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Light Against the Darkness

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Menorah. Photo: Robert Couse-Baker, Flickr

On the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall this past Saturday evening, I joined a number of rabbinic colleagues and our various congregants, in addition to our friends and colleagues from the Christian and Muslim communities, for a demonstration of unity in light of the increasingly emboldened face of bigotry and hatred. One of the speakers who particularly impressed me was Linda Sarsour from the Arab American Association of New York. When she finished speaking she and I hugged, because we realized that we shared our name. But in addition, we share our desire to live in a country that embraces the core value of respect for the dignity of human beings, regardless of religion, gender, sexual preference, or ethnic background. As she stepped to the podium, some hecklers across the street raised their voices in agreement with Donald Trump’s expressed intention (IF he were given the chance to implement it) to exclude all members of the Muslim faith from entering America. When the heckling grew louder, a number of us – Jews, Muslims, Christians, women and men – drew closer and surrounded her in support, as she recounted the pressure and harassment that the Muslim community has had to endure, and continues to endure, here in America, where she was born.

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Arab American Association of New York website

A makeshift menorah was put together for the occasion by Eddie Ehrlich, whose brother Danny is the VP of Keshet Tours, and is organizing our trip to Israel this July. Eddie spoke eloquently about his father who had been expelled from Vienna by the Nazis, and found refuge here in America. Then he lit the menorah, which shone as a bright light of freedom against the darkness of bigotry and exclusion. Each one of us is a descendant of immigrants. Some of our ancestors, and perhaps even some of us, came to these shores seeking refuge from persecution, and in some cases, almost certain death. Some came seeking the possibility of a better life for themselves and their children – a life of economic, educational, social and professional opportunities that were closed to them in their countries of origin.

In our Torah portion this week, Joseph’s brothers have made the long journey down to Egypt to escape the famine that was blanketing the land of Israel, and most of the Ancient Near East. They were new to this place and unfamiliar with their surroundings. They had to plead their case before the Viceroy himself, who appeared as a threatening figure to them. Only after proving themselves worthy did the Viceroy reveal himself as their long-lost brother Joseph, whom they did not recognize, as his appearance was that of Egyptian royalty. This is the Torah’s etiology for how the Children of Israel came to be in Egypt. As we will read beginning in January, the sojourn there didn’t turn out so well.

This is a different time and place. But hopefully we have learned the lessons of history. As American Jews we continue to stand up and raise our voices against the scourge of bigotry, ostracism and persecution that threaten our values at this time.

In this spirit, and still until the end of this day I wish you a Chag Urim Sameach, a Happy Chanukah, our Festival of Light.

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.

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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.

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.