IRRESPONSIBLE RESPONSES

The same Talmud that tells us that it was baseless hatred among Jews that brought ruin to the second Beit HaMikdash or second Temple in Jerusalem, also provides over a dozen other reasons that contributed toward the destruction that ultimately led to 2000 years of homelessness of our people. Despite remarkable and praiseworthy prescriptions and soundbites on the part of individual rabbis (HaRav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, was known to have said: If baseless hatred brought about destruction, then baseless love will bring about construction), it’s most unfortunate that the Talmud never addressed the topic of bringing an end to this two-thousand-year-old national wound that refuses to heal. However pompous and self-aggrandizing this may appear to be, I should like to do just that. Unless we as Jews are prepared to rectify the following conditions, the advent of Moshiach will remain as elusive as ever.

The other week at Se’udat Shlisheet, the third meal of the Shabbat, we took a look at five calamities that occurred on the 17th of Tammuz, a date seminal to the Tisha B’Av destruction. Among those catastrophes was that Apostomus burned a Torah scroll, and that an idol was placed in the Temple. I maintained that it was highly doubtful that this was the first time in our history, and neither was it the last time in our history, for such reprehensible acts to have occurred. What brought these calamities to the fore, I believe, was our response to these calamities – no one gave a damn. Not one of the five calamities seemed to faze us. That was the true calamity that led up to the destruction of the Temple. When Jews are blasé about events that ought to be of major concern, destructive forces that will quite likely decimate cannot be far behind. As of late, we have spent a great amount of time and a great amount of energy on Pew reports and other studies that raised red flags about our future as American Jews, only to wave those flags aside, lest they get in the way of our daily doings.

Earlier this month, a most controversial rabbinic figure met a most unusual death, as he immersed himself in a lake in Mexico in preparation for Shabbat. This controversial yet charismatic figure spent time in jail for kidnapping (he spirited a pre-Bar Mitzvah age child away from his insufficiently observant parents and brought him to Israel where he would be raised in a proper atmosphere under the tutelage of a G-d fearing family). He was a cult figure, where his followers living in a commune of sorts were following his dictates that governed dress code (facial features aside, the women could be easily mistaken for Muslims), behavior and lifestyle. His followers were being regularly visited and cited by Child Protective Services and he was in arrears of tax payments and other monetary obligations. Yet not only did the article reporting his death omit all these ugly details, it concluded with three Hebrew words: Yehi zichro baruch, May his memory be a blessing! When Jews choose to compartmentalize, where they focus solely on the ritual but overlook obligations toward civil law as is unfortunately the case in all too many cases, then the lessons of Tisha B’Av become misunderstood and totally irrelevant. To paraphrase the essayist and philosopher George Santyana: Those who fail to understand Tisha B’Av are condemned to repeat it.

In his book “Changing the Immutable,” Professor Marc B. Shapiro points out that there are Orthodox communities for whom history must be altered for it to be palatable. Put differently, they (certain Orthodox) can’t handle historical truth. That’s why there are coloring books for children that depict our forefather Abraham as though he belongs on the Lower East Side of New York in the 1940s. G-d forbid Abraham should be seen as a four thousand year old Iraqi! Perish the thought that we should realize that when Tisha B’Av did occur, there is a great likelihood that our ancestors physically resembled modern day Palestinians.

History happens. So too do events. At times, those events are a great source of shame. When we as a people react nonchalantly or gloss over them and pretend they didn’t happen, or rewrite history because we can’t deal with reality, we only serve to inhibit the advent of Moshiach, who will once and for all put Tisha B’Av behind us.

ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY

The first Yiddish language socialist newspaper in New York, Di Arbetter Tzeitung (the Workers Newspaper,) enjoyed a life span of a mere seven years. In the Spring of 1897, it was succeeded by a daily known as The Forverts (the name was borrowed from Vorwarts a publication of the German Social Democratic Party). The aim of the Forverts was to provide a daily newspaper to appeal to the newly arrived Jewish masses that had settled predominantly in New York, their politics, as well as their lifestyle.

One Hundred and Twenty years later, the Yiddish publication is still being published, albeit twice a month instead of daily. It has anglicized its name to Forward and the circulation is less than 6,000 and falling. It would be interesting to see how many Yiddish Forvertz are mailed to Dallas… (I know of only one.)

There’s a certain irony to the Yiddish Forvertz. To be sure there are still Jews in this country, in Israel, and elsewhere whose lingua franca is Yiddish. With all but a precious few exceptions, contemporary Yiddish speakers are found in the Orthodox communities of Borough Park (Brooklyn), Crown Heights (Brooklyn), and Monsey (Rockland County N.Y.), who, if they do read a Yiddish newspaper, it is highly doubtful if it would be the Yiddish Forvertz. The Yiddish Forvertz places great emphasis on Yiddish culture, Yiddish grammar, and Yiddish orthography; the Orthodox community places great emphasis on their vernacular – grammar, spelling, and syntax be damned. The Yiddish Forvertz is concerned lest a Yiddish word is too “Deitshmerish” (Germanic) and at times, goes to great lengths to replace it. The Yiddish speaking Orthodox are concerned that they preserve Hebrew from becoming the lingua franca.

From its very onset, the Yiddish Forverts labeled itself as “progressive” when it came to politics. To be fair, the Yiddish Forvertz was pro-Israel even before statehood was proclaimed, but it is no secret that over the decades, those who published the Yiddish Forvertz longed for an Israel that understandably reflected their view of society. The Yiddish speaking Orthodox communities of today are far from monolithic when it comes to politics in this country, as well as their attitude toward Israel. Unsurprisingly, Orthodox communities tend to vote in blocs and will quite often cast their vote following the recommendation of the Rebbe (if the group is Hassidic) or Rabbi (if the group is non-Hassidic). There are Orthodox groups that strongly support Israel and have branches in Israel where they live in their own communities. Then there are other Orthodox groups that are vehemently opposed to the mere existence of a Jewish government in power in Israel, in that only with the advent of Moshiach (the Messiah), should Jews be part of a government overseeing the Holy Land. Some fifteen years ago, I encountered a member from an Orthodox community who refrained from offering up a prayer for the State of Israel at Shabbat services, because that community felt that a Jewish State ought to be governed by observant “Torah true” Jews.

Last but not least, the Yiddish Forvertz will publish articles that no “self-respecting” Orthodox publication would ever go near. Some time ago, the Yiddish Forvertz did an article about a Jewish woman who was raised and educated in a highly observant Orthodox community. This woman had abandoned her past and was now entertaining men at a Gentleman’s Club (see Merriam Webster for the definition lest anyone misconstrue), where some of her clients were from similarly observant communities. Such Jewish women do not exist as far as the Orthodox communities, as well as the Yiddish publications their constituents read, are concerned, nor do such clubs. (If such women are acknowledged at all, it is in hushed tones, whispered into the ear of the listener.) As for the Orthodox men frequenting such clubs, that’s a smear tactic on the part of a malicious press.

Alas, the very Jews the 120-year-old Yiddish publication sought to appeal to –those who were native Yiddish speakers, with politically progressive views, who sought to Americanize themselves in so many ways are pretty much extinct. Many of the less than 6,000 who do read the Yiddish Forvertz, learned their Yiddish in college and as our people in this country were once known to have intoned: “On such Yiddish, you shouldn’t depend for a conversation.”

BLACKLISTING AND WHITEWASHING

The late Senator Joseph McCarthy, infamously known for exposing Communists – either real or perceived – who had infiltrated the Federal government, especially the State Department, would have been proud. He could now justify that he wasn’t the only one who blacklisted individuals by compiling lists. Based on an article that appeared in the Dallas Morning News earlier this week, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has recently compiled a list of overseas (American) rabbis, whose authority they refuse to recognize when it comes to certifying the Jewishness of someone who wants to get married in Israel. Thanks to the efforts of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, another blacklist has been born.

Don’t get me wrong! Every rabbi has the right to accept or reject the authority of any other rabbi (hopefully for bona fide reasons). To create a list which effectively publicly besmirches a rabbi’s reputation however, is unacceptable. Had the blacklist been comprised of names of any and all Conservative and Reform Rabbis, the vast majority of American Jews would have dismissed the list as being par for the course, considering who is behind it, and would have relegated it to a matter of “boys will be boys.” But this list includes a number of Orthodox Rabbis as well, particularly those who espouse “a more open and inclusive Orthodoxy.”

I’m sure many will think that I’m overacting when I point out that the list reared its ugly head suspiciously close to the backlash of the brouhaha; created when Prime Minister Netanyahu had to cave into the pressures and demands of his Orthodox coalition and renege on an agreement that would have afforded a “mechitza-free” davening area at the Kotel or Western Wall in Jerusalem. Meetings between American Jewish leaders and Israeli officials were suddenly canceled, as American Jews reacted angrily to the chicanery and began to rethink how their donations to Federation and other Jewish umbrella organizations ought to be earmarked.

Timing is everything. One would do well to speculate whether in their haste, those responsible for publishing names failed to realize that the list would surface painfully close to the beginning of the three-week period preceding the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem – a destruction that came about because of gratuitous acrimony among Jews. On the other hand, others might argue that those responsible for the surfacing of the blacklist knew exactly what they were doing! Either way, sinat chinam – baseless hatred – reduced the Temple to a pile of rubble, ultimately resulting in two thousand years of homelessness for our people.  And this becomes more real and poignant because of the blacklist surfacing when it does.

Personally, I have no idea whether are not I am also on the blacklist. Frankly, I don’t give a damn. I am much too concerned about a different list. It’s a list (not for publication purposes) that is compiled by HaShem. In a little over two months, HaShem will be scrutinizing that list. I’m not worried that I am blacklisted; I am concerned – it is my hope and prayer that I, along with my reputation, will be whitewashed. When it comes to lists, the heavenly list is the only one that ultimately counts. It would greatly benefit others to realize this as well.

 

FIREWORKS

Not that it’s a contest, but when it comes to fireworks, the outside world doesn’t hold a candle – Roman or otherwise, to us. As Jews, we are the world champion of fireworks. Realize, if you will, that 70 candles are lit annually in Jewish households where festivals and holidays are observed. That’s in addition to yahrzeit candles, Havdalah candles, Shiva candles (G-d forbid,) and Shabbat candles. But it’s more than just numbers! Fireworks are designed to light up the skies. Candles in Jewish homes are designed to light up our lives.

With the exception of one middle letter, the Hebrew word for fire, eish, and the Hebrew word for human, ish, are identical. As far as Judaism is concerned, it is more than mere coincidence. Fire can only exist in a medium where there is both fuel and oxygen. Take away either the fuel or the oxygen and the fire will quickly die out. The very same holds true for humans. Humans also require fuel and oxygen. Take away either the fuel (food) or the oxygen and the human will ultimately die. Judaism, however, goes even one step further when it comes to humans. Aside from food and air, Judaism understands the two necessary components for survival as metaphors for physicality and spirituality. For a healthy life, both are necessary. This is why Judaism looks at the flame of a candle and sees it reaching high, as though it were clamoring for spirituality, only to be reminded that it must remain anchored to the candle, its source of fuel representing the material world.

Fireworks not only light up the skies, but they do so with resplendent colors. Come July 4th of each year, the night skies are sprayed with a panoply of colors that might well cause artists to sit up and take notice. In this realm, Judaism cannot compete, nor does it have any desire to do so. The flames that have served to illuminate Jewish homes over the millennia are comprised of colors that are basic and simple – orange/yellow and blue/black. Whether the flames celebrate a miraculous event (Chanukah) or a heartbreaking event (Shiva,) Judaism reminds us that life – a healthy, normal life – is a combination of dark days represented by the blue/black hue and bright days represented by the orange/yellow hue. Judaism also reminds us that a healthy, normal life is one that is no different than the typical flame; the orange/yellow bright days will far outshine the blue/black dark days.

Last but not least, fireworks are bedazzling. The intricate designs that streak across the horizon, resulting from engineered ingredients within every candle, Roman or otherwise, explain why Americans set aside time and make it a point to watch the fireworks displays. Jewish “fireworks” are limited to one design. Most dismiss Jewish “fireworks” as a mere flame.  Precious few realize that that flame shape and tear shape are one and of the same. And with good reason! Just as Judaism recognizes two primary colors of flames, so too does Judaism recognize two different types of tears. There are tears of sadness; there are tears of joy. While I doubt any studies have been made or any polls taken, I can’t help but wonder which candles are lit, if any, in greater number in Jewish homes, yahrzeit candles or Shabbat/festival candles. I pray that it is the latter. In life, there will always be tears. G-d willing, the tears of joy will far outnumber the tears of sadness.

In all likelihood, the fireworks celebrating July 4th leave a special impression. I hope the fireworks celebrating the Jewish calendar as well as Jewish life-cycle events will do the very same, if not more.

 

BACK TO THE WALL

Bibi’s (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayu) back is to the wall –in the most literal sense. Earlier this week, he had to renege on an agreement adopted 17 months ago with Jewish leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel, along with a Jewish feminist group Women at the Wall that was supposed to restore harmony at the Kotel (Western Wall). Did Bibi really believe that he could bring the Orthodox around to permitting a section at the Kotel to be used for non-Orthodox davening? Or perhaps Bibi was just biding his time by wasting the time of the non-Orthodox leadership that negotiated. Perhaps those who negotiated knew what the outcome would be before going into negotiations, but they felt that they had nothing to lose and that they would be gaining momentum. Dream on!

Politics is politics and religion is religion and for the foreseeable future in Israel, the two will continue to meet and mash, as they have for decades now, blend nicely and yield power that their grandparents could never have fathomed. Like it or not, the Orthodox control the Kotel. That’s not to say that a Bar Mitzvah or Aufruff (the calling up to the Torah of a groom prior to his wedding, where HaShem’s blessings are invoked upon him and his bride) of non-Orthodox cannot take place at the Kotel. It can, it has, and it will continue to take place as long as the Bar Mitzvah or Auffruf along with any participation is acceptable to Orthodox guidelines and standards. Given the political reality of Israel, anyone who thinks that the status quo at the Kotel is likely to change any time soon is … off the wall.

Speaking of change, the non-Orthodox refuse to acknowledge (I’m sure they realize this – they cannot possibly be so stupid) that the only way that they can affect change at the Kotel is to pattern themselves after the Orthodox. The non-Orthodox  have to be prepared to make Aliyah (move to Israel) en mass, up their birthrate significantly, become politically involved  – that is to say start their own party, gain seats in the Knesset and… stop being so politically correct. Political prowess all too often requires resorting to “shtick” (questionable ethical behavior). Unfortunately, this seems to be to be especially the case in Israel. Until the non-Orthodox are prepared to reform themselves, any negotiations they enter into concerning the Kotel will be tantamount to talking to the wall.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism was quoted as saying: “We all care deeply about Israel…” Puhleese! Never has such a meaningless, vacuous statement been uttered. As a rabbi, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard grown children tell me how much they “care” about their frail and aged parent. For some children, caring for a parent  means visiting more often and becoming more involved in the parent’s well-being; for other children it means visiting the parent as little as possible, and letting others step in when it comes to the parent’s well-being. But let’s give Rabbi Jacob’s the benefit of the doubt. Let’s accept his “we all care about Israel” as being truly genuine. Let’s accept his fantasy as fact (even though no religious leader in his right mind would be careless and reckless enough to speak on behalf of the masses proclaiming “we all care”). Let us then suggest the following bumper sticker to Rabbi Jacobs: The Reform care about Israel; The Orthodox care about the Orthodox. To believe otherwise, to believe that an Israeli Prime Minister whose very political existence is dependent upon a coalition with the Orthodox parties, is about to offer concessions to non-Orthodox at the Kotel is utter nonsense. Why the non-Orthodox continue to beat their heads against the wall, is beyond me.

ENGLAND’S OTHER FIRE

With so much news coverage  focusing on the tragic fire of epic proportion at Grenfell Tower in London last Wednesday, which by latest count claimed 79 lives, it’s more than understandable that a fire hours later at Kay’s Kosher Deli in nearby Golder’s Green did not attract any attention. It should have. Although no one was hurt, much less killed by the Deli fire, Sil and Riv, both in their 20’s, were left homeless. Left with nothing, they took to “sleeping on the streets,” with one sleeping on a bench and the other sleeping beneath the bench.

It didn’t take long for Larry Berkowitz to learn about their plight. Mr. Berkowitz is owner of Bluebird Care, a company that provides home care throughout the borough.
“Luckily, we had a flat vacant, so we’ve given that to them (Sil and Riv) for a month or two, rent-free until they find their feet (sic).” Had the rent-free flat been the sum total of Mr. Berkowitz’s kindness and generosity, it would have been most appropriate for all who learned about it to extend a Yasher Koach to Mr. Berkowitz  and  to express a heartfelt “dayyeinu”!

But Mr. Berkowitz did not stop there. He gave Sil and Riv jobs, in that they were looking for employment when the fire broke out. “We understand that they weren’t insured, so they lost everything,” said Mr. Berkowitz. “There’s a local fund-raising effort underway to help them replace lost furniture and goods. Hopefully, the jobs should help them too. We’ll start their training next week.”

As a rabbi, as one who believes in individual as well as communal responsibility to help one another, as well as the stranger in need, I shepped a great deal of naches reading about how Mr. Berkowitz immediately stepped in to help. Rather than ask the vacuous “Isn’t somebody going to do anything?” Mr. Berkowitz “out-Mosesed” Moses. Whereas our biblical role model first looked “hither and thither” before taking matters into his own hands, Larry Berkowitz did not take the time to look. He immediately took matters into his own hands and arranged for living quarters.

As a result of this most moving human interest story, I have three wishes:
Not only do I wish Sil and Riv every bit of success as they begin to rebuild their lives, but I hope that Sil and Riv (I could be wrong, but from the photo, I imagine them to be African immigrants) always remember the kindness extended to them by Larry Berkowitz. If Sil and Riv choose to tell others in their community about their misfortune, I would hope that they tell others in their community about their good fortune as well.

I hope that Larry Berkowitz serves as a source of inspiration to others. I hope that others are inspired by what Mr. Berkowitz did and that others adopt the attitude of: “If Larry Berkowitz can do it, I can do it.” If Larry Berkowitz’s act of chessed (kindness) ends up spawning other acts of chessed, then society will continue to improve and become immeasurably better.

I hope that Larry is rewarded for his generosity and selflessness. In addition to letters of gratitude and seeing that his efforts bear fruit more luscious than he himself ever anticipated, I hope that Larry is rewarded by HaShem with good health and long life, as well as the very best life has to offer. He surely deserves it.

FREE PALESTINE

It’s been over a quarter of a century since “Mr. Sam” (Walton, founder of Walmart) departed this world. From what I have read about him, Mr. Sam was a simple, down to earth, no-nonsense guy, whose greatest joy in life was hunting quail. Admittedly, I know absolutely nothing about his political views, particular with regard to the Middle East. I would however be stunned beyond words if “Mr. Sam” mixed politics and merchandise. Whether he ardently supported or adamantly opposed Israel or the Palestinians, I cannot help but feel that “Mr. Sam” would shelve his views when it came to what was being stocked at Walmart stores; I cannot help but feel that when it came to Walmart, Mr. Sam’s sole interest was product, not politics.

Accordingly, it was more than with a modicum of revulsion that I recently learned that Walmart was selling over two dozen styles of T-shirts, supporting the plight of the “poor Palestinians” with slogans such as “Free Palestine” brazenly emboldened on them. For the record, I would be equally revulsed if Walmart were to sell T-shirts with messages printed on them along the lines of “Free Israel from Palestinians.” Does Walmart really want to go that route and enter an imbroglio about which it apparently knows nothing?
The buyers for Walmart must be supplementing their diets with daily doses of stupidity pills. Less than two years ago, Walmart offered an Israeli toy soldier dressed in uniform for sale. Predictably, no different from the T-Shirts, the reactions to the Israeli toy soldier were split: evangelical Christians and politically conservative Jews loved the soldier; those opposing the “occupation” were incensed. “The fact that you have chosen to carry ‘Israeli soldier costumes’ for kids on your website and in your stores is highly offensive, not only to millions of Palestinian-Americans that shop in your stores, but to anyone who has an ounce of humanity in their bodies (sic). I urge you, as an American-Jew, a wife of a Palestinian, a shopper and most importantly as a human being, that you reconsider your decision to sell these costumes and pull them from your shelves,” wrote Sarah Amor Itayem.

Like so many others, Walmart still cannot absorb the fact that that when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, facts and logic mean bupkiss. Supporters of Israel will tell you that Palestinians brought all of the “suffering” on themselves. That’s patently false. Their corrupt leadership is to blame. The sooner Palestinians are freed from Hamas, Fatah and other murderous, thuggish leadership who poison innocent minds with hatred and brainwash those same innocent minds with victimhood, the healthier Palestinians will be in mind and spirit and the more prepared they will be to govern themselves. That’s when “Palestine” will be free. The sooner Palestinians are freed from Europeans, Americans and others whose hearts bleed for them, (have you ever wondered why any of these bleeding hearts have not traveled to so called Palestinian territories and volunteered their time to help these “poor humiliated people deprived of their future”), the sooner Palestinians will realize that they are responsible for their own future. That’s when “Palestine” will be free. The sooner the Palestinians are freed from drowning in self-pity that no one cares about them (there is much truth to that, Arabs from other countries don’t give a damn about the Palestinians. What does that tell you?), the sooner Palestinians will realize that they ought to take a stab at building homes, setting up businesses and begin acting like other normal societies in this world. That’s when “Palestine” will be free. Personally, I can’t help but feel that Israel will be the first country to lend its Arab neighbor guidance, support and anything else it will need.

As for Walmart? Strange isn’t it, that it stocks no T-shirts depicting a North American Indian with the following logo: “This land is my land”. It would be perfect for the fourth of July.
* since writing this article, I have learned that Sears joined the fray and stocked the same incendiary T-shirts but quickly removed them.

JFK AND ISRAEL

Last week marked the centenary of J.F.K., the 35th president of the United States. Because of his life being cut short by an assassin, because we choose to remember his 1,037 days as president as a twentieth century Camelot, it behooves us to take a look at his life in relationship to Israel.

While so many American Jews of today’s generation have come to expect our President to involve himself in the Middle East, particularly by standing behind Israel as well as attempting to initiate some sort of peace plan, it ought to be kept in mind that similar efforts have been in place for well over half a century.

J.F.K. launched two (unsuccessful) initiatives aimed at brokering peace between Israel and its neighbors; this was before Arab claims over east Jerusalem, the West Bank and “refugees redux.” J.F. K. sent personal letters to the heads of all the Arab governments, offering the services of the United States as an “honest broker” to help them establish peaceful relations between themselves and the then-nascent Jewish State.  J.F.K. also dispatched emissaries to seek a solution to “one of the key obstacles to peace,” the refugee problem.

Jewish attachment to the “shmatte business” (literally rag business, but also covers the clothing trade and the textile industry) served Israel well. Back in the late 1950s, Israel began to construct a nuclear power plant in Dimona, a city south of Be’er Sheva. It was one of Israel’s “best kept” secrets, known to all including the American government. (Yes, Americans spy on Israel and vice versa.) When confronted by the (outgoing) Eisenhower administration, Israel explained that the site was a textile plant. The Kennedy administration was neither mollified nor amused. Instead, Israel’s Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion was denied an invitation to the White House (J.F.K. met with Ben Gurion at the Waldorf Astoria) in May 1961.  The Kennedy administration was not prepared to turn a blind eye. In a personal letter dated May 18, 1963, J.F.K. issued the following ultimatum: “Either Israel allows American inspectors to visit the site, or Israel finds itself totally isolated politically.” Within a month, David Ben Gurion resigned from the position of leadership; within half a year, J.F.K. was felled by an assassin. To be sure, the United States would continue to pressure Israel, but with a new Prime Minister (Levi Eshkol) and a new president, “the times, they were a-changin’.”

Most American Jews believe that L.B.J. was the first president to sell arms to Israel. While L.B.J. was truly magnanimous in seeing to it that Prime Minister Eshkol was able to check off all items on the “shopping list” when he visited the United States in January 1968, it was J.F.K. who agreed to sell Israel Hawk surface-to-air missiles in August 1962. Dismissing advice from the State Department that the sale of Hawks might trigger an arms race in the Middle East, the President followed the recommendation of the Department of Defense, that selling the Hawk missiles to Israel would offset recent deliveries to Arab states by the Soviet Union.

The Hebrew word Yad is a homonym. In addition to the well-known meaning “hand,” yad also means memorial. (I will give them… yad vashem – a memorial and a name far greater than sons or daughters could give. Isaiah 56:5.) On July 4th 1966, Yad Kennedy, the Kennedy Memorial in the shape of a felled tree, was dedicated in memory of the slain president. My impression is that Yad Kennedy is typically not on the itinerary of most American tourists to Israel. But it should be – especially this year. I can think of no better way of recognizing the centenary of the birth of this nation’s 35th president.

MEMORIAL DAY AND YOM HAZIKARON

It’s more than four weeks that separate this year’s Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen) and Memorial Day here in these United States…much more.
Memorial Day honors fallen soldiers; Yom HaZikaron honors fallen soldiers as well as civilians who died at the hand of the enemy. As far as Israel’s enemies are concerned, every Israeli is fair game. Israel’s enemies do not differentiate. For them, it makes no difference whether their target is a 19 month old toddler, a 19 year old combat soldier or a 91 year old great-grandmother. The enemy racks up the same “mitzvah points.” As far as the enemy is concerned, an Israeli and a Jew are synonymous. That’s why the enemy’s cri de guerre is Itbach al Yahud (slaughter the Jew)! Because the enemy does not discriminate when it comes to mayhem and murder, Israelis do not discriminate when it comes to memorializing and mourning. The same tears are shed from the same broken hearts.

For much of its history, the United States saw itself as secure. Time was that Canadians could travel into the United States with no documentation whatsoever. The same held true for Americans traveling up to Canada. Our self-image was exemplary. Our “can do” made us the envy of the rest of the world. As Americans, we had every good reason to boast: “From Sea to shining Sea.”

Unlike the United States, Israel has a size complex… justifiably so. In addition to realizing that it is the small kid in the neighborhood, dwarfed size-wise by surrounding hostile countries, Israel is well aware that its airspace along with its soil cannot withstand any battles with the enemy. Israel has no choice, but to “take it outside” and defend itself on foreign soil as well as over enemy airspace. That’s under optimum conditions. Israel unfortunately, does not have impervious borders, so that every so often, a terrorist manages to make his or her way into Israel proper and carry out carnage. Israel also has a sizeable Arab population. And in that population, there are those who are preyed upon by Hezbollah, Hamas et al and are recruited and trained to destroy and to disfigure Jews. Each and every Yom HaZikaron, Israelis bring to mind and take to heart, victims of terror whose soul crime was being Jewish and being in Israel.

Memorial Day is personal. Except for dignified ceremonies held at cemeteries by War Veterans, and in our case Jewish War Veterans, the remembering and the mourning is left to family and friends. Come Memorial Day, the vast majority of Americans are drawn to shopping malls, travel (the long weekend that signifies the beginning of summer independent of June 21 being summer solstice) and picnics. For most, Memorial Day is time to Celebrate.

Yom HaZikaron is also personal. Israelis take Yom HaZikaron very personally and for good reason. Close to three and a half millennia ago, as our ancestors prepared for the exodus from Egypt, we were told “Ein Bayit asher ein sham meit” (Exodus 12:30: there was no house devoid of dead). That quote has been ringing ominously true in Israel for the last 69 years. This explains why Israelis throughout the country stop dead in their tracks (they pull to the side of the road in their cars) and stand for two minutes of silence as sirens blare as they pay tribute to those – both military and civilian whose lives were snuffed out because the enemy will stop at nothing to make life miserable for Israelis.

Political grousing aside, the vast majority of Americans will hopefully agree that for us fortunate enough to be part of the United States, it’s a beautiful life – thanks in no small part to those who gave their lives in the past, so that future generations could live in a country that is still very much looked up to and admired by so many throughout this world.

POLITICS AND PIETY

Close to 63 years ago, a young senator from Texas proposed an amendment which was soon enacted into law. That Amendment stated that nonprofit organizations are prohibited from conducting political campaign activities that intervene in elections to public office. Should they do so, they risk losing their tax exempt (501) status. Succinctly stated, that amendment reminded us that politics and piety are a poor mix, and blessed is the religious leader who can detach himself from D.C. or the state capitol or City Hall. That amendment came to be known as the Johnson Amendment, named for its sponsor Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Last week, an executive order revisiting the Johnson Amendment was signed, permitting (religious leaders of) tax exempt places of worship to more actively participate in politics. Amendments aside, I truly believe that any imam, priest, preacher, rabbi or swami who spouts politics from the pulpit is a “dang fool.” I speak from three and a half decades experience in the rabbinate.

Politics divides. As a relatively young and naïve rabbi, I used Rosh Hashanah 1988, of all days, to speak about what was in store for us as American Jews in the upcoming presidential elections if on the one hand we were to vote for George (Poppy) Bush and if we were to vote for Michael Dukakis on the other. I based my remarks on a recent article in Moment Magazine. The day after Rosh Hashanah, I was visited by a congregant who politely and respectfully (I report this without any sarcasm whatsoever) felt that I was favoring and endorsing George Bush. For me, it was an important lesson that I never forgot. When it comes to politics from the pulpit, there is no such thing as evenhandedness. People will hear what they want to hear. People will be swayed by body language (real or imaginary) and tone of voice (real or imaginary).

I recall seeing a cartoon attached to the wall of a synagogue. It read: “Fellow Jew! If you come here to talk, where will you go to daven?” As poignant a message as that may be, I suggest a similar cartoon: “If you come to the synagogue for politics, where will you go for religion?” Throughout the last several decades, there was any number of clergy who spoke mainly politics and social justice from the pulpit. They were successful beyond their wildest dreams. They were able to raise generations of politically involved congregants, who were very much attuned to social action. Funny thing, though, those priests and ministers never were able to produce more devout Christians with even more fervent faith in Jesus; those rabbis were never able to strengthen their congregants’ kashrut, davening, or Shabbat observance.

Sanctuary is meant to be a turmoil-free zone; it’s a place where one gains comfort and inspiration when the world is getting you down. Sanctuary should be a place where agita (heartburn) is not on the agenda. It is therefore beyond me why any clergy would use the sanctuary to curdle one’s blood, raise one’s blood pressure and stir up one’s anger, which inevitably occurs when politics is proffered from the pulpit. The goal of clergy is to comfort the disturbed; the goal of clergy is to disturb the comfortable; that is to say, to rouse the laity from their lethargy with regard to self-betterment and religious/spiritual growth. Unless the President or Prime Minister were in attendance at services, one would do well to wonder why the imam, priest, preacher, rabbi or swami would see it as his sacred duty to bring up politics. And even if the President or Prime Minister was in attendance, chances are that – political expediency aside- the President or Prime Minister attends religious services to escape politics.

Isn’t it remarkable how the very same individuals who give “thumbs up” to hearing politics from the pulpit would be the first to be up in arms if religion were ever heard coming out of the Oval Office?