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Nelson Mandela’s Work

Nelson Mandela Photo: lasanta.com.ec Flickr

Last Thursday the world lost Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa. Through his own unimaginable personal sacrifice and almost superhuman determination and political acumen, he brought about peace and reconciliation to a deeply troubled land. In so doing, he inspired us all with hope in the potential of human beings to overcome the racism that poisons us and the hatred that divides us.

The Psalmist teaches: “The days of our years are threescore and ten, or even by reason of strength, fourscore years.” Threescore and ten – 70 years. But the first 70 years of Mr. Mandela’s life were marked by violence and tyranny, resistance and imprisonment. In the traditional view, that would have been his entire life. But when he emerged from the darkness into the light, standing side by side with the very people who once had been his enemies, he began a new life, and went on to bless this world for almost FIVE score years. It was amazing to behold.

No, we can’t all be Mandelas. One is more than any epoch can probably expect. But we can all learn from him, and draw inspiration from his life and work. We can make an effort to use our intelligence and our strength, and our human sensitivity, to join with others in promoting human progress and a peaceful life on this earth. Each of us has to find some area in which we are most compelled to make our personal contribution. But the work is what counts – our work. We learn from the Mishnah: “You are not required to complete all the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Each of us is obligated to make some personal contribution to repair the world. Each of us is personally responsible. That is really the most authentic way to honor the memory of Nelson Mandela, and all the other heroes and heroines who have worked and fought to make the world a better place.

This week we will complete our reading of the Book of Genesis. The rivalries and enmity that have marked the generations of our patriarchs and matriarchs have been put to rest. After 20 years of separation and estrangement, Jacob and his children are together as one family. At least for now, the spirit of peace and reconciliation has won the day. As we close the Book of Genesis, we proclaim in the words of our tradition, חזק חזק ונתחזק Chazak, chazak, venitchazek – Be strong, be very strong, and we shall strengthen each other.

As for Nelson Mandela we say, זכר צדיק לברכה – Zecher Tzaddik Livrachah – May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing – and may we keep alive the light he brought into the world.

Happy Thanksgivukah!

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Happy Thanksgivukah! Photos: JP Ferreira Flickr and Roland Scheicher

Happy Thanksgivukah! I admit that earlier this fall I resisted using this greeting, because I didn’t want to risk compromising the integrity of either holiday. Nevertheless, the confluence of these two beloved celebrations will not come around again for about 79,000 years, so I figured, why not?! If I’m still here for the next one, I’ll worry about it then. . .

As I said in my Bulletin message for this month, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are both celebrations of freedom – freedom from hunger and want, and freedom from religious coercion. The Pilgrims came here in 1620 to escape the religious tyranny of the Anglican Church, whose tenets they did not agree with. When they arrived, they faced the harshness of the New England winter and struggled to survive. Then, with the help of the Native Americans who were here, they eventually were able to plant appropriate crops and harvest them successfully. They joined with their newfound friends for a feast of Thanksgiving.

In 167 BCE, the Syrian King Antiochus IV (Antiochus “Epiphanes”) imposed a series of tyrannical decrees that banned the practice of Judaism in Judea, and coerce Jews into worshiping Zeus, and adopting pagan practices. The Syrians plundered and defiled the Temple in Jerusalem. This was effectively the first religiously-motivated persecution in history. But in 165 BCE, Judah the Maccabee and his army scored a huge military victory when they defeated the Syrian Army and expelled Antiochus’ army from the Temple. Then in celebration, and in rededication of the Temple to the God of Israel, the Maccabees were finally able to celebrate the 8-day harvest festival of Sukkot, which they could not celebrate two months earlier, with the Syrians still occupying the Temple. (The oil, of course, was needed to light the menorah in the Temple for all eight of these days of this festival.) So Hanukkah, within its own context, is also a celebration of Thanksgiving – both for the harvest, and for the assertion of Jewish integrity.

As I see it, this “Thanksgivukah” is a gift to us this year. We will have the opportunity to celebrate Chanukah with many of our family members and friends that perhaps we wouldn’t normally be able to see during Hanukkah. I hope that we will take advantage of that opportunity. Turkey and latkes? Why not! Pumpkin pie and jelly doughnuts? Oh, go ahead! But most important is that we take some time this Thursday to remember how fortunate we are, both as Americans, and as Jews. May we never take either of them for granted. Celebrate with blessings and song.

Happy Thanksgivukah!

The Extraordinary Poetry of Abraham Lincoln

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An early twentieth century poster showing a portrait of Abraham Lincoln above the words of the Gettysburg address

This week our country marks the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, delivered by President Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863, to a crowd of about 15,000, at the consecration of a new national cemetery at Gettsyburg. On July 1-3 of that year, forces of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army and the Union Army of the Potomac, under the leadership of General George G. Meade, engaged in what would prove to be one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Some 23,000 Union soldiers were killed (about 1/4 of the Union Army’s forces) and 28,000 Confederate soldiers were killed (more that 1/3 of Lee’s forces). After Lee’s forces retreated, apparently Jefferson Davis was offered a chance to resign, but he refused, thus prolonging the war.

According to the mythology, Lincoln wrote the address on the back of an envelope while riding the train to Gettysburg. In actuality, Lincoln, who was not the main speaker on the program, wrote most of the speech before he left the White House, and finished it the night before the speech. Apparently Lincoln was not fond of making extemporaneous speeches, and worked on the remarks for almost two weeks.

Aside from the eloquence of the speech itself, what scholars point to as most noteworthy about the content is that Lincoln did not refer to the Constitution, but rather to the Declaration of Independence, as the statement of our national aspiration as Americans – the belief articulated by our Founding Fathers in the fundamental equality of all human beings. We remember, of course, that Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation some ten months earlier, in January of 1863.

While the issue of legalized slavery was settled at that point, the reverberations of oppression and racial inequality continue to plague us to this day. Fully 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to deliver perhaps the most soaring oratory this country has heard since the Gettysburg Address. Now, 50 years after Dr. King’s speech, and the March On Washington, we still struggle as a nation with the demons of racism and inequality, economic and social disparity. It is important for us to mark milestones like these, not only to remind ourselves of the aspirations behind them, but also to refocus on the work that still lies before us in order to realize those aspirations.

One of the things we Americans seem to need from whoever our president may be at any given time, is that he (she) possess the ability to move and inspire us to be better than we are, and to live up to our potential as a nation. A handful of our presidents actually have possessed the gift and ability to do that. But perhaps none has ever duplicated the extraordinary poetry of Abraham Lincoln. And so, now fully 150 years later, we remain in awe of the majesty and profundity of this 272-word masterpiece. . .

”Four

A Tribute to Our Veterans

Signing of HR7786, June 1, 1954, this ceremony changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day. Alvin J. King, Wayne Richards, Arthur J. Connell, John T. Nation, Edward Rees, Richard L. Trombla, Howard W. Watts.

Signing of HR7786, June 1, 1954, this ceremony changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day. Alvin J. King, Wayne Richards, Arthur J. Connell, John T. Nation, Edward Rees, Richard L. Trombla, Howard W. Watts.

Today is Veterans Day. As we remember, however, the original holiday was called “Armistice Day,” after the Armistice with Germany took effect at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, to formally cease hostilities after World War I. The holiday was officially proclaimed by President Woodrow Wilson to take effect a year later, on November 11, 1919. Wilson wrote: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us, and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations.”

But then in 1945, a World War II veteran named Raymond Weeks of Birmingham, AL, requested that the holiday be expanded to celebrate ALL veterans; an idea supported by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Weeks began arranging celebrations in Alabama annually until the change to “Veterans Day” was formally signed into law in 1954 by Eisenhower himself, by then, President of the United States.

American Jews have a long and proud record of military service in the Armed Forces of the United States. It has been, for many, an affirmation of identity as Jewish Americans to serve the United States in this way. My father, z”l, and Steve’s father, z”l, served proudly during WWII, as did virtually all of their peers. They were part of what Tom Brokaw has dubbed “The Greatest Generation.”

As it happens, I had a great-uncle who served in WWI in Europe. I never knew him, and in fact, until I was a teenager, I never knew he had even existed. But in a rather roundabout way I found out about him, and a few years ago, I actually was able to locate his grave. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and, as is written on his gravestone, he died on Armistice Day of 1923 – exactly 100 years ago. The circumstances of his death and burial are too complicated for this limited context, though suffice it to say that I gather he suffered from “shell shock,” which was WWI’s precursor to what we might now call “PTSD,” with which we are now all too familiar.

As seemingly with ALL the holidays on our civil calendar, we are bombarded with sales, and specials, and sometimes, 3-day weekends. But as we certainly understand, the real point is for us to take a moment, on this day, to offer our respect and gratitude to ALL those who have served in the United States military. There is no way that we can adequately assess the sacrifice that they have made, and continue to make, for our country, and for the values of freedom and democracy. Since WWII, there obviously have been bitter controversies that have arisen over the wisdom of our involvement in various wars and armed conflicts around the world. But that does not change the good faith with which our fellow Americans have served. So on this day, we remember them, and offer them our gratitude.

Women at the Kotel

women-of-the-wall-website-screenshotChodesh Tov! This is our greeting to each other today on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month. Today begins the month of Kislev, during which, of course, we will celebrate Chanukah (25 Kislev) – our festival of light and freedom.

The number 25 for this particular Rosh Chodesh Kislev is most auspicious indeed. Today marks the 25th anniversary of Nashot Hakotel, Women of the Wall. For 25 years now Jewish women of all denominations, nationalities, and social strata, have come together to hold Morning Prayers for Rosh Chodesh. Month after month, Rosh Chodesh after Rosh Chodesh, legal case after legal case, Supreme Court decision after decision, arrest after arrest — for 25 years. But the past year has been an extraordinary year. After the crackdown by the Rabbi of the Kotel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, leading to an increased number of arrests of women at the Kotel for the “crimes” of raising their voices in prayer together, and wearing tallitot, the citizens of Israel, and Jews around the world stood up and said, ENOUGH! And indeed, as of last Spring, an Israeli court handed down the decision that women were NOT breaking any laws by holding services at the Kotel, and wearing Talitot and Tefillin.

While this represented a gigantic victory for Nashot Hakotel, the summer months were quite chaotic and difficult. At the urging of Rabbi Rabinowitz, thousands of Ultra-Orthodox women and yeshiva girls flooded the Kotel plaza to prevent the members of Nashot Hakotel from getting near the Wall itself, and there was loud and depressing heckling and shouting back and forth.

But today, on the 25th anniversary of Nashot Hakotel, Women of the Wall, there was no such blockade. I just heard from Noam Zion, one of the faculty members of the Hartman Institute, who went to the Wall with the group, that the abbreviation of the group, “WOW,” would be a great way to describe the goings-on. A delegation of my rabbinic and cantorial colleagues, and congregants as well, are in Jerusalem today for this anniversary. Together with Jews from all over Israel, they went to the Kotel to celebrate Rosh Chodesh, about 1,000 strong. And indeed, “WOW” is the word. Noam said the dovening was wonderful. And while there were some cat calls and whistles from the Ultra-Orthodox hecklers, it really was pretty mild, and didn’t throw any sort of damper on the elation of WOW, and particularly of Anat Hoffman, leader and driving force of the group. The police, of course, are now charged not with harassing WOW, but keeping the hecklers and opponents from throwing chairs and other objects, and exerting any sort of physical violence upon the women.

Social progress often takes longer than we would like. There is still much to accomplish for WOW. It is still not possible to actually read the Torah at the Wall, because the women are still barred from bringing one in (a lingering punishment in place since Anat’s first arrest in July of 2010). But the time will come, if we keep the pressure on. In addition, the Scharansky proposal for constructing a third section of the Wall for egalitarian prayer is still far from any realistic materialization. But just for today, we won’t worry about that. Just for today, we will revel in the progress that WOW has achieved. And once again, we wish each other Chodesh Tov!

A Bond Born of Bondage

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Leaders of the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Rabbi Joachim Prinz, President of the American Jewish Congress is standing behind the two chairs and speaking to Cleveland Robinson, Chairman of the Demonstration Committee. See end of post for all identities and affiliations. Copyright: Unknown or not provided – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

 

Our Torah portion, Ki Tavo, contains the text that serves as the beginning of “Maggid” (Narration) section of our Passover Haggadah. It instructs us as to how to relate to our children, and to all future generations, our sacred history as a people.

You shall then recite as follows before the Eternal your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. 6 The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. 7 We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. 8 The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26.5-10)

Our experience of enslavement is the foundation of our ethical mandate as a people. It teaches us to stand up for justice in the world, particularly on behalf of those who are oppressed and disadvantaged. Our Biblical story of Egyptian bondage also has been most compelling within the African American experience in America, and it is crystal clear as to why. With this historical background and similarity of experiences, the black and Jewish communities in America have always shared a profound spiritual and social bond.

It is fortuitous that we should be reading this portion during this particular week, as we anticipate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, on August 28th. In September of 1963, segregation was a blight upon our country. But the Civil Rights Movement ultimately defeated this pernicious racial discrimination and separatism, and eventually the so-called “Jim Crow” laws were overturned.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on 28 August 1963. Copyright Unknown? – This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 542069.

Though there is much more to say, and we will have an opportunity to do that, perhaps we all would do well to listen to two of the outstanding speeches of that day. As I have mentioned in the past, there was another extremely moving speech delivered that day, just before Dr. King’s, by Rabbi Dr. Joachim Prinz, who was given the honor of addressing the crowd in his capacity as the then President of the American Jewish Congress. Rabbi Prinz came to America from his native Berlin when he was expelled from Germany in 1937. Eventually he became the Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Abraham, first in Newark, and then in Livingston. He was one of ten who served as founding organizers of the March on Washington.
Listen to Dr. Prinz’s speech. I promise you will be well rewarded.

As you know, Rev. Dr. Martin LutherKing delivered one of the most towering pieces of oratory ever recorded, his “I Have a Dream” speech.

[Note: The leader of the March on Washington on the top photos are from left to right: Mathew Ahmann, Executive Director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice; (seated with glasses) Cleveland Robinson, Chairman of the Demonstration Committee; (standing behind the two chairs) Rabbi Joachim Prinz, President of the American Jewish Congress; (beside Robinson is) A. Philip Randolph, organizer of the demonstration, veteran labor leader who helped to found the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, American Federation of Labor (AFL), and a former vice president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO); (wearing a bow tie and standing beside Prinz is) Joseph Rauh, Jr, a Washington, DC attorney and civil rights, peace, and union activist; John Lewis, Chairman, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; and Floyd McKissick, National Chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality.]

 

Be A Human Being

“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey from Egypt; how he cut down the stragglers in your rear; those who were famished an weary; and he did not fear God. . . Therefore it shall be that when Adonai your God has given you rest from your enemies round about you, in the Land that is to be your inheritance. . . that you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under Heaven. Do not forget.” (from Deuteronomy 24.17-19)

These verses conclude our Torah portion for this week, Ki Teitzei.

Schindler,_Oskar

Oskar Schindler

During the time that we are in Israel I prefer to bring you vignettes about people and events there that are significant to me in some way. Though we have been home for over a week now, I still would like to tell you about a particularly moving experience that Steve and I had last month – something that had never occurred to us to do before, in all the time we have spent in Jerusalem over the years. With a free morning to ourselves at one point, we decided to take a drive around to the Catholic cemetery on Mount Zion, and visit the grave of Oskar Schindler. Since the area is quite steep, the cemetery is terraced on a number of levels, with steps leading from one level to the next. Except for a small sign on the front gate, there are really no other signs or tourist markers pointing the way to the grave. You just walk down the various levels, and eventually, you come to it. But as soon as you reach that level, it’s clear which grave is Schindler’s. It is covered with small stones, placed there according to Jewish custom upon visiting a cemetery. The grave itself is rather simple – just a horizontal slab, similar to many other graves in Israel. On the top is written “R.I.P.” Then there is a cross, and then his name and dates (1908-1974). And then, two inscriptions. The first, in Hebrew, reads: “Righteous Gentile.” The other, in German, reads: “Unforgettable lifesaver of 1,200 persecuted Jews.”

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Oskar Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem.

Steve and I happened to strike a quiet moment when no one else was there, so we had a very peaceful opportunity to pay our respects, and place a stone on the grave. I have spoken about Oskar Schindler on previous occasions, so I won’t repeat much of it now. We simply recalled to each other that he was, in a number of ways, a rather unsavory character, who originally saw his munitions factory as nothing more than a money-making opportunity. But at a certain point, most probably as he witnessed the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, he experienced an “epiphany” of sorts, and realized that he needed to step outside of himself at that moment, in pursuit of simple human compassion. Of the 1,200 “Schindlerjuden,” there are now some 7,000 descendants who are alive today. A very ordinary individual did an extraordinary thing, beyond what anyone might have expected of him, and what he ever could have expected of himself.

We read in the Mishnah: In a place devoid of humanity, be a human being.

Oskar Schindler was surrounded by Amalakites, and he even walked among them for a little while. Then, he became a human being. Zichrono Liv’rachah, may his memory be for a blessing. Rest in peace, Oskar Schindler.

Blind Justice

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“Who stole the people’s money?” — “‘Twas him.” (18 August 1871) Thomas Nast’s cartoons of the corruption in Tammany Hall contributed to the fall of Boss Tweed.

We are no strangers to political scandals in our country, particularly those involving the bribery of public officials. Anyone who makes decisions based upon some promise of personal gain, either privately or professionally, compromises the public trust. Our sidra reminds us that bribery is one of the most serious offenses a public official could commit, particularly those who are involved in the judicial system. Every person who comes before the court, either in a criminal or civil proceeding, is supposed to receive equal treatment by the magistrate, regardless of his/her financial or social status. The image of blind justice grows out of the insistence upon equal treatment under the law for all individuals. This notion should be applied not only to judges and public officials, but to anyone entrusted with the responsibility of an organization or community of any kind. The word is שחד- shochad – bribery. The Talmud offers an etymology of the word as a combination of two words: שהוא חד – shehu chad – that it is one. This means that if we take a bribe, we are psychologically linked with the person who gave it to us. The same way we would defend ourselves, so too would we always try to defend the person with whom we became one by taking his bribe.

Underlying this injunction grows out of the fundamental theology of our Torah: we all are created in the divine image, and thus equally entitled to fair and equal treatment; under the law, and in the organizations and communities to which we belong. The rich should not be given any opportunity to use their wealth to wield influence in the public sphere, particularly in legal proceedings.

(Deuteronomy 16.19-20)

You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

An Extraordinary Man

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Jawdat Ibrahim in his restaurant Abu Ghosh.

I have a story for you about an extraordinary man here in Israel who models for us the essence of humanitarianism. His story might seem as though it could only happen in the movies. And, in fact, Steven Spielberg visited him several years ago to consider the possibilities! But his story is entirely true, and he is an inspiration.

Jawdat Ibrahim is an Israeli Arab. He grew up in Abu Ghosh, an Arab village of about 6,000 people, about 20 minutes outside of Jerusalem. At the age of 21, he decided it was time to spread his wings a bit, and he traveled to the United States – Chicago to be exact. Not long after, Jawdat went into a store one day and bought a ticket for the Illinois State Lottery. He awoke the next morning some $23 million richer. So, at the age of 24, he decided to return home to Abu Ghosh, and invest in the village in which he was raised. The year was 1993.

During the War of Independence, the people of Abu Ghosh sided with the Israelis and helped them. After the war, they were determined to live as Arab Israelis within the State of Israel. From that day until this, they have been loyal friends, and peaceful Israeli citizens.

When Jawdat Ibrahim returned to Abu Ghosh, he decided to open a restaurant. He called it, very simply, Abu Ghosh Restaurant. He built his staff from among the local young men, in order to give them a base of income and stability. He continues this practice today. Very quickly, and with good reason, his restaurant grew in popularity, and he is reputed to serve the best hummus in Israel. (I personally can vouch for that!) In addition to the restaurant, Jawdat set up a scholarship fund for Jewish and Arab university students. When asked why he was helping Jewish students, who already were benefitting from other scholarship funds, he replied that he wanted to set the example for Jews, so that they, in turn, would contribute to Arab students!

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Abu Ghosh Restaurant

In addition to his philanthropy, Jawdat became a pursuer of peace. During the 1990’s, the then Defense Minister, now President Simon Peres, would hold meetings at Abu Ghosh Restaurant with Faisal Husseini, a chief negotiator of the Palestinian Authority. No doubt the meetings included plenty of hummus. In 2002, during the darkest days of the Intifada, Jawdat set up a huge tent alongside his restaurant, and placed in it a giant TV screen. Then he sent out word, through newspapers and other media, to the surrounding Jewish and Arab communities, that they were invited to come to his tent together to watch the World Cup Soccer Tournament. For the month that followed, Jews from Jerusalem, and Arabs from neighboring towns, came to Jawdat’s tent, often having to pass through several roadblocks, and watched the tournament together. He said, “People always come away from these meetings saying how they never knew that there was another side.” One evening during the height of the Intifada in 2002, my friend and I went for dinner to Abu Ghosh Restaurant, feeling totally safe. And we were. It also is important to Jawdat to display his coveted prize from 2010, when he won the Guinness Book of World Records prize for the biggest bowl of hummus in the world (with the help 50 neighboring chefs!).

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Turkish Coffee at Abu Ghosh Restaurant

As our stay in Israel comes to a close, at least until next time, Steve and I decided to have lunch today at Abu Ghosh Restaurant, since indeed it is one of our favorites. After a plate of the celebrated hummus, among other things, our own coveted prize was our Turkish coffee, which you see in the picture. I can also tell you that Jawdat, now in his 40’s, is just a lovely man – a hard working, down-to-earth, regular guy. And if we didn’t know his story, we would think he was just an ordinary restaurateur, having a good time, looking out for his customers and staff. He is also a husband and father, and has embraced the principle of “from one to whom much is given, much is expected.”

Late last month, some Jewish extremists sneaked into Abu Ghosh, and slashed the tires on a number of the residents’ cars, and sprayed racist graffiti in the walls. The government condemned the act as terrorism, and created a legal mechanism that would hasten the prosecution of racially motivated hate crimes such as this. The last thing Israel wants or needs is to hurt and alienate its loyal citizens. In the wake of these crimes, the people of Abu Ghosh have pledged their ongoing friendship and loyalty to Israel. But peace-loving, rational, compassionate people everywhere should be alarmed and outraged by extremist behavior, wherever, and whenever it occurs, particularly in this context.

The Mishnah teaches: Be of the disciples of Aaron; seek peace and pursue it. Jawdat Ibrahim is just such a person.

Stones of Destruction; Prayers of Comfort

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Stones from the Destruction of Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.

This is The Night of Tishah B’av… the 9th day of Av, a day of mourning, as Jews all over the world remember the Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, first in 586 BCE at the hands of the Babylonians, and then the Romans, in 70 CE. Services are characterized by sitting on the floor in the dark, a 24-hour fast, and wearing canvas or rubber shoes instead of leather – kind of like a mini-shiva. In addition, the Scroll of Eichah (Lamentations) is intoned, with its mournful timbre reflecting the poetry of bereavement.

The Stones of Destruction … This year, instead of going to synagogue on this night, Steve and I did something different, that one can only do here in Jerusalem. We spent the evening at Robinson’s Arch – the archaeological site of the remains of the Temple. There we gazed upon the huge stones, strewn about just as they have been, since they toppled to the ground some 2,000 years ago. This is what is left of the magnificent structure that once stood towering above Jerusalem, now reduced to a pile of rubble. From there we walked a bit further uphill to the main Kotel area – the Western Wall – a section of the retaining wall that surrounded the Temple Mount. It is perhaps the most iconic symbol of our deep roots as Jews in the Land of Israel. The plaza was filled with people tonight, as was the entire city, as Jews devoted this night to memory and prayer.

As New Yorkers, unfortunately we can relate all too well to a place of destruction such as this. The devastation at Ground Zero is seared into our memories forever. We remember the The Twin Towers, once rising above all New York, gleaming in the sunlight. And we watched them as they fell to rubble and ash over over a huge area of Lower Manhattan. Every year on 9/11, solemn memorials are held all over the country; the most significant in New York, at Ground Zero.

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Model of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Israel Museum

The Difference, of course, is that even in the face of this horrific destruction, we New Yorkers did not lose our city, nor our freedom or national identity as Americans. Twelve years after the catastrophe, our businesses are back, and the new towers are on their way up, though the losses of loved ones are permanent. For us as Jews, however, the destruction of the Temple meant the destruction of Jerusalem itself, exile from our land, and loss of our sovereignty. For some two millennia, our people dreamt of our homeland and restoration of our independence. “Next year in Jerusalem,” we have echoed through the centuries. Finally, in the late 19th century, we began the process of reclaiming Jewish sovereignty, which culminated in May of 1948 when the State of Israel was born. Now, 65 years later, Israel is a nation seething with excitement; with scientific and high tech advances, a rich and profound cultural and intellectual life, an animated political and philosophical discourse, and economic progress and creativity, all of which far exceed her size. Yet with each year we understand more acutely that the responsibilities and challenges of sovereignty are manifold. There is much work yet to be done, so that Israel can evolve into all that she is capable of being, as a modern democratic nation. Yet we give thanks that the State of Israel is alive and flourishing, and that the process of rebuilding that state is ongoing, and continuously evolving. We will remember that during this coming Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort, as we begin the anticipation of our rejoicing in the New Year.

The Reform Movement, historically, has distanced itself from observing Tishah B’av, on the ideological grounds that we do not mourn the Temple, nor the Priesthood, nor its sacrificial cult. While that is still the case, there can be no doubt that Reform Judaism in recent years has sought to link itself to the shared history of ALL the Jewish people. The Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, along with the Exile that ensued, is a seminal moment in our people’s history, and thus we have much more willingly embraced this memory. As I beheld that pile of rubble tonight, I felt this link most profoundly.

This Coming Shabbat is Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort, as we read words of consolation from the Prophet Isaiah:

Nachamu, Nachamu Ami – Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God,
And declare to her that her term of service is over. . . (40.1)

Youths may grow faint and weary, and young men stumble and fall.
But they who trust in our God shall renew their strength.
They shall run and not grow weary, they shall march and not be faith. . . (40.30-31)

Fear not for I am with you. Be not frightened, for I am your God;
I strengthen and I help you, I uphold you with My victorious right hand. (41.10)