Teaching Moment

Anti-Semitism came to Mercer County this week in the form of two disturbing incidents. The first was the use of the term “Jew her down” by the president of the Trenton City Council, and the second was the defacing of a Lawrence Township park with a swastika. Both instances remind us, in different ways, of the rise in hate and bigotry in our country.

The comment by Councilwoman Kathy McBride has gained national attention and was swiftly condemned by many state political leaders. Perhaps McBride was unaware of the offensive nature of the phrase, which comes from the malicious stereotype that Jews are stingy and cheap. If she had immediately apologized and acknowledged that she now knows better, the moment would have passed.

Instead she refused to address the issue until she finally apologized a few days later. Unfortunately, other members of the council rose to defend her initial statement, calling the phrase “Jew her down” a “statement of speech” and a “verb”. While we can forgive ignorance and mistakes, we cannot forgive the refusal to learn and do better.

The other council members eventually did apologize as well, and I hope that they have learned that words have meaning. One councilman, Jerell Blakeley, stood up from the start against the anti-Semitic remark and on Wednesday he called a town hall meeting in the Trenton council chamber to allow members of the community to be heard on the subject.

I attended the meeting and spoke, along with members of our local Jewish Community Relations Council and other residents. Rather than denounce and condemn, we came to educate and use the incident as a teaching moment. Hopefully this painful situation will allow the community to think about the words we use and how they may offend others.

The town hall was also attended by the mayor of Lawrence Township, Christopher Bobbitt, who told us about a swastika that was scratched into the ground at Mercer Meadows Park in the display about the AT&T Pole Farm. One of the poles in the antenna array was used to communicate with Tel Aviv and it is that city’s name which was covered with the Nazi graffiti. Mercer County has been notified and hopefully the offensive image will be removed soon.

The rise in anti-Semitism we have seen in the last few years requires our constant vigilance. We must respond and stand up against any instance, but we should also appreciate that there are friends and allies who will stand up with us. If there is one silver lining in these moments, it is the love and solidarity we feel from our neighbors who are willing to call out bigotry when they see it.


You Don’t Make Peace with Friends

The announcement this week that the United States cancelled a scheduled round of peace talks with the Taliban at Camp David shocked many. While it was no secret that America has been negotiating an end to the conflict in Afghanistan, no one knew that there was a plan to meet at the presidential retreat.

Most commentators and politicians, whether they support ending the war or not, were appalled at the idea that a terrorist organization with a terrible record on human and women’s rights, would be invited on to U.S. soil the week we commemorate the attacks on September 11, 2001. It was the Taliban, after all, who sheltered the architects of those attacks, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

Camp David is an iconic place, now synonymous with peace and the possibility of bringing two implacable foes together. 41 years ago President Carter invited Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to the retreat in Maryland to hammer out the final details of peace between the two countries, which ultimately led to a treaty that has held up to this day.

No doubt the current president wished to capture a little of the magic of those bygone days, but the world has since been transformed. When Begin and Sadat argued in mountain cabins in 1978, they did so as the leaders of two sovereign countries. The conflict in Afghanistan, America’s longest war by far, is much more complex, involving U.S. forces, the government of Afghanistan, and the Taliban. How do you negotiate with a terrorist organization that has given shelter again to Al Qaeda and ISIS?

There really are no good solutions to the conflict. America can withdraw and probably watch the Taliban regain control of the country, making it a base for terrorism once again while human rights are abused and women, in particular, suffer. Or America can stay in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, providing some stability but with no real end in sight.

Camp David has a special place in the Jewish People’s heart because of the great value we place on peace. The book of Psalms teaches that we should “seek peace and pursue it” (34:15), a command that Begin took to heart, despite his qualms and hesitations. It’s never easy to sit across from your enemy and make concessions, which are necessary in any negotiation. The thought of bringing the Taliban to the U.S. was certainly unwise, but the push for peace is always welcome. As Shimon Peres is heard to have said “You don’t make peace with friends. You make it with very unsavory enemies.”

The Power of Art

Should popular entertainment challenge us or provide escapism? This is a question we constantly struggle with. Sometimes we want to delve into a story that speaks to the social or political moment, and sometimes we want to turn off the world around us and become immersed in a fun story. The rare creative work can do both at the same time.

When art is used to reflect on the current moment, it often brings up difficult and traumatic emotions. The new HBO series “The Boys”, based on the true story of the murder of a Palestinian teen in 2014, which I have yet to see, has stirred major controversy for its portrayal of terrorism, incitement, and hate crime.

From the Jewish side, on the right, critics charge that the series focuses on the murder of a Palestinian by Jewish Israelis when in fact the opposite is far more common. In fact, the first episode depicts the kidnapping and murder, by Hamas, of three Israeli teenagers, which precipitated the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian teen killed by Israelis, who is the subject of the series.

On the left, critics have charged that “the series glosses over Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians and highlights the earnest hunt for the perpetrators of one Palestinian death when Israeli soldiers have killed many unarmed Palestinians with impunity.” The show seems to have raised the ire of everyone: Israelis, Palestinians, Jews, Arabs, left and right. Prime Minister Netanyahu has called on Israelis to boycott the show.

While I haven’t seen the series, something that can unite everyone in anger is sure to be compelling because of the raw emotions still surrounding the political conflict. This summer I watched “When They See Us”, a show on Netflix that dramatizes the case of the Central Park 5, a group of New York City teenagers who were falsely accused of raping a female jogger in 1989.

The show was harrowing, and often difficult to watch, but that was the point. Sometimes we need art to confront us with pain and anger, begging for a response. The creators of “The Boys” insist that their work is about the nature of a hate crime. Surely in an age of mass shootings and anti-Semitism, we need to explore why and how human beings can do despicable acts of evil.

Both “When They See Us” and “The Boys” are about young men, both innocent and guilty. In a New York Times interview, the creators of the Israeli show note the differences in the title between English, Hebrew, and Arabic. The English title evokes the idea that the kids are “one of us”, while in Hebrew, the title is HaNe’arim, “the youths”, a word often used in the Bible. In Arabic, the series is just “Boys” because in the end the perpetrators and victims are all just boys. As art can remind us, we are all human beings, capable of terrible violence, but also love and redemption.

Universal vs. Particular

American Judaism for close to 400 years has been navigating a position between the universal and the particular. We are a people that has been reviled, attacked, and squeezed into ghettos because of our stubborn adherence to a unique religion and culture. For much of our history that has meant withdrawing inward to focus on communal concerns, but in the United States we have been given the chance to participate fully in a multicultural society.

In America, Jews can remain committed to our ancient tradition, but also engaged with the concerns of the wider society. While in Europe in the early modern period some lived by the motto to “be a Jew in your home and a man outside it”, in this country there was no need to hide your background. Joe Lieberman nearly won the vice-presidency as an Orthodox Jew, and his identity was generally not seen as a hindrance.

Despite the openness to Jews in America, particularly after World War II, there has always been a tension between the universal and particular. Many in the Jewish establishment wish that our community would focus more on the latter than the former. Assimilation has been a major challenge as people chose the “American” over the “Jewish” in their hyphenated identity.

In fundraising there is a constant lament that Jews give more to hospitals and universities than to synagogues and federations. With the freedom we have experienced in America there is the challenge that many of us choose the universal over the particular despite the Talmud’s adage that “all Jews are responsible for one another”.

So it is particularly disturbing when the president of the United States accuses the American Jewish community of disloyalty for their political views. Since the enlightenment, Jews have been sensitive to the idea that we are not completely committed to the state.

It’s important to note, however, that the president was not accusing liberal Jews of being disloyal to the United States, but rather to the Jewish people itself and to Israel. This is the inverse of the old accusation. The president is not worried that American Jews favor their particular needs over the universal values of society, but that they don’t care enough about the narrow interests of their community.

From a nationalist’s perspective, it is foolish and dangerous to prioritize another group’s needs over your own. Why would Jews support the Democratic Party on social and economic policy, when the Republicans are such staunch supporters of Israel? For a nationalist, there is puzzlement that Jews would chose healthcare over Israel.

Of course for the most part, Jews in American have not had to make that choice. The overwhelming position of both parties has been support for Israel. If that changes and anti-Israel sentiment increases in the Democratic Party, Jews will have to choose between the universal and the particular. I, for one, hope that day never comes, not because I prefer one party over the other, but because the great blessing of America is our ability to be proud Americans and proud Jews at home, outside, and especially in the ballot box.

Dancing in the Vineyards

After the tragedy of the  destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem is commemorated on Tisha B’Av, the Jewish calendar shifts into seven weeks of positive thinking. We read seven haftarot of comfort that speak of redemption and return from exile, culminating with Rosh Hashanah. In other words, the season of the High Holy Days has begun.

But what is the connection between Tisha B’Av and the Days of Awe? The destruction of the Temple in Jewish tradition is considered punishment for sin. The crime of the First Temple was idol worship, while the crime of the Second was baseless hatred. These sins are symbolically repaired each year as we look for forgiveness from God on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

While rabbis over the years have looked for theological connections between the low point of the calendar and the high point, there is also a simpler agricultural link. Six days after the sadness of Tisha B’Av comes the happiness of Tu B’Av, a minor holiday of love.

According to the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:8), “Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel said: There were no days of joy in Israel greater than Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur. On these days the daughters of Jerusalem would … come out and dance in the vineyards.” Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur are the happiest days in the calendar and were ones when matches were made, at the instigation of the women who would entice the men.

What is often ignored in this text, in our modern sensibilities, removed as we are from agricultural cycles, is the reference to the location: the vineyards. The reason the women went there was because it was the grape harvest. Tu B’Av marked the beginning and Yom Kippur the end of the harvest. This was wine-making time, one of great joy for the community.

The grape harvest is essential for the Jewish community, which uses wine for kiddush to begin Shabbat and holidays, and for havdalah, which ends them as well. Wine brings gladness if its consumed with moderation.

Vineyards have been an essential part of Israel for millenia, both as places to produce a key crop and as gathering spots for young people to meet and marry. Today in Israel vineyards are critical as well, as Israeli wines continue to improve their reputation for quality.

Israeli wine culture continues to evolve, as companies mature and seek to integrate sustainable practices into their processes. Grape growing can be destructive to the environment because it often removes natural flora and fauna, but some growers are re-introducing biodiversity into their vineyards, which actually leads to better grapes and therefore better wine. And who knows, maybe some matches are made too.

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.