Wiesel No Icon, Part II

It has to be said, and if no one else seems willing to do so, let it be me: “Icon” Elie Wiesel is one of the few individuals of whom it can be stated without the slightest fear of contradiction that he personally, professionally and financially profited from the Holocaust (“Icon Makes Political Statement,” Feb. 27).

Therefore, it was only fitting that his ill-gotten lucre was taken away from him by Bernie Madoff. Those who are theologically oriented might be inclined to comment that G-d works in mysterious ways.

Obama, Take Notice

Contrary to President Barak Obama’s understanding, there was something very new in Benjamin Netanyahu’s address before Congress: honesty, strength, remarkable courage, overwhelming love for his country and an iron determination to defend it (“Pulling No Punches,” March 6). Pray for such a man for our own country.

Hamantaschen: Made from Scratch

What is this “change of pace” with new flavors for hamantaschen (“Change of Pace,” Feb. 27)? Is this because we are tired of eating homemade hamantaschen all year?

My mother did not have white chocolate chips, espresso or Nutella in her pantry. She simply prepared her made-from-scratch poppy-seed filling in one bowl, placed the filling onto the prepared dough and folded the dough properly. She then baked the hamantaschen in her non-temperature-controlled oven.

I wish I had recorded her unwritten recipe.

God’s Punishment

For American Jews who believe in Divine Providence, the message — i.e., the timing — of the unusual Purim (March 5) snowfall in the Baltimore-Washington area is transparent. It was heavenly punishment for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meretricious and overweening address to the U.S. Congress (“Pulling No Punches,” March 6). Put another way, one good snow job deserves another.

Together as One, Forever United

“Together as one, forever united.”The importance of these words has recently, in the face of constant anti-Semitism, stood out to the global Jewish community. During Presidents Day weekend, more than 2,000 Jewish teens from around the world gathered in Atlanta for BBYO’s annual International Convention to demonstrate how, when taken to heart, these words have the ability to shape a movement. Participants had the opportunity not only to listen to a variety of speakers, attend leadership seminars and learn about the future of the Jewish community, but also to form connections with teens from around the world and to advocate for the future of the Jewish people.

For me, as well as many of the other teens present at the convention, the most unique opportunity that this convention gave us was the chance to meet and bond with teens from countries around the globe. Speaking with teens from countries where anti-Semitism is predominant, such as Turkey, it was shocking to hear some of the precautions individuals must take to hide their Jewish identity. While I proudly advertise my involvement in Jewish youth organizations, many of my peers are forced to hide their participation in BBYO, unable to tell even their closest friend about their attendance at the International Convention in fear of a violent response.

As important as it always is to learn about the effects of anti-Semitism around the world, having a connection to someone who experiences this anti-Semitism really allows an individual to understand these effects. At this International Convention, teens from around the world were drawn together by their similarities: age, religion, involvement in BBYO. While talking, teens would discover that, despite the thousands of miles between their home countries, they watched the same TV shows, listened to the same music and even shopped at the same store chains. In the span of a few days, these individuals can become some of your closes friends, and this is when their stories of their Jewish identity stand out. You can finally understand how the life of someone, who is in many ways so similar to you, can be affected so greatly by anti-Semitism.

It is these experiences that make international BBYO events so unique and meaningful. As a teenager, it is often difficult to feel your connection to the global Jewish community, but personally, BBYO has given me the experiences to ensure that I feel this connection. The five days I spent at BBYO’s International Convention provided an opportunity for me to attend programs that have given me a new perspective on my Jewish identity, so that I know I will do my best to ensure that the global Jewish community is truly together as one and forever united.

Alyssa Weiss is a senior at Pikesville High School and is secretary of the BBYO Baltimore Council for 2014-15 and an active member of Achot BBG. To learn more about BBYO, contact BBYO Baltimore Council Regional Director Danielle Hercenberg at 410-559-3549 or bmore@bbyo.org.

Obama’s Failed Foreign Policy

landauRarely has a speech given by a foreign international leader received such a voluminous ocean of words, warnings and dire consequences as that given to ally and friend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. He is only the second leader — the first was the late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill — to have addressed the joint Congress three times for a political Olympic record. Whereas the English leader was formulating the need for America to assist its ally in a looming world war, the second prime minister was trying to avert yet another conflagration in his part of the world.

When all the political opinions, insights and distractions are put to rest and silenced, and the mixed responses and reactions to the speech disseminated, we can get down to the matter at hand: Did the Israeli leader flout political etiquette by questioning the terms of a proposed treaty with Iran just a stone’s throw away from the home of its chief negotiator, President Barack Obama, and did he have anything substantial to say on the matter?

What must never be forgotten is that the entire Middle East is a tinderbox waiting to explode out of control. It is a topography with failed states; in Libya and Syria, leaders are still massacring their own peoples, while an ever-increasing litany of terrorist thugs and murderers create havoc and destruction wherever they happen to be roaming. And then there’s Israel and Netanyahu, who, more so than any other leader in the area, realizes that the one country that is pulling the strings on so many players in the region is Iran. And let’s not forget the so-called Islamic State, whose murderous intents are similar.

So the question of history is which side will succeed?

Iran’s leaders are not nice people. They spew hatred for Israel, target the Western world for destruction and help their co-religionists neutralize the presence of anyone not of their same religious persuasion. And they will support terrorism around the world that targets Jews and Americans and a vast assortment of innocents in order to pursue their political goals and religious endeavors.

The ongoing fear of these nuclear talks, which Netanyahu could not have stated to Congress, is that when it comes to America’s foreign policy initiatives, Obama has failed. In Syria, he drew the red line so many times regarding Bashar Assad’s use of chemical warfare on his people that the line itself became indiscernible. In Ukraine, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has been dancing circles all around Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry without being prevented from continuing his own personal war in the region. The picture that emerges is of a president who lacks the luster of a master strategist, who is seen as being weak and whose word cannot be trusted because he lacks the international authority to impose any kind of American power anywhere in the world.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and indeed the entire region have no faith at all in the current American leader or his policies. Wouldn’t it be somewhat ironic if all these countries came together in an alliance with Israel because of the shared depressing understanding that America (and Europe) created a vacuum of weakness in its dealings with Iran that forced them to fend for themselves?

Rabbi Chaim Landau is the president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.

Good Deeds, Great Results

Who benefits from Good Deeds Day, the day of community volunteering that will take place in Baltimore and around the Jewish world on Sunday?

Certainly the residents of the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital who have a playdate with toddler volunteers. So will the Oliver Neighborhood in East Baltimore, when volunteers arrive for an area clean-up project and to work on the community farm.

These are just a taste of the activities that members of our community can take part in during Good Deeds Day. Helping others, known traditionally as gemilut chasadim — or performing deeds of loving kindness — is one of three pillars upon which Jewish tradition says the world survives. In our time, tikkun olam, or repairing the world, has become the banner under which Jews reach outside themselves for the benefit of the wider society.

But there is another beneficiary of Good Deeds Day, which is sponsored by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and a host of other organizations: the Jewish community itself. By coming together, we strengthen the community, our ties to it and our sense of being Jews. That’s crucial at a time when ties to the community are weakening for younger Jews, but surveys are finding that we all want to participate in activities that reflect our values. More than anything, members of the millennial generation want to volunteer for a good cause.

Seen in this light, the projects that will be undertaken on Sunday may establish someone’s connection to the Jewish community simply because the activity reflects that person’s values. So whether it’s assembling dry soup ingredients for a senior home or packing lunches for the homeless, we hope to see you on Good Deeds Day.

Answering Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  addresses the AIPAC policy conference a day before his controversial speech to Congress on March 3.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the AIPAC policy conference a day before his controversial speech to Congress on March 3.
(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Now that some of the political dust has settled over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress last week, we join those who have tried to focus on what Netanyahu actually said and whether the issues he raised should impact Washington’s continuing negotiations with Iran. Although the headlines regarding the speech focused on Iran’s continuing nuclear development — clearly the speech’s central theme — there was more in Netanyahu’s presentation that deserves attention.

In addition to focusing on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and likely capabilities, Netanyahu pointed to Iran’s repeated rejection of Israel’s right to exist and Tehran’s ongoing support of global terrorism. Neither of those two issues is part of the talks to rein in Iran’s nuclear capability. But both issues represent a threat to Israel and to American interests in the Middle East. The same holds for U.S. cooperation with Iran in battling the so-called Islamic State.

The Obama administration has apparently concluded that the Islamic State is a greater threat to the region than Iran. American allies including Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf countries see Iran as just as much of a threat, if not more, as it seeks to dominate the entire region. But the United States appears to be looking the other way on the collateral issues as it pursues a nuclear agreement with Iran. We aren’t sure why. And, unfortunately, no one is doing much explaining.

The Iran negotiations in Geneva will resume on March 15. In the meantime, Netanyahu has stated his case. His arguments have been thoroughly analyzed and debated. No such public discussion of U.S. objectives and vision is being pursued by the White House or the State Department. We are told that progress is being made; we are assured that appropriate verification mechanisms will be in place and that Iran will never get nuclear bomb-making capabilities. We need to know and understand more.

Specifically, we want to hear the administration’s best argument for the deal that is unfolding. Why is a deal that allows Iran to keep its nuclear infrastructure a good thing? And is it realistic to assume that the current regime will not last another 10 years as the administration appears to be projecting? Or that what will follow will be a new Iran acting as a responsible international player? And what are the disincentives to an Iran continuing to seek regional hegemony, pursue nuclear weapons capability and continue to threaten its neighbors, as the current regime is doing?

These are all issues that deserve public discussion and explanation. And if an agreement is reached, it needs to be laid out clearly to Congress, which should weigh in with an up or down vote.

Confirming Our Fears

The results of a new Pew Research Center study finding that global harassment of Jews has reached a seven-year high didn’t come as much of a surprise. With attacks against Jews in Paris and Copenhagen fresh in our minds, the conclusion seems self-evident. What was somewhat surprising, however, is that the years analyzed end in 2013, the last year for which data is available. One can only imagine how upsetting the results for 2014 and 2015 will be.

Pew found that in 2012, Jews reported being harassed in 71 out of 198 countries and territories. The number in 2013 was 77 countries. Europe was a dark spot on this world map, with Jews harassed in 34 of 45 European countries, or 76 percent. That compares with just 25 percent of countries in the rest of the world. However, because there aren’t large concentrations of Jews in more than a handful of countries, the fact that Jews are harassed in places where they are not well known only points to how common, and serious, the problem is.

This particular Pew study looked at worldwide religious discrimination, not just against Jews. But it is the discrimination and harassment of Jews that is getting the headlines. Of large countries in the report, the United States makes out well, with only “moderate” levels of “social hostilities” and “government restrictions” of religions; Japan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa fare better.

Interestingly, Israel is among the countries with a “very high” level of social hostilities involving religion (as are the Palestinian territories). Israel also has a “high” level of government restrictions on religion, a rating it shares with Germany. In reviewing these statistics, one can’t help but wonder whether the former reflects the unsettled relations between Jews and Palestinians and between Israel’s haredim and the rest of its Jews. And perhaps the latter is a sign of the lack of religious pluralism in the public sphere and the control of personal-status issues by the Chief Rabbinate.

Granted, we don’t need a study to know these things. But the report can be used to shine a light on the need to increase focus on the fight against anti-Semitism in Europe and on the need for religious pluralism and social equality in Israel.

Time to Diversify

I am optimistic about the American Jewish future. But I am worried about the future of extant Jewish communal institutions, primarily because of what I see as limited examples of adaptive leadership. While the synagogue is the most ubiquitous of all American Jewish institutions, it too is vulnerable and at risk.

The synagogue does not speak to the millennial generation the way it once did to its boomer parents. The synagogue made a different statement in former generations than it does to this current generation of fully American, American Jews. Moreover, the pediatric Judaism we created after World War II is focused on families with young children, risking the alienation of the various other segments of the community.

Affiliation rates have declined (15 percent in the last decade) to approximately 30 percent, as people are seeking other vehicles for all kinds of Jewish expression. And in response, too many synagogues are assuming an even more survivalist posture — searching for new members who will fit their model of Judaism rather than looking for new ways to serve the needs of the people who have voted with their feet not to participate in the synagogue.

The American synagogue was built on the backs of three-day-a-year Jews, those who supported institutions in which they didn’t, or rarely did, participate. The diminution in synagogue membership is mostly among that segment of the population.

Synagogues are rightfully looking at alternative membership and revenue models. Approximately 30 synagogues from various movements and of different sizes and locales have already moved to a voluntary dues model. (This is particularly appealing to the large number of intermarriages in the Jewish community since the partner who comes from a Christian tradition may find such an approach more appealing.) This movement is laudable, and we will see a growing number of synagogues adopt such a model, because it is low risk.

There are other models for synagogues to consider as well. But only those synagogues that are mission-driven — and whose mission speaks to the needs of the individual — will survive into the next generation. It is insufficient to label a synagogue Reform or Conservative and think that it describes its mission. Furthermore, we have to move away from a discussion concerning the obligations of membership to one that is more persuasive: the benefits of membership.

And we can’t speak about synagogues without talking about clergy. Too many rabbis have neglected to sufficiently communicate their own value-added to the equation. It’s one of the reasons that we see fewer and fewer weddings officiated by ordained Jewish clergy. And this doesn’t account for the increased number of so-called destination b’nai mitzvah, those events that are taking place at a local hotel or event space so that the family can shape the event in such a way as to address their own needs.

I don’t believe there is one right answer. Jews in America are growing increasingly diverse, and our institutions need to reflect that by diversifying their offerings and models. Doing so will mean a brighter future for organized Jewish communal life.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is executive director of the Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute and author, with son Rabbi Avi Olitzky, of the new book “New Membership & Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue: From Traditional Dues To Fair Share To Gifts From The Heart” (Jewish Lights Publishing).