Say ‘No!’ to Offshore Drilling

The recent Interior Department proposal to allow offshore oil and gas drilling along the East Coast is simply absurd. Waves of drilling could likely precede waves of oil lapping at the shores of our beloved beaches and storied seaports, imperiling fish, wildlife, local economies and treasured ways of life. The potential rewards for Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay are not worth the risk of more seismic testing, let alone another calamitous spill.

The oil and gas industry frequently tells us that drilling rigs are now accident proof, pipelines rarely break, and tankers hardly ever sink. In truth, the U.S. averages a decent-sized oil spill every day under current levels of production.

We don’t need to look any farther than the storied Yellowstone River to see the risk. It suffered a major infusion of petrochemicals following a pipeline rupture last month, contaminating the local drinking water supplies in Glendive, Mont., with cancer-causing benzene.

An even more poignant reminder is found along the Gulf of Mexico, where the damage from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster is far from being reversed. In fact, that spill’s damage still isn’t fully understood, as teams of state and federal trustees continue to grapple with the herculean task of tabulating the total ecological and economic damage.

At about the same time oil started spewing into the Yellowstone, a federal judge in New Orleans considering BP’s liability for the Deepwater Horizon spill under the Clean Water Act finally arrived at the most credible estimate of how much oil was released into the Gulf of Mexico, 3.19 million barrels.  Even if you cannot fathom just how much oil this represents, the fact that it has taken almost five years from the start of the Deepwater Horizon spill to realistically calculate the volume of oil that it released should tell us just how huge of a threat offshore drilling poses.

The Interior Department proposal for East Coast offshore drilling contains provisions that oil and gas rigs could not be located within 50 miles of the Atlantic coastline. This may sound far, but consider that it took merely two weeks for the first tar balls from Deepwater Horizon to travel about 40 miles to shore.

The U.S. is now the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas — without drilling off the fragile Atlantic or the Pacific coasts. Worldwide, the price of oil and the cost
of clean energy alternatives are at near-record lows. The cost-benefit has never been better to focus our investments on renewable energy sources that move us away from our risky dependence on fossil fuels.

The Interior Department will allow the public to comment on its proposal to expand East Coast drilling later this year. I urge everyone who cares about our coasts to join me in speaking out loudly against the plan. We need to make it clear that the health and vitality of our oceans and coasts must not be sacrificed.

One Brick at a Time

This past November, I had the privilege of attending the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly (fondly referred to as the GA) in Washington, D.C. As someone not very religious, I found myself reflecting on what drove me to take three days away from my family and work to attend an event about which I knew very little.

Was it memories of my grand-father, Joseph Garter, whose voice filled our house while davening the Kiddush with perfect pitch? Was it memories of lighting a menorah with my family while every other house in the neighborhood was encased in Christmas lights? Was it memories of Hebrew school or 12 summers of Jewish overnight camp?  Maybe it was because I had become a father and developed a desire to ensure my children have similar Jewish memories of their own. Without being too profound, there is something practical there. Those memories didn’t happen on their own; they were given to me by my grandfather, my parents, my friends and family and the Jewish community in Howard County in which I grew up. I realized it was up to me and my wife to help provide those memories to our children — no pressure! Maybe attending the GA would help.

I attended alongside staff and lay leaders of the Jewish Federation of Howard County   (JFHC), and I was immediately surprised to learn we were one of the smallest delegations in all of North America.  How strange, I thought, that the wealthiest county in Maryland is home to a Jewish Federation with a $600,000 annual campaign; Baltimore County’s is more than 50 times larger, bringing in around $32 million each year. A recent report analyzed charitable giving across America and noted that Howard County has the second-highest median income in the U.S. but ranks in the bottom 25 percent for charitable giving. Are the 18,000 Jews in Howard County truly that much of a paradox? Maybe I would learn how to change that at the GA.

To my surprise, I walked away significantly more motivated by my fellow attendees than by the illustrious GA presenters. I met Jews from all over North America, from Ottawa to San Francisco: college students seeking out their life’s calling; newlyweds searching for inspiration to create their first Jewish home; young adults like me considering ways to create engaging Jewish experiences for their children; and older adults urgently cultivating the next generation of young Jewish leaders. The sense of community among the 3,000 attendees was awe inspiring.

I realized that I shouldn’t focus on transforming the philanthropic culture of Howard County or burden myself with creating Jewish memories for my children. I should focus on building that incredible sense of community I felt at the GA among the Jews in Howard County, and everything else would follow. It’s not something I could or should do alone; but if each Jewish person in Howard County contributed one brick, we could build a wall 20 football fields wide and twice the height of the Empire State building. And what if those bricks were quarters?  If each Jew in Howard County donated 25 cents per day, the JFHC’s annual campaign would more than double to over $1.5 million.

As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said during the GA, “You want to start a movement?  Get people to build something together.”

The Jordanian Option

Has the gruesome execution by immolation of Jordanian air force Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh tipped the balance in the Arab world against the Islamic State? The swift calls in Jordan for revenge and “relentless” war, apparently part heartfelt and part orchestrated, and the kingdom’s new openness about its airstrikes against Islamic State targets suggest that some change is underway.

The Jordanian moves were matched by an announcement that the United Arab Emirates would resume the airstrikes it suspended after the Jordanian pilot’s capture in December. This is a promising development, as visible Arab participation in the U.S.-led coalition’s offensive against the Islamic State gives the
attacks a regional legitimacy.

Ultimately, such broad-based support and force is necessary in order to defeat the Islamic State, even if U.S. activity dwarfs that of its Arab coalition members. Thus, according to NPR as of last week, “the U.S. mounted 946 strikes in Syria, while Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and UAE completed 79 total.” These kinds of numbers are likely part of President Obama’s calculus in asking Congress to authorize the use of military force against the Islamic State.

But there is something else at play here. Jordan’s new stance draws it closer to Israel in what has long been a strong security relationship. On Monday the kingdom returned its ambassador to Israel, whom it withdrew three months ago, after violence flared on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The growing relationship is not new, as Israel has long been part of Jordan’s strategic umbrella — even if it has had to act as a nearly invisible partner that cannot risk seeming to be involved.

Yet, as horrific as the execution of the Jordanian pilot was, no one should rely on
revenge as a strategy for waging war. As retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. James “Spider” Marks told CNN, “If emotions brought [the Jordanians] in, that’s fine. But at this point, it needs to be a relentless, aggressive attack … objectively controlled so that you can achieve results on the ground. And it needs to be sustained.”

Anyone who enters the fray has to be “in it to win it” and prepared to stay until the end.

Schabas Rests

As chairman of a three-person U.N. human rights panel appointed to investigate violations during last summer’s Gaza war, Canadian law professor William Schabas was deemed by many to be biased against Israel. Last week, the Israeli government, which had not cooperated with the panel, prompted Schabas’ resignation by publicizing a legal opinion he wrote on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 2012.
This, Israel said, was “a blatant conflict of interest.” Schabas, who was paid $1,300 for his legal work, said he was resigning to avoid becoming “an obstacle and distraction” to the panel’s work.

Schabas’s resignation will not likely derail the panel’s report or delay its scheduled March 23 release. According to reports, most of the work is done, and there already is a new chair to oversee its completion. The day after Schabas’ resignation, the president of the U.N. Human Rights Council appointed panel member Mary McGowan Davis, a former justice of the New York State Supreme Court, as Schabas’ replacement.

Davis is viewed as a moderate, based upon her role on a U.N. committee appointed to monitor Palestinian and Israeli compliance with the Goldstone Report that probed human rights violations in the 2009 Gaza war. While Israel refused to cooperate with the Goldstone panel, much as it boycotted the Schabas commission, it did cooperate with Davis. Judge Richard Goldstone, who lent his name to the committee report, later
credited the information that Israel gave Davis for his repudiation of parts of his own report.

When Schabas was appointed chairman last August, we acknowledged criticism of him and of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which has a dismal record in its treatment of Israel. But we nevertheless urged Israel to cooperate with the Schabas commission, in the hope of avoiding another Goldstone debacle. That hasn’t happened, and the Israel Foreign Ministry is said to believe that the new report will be highly critical.

We hope that Davis, as chair, will strive for fairness and balance in her commission report. But if Israel hasn’t told its side of the story or otherwise cooperated with the
investigation, is it really fair to blame the expected report for being one-sided? Perhaps now with Davis at the lead, Israel will feel it has a sympathetic ear, if not a sympathetic audience, and be more forthcoming with the other side of the Gaza war story.

The End Goal: Acceptance

runyan_josh_otIn opening his tale of sin and repentance in 17th-century Boston, Nathaniel Hawthorne observes that “the founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”

Society, in other words, however grand its design, is messy and requires facilities for dealing with the less pleasant aspects of life.

This of course is nothing new; it takes no great wisdom to realize that with any economic system comes poverty, with poverty comes crime, with crime comes punishment. And unfortunately here in Baltimore — as with the rest of the United States at the moment — drug abuse, particularly in the case of heroin, is affecting all classes and races. In short, as Gov. Larry Hogan somberly said in his State of the State address, in “Maryland, from our smallest town to our biggest city, [heroin] has become an epidemic, and it is destroying lives.”

While the legal system has been the traditional method of combatting drug use, in the past few years, public health advocates have turned to drug treatment programs as more humane ways to deal with addicts and the addictions that have ruined their lives. But as you’ll read in this week’s JT, the planned expansion of one drug treatment center to the northwest neighborhood of Mount Washington is having neighbors cry foul: Heroin addiction is not their problem, they say, and the placement of the Maryland Addiction Recovery Center in their corner of Baltimore will invite an “outside” problem to their backyard.

As it turns out, “not in my backyard” is a phrase you’ll see again in a story about the planned construction, much to the dismay of state Del. Dana Stein and other neighbors, of a synagogue primarily for Russian-speaking immigrants on Stevenson Road in Baltimore County. Houses of worship and drug treatment facilities have little in common, to be sure, but they both are able to spark the ire of people who wish to live in tranquility and out of sight of such contagions as drug abuse and traffic.

That’s not to say that anyone who wishes a church, synagogue, hospital, school, jail or courthouse to be located there and not here is inherently wrong. Everyone has an implied right to peace and quiet, just as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 gives houses of worship the inherent right to build in residential areas. Where those rights collide and who triumphs is the purview of politics; assuming no one gets trampled in the course of due process, a just decision can be expected.

But it does beg the question: Is it fair for an urbanite to move to the suburbs in the search for pristine views of nature and then condemn a future neighbor for blocking his view in doing the exact same thing? Is it just for members of society to ignore the fact that there are those near, but likely unseen, who are desperate for help?

The Jewish community, for one, takes pride in its mission to help the downtrodden, be they addicts or immigrants. Here’s hoping that the end goal is achieved: universal acceptance of all.

jrunyan@midatlanticmedia.com

Rules and Regulations Parshat Mishpatim

After the Revelation at Sinai, after the giving of the Ten Commandments, after the thunder and lightning and the mountain covered in a cloud of smoke — what could possibly come next? What could follow that spectacular event?

Rules and regulations: ordinary, mundane, everyday rules about how to live in a society.

The contrast between last week’s portion, Yitro, full of lofty principles accompanied by fireworks, and this week’s portion, Mishpatim — laws on property and damages and personal injury — is almost too extreme. One moment is filled with drama and divine majesty and the next seems like the ancient equivalent of traffic ordinances. At first glance, all those mishpatim, “rules” that Moses is instructed to set before the Israelite people, seem so ordinary, not the stuff of divine pronouncements. But upon reading them carefully, we find that they are the beginning of a legal structure that will uphold this society.

No society can live on lofty principles alone; society needs rules and standards to regulate commerce and other interactions; it needs limits to restrict baser human instincts; and it needs a system to adjudicate disputes. Mishpatim takes us down from the mountain to the presentation of laws that will guide and govern.

The laws set out are not presented systematically, but rather are arranged by analogy and association. They are not divided neatly into categories we might impose upon them. The laws come out of a context of other law codes of the ancient Near East, but they differ in source and content. In his book, “A Commentary on the Book of Exodus,” Umberto Cassuto tells us: “When we come to compare the Pentateuchal statutes with those of neighboring peoples, we must not forget … the difference in character between them: The laws of the neighboring peoples were not decreed on behalf of the gods, but on behalf of the kings; whereas the laws of the Torah were not promulgated in the name of the monarchy, nor even in the name of Moses as the leader of Israel, but are religious and ethical instructions in judicial matters ordained in the name of the God of Israel.”

Throughout the portion, there are reminders that these are not simply civil and criminal laws established by a governmental authority. For example, we find the command: “You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” It is repeated in the following chapter: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” The instruction to be empathetic is a moral lesson, not an ordinary regulation. The former slaves at Sinai could understand it easily, but it is intended as a principle for future generations as well. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson has written: “The Torah itself is, in part, a book of law, presenting the Jewish conviction that the will of God is translated into action through law.”

We all want to live in a society that respects the rule of law. We do not want rules to be absent or arbitrary; we want to know the guidelines by which we and our neighbors can and should function. Some of these guidelines are large principles like the Ten Commandments, and some are rules and regulations instructing us to return lost property or make restitution for damages we caused or let the land lie fallow in the sabbatical year. We need both: the overriding principles and the day-to-day regulations. After the spectacle at Mount Sinai, we can settle down for some law and order.

Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus is rabbi emerita of B’nai Yehuda Beth Sholom in Homewood, Ill. She is past-president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. A version of this article first appeared on reformjudaism.org.

Becoming the Best Person I Can Be Parshat Yitro

In this week’s parshah, God hands down the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people. With these laws, the group of tribes finally becomes united as a nation, establishing a covenant between themselves and God. Essentially, this is a contract: If the Jewish people follow the commandments, God will protect them and provide for them.

But the Ten Commandments are more than a contract. They form the basis for our relationship with God and teach us the basics for how to maintain good relationships with other people. The mitzvot are often divided into two categories. There are mitzvot that are bein adam l’makom, which deal with our relationship with God; and there are mitzvot that are bein adam l’chavero, which have to do with how we treat our fellow man.

The first two of the Ten Commandments set the tone: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage: You shall have
no other gods besides Me.” This is the foundation on which the covenant is built. This commandment recognizes God’s authority as the one and only God. It also reminds us of the historical moment when God saved us from slavery and we began the journey toward nationhood and the Promised Land. That experience of the Exodus marked and defined the bond between God and all of the Jewish people forever more.

The covenant, as described in the Ten Commandments, goes on to reassure us that God will show “kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.” God’s infinite kindness, His chesed, also serves as a model for how we should act toward each other. We should be honest and fair and respect another person’s possessions. We should treat others with dignity. We should honor our parents.

I am very happy that this is my parshah, because I immediately thought of my mom. I thought of her, because she also sets rules for me to follow and she protects me. Her rules, just like the mitzvot, are meant to guide and teach me throughout my life how to be a good person and to make a positive contribution to my community.

Becoming a bar mitzvah means that I am old enough to understand the obligations of the mitzvot and that I am mature enough to follow them. I am now responsible for my own actions, for making wise choices and to know right from wrong. While I still have a lot of growing to do, I am mature enough to be able to consider the needs and feelings of other people. I am also old enough to better understand what God wants of me. I have new responsibilities, such as fasting and wearing tefillin. By living my life according to the laws of Torah, I have a better chance of becoming the best possible person I can be.

No Closure Yet for Kesher Israel

Leading and running a congregation is a labor of love requiring much hard work and a certain amount of selflessness. The leaders, members and staff of Kesher Israel in Georgetown have demonstrated that and more since the arrest in October of Rabbi Barry Freundel and his subsequent firing.

The sensational nature of the charges — that he videotaped women in the synagogue’s mikvah — brought a national spotlight to the Orthodox congregation in the historic Washington, D.C., neighborhood. No doubt everyone in the Kesher Israel community wishes to go back to being a normal congregation, with normal joys and normal problems, just as we all wish to return to a time when women did not need to fear for their privacy when using a ritual bath.

Yet, there are significant legal issues that will keep Kesher Israel and Freundel’s alleged crimes in the news for many more months. There is the uncertainty about additional charges against the rabbi. There are civil suits that have been brought against the congregation and other organizations. And most recently, there is the new wrinkle of Freundel refusing to move out of his synagogue-owned residence and the synagogue seeking to compel eviction through a rabbinical court. This latest twist returned attention on the synagogue and its efforts to disentangle from Freundel and also spawned a collective sigh among observers near and far who yearn for an end to the sordid affair.

Under the unforgiving glare of national and international scrutiny, the congregation will continue in its effort to do the important work of healing, community building, searching for a new rabbi and finding a way to close this disturbing and painful chapter in its history.

We applaud the care and sensitivity shown by Kesher Israel leadership as it has dealt with the many issues implicated by the Freundel story. We wish the leaders continued strength and wisdom as they navigate this difficult situation, waiting for justice to be done and working toward closure.No Closure Yet for Kesher Israel

The Fallout from Dermergate

Ron Dermer (JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS/Newscom)

Ron Dermer (JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS/Newscom)

As Benjamin Netanyahu’s man in Washington, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer has succeeded in identifying himself more closely with his prime minister than any other envoy in the nation’s history. That may be why the criticism that has hit Netanyahu for his planned address to Congress in March has spilled over to Dermer. As the top Israeli in Washington, he has been castigated for arranging Netanyahu’s appearance with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) without the courtesy of giving more than a few hours’ notice to the White House, congressional Democrats or American Jews, all of whom have a stake in U.S.-Israel relations.

If strengthening U.S.-Israel relations was a goal here, along with Netanyahu’s “sacred duty” of taking his warning on Iran “straight to the American people,” the attempt backfired. Not only have relations between Washington and Jerusalem reached a new low, but the episode has turned broad-based support of Israel into a partisan issue and has turned attention away from the West’s negotiations with Iran on limiting its nuclear program.

We recognize that the attacks on Dermer and Netanyahu are not entirely fair. The White House has criticized the temerity of a foreign head of state for injecting himself into a domestic legislative issue. But Netanyahu was invited by Boehner. Who can really blame the prime minister — who has addressed both houses of Congress on several other occasions — for accepting such an open door to speak about Iran, whose nuclear aspirations are very much an existential threat? Even more, there’s practically no difference between Netanyahu coming to Washington and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent personal lobbying on behalf of Obama: In the lead-up to the State of the Union addressed, Cameron called legislators and urged them to defeat any Iran sanctions bill.

Nonetheless, because a nuclear-armed Iran is such a pressing danger and because the invitation is centered on a policy disagreement with the president of the United States, Dermer and Netanyahu should have known better and should have been more careful in responding to Boehner’s invitation. And now, by insisting that he will appear before Congress — even after the political uproar that continues to boil over — Netanyahu has trapped himself in what looks like a pre-election photo op when he could make exactly the same speech at the AIPAC policy conference just blocks from Capitol Hill the same week.

As things stand now, Netanyahu is in a no-win situation. If he moves forward with the speech, he risks coming into a poisoned atmosphere and further insulting the president. If he pulls back, he risks looking weak.

Which brings us back to Dermer. He needs to do what he can to defuse this confrontation and repair Israel’s image in the eyes of its allies in the United States.

Embrace Our Values

runyan_josh_otThere was a time when an employer could legally discriminate against a disabled employee, when disabled individuals could legally be excluded from public facilities, when a business could withhold services from a disabled customer. And it wasn’t that long ago.

Can you believe it?

With an eye on the seventh consecutive year in which Jewish communities around the country have observed Jewish Disability Awareness Month — it began on Feb. 1 — the JT has focused this week’s cover story on the 25 years since President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. The legislation officially prohibited such discrimination outlined above, enshrining protections for disabled men, women and children as part of the country’s civil rights guarantees, and because of it, the United States is a more welcoming and accommodating nation than a quarter-century ago.

But has the ADA been the panacea that it was promised to be? As reporter Melissa Apter writes, the jury is still out, with advocates constantly working to fix areas where the law continues to fall short.

each and every person, disabled or not, has a unique combination of abilities and aptitudes from which all of us can benefit.

How about closer to home: We all recognize the ramps now in front of our synagogues and schools, but how much work is left to do in the Jewish community? According to people like Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility and a frequent voice on opening access to Jewish communal institutions, schools, agencies and synagogues, while we are making progress, we must do more to embrace the disabled as full-fledged members of the community.

Just as in 1990, when the ADA was signed into law, the primary argument against instituting the special practices and services necessary to ensure that the physically and mentally disabled have the same opportunities as those without such conditions is cost. Let’s face it: Hiring extra teachers and case workers, installing extra equipment, changing personnel standards and policies — it’s all expensive. There are funds, both public and private, to help mitigate the cost, but change also takes time and effort.

Such concerns are legitimate. But so is the argument raised by Jay Ruderman, whose family foundation, among other projects, gives grants to Jewish federations to hire workers with special needs. The expense critique is “a cop-out,” he says. “There’s enough money in our community to do what we want. Our community is very focused on social justice, on being a light to the world that’s a very important value; unfortunately, we don’t look at ourselves.”

Ruderman’s point is that if we’re going to champion the rights of the individual and the unique contribution that every human being can and should make to society — both very Jewish concepts — we need to perfect our embrace of such values in our own communities as well. The fact is, for far too long people with disabilities have been viewed as inherently lacking, dependent on the good graces of society to lift them up. But equally true is that each and every person, disabled or not, has a unique combination of abilities and aptitudes from which all of us can benefit.

Recognizing that reality in practice will be the challenge of the next quarter century.

jrunyan@jewishtimes.com