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Town Hall Meeting

Our Torah portion this week, Mishpatim, sets forth a framework of laws whose purpose it was to create a fair and just society, within which everyone could live a good life, in security and peace. It is perhaps with a note of irony that we are reading this portion during this week, when, virtually all over our country, Americans have been gathering in auditoriums, houses of worship, colleges and meeting halls of all kinds, for “town hall” meetings with their Senators and Congressional Representatives, to demand that America live up to the American dream of a fair and just society for all. On Wednesday evening, Union Temple was filled to the gills with people of all racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations, to hear from Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, and a panel of experts on the environment, immigration law, the ACLU, health care, and Planned Parenthood, for a reaffirmation of our democratic values as Americans, and how to go forward during this oppressive administration, to make sure that we are protected and that our values are promulgated. We were delighted to be able to offer our congregation as a venue for this important gathering.

I was honored to be asked by Representative Clarke to deliver the invocation.  These were my remarks:

“The portion of the Torah that the entire Jewish world is reading during this week includes one of the foundational precepts of our entire tradition: “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” No fewer than thirty-six times does the Torah repeat this admonition: “You know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

For Jews, it is out of our historical experience of bondage, of degradation, of being outsiders, that we are commanded to stand up, now as a free people in this world, and do better; to pursue justice, to create a society of fairness, to treat other people with compassion and respect, no matter what they look like, whom they love, or where they come from. And I needn’t remind you, my friends, that if there is one people who should know the feelings of the stranger, the outsider, the disadvantaged, it is we, the Jews – the driven of the earth. And thus it is we who are charged with the responsibility to do better. And we believe that not only we, but every human being, regardless of our religious beliefs or affiliations, regardless of our station in life; that every one of us has the capacity to do better. It is a fundamental optimism with which we approach our responsibilities in this world.

We are here this evening – all of us, of different backgrounds and traditions – we are here out of our belief that our country has the capacity to do better; to create a more just and compassionate society. This is our mission – to create a society of fairness and equality, of kindness and compassion, of justice, and of peace.

Yet above all, we understand that the responsibility of bringing our mission to fruition rests squarely upon our shoulders. And so we stand this evening, shoulder to shoulder, together with Congresswoman Clarke, and all her of colleagues – to realize the full promise of the American dream. May we go forward with courage, and strength, as we walk together in peace.”

The End of One Year

2017Our Torah portion begins, Vayehi miketz sh’natayim yamim. . . After two years’ time. . . . The two years are those that presumably have passed since the end of last week’s parashah, as the cupbearer of the Egyptian court had told his dream to Joseph, and Joseph interpreted it with astounding accuracy. This time, “after two years’ time,” it is Pharaoh himself who is dreaming. The cupbearer tells him of Joseph’s astonishing powers of dream interpretation. Pharaoh orders Joseph’s release from the dungeon, and thus begins Joseph’s rise to power.

It is fortuitous that we are talking about miketz sh’natayim yamim, the end of two years, now at the end of this year of 2016. While in actual time it has only been one year, it has felt like one of the longest years in history. Donald Trump steamrolling over sixteen opponents in the Republican primaries; the often irritating rivalry between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders; the bruising, often outrageous presidential campaign; the unforgettable election night that most of us would prefer to forget; the devastating massacre at Pulse Night Club in Orlando; the police shootings of all too many African American young men, and likewise, the targeted shootings of all too many police officers; Brexit; Nice; Berlin; natural disasters; Russian hacking; escalated tensions between the US and Israel – close friends who are clearly rather irritated with each other at this moment – and the deaths of all too many celebrities whom we felt like we knew personally – from Mohammed Ali, to Gene Wilder, to Prince, to John Glenn, to Eli Wiesel, to Shimon Peres, and just this week, not only Carrie Fisher, but her mother Debbie Reynolds as well, among many more.

Vayehi miketz sh’natayim yamim. . . . This may have been one year that felt not even like “two years’ time,” but more like twenty. I suspect we won’t be sorry to bid farewell to 2016. But 2017, of course, will present us with many challenges. While we may still be feeling down in the dumps, we will have to redirect our energies into mobilizing for what are sure to be struggles ahead.

This Torah portion, Miketz, is almost always read during the Festival of Chanukah. While it is actually just a calendrical coincidence, perhaps we might find some hope in the metaphor of light, which is such a prominent feature of our Festival of Lights. The last night of Chanukah this year is also the last night of 2016. But the festival reminds us of the strength and eternality of the Jewish People, and of the values we derive from our tradition – the values of justice, and fairness, of compassion and the pursuit of peace, and the teaching of fundamental respect for the dignity of all human beings.

So, Miketz HaShanah HaZot – at the end of this year – I wish all of you in the coming year renewed strength, and fortitude, hope and peace.

A Shelter of Peace

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The Eiffel Tower lit with the French tricolor after the Paris terrorist attack on November 13, 2015. Courtesy Yann Caradec CC.

This past Friday night and Saturday, the peace of our Shabbat was pierced by the unspeakable violence and brutality of the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris. Our hearts go out to those who are mourning loved ones, and our prayers for healing go out to those who were wounded. It is as though this wanton attack on the City of Lights has driven a dagger into the heart of the world. And, as many world leaders and local police chiefs have observed, it is, in many ways, a game changer for all of us.

In light of the vicious attacks upon the people of Paris, we need to acknowledge as well that which has been all too conspicuously absent from the headlines. That is the spate of terrorist attacks that have killed innocent people elsewhere as well. And to this I say “mea culpa.” My attention as well has been focused on Paris, far more than anywhere else in recent days. But here are the facts that we dare not forget as compassionate members of the human race. The following is just a sampling of terrorist attacks that have taken place just in this calendar year of 2015, not including those in Israel:

January 3-7: Boko Haram militants attacked in Baga, Nigeria. Death toll ranged from 150 to 2,000 people. It was the worst death toll for an attack carried out by Boko Haram, which has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks with deaths ranging from just a few to hundreds of people over several years.

January 7: Two al-Qaeda-linked gunmen killed 11 people at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris and killed a police officer outside. A total of 17 people and three gunmen died in bloodshed, including an attack on a kosher market.

April 3: 147 people, mostly students, at Garissa University in Kenya are killed in an attack; al-Shabaab claims responsibility.

October 10: Suicide bombers detonated devices in Ankara and killed about 100 people in the Turkish capital. Investigators suspected Islamic State-linked perpetrators.

November 12: A pair of suicide bombings struck southern Beirut on Thursday, killing 43 people and leaving shattered glass and blood on the streets, Lebanese authorities said. At least 239 others were wounded, according to the state-run National News Agency.

These and similar attacks remind us that it is almost as though we take for granted the atmosphere of violence and brutality in Asia and Africa, and the Middle East, to the point where we and our media take scant notice of it. It is not my intent to point fingers, or speak with a “holier than thou” attitude. I have no business doing that, and admittedly my own more immediate attention has indeed been focused on Israel and Paris, even as I worry as well about our safety here in New York and elsewhere in the United States. Yet, if we are going to engage in a war on terrorism that has any hope of succeeding, we can’t afford to insulate ourselves from terrorism that targets innocent people, no matter where they live.

In our Torah portion we read: Jacob awoke from his slumber and exclaimed: Surely God is in this place and I – I did not know it!

As a society, and as peace-loving people, we cannot afford to forget about our fellow human beings who are suffering. The following is an excerpt from a posting last Saturday night by the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism:

Fighting evil, and that which is done supposedly in the name of God, is a great moral and religious duty. It must take place harshly and without compromise. At the same time, it is imperative that in every location, we work toward a better social, economic, cultural and political world order, which promotes hope and partnership between all of humanity. It is crucial that we fight not only the murderers and their senders, but also despair, hatred, and idol worship.

We pray that a Sukkat Shalom – a shelter of peace – be spread speedily upon the City of Lights and that it soon see again love, freedom, equality and fraternity.

“And I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid; and I will cause evil beasts to cease out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land.” (Leviticus 26.6)

Pray For the Peace of Jerusalem

Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem

Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem

Our Torah portion explains that the mabul – the flood – that God sent to destroy the world was as a result of the hamas that had filled the earth. In Biblical translation, this word hamas is usually translated as “violence.” Rabbinic commentaries further explain this “violence” as “economic corruption.”

But violence in the raw, physical sense, is very much with us to this day in our world, particularly with our people in Israel, as the current wave of attacks has risen in recent days, especially in Jerusalem, but elsewhere as well.

A little earlier today (Thursday) I participated in a conference call cosponsored by the New York Board of Rabbis and the Jewish Federations of North America, with Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem. He said that one of the most helpful things for us to do at this moment is to communicate information to our communities. In keeping with that request, here are some of the salient points of his conversation with us.

1) Members of the Palestinian Authority and Arab leadership in Israel are lying to their people with regard to Israel’s intentions on the Temple Mount. Though it is a holy site both for Jews and Muslims, the fact is that Israel has no intention of changing the status of the Temple Mount that would weaken Muslim control over the area in general, and particularly over the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosques. This is a lie that has been spread by those who are interested in inciting violence, and has no basis in fact.

2) Israel’s government, and particularly the Municipality of Jerusalem and its police force, are committed to tightening security for the people of Jerusalem, whether Jewish or Muslim, and will not tolerate a spread of this violence. Those who attempt to perpetrate acts of violence are warned that in all probability they will not return home.

3) Mr. Barkat himself has personally conferred with school principals, particularly high school principals, in the Arab sectors of East Jerusalem, to discuss measures of quelling the current wave of violence, since the majority of perpetrators seem to be teenagers. One intention that the principals have is to lengthen the school day for the high schools to at least 5:00 in the afternoon. Whether it is through programs in sports, or computers, or other areas of concentration, they are going to do what they can to lengthen the school day of this age group.

4) In addition, the principals made a request of the mayor, which he will honor. They asked him to please move the policemen away from the schools a bit at the beginning and end of school days, in order to reduce a bit of the tension. But also, the principals requested that police come into the schools to talk with the kids, and bring materials to show the kids that there is another side of the story. Help them to help the kids, in other words, as they attempt to speak the kids’ language so that the kids can understand that violence is not the answer.

5) While Mr. Barkat does not like restricting the points of access to Jerusalem, this is a measure that he is forced to take until the current wave of terror has ceased.

6) There are, indeed, moderate members of the Arab community, both among the police and the school authorities, who are seeking to work together with the Jewish community to end this wave of violence. They feel that they are often overpowered by those determined to incite violence and enmity, but Mr. Barkat and other members of the Jewish community are in close touch with these moderate leaders, in order to put an end to the current violence. No one wants to see Jewish kids, OR Arab kids getting hurt, and potentially killed. The leaders know they must work together to accomplish that goal.

7) While there is admittedly tension in the streets of Jerusalem at this particular moment, life does go on. People go to work, kids go to school, and the Mayor’s Office has not canceled any events in the city. “If terrorists succeed in stopping us from doing what we want to do,” Mr. Barkat observed, “then they have succeeded.” To Jerusalemites as well as to visitors from other countries, Mr. Barkat says unequivocally, “Continue your plans. Help to fight terrorism by not being terrorized.”

[Read Mayor Barkat’s full message here.]

During this Shabbat – October 16/17 – the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations of North America has called for a show of solidarity with Israel and a call for an end to the violence. Those who have committed to this Solidarity Shabbat include: the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the Rabbinical Council of America, the National Council of Young Israel and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities.

In keeping with this Solidarity Shabbat, we will include prayers during our services for peace in Israel, and between Arabs and Jews.

שאלו שלום ירושלים ישליו אהביך – Sha’alu sh’lom Yerushalayim; yishlayu ohavaych. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may those who love you prosper. (Psalm 122.6)

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.