The Arch Revisited

A few weeks ago I wrote about some Jewish perspectives on the efforts to remove the statues of Confederate generals and others from public squares, arguing that we as Jews should try to see the situation from the perspective of people of color rather than expect them to adopt our position. I also tried to come up with some criteria for removing a monument by citing the example of the Arch of Titus in Rome as potentially offensive, but ultimately something Jews might want to keep. This week, on the Forward website, someone has indeed argued that the arch should be removed as a monument to anti-Semitism.

Michael Weiner writes that the arch symbolizes the defeat and slaughter of Jews and was used by church and secular authorities over the centuries to humiliate and subjugate the Jewish community of Rome. As I wrote previously, he is absolutely right on the history, but I suggested that the original intent of the monument is important. The ancient Romans were not creating an anti-Semitic piece of art; they were celebrating a military victory.

But perhaps such a distinction is too subtle. After all, for people today, what a monument means now is more important than what it meant when it was originally created. I am currently reading In the Hands of the Great Spirit, a history of American Indians. The author, Jake Page, mentions the statue of Don Juan de Oñate, a Spanish conquistador in New Mexico, which years ago was vandalized by cutting off his right foot. Those responsible felt it was a fair retribution for Oñate ordering amputations during the Acoma Massacre of 1599.

The statue of Oñate has now been temporarily removed, its ultimate fate unknown, but Indian communities continue to see it a symbol of the historic and ongoing mistreatment by European colonialist and the American government. On the other hand, most Jews are not much concerned with Roman anti-Jewish policies, and, unsurprisingly, the immediate comments on Weiner’s Forward article were almost universally opposed to removing the Arch of Titus.

My criteria have evolved on the subject of removing memorials. Perhaps we should start by removing the most egregious offenders: Confederate generals and Spanish conquistadors. Then let’s work on removing systemic racism from our midst, after which we can reassess some of the more difficult cases such as founding fathers who fought for liberty but also owned slaves. Public sentiment on these memorials might be a good gauge of the progress we have made in reshaping our society.

For years these statues have meant freedom and democracy for some, while others see them as monuments to hypocritical slave holders. Maybe if our society has truly lived up to the visions of freedom envisioned in the words of those like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson then their statues will come to symbolize that part of their legacy for all.


One of the great challenges of leadership is deciding what is important. You might have a great idea or policy for a particular problem, but if it is not a high priority for the people you lead, it may cause you to ignore the pressing issues of the day. A leader cannot do everything – he or she must pick areas to focus on. In both America and Israel, governments are struggling with the political implications of this challenge.

Here in the United States, as we approach Independence Day, the federal government is deploying a new task force to protect monuments in the face of protests calling for the removal of statues that some find offensive. While protecting federal property from vandalism and defacement is certainly within the scope of the Department of Homeland Security, some have pointed out an imbalance of priorities. The White House seems focused on protests while ignoring the spike in coronavirus cases throughout the country.

Political leaders devote time and energy to the things they think will give them the most return on investment. The president seems convinced that his supporters will be happy to see him fighting against the removal of statues, and he is probably right. It is much harder to tackle a difficult and complex problem like the recent resurgence in COVID-19.

Similarly, in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been focused on annexation, or the extension of Israeli sovereignty over settlements in the West Bank. Unlike the US president, however, he needs the consent of his partner in government, Benny Gantz, who comes from a rival political party. While Gantz supports annexation in theory, he seems unprepared to go forward without a full endorsement from the US and other allies.

Just like in America, some in Israel have reacted to Netanyahu’s plan by criticizing his priorities. Israel, which had been considered a coronavirus success story, has also seen an increase in cases, rivaling the peak of March and April. Just like in America, the economy is in deep trouble. Is this really the moment to focus on annexation, as people are hurting? One man, hard hit by the economic hit from lockdowns pleaded on Israeli TV: “Annex me! Apply sovereignty to me.”

Leaders have plans, but then events intervene. Whatever you may think of the plans, and it’s possible to argue that there are majorities in both countries for protecting monuments and West Bank annexation, sometimes they need to be scrapped or put on hold because other issues arise. It’s pretty clear that the White House, the Israeli prime minister, as well as governors and mayors did not want to have to return to lockdowns and social distancing, but the coronavirus doesn’t care about politics. We all would rather be dealing with something else, but it’s up to us to get our priorities in line.

When Quarantine is Not Isolation

When does COVID-induced quarantine become a moment to transcend the feeling of isolation? When that quarantine actually brings you out of the confining societal silos that keep people apart. In many countries, one of the strategies to fight the coronavirus pandemic has been to place infected people with mild or no symptoms in hotels while they recover in order to prevent the spread of the disease. Rather than pass the virus to their families at home, they spend time with other patients going through the same ordeal.

In Israel, one hotel, the Dan Panorama in Jerusalem, became a testbed for Middle East peace with secular and religious Jews mixing with Arabs. Everyone got along and even enjoyed their time together. A comedian joked that people may have licked park benches to get COVID-19 so they could come to the hotel.

The most symbolic and hopeful moment of coexistence may have been when residents removed a barrier erected by the hotel to separate between the observant and non-observant Passover Seders in the ballroom. People may have had different ways of celebrating the holiday, but they wanted to do it together, and so they broke down the wall keeping them apart.

The story of “Hotel Corona” is pretty inspiring, and a reminder that we are only as isolated as we choose to be. The structures of our society often keep us confined to our neighborhoods and institutions, where we are deeply segregated. Only when we are thrown into a situation where we can’t escape to our separate corners do we actually figure out ways to make coexistence work.

How ironic that Israel’s isolation program had the opposite effect of bringing people together. In America we have largely avoided a system of using hotels or dorms to pull people out of their homes and quarantine mild or asymptomatic COVID patients. Perhaps we missed an opportunity for some cross cultural learning, as well as causing more cases of the disease because those with COVID gave it to their families as they recovered at home.

As states and communities begin to reopen, a friend of mine reminded me that nothing has changed since March. What he meant was that there is still no vaccine and no herd immunity. But I do think how we respond to the virus has changed. We used the blunt instrument of social distancing to slow down the spread. Now we use screening, masks and other strategies to reduce the risk.

There undoubtedly will be increases of cases of COVID as society begins to open up, but unlike in March, we should be able to contain the outbreaks with the more efficient tools of testing, tracing and isolating. Whether these tools are effective depends on the strategies created by state and local authorities.

I have not heard of any plans to use hotels for isolation. If the idea is that people exposed to COVID in second waves will just go home, we might be missing a great chance to stop the spread of the virus while furthering the spread of cooperation and multicultural understanding.

In Another’s Shoes

It is human nature to see events through the lens of our own personal experience and history. That is how we make meaning of the things we witness: by relating our knowledge and feelings to what we see. Sometimes, this instinct is positive – it allows us to understand how others are thinking and feeling. But at other times, the impulse to personalize events alienates the experiences of others.

On Twitter this week former Knesset member Einat Wilf posted the following:

If Jews took down symbols of their discrimination, oppression, persecution, ethnic cleansing and genocide, not a stone or a flag would remain across the Western and Islamic worlds. Human history is mostly one of brutality and exploitation. To move forward we remember, not erase.

It strikes me that Wilf has fallen into the trap of interpreting the protests and pulling down of Confederate statues through the lens of Jewish history. Rather than trying to see why these symbols of slavery and white supremacy might be deeply hurtful to others, she asks why those people can’t see it the way that the Jews do.

The goal of intergroup relations should be a two way street: hopefully you can understand my experience just as I come to understand yours. Shira Telushkin, in the Forward, points out, for example, that Jews and African Americans had very different experiences coming to this country. While both groups have felt discrimination and been the victims of brutal attacks, Jews came to America as a beacon of hope, while Africans were brought unwillingly here in the chains of slavery.

The different origin stories of these two communities are really important. As Telushkin provocatively asks, how would American Jews relationship with the Holocaust change if we had to live with Germans, including Nazis and their descendants? Here in this country, everyone in the mainstream condemns Nazis and celebrates America’s defeat of Germany in WWII. What if we, like African Americans, had to live in the place of our greatest degradation that refused to fully reckon with its history?

Many pointed out to Wilf that Confederate statues were designed specifically to reinforce white supremacy, while the monuments in Europe she references might represent oppression for Jews, but they mostly were not created for that purpose. A good example might be the Arch of Titus in Rome depicting the defeat of the Jews in Jerusalem. It was erected by Emperor Domitian to honor his brother Titus’s victory against the Jewish rebellion in Judea. While the arch was a symbol of oppression for the Jews of Rome, it wasn’t created as a monument to anti-Semitism. Rather, the Romans routinely built arches to celebrate their victories over many different enemies.

Today, most Jews would oppose dismantling the Arch of Titus because of its architectural and artistic value, particularly to Jewish history. It is one of the few contemporary depictions of the objects in the Temple in Jerusalem. But the same may not be said of the Crucifix and Calvary statue on the Charles Bridge in Prague. Over a typical depiction of Jesus on the cross are the Hebrew words kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, Adonai Tzevaot – “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts”. This Hebrew was a specific anti-Semitic addition meant to humiliate the Jews of the city who would walk on the bridge every day. Those words should be removed and perhaps repurposed in a synagogue where they can be properly displayed.

Symbols are tricky because they often do not have just one connotation, and may mean different things to different people. A good rule of thumb in thinking about how we approach them should be: why was the symbol created in the first place and how do people feel about it today? If it was created to oppress others, and people still feel that oppression, it probably should be removed.

The Black Lives Matter movement has made many people uncomfortable, and that is a good thing. Discomfort prods us to be better and change. In our ongoing quest for greater understanding, we should try to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, not think about how they don’t understand what it is like to be in ours.

Justice Truth and Peace

In Pirkei Avot, the ethical teaching of our rabbinic sages, there are two descriptions of three things that sustain the world, from two different authorities. Shimon the Righteous says that “the world stands upon three things: the Torah, the Temple service, and the practice of acts of piety” (Mishnah Avot 1:2). Later in the same chapter Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel asserts that “on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace” (Mishnah Avot 1:18).

The statement of Shimon the Righteous is the better known, particularly in synagogues, which often use it as a mission statement: the Jewish community focuses on Torah, prayer, and acts of kindness. Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel’s statement, however, is more universal. It’s important to note the differences in these sages’ perspectives. For Shimon the Righteous it is the actions of the Jewish community that sustains the world, while Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel sees the acceptance of important values as the key.

The Mishnah includes the voices of both of these major scholars. The Jewish community must put its attention to our own needs – teaching Torah, providing prayer services, and helping those in need. Equally important are the universal values of justice, truth and peace.

Today our country is in desperate need of Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel’s teaching. For so many people of color, justice is elusive. Daily they are victims of the casual racism that sends a message that they are not valued at the same level of white people. At the same time, they face systemic discrimination from authorities through racial profiling and brutality.

In our hyper-mediated world, truth is a precious commodity. Falsehoods, half-truths and flat out lies are spread on social media which fan the flames of fear, hatred and violence. A Chabad center in California was accused of placing baskets of rocks on sidewalks for looters and vandals to use. The reality is that the rocks were part of security bollards placed in front of the Chabad to protect it after synagogues again became the target of violent anti-Semitism in the last few years.

A centerpiece of any great society is its ability to resolve conflict peacefully. When contentious issues divide us, how do we come together, talk about difficult issues, and find common ground without resort to violence? The brutal and unnecessary death of George Floyd has brought thousands of peaceful protesters to the streets to demand important change. Just because a small number of people take advantage of the situation for looting and violence does not mean we can ignore the message of the demonstrators.

We all pray for peace in this moment, but we must remember that Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel’s statement include three elements – justice, truth and peace. Like a three-legged stool, remove any one element and the world will not stand. Today we see the chaos that results from the lack of these values in our society. May we all reach within ourselves to find ways to fill our world with more justice, more truth, and more peace.

Make it Dairy

Shavuot, which begins tonight, is the holiday of dairy food. Why? No one really knows, although many reasons have been offered. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Shavuot marks the time the Jews were camped out on Mount Sinai waiting to get the kosher laws. Since the rules on proper animal slaughter hadn’t been given, they choose to keep it simple and stick to dairy the night before the Torah was given.

In general, Jewish holidays involve meat: think of brisket, roast chicken, etc. The Talmudic rabbis believed that the joy of Shabbat and holidays is nothing other than meat and wine. Not everyone is going to agree with that sentiment, including vegetarians and those who keep kosher but like to have genuine ice cream for dessert (not imitation Tofutti).

While meat and dairy meals have different tastes, until today I never thought that they have different personalities, but a new book, called The Dairy Restaurant by Ben Katchor, may change that. His 500-page illustrated history of Jewish eating presents the idea that the dairy restaurant was a place with a particular atmosphere, distinct from the meat deli.

For Katchor the dairy place was middle class, utilitarian, slower, whereas the meat restaurant is bustling and fast-paced. While the Jewish deli survived, and has even seen a revival with acclaimed chefs taking on the challenge of elevating Eastern European meat cuisine, the same cannot be said for the lowly dairy joint.

Just yesterday at a wonderful Zoom birthday call that my wife organized, my brother told a story about how our family went to the late, lamented Ratner’s dairy restaurant on the Lower East Side in the early eighties. It was my first time in such an establishment, and as a kid I was a very picky eater. All I ordered was hard boiled eggs, only to have the elderly waiter berate me: “How can you come to Ratner’s, with our huge menu, and just order hard boiled eggs?” Growing up in San Antonio, I was not used to such treatment from restaurant staff, and unfortunately I can’t go back now and order something more interesting.

For Katchor the dairy place was where the intellectual hung out, “[t]he person for whom thought is more important than getting something done.” I wonder then if this is the reason we eat dairy on Shavuot, the holiday of Torah and study. Some have the tradition to stay up all night learning. No matter our profession, on Shavuot we are all intellectuals hanging out in a dairy restaurant disguised as our home.

There is one other unique aspect to choosing a dairy meal: the options it provides. If you eat a meat meal you are locked into meat or parve foods for an extended period of time before you can have milk (no delicious ice cream for dessert). But if you choose dairy you can have meat almost immediately after.

Dairy doesn’t close you off to the possibilities of life, and this idea is reflected in the Yiddish language. Katchor cites the expression “make something fleishedik [meat]”, which means “[m]ake it official”. Dairy, on the other hand, is fluid, changing, contingent – just like Torah. On Shavuot, perhaps we eat milk and cheese to remind us that our study of the tradition is only limited by our mind’s imagination.

Hiding Out

This Thursday evening marks Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, when Israel defeated Jordan and captured the eastern part of the city, uniting it for the first time under Jewish rule in thousands of years. It is a day of celebration, but also one of controversy since Israel’s sovereignty over all of Jerusalem is not recognized by all countries, and the Palestinian Authority would like to make part of the city its capital.

Israel has begun to cautiously reopen following its coronavirus closures. Fortunately its number of cases and deaths have been low and on a steady decline. But an interesting discovery in Jerusalem reminds us that Jews have had to hide out from all kinds of enemies for millennia.

An excavation in the Old City has found a complex of rooms carved out of the bedrock. Archeologists are not certain yet why these spaces were created but it “is the first time a subterranean system has been uncovered adjacent to the Western Wall.” Perhaps the rooms, which contain niches in the wall for oil lamps, were just storage. After all, a basement is a perfect place to store food when you don’t have a refrigerator.

A more intriguing possibility is that the complex was created, or the storage space was used, as a hideout from the Romans during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. We know that Jewish rebels hid out in caves during the Bar Kokhba revolt 65 years later. Perhaps people found refuge in this newly discovered group of rooms.

Jerusalem has always been a place of conflict. During the 19 year period between 1948 and 1967, when the Jordanians controlled East Jerusalem, tensions were high as two armies stood nose to nose across a line of demarcation that stretched through a densely populated urban center.

This charged reality meant that life was far from normal. Today going to the grocery store is an ordeal involving masks, gloves and the proper social distance. For Jerusalemites before 1967 relieving oneself might cause an international incident. In fact, on Yom Kippur in 1965 that is exactly what happened.

An Israeli family in Jerusalem living close to the border with Jordan decided that they were done having to use an outdoor latrine so they started to build a bathroom. The Jordanians objected to a change in the status quo and demanded negotiations on the holiest day in the Jewish year, leading to what became known as the Bathroom Affair (in the end the family got its bathroom).

Today Jerusalem is united geographically, even as deep divisions remain between the Jewish and Arab populations. Tensions still exist, and sometimes turn violent, but at least most of its residents can go about their lives in relative peace, especially as Israel’s lockdown eases. May the peace of Jerusalem persist and spread to us and the rest of the world.

New Normals

Every phase of the coronavirus pandemic brings new challenges. At first it was trying to figure out how to go about our normal business safely (washing our hands frequently, no more handshakes or kissing the Torah); then it was deciding when and how to close institutions and businesses and work from home as much as possible. Now the world is struggling with how to reopen our lives and society safely.

This latest dilemma may be the most difficult of all. It is often easier to close down than to open up. Social distancing is incredibly difficult, but we know that it will prevent the spread of the disease. Opening up creates risk: how do we do it while making sure we reduce the chances of a resurgence in the virus?

Clearly, we will need to make major changes to the way we go about our lives until a virus is found. Israeli scientists recently published an op-ed in which they advocate for a 10-4 cycle: they would divide society into groups that would go to school and work for 4 consecutive days, “then, by the time they might become infectious, 10 days at home in lockdown.” It’s an intriguing idea and one that would create other challenges, but at least it’s an attempt at creating a plan that could free us from a complete shutdown of everything. It might even be a new way of life with some benefits – a healthier work/life balance.

Certainly face masks are going to be a feature of daily life going forward, with all of the challenges that presents, from fogged up glasses to difficulty breathing. Probably hardest thing about wearing a mask is the barriers it puts up to communication, and I don’t just mean that it is difficult to hear someone talking through a mask. On the radio I heard a black man describe the trouble he has now that his mouth is covered. He used to smile a lot to show that he was not a threat, but now that is impossible.

Recently, I was at a store and asked an employee for help finding something. He responded by using a lot of hand motions, which at first I thought was because we both were wearing masks, but then I realized that he was deaf. Perhaps in the past he read lips, but we still found a way to communicate. The experience made me think of how much more we will have to use hand motions to talk to people now. Rather than smile, we can give a thumbs up. At the same time, we will have to be even more aware of the tone of our voice and use it to help convey nuance to our words.

These are some of the things we need to think about as we begin planning for the reopening of our synagogues. In addition, we have to figure out a way to continue to use technology for our programs that allow for as much interaction as possible since even when we return to our sanctuary some vulnerable people will not be able to attend.

Towards that end we are forming a reopening committee to put in place a set of procedures to safely get us back into our physical space. We will follow national and local health guidance, as well as the advice and counsel of the United Synagogue and Rabbinical Assembly and coordinate with other local Jewish institutions. We also have a group that will work on a long term solution for livestreaming our services and programs in a way that is safe, adheres to Jewish law, and is as interactive as possible. There is a lot of work to do as we transition to the next phase of our new normal.

Healthy Eating

Ten years ago, during a Rabbinical Assembly convention in New York, I participated in a program called Rav HaMakshir, a short intensive course for rabbis on how to supervise a kitchen. Of course all rabbis learn the laws of Kashrut, but there are unique issues associated with an industrial kitchen, either in an institution or commercial establishment.

We had two teachers during the course, a professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a food scientist. While we all loved learning the halakhot of Kashrut in more depth, the most fascinating parts of the class were our times with the food scientist, Dr. Joe Regenstein. At each session with him we learned something new about how the food we eat gets to our plate.

Some of the things we learned were fascinating, some were disturbing, and I find myself thinking about those classes now as we watch our food supply chain stressed to the point of breaking. Most of the time we don’t think much about the food we eat except how it tastes. We don’t put any thought into the farmers who grow it, the workers who pack it, the truck drivers who haul it, or the grocery workers who stock it.

One bright spot to the coronavirus pandemic is that at least now we are paying attention to all of those aspects of the supply chain. At each point we are concerned for the safety of workers and the ability of the system to deliver the food we need. I hope that this crisis will prod us to address some of the persistent problems in the food industry.

Around the same time that I took the Rav HaMakshir course, the Jewish world was hit with a different food-related emergency. After terrible conditions for both workers and animals were revealed at the Rubashkin meat plant in Iowa, calls were made to improve conditions. (Sadly, the founder of the plant, Aaron Rubashkin, recently passed away from COVID-19 in New York City.) The Conservative Movement created an initiative called Magen Tzedek to create a certification that would ensure that kosher food met certain standards for environmental sustainability, worker rights, and animal welfare. Unfortunately, the program was never implemented.

During a crisis our sensitivities are heightened, but often our attention begins to lag as time moves on. Right now we are worried about the health of meat workers in the Midwest, but will we care in 2 years or will our concern fade, as it did with Magen Tzedek? The coronavirus may not be a worry once a vaccine is found, but even in the best of times the meat industry is one of the most dangerous in country, along with truck driving and other agriculture jobs.

Our responsibility, as consumers, is to do what we can to help make sure the food we eat is safe, along with the workers who prepare, package, ship, and stock it. That means taking a responsibility for a system we benefit from in good times and become acutely aware of in difficult ones. The first step is truly understanding all of the efforts that go into our food, and then encouraging, through our consumer habits, sustainable and healthy choices, not just for us, but for those who work hard to make sure we are fed.

Faith vs. State

The coronavirus pandemic has affected people and industries in so many different ways. Some have lost their jobs; others continue to work but are on the front lines coming in contact with other people, while some are able to work from home. Some industries, such as those that offer streaming services, are thriving, while others, such as airlines, are in deep trouble.

Religious communities depend on human contact, and so we have struggled to figure out ways to connect without being physically present. This is a major challenge in Judaism where so many of our important rituals require the presence of 10 people. Without the quorum necessary for a minyan, we cannot read Torah or say certain prayers, while we at Adath Israel follow the Conservative movement ruling that allows the recitation of the Mourners Kaddish in the presence of 10 virtual attendees.

Not all Jewish communities follow these guidelines however. For the Orthodox, a gathering of 10 on Zoom is not sufficient to say Kaddish, and some communities have used other means to gather for prayer, such as holding services outside with people staying at least 6 feet apart. This Tuesday, some members of the Satmar sect held a funeral procession in Brooklyn for a rabbi that attracted thousands of mourners, and the attention of the mayor and the press.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and police commissioner Dermot Shea criticized the Satmar community for violating social distancing measures, but it turns out that the NYPD had participated in the planning for the procession. The Hasidic organizers didn’t consider the funeral an act of civil disobedience; rather, they thought they were following guidelines and since people are allowed to walk on the street with masks, they could hold a funeral there as well.

Clearly there was a breakdown in communication, both on the part of the Satmar and the NYPD because thousands of people showed up and police ended up dispersing the crowd. Some fear that de Blasio’s negative comments could lead to anti-Semitism as people blame the Jews for the spread of coronavirus because they refuse to follow the rules, even if, in this case, they coordinated the funeral with the authorities.

In Judaism we are constantly balancing different values and trying to resolve the tension between them. On the one hand, a funeral is one of the most sacred mitzvot we have. In Hebrew it is called a levayah, literally an escort since we accompany the body on the way to the grave. On the other hand, pikuach nefesh, the saving of lives, supersedes any mitzvah. In a time of social distancing we have to look for other ways to fulfill our obligations. For example, at some funerals people can escort the deceased by staying in their cars as the maximum 10 people participate in the funeral at the graveside.

Religion and social distancing are sure to come in conflict again as long as there is no vaccine for the coronavirus. Already the Justice Department has issued a statement saying that jurisdictions may not single out religious institutions in their orders. For example, a state or city cannot allow movie theaters to open but keep churches and synagogues closed. There must be one standard for all. It is up to government and faith to work together so that everyone is safe, but also able to observe their religion in meaningful ways.