Tuesday, November 27, 2012

No Divisions Between Jews When Rockets Fly

(cross-posted at the Forward)

Like many Jewish leaders, I have devoted the majority of my professional life to advocating on behalf of my denomination. Sometimes the need is concrete, other times ideological. From supporting the worldwide network of the 600-plus Conservative kehillot to agitating on behalf of a Judaism that is pluralistic, intellectually compelling and rooted in tradition, my religious identity is often inextricable from my personal Jewish “brand.”
Much of this is unavoidable. Not a month goes by without an invitation to speak about a topic of endless fascination to the Jewish public: the current state of Conservative Judaism. Whether joining together with the heads of my sister organizations to construct a wide lens view or honing on a particular geography — I will be moderating a panel discussion on the renaissance of Conservative Judaism on Manhattan’s East Side in December — I declare myself, time and again, a spokesperson for Conservative Judaism.
But I was reminded of the limits of denominationalism this past week in the course of my hastily arranged Solidarity Tour to Israel on Day 7 of Operation Pillar of Defense. Organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, I joined with a group of North American Jewish leaders from United Synagogue to the Union for Reform Judaism to the Orthodox Union to the Jewish Federations of North America and other Zionist groups.
Together, we visited the mayors of the cities most affected by Hamas missiles, the injured civilians and soldiers, the damaged property, the brave Israeli citizens under threat of extinction every single day. Together we met with Israeli president Shimon Peres. Together we boarded buses from Ashkelon to Beer Sheva to Jerusalem, united as Jews, representatives of our denominations, yes, but stripped of the agendas that occupy us back in our offices in North America.
We were a fellowship without boundaries because when missiles and rockets fly towards Israeli towns, they do not have addresses based on denominational affiliation. As Jews have learned from the persecutions of the past, the ideologies and practices that divide us are invisible to those who seek to erase us from the map.
Even if I can submerge my membership in a particular Jewish faction, it is impossible to silence my rabbinic instinct to turn to Torah for guidance. In Beresheet (Genesis) 1:27, humanity is created from a single being, named Adam. God creates Adam in God’s image, “male and female He created it (meaning humanity)”
A wonderful Midrash on this verse asks rhetorically – why does God create humanity from a single being? The answer rendered is – so that no one could legitimately say “my father is better than your father since we all originate from the same father.”
Though simple, this is text contains a profound lesson about unity, solidarity and the value, divinity of each and every life. As I joined together with my counterparts in North American Jewish life during our Tour of Solidarity to Israel last week, I found that this midrash came to life in a multitude of ways every day.
The most obvious manifestation was in the cross-denominational composition of our group. In a crisis, we all are Jews without divisions, united in protection of Israel. It was profound and beautiful to experience this eternal truth in the course of our trip.
We were further buoyed to note that throughout the ordeal it was enduring, Israel demonstrated how strong a society she is. People did not give up in despair. They supported their government. One clear indication of this was the better than 100% response by the reservists who were called. In Operation Pillar of Defense, the country rallied. The fight was for survival, no matter where one lived. Even during the typically divisive election time, there was unity.
It was clear that Israel applied the lessons it learned in 2006, namely, the importance of collaboration, training and readiness in various realms – civil society, political and military. When the missiles rained down on Israel, the country was ready; better yet, every segment of society worked together. The Home Front Command was so effective because people helped one another other.
That care was also manifest in the manner in which civilians were protected on both sides of the conflict, from the surgical strikes of the Israeli counteroffensive to the care on the home front. By lobbing rockets towards Gaza, the IDF adhered to the highest ethical standards, targeting terrorist sites, not people.
As we approach the joyous festival of Hanukkah, Jews of all denominations can bond in recognition of the ultimate strength of Jewish unity, at the miracles that happened in those days and in our time when we unite to fight a common enemy. In the spirit of Hanukkah, let us rededicate ourselves to this old lesson that we need to relearn in every generation: We are one people. The Jewish future depends on it.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving in Jerusalem

One week ago, I was making plans with my family to attend Thanksgiving at my father's New York home.  Yet on Wednesday afternoon, on the eve of Thanksgiving, I was on a plane bound for Tel Aviv on a tour of solidarity together with the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.

When we arrived, we learned that a ceasefire had been declared between Israel and Hamas, ending the eight-day-long Operation Pillar of Defense, the IDF’s impressive counter-offensive to the rocket assault from Gaza.

The first phase of the ceasefire brought with it a watchful, tense quiet. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I was grateful for the relative calm, the absence of sirens, the tenuous and possibly temporary peace.

Mindful of these blessings, we embarked upon our tour, heading to Ashkelon to visit with its mayor in the city’s bomb shelter. Since Operation Cast Lead, Ashkelon has suffered from rocket fire on a constant basis. Indeed, more than 200 rockets have fallen on this, Israel’s 10th largest city. We learned of the damage inflicted to schools and residential building. Fulfilling the mitzvah of bikur cholim, we visited injured civilians and soldiers in the local hospital.

From Ashkelon, we went to Beersheva where we also visited its injured and learned of the new normal in southern Israeli hospitals -- moving critical patients to safe rooms, stopping all non-emergent surgeries, preparing for wounded soldiers, civilians and yes, Palestinians. 

In both cities, we heard much of the same story: sadness, fear, cynicism that this ceasefire will hold, that normalcy will ever be restored.

The purpose of the on-going rocket assault from Gaza is not to take out Israel’s ports or major facilities but to disrupt daily life and perpetuate a campaign of terror against civilians.  Ashkelon, for instance is home to one of Israel's main power plants and the world's largest desalination plants. Strategic targets, yet the missiles are not aimed in their direction.  Judging by the damage, they are aimed at the most vulnerable: children, the elderly, patients in hospitals.  Since the second intifada, this has been the Palestinian strategy.

Back in Jerusalem, we met with Israeli President Shimon Peres for briefings.

My remarkable day concluded at the Fuchsberg Center for a moving and uplifting Thanksgiving dinner that included 210 people: this year's participants in our Nativ program, Nativ alumi, family and friends. This dinner, at USCJ's Fuchsberg Center, is a much-anticipated annual event and people do not miss it for anything, except for military service, though we were lucky to have a few soldiers able to join us.  One reservist show up in his IDF uniform. Our current group of 80 students family members lend great spirit to our gathering, which included A Capella singing and a video in which participants gave statements of what they are thankful for.

This morning, among several speakers we met with Arnon Mantver, the director of JDC Israel and learned about the work JDC is doing to help people affected by war. This important meeting highlighted some of the benefits of our partnership with Jewish Federations of North America and the Union of Reform Judaism.

It enabled me to understand, in an up close and personal way, the important ways in which our funding is helping Israeli civilians cope with the existential threat they face on a daily basis, whether by working with children to counteract the stress, anxiety and fear of being in shelters, providing food, medicine and supplies to the disabled and elderly, helping make what is broken whole.

I am filled with pride when I note the many ways in which the Conservative and Masorti movement is a partner in delivering these important social services.

I did not undertake this Thanksgiving weekend trip to Israel lightly; it was upsetting to leave my family, especially at this time. But once in Israel, I was overwhelmed by how thankful everyone was for our visit and inspired by the solidarity of the Jewish People. In crisis, we relearn an important message: we are one. Our group included a wide range of North American Jewish leaders from United Synagogue to the Union for Reform Judaism to the Orthodox Union to the Jewish Federations of North America and other Zionist groups.

As I go into Shabbat, my feelings are mixed. My American optimism wants to believe that Operation Pillar of Defense will ensure a bright and safe future for Israel, now and forever. The spirit of American thanksgiving still resides in me; reminding me of the innumerable blessings of being a Jew, of having a Jewish State in my lifetime.  

This week's Parshah, Vayetze, contains the story of the Sulam – Jacob’s Ladder. Jacobs dream of a ladder connecting Heaven and Earth, with angels going up and down. The significance of the angels originating from earth and rising to heaven is a metaphor for the human quest for sanctity. When we act with holiness in care for others, we become God’s angels.

I saw angels ascending and descending during my solidarity tour of Israel.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Hurricane Sandy and the Torah of Thanksgiving

(cross-posted; originally appeared at Huffington Post)

Growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, I spent the majority of my teenage years celebrating Thanksgiving with hundreds of other Jewish kids at United Synagogue Youth (USY) conventions, which took place in such cities as Minneapolis, Des Moines, Denver, St. Louis and Kansas City.
As a member of the USY Emtza Region, the high point of the extended weekend was hardly the requisite Thursday evening turkey meal. Rather, it was theruach (spirit) and fellowship I found with my American counterparts, all of whom were active in Conservative Jewish life.
Those were the days, in so many ways. Conservative Judaism was popular, inspired and modern, the pre-eminent Jewish denomination worldwide. As the son of a Conservative rabbi, I was delighted to find myself in the company of other young people who -- like me -- saw no contradiction between our secular and religious lives.
If anything, we shared a feeling of dazed revelation that we were the lucky ones who had figured out how to fuse both facets of our identities. Being Jewish made it better to be American -- or Canadian.
Years later, when I moved to the United States, I discovered yet another revelation: Thanksgiving was regarded as a deeply meaningful holiday for the majority of American Jews who viewed a mandated day of expressing gratitude as a mitzvah.
Though Canadian Thanksgiving takes place in October, the day bears no resemblance to the American celebration, beginning with the missing narrative of a small band of people inspired to flee religious persecution in Europe and build a New Jerusalem in America. The religious freedom guaranteed in the United States has enabled the formation of the most unique, cohesive, functional and sustained Jewish community in the world. In recognition of the profundity of this blessing, it is customary in many synagogues to recite the Hallel prayer in the morning service on Thanksgiving.
For this American blessing and many others, I, too, have learned to give thanks. This year, for those of us affected by Hurricane Sandy, the gratitude goes deeper. It is less theoretical and all-too-tangible.
Following on the heels of the largest scale natural disaster those of us in the Northeast have ever endured, the simple blessing of heating and electricity has become the greatest of gifts. For those of us lucky enough to have avoided damage to our homes, injury or the death of friends and loved ones, we are thankful for the blessing of shelter, the stability of walls and a roof over our heads.
In our gratitude, we have a great responsibility, and that is to offer help where it is needed. Two and a half weeks after Hurricane Sandy assaulted our region, I am astonished to see the daily calls for hands-on volunteers in the hardest hit areas: Coney Island; the Rockaways; Red Hook, Brooklyn; portions of the New Jersey Shore.
Though perturbed by the prolonged recovery and rescue work that is needed, I am heartened to see those calls being answered by so many people. I am proud of the millions of dollars allocated for the relief effort by New York's UJA-Federation, an organization largely supported by Conservative Jews.
As the head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, I have been deeply moved by the example set by many of our kehillot (sacred congregations) in the path of Hurricane Sandy's devastation who opened their facilities to members of the larger community -- offering shelter, fellowship, food, electricity, showers and programming for children and adults alike. One of the USCJ kehillot hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy -- United Synagogue of Hoboken -- kept its doors open throughout the crisis, hosting a bar mitzvah in the unheated, candelit sanctuary because the family could not bear to celebrate this milestone anywhere else. The USCJ has been privileged to take part in the assistance effort for this synagogue, purchasing vital equipment and hosting a community meal this past Thursday evening.
Sustaining a house of worship through a time of crisis keeps provides immeasurable moral support for a community.
Equipped, as we are, to communicate and correspond with our over-600 member synagogues, we were able to serve as a command center to coordinate services, provide assistance and act as a hub. Dipping into our discretionary funds, we were able to provide assistance to synagogues that suffered damage and provide a significant grant to Nechama, a Jewish disaster response organization. Having just completed building a security and safety protocol for our kehillot, we were able to help our member congregations help the people in their area.
So, this year, Thanksgiving is relevant in an up-close and personal way. We are grateful. We are blessed. And in our good fortune, we are compelled to pay the blessing forward. In the immediate post-crisis period, giving is easier, but with the passing of time, it is natural to lose focus of the need.
After Hurricane Sandy, the Torah of Thanksgiving teaches us that thankfulness is not limited to a solitary day. Gratitude is an ongoing consciousness that compels us to open our eyes and hearts and wallets to respond to the devastation around us, now and always.
This year, I am approaching Thanksgiving with an extra dimension of kavannah (intentionality) finding in the observance of this American festival a new twist on a liturgical passage from the Hallel prayer service: "hodu l'hashem ki tov."
Though the verse is typically understood to mean, "Give thanks to God for God is good," I see another meaning, which is "Give thanks to God, for thankfulness is good."
Thankfulness is a mitzvah. Thankfulness is mindfulness.
One more thing. As American Jews prepare for Thanksgiving, we find our focus abruptly shifted to Israel, where a hurricane of another nature -- man-made and fueled by hatred -- is wreaking havoc on the citizens of the Jewish State. Indeed, the escalation of the conflict has compelled me to trade the comfort of my American Thanksgiving table for a last-minute tour of solidarity to Israel to visit the 300-plus young people currently studying there through the auspices of United Synagogue.
The Torah of Thanksgiving reminds me of the blessing of religious freedom and the security that we enjoy as Jewish Americans.
This year, my feast is movable.
May we be thankful for the blessing of peace. May it come soon to Israel, to her neighbors and to the entire world.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Shelter From the Storm

May you live in interesting times, goes the well-known “blessing” whose darker meaning is actually: “may you live in difficult times.” Though often referred to as “the Chinese Curse,” it always struck me as Yiddish in essence.

Those of us who reside in the region of the country affected by Hurricane Sandy last week and yesterday’s Nor’easter have just gotten a super-sized dose of “interesting times,” with death and devastation on one end of the spectrum and discomfort and disruption of our normal lives on the other hand.

And tucked between the bookends of Mother Nature’s fury was a presidential election that revealed how truly divided American society is at this point in time.

We are blessed with living in interesting times, indeed.

Yet, as I drove back to my New Jersey home last night through snow, sleet and freezing rain (worrying about Sandy’s victims and refugees in light of the plummeting temperatures and my own newly-restored power lines in danger of crashing for the second time in a week) I drew comfort from the heroic work being done by the staff and kehillot of United Synagogue who have joined the relief effort spearheaded by emergency personnel and relief organizations, both governmental and private, national and regional.

The Dix Hills Jewish Center (Dix Hills, New York)
davened ma'ariv by flashlight in the absence of power.

Within hours after Sandy’s devastating effects were known, our Kehilla Relationship Managers and district leaders reached out to USCJ kehillot in hurricane-affected areas. While most of these kehillot lost power, thankfully most suffered no damage to their facilities; still there are some kehillot that sustained very severe flooding and other damage.

Additionally, in the communities of our kehillot, untold numbers of people remain without power, including heat and hot water.  Tens of thousands are now homeless because their houses are either uninhabitable or completely destroyed. On a personal note, my sister and her family – which includes her elderly in-laws – have endured nearly two weeks without power or heat in their Great Neck, LI homes.

Springing into action, United Synagogue took the following steps:
·        We created a Disaster Relief Fund. The monies collected will go toward 1) providing modest grants to kehillot for immediate needs that can’t wait for insurance reimbursements; 2) disaster relief groups directly helping people recover and rebuild and 3) in several months, helping kehillot cover expenses they incur that are not covered by insurance or other funds.
·        To date, USCJ has made a grant of $10,000 to Nechama, a Jewish disaster relief group now working in the storm zone, and a modest grant for a laptop computer to Temple Beth El of Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, which lost all its office equipment due to flooding. We are also working closely with United Synagogue of Hoboken (NJ) to make sure it has heat for two b’nai mitzvah to be celebrated this Shabbat.
·        Because they have canvassed so many synagogues, our staff and lay leaders are making connections among kehillot so that those not affected by the storm can assist those who were.  They are also connecting kehillot with agencies that offer disaster relief.

One important take-away from the past week’s activities is that advance planning goes a long way. Rabbi Paul Drazen, United Synagogue’s special assistant to the CEO, has spent the better part of the past eight months planning safety and security guidelines for our organization and our kehillot and that work was critical to our ability to mobilize for this disaster.

Another source of invaluable information on coping with disasters comes from our Torah, in particular the current weekly portions, which detail the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah, whose tent was open on all four sides. On a personal note, my family and I have relied on the open tents of friends and neighbors over the past week. I encourage everyone with power and heat to emulate Abraham and Sarah’s model of hachnasat orchim and open their homes to those who are rendered homeless by the extreme weather we are suffering.

The antidote for living through interesting times is the outpouring of caring and fellowship from individuals, organizations and kehillot throughout the world. During this crisis, I could not be more proud that the USCJ synagogues have lived up to their mission as kehillot kedushot -- sacred communities -- embodying the many meanings of sanctuary.
Here are Some Additional Suggestions for Helping Out:
·        Donate to United Synagogue’s Disaster Relief Fund so we can continue to help kehillot and communities trying to recover and rebuild. (If you are Canadian and need a tax receipt, send a check to United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 1000 Finch Avenue West, Suite 508, Toronto, ON M3J 2V5.)
·        Donate to relief organizations (see a list below) or contact local groups to see what they need. Before you collect anything, contact a relief agency to find out what they need and only bring those items.
·        Contact a neighboring kehilla and ask how you can help, or contact your Kehilla Relationship Manager to find out who needs help.

If You Need Help or Want to Donate/Volunteer
m.fema.gov (for smartphones/mobile devices)
1-800-621-FEMA (3362)

Legal Help

USCJ Disaster Relief Fund

Jewish Federations of North America

Nechama (To Donate or Volunteer)
Nechama is a Jewish disaster relief organization that provides on-the-ground help. Currently, Nechama is working at three sites in Hoboken, NJ, including United Synagogue of Hoboken.

If you have not done so, please contact your Kehilla Relationship Manager to let him or her know how you’re doing. They will work to connect you with help. You can find contact info for the KRMs here.