Hold on to Hope

With each new update on the coronavirus in China, we get a little more fearful that this could be the big one, a major outbreak that overwhelms our globalized world. Governments impose travel restrictions and quarantines, but is it possible to effectively contain the virus in our highly connected world? Are we simply at the mercy of the epidemic? 

In spite of the great advances in epidemiology and health care, the coronavirus reminds us that we are still at the mercy of forces beyond our control. Technology allows us to control and contain these outbreaks, but it is difficult to defeat them.  

As we watch the reported cases from China continue to grow, we might pause to reflect on how our ancestors dealt with situations like this. In the past, people had even fewer tools at their disposal to deal with epidemics and plaques. They turned to the only resources available: folk remedies and spirituality. 

Jeremy Brown, a doctor and author of the book Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History, offers a Jewish remedy that was used in Philadelphia during the last great pandemic (the Spanish Flu of 1918) and others before it. It was called the Shvartze Chassaneh, the Black Wedding, and involved matching orphans of the disease in matrimony at a cemetery where guests would give gifts to the couple as they begin their new life together. 

While the Black Wedding might sound like a scene out of a grim horror movie, it makes sense in a context where communities were at the mercy of a merciless epidemic. If you couldn’t cure the disease, perhaps you could appeal to divine intervention. Jewish tradition is filled with examples of the community coming together to ask God for help from disaster. For example, the Talmud records ceremonies to ask for rain during droughts. 

What is poignant about the Black Wedding is the addition of an act of chesed, kindness, to the ritual. It’s not just that God is asked for help, but that the community helps the most vulnerable in their midst as an act of prayer and hope. The message seems to be twofold. The first is: look God, we are doing something good for this poor couple so please help us.  

The second message of the Black Wedding is that the community has not lost hope in the midst of tragedy. The ceremony takes place in the cemetery, amidst the graves of the victims of the outbreak. Even in the face of great tragedy we embrace life. We will survive the coronavirus, as we did the Spanish Flu, as we did the droughts of ancient times as long as we hold on to hope. 

A Giant's Shadow

This week the Jewish community lost a giant of the film industry and one of my favorite actors, Kirk Douglas. While he was known around the world for his performances on screen and the dimple on his chin, he was appreciated in the Jewish community for the commitment he made to his faith later in life.

I must admit that I love Douglas not only because he was a great actor, but also because I actually met him once. He was born Issur Danielovitch to immigrant parents, but during his career Douglas barely observed his Judaism. That changed in 1991 when a near-fatal helicopter crash left him injured and shaken. Afterwards, Douglas reconnected with his tradition, studying Torah and getting more involved in the community.

Sometime after that, in the 1990s, Douglas paid a visit to Camp Ramah in Ojai, California where I was a staff member. I have a vague memory that he was there to learn about the Tikvah program for Jewish children with disabilities. When he made his way over to my part of camp I had the honor of shaking his hand. He was gracious and seemed interested in what we were doing.

Douglas was known for some great performances, but as a kid I loved him in The Final Countdown, a cheesy alternate history movie where a 1980s aircraft carrier goes back in time to 1941 with the chance to wipe out the Japanese fleet before it can attack the United States. What should the captain, played by Douglas, do: change history or let events play out as they should? You have to watch to find out.

Only later did I discover classic Douglas roles in movies like Spartacus and Paths of Glory. In these pictures I gained a deeper appreciation for his powerful screen presence. Douglas was known for playing tough guys, but I always think of him portraying righteous figures, men with a moral code who know right from wrong and are prepared to make great sacrifices for their principles. This quality was mirrored off screen was well when he fought the Hollywood blacklist and insisted that Dalton Trumbo be given an onscreen credit for Spartacus.

Perhaps the best example of these heroic roles is from one of Douglas’s most Jewish works, Cast a Giant Shadow, about the life of Mickey Marcus, an American army officer who goes to Israel to fight for the nascent Jewish state. For me, no matter the background of the character he played, Douglas embodied the best of the Jewish people – the will to fight for what is right, no matter the cost.

Half Measures

The latest American proposal for peace between Israel and the Palestinians was released this week. Its 181 pages are full of detail which the authors hope will eliminate the problem of vagueness in past frameworks. Diplomatic ambiguity is often considered a positive because it allows both sides to see an agreement in a ways that benefits them, but it also can be a negative if it leaves key questions unresolved.

In the case of the current plan, the details have led Israel to be ecstatic while the Palestinians responded with “a thousand no’s”. The proposal would allow Israel to quickly annex all of the settlements in the West Bank, including isolated enclaves not surrounded by the security barrier. On the other side, a limited Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and including parts of southern Israel would only be established after the Palestinians meet certain criteria.

Peace to Prosperity, the White House plan, has the challenge of all previous peace processes. While they have lofty goals and broad vision to end the conflict, they are often only partially implemented. In 1979 the Camp David accords led to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, but it also included a proposal for Palestinian autonomy that was mostly ignored. The Oslo process was never fully realized, leading to the hybrid current reality where the Palestinian Authority has responsibility for Palestinian population areas but not a full blown state.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has already indicated that he wants to go ahead with the annexation of all settlements this Sunday, while Jared Kushner, the architect of the plan, has said the US government wants Israel to wait until after the Knesset elections on March 2. Clearly, Netanyahu has a political interest in going to the polls saying to the Israeli people that he was able to extend Israeli sovereignty to all the places where Israelis live.

So what happens if Israel gets its benefits from the plan while the Palestinians reject theirs? Israel will end up with an extension of its sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, but we will be nowhere closer to peace. In fact, such a situation may move us further from peace because it will be more difficult for Israel to give away territory under its sovereignty than land that is in dispute.

The administration’s plan may not, in fact, be a traditional peace proposal since no one expected one of the sides, the Palestinians, to ever accept it. Instead, some see it as an effort to bring Israel into an alliance with Sunni Arab states in the Middle East in confrontation with Iran. A number of Arab nations have reacted either neutrally or positively to the plan, isolating the Palestinians in their rejectionism. The result may be that most Sunni Arab nations move beyond the Palestinian cause and reconcile with Israel without a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As with all peace proposals in the initial phase, a lot is in flux. Impeachment, Netanyahu’s indictment, and the Israeli elections must all be resolved before the prospects for the plan can come into focus. Whatever the outcome of this particular effort, we continue to pray for Shalom al Yisrael, peace upon Israel.

Let Your Voice be heard!

There is an important election coming up that will determine the future of the Jewish people. Yes, I am referring to the next Israeli Knesset ballot in only a few weeks, but also to a vote that any American Jew can participate in right now. Until March 11, the polls are open for the election of the US delegation to the 38th World Zionist Congress (WZC), which determines the leadership of major Jewish organizations and how nearly $5 billion is distributed.

The WZC was created by Theodor Herzl in 1897 to bring together the worldwide Zionist movement. Many important decisions have been made at the gatherings, including the one at the Sixth Zionist Congress not to pursue a Jewish homeland in Uganda, but rather to make the land of Israel the sole focus of the movement.

Israeli delegates to the Congress will be determined by the Knesset elections March 2nd, while in America a separate online vote is currently taking place. For a $7.50 fee, you can cast your ballot and help determine the future of Israel and the Jewish People. The WZC determines how some money distributed by the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency, organizations that continue to make an impact in Israel and all over the world.

My support goes to MERCAZ, the Zionist organization of the Conservative movement, with a platform that reads, in part:

We support strengthening Israel as a Jewish, Zionist, and democratic state, and endeavor to shape it as an exemplary society with a unique moral and spiritual character rooted in the vision of the Hebrew prophets. We envision a society that is democratic and pluralistic, that recognizes and empowers all streams of Jewish practice, and that guarantees the civil and political rights of all of its citizens.

If you agree with that vision for Israel, one where the Conservative movement can thrive in an environment of freedom, where an authentic and modern Judaism inspires the next generation, then you should vote the MERCAZ slate. Conservative Judaism in Israel has flourished the last few decades despite the fact that its rabbis are not recognized by the state and can’t perform weddings and other lifecycle rituals. With more representation at the WZC, we can have even more success.

In the last election only about 1% of eligible American Jews voted. Too often we complain about our leaders and the establishment, blaming them for our ills, but how often do we take the initiative and try and make a difference with our actions? The WZC elections are a simple way to effect real change. Let your voice be heard!

Simple But Powerful

Symbolic actions can have important effects, even without practical implication. This week the Virginia legislature ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, providing the final state required to ensure that the article could be added to the US Constitution. The only problem is that the deadline for ratification passed decades ago. Some legal scholars argue that it may still be possible for the amendment to be adopted, and the case will probably go to court, but the image of state legislators finally enshrining equality of the sexes into our founding document is a powerful one.

The ERA essentially consists of a simple single sentence: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” In fact, it’s hard to understand how anyone would oppose such a statement being part of our constitution. I imagine that if I was to interview random people on the street they probably would assume such a line is already a part of the constitution.

Opposition to the ERA has been based on the idea that men and women have different roles and that the amendment would break down those differences. For example, women might be drafted along with men and put into combat positions. Anti-abortion activists have also argued that the ERA would provide the basis for a right to abortion, and in fact Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg believed that basing the right to abortion on equal protection would have been stronger than Roe v. Wade’s privacy argument.

The Conservative movement went through similar arguments when it debated the issue of egalitarianism in the 1980s. How would the community establish a new precedent for women’s participation in Jewish life? Some argued that there needed to be a fundamental revision of Jewish law to encompass women in the same state of obligation for the commandments as men. Others believed that Jewish law already provided avenues for women’s equality; it was just patriarchal customs that kept women out of roles in the synagogue.

In the end, the Conservative movement chose a hybrid approach. Some relied on new interpretations of Jewish law, while others worked within the existing system. The result is that today, I think many people, including rabbis, would be hard pressed to say why women are considered equal in Judaism. They know and believe it to be true, but we haven’t formulated a simple coherent argument in its favor.

While the dream of the ERA may come true for the US, I wish that we could have a similar unifying statement of equality in the Jewish community. In ancient times there was a Sanhedrin, a rabbinical court of sages who could make declarations and decrees, but today our community is more fragmented. In theory each rabbi and synagogue decides Jewish law for themselves. This gives tremendous freedom to local communities, but sometimes leaves us without a guiding principle to strive for.

Not Far Away

Several weeks ago, the Adath Israel Men’s Club sponsored a trip to see the exhibit “Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away.” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York. The exhibit was originally scheduled to close in December, but has been extended through August. It’s a powerful way to approach the Holocaust, especially for those who are not able to travel to Europe, since the museum presents a number of artifacts on loan from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland.

One of the challenges of the exhibit is balancing somewhat conflicting objectives. On the one hand, the focus is on Auschwitz itself, but while that concentration camp has come to symbolize the entire Holocaust, it is only one element of an enormous story. In order to properly focus on the particulars of Auschwitz, the exhibit must zoom out and give the context of Jewish life in Europe before the war and the whole history of Nazi genocide during the war.

One way the exhibit accomplishes these goals is by telling the story with small, but poignant details: a single child’s shoe with its sock still tucked inside, a blouse maid by one woman for her sister. These objects haunt us with all of the possibilities that lie behind them. In some cases we know what happened to the owners, but often we are left to guess.

Another approach of the exhibit is to use juxtaposition to create a sense of disorientation in the viewer. In one section commercial posters of smiling German Aryans enjoying cars are displayed next to political posters with stereotypes of Jews. The style in each type of poster is similar; perhaps the same artist made both kinds, which helps us understand that Nazi propaganda infused all elements of German life.

In another section there are two displays of photographs on walls next to each other: one showing smiling SS officers having fun near Auschwitz, and the other showing Jews going about their lives before the war. These latter photos were found in the concentration camp years later and presumably belong to those who were murdered. Placing these two sets of pictures next to each other reinforces the jarring disconnect in human nature. How could the Nazi guards lead normal lives as they systematically murdered thousands of Jews each and every day?

“Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away.” confronts us with many questions that have no easy answers. In a time of increased anti-Semitism, is also challenges us to think about how bigotry and stereotypes persist even in the most civilized of societies. I hope that as many people as possible, especially non-Jews, are able to see the exhibit and be inspired to fight against hatred in our own day.

Jewish State of Mind

The age old debate of Jewish identity jumped into the mainstream media when the president signed an executive order extending anti-discrimination protections to Jewish college students even though the law does not mention religion as a protected group. The implication many drew from this decision was that the administration was now considering Jews to be a race or a nationality since those groups are specifically protected. It turns out that the current order did not declare Jews a nationality, and it followed the policy of previous presidents from both parties, but it led to a vigorous discussion of an important question: what exactly are Jews? A religion? An ethnicity? A people?

In America Jews are certainly not a nationality, since our citizenship is American. We also are not a race because there are Jews of all colors and backgrounds in our community. Of course Judaism is a religion, but many people who strongly identify as Jews profess atheism or are completely secular. We often think of ourselves as an ethnic group because of the dominance of Ashkenazi culture in America, but how much is there in common between a Jew from Eastern Europe and one from Yemen?

Perhaps the best moniker for the Jewish community is a “people”, which provides enough definition to the group, but allows some wiggle room. The Jewish people contain one religion and share a language, but also include other subsidiary languages and cultures. We are a messy group with lots of division, but we are united in the principle that “all Jews are responsible for each other”.

Last week the New York Times published an op-ed by Brett Stephens on the “The Secrets of Jewish Genius” that included reference to a debunked study suggesting that Ashkenazi Jews have a genetic link to superior intelligence. One of the authors of the study professed white nationalist ideology, and the Times subsequently pulled the passage relating to the study from the op-ed.

Stephens stands by his argument, however, that there is a Jewish genius, because he believes it has nothing to do with genetics or even intelligence. Jewish genius, in his view, comes from culture, history and values. Jews have always been outsiders, and so they have been able to look at the world from a unique perspective and think outside the box. Our history of argumentation has enabled us to think creatively and not accept conventional wisdom.

I don’t know whether or not Stephens is correct in his assessment of a Jewish quality of genius, but it is vital that any such claim stay far away from genetics. Individually, Jews are just people like everyone else, but as a collective people we have a treasured history and culture that is open to anyone who wants to participate, regardless of DNA. Being Jewish is not a matter of genes; it’s a state of mind.