Monday, December 18, 2017

Creating Sacred Spaces: Addressing Sexual Harassment and Assault - Maharat Fruchter & Rabbi Antine

Creating Sacred Spaces: Addressing Sexual Harassment and Assault
Parshat Miketz, Shabbat Chanukah
December 16, 2017

Rabbi Antine:
Maharat Fruchter and I spent a lot of time thinking about whether to discuss the issue of Sexual harassment and assault in the shul and if so how should it be done. While it is a complex discussion and we went back and forth on the particulars, we came to two conclusions: First, that we must speak about it and bring the conversation here. Part of being a Kehila Kedosha (a holy community) means that we provide support and strength for people who are struggling and in pain on an entire range of issues including victims of sexual harassment and assault. We must also be prepared to bring the most challenging conversations into our shul. Second, we have decided to give this sermon together, to model what conversations on this topic can look like between men and women. So I am going to begin the conversation by sitting down and listening to Maharat Fruchter. I will then get back up and offer some words and then she will close with an explanation of what we will do in the breakout sessions.

Maharat Fruchter:
Thank you, Rabbi Antine, for your partnership and support as we explore these difficult issues. I want to begin by telling you about the first broadway show I ever saw---Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor dreamcoat. As a seven year old just opening up to the world of studying Chumash, seeing saga of Yosef HaTzaddik depicted on stage was truly incredible. The colors, music, and costumes were enthralling, but I was struck by the seeming absence of women in the story. Who are the women, aside from the wife of Potifar, in the story of Yosef? If we really pay attention to this week’s parsha, we meet an important player: Yosef’s wife Osnat.

Pharaoh honors Yosef by giving him Osnat, “the daughter of Potiphera, priest from the city of On” as his wife (Gen 41:45). Ultimately, she becomes the mother of Menashe and Efraim. Chazal are puzzled by Osnat’s origins and her name. Who is this seemingly foreign addition to the family, Osnat Bat Potifera?

One approach from the Midrash is that Osnat is actually Dinah’s daughter, conceived after the rape of Dinah by Shechem. After her birth, her family was so ashamed of her origins, that according to one tradition, Yaakov deserts her. Midrash Talpiyot teaches he places a golden plate around her neck to indicate that she is the product of a shameful rape, and the name “Osnat,” comes from the word “Sneh”, or shrubbery, that Yaakov leaves her in. She is found later by the house of Potifar, lying between the thorns in the bush and is ultimately raised there. Another approach? That she is named “Osnat” on account of the “Ason,” the disaster, that occurs in Shechem on account of Dinah’s rape.

You may wonder about the disturbing idea that Yaakov could desert his own granddaughter. Until not long ago, however, women were actually encouraged to give up their children conceived through rape for adoption so they wouldn’t have to deal with the stigma and shame. In Andrew Solomon’s book, Far From the Tree, a book of stories of parents who deal with having exceptional children, he discusses the example of women who conceive through rape. Those who choose to keep their children often face stigma and disgrace. Furthermore, they have to constantly struggle to engage with these children without blaming them for the trauma that happened to them. One woman promises that she loves her child, but “when she touches me, it feels like hundreds of razor blades scraping across my skin, like I'm going to die.”

In some ways, Osnat perhaps represents what it feels like to carry around a sexual assault with you, like a golden plate around your neck, for your whole life--and beyond. Understanding that there is a huge spectrum of harassment and assault--ranging from inappropriate comments to physical assault, I believe it is safe to say that just about the entire women’s section today is carrying some Osnat with them at all times. Walking around as a woman in this world means always being aware of that identity. We learn to “be nice” in the face of inappropriate comments, to shrug off lewd catcalls or withstand unwanted touch that can make you shudder. We learn how to walk home at night alone looking over your shoulder, even if there is no immediate threat of danger.

I have many stories that lead to my identity as an Osnat. I’d like to share one of them with you today. To be totally honest, I hesitated greatly to share. The reasons I hesitated sheds light on why victims in general are afraid to share their stories. First, I worry about the shame that I’ll carry in the revealing of the story. Many women report shame just in sharing. Just like Dinah. Just like Osnat. Second, I know that when women speak up about these issues, they can easily be viewed, by both men and women, as one of these many lovely qualities: cold, “asking for it”, politically motivated, need to get over it, or too sensitive. But I will share. Not because my story is unique, but because it is not. To assume that people are making these stories up is painful and incorrect. And because unless it happens to someone you know or to you, you can’t imagine what it really is.

It was some years ago, on the way home from a friend’s wedding. The wedding was your typical wedding, from the shmorg all the way to the sheva brachos at the end, with spirited dancing and a glowing chattan and kallah. After a long and beautiful evening, I hitched a ride with a friend and her husband. She was the driver, and another friend of ours sat in the front. In the back was the couple’s baby, the husband of the driver, and me. In the middle of the trip, black velvet kippah on his head and wedding ring on his hand, he assaulted me. As the car continued to drive and he didn’t stop, and the baby continued to scream, there was nothing I could do, I sat there, unable to move. I toyed with opening the car door at a red light. I played with opening the car door at 15 miles per hour and rolling out, braving the injury that would ensue. I wished I could scream like the baby was screaming, but as his wife sat chatting with a friend about the front seat about the wonderful chasuna, and he had me locked in and silenced, the best I could do was just imagine that I was the one screaming, not the baby.

Being a victim of sexual violence can change you forever. Andrew Solomon quotes Marina James, another rape victim, who says she related to veterans returning from Iraq. "They've seen horrific things that they could never express. They come home and they don't know how to use their bodies; they're different. Nobody understands and they return to a community that has all these expectations that no longer make sense. That is exactly how I feel,” says James.

So, yes it can change you.

But I can’t help to to be reminded of another baby who is deserted and encounters a “Sneh”--Moshe Rabbenu, who while he started in the darkest, loneliest place, ultimately encounters God at a burning bush and becomes the shepherd of the Jewish people. My deep hope is that victims can emerge from the thorns in the way that is most healing for them. Whether by telling their story, finding deep and nurturing support, or by advocating for others, may we always find the presence of God burning brightly from the place we felt first deserted or silenced. Though we reject the trauma and try to prevent it, when it happens, may it be transformed into spiritual grit, and into our ability to radiate the Divine.

My hope is that for those of us who have gone through some version of this story, your stories are welcome here, in this shul.  I want to communicate that we want to have this conversation and it belongs here just as much as anywhere else. While the halachot around sexual boundaries and touch (yichud and negiyah) are absolutely not a silver bullet that will solve sexual violence (since it is primarily about an abuse of power), they acknowledge that we are human and can give into abuses of power. They are amazing tools within which we can have a conversation around boundaries openly. Furthermore, In a halachic culture that cares so much about the boundaries around touch, it only makes sense that our language should reflect the way we relate to those boundaries.

Finally, this is only the beginning of a conversation.  I know that these issues are complex, and my deep hope is that anyone who wants to ask hard questions can feel like they can. Therefore, we are providing the types of spaces that can model what asking hard questions in a patient, gentle, and curious way can look like.

Rabbi Antine and I have thought very deeply and for many hours about this Shabbat morning. While it is just the beginning of a much longer conversation, I look forward to being in partnership with my holy community in thinking about these issues.

Rabbi Antine:
Maharat Fruchter: Thank you for your courage in sharing those words. You have opened up our hearts, souls and minds to really think about these difficult and painful issues. I would like to respond with 3 brief points:The first is something that I have come to learn over the last month or so in conversations with Maharat Fruchter, with my wife Sarah, and with other female relatives and friends. I am speaking for myself but I am sure this will resonate with many other men.

I always understood the terrible nature of sexual assault and the permanent scars and trauma it could leave on its victims. But I think that when it comes to inappropriate comments and what might be called borderline cases of sexual harassment, I did not understand the enormity of its impact. This is because, I, as a man, have never in my life been afraid while walking to my car at night. I have never tried to figure out how fast the man behind me is walking and what are his intentions and if something happens what is my exit strategy. But for women, especially if they have been victims (but even if not), this is a major part of their existence. A catcall or even an inappropriate comment can trigger deep fear. A lewd joke can make her question someone's intentions and whether she is safe. In addition, every time, we as men, make inappropriate comments about and towards women we are diminishing their Tzelem Elokim (their Godliness). Instead of encountering women as human being whom we should learn from and share ideas with, we are objectifying them. This is point #1.

The second point is that when we think about all of the accusations and those forced to resign, it could seem like it is "out there." It is out in Media, in Hollywood and in Politics. Well I am here to say that the issue is also "in here." It is in our larger Jewish community and it is even in our shul community. In the last few weeks, I have heard from women who have experienced inappropriate words and touching in our shul. This should never happen. How could it happen in a kehillah kedosha. It is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. I know sometimes men feel like they have to make a joke or a comment but please remember that you don't have to be the funniest guy in the room. Please err on the side of boundaries, respect, and dignity. Inappropriate comments and touch will not be tolerated in our shul.

The final point is directed to Maharat Fruchter. I am so sorry you lost your voice in the back of that car on the way home from that wedding. But I’m so glad that you found it today. I am so glad that you have found your voice in so many ways and are are a spiritual leader of this shul. Thank you for your courage.  It was so important for all of us to hear because your story is the story of so many victims.

You spoke before about Osnat. The Medrash tells us the "rest of the story." After Osnat suffered so much, after she was kicked out of her house and adopted by the Potiphars, she was present at another case of sexual abuse. She was there when Yosef was sexually harassed (quid pro quo) by Potiphar’s wife. When Potiphar was about to kill Yosef, she spoke up.  She protected the victim. I know that so many Osnats have been completely silenced. I pray that everyone here (on both sides of the mechitzah) regain their voices. We need our voices to protect ourselves and to protect others who might suffer in the future. We need our collective voice to strengthen our Kehillah Kedoshah.

Maharat Fruchter:
Thank you, Rabbi Antine, for starting this process while modeling what an engaging, supportive communal and professional relationship looks like. After Kiddush, there will be three breakout sessions. Please proceed to to either the men’s group, the women’s group, or the JCADA information session. Each session will be facilitated by a mental health professional. Shabbat Shalom and please rise for Kiddush.

Resources from JCADA
What is sexual harassment?
- Uninvited or unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature, or requests for sexual favors,
especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate (such as an employee or student).
- Sexual harassment can be physical, verbal, or non-verbal
Unwelcome: sexual conduct is unwelcome whenever the person subjected to it considers it unwelcome.

Sexual harassment includes many things:
- Inappropriate touching, invasion of privacy (leaning over, cornering)
- Obscene gestures/jokes/comments/sexual looks/whistling
- Unwelcomed phone calls, texts, emails
- Pressure for sexual favors
- Pressure for dates
- Turning work discussions into sexual topics
- Personal questions about social or sexual life

- When an employment decision, such as a promotion or assignment, is dependent upon submission to the sexual harassment
- When a work environment feels intimidating, hostile, or offensive and unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance

Montgomery County Victim Assistance and Sexual Assault Program (VASAP)
24 hour crisis line: (240)777-HELP (4357)
Main Phone: (240)777-1355
Montgomery County Commission for Women
Counseling and Career Center
JCADA Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse
(301)315-8041 – confidential helpline
(301)315-8040 – Main office line

Sunday, October 1, 2017

“How a Bike Thief taught me about Yom Kippur and Life” - Yom Kippur 5778

About a month ago, Sarah and I were on a bike ride. We stopped at a coffee shop in Rockville Town Center. Sarah went in and I was outside with the unlocked bikes about 4 feet from me. I was of course glued to my phone and not really watching the bikes. All of the sudden, I hear someone yelling, “that guy stole your bike.” I look up and sure enough, someone had hopped on Sarah’s bike and was riding away. I started running after him and I started screaming at the top of my lungs, “Bike thief….that guy stole my bike…”. A crowd starting converging. I was catching up because there were a lot of pedestrians so the thief couldn't go so fast. I am screaming “Bike Thief, Bike Thief” and I am getting more and more upset at this guy. I am so angry. By nature, I am not prone to violence but I have to admit that in that moment I was thinking “If I catch this guy, I am going to pummel him.” I was so angry.
And then I am like 10 feet behind him still screaming and he has nowhere to go. So he stops the bike and gets off and begins to walk away. But before he walked away, I caught a glimpse of his face. And everything changed for me in that moment. I went from being so angry and mad to feeling nothing but compassion. Because when I saw his face, this is what I saw. First, he was no more than 20 years old. He was just a kid. Second, I saw his tattered clothes. Third, something was off. He looked high. He was probably an addict. Maybe homeless.
He was such a nebuch...he couldn’t even successfully steal a bike. I remember feeling like I should run after him and give him the bike! (remember it was sarah’s bike, not mine!).

In that moment I understand a Midrash that I have heard many times.
The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah Parshah 29) tells us that on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur as we daven, blow shofar, klap al chet, we are really asking G-d for one request.  We are asking G-d to be עומד מכסא הדין ויושב בכסא רחמים - “to get up from the throne of Justice and sit in the throne of mercy”.

When I saw my bike thief’s face, I had a visceral understanding of what it means to leave the chair of justice (or judgement or anger) and sit down on the throne of compassion, mercy, and understanding. I saw the thief’s face and we want G-d to see our faces. To see our “tattered clothes,” our struggles and challenges.

The sin of the Golden Calf (and subsequent forgiveness) is the central story of Yom Kippur. G-d had said (2’nd commandment) that if the people worship other gods, the punishment would be death. When we sinned, G-d initial response was to threaten death and destruction. Moshe intercedes and G-d decides instead to treat us with compassion. This is when we are taught to sing G-d’s 13 Attributes of Mercy (Hashem, Hashem, Kel Rachum V’chanun) which we do so many times over Yom Kippur.
What is the difference between Din (Justice) and Rachamim (compassion)?
Din is only concerned with the facts. Rachamim is concerned with the context behind the facts.
Din says, “that guy stole your bike. He deserves to be punished.” Rachamim looks at his face and struggles. Din only sees that the Jewish people worshiped a Golden Calf. Rachamim knows that we were still a slave people. We had just gone through very difficult periods of hunger and thirst in the desert.
So which one wins out? Din or Rachamim? Well if you look in the Talmud (the book of laws and justice), G-d is referred to not as “Dayan” (the judge) but as “Rachmana” (the compassionate one).
Of course there is a place for Din. Without it, there would be chaos. But it is confined to the Beit Din (the court). It is put in a building (bayit) and in a legal structure. Everything else, the way we are supposed to deal with friends, family and others is through Rachamim (compassion/mercy).

But there is a big problem with all of this. We are full of Chutzpah. How can we have the chutzpah to ask Hashem to get off the throne of justice and sit down on the throne of compassion if we don’t do that in our life? How hypocritical are we? Which throne do you usually find yourself sitting in?

When your waiter accidentally messes up your order, which throne are you on (justice or compassion)? When there is a tense moment at work and you feel an employee or co-worker did something wrong and it hurt you, which throne are you on? When a friend should have been present for you when you were struggling, but for whatever reason did not show up, which throne are you on? When family members do things that infuriate us, which throne are we on?

The crazy thing is that it should be easier for us to do this - get off the throne of justice and sit on the throne of mercy - than it is for G-d. This is because G-d never messes up. But for us to shift to the throne of mercy is just acting in our own self interest because we know that we are always messing up. We arent perfect friends, co-workers, children, parents etc etc and when we mess up, we want to be forgiven.

The Talmud has a beautiful term for what I am talking about. It is not really about forgiving after the fact. It is about cutting people more slack to begin with. The talmud calls this מעביר על מדותיו (Ma’avir Al Midosav). Midah means the measure. As in measure for measure. Someone harmed us, he or she deserves this punishment or consequence. But Ma’avir al midosav means that I let it pass. While it's happening I understand the context and after the fact I forgive.

If we want G-d to shift to the throne of compassion and mercy, we must make that shift as well.

Practical Tip - Every Night we are supposed to say the bedtime shema before going to sleep. There is a beautiful little declaration that we make before the shema.

This is what it says:
“Master of the universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me, whether against my body, my property, my honor, or against anything of mine, whether he did it accidentally, willfully, carelessly, or purposely, whether through speech or deed  – No man should be punished (by Heaven) because of me.”
If you say this every night, it will change you. It will help you spend a lot more time on the throne of compassion.

I would like to conclude with a famous story that I just heard on Krista Tippet’s show “On Being.” She was interviewing John Lewis, the congressman and famous civil rights icon. It was a Sunday in March 1965 and Lewis was leading the Selma - Montgomery March for Voting Rights. When they reached the Edmund Pettis bridge (which was very tall) they could not see the other side. When they got to the midpoint, they saw a sea of white Alabama state troopers with batons on the other side. They continued walking. When they got to the of the bridge they were warned to disperse. They stood there. I encourage you to go online and watch the footage. At this point they are just attacked by a mob of state troopers who started beating them mercilessly. John Lewis suffered a concussion and together with 40 others was hospitalized. This has become known as “bloody sunday.”
Krista Tippet asked John Lewis if he forgave the white trooper who struck him in the head. Lewis said that he forgave him. But the amazing thing is that he didn’t only forgive him years later. Rather, while he was being hit, he was forgiving. Here’s what Lewis said at another point in the interview: “The attitude was you can arrest me, take me to jail, almost kill me, but in spite of that, I'm going to still love you.” How? That man who hit him was an innocent child at one time. What kind of poisonous lessons was he taught that would lead him to do this. What kind of struggle is he going through in his own life to make him violent?
While John Lewis is exemplifying what I would call Heroic Forgiveness, what I am talking about here is becoming someone who is more forgiving. To live more on the throne of mercy.
What is crazy is that John Lewis seemed to be less upset at the man who gave him a concussion than I sometimes get at people in my own life who make mistakes.

So when I think back to the bike thief, I am actually grateful that the bike was almost stolen. (remember it was Sarah’s bike!!). That bike thief taught me a very important lesson. He taught me to look in the face of those who “hurt” me; to see their “tattered cloths,” struggles and challenges. He taught me to spend a little less time on the throne of Justice and a little more time on the throne of compassion.

Let’s all try to shift to the throne of compassion and in that merit may Hashem treat us only with compassion and seal us in the Book of Life for a year of Health, well-being and a year in which our deepest prayers are answered.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

“What is on your bucketlist? On living a mission-driven life” Rosh Hashana 5778

“What is on your bucketlist? On living a mission-driven life”
Rosh Hashana 5778 - Rabbi Nissan Antine

I am going to open by sharing something which might be a little too personal. Here goes: I think I am having an early midlife crisis. (At least, I hope it is early as I am only 38!). There are no fancy red sport cars in my dreams….I just cannot stop thinking about these crazy long bike trips that I want to take. I want to bike across the country, through europe, see all of the National Parks. Lately, the first section in the newspaper that I read is the Travel Section. (I know it is pretty pathetic!). Now all of these dreams are not happening anytime soon. It take months to bike across the country and I have a family and a job, so it's not really realistic. So I keep telling myself, I will put it on my bucketlist. My bucketlist keeps growing.

The other day, as I was reviewing my mental bucketlist, I realized that there was something very wrong with it, even shameful. I discovered this as I was reviewing the Rosh Hashana davening. In the section discussing the theme of G-d judging us today, we say that G-d looks at “Maaseh Ish, Upekudaso.” What does this mean? Ma’aseh Ish is easy to translate. It means our actions or deeds. But what does Pekudaso mean? It is a strange word which most commentaries say is related to the word, Tafkid - your purpose or mission. In other words, on Rosh Hashana, G-d looks at two columns. On one side, we have all of our actions. How do we spend our time. What have we done and what do we want to do? What is on our bucketlists!?
And then G-d looks at the other side. What is our unique mission in this world. What is it that only you (or I) can accomplish that nobody else in the world can do? We always think that others will step up. But nobody else can be your child’s father or mother. Nobody else can be there for that friend who is going through something and only you will be in position to understand how to help. Nobody else can take your unique G-d given talents and situation in life and do those things that only you can do.
So I looked at my bucketlist. Nothing terribly wrong. But does anything on my long bucketlist have anything to do with my Tafkid - my mission and purpose for being here?
We need to look at our lives. We try our best to keep kosher, shabbat and be nice etc etc. Our Maaseh Ish (our actions) are pretty good when weighed alone. But then we should ask, are we doing what we can to fulfill our mission?

Many of you work in companies or organizations and have spent hours and hours crafting your employer's mission statement, 5 year plan and yearly goals. I bet that I could wake you up in the middle of the night and you could rattle off your employer’s one line mission statement.
But how many people here in this room, if I would wake you up in the middle of the night, could give me your one liner? The reason why you exist, why you are here, your purpose and mission.

The question of our “mission” is very important especially on Rosh Hashana. We have this idea that the world was created and it will just go on and on. We think that we have been created and we will just go on and on and until we get old and die.
But the Slonimer Rebbe (Nesivos Shalom - Rosh Hashana 1:3), in explaining why Judgement Day occurs on the anniversary of creation, explains as follows. When G-d created the world, it was just a one year lease. If the world does not fulfill its mission, it will not get another year. We (humans) are also created with one year leases. Here is the scary thought. Every year, G-d judges and decides is we are living up to our mission (or maybe have already fulfilled our mission). If we are not fulfilling our mission, we are not given another year.

But this leads us to the next question. How do we know what our unique mission is? It is not as if we are born with a little note attached to our toe with a “mission statement” on it. So where do we find it?

Well, I cannot think of a definition of practicing judaism, that does not include turning to Torah study as a means to figure out our mission, our 5 year plan and yearly goals. One of the best ways to do this is look at the Torah reading on any given day. One of my deep beliefs (אני מאמין) is that I can turn to the Torah portion of the week and find guidance for my life.

So if we turn to the Rosh Hashana readings, we find Avraham and Sarah and Chanah struggling with their tests. Avraham had 10. The Slonimer Rebbe teaches us that every person has their own 10 tests and when we struggle with them we are fulfilling our life’s mission. You see, even if it is hard for us to know our mission, there is one being that knows exactly what our mission is. It is the Yetzer Hara (our inclination to do bad). So it creates difficulties and challenges (10 tests) in fulfilling our mission. So even though we don’t know exactly what our mission is, it usually has something to do precisely with those areas of life that are the most difficult. Precisely when we want to run away, that is the place we need to go to in order to fulfill our mission.
When we hear the shofar in a few minutes, let us all think about those challenging places and commit to work on them because that just might be our mission in life.

But I want us to also think about mission in a more expansive way than the individual. Our shul as a community also has a mission or a tafkid. Please think about your role in that overall mission. Do we do enough to support our community members in times of difficulty and times of celebration. Do we do enough to welcome newcomers and share the gifts of our community with others?

One final important question about community mission. A shul is many things but it is nothing if it is not a davening community. Do you do enough to support minyan during the week? Everyone expects the community to be there with a minyan when they are in their year of mourning. The question is do we support it before and after that year. Coming to daily minyan also gives us a wonderful opportunity to review our mission and make sure that our actions are corresponding to our life’s mission.

I want to conclude by reading a letter from Udi,  a 17 year old Israeli boy, to his friend. Udi wrote the letter from his hospital room just weeks before he died from cancer. (The letter comes from Rabbi Yechiel Spero's amazing book, "Touched by a Story - 2)

A week ago, our teacher came to visit me. Pretty nice of him. I felt terrible for all of the pranks we used to play on him. I really wanted to ask him for mechilah (forgiveness) but i just didnt have the courage. I figured I would ask him before Rosh Hashana but who knows if I will live until then. He brought me a box of chocolates. I tried some but the taste was awful. Everything i eat tastes like metal.

I thought about Arik. Remember him? He was the sweet kid from America with whom we used to joke around. He kind of disappeared about 5 years ago. I wish I could apologize to him for teasing him so.

But what I regret most is the way I have treated my little sister Michal. As you know she is my only sister. She always wanted to play with me or have me read her a book. But I never could. I was always too busy. I always had something more important to do. What I would give to sit next to her and hold her hand and read her a story, or even to just play with her. How I wish I could be at her Bat Mitzvah. …

I think about the way I have treated my parents. I always felt they were old fashioned. Just thinking about the way I have acted to them makes me feel so sad. They look as though they have aged 10 years in  the last three months.

But the truth is that I am not afraid to die. I know that i will be going to a better world, a better place. But I have one regret. I just wish I could have done more. I wish I had had a better relationship with my parents, my sister, my friends, my teachers. Wish Hashem.

I haven't gone to shul in a long time. When i was healthy I never got out of bed early in the morning, but yesterday as I put on my Tefilin I thought to myself: What would I give to answer an Amen, to say kedushah, to hear a leining, to be with a tzibbur (minyan)....

I wish I could visit the Kotel one last time and kiss the stones and pour out my heart to Hashem. I wish I could run my hand over those rocks and caress them one last time. How I desire to put one last Kvitel (letter) in the cracks of those ancient stones and feel the warmth of their embrace.

I am really thankful for everything I have been blessed with. I just wish I could have more time - more time to appreciate Hashem’s world - the smell of His flowers, the sounds of his birds chirping, the breathtaking beauty of His skyline, the music of His creation. I only I had one more year, one more month, even one more week. But, I don’t.

I don’t have much more strength left but I want to ask you for one last favor. Promise me that you will take my words to heart. Promise me that you will spead them to others.

I am sorry that my words are smudged. It is my tears that are soaking the paper. But I am not ashamed of them. I am ready to accept what Hashem has decreed. I just wish I had more time to accomplish, more time to do.

I will miss you.
Your friend forever, Udi.

This letter is so hard to read. It is a 17 year old boy feeling pain because he desperately wants more time to fulfill his missions in life, his Tafkid.

Friends, we are also praying and hoping that we have more time. Let us commit to use the weeks, months, and years - that Hashem gives us - to fulfill our Mission and purpose in life.

And if we dig deep into our souls and make that commitment, may G-d give us all of the blessings we will need to work on our Tafkid. May Hashem grant us a year of health, livelihood, and answer all of our deepest prayers.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Jews and Muslims Unite against Hate! A Kiddush Hashem (Sanctification of G-d's name)

Over the last two weeks, three Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized (St. Louis, Philadelphia and then Rochester). In addition to the vandalized cemeteries, we have also been witnessing bomb threats at JCC’s and Jewish schools around the country including at our very own Bender JCC in Rockville and at the CESJDS. These events are very distressing and they must stop.

At the same time, we have seen unprecedented gestures of support from those outside of the Jewish community. Now that I am on facebook,  I have learned about all of these amazing things!  Last week, a crowd-funding campaign was started by two American Muslims to raise money to restore the vandalized cemeteries and provide funds for targeted Jewish organizations. The Campaign raised more than $150,000. One of the organizers of the campaign, Tarek El Messidi of Philadelphia, was planning on going out of town on Sunday night. When he heard that a second Jewish cemetery was vandalized on Sunday in Philadelphia, he cancelled his trip so that he could help mobilize the Muslim community to support the clean up!

Finally, there is a new campaign made of Muslim US Army veterans who are volunteering to stand guard outside synagogues, JCC’s and cemeteries. I literally saw posts from Muslims saying “my name is ________. I am a Muslim American Army Veteran living in _______. If your Jewish Organization needs protection, please contact me.”

But, I also learned (from Facebook of course!) that some in the Jewish community are not so excited about these gestures of generosity coming from the Muslim community. People are questioning motives and wondering if this will legitimize and normalize positions on Israel (including BDS) which are held by some of the Muslim do-gooders. I have been thinking that one of the saddest outcomes of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is that when someone offers the Jewish community a gesture of love and support, instead of accepting it and saying “Thank You,” we feel like we have to immediately ask, “what is the their angle?” Why are they doing this? Is it good or bad for the Jews and Israel?”

Please don’t misunderstand me. I understand the questions. Support for the State of Israel is very important and BDS is a very dangerous movement. It just saddens me that we are so traumatized that we cannot just be a normal recipient of a gesture of support and just say thank you.
So does our Tradition have anything to say about this issue? What should we do when people, with whom we strongly disagree on Israel, offer to help us here with our cemeteries and JCC’s?
The Shulchan Aruch (16th century code of Jewish Law) has a very strong statement that would seem to oppose not only taking money or support from pro-BDS Muslims but from any non-jew.
אסור לישראל ליטול צדקה מן העובד כוכבים בפרהסיא (יורה דעה  רנ"ד)
“It is forbidden for a Jew to take charity from a non-jew in Public.” (Yoreh Deah #254)
This is pretty explicit but don’t worry! There are many rabbinic workarounds, so if you can find someone who is not jewish to retire our shul’s mortgage, we will accept the donation!
Why would the Shulchan Aruch forbid us from taking money from Non-Jews?
Rashi explains (on the gemara which is the source of this halacha) that it is a Chilul Hashem (a desecration of G-d’s name).
Why would it possibly be a Chilul Hashem to accept charity from non-jews?
Rabbi Mordechai Yoffie (author of 16th century halachic work called, “Levush”), offers a fascinating insight as why it would be a Chilul Hashem to accept charity from non-jews.
אומרים, אין אומה זו יכול לפרנס את ענייה (this is from memory, I still need to find exact quote – NA)

People will say that this nation (the Jews) cannot or will not take care of their own poor. This is why it is a Chilul Hashem. Could you imagine if we had security concerns at our Beth Sholom cemetery and then Muslim or Christians seeing that we were not taking care of it, volunteered to stand guard. It would be a Chilul Hashem.
Could you imagine if we couldn’t find enough volunteers to do Bikur Cholim or support our schools and shuls and Muslims volunteered and offered funds to support our needs. Could you imagine if holocaust survivors in our community were in need (they are) and Muslims seeing that we were not taking care of our own, raised money for them, this would also be a chilul Hashem.
This is the basic halacha and I think it still makes sense today unless we make the following shift which I will demonstrate from another amazing story that I heard about on Facebook!

Two weeks ago a mosque in Tampa was greatly damaged after an arson attack. Adil Kareem (a muslim member of the mosque) set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to repair the mosque. He raised nearly $60,000 in a week but realized that many of the donations were coming in at $18 and $36. This was certainly strange! He then looked at the names which were, Schwartz and Levine and Goldberg….
He then learned that Jews give in increments of Chai – 18. He was blown away, He reported this on facebook and concluded his post with #chaidelivered!
This is the answer to the the Shulchan Aruch’s prohibition of receiving money from non-jews. It assumes a society in which each faith community would only think about supporting itself. If the Jews need Muslims or Christians to help it is a Chilul Hashem as it demonstrates that we cannot or are unwilling to take care of our own. If, however, we are supporting torched mosques and Muslims are donating to our JCC’s and cemeteries, it is not a Chilul Hashem. It is the greatest Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name)! We are showing that we are united against Hate and ready to embrace the Tzelem Elokim (image of G-d) in all of us!

To be sure, we each have and should have our own parochial and religious specific needs. We should of course do everything to affirm our uniqueness in a world where sometimes everything seems to be just one big melting pot. But, where we can come together against hate and show love and support for each other, this is beautiful! This is a Kiddush Hashem. I pray that we can continue to find ways to strengthen these bonds and begin a much needed process of healing the rifts between the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Refugees, Immigrants, and the Path of Avraham

This past week, Maharat Fruchter did something amazing and inspiring. She wanted to bring some love into a world that seems to be so full of hate so she contacted a refugee social service agency to find out if she could help. Within a few hours, they asked her if she would be willing to host an asylee family (mom and 5 year old daughter from Tanzania). The Maharat agreed and by that night, she had a family, whom she had never met, living in her house.

I had a chance to meet them on Monday night when they came to my house for dinner. My kids played with the 5 year old. I talked to the mom who is a very religious Christian and knew her bible, chapter and verse, a lot better than me!

I have been thinking about what the Maharat did all week. At first, I thought it was because I was so inspired. But then I realized that there was another emotion. I felt guilty. After all, I have a pretty large home. I have a finished basement with a bedroom and I have never thought to invite a refugee family in.

How many times have I read holocaust stories in which a Righteous Gentile risks his or her own safety to saveJjews and protect them through the war. I always ask myself, “If I would have been a non-Jewish Pole during the Shoah, would I have risked my life to save a Jew? Would I invite them into my home?” I know I wouldn’t have been a Nazi or even one of those anti-semitic Poles who once the Nazi’s started the job, kicked the Jews when we were down. But would I have had the courage and concern to save a Jew?” I have always hoped the answer is yes. But now that I see what Maharat Fruchter has done and recognize my inaction, I am actually worried that I would have not been one of the Righteous Gentiles. And therefore I feel guilty.

This feeling of guilt makes me think of all of the excuses.
  1. I want to help but it is not the right time. I have so many things going on in life and my family to take care of that I cannot possibly do something like this.
  2. Security. How do I know if I will be safe bringing in a refugee. Maybe the vetting will be insufficient. Will I be putting my family at risk?
  3. Priorities in Giving - Even if I am able to do this, shouldn’t I reserve all of my chesed and charity for Jews before helping out non-Jews?

So I thought of these excuses as I read about Avraham in this morning’s parshah. The Parshah begins with Avraham at the door of his tent (פתח האהל). Rashi says he was at the door “to see if there are passersby to welcome them into his home.”

Now if it ever was “not the right time” for hospitality, this was it. Avraham was a 99 year old man who just had a circumcision. It was on the third day when according to the text, the pain is the most acute. Yet, Avraham is at the door looking to bring strangers in.

He sees three men. Who were they? They were not three Yiddin (Jews) with payos (sidecurls)! We know they were angels but Avraham thought they were Arab Idolaters (see Rashi verse 4). He brings them in without any vetting and literally no way to protect himself. To appreciate this point, let us consider another Biblical incident that happened on the third day post circumcision. Shechem had kidnapped Dinah. So Dinah’s brothers, Shimon and Levi devise a scheme where all of the people of Shechem are circumcised. Then, on the third day when the people are defenseless they go in and slaughter them.
In our story, Avraham and all of the men of his house have just been circumcised. They are literally defenseless. Yet Avraham brings in these three Arab Idolaters without any vetting or security check.

Now, I am not recommending that you do this at home! I am also not talking about governmental policies but about personal responsibility. I am asking us to challenge ourselves. When we say, “it is not the right time,” was it the “right time” for Avraham? When we say that we want to help but there are security concerns, was Avraham worried about this? When we say we want to help refugees or homeless or any other non-explicitly Jewish cause, but are priorities are to give to Jews first, did Avraham say this?

In our parshah, we have a foil for Avraham. It is not a person but a city - Sodom. G-d wants to destroy Sodom. What did they do that was so terrible?

There is a Mishnah (Avot Chapter 5) that talks about different kinds of people:
  1. One who says, What is Yours is Mine but what is Mine is still mine. This person is evil.
  2. One who says, What is Mine is Yours and Yours is yours. This person is pious.

But then there is a third kind of person.  This person isn’t pious but isn’t evil. He says, “Look, your stuff is yours but my stuff is mine. I will not steal from you (I am not evil) but I am not going to go out of my way to help you.
He isn’t the Nazi or even the Pole who took advantage of the Jews when they were down, but he also isn’t the Righteous Gentile willing to put himself out. He says, “I don’t like what is happening to the Jews, but this isn't “the right time.” I have to take care of myself and my family. There could also be concerns for my safety. And besides, if I was able to help, I would help a fellow Christian Pole who needs help right now. I am not going to help a Jew.
Well what is this guy like? He isn’t pious but also not evil. What is he?
Two opinions in the Mishna
  1. He is an average guy
  2. This is Sodomite Behavior

What?! This is Sodomite behavior. Just because I am not Avraham or a Righteous Gentile, I deserve to be destroyed?

Well I saw an insightful interpretation from Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel. Rabbi Amiel was an Eastern European Rabbi (from Telz and Vilna) who became one of the first to join the Mizrachi (Religious Zionist) Movement. He made Aliyah in 1936 and became the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. He was one of the architects of infusing the new state with Jewish values.

Back to our Mishna. Rabbi Amiel explains that the two opinions are not really arguing. The first opinion, (that someone who says “what is yours is yours and what is mine is mine,” is average) is referring to an individual. Just because he or she is not Avraham, they are not so bad. They are average.
The second opinion, (that classifies that behavior as Sodom) is referring to a society. Individuals might have excuses. It might not be the right time or they might be scared. But a society that has this approach, is evil. It is Sodom.
The Artscroll Chumash has a comment on the sin of Sodom that literally made me jump out of my seat! I hope it doesn’t get removed in the next edition!
“Sodom was a rich and fertile region and, as such, it was a magnet for people seeking to make their fortune...But the Sodomites wanted to maintain their own prosperity and not be encumbered by a flood of poor immigrants….To discourage undesirable newcomers...the Sodomites institutionalized state cruelty, so that it became a crime to feed a starving person…” - - Artscroll Stone Chumash page 81

Sodom was evil because they punished their own citizens who wanted to be like Avraham. They were not going to oppress the poor immigrants they just punished those who tried to help them.

Back to Rabbi Amiel - Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. He died before the establishment of the State but the values he taught became part of Israel. If there ever was a state who could argue “this isn’t a good time,” (that it has to worry about its own troubles), it would be Israel. If there was ever a state that would be worried about security, it is Israel. Yet, every time there is a humanitarian crisis anywhere in the world,Iisrael is the first to send a rescue mission, set up a field hospital and save lives and deliver babies. These are not simple calculations. After all, there are Israelis back home in need of surgeries and other resources, but these things are being used to save people in Haiti or in Sri Lanka. But Israel is following the model of Avraham. Israel will not become Sodom.

And so, I would like us to use Avraham as a mirror for all of our explanations. Is it really, “not the right time”? Are the risks and security concerns that we express legitimate? (please note, I am not referring to governmental policies but to our individual responsibilities). Finally if we want to prioritize helping Jews over non-Jews, well what are we doing to help out Jews? There are Jewish families who have loved ones at the NIH or other hospitals. They need a place to stay. Have we called up Bikur Cholim to see if we can host someone? Do we volunteer to take people to the hospital?

There are many children (Jewish and non-Jewish) in Montgomery county who do not have a safe home to live in. Have we volunteered to be foster parents?

I know I have done none of these things in my life. My finished basement is empty much of the year. If I would have been a Gentile during the Holocaust would I have brought a Jewish family into my home or would I have used all of those excuses? Now, seeing Maharat Fruchter’s action and my inaction, I think that there is a good chance I would not have brought a Jewish family in. This makes me feel guilty.
But guilt is not always so bad if it spurs us into action.
May G-d bless all of us with the courage to act.