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.

Thanks for JVP Coverage

Thank you for your article about the JVP national members’ meeting (“Jewish Voice for Peace Converges in Baltimore,” March 20). I thought it was a well-done article, describing what happened there and the opinions of those who attended. I appreciate seeing unbiased coverage of an organization that is not necessarily popular among your readers.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

The Baltimore Jewish Times and the Baltimore Sun should both be applauded for featuring articles about women and child safety through important legislation addressing sexual assaults on college campuses and reducing the backlog on forensic investigations of rape kit evidence (“Reducing the Backlog,” March 20). Both of these issues are crucial to the safety and quality of life of Maryland’s families. It is, however, disappointing that the incomplete coverage of these issues overlooks the telling origins of both these issues.

While your reporters give appropriate credit to Delegate Shelley Hettleman and Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin for the campus safety legislation and the rape kit backlog improvements, it is former Delegate Jon Cardin who deserves the most credit for raising these concerns and introducing legislation before it was popular, uncontroverted or taken notice by anyone else.

From 2012 to 2014, in the midst of a tight attorney general race and while the media was labeling Jon Cardin an entitled, lazy legacy, not deserving of public support, Jon had two little girls and passed the most groundbreaking legislation to protect children and women as part of his agenda for Maryland’s future. Specifically, he passed the toughest anti-cyber-bullying legislation in the country and led Maryland as the third state to stop online harassment of women through revenge porn.

Furthermore, while the media seemed to enjoy crucifying Jon for making the difficult decision to seek permission from his chairman to assist his young family and pregnant wife with health matters instead of posting for unanimous preliminary votes, Jon had introduced both the campus sexual assault bill and the rape kit backlog reduction bill as part of his 2014 legislative package.

Let’s be clear: Hettleman is to be applauded, but her bill was word for word the same as Cardin’s, and what’s even more interesting is that it was only after Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) adopted Jon’s language to advance a federal bill that the issue became popular around the country. Similarly, having worked on the technical side of forensic rape kit improvements during his time at RTI, Jon pressed the issue at each attorney general debate with little to no interest for more than a year.

Jon may have been the fall guy for Maryland because he chose his family’s health over noncontroversial votes, but that does not mean he is undeserving of credit for his groundbreaking ideas after his replacement in the House of Delegates and his uncle introduce the same legislation. Put credit where credit is due. Jon may have lost because he is a legacy or it may have to do with his attempt to bring pragmatic, common-sense public policy to Democratic politics, but it was not a lack of intellect or sound understanding of public policy. Let’s not rewrite Jon out of history and forget that his important work to make Maryland safe for children and women was intended to improve every person’s quality of life.

Iran Nuclear Nightmare: Framework Fail

After more than 20 years of sanctions against Iran concerning its illicit nuclear program, President Barack Obama has not only precipitously squandered the international community’s economic leverage, but he has also collapsed diplomatic isolation of Iran that had been built up by Congress, six U.N Security Council resolutions and multiple presidents. Now, following over 18 months of nuclear talks, Obama is poised to legitimize the very pathway to a nuclear weapon he promised the American people for years that he would prevent.

The “framework of understanding” announced by the P5+1 and the Islamic Republic of Iran in Lausanne on April 2 represents a series of dangerous capitulations by the U.S. on key aspects of Iran’s nuclear program and a damaging betrayal of long-stated American policy. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was grinning from ear to ear at the announcement; however, in our allies’ capitals throughout the Middle East, the response was much less celebratory.

As reported on the day of the announcement, the “understanding” is not a final accord; neither side is bound by its terms. And within hours, Zarif was already accusing the West of lying, overstating Iran’s obligations and shading the rapid pace of Iran’s coming cash and prizes. While many details that could derail a comprehensive agreement remain to be negotiated, the reality of what was announced is deeply alarming and signifies a dramatic weakening of the positions America held for decades.

Iran entered these negotiations as an international pariah state. As the regime pursued its illicit nuclear program, its economy was crumbling under the weight of crippling economic sanctions. When Obama originally opened these talks, the country was six months from bankruptcy and that pressure could have been used to dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

However, the Iranians’ shrewd negotiation tactics completely unraveled the original U.S. goal of absolutely no enrichment in Iran. According to the new framework, Iran now stands to operate over 6,000 of the 9,000 centrifuges spinning today. Instead of dismantling Iran’s plutonium plant, now Iran can produce plutonium more slowly. And once the final accord expires, Tehran will be able to build unlimited plutonium reactors.

Obama said a final agreement will not be based on trust. But the entire framework seems to hinge on asking Americans to trust the Iranians not to cheat, and trusting that the Administration knows better than Congress.

Obama said that Congress has an important role to play. He welcomed a vigorous debate about the agreement, but in the same breath warned that if Congress scuttles the deal, then America will be blamed for failed diplomacy. Let’s hope Congress sees this message for what it is: pure politics.

Only Congress can unwind the sanctions it has imposed under the law. And only Congress at this point can ensure that the United States does not pave Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon.

Joshua S. Block is President & CEO of The Israel Project.