Wiesel Not Above Criticism

Stuart Sachs would be well advised to actually read material before attempting to criticize it (“Your Say,” March 20).

As one letter noted, Wiesel does not “own” the Holocaust, so for Sachs to declare him its holy incarnation is nothing short of idolatry.

And even if there was such ownership, it would bestow upon him no license to exploit the memory of the 6 million on behalf of a highly partisan, racist, fear-mongering agenda.

In the words of Jon Stewart, “Wouldn’t it be nice if people who jumped to conclusions and peddled a false, divisive, anger-stoking narrative had to apologize for misleading” the rest of us?

Judge Wiesel by His Company

Pirkei Avot counsels aseh lecha rav; we are known by the company we keep.

With whom does Elie Wiesel make it a point of palling around in public (“Your Say,” March 20)? There is casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who is on record as being hostile to democracy, Shmuley Boteach, and “King Bibi” Netanyahu, best-known recently for his hearty election eve impersonation of George Wallace — “The Arabs are coming in droves,” he said — and under whose aegis Israel’s middle class has been decimated.

Are these bullying oligarchs the sort of people with whom a “moral icon” should be hanging out?

Outreach Mission Got Buried

In the March 20 local news item “United Through Motherhood,” why was it not noted until the 10th paragraph that the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project is an Orthodox organization, and one devoted to outreach at that?

Why was this fact not highlighted upfront, at the outset?

Sadly, such is the sort of deceit and misleading antics usually associated with Jews for Jesus and routinely practiced by the Messianic Judaism movement. The JT can and should do better in the future.

Why the Change?

I object to the new format of your obituary e-mail notifications.

It’s annoying to have to open another page (particularly on-the-go, with sometimes spotty reception) and I often don’t know the deceased, but do know one of the family members mentioned later in death notices.

Please go back to the old format with the text in the email! One window, one delete.

Amassing Solutions Through Citizen Impact

2013ftv_oshry_aleezaOne question that everyone who cares about making their community a better place to live has struggled to answer is: How do we start to make improvement? Innovation and relevance are definitely keys to unlock these answers. And deputizing citizens to become a part of the solution can accumulate immense amount of impact.

Citizens rallying to make a difference can be extremely powerful, as well as a great modality to collectively express concern and garner attention to motivate others. About a month ago I attended a rally in Annapolis with my colleagues asking the new governor and the state legislature to “not backtrack on the bay.” It was a great call to action about an issue that literally affects us all.

The rally wasn’t about recent rhetoric regarding what is unfortunately dubbed as the “rain tax.” Rather, it was a rally about clean water — access to, the necessity of and ramifications of not having clean water. It is unfortunate that we need legislative action to protect waterways so that we can ensure a clean water supply. Speaking loudly and clearly about this issue on Lawyer’s Mall was one way to communicate how — across demographics — Marylanders care more about access to clean water than our legislature would have the public believe.

To make any progress towards restoring the Chesapeake Bay and the connected watershed takes such a
gargantuan amount of effort. With the amount of politics and special interests from surrounding states that can stand in the way of progress, any improvement is a monumental win. Although the health of the bay is still on the verge of failing, we have made small, incremental improvements.

Another great example of citizen action is Litterati, a social media effort that uses geo-tagging in an effort to document trash clean-up and increase awareness about our environmental impact. By tagging and posting these litter-sightings, you are naturally placed in the role of responsible citizen and propelled into action and engagement. At the Litterati website, litterati.org, you can visit a virtual landfill and a world map where citizens like you and me are “cleaning our planet, one piece at a time.”

In January, a virtual day of service project using the hashtags #Litterati #Baltimore was sponsored by Blue Water Baltimore in honor of Martin Luther King Day, and again promoted widely throughout Jewish communities for Tu Beshvat a few weeks later.

Citizens are encouraged to use #Litterati #Baltimore every day, not just for special designated service days. The information accrued on the website can also be used in very practically ways by organizations and municipalities to increase the efficiency of services such as trash disposal and street sweeping, to help prevent trash from collecting in our streams and waterways.

It is sometimes difficult to identify and connect with how we can influence our communities to become healthier and more vibrant. Whether as a group or one by one, our impact accumulates and can make meaningful, positive change.

Aleeza Oshry is a local geologist, educator and sustainability consultant.

Celebrate Freedom with Fair Trade Chocolate

A few movies have affected me so deeply that I knew a new journey was opening for me. One of those was “The Dark Side of Chocolate,” which I saw at the Fair Trade Federation conference in fall 2010. It explicitly documents child labor’s role in the cocoa fields of the Ivory Coast.

I was stunned to learn that this delicious and heavenly food was being produced by slave labor. Within 30 minutes of watching the film, the idea to launch a Passover campaign featuring this issue as a contemporary form of slavery was birthed, thus expanding Fair Trade Judaica’s mission beyond solely Judaica products.

Why Passover? Because every year at this time we gather as family and community to celebrate our people’s freedom. We are obligated to tell the story of the Exodus, our journey from slavery to liberation.

“In every generation a person is obligated to see him or herself as though he/she had personally been redeemed from Eqypt,” we read in the Haggadah. In recalling our people’s experience in Egypt, we are urged to remember that we were once slaves.

Though we may not be actual slaves ourselves today, our history moves us to ask, “Where does slavery exist today?” “Who is enslaved?” “What is that slavery like?” “What can I do about it?”

To honor that question, for the past four years, my family has added a fair trade chocolate bar to our Seder plate, symbolizing the dire situation of trafficked and enslaved child labor used in the production of cocoa, documented in Cameroon, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire — this leading supplier accounts for around 40 to 50 percent of production — Guinea and Nigeria.

Hundreds of thousands of children work in these cocoa fields, many of them exposed to hazardous conditions, where they spray pesticides and apply fertilizers without protective gear; use sharp tools, like machetes, to crack open the cacao pods; sustain injuries from transporting heavy loads beyond permissible weight; and do strenuous work like felling trees and clearing and burning vegetation.

This situation has been documented by the State Department’s “2010 Traffic-king in Persons Report,” Tulane University and a variety of journalistic movies and reports. Chocolate companies voluntarily agreed to improve this situation back in 2001, but recent reports show little progress.

But more and more companies are beginning to source fair trade certified cocoa beans due to customer demand. Cadbury has converted their top selling chocolate bar in the United Kingdom to fair trade and extended the Fair Trade Certified Dairy Milk bar to Australia, Canada, Ireland, Japan and New Zealand. Green & Black’s product line has been fair trade certified since 2012. In the United States, there are about 20 small companies fully committed to sourcing fair trade cocoa beans.

This Passover, we can say Shehechiyanu, as fair trade kosher for Passover chocolate bars are now available and included in the Conservative movement’s “Rabbinical Assembly Pesach Guide.” My organization, Fair Trade Judaica, has joined together with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights to encourage individuals and congregations to use only ethically produced chocolate this year.

This year, I hope you’ll join me by choosing fair trade kosher for Passover chocolate for your Seder table with the hope that one day all chocolate will be child labor-free.

Ilana Schatz is the founding director of Fair Trade Judaica, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building a fair trade movement in the U.S. Jewish community.

Making Sense of Unspeakable Tragedy



The Jewish world united in grief this week, shocked at the inexplicable tragedy that claimed seven children in Brooklyn, N.Y. Like many parents here in Baltimore and beyond, my heart reached out to Gabriel Sassoon, the father who had spent Shabbat at a religious conference and was thus saved, his wife Gayle and their 15-year-old daughter Tziporah, who were still struggling to survive from a hospital bed as their children and siblings were buried in Jerusalem.

In what world, I asked, does a loving family lose seven innocent souls in such a conflagration?

But then my thoughts turned personal as I walked through the second-floor bedrooms of my Park Heights home: Are we safe?

As it turns out — and it took the unspeakable horror in Brooklyn for us to discover it — we weren’t. Though we moved here more than a year ago expecting the smoke detectors in our house to be in proper working order, we had never actually tested them. On Sunday morning, we learned that not one was functional. Had a fire started in the middle of the night, it is not unreasonable to assume that tragedy not unlike that in New York could have befallen us.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, investigators believe they know the cause of the fire — a malfunctioning hotplate. In the Shabbat-observant world, most of us use them to keep cooked foods warm when the act of cooking, such as on Shabbat, is forbidden. So we’re all facing risks of late-night fires.

That’s what makes reliance on smoke detectors and fire alarms so crucial.

Thankfully, the local fire department will provide and install a smoke detector on every level of a home for free. When the team of three firefighters from the Baltimore City Fire Department arrived at our house Sunday, their captain noted that ours was the third call of the day; they still had several more to go.

Now, equipped with working smoke detectors, as well as fire extinguishers and escape ladders bought during a last-minute trip to a home improvement store, we have some measure of security. We’ll be working on an escape plan next.

But taken in the aggregate, the whole story of the fire and the burials in Jerusalem, and how it has affected people like me and you, underscores how precious and fleeting life is.

Sassoon called his children “seven sacrifices,” beings without blemish, and the same can be said for any child taken too soon.

All too often, we go through our days either aimlessly in a daze or laser-focused on an exterior goal like money, and we lose sight of the beauty in our own families. That such beauty can be snuffed out in an instant is of course dreadful, but acknowledging that fact can also spur all of us to devote a little more of our time and energy to what really matters.

First up, please check your smoke detectors; authorities recommend doing so every 30 days. Ensure that a fire extinguisher is charged and available on every floor of your home. Make sure that every member of your family knows what to do in an emergency.

But once you’ve provided for your safety and that of your family, turn to your children, your friends, your spouse and your parents and make sure they know how special they are.


Tackling Race by the Cup

Employees on the front lines of the service economy are compelled to say a lot of things to customers at corporate behest, whether it’s “Would you like to supersize that?” or by responding to “Thank you” with the unnatural “My pleasure.”

As of Sunday, baristas at Starbucks will no longer have to worry about following up an order for a vente caramel flan latte with a discussion on racism in America, a topic whose solution has eluded the country’s greatest minds. It was Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s idea for his staff to open up a national discussion on racism by writing #RaceTogether on customers’ cups. It took just one week for the initiative to sink under the weight of criticism and satire, making it only slightly less well received than New Coke.

Racism is America’s enduring shame, but there was something awfully gimmicky about the #RaceTogether initiative. Corporations are right to try to do good, but sometimes these efforts seem to be focused more on increasing the bottom line than repairing the world. On top of that, the effort to reduce a nation’s struggle with race to a pithy hashtag just seemed naive.

Starbucks has done phenomenally well, and Schultz has used the chain’s notoriety and ubiquity in a series of activist political and social initiatives. In 2011, he led 100 corporate executives in pledging to halt campaign contributions until politicians “stop the partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C.” In 2013, he urged customers to support a petition calling for an end to the government shutdown then underway. The same year, the chain advised customers that they were no longer welcome to bring their guns when they stop in for a coffee.

In the future, Schultz said in a company memo, Starbucks will continue hosting events on racism, hiring 16- to 24-year-olds who aren’t in school or employed, and “expanding our store footprint in urban communities across the country.” These actions are likely to do more to help close the economic divide in this country than by seeking to engage and influence customers who just want a jolt of caffeine.

Besides, aren’t the lines at Starbucks long enough?

Netanyahu’s Victory

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, flanked by his wife and Likud Party supporters, has a lot of fence-mending to do. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, flanked by his wife and Likud Party supporters, has a lot of fence-mending to do.
(Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In last week’s election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defied polls, surprised pundits and confounded expectations by pulling off a clear victory. We congratulate him as he negotiates a coalition for his historic fourth term as prime minister.

We are concerned, however, that there was a heavy price for Netanyahu’s victory. His last-minute renunciation of support for a two-state solution and his warning that Arab Israelis were going to the polls “in droves” were very troubling. Although we are heartened that Netanyahu appears to be walking back his opposition to a future Palestinian state, we remain concerned that the pre-election declarations have done Israel and its supporters serious damage. In that regard, we agree with U.S. Mideast peace negotiator and former ambassador Martin Indyk, who said, “On his way to election victory, Netanyahu broke a lot of crockery in [Israel’s] relationship [with the United States].” While we have faith that that relationship is fundamentally sound, we may soon find out what the broken crockery consists of.

Netanyahu’s post-election Washington “to-do list” is long — beginning with the need to do whatever he can to reset his relationship with the Obama White House. On the international level, we are concerned that Netanyahu has handed the world what appears to be proof that the Jewish state and its leader are not serious about the peace process. He needs to address that issue clearly and directly. Further, those who question Israel’s democratic bona fides will find ammunition in the pre-election words of a prime minister who appears to fear Arab Israelis exercising their right to vote rather than welcome it.

But that’s not all. There is collateral damage that could prove even more challenging. Beginning with his decision to embrace Mitt Romney in his presidential bid and continuing with his public spat with the White House over his recent speech to Congress, Netanyahu’s overtly political moves have exacerbated the wedge between Jews in this country when it comes to support for Israel. While some take comfort in Netanyahu’s explanations about his controversial actions and statements, others do not. Some will defend him to the hilt, but others, fatigued by these apparently avoidable episodes, express anger, frustration and lessened support. This is most unfortunate.

Israel is central to Jewish identity and survival. We need the prime minister of the State of Israel to serve as a uniting force for world Jewry and to do everything he can to stay away from partisan bickering and pettiness. It is time for the prime minister to push the reset button, and mean it. That’s what leadership demands.

The Victorious Victim Parshat Vayikra

112114_jewishview-Rabbi-WeinrebI always experience a sense of excitement when I begin a new book. I am convinced that most avid readers feel the same way. This Shabbat gives us an opportunity to experience that excitement as we begin a new book, the Book of Leviticus, with Parshat Vayikra.

Leviticus has historically had mixed reviews. On the one hand, our tradition reveres this book, calling it torat kohanim —  the Torah, or “teachings,” of the priests. The dominant theme of Leviticus is the role of the priests within the various rituals connected to worship in the Holy Temple and their role in various rituals associated with purity and holiness.

So special a place does Leviticus have in our tradition that there was once a time when schoolchildren began their study of the Bible with this very holy book.

In more recent times, however, Leviticus has become a victim of negative criticism. I remember participating in a protest against a publisher who planned an anthology of inspiring biblical texts but deliberately omitted Leviticus from the table of contents. He felt that most of the book was irrelevant and outdated. Only instead of using the term “outdated,” he called it “primitive.” Those of us who protested his omission adduced many passages in Leviticus that were not only relevant, but of great import to contemporary
society, but to no avail. I realized how futile our protest was when he asserted that the verse, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” couldn’t have been part of the original text of Leviticus and was instead inserted centuries after the book was first written.

Of course, the source of this publisher’s bias traced back to the early school of biblical criticism, which assigned the author of Leviticus the title “P,” standing for “Priestly Code.” These critics maintain that the entire Book of Leviticus was written much later than the rest of the Bible. As a believing Jew, I disassociate myself entirely from this school and
its theories.

It was at one of the public lectures of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik that I heard him say that we have a standard by which to assess the sanctity and importance of those matters that we consider holy: “The more virulent the opposition to one of our beliefs, the more sacred and important we can consider that belief to be.” He offered two examples of this phenomenon. One was the book we begin to read this Shabbat, which some so-called Bible scholars consider inferior to other books of the Bible. This antagonism, argued Rabbi Soloveitchik, is in and of itself sufficient to convince us that Leviticus is especially important. As a second example, he pointed to the State of Israel, which already in his time —  40 or so years ago —  faced extreme hostility in the international arena. This very hostility, he insisted, demonstrates the State of Israel’s essential importance.

Viewing the entire Book of Leviticus as a victim of misunderstanding and defamation provides an opportunity for us to consider the very relevant lessons the book may actually have for the nature of victimhood. As I hope to demonstrate, our tradition has many lessons to teach us about the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim, between the pursuer and the one he pursues.

Many of those lessons are rooted not only in the Book of Leviticus, but in this week’s Torah portion. But first, let’s look at a verse from another biblical book that has had its share of detractors over the centuries, the Book of Ecclesiastes: “What is occurring now occurred long since and what is to occur occurred long since. And God seeks the pursued.”

In this verse, King Solomon, the author of the book, maintains that history is cyclical. Today’s events and future events have their precedents in the past. One aspect of this repetitive narrative is consistent and predictable: God seeks the pursued. God is on the side of history’s victims, and ultimately it is they who will prevail. Here is how the Midrash expands upon this concept: “Rabbi Huna said in the name of Rabbi Yosef, ‘God always seeks the pursued. You will find that when one righteous person pursues another righteous person, God sides with the pursued. When a villain pursues a righteous person, God sides with the pursued. When one villain pursues another villain, God sides with the pursued. Even when a righteous person pursues a villain, God sides with the pursued. In every case, God sides with the pursued” (Vayikra Rabbah 27:5).

This Midrashic passage continues to offer examples throughout history of this principle: Abel was pursued by Cain, and God chose Abel. Noah was pursued by his society, and God favored Noah. Abraham was pursued by Nimrod, Isaac by the Philistines, Jacob by Esau, Joseph by his brothers, Moses by Pharaoh, David by Saul, Saul by the Philistines. In each and every instance, God favored the pursued and eventually vanquished the pursuer. So too, the Midrash assures us, although the people of Israel have been pursued by enemy nations throughout their history, God will seek the pursued. He will favor the victim.

The Talmud takes this theme one step further, recommending that we consciously strive to be among the pursued and not join the pursuers” “Rabbi Abahu preached that one should always include himself among the pursued, and never among the pursuers, for, after all, no species of fowl is more pursued than pigeons and turtle doves, and yet these are the only species of fowl that are fit for the altar” (Bava Kama 93a).

Maimonides includes Rabbi Abahu’s advice in his description of the proper demeanor of the Torah scholar, the talmid chacham: “His guiding principle should be to include himself among the pursued but not among the pursuers. He should be one of those who forgives insult but never insults others” (Hilchot De’ot 5:13).

Do not be misled. Joining the pursued does not mean that one should be a pushover, a nebbish. The Torah encourages us to stand up for ourselves and defend ourselves vigorously when necessary. Rather, joining the pursued means that we do not always need to win, that we give others credit and allow them the limelight. We join the pursued when we are careful not to trample others competitively in order to get ahead, but we work collaboratively with them. Those are the qualities that are blessed by the God who seeks the pursued.

The 19th century commentator and rabbinic authority Rabbi Jacob of Lyssa offers a brief insight into the verse of our focus in this column, “God seeks the pursued.” He points out that in a certain sense we are all pursued. Every human being is pursued by his or her passions, moral failings and selfish egos. Part of man’s existential condition is that he is pursued by evil urges. God seeks the pursued, offering succor to all those who valiantly struggle to overcome their internal temptations and strive to live an ethical and moral life.

As individuals, as a people, and as human beings, we often are fated to be victims. Still, our sages see in this week’s Torah portion the lesson that we can be victorious victims.