israeli-controlled territories” as a single economic entity?

The provision in question, spearheaded by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and approved by all members of the Senate Finance Committee, was aimed at discouraging European countries from supporting boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) moves against Israel. It received strong backing from AIPAC. But critics of the amendment, including J Street, complained that the wording erased the 1967 border known as the Green Line that effectively separates Israel from “controlled territories” subject to negotiations for the creation of a Palestinian state. Those concerns were well known to the administration before the bill was passed yet the provision was kept in the bill nonetheless and is now part of the law.

That foreknowledge and acceptance make it all the more curious that State Department spokesman John Kirby went out of his way to point out that “by conflating Israel and ‘Israeli-controlled territories,’ a provision of the Trade Promotion Authority legislation runs counter to longstanding U.S. policy toward the occupied territories, including with regard to settlement activity.” Was that observation really necessary?

The trade bill was designed to grant the president the fast-track authority he needs to wrap up negotiations on the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership that is supposed to herald a new age in American trade in Asia. In tacking on the anti-BDS amendment, Congress seized an opportunity to chip away at the threat of the BDS movement. However, because the BDS provision includes no enforcement mechanisms, the amendment allowed the administration to strongly oppose BDS against Israel and still maintain a separate policy for the West Bank. And that’s what Kirby “clarified” in his comments.

But why say anything at all? Why turn the discussion away from trade issues and an administration victory lap and focus instead on Israel? If the administration had concerns about the language, why didn’t it push for the removal of the phrase “Israeli-controlled territories” from the amendment when it was being debated in Congress rather than wait until after its passage tocondemn it? And if the provision was left in as part of an effort to get votes to support the bill, why not honor the deal or at the very least remain silent?

The State Department knows well the sensitivity surrounding and the careful evaluation of every utterance it makes about Israel. Nothing of this nature is said without pre-clearance and purpose. Which makes us wonder, what exactly is Foggy Bottom trying to accomplish?

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Curse the Children of Israel

The use of comedy in Jewish storytelling is a very powerful tool for conveying the serious wisdom of our tradition. Often, the Torah introduces us to a wide range of colorful characters — intriguing men, women, and creatures — in order to infuse the stories of the Torah with wit and humor. These personalities have much to teach us about how our ancestors related to each other and the world at-large.

Our Torah portion this week,  Balak, is on the surface, quite absurd. Still, words contained within it made their way into our liturgy. So the insights found in the narrative had great significance for our predecessors, and still do for us today. Though funny, the messages found beneath the text this week elevate the foolishness of the story we read to a level of sagacity. The humor of the tale is replaced at its core with prevailing and consistent lessons from our ancestors: Our words have power and our speech is holy; all things that live communicate with us and curses can be transformed into blessings.

In the parshah we read this week, a non-Israelite prophet named Balaam is called upon to curse the Israelites by the King of Moab, Balak. However, “God said to Balaam, ‘Do not go with them! You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.’”

Giving into his greed — for Balak offered silver and gold — Balaam heads to the place where he is supposed to curse the Children of Israel. Yet Balaam is stalled by his donkey, which refuses to follow his orders when seeing “the angel of the Eternal standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand.” Balaam beats the donkey to return to the path, but like an indignant teenager, the stubborn mule talks back to him.

When Balaam arrives at the place where he attempts to curse Israel, his mouth opens, only to bless us!

So Balak drags him to a different mountaintop, but again, Balaam only says what God desires, blessing the Children of Israel a second time. Furious, Balak commands him to stop, saying, “Don’t curse them and don’t bless them.” But Balaam knows that God wants him to bless Israel. So he offers a third (now famous) blessing, “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.”

On the surface it is a silly story. But is it entirely ridiculous that animals speak in the tale? That a non-Israelite dialogues directly with God? That his curses come out as blessings? Our parshah has serious messages to teach. One is that animals have keen senses and communicate with us all of the time. Rashi and Ramban disagree regarding what the donkey saw. According to Rashi, animals are
allowed to see spiritual beings that are blocked from the human eye, because human intelligence would cause people to live in constant fear if they could perceive everything around them. Ramban, however, asserts that angels are not physical beings and cannot be seen by people or animals, unless they assume human form — as when they visited Abraham. In Balaam’s case, it was not that the donkey actually saw the angel, rather, it sensed that it was in danger, for figuratively, a being with a drawn sword stood before it.

It is of no small significance that the Torah recognizes that there are prophets outside of Judaism. Yes, there are strong elements of particularism to this tale, such as how God favors the Children of Israel. Yet even our ancestors recognized that every religious community has its mystics. What makes the Children of Israel remarkable is our willingness to receive the prophetic message. The success of any religious leader depends on how ready the community is to hear the message, and follow through on
it. Our ancestors were quick to say, “Let us do and listen!” Balaam’s prophecy was meaningful because our people heard it, so much so that his words, mah tovu, open our daily prayer services.

Finally, what about your life feels like a curse, like a dark cloud hanging over you? Is it something physical? Financial? The loss of a relationship or loved one? How might you change your perspective? Overcoming challenges can shape you into a stronger, more loving, more compassionate person. Those who focus only on the negative, tend to only see the curses in their lives. Focusing on the positive helps you learn from what is plaguing. It helps you to see the blessings even in the challenges you are facing in life.

Sometimes you have to strain to see even a slightly positive aspect in your situation, but when you find it, grab on to it! Focus on it repeatedly, throughout the day, day after day, and in time, you may come to know the blessings hidden beneath it.