The High Road

Israel this week made a decision to prohibit two congresswomen from entering the country on a planned visit. The lawmakers, Ilhan Omar from Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib from Michigan, have been highly critical of Israel, which has a law barring anyone who supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement from entering the country. Israel had previously been willing to allow the trip, but reversed its stance, reportedly at the request of the American administration.

Rarely does anything related to Israel generate consensus, but the decision to keep out the two congresswomen has been criticized by voices from both the mainstream right and left. Most see it as a bad PR move for Israel. While the views of Omar and Tlaib may be anti-Israel and the country, like all others, has the right to determine who may visit, preventing two Muslim lawmakers from visiting just feeds into the perception that Israel violates human rights.

Some have suggested that Israel was in a difficult position, with risks on both sides. Bar them and you risk looking petty and mean; let them in and you look weak as you help critics bash Israel. However, it seems to me the Israeli government took a bad situation and made it worse. I suspect if the congresswomen had made their trip without incident, few, in America at least, would have paid attention. Now, the decision to bar them is all over social and traditional media.

The other mistake is the involvement of the White House. Apparently Israel was going to let Omar and Tlaib visit until the administration encouraged a ban, including Tweets from the president. Israel has managed to get sucked into a domestic political squabble as the president feuds with the congresswomen in an attempt to hold them up as representative of the Democratic Party.

Israel has always prided itself on a nonpartisan relationship with America by avoiding internal US politics; it’s the key to a strong long term partnership. This decision by the current Israeli government has done damage to that relationship. By barring the congresswomen they have given the president a controversy that he can exploit in his bid for re-election. While the prime minister might be happy to help the president, such partisan maneuvering does nothing to strengthen the future of the US-Israel relationship. If the Israeli government is seen as helping the Republicans, why would Democrats want to support Israel?

Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, and the freedoms that come with democracy are often messy. It requires protecting speech you don’t like, and it requires respecting the democratically elected officials of your allies, even if you don’t like them. As we were taught in childhood, it’s usually best, although rarely easy, to take the high road.


A Deepening Partnership

The last two weeks I have written about the Jewish community in Ethiopia, but there is another Jewish community in Africa, with which we at Adath have a strong connection. For the past year we have partnered with the Marom Kampala community, part of the Abayudaya. The link began last summer when one of the leaders of Marom Kampala, Yonatan Katz Lukato, visited our synagogue.

Yonatan explained the history of the Abayudaya and taught us some of their melodies. During the year our Religious School has connected with Uganda via Facebook Live and WhatsApp as students shared our similarities and differences. We learned how the Abayudaya celebrate holidays and lifecycle events, and we have shown them how we do the same.

The partnership culminated in a Friday evening siddur with text in Hebrew, English, and Luganda as well as pictures from both communities, prepared by our Religious School teacher Sharon Brooks. In May, both communities had Kabbalat Shabbat services using the siddur.

This past week Yonatan again visited our community, and this time he was joined by another leader and educator, Zilpah Mundondo. We discussed some of the pressing issues for the Abayudaya and heard a presentation by Cantor Mike Weis about the Cantors Assembly trip to Uganda. The CA, the international association of Conservative cantors, traveled to Uganda to show solidarity with the Abayudaya, lend support, and learn its music.

Coincidentally, one of the cantors who went on the trip was a music specialist this summer at my kids’ camp, Camp Ramah in New England, and taught a Ugandan melody to my son’s age group, which they performed for the whole camp before Shabbat. I was able to show our group a video of the performance, and it was heartening to see this music spread throughout the American Jewish community.

At our meeting this week we also spent some time making bead bracelets and presented some educational books that Adath donated to the Abayudaya, which Yonatan and Zilpah will take with them when they return to Uganda. Next up in our partnership is to create a joint Passover Haggadah, which we hope will be ready for Pesach this year. We are looking forward to another fruitful year of sharing, learning and growth.

Brothers Come Home

Spy stories often present terrible moral dilemmas. The undercover operative has to make a life or death decision or choose between love and country or figure out if the ends justify the means. Israeli spy stories, told in movies like Munich and The Debt, show how difficult it is to serve one’s country and remain an ethical person.

The moral difficulties of these stories arise from the usual premise of clandestine intelligence operations: a government uses deception, violence and other unsavory tactics to further a national objective. Sometimes, however, there is no moral ambiguity and spies are able to accomplish a mission with no dark side.

In Israel, the case of Operation Brothers, which rescued Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s is one such example. Many are aware that Israel flew thousands to the Jewish state in clandestine operations in the 1980s and 1990s, but there is another smaller mission that is dramatized in the new Netflix movie, which I haven’t yet seen, called Red Sea Diving Resort.

During Operation Brothers, the Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence agency, created a diving resort in Sudan that served as a front so that agents could locate Ethiopian Jewish refugees in the Muslim country. This was a real resort with actual tourists. As one of the agents recalled, “Most Mossad operations lose money, but we found ourselves making a small profit.” The operation was able to bring the refugees to the coast where the Israeli Navy extracted them.

As I noted last week, Israel has a complicated history with its Ethiopian population, who suffer discrimination, but there is no denying the heroism of the effort to bring African refugees to the country. As the former agent says, “The feeling is that Sudan was one of our finest hours, the enlistment of an entire defense establishment for a truly altruistic purpose.” How many spy stories can say that?

With a refugee and migrant crisis on our southern border, the story of the Red Sea Diving Resort reminds us that nations can rise to the occasion to save whole populations. Not only can the refugee story be one of kindness and compassion, but of heroism as well. In the 1980s not only did Israel not shut its borders, its best and brightest citizens risked their lives to give others a better life.

Shared Struggle

Cultural conflict is a basic part of all societies as political, economic, ethnic and racial groups are pitted against each other. In America it seems our struggle to get along has only increased in recent years as the rhetoric has heated up. Israel, too, has seen battles between religious and secular and hawks and doves.

The two countries have also both seen a raised awareness of systemic racism, particularly in the treatment by police of communities of color. Last month a young Israeli of Ethiopian descent, Solomon Tekah, was shot by an off-duty police officer who was trying to break up a fight.

Tekah was unarmed but the officer claims he was throwing rocks and that the officer felt his life was threatened. The incident sparked large and often violent protests by some in the Ethiopian-Israeli community who feel that they are disproportionately targeted by the authorities. The officer was arrested and the protests died down when the victim’s family called for quiet during the Shiva period.

Tekah’s death recalls the killings of unarmed black men in America and the protests that have followed, like those in Ferguson, Missouri after the death of Michael Brown. In these cases, both in Israel and America, how you view things might depend on the color of your skin. On one side there are those who feel the police should not be limited in their use of force, but others note that if the victim was white, authorities would probably show a lot more restraint.

While the details of these cases show many similarities, the differences are striking and instructive. America has to deal with the legacy of slavery, while Israel went to great lengths to bring Ethiopian Jews to the country in the 1980s and 90s. However, just because Israel’s government airlifted the Ethiopian community and resettled them, doesn’t mean there is not racism in the society.

The historical context of the black community in each country may be different, but the effects of racism are the same. In minority areas there is poverty, a lack of opportunity, alienation, and a sense of being under siege by the police. Israel and the US have cooperated for years on security and economic issues; it would be great for the two governments to now work together on tackling social issues that plague both nations.

In both countries we need unity in the face of conflict, but more than that our communities of color need increased economic, political and social power so that they can protect themselves and demand (and receive) the proper protection from the authorities. Peace can only come when there is real equality.

A Giant Leap

This Shabbat marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, one of humanity’s great moments of exploration and scientific achievement. There have been many commemorations of this historic event focusing on different aspects – the bravery of the astronauts, the technology that needed to be invented from scratch, the geopolitical forces shaping the space race.

Any recollection of the Apollo program will inevitably highlight President John F. Kennedy’s promise in 1961 “of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” by the end of the 1960s. This moment is often viewed incorrectly as one of inspiration and imagination. The American president challenges his country to work together to achieve a collective mission.

Many lament that America doesn’t do these kinds of things anymore. Our leaders don’t inspire us to think big on a major project. Presidents since JFK have issued challenges, but rarely have they gained the same traction.

The problem is that this nostalgic view of history obscures the reality of the moment. Kennedy’s promise would never have been fulfilled without Congress’s willingness to appropriate massive amounts of money to NASA, and it never would have done that if America’s prestige were not on the line.

Fifty years ago we landed on the moon because of the dream of exploration, yes, but also because we needed to do it before the Soviet Union. The Cold War drove NASA’s budget and the allocation of resources. President Kennedy’s challenge needs to be understood in the context of superpower conflict.

Contrary to what we might think, JFK had little interest in space exploration. In fact, he offered Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev the opportunity to work together to get to the moon. When he was rebuffed, he decided to go it alone.

At the time of Kennedy’s challenge, the US was way behind the Soviets in space, so he decided to do something ingenious. Rather than try and catch up to the Soviet Union by beating them to the next incremental milestone, he would change the game itself. If this was a space race, the USSR was winning the sprint, so JFK decided the US would run a marathon instead.

The promise to go to the moon before 1970 was the defining moment in the space race. No longer would the United States have to play catch up. Instead, it could focus on the long term goal of the moon and use its advantages, including greater financial resources, to achieve it.

Kennedy’s brilliant political maneuver is a great lesson for life: if you are foundering and struggling, rather than keep hitting your head against the wall and failing, try changing the game you are playing. Reset the goal to something achievable and significant. It may not be landing on the moon, but it can feel just as satisfying.

Tell Me What You Eat

What makes a food Jewish? The easy answer is any dish that Jews cook, or really, any food that Jews like to eat. Of course, if that is the definition then Chinese cuisine would be a subset of Jewish food. The reality is that it is hard to define what makes a particular food Jewish.

Recently Thrillist published an article on the popularity of Jewish food which focused primarily on Eastern European and Israeli cuisine. There is much more to Jewish food than that, but these segments are the ones that are hot right now. As I read the article I felt that there was something missing, the role of religious life in food.

First, virtually none of the restaurants mentioned in the article are kosher, which I find not only sad, but quite inconvenient. I experienced this difficulty recently in Montreal when I wanted to sample the signature smoked meat sandwich. There are plenty of Jewish restaurants in the city that will serve you the local delicacy, but only one that is kosher, and it is a hole in the wall with no seating.

The new, hip reinvention of Jewish food is based on the nostalgia of a generation of eaters looking for the comforts of bubye’s kitchen. I understand the feeling, but it reminds me of something a teacher of mine in rabbinical school once said, “The Jewish tradition is like an investment account. Those who have little or no connection to their Judaism constantly draw down the principal until there is nothing left.”

Jewish comfort food reminds us of our past and gives us a warm feeling, but when it is disconnected from the tradition then something is missing. So many of the most famous Jewish dishes are connected to ritual and halakha (Jewish law). How many are aware that gefilte fish was created because of the prohibition of sorting on Shabbat? One is not allowed to remove bones from fish on the Sabbath, and a ground fish dish makes the task unnecessary.

Cholent, a meat stew, was developed so that Jews could eat a warm meal on Shabbat afternoon. The pot is prepared on Friday and left on all night so that the dish is hot and tender for lunch the next day. And of course there are the Jewish foods connected to holidays that most people are aware of: latkes fried in oil to represent the oil of the Hanukkah menorah, hamentashen from Purim that recall Haman’s hat (or ears), etc.

Jewish foodways are steeped in the religious tradition of our people. It is certainly possible to remove one from the other. Many of our favorite dishes have become popular among non-Jews who have no idea of their origins, but something is lost in dissemination. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” Our food is our identity, but it’s not enough. The dishes we consume need to lead us on a path of learning that brings us closer to our origins, our community, and our faith.

We are the Jewish People

Each year when my kids go to camp I follow their activities through various communications platforms. Their camp, Camp Ramah in New England, posts pictures each day, has a blog with short updates on various activities and keeps everyone up to date on multiple social media channels. Unlike my parents who had to wait for a letter to know what was happening, I have a pretty full picture of what my kids are doing.

One of the things I love about these updates is that I often am introduced to something new about Judaism or Israel. This summer, as I was reading about my daughter’s tefillot (prayers) one morning, I read that her age group was taught a song by the Israeli pop musician Idan Raichel. Its not part of the traditional liturgy, but fits in with the themes of our prayers.

Helpfully, the camp posted a link to the video of the song on YouTube so I was able to listen to it myself. I discovered that the piece, “Shevet Achim veAchayot”, “A Tribe of Brothers and Sisters” is the Israeli answer to “We are the World”, written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie in 1985 and performed by some of the biggest names in pop music to support famine relief in Africa.

“A Tribe of Brothers and Sisters”, with words by Doron Medalie and music by Raichel, was created by Israel’s Army Radio as a show of unity for Independence Day and is performed by over 30 of the country’s most popular musicians from many different backgrounds. It even includes the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, reciting, rather than singing, the chorus:

This is my home, this is my heart
And I will not leave
Our ancestors, our roots
We are the flowers, the melodies
A tribe of brothers and sisters

The beautiful message of the song, that we are all one people, with one land, is reinforced by the diversity of the singers performing it. In the video, each artist holds their own camera in front of themselves like a selfie, with different Israeli locations in the background.

The name of the song may be familiar, since their is already a beloved folk song called “Hinei Mah Tov” which includes the phrase shevet achim, “a tribe of brothers”, taken from the first line of Psalm 133: “How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together.” Medalie and Raichel update the verse for the 21st century, to include both brothers and sisters.

Given all of the division in Israel and among Jews, between left and right, secular and religious, liberal and Orthodox, Ashkenazi and Sefardi, Israeli and Diaspora, I am glad that Camp Ramah is teaching the important value of unity. We don’t have to agree on ideology or religion, but we can come together to sing a beautiful song.