Opening Our Eyes

Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief

With the Supreme Court due to take up the hotly contested issue of marriage equality later this month, reactions to the phenomenon of same-sex unions have ranged from the thoughtful — National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” began a series on the topic this week by engaging rank-and-file North Dakotans in conversation — to the strange (an Indiana pizza parlor was shuttered after protests of its owners’ ill-conceived declaration that their religious beliefs precluded their serving a wedding of two men or two women) to the truly bizarre.

That last distinction belongs to the slew of crackpot California propositions that have sprung up in the past couple of weeks, including a drive to empower ordinary citizens to strike down homosexuals for engaging in behavior deemed biblically abominable. Proving that some on the other side have not lost their sense of humor, one man floated the idea of a proposition outlawing the consumption of shellfish as just as biblically prohibited.

Sometimes, amid the din of the competing soundbites and the sheer madness of some people’s ideas, it’s easy to forget that at the center of the 21st century’s key civil rights debate are actual human beings. This is more than unfortunate; it’s a tragedy.

You shouldn’t need to reach a conclusion on whether or not extending the legal concept of marriage to same-sex couples is a good thing in order to realize that gay men and women, their intended spouses and their families have for far too long been treated by society at large — and within the Jewish community as well — as second-class citizens. Many who stand on religious principle in order to denigrate an entire swath of people are conspicuously silent when it comes to other religiously questionable behaviors, whether it be the consumption of shellfish or shady business practices. That unfeeling hypocrisy, more than the existence of the prohibitions themselves, is what is driving those sympathetic to LGBT causes away.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, many observant Jewish families find themselves ill-equipped in navigating the community after a son or a daughter has “come out.” Some of those families are attending a retreat this weekend in Waynesboro, Pa., hosted by Eshel. The goal of the third annual gathering, say organizers, is to empower attendees to be both effective advocates for their children in their dealings with communal institutions and caring parents at home.

“For Orthodox parents who have LGBT children, there are many levels of shanda around such an experience, and often, parents are not at ease talking about their situation with neighbors and friends,” says one local activist. “One of my battle cries has been we have far too many young people in our community that we are losing,” because of the inability to deal openly with the issues.

The Supreme Court will finally put to rest the question of the constitutionality of marriage equality, but embracing our loved ones, neighbors and friends for who they are — as opposed to what we wish them to be — will take a lot more time. Every person lost in the process only goes to show that time is what we don’t have.

jrunyan@midatlanticmedia.com

GWU’s Swastika? Not

Things are actually worse at George Washington University than the JT’s article (“Hate Crime or Not?” April 10) indicates because the object in question is not a swastika, but rather an Indian religious symbol that could be mistaken for a swastika.

It’s as if a student were thrown off campus for posting a Jewish six-pointed star because someone mistook it for a pentagram with all of the evil it implies. It’s also like punishing a student for using the word “niggardly” because another student mistakenly thought it was a racist insulting word.

Obama’s Blind Eye

J Street pushes back by making demands on Israel and giving Palestinian leadership a forum to talk but strangely ignores making demands on the Palestinians. They are providing cover for President Barack Obama to escalate his feud with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (“A Troubling ‘Reassessment’ with Israel,” April 3). All of Israel’s supporters, including those subscribing to J Street philosophy, should contact Obama and encourage him to stop his hateful comments against Netanyahu and Israel.

It is beyond belief that while Obama condemns Netanyahu’s pre-election antics and takes the prime minister at his word regarding his objection to a Palestinian state (under current conditions), he seems to ignore the words of the Arab leaders. Last month, Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, in front of thousands of followers, stated that his goal was to destroy Israel and called for “Death to America.” Apparently, Obama does not take Arab leaders at their word, or their deeds, like he does Netanyahu.

One Movement, One Community

BBYO is a huge part of my life, just like it is for thousands of Jewish teens worldwide. And when I say worldwide, I mean it. BBYO touches the hearts of people across more than 30 countries. From Bulgaria to Argentina and Georgia to China, BBYO impacts so many people daily.

Although I may live far away, I feel connected to my sister BBGs and brother Alephs globally. I have been so lucky to have the chance to communicate with many people in different countries about BBYO and what itís like to be a Jewish teen in their community. I was so happy to share these stories with the girls in my chapter, Achot BBG, during a BBYO Around the World program. We explored different aspects of their unique cultures such as music, language and food.

When comparing lifestyles, there is so much that we can learn from each other. For example, one of the BBGs who I communicated with was a girl named Marina from Serbia. Since her region, BBYO Balkans, is very spread out geographically, every week they have a video call that is basically like a virtual event. They start with icebreakers and then move into programming or discussions. I think this is so cool, because although they do not see each other often, they still have many similar bonds that I do with the girls in my chapter. This taught me that if the people in BBYO Balkans can function together, my chapter can overcome anything that is thrown at us.

I also think that it is amazing and exciting that I have the opportunity to have friends that live on a different continent. About a month ago, BBYO held its annual International Convention with the largest global delegation in BBYO history: Over 100 teens traveled from countries other than the United States. Unfortunately, I did not attend the convention, but almost all of my friends from home who did attend came back with stories of international experience that they were happy to share. I was so fascinated with everything they had to say. I would not be able to do this anywhere except for BBYO.

More importantly, these global experiences through BBYO have taught me that my Jewish community does not only lie in Owings Mills, or Baltimore, but everywhere on earth, whether we can see it or not. We may be different, but we all have something so important in common, and that is our Jewish roots. Even though many of the international Jewish teens live thousands of miles away, BBYO makes that distance feel a little bit shorter, because we are one movement, and one community.

Lindsey Weiskopf is a freshman at Park School and serves as vice president of programming in her chapter, Achot BBG, and as publicity chair of BBYO Baltimore Council. To learn more about BBYO, contact its Baltimore Council regional director, Danielle Hercenberg, at bmore@bbyo.org or call 410-559-3549.

Advocating for Israel in the American Media

When was the last time anyone in the American Jewish community heard or saw a creative, impacting short message about the many unique Israeli accomplishments geared to the American public as opposed to our own Jewish community again?

Israeli accomplishments are most creative and numerous — prosthetic legs for our wounded American vets, advancements in energy techniques, new agricultural technologies for developing countries to feed their people, effective strategies for first-responders during civil disasters, one of the first countries to respond and help with the Ebola crises and many more than space permits here. These are all achievements the general American public would love to know about, but as yet, they have not been told by us, the spirited advocates for Israel.

First, it’s important to define media. Too often I hear media defined as slanted TV news reporting and newspaper editorials, when in fact media is best defined as many various tools that communicate short impacting messages such as radio/TV spots, outdoor billboards, posters on the sides of buses, in trains and in sub-way stations and newspaper/magazine ads. Imagine short, creative, impacting messages geared to the American people and not ourselves, great messages that could wow the American people, who, by their own culture, love to hear about achievement. It’s the American way.

My hope is that our Israel advocacy organizations one day come together with the help of creative public relations professionals and tell some very impressive messages to all my non-Jewish, non-evangelical American friends who have no clue about Israel except what they hear about“occupiers.”

The time to work on these educational hasbara efforts is in times of calm, not conflict, as we have done often in the past. Over the many years, I recall our communities and their organizations reacting during a major conflict such as the Six Day War or the Yom Kippur War with the usual response — a full-page expensive ad filled with text margin to margin signed by numerous people at the bottom, often resembling the Declaration of Independence. It’s definitely not an attention grabber and a total waste of funds and effort, because it’s really of no interest to the audience. What a waste of energy and precious funds.

For sure, advocating for Israel does mean going to Capitol Hill and pressing the flesh, but the other half of advocacy is to educate the American people who, when impressed, will call their congressional representatives.

I often lecture to Jewish audiences hoping to alter their advocacy thinking and present hasbara workshops to teens who soon will be our Jewish leaders and know how to create impacting messages. I would hope that sometime in the future our Zionist advocates for Israel take a second look at communicating to Americans not about borders, conflict datelines and unreadable maps loaded with extensive text, but instead with messages about really impressive Israeli accomplishments.

Avrum Ashery is a retired media adviser to the U.S. Congress.

Choosing to Remember and Act

It must have been a shock to walk by Shaare Torah Congregation in Gaithersburg last Tuesday morning and see the outer walls covered by spray-painted swastikas and other offensive graffiti.

But as violated as the building appeared, there were no broken windows and the inside was untouched. By the end of the day the walls had been largely cleaned. There was other good news. According to reports, it was the police who noticed the vandalism as a patrol car made a routine swing through the Lakelands neighborhood. They took the act seriously and began an investigation.

The media took the vandalism seriously too and broadcast word of the act from inside the synagogue building. When leaders of other faiths heard about the crime, they responded with sympathy and in solidarity.

“Targeting a house of worship with symbols of hatred and violence is a despicable act,” Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director of the Muslim group CAIR, said in a statement.

Sitting in his office the afternoon of the attack, Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal was keeping the incident in proportion. A swastika attack during Passover is the stuff of sermons. But the only larger meaning he permitted himself was to mention that he and the synagogue’s president had been at the Gaithersburg City Council the night before as Mayor Jud Ashman proclaimed Days of Remembrance for the Holocaust to surround Yom Hashoah on April 16.

“This is an isolated person or group,” Blumenthal said of the vandals with spray paint. “The fabric of diversity in the county and the city is strong.”

Ultimately, the takeaway is not that vandals had targeted a synagogue, but that the greater community had chosen to remember the past and act in the present. That’s the way it should be done.

A Real Palestinian Tragedy

Under constant siege, the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp is still home to 18,000 residents. (YOUSSEF BADAWI/EPA/Newscom)

Under constant siege, the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp is still home to 18,000 residents.
(YOUSSEF BADAWI/EPA/Newscom)

The news of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp — like almost all news out of Syria — is grim. The camp, on the southern edge of Damascus, is under siege by both the Islamic State, which began decapitating Palestinians as soon as it took over this month, and the Syrian government, which is attacking the camp with barrel bombs.

Once home to 160,000 Palestinians, Yarmouk’s remaining 18,000 residents face starvation brought on by relentless bloodshed caused by two genocidal players. Yet, the world seems unwilling or unable to stop it. The head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency traveled to Damascus to try to open access for humanitarian aid, and Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon declared, “We simply cannot stand and watch a massacre unfold.” But it does not appear that any concrete action has been taken. Instead, Palestinians in Syria can only expect more of the same — which is to say nothing much in the way of lasting relief.

The fact of the matter is that the world community seems to take notice of the Palestinian plight only when it deems Israel as the culprit. Last June, for example, in the wake of the kidnapping of three Israeli teens, Israeli forces conducted house-to-house searches and arrested some 350 Palestinians. Those actions brought condemnation and accusations of collective punishment from the Palestinian Authority and Amnesty International.

But the true definition of collective punishment is what we’re seeing today in Yarmouk, which is plainly far more dangerous and brutal than an Israeli security sweep. The world either doesn’t get the difference or doesn’t care.

The real Palestinian tragedy has always been their use as pawns by the Arab and Western worlds. As such, when Palestinian suffering didn’t fit neatly into the “it’s Israel’s fault” narrative, no one seemed to care. We hope that is finally changing. But it is truly unfortunate that it has taken the monumental human tragedy of the Syrian civil war to make that point. With thousands of people staring death in the face, only sustained, substantive action on the part of the international community will save the innocents in Syria.

Four Crucial Years

Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief

According to one storyline, the American Jewish community is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of college students.

There’s plenty of evidence to support that conclusion, of course, what with the surge of resolutions supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel garnering votes among student groups. There’s also historically low levels of Jewish engagement to contend with, as well as the alarming readiness of Jewish students, such as at Swarthmore College in suburban Philadelphia, to collectively thumb their noses at the organizational bodies that have supported for generations the notion that one’s Jewish identity needn’t be sacrificed when passing through the doors of the ivory tower.

But that’s only one storyline.

The perception a half century ago was that “college was an absolute wasteland for Jews,” but today, “the world has changed almost 180 degrees.


Quite another, which you’ll read about in this week’s JT, is that today’s Jewish college students are among the most socially active and are thirsty for more ways to express their Jewish identities. Why else would there be so many Jewish groups on campus, more than four at the University of Maryland alone?

Whereas the perception a half century ago was that “college was an absolute wasteland for Jews,” according to historian Jonathan Sarna, today, “the world has changed almost 180 degrees.”

Some students discover their Judaism in college, others make it richer during their years on campus, and still others make drastic changes in how they view the world through a Jewish lens. In the process, some get “lost” to various movements falling somewhere on the “anti-Israel” spectrum — although to be fair, whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on which side of that divide you spend most of your time — but if doing so is a way for them to connect with their Judaism as opposed to disconnecting from it, can it really be all that bad?

Fundamentally, what really matters — and there’s plenty of demographic data to prove it, from the Pew Report on down — is whether being Jewish for these students is something to be valued. And if more students are leaving college as proud Jews, in whatever form that takes, than those going in, then the Jewish community can pat itself on the back.

As it turns out, the organizations experiencing the most success on campus are the ones that try to keep politics out of the picture. Iran, the Palestinians, terrorism, anti-Semitism — these are all worthwhile concerns, and fundamentally dangerous ones at that, but in the short term. If we took a longer view, we would see that if in the pursuit of doctrinal adherents we lose some students, we will have lost them forever. But if in the pursuit of more people at a Shabbat table we lose some members of the pro-Israel crowd, we will not have permanently lost members of the tribe.

There’s plenty of time to win over minds; after all, there are so many points of connection that college graduates can have with the Jewish community after they leave their alma maters behind. But when it comes to winning over Jewish hearts, four years may be all the community has.

jrunyan@midatlanticmedia.com

Imagine That!

There was a time when I would only go out of my way to listen to speakers who were older and more experienced than I. Recently, however, I have changed my preferences and have begun to seek out speakers, rabbis and teachers who are young and relatively inexperienced. I find their ideas fresh and often very much on the mark. After all, they are in much better touch with our fast-changing world than I am.

This year, during a recent visit to Israel, I sat in on a series of lectures that were designed to prepare the audience for the upcoming Passover holiday. The speaker, a brilliant young rabbi, focused upon the Seder nigh, and particularly upon the text of the Haggadah. He spent most of his opening lecture elaborating upon what he considered the most difficult task with which we are all confronted on the first night of Passover.

The task is described in the following famous passage: “In each and every generation, a person must see himself as if he personally left Egypt. As it is written, ‘And you shall explain to your son on that day that it is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.’” The requirement is explicit in the biblical text: The Lord did it for me, when I went free from Egypt.

The young rabbi candidly confessed to his audience that he had never been able to fulfill this requirement. Indeed, he didn’t think it was possible, certainly not for most of us, to envision ourselves as if we personally had experienced slavery and redemption. “This,” he insisted, “is the most difficult task we are faced with on the Seder night.”

(The task continues every day of the year, including at the end of Passover, which celebrates the splitting of the Sea of Reeds.)

When I first heard the young rabbi’s assertion, I found it to be quite provocative. I wanted to protest but maintained my silence in respect for him. I attributed his conviction to his relative immaturity. I have never found this obligation difficult. Personally, I have found it quite easy to imagine myself as a slave and to personally exult in the emotional experiences of redemption and freedom.

I usually forget the content of most lectures that I hear almost as soon as I leave the lecture hall. This time, however, I could not rid my mind of the young rabbi’s statement. I began to question my own inner certainty. Had it really been so easy for me all these years to envision myself as one of those who had experienced both slavery and the Exodus?

In the midst of my extended preoccupation with the young rabbi’s assertion, a long-forgotten memory suddenly surfaced in my mind. I was taken back in time to another lecture I had heard just before Passover many years ago. This time, the speaker was not a young rabbi at all. Rather, he was an old and revered Chassidic rebbe, a survivor of the Holocaust who had spent years in Auschwitz and had witnessed the vicious murder of his wife and children with his own eyes.

That old rebbe was Rabbi Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam, may his memory be blessed, known as the Klausenberger Rebbe, after the small town in the Balkans where he had served prior to World War II.

In that lecture, Rabbi Halberstam recounted his own puzzlement over a lecture he had heard a very long ago from one of his mentors. I no longer remember the name of that mentor, but Rabbi Halberstam was careful to identify him in detail because of the strange and almost unbelievable experience that he reported.

The mentor said that he had no difficulty at all imagining himself to have been in slavery in Egypt and to have been redeemed. In fact, this mentor reported that he could clearly remember the experience. He could recall in great detail the burdensome work he had to perform, the dirty hovel in which he was forced to live, and the sighs and groans of his companions. He could even still see, in his mind’s eye, the cruel face of his tormentors as they sadistically whipped him for not producing his daily quota of bricks.

The Klausenberger Rebbe confessed that when he first heard his mentor make those claims, he had difficulty believing them. He thought that his mentor had made such a claim just for the effect it would have upon his listeners. He stressed that sometimes it is justified for a speaker to resort to hyperbole to make his point more dramatic and more graphic.

But then the rebbe continued to say that after many years, he had come to realize that his mentor was telling the absolute truth. “It took the experiences I had during the horrible years of the Holocaust,” he exclaimed, “for me to realize why my mentor was able to recall his experiences in ancient Egypt’s tyranny.”

The rebbe then went on to elaborate upon two psychological processes that are necessary to invoke. He used two Hebrew and Yiddish terms respectively: koach hadimyon (the power of imagination) and mitleid (empathy).

The lesson that the old rebbe related to me and to the dozens of other eager listeners that evening so long ago was that we are often restricted by our own tendencies to rely upon our reason, rationality and intellectuality. We underplay the powers that we have to fantasize, to imagine, to dream freely. In a sense, we are slaves to reason and need to learn to allow ourselves to go beyond reason and to give our imaginations free rein. Only then can we “see ourselves as if we had personally endured slavery.” Only by cultivating our imagery can we ourselves experience the emotions of freedom and liberty.

We are all required to imagine ourselves as if we are the other person. If the other person is poor, the mitzvah of charity demands that we ourselves feel his poverty. If he is ill, we must literally suffer along with him. This is empathy, and to be empathic, one must rely upon a well-developed imagination.

Imagination and empathy are not words that one often hears in rabbinic sermons, but they are the words that the Klausenberger Rebbe used that evening. And, as he concluded in his remarks, he learned about those words through the bitter suffering that he endured when he was enslaved in Auschwitz, and he appreciated redemption when he himself was finally freed from his personal bondage.

The young rabbi who started my thinking about this topic just a few weeks ago had, through his good fortune, never really experienced anything remotely resembling slavery. Naturally, he was thus deprived from the ability to really appreciate freedom.

After a few days, I approached the young rabbi and shared with him the words that I had heard decades ago, before this young rabbi was even born. I told him what the Klausenberger Rebbe had said about empathy and imagination. The young rabbi responded politely and with gratitude, but with a gentle smile got in the last word: “But the Klausenberger Rebbe didn’t say that learning to imagine and to empathize were easy.”

I had to admit that the young rabbi was correct. Creative imagination and compassionate empathy are not easily attained. Achieving them may indeed be the hardest task of the holiday of Passover.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.

Save SNAP!

Every afternoon after work, my husband delivers leftover fruit and bagels from his company to homeless individuals who congregate near Health Care for the Homeless in downtown Baltimore. He’s earned the affectionate nickname “Bagel Guy.” His tzedakah, however much appreciated by these men and women, is a drop in a deep bucket of poverty and hunger in our city (“The Changing Face of Poverty,” March 27).

Programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which has been shown to improve nutrition and health outcomes for children and adults, go beyond such tzedakah and represent our conception of tikkun olam, our shared responsibility to heal and transform our world. As both a concerned American citizen and a Jew, I am frustrated that Congress continues its assault on our neighbors struggling with poverty. The House of Representatives just released its new budget, and it would serve one purpose — to make the wealthy wealthier and the poor poorer. To help pay for new costly tax cuts, it would convert SNAP into a lump-sum payment to states. This would force millions of hungry Americans off the program.

Do lawmakers forget that the primary beneficiaries of SNAP are children, the elderly, the disabled and the homeless? Do they balk at SNAP’s 96 percent accuracy and only 1 percent fraud rate? The simple fact is that if SNAP were a corporate program, Congress would be holding it up as a model of effectiveness and efficiency. When it comes to reducing hunger and poverty, our investments in SNAP are working. These investments are the tikkun olam of public policy.

I urge our members of Congress, including Rep. Elijah Cummings, Rep. Andy Harris, Sen. Barbara Mikulksi and Sen. Ben Cardin, to stand up for hungry individuals and families and reject any budget that proposes to cut or restructure SNAP.