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  • A Jewish Journey to Panama

    Posted on March 18th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Jewish life in Panama

    American Teens in Panama

     

    Last month, I had the opportunity to lead the 11th-12th graders of my synagogue on a mission to Panama.  We had been learning about various Jewish communities across the globe all year as part of our post-confirmation class, and this would be our chance to experience Jewish life abroad firsthand.  The trip was designed to combine elements of Jewish learning with a few more “traditional” tourist experiences.  It was quite an endeavor to coordinate such a trip, but all the effort was well worth it.  This was a “once in a lifetime” kind of experience that enriched the lives of all who participated.

    After a red-eye flight to Panama from San Francisco (with a brief six hour layover in Las Vegas, where my students swear they saw Ryan Seacrest…), we were picked up at the airport and driven to our first destination – Congregation Kol Shearith Yisrael.  We spent a beautiful and inspiring Shabbat with this vibrant liberal Jewish community in Panama City. The congregation welcomed us with open arms, not to mention fed us very well!  Rabbi Gustavo Kraselnik and Ernesto Motta were kind enough to give us an overview of the history of the synagogue and Jewish life in Panama as we sat down to a delicious traditional Panamanian Shabbat dinner – rice and beans, sautéed beef, salads, and, let’s not forget some of the best tasting challah we ever had.

    Author Rabbi Joshua Lobel (center) Rabbi Gustavo Kraselnik (left) and Ernesto Motta (right)

    The services were so meaningful, even though not one word of English was spoken. The service was held in Hebrew and Spanish, but we were all able to follow along, particularly because the melodies were all familiar to us.  More than anything else, the Shabbat services at Kol Shearith Yisrael truly underscored the concept of amcha, of Jewish peoplehood, for my students; that wherever you go across the globe, you can find a synagogue and feel at home.

    Over the next couple of days, we took in a couple of the popular tourist attractions of Panama, including taking an educational cruise on the Panama Canal, visiting the Embera, a local indigenous Indian village, and strolling through Casco Antiguo, one of Panama’s oldest cities.  Each sight was more breathtaking than the next. But the last day of the trip would prove to be the highlight of the entire experience.

    An essential part of this voyage was an opportunity to engage in the sacred work of tikkun olam.  After searching for just the right project, we made arrangements with a local orphanage to come and paint their fence and make a donation to the children.   Now, when we agreed to this, I had imagined a plain, worn, wooden picket fence.  However, when we scouted out the location, we found a much bigger challenge in front of us – a huge metallic enclosure with hundreds of thin bars, some of which were rusty!  But we buckled down, bought all the necessary materials, and spent the entire day hard at work, sweating it out in 95 degree heat and humidity until we had succeeded in painting the fence a vibrant lime-green. As we were working, the toddlers of the orphanage were waving and calling to us from the windows, shouting encouragement in Spanish, driving us to work even harder. It was immensely gratifying to see the transformation of the façade of the orphanage.

    The service project also provided one of my favorite moments of the trip. As they painted the fence, the teens starting singing in order to pass the time.  In the beginning, they chose to sing different pop songs from artists you would expect – Justin Beiber, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and more.  But as they were painting, all of a sudden, a different melody rang out and my face broke into a wide grin.  Here in Panama, painting a fence, my teens were singing Mi Chamocha.  Oseh Shalom followed, then Shalom Rav, and Veshamru.  Something about this work resonated with them as young Jewish leaders. In their hearts, they knew they were performing an intrinsically Jewish task – creating, quite literally, a brighter world for the underprivileged children of Panama.   They weren’t only doing a nice thing. They were doing the Jewish thing!

    By any measure, this trip was a fantastic Jewish experience, one that our teens will never forget.  I encourage every synagogue to explore a mission to a community outside of the United States. In particular, there are congregations in Latin American and the Caribbean that long for a greater feeling of connectivity and relationship to synagogues in the U.S.  But believe me, the benefits for our teens are much greater.  During a standard vacation, we bring back souvenirs, little trinkets to remind us of our voyage.  But during a journey like this, our teens bring back something much more valuable – a stronger understanding of the concept of Jewish peoplehood, the satisfaction of having a lasting impact on a community, and, perhaps most importantly, a greater sense of their own Jewish identity.

    Rabbi Joshua Lobel is the associate rabbi at Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, California.

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  • Sitting on a Seesaw, Finding Answers in Israel

    Posted on February 26th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment
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    The ascension of the Member of Knneset Ruth Calderon got me thinking about children’s songs.

    The early Zionists, busy with politics, originally overlooked the genre of children’s songs. It was easy for the great poet Haim Nachman Bialik to rush in to fill the void. But he did much more than whip off a few ditties in the modern language of Hebrew. Worried that without new songs the minds of children would be filled with old ideas, he packed with re-interpretations of classic Jewish texts.

    Take for example, his poem about a see-saw,

     

    נדנדה

    נד, נד, נד, נד,
    רד, עלה, עלה ורד!

    מה למעלה? מה למטה?
    רק אני, אני ואתה.

    נד, נד, נד, נד,
    רד, עלה, עלה ורד!

    שנינו שקולים במאזניים
    בין הארץ לשמיים.

    Seesaw seesaw
    Go down, go up

    What is up above, what is down below
    Only me, me and you

    Go down, go up
    The two of us are balance on the scale
    Between heaven and earth

    Below the surface of this simple poem lies the genius of secular Zionism. What appears to be the regular gobedly gook of children’s rhymes (I sang it to my kids for years while they played in the yard) is actually a critique of Mishna Haggigah 2:1 and the existence of God.

    מסכת חגיגה פרק ב
    א פרק ב הלכה א משנה
    אין דורשין בעריות בשלשה ולא במעשה בראשית בשנים ולא במרכבה ביחיד אלא אם כן היה חכם מבין מדעתו וכל המסתכל בארבעה דברים רתוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם מה למעלן ומה למטן מה לפנים ומה לאחור כל שלא חס על כבוד קונו רתוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם:

    Anyone who meditates upon four things, it would be preferable for them if they had not come into the world: what is above, what is below, what is before, and what is after.

    And anyone who has no regard for the honor of their Creator, it would be preferable for them if they had not come into the world.

    Whereas the mishna makes clear that questioning the existence of God is a heretical, Bialik uses the language of the mishna not only to question the existence of what is above and below but to provide an answer –NOTHING. Using the simplest poetic form, Bialik engaged with tradition and turned it on its head. He used the words of the tradition to help express a new vision of Jewish reality.

    This ability to engage with but also question and transform traditional text is one of the greatest and most creative elements of Zionism. As successful as it was in the realm of children’s songs, this approach to text remained largely outside the realm of secular parliamentary politics. Until last week that is.

    Many have seen Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon’s speech to the assembly. Like all new MKs, Calderon was given the opportunity to address her colleagues. Instead of spelling out her policy goals, she chose to teach a section of Talmud. If you missed it, you can watch in the video below or read it here in English. Many have commented on the speech. Much has been made of her ability to engage with ultra-Orthodox MKs. Some have lauded her as the only hope for breaking the Orthodox monopoly on Judaism. Writing in the Daily Beast Zachary Braiterman critiqued Calderon for lacking policy and for setting a dangerous precedent mixing religion and politics.

    I have great admiration for Calderon. She earned a doctorate in Talmud from Hebrew University. She played a key role in creating the secular yeshivah movement in Israel and in promoting secular prayer for Shabbat and holidays.  Zachary Braiterman is correct, Calderon is not a veteran politician, she does not come into the Knesset with a step by step solution and a plan. However, I do see her mixing of politics and tradition as hopeful not as dangerous. One of her first acts in office was to set up a regular time for text study. She has reclaimed the project of the early Zionists and by doing so suggested a new vision for how we might go forward as we search for the proper path towards the future.

    Like the children in Bialik’s song, members of Knesset are searching for the definitive answers to life’s problems. Contrary to the mishna, far from being a heretical act it is a necessary one. The answers are not in the sky, or down below. They come from the dialogue that emerges from the back and forth that happens on the seesaw, the give and take of weight, of idea and positions. Anyone can make a policy speech but it takes creativity and vision to see that answers will come from and balancing between text and reality, between the ground and the sky.

     

     

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  • A Rabbi Takes On the Fiscal Cliff

    Posted on December 27th, 2012 Special Contributor No comments
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    Rabbi Elizabeth Wood and other faith leaders take their concern to the White House

    The week after Thanksgiving, I was blessed with the most wonderful opportunity.  I received a call from the Executive Director of Queens Congregations United for Action (QCUA), the faith-based community organizing group that I work with here in New York.  The Nathan Cummings Foundation was organizing a trip down to Washington, D.C. with several different community and socially focused organizations to talk to senior White House officials about the looming fiscal cliff and he wanted me to participate and help represent QCUA that day.  I was beyond stunned.  But I jumped at the opportunity to be able to help represent my community and to serve as a delegate for the state of New York on such an important issue.

    The day did not disappoint.  We began at 5:30 in the morning as we boarded a bus bound for D.C.  Along with other folks from QCUA (two baptist bishops, a monseigneur, a reverend, a pastor, and various others), I met all of the other participants from New York.  They ranged from people in the arts like the Foundry Theater, Arts and Democracy, and Urban Bush Women to Jewish social justice organizations like Uri L’tzedek, Bend the Arc, and Jews for Racial & Economic Justice.  I was able to connect with Lila Foldes, the co-director of Just Congregations, as well as Rabbi Jill Jacobs from Rabbis for Human Rights and Nigel Savage from Hazon.

    When we first arrived in Washington, we took a tour of the White House.  Normally, one is not allowed to photograph inside the White House, but because everything was decorated for Christmas, we were granted permission to snap as many photos as we liked. It was truly magical to see all of the rooms brightly lit and decorated accordingly.  While we were touring the rooms, a local youth gospel choir began singing carols in the main open lobby.  Their joyous sound filled the rooms and halls as we explored the diversity and the history of one of the most beautiful and notable houses in America.

    Author: Rabbi Elizabeth Wood

    After the tour, we were escorted to the AFL-CIO building for lunch. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations is a national trade union center and the largest federation of unions in the United States. While we were there, we learned the background on the issues related to the fiscal cliff and how the results could affect our community in the coming years. It was eye-opening to understand these issues on a deeper level, to be briefed on possible outcomes, and to prepare ourselves to think about ways in which these issues could be solved.

    After lunch, we spent the majority of the afternoon at the EEOB – the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where the majority of decisions get made in D.C. (outside of the Oval office and Capitol Hill, of course). There, we met with Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President and Michael Strautmanis, Deputy Assistant to the President.  We also met with Jon Carson, the Director of Public Engagement for the White House.  We shared ideas all afternoon on challenges within our communities and ways to overcome obstacles.  We also shared possible ideas and solutions regarding the financial crisis that is looming over our nation.  It was incredibly gratifying to see so many organizations and so many people who are focused and determined to help hard working families and individuals survive and succeed in this world.  While we didn’t come to any major solutions that day, we managed to get our voices heard and to represent our communities to people in the government.  And they really listened.

    My group slipped out a little early to go take a private meeting with our local congressman, Gregory Meeks.  After the devastation from hurricane Sandy a few months ago, we were eager to see what progress had been made and to lobby for more work to be done.  Even now, there are still people without power and heat and we seized the opportunity to make our voices heard even louder than before. All in all, it was a productive day.

     

    But more than that, it was an important day.  At the end of it all, I found myself exhausted but buzzing with excitement.  I realized that while many of my days are important, I could tangibly feel the difference I made for my community and my country.  Social action and social justice have ALWAYS been important to me.  As a rabbi, it guides so much of the work I do in my community.  But as a citizen, I don’t often get the chance to do the kind of work that I did or contribute to the politics of our nation as I was blessed to do, that day. My voice was heard.  And I spoke up – for you, for me, and for everyone.   I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

     

    Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, she’natan lanu hizdam’nut l’takein et ha-olam.

    Blessed are You, most glorious One, who has given us the opportunity to create harmony and repair our world.  Amen.

    This week’s post was contributed by Rabbi Elizabeth Wood of The Reform Temple of Forest Hills.

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  • Hope at Hannukah: A Modern Tale

    Posted on December 10th, 2012 Special Contributor No comments
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    It was Hannukah of 2005, four months after Hurricane Katrina changed everything. A group of us were in New Orleans helping to restore the homes of four Jewish families that had been flooded with nearly eight feet of water. After five days of putting up sheetrock, spackling and taping, we were standing with Anne and Stan Levy outside their home.

     

    Anne Levy is a short woman. She is a survivor of the Holocaust, miraculously being smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto in January, 1943 and passing for Christian once on the outside. Eventually, some fifty years ago she had come to this house in New Orleans and has lived there ever since.  “Now we have to start all over,” she had said with tears in her eyes.

     

    She would never have asked for help with her home. “Others need it more.” It was her daughter who had told about their need, bringing us to their home. It wasn’t requested; it was offered.

     

    When we first entered her once beautiful home, we saw that the damage was total. It had been gutted to the studs. There was a hole in the living room floor and a coffee table with a waterlogged copy of Anne’s biography: “Troubled Memory,” sitting on it. It told of how in 1989 she had confronted David Duke at the State Capitol Holocaust exhibition and had told him, with her finger raised high, that this was not a place for a Holocaust denier. She hounded him throughout his run for Governor until he lost.

     

    So there we were with Anne and Stan on the fifth day of Hannukah. Each of the nineteen members of our group had written a special, personal blessing for them. We recited our words with tears in our eyes. Then we presented them with a mezuzah and a Hannukiah.

     

    Holding up the Hannukiah, Stan said words that I will never forget: “Here you are, Jews helping Jews. You have renewed my faith in the Jewish people, in Judaism and in G-d.” Regaining his composure he added, “I can see the light shining from your faces as you work on my home. I want to have that experience myself. So I will join you on your next building project.”

     

    Author: Rabbi Joel Soffin

    The following year we returned to New Orleans. Stan and Anne hosted all of us for dinner after a day of work. We studied Torah together. This November during Hurricane Sandy, Stan set me this email: “We hope you were out of the storm damage. Please let me know.”

     

    I found a copy of that Dedication Ceremony which began with this paragraph:

     

    The story is told of a family that left New Orleans for a time due to the hurricane and moved to Philadelphia. One member of the family, the mother, went back weeks later to see the extent of the damage to their home. She found that everything had been ruined and removed from the house except one thing, the menorah. As she sat holding that precious object, it seemed to light up in her hands and to ease her burden.

     

    Whenever I look at the lights of the Hanukiah, I think of Anne and Stan. I can hear Stan’s words. And I, too, feel a deeper faith in the Jewish people, in Judaism and in  G-d.

     

    This week’s post was contributed by Rabbi Joel Soffin founder of Jewish Helping Hands.

     

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  • The Changing Face of America: Love Thy Neighbor

    Posted on November 18th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Since the 1980s, more than 6,000 refugees have made New Hampshire their home, and nearly half have settled in Concord. Concord, New Hampshire is a fairly sleepy New England town, despite being the capital of the Granite State. Still Concord is an unusual place, and the town I have called home for the past two plus years. Temple Beth Jacob, 107 years old, boasts a membership of 210 families and plays an active and visible role in this increasingly diverse community.

    Rally Against Racism in Concord, New Hampshire

    One of Concord’s “golden boys” is new American Guor Marial. Guar escaped a Sudanese child labor camp, graduated from Concord High School, and this past summer ran in the Olympics under the Olympic flag. Guor is not yet a U.S. citizen, and holds no passport or official home. Concord High School’s assistant principal has regaled me with Guor stories. Guor is remembered for being as kind and caring as he is fast on his feet.
    Refugees have fled their homes because of a well-founded fear of persecution (physical violence, harassment and wrongful arrest, or threats to their lives) for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. They take with them only what they can carry, only what they have time to pack. Sometimes all they have left are their dreams, their hopes and the will to survive.
    In the 1990s, the majority of refugees came from Bosnia, Vietnam and the Sudan. As they moved into the town, the mayor sought to celebrate the increasing diversity of the community, despite the fact that certain segments of the community were bemoaning the changes. The Mayor’s Task Force on Racism and Intolerance established an annual mayor’s prayer breakfast to welcome our new residents and express gratitude to the many agencies and volunteers who work with the refugee populations.

    Rabbi Robin Nafshi

    Author: Rabbi Robin Nafshi

    Between 2000 and 2007, the refugees came mostly from Bosnia and the Sudan, along with Croatia, Burundi, Liberia, and Somalia. In addition, refugees who identify as Meskhetian Turks settled here. Since 2008, the overwhelming majority of refugees have come from Bhutan and Iraq.
    Northern New England is often characterized as lily white and Protestant. One of the many beauties of Concord, and especially south Concord where I live and where our synagogue is located, is the diversity of the residents. All races and religions live side by side, overwhelmingly in harmony. Sadly, however, there have been incidents involving racist and/or religiously intolerant graffiti. Most of it has been directed at Concord’s Somalian Muslims, whom our community has embraced as our New American Africans.

    In October of 2011, two new American African families awoke to find their homes vandalized with words of intolerance. Immediately, the interfaith community led the response. On a Thursday afternoon and a Saturday morning, the Greater Concord Interfaith Council (in which our synagogue is actively involved) sponsored “Love Your Neighbor” rallies. The Saturday rally was at the local playground in the neighborhood where many of the refugees live.

    The first rally was held on a Thursday so as not to conflict with the Jewish Sabbath. It occurred on the lawn outside the Statehouse. Speakers of diverse backgrounds (including one of our members, originally from Bogota, Columbia) spoke about the beauty that is Concord – in both who we are and how we care for each other. Cantor Shira Nafshi, my partner both professionally and personally, sang an original composition, Power of One, the chorus of which goes: “Get up, get down, get onto your feet; use your voice your hands be the words on the street; don’t just say it be it do it; l’takein et ha-olam, fixing the world starts today, with the power of one.” The song moved the mayor so deeply that he invited Shira to sing it at the 2011 prayer breakfast the following month.

    A local printer provided “Love Your Neighbor” signs, many of which still grace windows and doors throughout the town, over a year later. This isn’t a surprise, for loving your neighbor is the sentiment that defines this town.

    Most of my adult life I lived in San Francisco, New York City, or northern New Jersey, all places far more diverse than Concord, New Hampshire. And yet, there are times that Concord feels like more of a mixed salad than any of those other places.

    The author, Rabbi Robin Nafshi is the rabbi of Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, NH.

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  • Can Women Pray Out Loud? Some Rabbinic Sources

    Posted on October 24th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments
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    I remember when I first seriously looked into the textual basis of “Kol Ishah.”  I used my computer concordance of all of rabbinic literature (here defined as Mishnah, Tosefta, Yerushalmi, Bavli and midrash collections) to look for the term.  I expected to find a long list of sources.  I found three hits.  I thought, “Well, I must have looked it up wrong.”  So I tried “kol ha’ishah”, “kolot nashim” and other variations.  No matter what I tried, I still I came up with just three hits in all of rabbinic literature.  And each of those citations is a repetition of just one statement.  So the prohibition comes down to this single statement:

    Anat Hoffman of Women at the Wall Being Arrested

    If one gazes at the little finger of a woman is it as if he gazed at her secret place!?  No, it means in one’s own wife, and when he recites the Shema.

    Rav Hisda:  A woman’s leg is a sexual incitement, as it says, “Uncover the leg, pass through the rivers (Isaiah 47:2)” and it says afterwards, “Your nakedness shall be uncovered, yea, your shame shall be seen (Isaiah 47:3).”

    Shmuel said:  A woman’s voice is a sexual incitement, as it says, “For sweet is your voice and your countenance is comely (Song of Songs 2:14).”

    Rav Sheshet said:  A woman’s hair is a sexual incitement, as it says, “Your hair is as a flock of goats (Song of Songs 4:1).” (B. Berachot 24a//B. Kiddushin 70a//Y. Hallah 2:1; Shmuel’s saying)

    This passage talks about things that might distract a man while reciting the Shema.  I think reasonable minds would agree that a man might be distracted by seeing his wife naked before him while he was attempting to recite the Shema.  But what comes next is, in essence, a list of what different sages find most enticing about women…a sort of sidebar to the main conversation.  Since Shmuel’s statement is included in this sidebar, later generations took it to mean that hearing a woman’s voice is as distracting as having one’s wife sit naked before him.

    Author: Rabbi Judith Abrams

    When I realized this, I contacted one of my mentors and asked, “Is this really the entire basis for not allowing women’s voices to be heard?”  He told me it was.  I must admit, I was flabbergasted.  We had been hung out to dry on the flimsiest of pretexts.  I asked a fellow teacher what he thought of this and he said, “Well, when I was 15 I’d have been distracted by a woman’s voice.”  To which I replied, “Why should I have to shut up for the rest of my life because you used to be 15?”

    The prohibition is all the more surprising because Scripture and rabbinic literature assume that women sing publicly.  Of course, Miriam and the women sing at the shores of the sea (Exodus 15:20-21).  Women are public musicians (Psalm 68:26) and take part in loud public rejoicing (Nehemiah 12:43).

    In Mishnah, it is assumed that women sing professionally, publicly and liturgically:

    Women may raise a wail during the festival [week] but not clap [their hands in grief]; R. Ishmael says, those that are close to the bier clap [their hands in grief].  On the days of the New Moon, of Hannukkah and of Purim they may raise a wail and clap [their hands in grief].  Neither on the former (i.e., the festival week) nor on the latter occasions do they chant a dirge.  After [the dead] has been interred they neither raise a wail nor clap [their hands in grief].  What is meant by “raising a wail”?  When all sing in unison.  What is meant by a dirge?  When one leads and all respond after her.  As it is said:  And teach your daughters wailing and one another [each] lamentation (Jeremiah 9:19).  But as the future [days] to come, [the prophet] says:  “He will destroy death for ever and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces.  (Isaiah 25:8)” (M. Moed Katan 3:9//B. Moed Katan 28b)

    So, weighing our evidence, we have Biblical, Mishnaic and Talmudic testimony that women sing publicly and liturgically as opposed to a single statement by one sage which does not, in context, ban women’s voices at all.  I believe there is far more textual support affirming the right of women to sing in public and at services than there is for banning it.  “May the the sounds of joy and salvation be hear in the tents of the righteous (Psalm 118:15)!”

     

    This week’s author, Rabbi Judith Abrams PhD.,  is the director of Maqom an online center for adult Talmud study.

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  • Choose Love Over Hate

    Posted on October 17th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment
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    Having grown up in the segregated American South with its “no Jews, no Negroes” (and sometimes adding “no dogs,”) public signage,  it was a relatively easy call for me to make about where I should be standing when anti-Muslim paid advertising began appearing in the Washington DC Metro System.    These ads (which have appeared in NY and apparently are coming next to Portland, Oregon) read: “In Any War Between the Civilized Man and the Savage, Support the Civilized Man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” The image includes a Star of David on either side of the phrases which imply that Muslims and the enemies of Israel are savages. 

     

    Having also just completed reading the week’s Torah portion from Genesis reminding us that all human beings are created in God’s image, and fearing that the hate-mongers behind these ads might associate Jews and Israel with their bigotry, I felt I had no choice but to stand physically next to the ads and promote a different message.  I am proud to say thatRabbis for Human Rights-North America (of which I was the founding Chairperson) has responded vigorously with a profoundly different message, one which has been placed in public places near these disgusting posters.  The RHR-NA poster reads “In the choice between love and hate CHOOSE LOVE – Help stop bigotry against our Muslim neighbors.”  I stood next to the Metro ad holding a copy of the RHR-NA poster, which has not yet made it to the Metro stops in DC.  This also provided me with a challenging opportunity for Rabbinic service in a unique way as I interacted with passersby, fulfilling the mitzvah ofKiddush HaShem (sanctifying God’s name publicly) in the meaning of that obligation as described in the Talmud.

    Rabbi Gerald serotta

    Author: Rabbi Gerald Serotta

    We all presumably know that “savage” is a loaded, stereotypical, and denigrating term that was once used to describe African American, Native Americans and other ethnic minority groups as mentally inferior and culturally primitive with animal-like attributes.  It reeks of bigotry which has been directed at religious minorities in this country including Jews and Catholics.  The implication that Israel is confronted by “savages” has a provenance and a perspective that is inimical to any amelioration of the tragic conflicts that prevent a peaceful resolution for the beleaguered State of Israel.  The misuse of the word “Jihad,” by its linkage with savagery as a summary description of a rich culture virtually all of whose billions of adherents oppose violent extremism, is no more appropriate than the misuse of the word Zionism to signify racism.

    The ad not only demeans Islam and links Jewish symbols and Israel to bigotry, but also abuses our American freedom of speech in order to stir hatred of peace loving fellow Americans.  I am proud to associate myself with remarks delivered at a press conference in DC on October 15 by Rabbi Batya Steinlauf, Jewish Community Relations Council’s Director of Social Justice and Interfaith Initiatives and President of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington: “The placing of offensive, anti-Muslim, ads in the D.C. Metro system is an important opportunity to affirm our commitment both to free speech and to a society that deplores hate and hate speech.  We are all part of one community.  The Muslim community is part of our wider community and our neighbors.  We live in the same neighborhoods, send our kids to the same schools, and volunteer in the same homeless shelters.”

    This week’s post was written by Rabbi Gerald Serotta of Shirat HaNefesh Congregation, Chevy Chase, MD and Executive Director of Clergy Beyond Borders.

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  • Eradicating Modern-Day Slavery

    Posted on October 3rd, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    This week’s post comes from Rabbi Rachael Bregman, who writes on an issue we cannot afford to ignore. -editor Ruth Abusch-Magder

    An 11-year-old girl in five-point shackles is escorted into a courtroom. Her crime? She was caught in the back of a van with a 43-year-old man who had paid for 30 minutes of her time to do whatever he wanted to with her.
    Where was the man when the girl was in court? He’d already been released, fined $50 for misdemeanor solicitation and set free.

    The little girl – because at 11, what else can we call her – belonged to a pimp who had three other girls in his possession. After she had run away from home, the pimp took her in, and now she was “paying him back” for a roof over her head, her clothing and some food.[1]

    This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, but slavery still exists today, and this is what it looks like.

    The Facts

    According to the U.S. State Department and the International Labor Organization, there are between 21 and 27 million slaves in the world today – more than at any other time in history.  Of them, 25 percent are women, men and children – thousands in the United States – who are victims of forced sexual exploitation. And while not all those who work in prostitution are victims of human trafficking, many are, especially children.

    “Runaway and throwaway”[2] children are easy prey for traffickers. One out of every three teens will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home, and the younger a girl[3] is, the more likely she will be sexually victimized.

    A pimp will attempt to break a girl’s will though physical and verbal abuse to prepare her for a life of prostitution and separate her completely from her previous life,[4] making the child completely dependent on him or her and enslaved to the sex trade.

    This is happening not just to someone else’s kids; the victims could be my kids and yours. There has been a marked rise in the sexual exploitation of kids from middle- and upper-income backgrounds.

    “Any child who is feeling lonely and isolated is at risk,” Judge Peggy Walker of the Douglas County Juvenile Court said. “Kids run away to the city and sell their bodies for drugs or alcohol or a place to stay, [and] their parents are generally stunned, believing that sexual exploitation is something that happens to someone else’s child.”[5]

    The Johns can look just like you and me: Of the men purchasing sex, 75 percent are white and of upper- or upper-middle-class.[6]

    Author, Rabbi Rachael Bregman

    Our Motivation for Change

    A century-and-a-half ago, President Abraham Lincoln declared, “…upon this act [of emancipating all slaves], sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty G-d.[7]”

    Lincoln’s claimed authority not just from the Constitution, the U.S. military, the citizens of this nation and G-d on high; he characterized the act as one of justice itself.

    As Jews, the call to end human slavery goes beyond merely justice. Among our religion’s central rallying cries is, “remember, you were a slave in Egypt,” reminding us of our freedom and the great responsibility to protect others who are enslaved which comes with it.

    We sing about redemption from slavery in the daily prayers[8]. G-d commands us to free the captives, that slavery is wrong, and that, as Jews, central to our identity is ridding humanity of the practice.

    We celebrated 150 years since the date of the Emancipation Proclamation on Shabbat T’shuvah, the special Shabbat which falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During those days, we prayed, we repented and we did acts of justice to save our own souls. When we commit to tzedakah (here, “justice”), we are breaking the cruelty that exists within us and the world and transforming it into compassion, and in doing so, we are changing our very nature.[9]

    Justice is protecting the slaves in our world. Today, we both yearn and are commanded to turn the world, ourselves and wickedness around toward good. We are the ones who have committed these crimes, and we are also the ones who can protect their victims. The power is in our hands.

    How You Can Make a Difference

    It is incumbent upon us to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), the cornerstone of the U.S. effort to combat modern-day slavery. This act, currently stalled in the Senate, will allow us to make sure the protections for the slaves of today are renewed and expanded upon.

    Simply go to passtvpranow.org, sign your name and do your part to protect those who suffer the fate from which we have been freed. And simpler still, come to the Child Trafficking Summit: Education to Action on Nov. 4 at 2 p.m. at The Temple to learn more and get involved fighting this fight.

     

    This piece originally appeared in the Atlanta Jewish Times

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  • How to Teach Moral Wisdom

    Posted on August 1st, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    דאמר רבי ישמעאל בר רב נחמן

    עשרים וששה דורות קדמה דרך ארץ את התורה

    מדרש רבה ויקרא פרשה ט פסקה ג

    Rabbi Yishmael Bar Nachman said:  Derekh Eretz preceded the Torah by 26 generations

    -Midrash Rabbah Vayikra

     

    Summer camps and beach holidays, ice cream and blockbusters; even as we relax and indulge the march towards the High Holy Days has begun. The practical components not withstanding, the spiritual journey is complex. Elul is still weeks away, but Tisha B’Av has just passed and opened the doors of contemplation.

    Baseless hatred was the cause of the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and even if we are not inclined to rebuild we cannot fail to recognize the corrosive power of negative speech and mean spirits. How tenuous the life of a community when we all do our best, kal va’khomer, all the more so when malice and negativity invade.

    Before there was a Temple, before there was Torah, there was derekh eretz- the way of the land, the natural path, simple wisdom. It was straying off that natural path, into the briar patch of pettiness and small mindedness that got us stuck and created destruction. If we want to do teshuvah, really repair the wrongs, then we need to return to the way of the land, to the simple wisdom that would have us make right and thoughtful moral choices in the world.

    This is the drum that psychologist Barry Schwartz beats loudly. Known for his work on choices, he has recently turned his attention to common place wisdom. Schwartz traces the origins of practical wisdom to Aristotle, who saw it as a combination of moral will and moral skill. As he explained in a recent TED talk, “A wise person knows when and how to make an exception to every rule. A wise person knows how to use these [moral] skills in pursuit of the right aims.” Someone who is wise, knows how to improvise and does so in a way that helps not hurts others. This kind of wisdom can, for example, turn a hospital janitor into an essential element not just of hospital maintenance but of patient care and wellness, for the janitor who goes against her supervisor’s directive and does not vacuum the waiting room, allows the family sitting vigil to catch vital moments of sleep.

    Critically, Schwartz, contends that practical wisdom can and should be taught. From where he stands that learning comes through experience and through being allowed to try and fail. But there is also a need for mentoring. Or in the words of our tradition,

    “רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה אוֹמֵר: אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ. אִם אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, אֵין תּוֹרָה.” (משנה אבות ג יז

     

    Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: without Torah there is no derekh eretz, without derekh eretz there is no Torah. –Pirkei Avot 3:17

    Derekh Eretz may have predated the Torah, as practical wisdom which knows no religious or tribal boundaries ought to, but it is the specific precepts of Torah that shape our understanding of what is right.

    When he was setting down the foundation for modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch took the phrase,  תּוֹרָה עִם דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ Torah with derekh eretz, (also from Pirkei Avot) as the basis for his vision. He focused less on the element of derekh eretz as practical wisdom but on the element in our tradition that sees it as engaging in the world, earning a living and abiding by the customs of the general community. As he explained in his commentary on Avot, “Derech Eretz includes everything …this term especially describes ways of earning a livelihood and maintaining the social order. It also includes the customs and considerations of etiquette, that the social order generates as well as everything concerning humanistic civil education.” His main concern was making sure that observance of Torah did not eclipse the practical elements of modern life.

    For modern Reform Jews, Hirsch’s understanding of derekh eretz in well within our grasp. On the whole, we are successful in the boarder world, we participate in the social and communal fabric of modern society with ease and achievement. But it is possible, that if we focus exclusively on that understanding of derekh eretz alone, we will miss out on the other fundamental meaning of the term, its link to Torah and the power that comes from the combination of the two.

    Tisha B’Av opens up a conversation about what pulls apart that which is most precious to us, it reminds us of what hangs in the balance with our simple actions, like speech. Derekh eretz is the beginning of the redemption, the use of the common wisdom that keeps our tongue from speaking evil our lips from telling lies. But as essential as derekh eretz –in both its practical wisdom and engage with the secular world meanings- is, it is only a starting point. We step from this general wisdom in Av into the rituals of Elul, the blowing of the shofar, the singing of slichot, culminating in the very particularistic rituals of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that define for us clearly the blueprint that is Torah and Jewish practice.

    Derekh eretz is essential to creating community and success but it does not happen in a vacuum. As Schwartz reminds us, it must be learned and reinforced. His worry about lack of leadership, overlooks the resources we have at hand. The means to moral wisdom is available to all of us if we remember that ein Torah, ein derekh eretz. Leadership that is rooted in the precepts of our tradition, in the teachings of Torah, in the rituals and rhythms of Jewish life will not only inspire but guide and instill. As modern Reform Jews, we would do well to reinterpret and reembrace Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s charge. We already know how to navigate the practical elements of modern life, but if we want to ensure continued moral and communal success, we need to reaffirm talmud Torah with derekh eretz.

     

    Moral Wisdom, Torah, Limits of Rules

     

     

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  • A Modest Proposal for the Olympics

    Posted on July 17th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 4 comments
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    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Israeli Olympic team 2012

    I’m a sucker for the Olympics. True, it is a whole lot of expense that might be better spent, but even as a die hard non-sports fan, I find the pomp and ceremony, the exertion and accomplishment exciting. And the part I love best, without question, is the is the parade of countries. The costumes, the flags and the excitement of each country draws me in as I think about how hard each of these people worked to get to this day. As a Canadian who lives in the US, I root for my two “home” teams (okay I will always be biased towards Canada) And as a Jew, I am always particularly proud of the Israeli team.

    But like many, I’m feeling more than a bit ambivalent about celebrating this year.

    This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Munich Olympic games and the 40th anniversary of the Munich Massacre, which saw the cold blooded murder of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes and coaches by Palestinian terrorists. On the 5th of September 1972, Palestinian terrorist broke into the poorly guarded Olympic village immediately killing two and taking 9 hostages. Attempts to rescue the hostages failed and all those taken were all murdered.

    The Olympic games have come to represent the ability of the world to come together. They are a rare moment of peaceful competition rather than the wars that we are used to. The Munich Massacre is clearly the something that the International Olympic Committee would like us to forget. They have reject all appeals to remember the athletes and coaches who were murdered on their watch 40 years ago.  Each of the murdered Israeli men came to the Olympics with the highest hopes and with the ideals of the Olympic committee. Not only were they betrayed by the very organization for which they labored hard at the time, but their memories are being erased by the lack of memorial.

    Israeli Olympic Team 1972

    Each of these men did not live to see their Olympic dreams fulfilled, to embrace the message of peace and brotherhood. They died before Jodoka Yael Arad was able to win Israel’s first medal and surfer Gal Fridman won Israel’s first gold. On a personal level they did not live to see their families flourish, to know old age. They will not among those who are cheering as the Israeli delegation enter London’s Olympic stadium. And most who are there, marching, watching or watching at home will not even know the story of these men.

    So next week, as you watch the Olympics and all the pageantry of opening, (live or taped after Shabbat) I hope you will join me, in turning off your television for two minutes when the leaders of the International Olympic Committee and the London organizers take the stage, and instead turn your attention to the memory of those who died 40 years ago.

     

    Those who died:

     

     

    Moshe Weinberg

    Yossef Ramano

    Ze’ev Friedman

    David Berger

    Yakov Springer

    Eliezer Halfin

    Yossef Gutfreund

    Kehat Shorr

    Mark Slavin

    Andre Spitzer

    Amitzur Shapira

     

    May their memories be for a blessing.

     

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