Sunday, October 22, 2017

“... Don’t you want to be an air hostess?”

What a loss for humanity, science, and culture if she had just done what everyone else - except her mother - said she should do: 

“Everybody else laughed at me, but Mom didn’t. Women weren’t scientists. When I was growing up, you could be a nurse, a missionary’s wife, a secretary, and then, oh, how exciting, you could be an air hostess. A lot of people said to me, ‘Don’t you want to be an air hostess?’” — Dr. Jane Goodall, NYT 10/2017

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Self-Assessment for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

The High Holy Days are almost upon us! Now is the perfect time to engage in what we call Cheshbon Ha’Nefesh ,“an accounting of the soul,” when we take time to perform a self-assessment, looking back at the year that was, looking ahead to the year that will be, and asking ourselves some tough questions. Here are some to get you started:

1. During this past year, was I the best version of myself that I could be?

2. In the coming year, how can I become the best version of myself that I can be?

3. Choose three examples of when I came up short (such as when I lost my temper, or spread gossip), promise myself to be better next year, and then, the hardest part: apologize to those I wronged.

4. Ask those closest to me if I’ve done anything to hurt to their feelings, and if so, apologize.

5. During this past year, when did I let myself down? Can I ensure that I won’t let myself down in the same way, this coming year?

6. During this past year, when was I happiest? Can I promise myself that I’ll be that happy again, and again, and again?

High Holy Days are a time for introspection, honest self-evaluation, and change. Start the process of becoming the best version of you, now!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Changes, Changes, Changes

Doesn't life still have a way of surprising us, regardless of however many experts tell us what the future holds? Our recent Presidential elections surprised many, although not all, of our fellow American citizens. It's proving to be an important reminder of a beautiful mystery of living life: we can't control the future, and we can't be absolutely certain of everything...but we'll experience it soon enough! The future is always just around the corner. How do we live a life that is full of uncertainty and change?

One Jewish way to successfully live a life that's full of uncertainty is to do something profoundly simple but deeply challenging: accept it. Accept that the only constant in life is its inconsistent nature; accept that the only constant in life is change.

We Jews have had to become experts at accepting changes great and small throughout our history as a people, and as an evolving belief system. How frequently has Jewish history shown us that an overriding belief of Jews in their safety and security often sadly precedes unexpected tragedy, expulsion, and loss?

And yet from the wisdom of Jewish Tradition we find a kind of reassuring familiarity in the unstoppable forces of change: it's how the whole story begins! Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden to forge a new and completely changed life. Later, God surprises Noah (and everyone else) with the Flood, springing on humanity the ultimate change of starting over. And much later Abraham is told by God "Lech Lecha," "Go forth, to a land that I will show you" - directing Abraham toward a radical changing of place, of purpose, and even of name (from Abram to Abraham).

Change is hard. Uncertainty is hard. But by accepting change and uncertainty as constants in life, we may find life to be less overwhelming, less surprising, less challenging. Think back to some of our earliest stories - of Adam and Eve, of Noah, of Abraham - and be reassured that God, Jewish Tradition, and the Jewish People have always embraced change. So can we.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Hanukkah, Hannukah, Chanukah

As the holiday season quickly approaches, we naturally see an increasing number of holiday-themed articles, columns, and essays. This is one from today's New York Times, and what follows is my submitted comment in reply, which has been categorized as a "Readers' Pick."

NYTimes: When Your Holiday Is Chrisnukkah
It is rare and inspiring to find a soulful and moving account of a woman's perseverance through unimaginable illness and suffering while still embracing deep senses of wonder and delight. I dare say that anyone who struggles through such agonizing and debilitating illness can do whatever they like with holidays: combine, rename, invent.
Nevertheless, the author's genuinely overwhelming experience of gratitude need not necessitate the conflation of two distinct holidays, regardless of whether they often occur in close proximity to each other or share a common element of using light to enhance the darkest time of year.
While Chanukah and Christmas may be alike in some ways, they still remain very different holidays, celebrating very different things - and that is a good thing! Each on their own offers us much more than an amalgamation of the two. Let Christmas be Christmas, and let Chanukah be Chanukah. Most importantly, thank you to the author for her admirable strength and skill in sharing her story.

Friday, October 23, 2015

What makes a Hero?

Once, only hours after her death, a husband was speaking to me about his wife, and described her as "heroic." He told me about her difficult upbringing and childhood in a coal mining town, and the hard work it took for her to achieve all that she had: not only the first in her family to attend college but having earning a Ph.D. as well! Forging a successful career in a competitive field. Not to mention all that she had put into maintaining a strong marriage. 

How do you define "heroic?" Perhaps you'd define it differently and expect greater achievements, or more impressive accomplishments, or memorable acts of valor or sacrifice? And you wouldn't necessarily be wrong. Surely each one alone could contribute to someone's being described as "heroic." And that's the point: heroism is hard define, but you know it when you see it. 

Have you ever thought of a loved-one as "heroic?" Was it because of their behavior in a particular instance, or was their heroism displayed over a series of events, each contributing to your thinking of them as heroic? Heroism is hard to define, but you know when you see it. 

Have you ever been called heroic, or a hero, or received praise for your heroism? If you have, did you think it was well-deserved, or did it surprise you to be thought of that way, as heroic? Perhaps a bit of both? It's not uncommon for an outsider to look into another's daily life and see what they do day-in and day-out, and marvel at how they do it!

And yet that person could quite likely think nothing of it, perhaps thinking: "it's just my job," or "I'm so used to it by now," or" it was nothing." But that might only be because they define heroism as charging up a hill in battle or rescuing children from a burning building. Yes, those are certainly heroic but remember that heroism is hard to define, even when you know it when you see it - and I challenge each of us to see it in ourselves; to value and appreciate that what we do, day-in and day-out, is considered heroic by some people. 

Maybe you've been told so, maybe you haven't. So tell yourself! Define heroism not only by what you see in others, but also by what others see in you.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

What Do You Do Best? And What Happens When You Can't?

There are skills we develop over the course of a lifetime. Some of those skills, maybe only a handful or less, are honed and refined into whatever it is that we do best. Sometimes that's a result of our own choices, having chosen to say: "I want to be the best at ...." And sometimes what we do best has had nothing to to do with what we chose, but instead had everything to do with the situation we were in: "It wasn't a goal of mine. I never thought I'd became the best at it...." Perhaps you've experienced this in the workplace. Perhaps you realized this at home, in relationships, friendships, hobbies, philanthropy.

How many people do you know, in your family or workplace, who have acquired skills and become increasingly, even incredibly!, good at doing something, something that they never did professionally or personally? Think for a moment. Maybe you count yourself as one. It's okay if maybe you don't - keep thinking. Because each of us has at least something - one thing - that we do best, that we do better than anything else. 

But what happens when we can no longer do whatever it is that we do best? For any reason including retirement, aging, injury, or disinterest - then what? Are we condemned to a life of mediocrity? Must we live the rest of our lives as having minimal purpose, little usefulness, or minor contribution? The Jewish answer is: No, of course not! 

While we often encounter this later in life, the truth is we can face this at any time of our lives, frequently following what is usually the most unexpected of life-impacting events. Then then it hits us: whatever it was that we did better than anything else, we can no longer do as well - or do at all. And that alone is hard enough. But it is only when we are able to accept that, even reluctantly or begrudgingly, that we can in fact start to acquire one of humanity's finest skills: becoming the best you can finding what it is you can still do, and then doing it to the best of your ability

This uniquely human ability to acquire expertise in, of all things, skill-seeking - is not shared with the animal kingdom. Consider these three animals: a dog, a tiger, and a snake. (I could include goldfish and parrots, but you get the point.) Are any of these animals capable of finding other skills to acquire, thereby redefining what it is they do best? Isn't it more likely that animals, especially as they age, only do less and less of what they know how to do. Because what they know how to do is all they know how to do. But every human being, each of us, need not and should not limit ourselves in such ways. Judaism teaches us that this is a blessing of being created "בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים," be'tzelem eloheim, "in God's image" (Genesis 1:27).

So, what happens when whatever it is that you do best, you can't do as well, or at all? Then you can do what it is that you, that each of us, can always do: become the best at finding out what you can do best

Not only will you discover a skill or ability that you can do best, even if you think you haven't found such a skill, guess what: you already have! You will discover that what you do best is the most valuable skill of all: the skill of becoming the best you seeking out that which you can still do.

So what are we waiting for? Let's get doing!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Three Free Tips (Not Just for High Holy Days)

Want to improve your life but don't know how? Here are three tips, not just for these High Holy Days, but for the many days afterward as well. 

Tip #1: Be honest with yourself. If we can't be honest with ourselves, how can we be honest with anyone else? If you don't like something you've said or done, admit it to yourself. Once you've acknowledged it, do something about it (see Tip #2). 

Tip #2: Don't be afraid to say "I'm sorry," when you've said or done something that's hurt another person. And when you do apologize, make sure it's somewhere you feel safe, secure, and unthreatened; for some that's in public, for others it's in private. 

Tip #3: Accept a sincere apology. And if you're not ready to accept the apology and forgive the person, tell them so, and ask them to come back after some time has passed (whether it's a day, or a week, or longer). You can do that a second time and even a third time - just remember that Judaism and Jewish Tradition teaches us that even if the third sincere apology isn't accepted, that person can consider themselves forgiven. So, by that third sincere apology, seriously consider forgiving -- but know that you are not forced to forgive, either!

Follow these three free tips, and watch your life and your relationships improve dramatically. 

(If not, please contact me for a full refund.)

Monday, November 18, 2013

Chanukah’s Attitude of Gratitude

It's that time of year again, isn't it? Even here, in beautiful and sunny Southern California, the weather starts to change. The days are rainier, the nights are cooler and if you're perceptive enough, you'll see leaves subtly changing colors. In this month of November it's impossible to overlook that most American of holidays; of course I'm referring to Chanukah.

No, I'm of course referring to Thanksgiving! But I will take this moment to mention what has consistently placed in the top three topics of Jewish conversation since late summer: How early the holidays are this year, especially Chanukah. 

We all know that Chanukah is indeed "early" this year: its first night is the evening of Wednesday, November 27th, and the very next day is Thanksgiving. And just like that, we American Jews are presented with a rare and auspicious opportunity to celebrate two very different holidays with very similar themes of thankfulness, bravery, and religious freedom. 

The Maccabees challenged Ancient Greece's overwhelming military forces in pursuit of their own religious freedom, much as the Pilgrims set sail in pursuit of their understanding of religious freedom. Chanukah celebrates the bravery of the Maccabees and their retaking, purifying, and rededicating Jerusalem's Ancient Temple; all culminating with, as Jewish Tradition tells it: the discovery of that one remaining cruse of untouched oil lasting a miraculous eight nights. Thanksgiving's celebration is also one of bravery: the bravery of two very different peoples, the Native Americans and the Pilgrims, courageously trusting and joining with each other to, as American Tradition tells it: sit down together for the first Thanksgiving meal. There is certainly much to celebrate. 

Yet, many of us may feel conflicted, questioning how “Tradition tells it” and wondering if it's the literal and factual account of events. Not only is that okay, it is good and thoroughly Jewish to ask questions. However, there is one crucial element within both holidays that actually discourages us from questioning one thing in particular, and that is: gratitude.

Both holidays strive to inspire a deep sense of appreciation. But appreciation and thankfulness can be hard to find within ourselves when life leaves us feeling bereft, lost, and alone; when life is more lemons than lemonade. Which is why both holidays also emphasize bravery, courage, and trust: to be brave like those before us; to have the courage it often takes to feel truly thankful; and to fully trust those in your life by sharing it with them.

Our two holidays, Thanksgiving and Chanukah, strongly encourage us to feel grateful. But to feel grateful we must be grateful. As your Chanukah Menorah, or Chanukiah, illumines this year's Thanksgiving, may one remind you to be brave, and may the other remind you to be grateful. Chanukah Sa’mayach – Happy Chanukah! And Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Extra! Extra! Read All About It!

Nowadays, everybody's got a blog or a website or twitter feed -- and usually, all of the above. Not to mention the literally one billion people on Facebook! (No, I'm not one of the one billion...yet. But my Congregation sure is!)

Have you ever wondered just who, exactly, is reading all of these blog posts and tweets and Facebook updates? Who has the time? I'm sure there's a groundbreaking study somewhere that shows most of these blog-tweet-updates are most often read by the one who actually wrote them in the first place. Really, who else has the time?

Well, if you're reading this blog, and you're not me, than: Thank You! And secondly, where do you find the time?

Okay, so I'm joking...a little. But this next part is serious, and seriously impressive: Congregation Beth Knesset Bamidbar has recently unveiled it's totally remade, entirely re-imagined, and brand-new website! And while he'd be reluctant to agree, it's our Congregation's President, Mr. Butch Ryti, who deserves the most praise and credit for making it all happen. But just take a look through our equally re-created, re-imagined, and re-newed Bulletin, The Chai Desert News and you'll begin to see what makes this Congregation as special as it is: it's those active and involved and committed members who are so remarkably giving of their time and energy that, when they do give, it's often before they're asked.

As busy as you are, I hope you'll find the time to visit us online at And I really hope you'll find the time to visit us in-person too! But "one step at a time," right?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Cute and Furry and... in the Torah?!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as the Rabbi of Lancaster's Congregation Beth Knesset Bamidbar, it’s that we love our pets! 

Most – if not all – are spoken of as members of the family; many share the family portrait; and quite a few enjoy privileges not bestowed upon other (human) family members. So it didn’t surprise me when I was recently asked, “What does Judaism say about how we should treat animals?” 

Today, many of us experience a relationship with our domesticated family members (I’m referring to pets, not children or spouses,) unlike any previous era of human history. Nevertheless, within the sacred texts of our ancient past, Torah (The Five Books of Moses) and Tanakh (The Hebrew Bible), as well throughout the whole of Rabbinic Literature, it is made exceptionally clear that not only is cruelty to animals absolutely forbidden, but that compassion and mercy are demanded of humankind by God.

There is no question that Judaism consistently values human life more than that of other living things. And while the Ancient Rabbis were not completely opposed to animals coming second to the priority of human needs – they were completely and entirely against the causing of pain to animals. We know that many prohibited activities on Shabbat are permitted, even obligatory, when the purpose is to save a human life. Similarly, many activities that the Rabbis did not allow on Shabbat are in fact permitted when the purpose is to relieve animals’ pain. Their justification is found in their understanding of a particular verse, Exodus 23:5, “When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.” Talmudic sages hold that this commandment is meant to benefit the animal as well as its owner, and therefore cite it as the basis of our obligation to prevent animals from suffering (in Hebrew, צַעַר בַּעֲלֵי חַיִּיםtza’ar ba’alai chayim) (BT Bava Metzia 32a–b). Thus, it is permitted to unload a burden from a laboring animal, even on the Sabbath (BT Berachot 40a).

A question: When you wake up, who eats first: you or your pet? 

For the Rabbis, it was relatively clear, as it’s stated in the Talmud: “It is forbidden for a man to eat before he has fed his animal...” And why is this? Because, in Deuteronomy 11:15, we read that the animals are mentioned first in text: “I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied.” Consequently, based on the same consideration, the Rabbis legislated that one is not permitted to buy animals unless one can properly provide for them. 

Perhaps most moving, if not most telling, are the mitzvot (commandments) found in Deuteronomy 22:1-3, in which we read that, “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow...You must not remain indifferent.” As Jews, we are obligated to not only prevent animals from suffering, but much more: we are taught to never turn away from it; never ignore it; to never turn a blind eye to the plight of those most in need of advocacy, shelter, and care. Which is only one of the many important reasons why Congregation Beth Knesset Bamidbar and our Sunday School Religion Class, taught by Kim Kilgore, selected as their Class’ Mitzvah Project, Operation Blankets of Love, which collects and distributes blankets, towels and other pet items to animal shelters and rescue groups – and they need our help! We have been enlisted to collect blankets, comforters, bath-size towels, pet beds, and pet toys – and to drop them off in the large collection boxes in our lobby and Sanctuary. Studies show that soft bedding in shelters can immediately relax and calm an animal – and relaxed, calm dogs and cats have a much higher adoption rate.

When you’re looking into the eyes of your loved one (the furry one this time), and thinking to yourself, “I could’ve named him ‘Jackpot’ because he sure hit it with me!” – take a moment to think about those dogs and cats who haven’t – yet – hit their own jackpot. And then help make it happen – not necessarily by adopting them all, but by making them better fit to be adopted and thereby expressing our genuine love for all animals, not just the ones fortunate enough to share our family portraits.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Reconnecting During These High Holy Days

Within the Calendar of Jewish Tradition, we have once again returned to the beginning of another New Year (Rosh Hashanah), and the ever-important intervening Ten Days of Repentance (Aseret Yemei Teshuva) until Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement. We are taught to look back at the year that was, in order to better live the year that will be.

As any one of us looks back on our lives, whether it's the past one year or the past ten, we remember what we wanted to do - and did; what we needed to do - and tried; even what we should have thought twice about doing, before doing it.

We've all probably heard, ”To err is human, to forgive is Divine"? Well, here's my retelling of a Jewish version of that, from 18th C. Eastern Europe:
To err is human... and brings us closer to The Divine. How? Every one of us has our very own connection with God, as if we are tied to God by a rope. Our errors and wrongdoings -- those weaken our connection, as if to fray the rope, even causing it to come apart. But when we see this and repent, ask for forgiveness, and refrain from repeating those same wrongs - our connection is repaired. It's as if where that rope had frayed and come apart has now been knotted back together. And with that knotting comes an even closer, even stronger connection. So yes, to err is human... and so is doing something about it. For it is in our doing something about it that we not only reconnect ourselves with The Divine, we strengthen that connection.
God, however frayed or broken we think our connection to You might be, help us to know that we are also blessed with whatever -- and whomever -- it will take to strengthen our reconnection to You.


[Hasidic Teaching. "Those Who Err Are Closest to God.” Rosh Hashanah Readings: Inspiration, Information and Contemplation. Ed. Dov Peretz Elkins. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006. 5.]

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What to Do, What to Do

Our lives are busy ones. Even when we're not busy, we're busy. If it's not work, it's family. And if it's not family, it's work. And somewhere in-between the two, we try, we really do, we try to fit in all the rest: the reading and shopping and cleaning and driving and cooking and exercising and.... and....

And so much more - it's endless really, all that fills our days. So much to do. So much. And sometimes it can seem like our being so busy actually makes life easier. Perhaps you've found yourself as I have, too busy to make certain choices, sometimes certain
difficult choices. It is as if our being busy, our acting and our doing, is all that defines us and determines who we are: that who we are is what we do; and what we do is who we are.

And yet, we are not merely animals acting on instinct. We do more than just "do." We do more than just "act." We are human beings, and we are not so simple as to act without choosing. For before we act, before we do,
we must choose. That's what it is to be human: to be human is to choose. For the gift of free will is precious; we all make choices: good and right, bad and wrong. We all do. But as busy as we are and as busy as we make ourselves, our lives and our legacies are determined not only by our actions; our lives and our legacies are also defined by our choices.

May we, who are so very busy, both find the time and make the time to make good choices.


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Opening and Closing with Ecclesiastes

Exciting news. I've recently been asked, "So, where have the blog entries been? Doing other writing, or what? " Well, I'm quite happy to say: yes, and it's now been published.

I have co-authored an article with Rabbi William Cutter, Ph.D  which is based upon my research and rabbinical thesis, "Yehuda Amichai’s Open Closed Open and Ecclesiastes: An Autumnal Intertextual Relationship." 

The article is titled, "Opening and Closing with Qohelet: The Late Work of Yehuda Amichai: A Discussion of Patua sagur patua (Open Closed Open)."

[Some background: Qohelet (קֹהֶלֶת‎‎) is the Hebrew title of the biblical book Ecclesiastes. Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) is Modern Israel's most well-known and deeply beloved poet - and one of the Modern Hebrew Language's most important, as well. His final work is translated as Open Closed Open, and in its original Hebrew: פָּתוּח סָגוּר פָּתוּח, Patuaḥ Sagur Patuaḥ.]

The article has been published in the latest edition of Hebrew Studies, Volume 51 (2010). Hebrew Studies is an academic journal devoted to scholarly articles on Hebrew language, linguistics, literature, and culture of all periods, which is produced by the National Association of Professors of Hebrew. You can view the Journal's Table of Contents (as a .pdf) here; the article begins on page 175. (The journal is available through the managing editor, Dr. Rick Painter.)

You can read the article's first four pages by clicking here; it begins with the following abstract (summary)
Many critics have noted the densely wrought structure in Patua sagur patua, and have called attention to its rich intertextual allusions and use of refrains and key words. (One thinks of Kronfeld, Bloch, Arpali, Alter, Band, and Gold.) But the major articles have not fully treated the heavy burden of association to the book of Ecclesiastes, Qohelet. In Patua sagur patua, Amichai created a multi-layered foundation in classic sources which serves as an underpinning to the overall autumnal stance and skeptic’s vision of the 300 poem-units. In addition to the specific Qohelet allusions, there are nearly one hundred more elusive associations that emerge once the reader accepts the importance of the boldly etched references to Qohelet. The authors argue that, once Qohelet becomes the dominant metaphoric “trope,” other more transient and innocent associations to the biblical scroll take on greater significance. While resisting a glib “allegoresis” (a tendency to see Qohelet in every possible space), the fact is that the Solomonic wise preacher lies in wait in a surprising number of corners of this extraordinary and weighty collection.

The basis of the article, my rabbinical thesis, was the result of seemingly countless - and endlessly enjoyable - hours that I spent both translating Amichai's final collection in full, as well as identifying the truly overwhelming amount of biblical citations, references, and allusions. This was all a result of what I had discovered while reading and studying the book: there exists an intertextual relationship with Ecclesiastes that is profound in both depth and breadth.

I welcome your interest in the article and thesis and would happily make them available (although the thesis is rather comprehensive and a sure cure for insomnia).

I am deeply humbled, not only by Amichai's (greatest) work which continues to inspire, challenge, and delight, but also this work: what it took to do it, and what has come of it. It could not have happened without the assistance and guidance of so many exceptionally wise and remarkably patient people in my life: family and friends, mentors and professors, authors and scholars. Thank you all.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Light in the Dark

We find ourselves in the middle of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, lighting one candle a night, each night brighter and brighter with each additional candle lit. We do this for many reasons, one of which is to remind us that light can exist even in the darkest of times, when our winter days darken at their earliest. And that is why we still hope even when it seems hopeless; why we are still able to heal and be healed, even when there is no cure. So too can light exist even in the darkest of places: in a place and time of unknowable darkness, in the concentration camp of Auschwitz, an inscription was found etched into a barrack’s walls:
I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in love, even when I do not feel it.
I believe in God, even when God is silent.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Flotilla, Gaza, and Humanitarian Aid: What Happened?

On May 30th, the "Free Gaza Flotilla" left the shores of Cyprus under the guise of delivering humanitarian aid, by sea, to the people of Gaza.

Some background: Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, in August, 2005 gave Gaza's Palestinian people the opportunity of self-goverance; they freely elected to be governed, not by the Palestinian Authority (the "PA"," the governing party of Palestinians in the West Bank who have been partnered with Israel in peace negotiation and policing since the mid-1990's); but by Hamas. While similarly Palestinian, Hamas has been and is categorized by The United States, Canada, The EU, and Israel as a terrorist regime, and have
 frozen funds to the Hamas government since 2006, recognizing it as a terror organization. Israel is currently in a state of armed conflict with Hamas, as they launched upwards of 10,000 rockets from Gaza, bombing civiilian targets in Israel - very often with weapons that have been smuggled into Gaza via the sea.

Presently, Hamas is engaged in smuggling arms and military supplies into Gaza, by land and sea, in order to fortify its positions and continue its attacks. Under international law, Israel has the right to protect the lives of its civilians and has undertaken measures to defend itself, including the imposition of a maritime blockade to curb Hamas' rearmament. It is Israel's position that it cannot allow a sea-corridor to open to Gaza, which would allow weapons and terrorists to freely enter the Gaza Strip. 

Therefore, Israel has effected a maritiime blockade off of the coast of Gaza. Under international law, a maritime blockade is a legitimate and recognized measure that may be implemented as part of an armed conflict, including in international waters, so long as it does not bar access to the ports and coasts of neutral states. Under international maritime law, when a maritime blockade is in effect, no boats can enter the blockaded area - including both civilian and enemy vessels.

Having presented the basic underlying facts, many of us are still left with pressing questions, including: 
  • Is such a maritime blockade truly warranted? 
  • Why would Israel interfere with an attempted delivery of humanitarian aid? 
  • Were those who organized the flotilla, launched from Cyprus, aware of the maritime blockade
  • Who organized this flotilla? 
  • Were they offered an alternative means to deliver their humanitarian cargo? 
  • Did the humanitarian cargo make it off the boats at all? 
  • Does Israel even allow humanitarian aid into Gaza? 
  • If five of the six vessels chose instead to dock in Ashdod (a port city just north of Gaza), what happened on the sixth vessel? What was the nature of the violence on the sixth boat? 
  • Where do we go from here?
Is such a maritime blockade truly warranted? Even those of us who closely follow Israel might not recall the "Francop" cargo ship, also purportedly carrying humanitarian aid. On November 4, 2009, the Israeli Navy intercepted this vessel as part of the same maritime blockade described above, and discovered, hidden amongst the civilian cargo, 500 tons of weapons and weaponry of Iranian origin - bound, in this case, for Hezbollah, in Lebanon. Video of the entire event can be seen here!v=wXDCDPPeN_Q 
So it would seem that Israel has reason to be suspicious.

Why would Israel interfere with an attempted delivery of humanitarian aid? In the words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:
Our policy is simple. We say: any goods, any humanitarian aid to Gaza, can enter. What we want to prevent is their ability to bring in war materiel - missiles, rockets, the means for constructing casing for missiles and rockets. This has been our policy and yesterday we told the flotilla - which was not a simple, innocent flotilla - to bring their goods into Ashdod. We told them that we would examine their cargo and allow those goods that could not be used as weapons or shielding materials for Hamas into Gaza. Five of the six ships accepted these terms without violence.
Were those who organized the flotilla, launched from Cyprus, aware of the maritime blockade? Repeated requests were made to the flotilla's organizers as early as May 24, 2010. At this same link, or here, you can view such a statement made by Israeli's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson, Yigal Palmor.

Who organized this flotilla? Primarily the Free Gaza Movement and IHH. According to The Intelligence and Terrorism Information CenterIHH, which plays a central role in organizing the flotilla to the Gaza Strip, is a Turkish humanitarian relief fund with a radical Islamic anti-Western orientation. Besides its legitimate philanthropic activities, it supports radical Islamic networks, including Hamas, and at least in the past, even global jihad elements [including Al-Qaeda.] Furthermore,
“This is an Islamist charity, quite fundamentalist, quite close to Hamas,” said Henri J. Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University. “They say they do charity work, but they’ve been accused of gunrunning and other things, and their rhetoric has been inflammatory against Israel and sometimes against Jews.” 
..... On Tuesday in a bustling neighborhood in Istanbul, the Turkish organization was celebrating a strange success. “We became famous,” said Omar Faruk, a board member of the group, Insani Yardim Vakfi, known by its Turkish initials, I.H.H. “We are very thankful to the Israeli authorities.”Five times the Free Gaza Movement sailed from Cyprus, where they are based, to Gaza. Israel ultimately came to believe that a threat was evolving, fearing that ships coming into port could transport weapons. Israeli officials said they feared the prospect of Hamas being as powerfully armed as Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

Did the humanitarian cargo make it off the boats at all? Yes, the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) unloaded the humanitarian cargo from the Gaza flotillaand transferred the aid into the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom crossing.

Does Israel even allow humanitarian aid into Gaza? Yes. Over the last eighteen months, over one million tons of humanitarian aid, from NGOs and governments including Israel herself, entered Gaza from Israel. (That's almost one ton for every resident of Gaza, roughly 1.4 to 1.5 million.) Some specifics: More than 738,000 tons of food and supplies entered Gaza in 2009. Furthermore:
In the first quarter of 2010 (January-March), 94,500 tons of supplies were transferred in 3,676 trucks to the Strip: 48,000 tons of food products; 40,000 tons of wheat; 2,760 tons of rice; 1,987 tons of clothes and footwear; 553 tons of milk powder and baby food. 
[During] the week of May 18, 2010 there were more than 100 truckloads of animal food, 65 trucks of fruit and vegetables; 22 truckloads of sugar, some 27 truckloads of meat, poultry and fish; and 40 trucks of dairy products. At holiday times, Israel increases transfers. During the Muslim holy days of Ramadhan and Eid al-Adha, Israel shipped some 11,000 heads of cattle into the Gaza Strip.
Already in the first quarter of 2010, 23 tons of iron and 25 tons of cement were transferred to the Gaza Strip.... On 13 May 2010, Israel allowed approximately 39 tons of building material into Gaza to help rebuild a damaged hospital. 
... On 24 May 2010 Israel opened the Kerem Shalom crossing to 97 trucks loaded with aid and goods, including six trucks holding 250 tons of cement and one truck loaded with five tons of iron for projects executed and operated by UNRWA.  
According to the UN report of May 2010, 120 megawatts (over 70%) of the [Gaza] Strip's electricity supply comes from the Israeli electric grid, while 17 MWs come from Egypt and 30 MWs are produced by the Gaza city power station.
If five of the six vessels chose instead to dock in Ashdod (a port city just north of Gaza), what happened on the sixth vessel? What was the nature of the violence on the sixth boat? Sadly, Israeli Naval personnel were met with violence and there was loss of life. Militants onboard the Mavi Marmara [the sixth vessel] attacked Israeli naval personnel with live fire and light weaponry including guns, knives and clubs. Numerous Israeli soldiers were injured as a result of the extremely violent ambush, Two of them seriously while three are in moderate condition. The final number of militant fatalities has yet to be released, but initial reports place it at nine. Once again, those vessels that reacted peacefully to the operation were escorted unharmed to Israel, as had happened with previous vessels that tried to violate the maritime blockade. Unfortunately, it seems that the attack on the Israeli soldiers was premeditated. The weapons used had been prepared in advance. 
Huwaida Arraf, a flotilla organizer, foreshadowed the violence with her statement that: "They [the Israelis] are going to have to forcefully stop us." Bulent Yildirim, the leader of the IHH, one of the primary organizers of the flotilla, announced just prior to boarding: “We are going to resist and resistance will win." The militants whipped up the boarding crowd by chanting "Intifada, intifada, intifada!"
Where do we go from here? Where can we go from here? We might give ear to the words of two contemporary, Israeli thinkers and authors, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, Ph.D., of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and Amos Oz, the author and lecturer. 

Rabbi Hartman writes:
It is time for all those of decency to declare, "Enough." It is time to begin a new conversation, one in which legitimate acts of self defense on Israel's part are no longer labeled automatically as acts of aggression and war crimes. Nor should attempts to better the plight of Palestinians, including those affiliated with Hamas, be labeled by definition as anti-Israeli and political....

People of decency can disagree. Decent people can make mistakes. It is only, however, if we recognize that decency can be found on both sides that a different future will become possible. 
Amos Oz writes:
Even if Israel seizes 100 more ships on their way to Gaza, even if Israel sends in troops to occupy the Gaza Strip 100 more times, no matter how often Israel deploys its military, police and covert power, force cannot solve the problem that we are not alone in this land, and the Palestinians are not alone in this land. We are not alone in Jerusalem and the Palestinians are not alone in Jerusalem. Until Israelis and Palestinians recognize the logical consequences of this simple fact, we will all live in a permanent state of siege — Gaza under an Israeli siege, Israel under an international and Arab siege. 

...I do not discount the importance of force. Woe to the country that discounts the efficacy of force. Without it Israel would not be able to survive a single day. But we cannot allow ourselves to forget for even a moment that force is effective only as a preventative — to prevent the destruction and conquest of Israel, to protect our lives and freedom.
And I write:
Injury and suffering ought to be prevented, and loss of life is tragic, particularly when unnecessary, and that is always the highest price, regardless of the stakes. 
This entire incident reminds me of that math problem from 5th grade: If train A is traveling west, and train B is traveling east.... does it really matter how fast they're going? Would it help if either train warned the other, if neither chose to alter their set course?
The two trains will meet. But trains don't just "meet." They collide.
They always collide.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Peace and Pizza in Jerusalem

The following is a very good piece which furthers the Israel-Palestinian discussion (although it suffers from an incendiary title): "Will Obama Ignite the Third Intifada?"

The author, Rabbi Dr. Daniel Gordis, is an American-born (Conservative) Rabbi and Ph.D who immigrated ("made Aliyah") with his family in the late 90's. He was the first Dean of AJU's (formerly UJ) Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, his movement's rabbinical school/seminary on the West Coast.

He makes many good points (although he's a little hard on Israel's political Left). Before I comment on his political observations (in a forthcoming entry), I'll first share some memories brought forth by the article.

He mentions the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo; I knew a woman who still lives there with her (very secular) family.

He mentions what came to be known as "Camp David 2," when Ehud Barak, Arafat, and Clinton met to hammer out a deal. It's well-known that Barak offered as much as Israel had ever offered (sharing Jerusalem, etc.). Arafat infamously declined, repeatedly. Shortly thereafter, (with his and Fatah's, the still-dominant Palestinian political party, blessing and direction,) the Second Intifada erupted. I was living in Jerusalem at the time.

I lived in downtown Jerusalem, across from the Tattoo Parlor and pizza place that served sausage, shrimp, and pepperoni. (I loved that, in the middle of Jerusalem, there was a relatively vibrant and young counter-culture.) Anyway, as I'm watching the news' coverage of Clinton's concluding press-conference, as he's telling us how disappointed he was in Arafat (and, it's assumed, his own evaporated hopes for a peace-treaty crowning glory for his second term,) the pizza delivery-guy rang the doorbell. (No, no pepperoni.)

As I'm paying him, he looks at the television, and says, in his well-accustomed to this kind of thing tone of voice, in Hebrew: 
"Ain shalom....Mah la'asoat?" 
"No peace. What're you gonna do?" 
And that was that. I paid, he left, I ate the pizza, and weekly suicide bombings began shortly thereafter.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Building in Jerusalem

Recently, the planned enlargement of a north-eastern neighborhood of Jerusalem, Ramat Shlomo, has been the subject of some debate. Home to nearly half of Jerusalem's Jewish population. It doesn't abut Arab neighborhoods, and is just a couple of miles from downtown Jerusalem (where I've lived). The accusations that this is "settlement expansion" is utterly false, misleading, and incorrect. 

A word about the West Bank. The West Bank is also known as Judea and Samaria. Jordan "renamed" that area as such in 1950, one year after their united Arab attack of 5 countries, on Israel, began in 1948 with Israel's declaration of existence. Jordan annexed that land, although not officially incorporating it within Jordanian borders. Non-Jordanian Arabs who lived in that area, now referred to as Palestinians, were, in fact, never welcomed into Jordan's borders or society. It was in 1967, again defending herself against invading Arab armies, that Israel not only succeeded in self-preservation, but captured land previously occupied, such as eastern Jerusalem and what had become known as the West Bank. It is overwhelming Arab, and almost certainly the future Palestinian state. One ought to remember that, again, the land was retaken by Israel in it's own defense. Nation-building and its wars often lead to territorial enlargement. Just look at Texas or California.

A word about "Palestine." The Roman Emperor, Hadrian, renamed what was known as Israel (or Judea) as "Palestina," following Rome's successful suppression of the Jewish revolt led by Bar Kochba in the 3rd century C.E. Rome often renamed defeated territory to, in effect, add insult to injury. "Palestine" is probably based on the name of the Philistines, an equally ancient, non-Jewish and Arab (although certainly not Muslim, until Islam's existence in the 7th century C.E.)  population of the area.

Back to Ramat Shlomo and it's planned expansion. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Jerusalem was unified following the six-day war of 1967, only after Israel pushed back attacking and invading Arab armies. Today, anyone can live anywhere in Jerusalem. (Although the Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods are, without question, an entity unto their own and do not welcome residents who are unlike them.) An Arab Muslim, or an Arab Christian, can live where he or she likes, and can afford (Jerusalem real estate and rent is, in fact, not cheap). The same is true for an Israeli, Jewish or not, as well as those with appropriate visas. (I lived in Jerusalem as a student, twice, renting apartments.)

Construction in Jerusalem, whether east or west, is therefore not only justified, but also necessary. Why? In part, because of the construction freeze in the West Bank.
"The housing shortage in Jerusalem has become more acute in recent years, especially in ultra-Orthodox areas, pushing thousands of ultra-Orthodox families a year to the Haredi cities Betar Ilit and Modi'in Ilit, in the West Bank. The West Bank construction freeze has increased the pressure to create more housing in Jerusalem."
Neither Jerusalem, nor any part of it, is a settlement on occupied land.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

What an Honor...

I'm honored to have been mentioned in a blog posting by my mentor and friend, Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Rabbi of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA. I served as Rabbinic Intern for Rabbi Kipnes for two years (while a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles Campus): 2002-2003 and 2007-2008. I recently wrote the following in celebration of Congregation Or Ami's "Bar Mitzvah" (their thirteenth year) Celebration:
A photo and a memory: Rabbi Kipnes and I, draped in our tallitot, Torah Commentary in our hands, following verse by verse, as the week's portion was chanted aloud on Shabbat. This scene plays itself out in countless synagogues — but what has made Or Ami, and my internship, different? One hebrew word with many meanings: ruach [רוּחַ]. Commonly translated as wind, soul, spirit, or breath, it also conveys intellect, passion, direction, and courage. As an intern over two years (2002-2003 and 2007-2008), you and your families, Rabbi Kipnes and Cantor Cotler, you nourished my soul, stimulated my intellect, strengthened my direction, and renewed my courage. I was given opportunities to teach every age, lead services, and deliver sermons. I studied under the careful, supportive, and exacting tutelage of Rabbi Kipnes. I say to you, Or Ami, what a child says to a parent, "If it weren't for you, there would be no 'me.'" A photo and a memory. One hebrew word with many meanings. One synagogue, with many defintions. Congregation Or Ami, thank you.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

"They Don't Really Need Me...They Need What I Do"

Religion demands of us both courage and humility: a recognition of who we have yet to become is married to the hope, promise, and challenge that a refinement of oneself is both possible and necessary. 

And what is true humility? Rabbi David Wolpe, in his new book, Why Faith Matters, recounts his wife explaining just this to him, as a young rabbi overwhelmed and intimidated by his first "deathbed" visit. 

Rabbi David Wolpe, Why Faith Matters (2009), pg. 111:
That night I came home and my wife asked me how it went. I told her I felt like a fraud, that I had an overwhelming sense that I was not up to shepherding a soul in its final moments on earth. Who am I to do this? I felt unworthy. ‘You are right,’ she said. ‘You are unworthy. Anyone would be unworthy. But it is OK, because you are not doing it. It is being done through you.'
A similarly powerful sentiment is articulated by Bruce Springsteen, in which he recounts life after 9/11, and his experience with Americans' need for him to return to the music scene as both a source of artistic strength and a conduit of collective sentiment.

Bruce Springsteen, Rolling Stone Interview, 10/14/2004:
Interviewer: So you feel the call from your heart?
Springsteen: Yeah, I can hear the bells chiming. I’ve had a long life with my audience. I always tell the story about the guy with “The Rising”: “Hey, Bruce, we need you!” he yelled at me through the car window. That’s about the size of it: You get a few letters that say, “Hey, man, we need you.” You bump into some people at a club and you say, “Hey, man, what’s going on?” And they go, “Hey, we need you.Yeah, they don’t really need me, but I’m proud if they need what I do. That’s what my band is. That’s what we were built for.
Humility, expertly explained by a rabbi's wife and a guy named Bruce.

You can read the full text of the Springsteen interview here:

[Wenner, Jann S.  “Bruce Springsteen Talks about His Conscience and the Nature of an Artist and His Audience.” Rolling Stone. 14 Oct 2004. 26 Dec 2009. ]

Friday, January 1, 2010

Months, Weeks, Days to Live

One of this week's most emailed New York Times article is "Hard Choice for a Comfortable Death: Sedation," which chronicles and details some of the issues encountered by Hospice caregivers, patients, and their loved ones: how does, or can, one die peacefully, comfortably, free from pain, torment, and discomfort - safely, effectively, ethically, and legally?

This question is a familiar one to those of us in the field of Palliative Care. As a Rabbi, Spiritual Counselor, and Spiritual Care Coordinator of The Skirball Hospice, I experience these very questions, every day, with virtually every patient and family. It is, of course, far from easy, with a seemingly unending list of variables and facets. But there remain constants: our primary goal is to keep our patient as pain-free, comfortable, and as safe as possible. One must also remember that our unit of care is not just our patient - we are meant to care for the patient's family, loved ones, and friends.

As a program of the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging, we are Los Angeles' only Jewish Hospice, and our Spiritual Counselors specialize in in facing these issues, and more, from a Jewish perspective. (We, of course, treat patients of every religion, race, and nationality.)

As I previously posted in "All It Takes Is One," human life is of absolute primacy in the Jewish Tradition. Judaism insists that we endeavor to cure with the patient's well-being as our goal, and, traditionally, forbids the hastening of death. At the very same time, we must not prolong the dying process. The codified compendium of Jewish Law, The Shulkhan Arukh, states that, "One in a dying condition is considered living in all respects.” We call this patient, who is typically within 72 hours of death, a Goses (גּוֹסֵס), one who is moribund, unable to swallow; his life is like "a flickering candle." (A Goses exists in a state of gessisah.)  It is forbidden to treat the Goses as if he is already dead. It is forbidden to actively hasten his death, as he is alive and this would be considered murder. However, according to Rabbi Isserless’ (16th c., The Rema) gloss on this religious law (his gloss elucidates Ashkenazic Jewish Practice, as it differs from Sephardic custom), it is permissible to remove that which is hindering his death. In the words and time of the text:
It is forbidden to do anything to hasten the death of one who is in a dying condition... If, however, there is something that causes a delay in his death, for example, a nearby woodchopper making noise; or if there is salt on his tongue - and these prevent his speedy death [lit: "delay the soul's leaving the body"] - then one can remove them, because this does not involve any action at all, but rather, is only the removal of the preventative obstacle (to death). [Author's emphasis] [S.A., Y.D. 339:1-2] [Transl. Elliot Dorff, Matters of Life and Death, JPS: Philadelphia (2003) p.199 and Louis E. Newman, "Woodchoppers and Respirators: The Problem of Interpretation in Contemporary Jewish Ethics," Contemporary Jewish Ethics and Morality, A Reader. Oxford University Press: new York (1995. p. 145]

We've been introduced to the legalistic response to impending death. What of the narrative response? We might to turn to the Talmudic tale of "Rabbi Judah's Handmaid:"
On the day that Rabbi Judah [Rabbi Judah Ha Nasi, 2nd C. CE, editor and redactor of The Mishna, the foundational rabbinic text] was dying, the rabbis [his peers and students].... offered a prayer for heavenly mercy [so he would not die]. Rabbi Judah's handmaid, instead, went up to the roof, and prayed [so that he would die]. The rabbis below kept on with their prayers that he might continue to live. From the roof, she took a jar and threw it to the ground below, interrupting their prayers. As they stopped their praying, Rabbi Judah died. [Transl. based upon Louis E. Newman, "Woodchoppers and Respirators: The Problem of Interpretation in Contemporary Jewish Ethics," Contemporary Jewish Ethics and Morality, A Reader. Oxford University Press: new York (1995. p. 141-142.]

The above story was interpreted by Rabbeinu Nissim (11th c. CE), as meaning:
Sometimes one must request mercy on behalf of the ill so that he might die, as in the case of a patient who is terminal and who is in great pain. [Commentary to BT Nedarim 40a; Transl. based upon Louis E. Newman, "Woodchoppers and Respirators: The Problem of Interpretation in Contemporary Jewish Ethics," Contemporary Jewish Ethics and Morality, A Reader. Oxford University Press: new York (1995. p. 142.]

If we return to how we started, with, "Hard Choice for a Comfortable Death: Sedation," we read the words of Dr. Edward Halbridge, a Hospice Medical Director, who states: 
“Do I consider myself a Dr. Death who is bumping people off on a regular basis?... I don’t think so. In my own head I’ve sort of come to the realization that these people deserve to pass comfortably.”

And so we see, in this extremely abbreviated form, Jewish Tradition's different responses to death and dying: As pertaining to Halakha, or Jewish Law, which relies on precedents and analog; theory and general principles; moral intuition, conscience and specific decisions; and the larger societal, and medical influences. [See Aaron L. Mackler, "Cases and Principles in Jewish Bioethics: Toward a Holistic Model," Contemporary Jewish Ethics and Morality, A Reader. Oxford University Press: new York (1995. p. 177-193.]

Now what? Prepare yourself. Visit the following sites for valuable resources:
Create Your Advance Directive
Download a Legal Guide for the Seriously Ill
"End-of-Life: Jewish Perspectives," by Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, PhD
National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization
The Hospice Foundation of America

Saturday, December 26, 2009

All It Takes Is One

As we're all aware, a terrorist attack was attempted on Christmas Day, aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253, in route from Amsterdam to Detroit. “Without any hesitation," says Jasper Schuringa, a Dutch film director who was seated in the same row as the terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab: 
"I just jumped over all the seats. I was thinking, Oh, he’s trying to blow up the plane. I was trying to search his body for any explosive. I took some kind of object that was already melting and smoking, and I tried to put out the fire and when I did that I was also restraining the suspect.”
All it took was one: one brave soul to risk not just injury, but his very life. All it took was one. And another. And another - for Mr. Schuringa was "aided by other passengers." We can't help but be reminded of September 11, 2001 and United Flight 93, whose passengers learned, while in the air, about that day's hijacked airplanes. It was their bravery, their rising up in the face of certain danger and death, which prevented terrorists from destroying yet another building that terrible day.

In Judaism, there is nothing as precious as human life. Human life is kadosh kedoshim, the holiest of all that is holy. Genesis' text tells us that, in the beginning, only one human being was created. Adam, then, constituted the whole of humanity. The Ancient Rabbis (200 CE - 500 CE) wondered why only one human was created first - and not many more. In the great anthology of rabbinic wisdom, The Talmud, the rabbis conclude that our account of creation intends to teach us that one person's life is considered to be as infinitely valuable as an entire world's population, for only one person was the world's entire population. 
"Tradition glorifies whoever saves a single soul, for it is as if he has saved an entire world." [Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a]
This is reflected within the daily, lived life of Jewish Tradition through the ancient directive of פִּיקּוּחַ נֶפֶשׁpikuach nefesh. Meaning "saving a human life (literally: regard for human life);" it is based on the biblical commandment, "‏";לֹא  תַעֲמֹד  עַל־דַּם  רֵעֶךָ "You shall not stand idly by your neighbor's blood" [or, "as your neighbor bleeds,"] (Lev. 19:16). Jewish Tradition insists that one go to incredibly great lengths to save another's life; overriding almost every commandmentWe are obligated to act to save another's life. (Pikuach nefesh also serves as the groundwork for the Tradition's direction to donate one's organs, a subject I will discuss in a forthcoming posting.)

 Naturally there is no qualifier on whose life is in danger: any age, any religion, any race - anyone. Anyone. Any one.

I wonder if I would have the courage to do what this one man did. But his having done it reassures me that anyone, any one person, can be - and in fact, is - capable of such greatness, capable of living up to that which Jewish Tradition demands of us. Even when you least expect it of yourself.

Read the story here:

[For more introductory information on Pikuach Nefesh, visit THE ENCYCLOPAEDIA JUDAICA, Second Edition, Volume 16, pages 152-153.]