Shift the Tide

After living in America for 350 years, through the ups and downs of anti-Semitism, it seems like we are entering a period when it is getting less comfortable to be Jewish in this country. Things have certainly been much worse, but perhaps in the decades following WWII we were spoiled as anti-Jewish behavior and feeling seemed to recede.

Perhaps I was foolish enough to think that the ebbing of anti-Semitism was a permanent phenomenon. I don’t think I believed it would ever be eliminated in the United States, but maybe that it would continue to become a vanishingly small force. Unfortunately, in the last few years we have seen the opposite.

It is important to remember our history and understand that America has always contained these anti-Jewish elements. This month marks the 80th anniversary of a major Nazi rally that took place at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Fox News recently refused to allow an ad for an Oscar-nominated short film about the event to be shown on the network because the CEO felt it was “not appropriate for our air.”

The Gothamist website has reported on a surge in swastikas graffiti in New York and New Jersey. It seems that people feel emboldened to share their bigotry and hatred. And they also likely feel inspired by the type of language and imagery they see from their leaders.

This week the newly elected member of the House of Representatives from Minnesota, Ilhan Omar, posted on Twitter that Republicans supported Israel because of the money they receive from AIPAC. The comments reinforce the anti-Semitic idea that Jews are able to control the government with their outsized wealth.

Fortunately Omar apologized after the political firestorm she created, but she has a history of making such statements, and it is not clear she has learned from her mistakes. The other side of the isle is no better: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who criticized Omar for her tweet, has not apologized for a tweet he posted months ago that implied Jewish billionaires were trying to buy the November election.

Anti-Semitism has always been, and probably always will be, a part of the American experience. We cannot change that, but in the recent past bigotry and stereotypes began to be seen as socially unacceptable. Perhaps people held these beliefs, but they kept them hidden.

When political leaders, left and right, voice anti-Semitism it gives license for others to express similar ideas without fear of retribution. As in the case of Representative Omar, we must swiftly respond to these comments so that hopefully soon we can shift the tide away from the darkest impulses of our country.

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A First Step

During this week’s State of the Union speech, the president touted a rare bipartisan victory – the passage of criminal justice reform. Congress passed, and the president signed, a law that reduces the sentences for some non-violent offenders in federal prisons, along with other reforms to the system, including banning the shackling of pregnant inmates.

In our world of extreme political polarization, the First Step Act from last December is an outlier, garnering overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans. There is a growing consensus on all sides that mass incarceration is a problem and the criminal justice system needs serious reform.

The way we look at crime and punishment in America could benefit from a study of Jewish sources. In Judaism a high value is placed on the idea of teshuvah, repentance, the idea that a person can change his or her ways and move to a path of rehabilitation. With teshuvah, most offenses can be overcome with sincere contrition and recompense given to the offended party.

The American criminal justice system has historically focused on retribution and removing offenders from society, whereas the Jewish system sees the community as an important aspect to the criminal’s path to redemption. Prisons, unfortunately, often serve as schools where inmates learn how to be better criminals.

How would our system change if instead of sending people to jail for most non-violent crimes, we set up robust programs of restorative justice, where these people were required to make up for the wrong they committed? How would our society benefit if instead of spending vast amounts of money on jails, we created educational and vocational programs to help prevent recidivism in criminals?

Mass incarceration is a vast and complex problem, which will require all kinds of solutions from changes in the way prosecutors handle cases to sentencing reform. The First Step Act is just that, a beginning. In fact, most of the work in criminal justice reform is happening at the state and local level, where that vast majority of the prison population resides.

How we approach justice says a lot about what kind of society we want to be. Are we a nation that believes in second chances? Do we take responsibility as a community for rehabilitating those who have committed crimes? These questions will continue to guide us as we work to build a better and more just America.

Moving Forward

This spring the Forward, which has covered the Jewish world for 121 years, will no longer produce a print edition. After surviving a tumultuous period of American Jewish history, the former newspaper will transition to an all-digital presence.

The reality is that the Forward has gone through many iterations. What was once a Yiddish daily newspaper began to publish in English in the 1990s, when I first began to read it. Weekly and then monthly editions followed. In the last few years the Forward changed formats again and turned itself into a monthly magazine.

Each time the Forward needed to reinvent itself, it kept its journalistic focus the same: telling the American Jewish story. Some have lamented this latest death of print journalism, and the layoffs that accompanied the announcement are never a good sign, but I suspect that the Forward will continue to tell our story, if only in the digital realm.

The Forward has needed to face the situation confronting all print media: fewer and fewer people read their news on dead trees anymore. The challenge in the age of digital is how to make money, and perhaps the Forward will have more advantages than most traditional media companies. After all, it is run by a non-profit association and has, astonishingly, already “been losing money since 1945”!

I have spoken in the past about how the business of journalism and the business of synagogues are in the same boat. In an age when so much content is available for free, longtime institutions suffer, but the problem is not a lack of interest.

People continue to consume the news, and people still lead spiritual lives. They just are going to take the free or low cost option if it is available to them. The challenge for media companies and synagogues is how to build a financially sustainable business model in this environment.

Just as the Forward has had to let go of the past multiple times – moving from Yiddish to English, and from daily to monthly to updating its website every hour – so too do synagogues need to reinvent themselves. The way we deliver on our core values – Jewish living, belonging and education – may change, but not our commitment.

At Adath we created our successful MOSAIC center of arts, culture and ideas as part of this process of transformation. Every generation of Jews is bequeathed a living heritage. It is our responsibility to pass on that legacy that we have reshaped and renewed so that the next generation can do the same.

Choose Wisely

There is a principle in Jewish tradition that one cannot go “shopping” for a rabbinic opinion. A person should stick with a rabbi and follow that rabbi’s rulings no matter what. Otherwise, the pluralistic nature of Judaism could be exploited for personal gain. Since one can probably find a rabbi for every possible position on a matter, one can simply go looking for the desired outcome.

This strategy undermines the authority of the community because it puts the layperson in charge, not the rabbi. Jewish practice becomes whatever the individual wants to do. In other religions, such as Catholicism, this problem is minimized with a strict hierarchy. The pope determines what is allowed or not and everyone below him must follow suit.

In the Jewish community each rabbi has autonomy, which allows flexibility but also leads to the possibility of gaming the system. In the liberal streams, lay people often pick and choose what aspects of observance they decide to follow, and sometimes don’t even feel the need to go shopping for a rabbinic opinion to back up their decision.

In Orthodoxy, there is a greater need for rabbinic approval, but lay people will look for an opinion that fits their wishes, even if it goes against the majority of the authorities. There is a small, but significant, group of Orthodox parents that refuse to vaccinate their children. They rely on the opinion of a few rabbis, against the position of the main institutions of Orthodoxy.

I experienced this issue a few years ago when I was on the board of my children’s Jewish day school. As the rabbinic voice on the board, I was consulted about a school family who wished to keep their children unvaccinated. They were unable to get a medical exemption and so they applied for a religious exemption.

The dilemma of the religious waiver is, who gives it? Perhaps you can find a rabbi who will give a Jewish justification for not vaccinating, but in New Jersey, where we have freedom of religion, this is actually unnecessary. Here everyone is allowed to interpret their faith for themselves. The parents only need to state that they wish to have an exemption because of their religious beliefs.

The incident brought up all kinds of questions about authority. Ultimately, I consulted with some colleagues and we determined that there was no Jewish justification for not vaccinating a child. In fact, the principle of pikuah nefesh, the priority of saving a life, dictates that children must be vaccinated. We could not allow children in the school to potentially be exposed to life threatening illnesses, and because we were a religious school, we did not need to grant the exemption.

Free will is a value we cherish both in Jewish tradition and democracy, but both systems rely on education to ensure that people make the right decisions. We can’t force people to do what is beneficial, but we all are affected by the choices made by others, for good or ill.

Moments in Time

There is a quote from the writer Marc Levy on the different ways we appreciate time which reads, in part: “If you want to know the value of one second, ask the person who just escaped death in a car accident.” I couldn’t help but think about these words as I listened to our member Kim Pimley speak about her heart transplant during our latest MOSAIC speaker program last Sunday.

Her story, which was featured in a number of articles, commercials and videos, teaches the importance of time. After feeling sick she went to the doctor and was lucky enough to eventually be properly diagnosed with an extremely rare disease. The staff took action quickly and within days she had a new heart.

Without the quick thinking of her doctors, she would not have survived. Time, in such a case, matters greatly. We are all on earth for a limited period of time; in a sense we could think of our lives as including a giant countdown clock that happens to be invisible to us. Sometimes, however, we become aware of the limited moments we have left.

Three years ago, Kim came face to face with the countdown clock and got to add some more time to it. How often can one say that? She learned the importance of thinking and acting quickly because seconds matter, but she also learned to appreciate the time one has and live life to the fullest.

How we respond to the fact that our time is limited is the key to a successful life. I had heard much of Kim’s story before the presentation, but one new wrinkle I learned was the response of her competitors. She made sure to post a picture of herself looking healthy and strong only a short time after her surgery in order to reassure her clients. The competition was closing in, taking advantage of her absence to perhaps gain new business.

One would hope that when confronted with a colleague’s illness the response would be to help. After all, time is short and we have only so many opportunities to do good in the world. Of course I am not too naïve to understand that selfishness is a basic part of human nature. Kim’s competitors understood the value of time and acted quickly to get her business, but what if they had been decisive for a more generous purpose?

Kim’s story expresses the paradoxical challenge of striving to live in the moment while also understanding the full context of our lives. We want to make every moment count, but we also need to think about the consequences of our actions for us and those around us. It’s a difficult task but as Rabbi Tarfon said in the Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 2:15): “The day is short and the work is great.”

Origin Stories

The last few weeks have been exciting for anyone who loves space. We celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first mission to orbit the moon, Apollo 8. The New Horizons probe explored Ultima Thule, an object in the Kuiper belt and now the subject of the most distant photograph ever sent from space. Finally, the Chinese space agency landed a rover on the far side of the moon for the first time in history.

All of these missions were, in some way, about investigating our origins. Apollo 8 may not be as famous as Apollo 11, which actually landed on the moon, but it perhaps was more daring. No one had left low earth orbit before the flight and there was real concern the astronauts wouldn’t come home if everything didn’t go according to plan.

Apollo 8 went to the moon, but in a sense discovered the earth, resulting in the famous picture, “Earthrise”. As the spacecraft orbited the lunar surface on Christmas Eve, the astronauts read the first verses of Genesis describing the formation of the world. Few could hear those words and not marvel on the majesty of creation.

New Horizons is searching for evidence of the creation of our solar system by doing a flyby of Ultima Thule, a primordial body left undisturbed from billions of years ago. Scientists have not created time machines, but they have other ways of looking into the distant past, whether by taking ice core samples on earth or looking through telescopes at the edges of the universe. New Horizons is studying an object that looks much the same as it did at the foundation of our solar system.

But the mission is not without controversy. The name Ultima Thule is a Latin phrase for a distant place, quite appropriate for an object that lies a billion miles past Pluto. The problem is that Nazis have used the term to refer to a mythic Aryan land. Should an important celestial body have a name with such a connotation? The lead scientist for New Horizon’s response was succinct: “just because some bad guys once liked that term, we’re not going to let them hijack it.”

China’s Chang’e 4 mission to the far side of the moon will investigate the origins of our companion. How did it form and why does it look the way it does? The far side of the moon is never seen from Earth, so it presents logistical challenges for exploration, but it is not always dark. In fact this week it is bathed in sunlight as we on earth experience the new moon. On Monday we celebrated Rosh Hodesh Shevat, the first day of the Hebrew month when no moon can be seen in the sky while on the far side it was high noon.

One “day” on the moon is 28 days: two weeks of daylight and two weeks of nighttime. The only difference between the near and far side is that the former sees the Earth hanging in the sky (with its own phases) and the latter does not. The Chinese Yutu 2 rover had to take a “noon nap” during this time because of the dangerous extreme high temperatures and will have to do the same around lunar midnight because of the extreme cold.

As science further expands outward to new undiscovered corners of our universe, we learn more and more about who we are and where we came from. Hopefully we continue to be in awe of the beauty, fragility and importance of nature.

The Seam Between Vision and Reality

Last week Israel lost one of its greatest and well-regarded novelists, Amos Oz, the voice of a generation who came of age after the creation of the Jewish state. Oz chronicled the contradictions of a country built on the foundation of a rich tradition but eager to fashion something new and modern. The space between these two poles was where he found his inspiration.

Like many voices of a generation, Oz had to grapple with the problem that time moves on and eventually one must yield to the next iteration. He was a passionate defender of the Labor Zionist ethos: strong on defense but open to compromise for the sake of peace, secular in outlook, egalitarian and socialist on economic matters. His vision for Israel was shared by the left-leaning Ashkenazic elite who ruled the country for its first 30 years.

The Israel that Amos Oz began to write about in the 1960’s, however, no longer exists. The Labor party, which dominated Israeli politics in its first decades, may not even receive 10 votes in the next election scheduled for April 9th. Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government Oz despised, is poised to win his 4th consecutive term and 5th overall.

Oz himself wrote about the changes happening to Israel in his 1983 work of non-fiction, In the Land of Israel. He traveled the country and spoke to all kinds of people, including settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank, to show the diversity of voices that he heard. For many, me included, the book deconstructed stereotypes that had been built by the walls that keep groups separate.

In rabbinical school, I took a class on Modern Hebrew literature where we read works in the original. Despite his spare style, Oz was a challenge because while he sometimes alluded to Jewish themes, he was a thoroughly secular writer, and I was used to reading religious texts. We were assigned a story, “The Way of the Wind”, from his first collection of stories, Where the Jackals Howl, about kibbutz life.

The story deals with the conflict between the founding generation, the heroic Zionist leaders, and their children, like Oz, who struggled to live in their giant shadow. As my teacher, the late Alan Mintz described it, the story examined the seam between the utopian vision of the state and the reality.

Israel is still grappling with the contradictions of a Jewish state. How can the nation remain Jewish and democratic? Oz’s answer was the two-state solution, something he advocated long before it was fashionable, and something he continued to believe in even as it was assailed on both the right and left.

Perhaps Oz represents an increasingly marginalized vision of Israel, one that has had to give way to other voices, but his work is still relevant because the questions he highlighted have not been answered. We can only hope that some future generation, inspired by his work, will one day be able to crack the code and find the way to peace.