Thursday, March 28, 2019

This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land

I returned on Tuesday from three of my favorite, most inspirational days of the year: AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC. I was joined by over 18,000 pro-Israel activists, including 50 from our synagogue. The theme of this year’s conference was “Connected for Good”. In many different speeches, sessions, and presentations, we learned and were reminded of the many ways that Israel is a force for good in our world, especially for the United States.

This is a message that is especially important at this moment in history. When a member of Congress suggests that support for Israel comes at the expense of the patriotism for the US, echoing age-old anti-Semitic tropes of “dual loyalty”, we need to be strong and clear that US support for Israel is based on shared values and shared interests. America prides itself in supporting democratic values across the globe. It is therefore obvious why the US would support Israel, the only democratic country in the region. As was mentioned at the conference, there is a misunderstanding (perhaps deliberate) about the source of AIPAC’s strength. AIPAC’s strength is not “all about the Benjamins”. The widespread support in America for Israel is not a result of AIPAC’s size, or financial spending on lobbying. The strength of AIPAC is a result of American support for Israel.

Although we expect this support from the Jewish community, at the Policy Conference I had a chance to see the diversity of the pro-Israel community: liberals and conservatives, Jews and Christians, Latinos and African Americans. Though the reasons for their support for Israel were different, there was a common theme among all of their stories: they see something in Israel that is familiar, something that relates to their own experience or upbringing. I heard from a businessman from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He told a story of his visit to a Jewish community along the Gaza border, as part of an AIPAC educational trip of African American business leaders. There he heard about the anxiety and terror that families feel as they have only seconds to find shelter when a rocket is launched from Gaza. This businessman asked a mother whom he met why she chooses to remain with her family. Why doesn’t she just pick up and move to somewhere safer? She answered, simply yet poignantly, “because it’s my home.” At that moment this man from Louisiana was reminded of families who were impacted by Hurricane Katrina. When they had lost everything in the deadly floods they too were asked why they stay. And they also responded “because it’s our home.” In that moment, this man sympathized with the Israeli cause. In that moment a pro-Israel activist was born.

I also heard from Mareshia Rucker, a former college student leader who was President of the Student Democrats Club on her campus. She was part of an AIPAC educational trip that took 25 college Democratic leaders and 25 Republican campus leaders to Israel. This articulate woman told how impacted she was to see bomb shelters alongside bus shelters, so Israelis can find cover in the all too common event of rocket fire. She noticed that the bomb shelters were painted in child friendly colors and motifs. This brought home the reality that these innocent Israeli children live life “under fire”. All of them have heard rocket fire and have learned from a young age what to do to stay safe in the face of incoming fire.

And this reminded her of her own painful family story. She grew up in a tough neighborhood in Georgia, where gang violence was common. One day she went to the store and her 4-year old sister followed her. She left her sister on a bench and walked across the street to talk to some friends. In the meantime, a fight broke out near the store between a young man and a gang member. Soon shots were fired and bullets were flying. Her 4-year old sister was shot, and died in her big sister’s arms. Seeing the bomb shelters in Israel brought home to this student leader the common challenges faced by her community and this Israeli community. And when that connection was made, a pro-Israel activist was created.

Part of being a Religious Zionist is realizing that our personal stories can and must include Israel. Israel is our inheritance, our heritage, our homeland. We must seek out ways to personalize our connection to Israel, thereby becoming greater “Lovers of Zion” and more active pro-Israel activists here in America.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

On March 12, 2019, United States federal prosecutors charged 50 people who were allegedly part of a scheme to influence admissions decisions at several American research universities. Wealthy parents of college applicants are accused of paying more than $25 million between 2011 and 2018 to a "college admissions counselor" who used the money to fake student test scores and bribe college officials.

The leader of the scheme, William Rick Singer, pleaded guilty and helped the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) gather incriminating evidence against co-conspirators. He said he unethically facilitated college admission for more than 750 families. Prosecutors in the District of Massachusetts have unsealed indictments and complaints against 50 people, including Singer, university coaches he bribed, and people who are alleged to have used bribery and fraud to secure admission for their children at nine universities. Among the accused parents are prominent business people and well-known actors.

There are many issues and lessons that emerge from this news story that are worthy of our consideration. One issue is the proper approach parents and children should take when considering options for college. Most of our community families invest in our children’s Jewish education through high school. It would seem obvious that we consider and explore Orthodox Jewish life on the campuses that we consider for college. A few months ago Rabbi Adam and Sara Frieberg presented an evening for high schools Juniors and Seniors about choosing a college, and the types of things we should be looking for and the questions we should be asking when we tour college campuses. I am sure that they would be willing to review those suggestions with any interested parent or student. No secular college campus Jewish life can compete with what is available at a Jewish sponsored college setting. It also makes sense that the 12+ years of Jewish education be cemented and enhanced during the college years. That is why I believe every high school graduate should seriously consider one of the Jewish-sponsored college options such as Yeshiva University, Touro or Bar Ilan etc. And if one decides that a secular campus is best for them, then they must figure out how they will continue to thrive and grow Jewishly during these important and formative college years.

Another issue that this story brings up is the lack of proper parenting displayed in this unfortunate saga. Parents want what’s best for their children. But there is a limit to the ways that a parent can/ should intervene on their child’s behalf. Although there may be some ambiguous cases, lying, cheating and breaking the law to get them a college acceptance is a clear violation of proper parenting norms. Sociologists used to talk about “helicopter parents” as parents who would “hover” over their children, schedule their days, and plan their futures. Today they talk about “snow plow parents” (yes, even in Florida). These are parents who do whatever they can to remove all the challenges and difficulties out of their child’s way. These parents mean well. They want their child to succeed. They want their child to never encounter any difficulties or failures. But in so doing, these parents are doing a tremendous disservice to their children. For an important attribute to develop throughout life, but especially in adolescence, is resilience.

Children learn resilience by recovering from failure, by enduring challenges, and by adapting in the face of adversity. At some point in their lives, our children will be on their own, and have to navigate situations without the help of their parents, snow plow variety or otherwise. Part of properly providing for our children entails providing them with resilience and the confidence necessary to overcome challenges, setbacks, even failures.

In Parshat Tzav we read about a type of rejected sacrifice, called pigul. This is a korban that is from a kosher species and was prepared correctly. However when it came time to sprinkle the blood on the Altar the Kohen got confused and had a thought that was not applicable to this korban. It was the thought that invalidates the offering. Pigul reminds us that we must have proper thoughts and intentions throughout an endeavor. Ends do not justify the means. This is a lesson we must learn ourselves, and model to the next generation.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Korban Oleh V’Yored in Our Lives

One of the first terms that I learned when I was working at a Jewish Family Service in NJ was sliding scale fee. As a not-for-profit mental health facility, Jewish Family Services are committed to helping those in need, irrespective of a client’s ability to pay; so most agencies have a sliding scale fee arrangement. A person pays what s/he is able to afford, based on their income and expenses.

One could say that the idea of a sliding scale fee structure is found in this week’s Parsha. Sefer Vayikra begins with an overview of the various types of sacrifices, and the circumstances surrounding the offering of each. Chapter Five teaches that there are some violations for which a Korban Oleh V’Yored is brought. A Korban Oleh V’Yored is a sliding scale sacrifice (Oleh V’Yored- up and down). One who is of means will bring a female sheep or goat as a Korban Chatat. If one cannot afford an animal then two doves are brought instead. Those who cannot even afford two birds are instructed to bring an offering of flour as a Korban. Korban Oleh V’Yored reminds us that our ability to have a relationship with G-d and be a valued member of Jewish society is not dependent on one’s economic status.

In explaining the “sliding scale Korban” the Sefer Hachinuch makes two points. First, quoting the Talmud, the Chinuch writes that if one has the means to afford a goat or sheep as their Korban but instead brings a less expensive sacrifice, that person has not fulfilled his or her requirement and must bring another sacrifice that is on par with their economic status. The message here is clear. People must be willing to honestly prioritize their financial resources and determine what it is they are able to afford. The Torah warns us not to undervalue nor undercut our religious obligations.

The second point that the Chinuch makes is that if a person of modest means overextends him or herself in order to bring a sacrifice that is out of their budget, that person has also NOT fulfilled their obligation of bringing a Korban Oleh V’Yored. What an innovative and remarkable idea! It seems odd: after all there is a rich tradition within the Halacha of Hidur Mitzvah, of spending more than the minimum in order to perform a mitzvah in a beautiful way. Why is it that a person of modest means who stretches to bring a more expensive Korban should be denied the opportunity?

The Sefer Hachinuch is teaching us the importance of living within our means. If the person cannot afford it, then s/he should not be buying it, even for the sake of a mitzvah. It’s a difficult lesson to take seriously in this country. After all, our government is 22 Trillion dollars (that’s twelve zeros) in debt. That works out to over $67,000 of debt for each person living in this country. Is it any wonder that personal debt has reached epidemic proportions?  The average household is burdened with 8,000 dollars of credit card debt. It has come to the point in this country that debt is good for your credit rating. A person with debt in most circumstances will be considered a better candidate for a loan than someone without debt.  Korban Oleh V’Yored teaches us the value of living within our means and of financial independence. The Torah is satisfied with different sacrifices from different people, as long as everyone gives it their best effort.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Parshat Pekudei begins by reiterating the critical roles of Betzalel and Oholiav in the construction of the Mishkan. Earlier Rashi noted that when the Torah mentions Betzalel or Oholiav, it often makes the point of providing their lineage: not only the names of their fathers, but also identifying the tribe from which they come.

“Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah…..With him was Oholiab, son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan….”(38:21-22)

Rashi explains that the tribe of Dan was the least respected tribe, as Dan was the son of a maidservant; while the tribe of Yehuda was the most respected tribe, the tribe of leadership and monarchy. The Torah wants us to understand that in order for the Mishkan Campaign to be successful, it needed to include, and be supported by, a full spectrum of Jews.

Last Friday, I joined 22 of my rabbinic colleagues from Young Israel synagogues across the country in signing a statement of concern directed towards National Council of Young Israel. NCYI is an umbrella organization with over 100 “branches” (ie independent Orthodox synagogues that utilize the name “Young Israel”). It’s stated mission is to “broaden the appeal of the traditional community synagogue as the central address for Jewish communal life by providing educational, religious, social, spiritual, and communal programming." The organization traces its beginnings to 1912 when a group of young Orthodox Jews decided to do what they could to make Orthodox Judaism more relevant to their peers, and combat the wave of assimilation.

I have a lot of respect and appreciation for what National Council has accomplished for Orthodox Jewry in the 20th century. They provided interest-free loans to help Orthodox synagogues get off the ground, thereby enriching the landscape of Orthodox Jewish communities across the country. I grew up attending a Young Israel, and I attribute my chosen career path to my experiences in my hometown shul. Recently NCYI convened a very successful Parenting Panel at our shul.
In the last few years NCYI has increased its political advocacy work and its press releases, both in terms of the quantity, as well as the breadth of issues that it comments on. This includes press releases on issues related to both policies and politics, in the United States and in Israel.

An Orthodox synagogue umbrella group should be both patriotic and Zionistic, ie find ways to support Israel and the United States, in both word and action. However in today’s hyper-partisan climate, my colleagues and I feel that NCYI should be careful when and what it comments on and how those views are expressed. Not every news item or current event, here or in Israel, requires a press release or statement. Since the platform for NCYI to issue press releases is built on the fact that it “represents” thousands of Orthodox Jewish families (approximately 5,000 of which are represented by the 23 congregations that initially signed the statement), we feel that there needs to be a transparent and inclusive process before statements are released “in our names”. Furthermore as a matter of priorities, we believe that NCYI should focus on synagogue services and advocacy work that directly impacts and benefits synagogues and their constituents, and not on press releases that can be partisan and divisive.

We must be vigilant that political views are never a litmus test for membership and involvement in our shul. We are a diverse community- and that diversity extends into the realm of politics. Everyone is welcome to be a part of our shul; so long as you subscribe to our vision of a model synagogue community built on Torah and Mitzvot, a trajectory of religious growth, and a culture of caring. We are each entitled to our opinions about politics and policies- both US and Israeli (and as Rabbi, I sometimes choose to share my opinions from the pulpit). But conflicting political positions should never be conflated into interpersonal conflict within our shul. We should be able to share our shul with those with whom we disagree. We must always remember, that like the Mishkan, our miniature Mishkan only realizes its potential when the full spectrum of committed Jews is included and involved.