Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Thoughts on Charlottesville

In the very first Captain America, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby showed their new creation punching he-who-will-not-be-named in the face, a full year before the U.S. entered WWII. It was a deliberate decision as Simon and Kirby were "morally repulsed" by the actions of Nazi Germany. As Simon later said, "The opponents to the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too." The first issue of Captain America went on to sell over a million copies. We fight Nazis, that is what we do. We do not embolden them because we believe in taking on hate in all corners, at all times, in all places. 

Let's get a few facts out of the way. The Civil War was fought over the desire to own fellow human beings. General Robert E Lee was a traitor. The myth of General Lee may be lauded by many, but the man was no saint. His statue and other similar statues have been erected not to commemorate the Civil War but to intimidate. The US fought a war against the Nazis. Millions were killed by the Nazis and millions more died fighting them. These are facts, not beliefs. 

What transpired in Charlottesville this past week was not a one time event. It represented a corruption of history by some who believe their skin color and religion make them superior to their fellow human beings. Why they keep allying themselves with history's losers says much about their psyche.

As a result, one warrior against hate was murdered in an act of violence. Many more were injured including some seriously. And two law enforcement officers died while doing their duty to protect the public.

I for one am angry. I am angry that we have to keep fighting battles already won. I am angry we have to keep fighting hate. But I am also hopeful. For the dozens who stood up for hate, hundreds stood up against it. Clergy marched arm in arm. Fellow human beings, fellow Americans of all races, religions and backgrounds said, "No! Not in my back yard!"

When it comes to hate there are only two sides. The right side and the wrong side. To those who stand with Nazis and the KKK, you are on the wrong side. Plain and simple. 

Yes, we will need to keep having conversations and continue the hard work of coalitions to fight against the persistent, endemic, infections of racism and antisemitism in this country, but in my heart I believe love will defeat hate. Maybe not in our day, but one day. 

May the memories of our latest warrior against hate, Heather Heyer, always be for an abiding blessing. She did not deserve this. By all accounts she was a good and decent person. Yet we are reminded that when hate rears its ugly head, it is often the good and decent who suffer sometimes the most.

We will not remain silent. We will not equivocate. We will stand with the righteous of all nations and give hate no quarter. It will find no sanctuary. As long as we remain united, it will not win.

And then we shall one day see the vision of Isaiah come to fruition where all shall live under their one vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid.

Friday, July 7, 2017

It's Like Talking to a Wall

On June 7, 1967, in the words of Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the US in his book Six Days of War, “men from both the Jerusalem Brigade and 71st paratroopers converged in the (Western) wall, ecstatic and all but oblivious to the persistent sniper fire. Rabbi (Shlomo) Goren (the IDF’s chief chaplain) broke free of the three soldiers (Lt. General Mordechai) Gur had designated to restrain him, and ran headlong to the wall. He (Goren) said Kaddish … blew his shofar, and proclaimed, “I, General Shlomo Goren, chief rabbi of the Israeli Defense Forces, have come to this place never to leave it again.” Crammed into the narrow space between the stones and the ramshackle dwellings of the Mughrabi Quarter, the soldiers broke into spontaneous songs and prayers. Above them, the Star of David was hoisted.”[1]
For the first time since 1948, Jews were able to pray once again at the retaining wall, the closest site to where the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple stood, in ancient days in Israel. And for the first time since Roman days, Jews had authority and control over the Kotel, the Western Wall.
There is a picture entitled: The Western Wall on a Friday which was taken some time between 1867 and 1914.[2] In this picture, you can see men and women in traditional garb praying side by side in a very cramped almost alcove. It is striking in part because there is no mechitza, and there must not have been a religious authority overseeing the site.
Speaking of which, as I mentioned, the Western Wall dates back to the second century BCE, though the bottom stones may be part of an even older structure dating back to the first Temple. The retaining wall was expanded upon by King Herod to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. When completed the Temple represented one of the great wonders of the ancient world, that was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 C.E. as commemorated in the Arch of Titus in Rome.
Though not part of the Temple, the Kotel or Western Wall has been viewed as one of the holiest sites in Judaism. One of the great ironies to this is that as a Diaspora people, we have been very reluctant to give places a sense of sanctity. Instead we tended to live by the words of Jacob after his dream of the stairway to heaven, “God was in this place and I did not know it.” Meaning, God can be found wherever we look for God.
All that being said, the Kotel nonetheless has become a vital symbol of Judaism and Jewishness, and no trip to Israel is complete without a visit to the Kotel.
However, following the Six-Day War, Orthodox religious authorities, funded by the Israeli government have taken control of all religious observances at the Kotel. They have erected a mechitza (a dividing wall) thus no longer permitting men and women to pray next to each other. As an aside, the tradition of the mechitza was not originally Jewish, we actually borrowed it from early Christian traditions.
And in more recent times the ruling Orthodox authorities have banned women from holding Torah scrolls, leading services, wearing a tallit and/or tefillin, or singing out loud at the site. They have also banned mixed gender worship services.
Egalitarian Jews abroad and in Israel have fought back. The most well-known group is the Women of the Wall which was formed in 1988 to fight for the rights for all Jews to be able to share in the sacred space.
As their mission states, “The Kotel is the only remaining wall left of the Second Temple- the place where our ancestors went to seek G-d. We aspire to do the same: with prayer, reverence, and joy. Freedom to worship at the KoteI is one of the most important outcomes of the Jewish people’s return to Jerusalem in 1967, but this great achievement is tainted by the fact that women are prohibited from praying freely at the holy site. The Kotel is a central symbol of Jewish unity to Jews around the world. 
If, as tradition tells us, the Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam   baseless hatred – we dare to assert that allowing our voices to be heard would be no less than a tikkun, a mending, of the history of intolerance.”[3]
Many of you have seen the pictures and videos of the hatred and vitriol spewed towards the Women of the Wall, and some of you may have or may know of others who have supported their cause. It all came to a head in 2013 when Prime Minister Netanyahu tasked the Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky to come up with a compromise which would finally enable diverse Jewish practice at the Kotel.
“This kicked off several years of very intense negotiations. It involved the Jewish Agency, The Jewish Federations of North America, Reform and Conservative Movements, Women of the Wall, the rabbi of the Kotel, and representatives of the Israeli government. It also involved archeological authorities, the Waqf (Muslim religious authorities) and even the Jordanian government. As you can see, all invested and interested parties were invited to the table to participate in the negotiations.
An agreement was reached to upgrade and in essence create an egalitarian prayer space at Robinson’s arch, which is an underdeveloped section along the southern end of the Western Wall. The Knesset approved this agreement in January 2016.
Nonetheless, there was incredible pressure by the ultra-Orthodox to halt the plan. For close to 18 months, the Israeli government avoided moving forward with the plan. Then this past Sunday, June 25th, the Prime Minister and his government voted to formally freeze the Kotel Resolution.”[4]
As many of you undoubtedly know, outrage by the greater Progressive community has been swift. Rick Jacobs and the URJ cancelled a meeting with the Prime Minister. The JFNA condemned the resolution as a “threat to Jewish unity.” Even AIPAC, has approached the Prime Minister stating that this ruling could undermine support for Israel in Congress. Bibi in one fell swoop has done something not seen since the attempt to overturn the Law of Return some 30 years ago, which was to unify the non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish world. Sadly, he united it against the Israeli government.
In response the CCAR has issued the following statement, “Today's decision calls into question whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a man of his word. The Prime Minister, whose name is on the January, 2016 agreement on behalf of his government, has apparently caved in to the extremist views of his ultra-Orthodox (Hareidi) coalition partners. Moreover, this decision further strains the relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel, and makes it increasingly difficult for our rabbis to make the case of support for Israel.
The prophet Isaiah, preaching of a messianic future about the Temple itself, prophesied, "Let my House be a House of prayer for all people." Our pre-messianic goal is more modest, that the Kotel could be a place of prayer for all Jews. The Kotel is a powerful symbol but unfortunately one that exemplifies the inequalities and indignities to which Reform, Conservative and other non-Orthodox Jews are subjected in the Jewish State every day.
Reform Rabbis join our Reform and Conservative Movement partners -- and our Orthodox partners, too, along with Jewish communities worldwide -- who will continue to struggle on behalf of Jewish religious equality at the Kotel and throughout Israel.”[5]
Locally, I have met with Gary Siepser and Lisa Green, the heads of our local federation as well as the Rockland Board of Rabbis. We will be issuing a joint statement against this ruling, and the Rockland Board of Rabbis will also be issuing its own separate statement as well. The plan is to continue to inundate the Prime Minister and the Knesset with our outrage and anger at this latest slap in the face towards the greater Jewish community and Progressive Judaism. Or as one commentator put it, “when you’re at odd with Natan Sharansky, that should tell you right away that you’re in the wrong corner.”[6]
But there are a couple of lingering questions: #1 – why should we care? And #2 – what can we do about it?
With regards to #1 – I will admit that I am not a big fan of the Wall. I have visited it many times. One of my favorite memories was going there after Kol Nidre Services where it serves as a place for all the young single people to meet and greet. Yes, I know, of all places for people to find potential dates. But the Kotel also represents a time of Judaism that I am thankful is long gone. We no longer follow the sacrificial cult, and I, for one, am in no hurry to return to it.
All that being said, if the Kotel is one of the central symbols of Judaism, then there needs to be a space for all Jews to be able to approach it according to their understandings of tradition rather than just for a select few. This fight is more than just about a wall, it is about the ultra-Orthodox hegemony over religious life in Israel, which in a way represents a de-legitimization of religious life outside of Israel as well. So yes, I believe we have a vested interest in this fight.
Also, one of the foreboding elements of the Pew Center Poll is that more and more young people are feeling not only disinterested in Israel, but even antipathy towards it. Yes, Birthright has helped to fight this. But it makes it all the more difficult to make the case for Israel, especially to those who do not have the modern historical connection like those of us who were witnesses to 48, 67 and 73. Why should they care about Israel if Israel doesn’t care about them?
Also, this is one issue we can do something about. The Jewish world is divided about issues like the security wall, the peace process, and the like. Part of the reason for this is that these issues have more to do with Israel’s security and national agenda. However, the Kotel is all about Judaism and Jewish observance, something by which we not only have a right to participate in the conversation, but I also feel, we have an obligation to make our views known as well.
Which leads us to question #2, what can we do about it? One response is disengagement. There are some out there who are saying, enough already. I no longer have any desire to be involved in Israel, to travel there, or to donate to Israeli causes. There are many problems with this approach, least of which, it will not further our cause.
Instead, we should get more involved, if anything. But more specifically involved. Yes, we are still planning our trip to Israel next spring. Even before the issue of the Kotel came to a head, the trip was planned to focus on progressive life in Israel where we were and are scheduled to meet with heads of the Reform movement and the Israel Religious Action Center in Israel. So if you are on the fence, please come and join us on the trip.
Secondly, I am hoping we can, as a congregation, focus more on our support of ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America), the WUPJ (World Union for Progressive Judaism), the Israel Religious Action Center, and the AJC. I have already been in contact with some of these organizations, and will continue to explore what we can do as a community to help support their efforts on behalf of Progressive Jews here, abroad and in Israel.
You are also encouraged to write letters to the Knesset, to the Prime Minister and even to Natan Sharansky (thanking him for his efforts). But most importantly, we are not give up hope. Israel is the only Jewish Democratic State that is supposed to represent the best in Judaism and Jewish tradition. It fails in this endeavor just as much as it succeeds. Our voices matter! If we wish to see Israel represent the homeland for all Jews, we must be part of the conversation. For it would be a shame if a wall is what ultimately came between us.

[1] Oren, Micahel B., Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, pgs. 245-246.
[4] JFNA Background: Israel Government Decision Regarding the Kotel
[6] David Horovitz “He broke it, he must fix it.” Times of Israel

Sunday, January 29, 2017

On Behalf of Immigrants and Refugees

I am a proud third generation American who has now fathered a fourth generation of Americans. My family's story is like that of many Ashkenazic Jews: my great-grandparents families fled the Pale of Settlement at the turn of the twentieth century due to pogroms and persecutions. They fled to North America with virtually nothing. They came on a hope and a prayer. They struggled so that their children might have a better life than they experienced in Russia. They came to a country which embodied the ideal of the United States as penned by Emma Lazarus, a Jew born in New York City. Her words from her poem "The New Colossus" can be found on pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

The truth is, all of us are immigrants, except of course for those of Native American ancestry. All of us have a story to share. Some of our ancestors were seeking out religious freedom like the pilgrims. Some were fleeing famine and blight like the Irish. Some were simply seeking out better economic opportunities. This is the American story. This is the American dream.

Sadly the story of America is also filled with waves of anti-immigrant sentiment. It was the Irish. Then it was the Jews. Then, it was and still is the Hispanics, and well now, it's the Muslims. We've seen the rhetoric before, and I am sure we will see it again. But it has always been our better nature to eventually reject the politics of nativism. Though sometimes too late. Most notably the 'Voyage of the Damned.' 900 refugee German Jews were denied entry into Cuba, then the United States and then Canada. They ended up back in Europe where at least one quarter of them were ultimately murdered by the Nazis.

We have also been reminded recently that the most famous Holocaust Victim, Anne Frank, and her family were denied entry into the United States because of our restrictive immigration policies. These policies were based in part in fear that Jews from Europe would spy on the U.S. on behalf of the Germans. Sound familiar?

Now I am not going to get into the politics of targeting Muslims from specific countries, namely those that have never been involved in terrorist attacks on our soil. I'll leave that up to others. Instead I am writing this to appeal to the humanity of my readers. The current Executive Order banning Muslims from specific countries is cruel, ineffective, anti-American, and in some cases, un-Constituional.

Part of the reason why Islamic terrorists hate us so much is because we are a free and open society that is tolerant and welcoming. We embody everything they despise. Let's not do them any favors by becoming more like them. Please do not allow fear of the other to turn us into that which we will ultimately come to hate about ourselves. We are better than that. I know this because we are all immigrants or the sons and daughters of immigrants. Many of us are also refugees or the sons and daughters of refugees. Instead let's live up to the words written in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty rather than ignore them.

Monday, June 13, 2016


I have not posted anything as of yet because I wanted time to think and process and to cry. But all I found myself becoming was more and more angry. I am angry because of this horrible act of hate. I am angry because in the face of the murder of 50 people we immediately turn on each other. People are passionately proposing solutions and rather than have intelligent discussions, anyone who posts something others disagree with, they are demonized. I am angry because we turn on each other for expressing words of sorrow and grief. I am also angry because there is an immediate urge to put the perpetrator in a little box and label him. As the story comes out we are discovering this was far more of a disturbed individual and not so easily fit into a single description. 

Was this a terrorist act? Absolutely, but so much more. Was this a hate crime? Absolutely, but so much more. Was this a vindication of those who question why individuals need access to military style weapons. Absolutely, but so much more. Was this a response to those who are concerned about the radicalization of unstable individuals? Absolutely, but so much more. Was this the culmination of years of hate spewed by communities and politicians against the gay, lesbian, transgender, and transsexual communities? You bet your ass it is. Was this an attack on those of Hispanic and Latin heritage? Absolutely, but where does that fit into the narrative?

I am angry because to battle this silent but deadly enemy will take a multi-faceted approach. But instead all we do is point fingers, and do nothing. But this doesn't have to be the end of the conversation. Reasonable people can argue and disagree, but they can also come to consensus and actually act. 

The solution demands a willingness to take a good hard look at our gun laws, and requires sensible limitations. It demands we take a good hard look at our own ignorance of Islam. How many people know the difference between a Sunni and a Shia, let alone a liberal Muslim versus a radical Jihadist. And yes, Muslims come in all stripes, just like Christians and Jews. It demands that we change our individual and political discourse and stop demonizing minorities thus justifying the anger of deranged individuals. It demands that we not only strive to stop ISIS access to our citizens. And to work with our allies to build stability in the Middle East. Easier said than done. Lest we forget, ISIS arose in a political and military vacuum. This is not the result of one president, but of many failed policies of multiple administrations. 

It also demands that we recognize that the vast majority of mass shootings and mass murders in this country have not been committed by radicalized Islamists, even if it feels that way. Lest we forget Virginia Tech, New Town, and Aurora and only focus on Boston, San Bernardino, New York, DC, Pennsylvania, and Orlando. We have a violence problem in this country, and we are far too good at giving easy access to weapons of mass murder to determined individuals. 
And these proposals are just the tip of the iceberg. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Snowmageddon 2016 - The Real Story

Beginning on Friday January 22, 2016 through Saturday January 23, 2016, Baltimore and much of the Mid-Atlantic and North East was buried under historic snowfall amounts. To document this record setting event, I kept a daily journal of my snowed-in family on Facebook. Enjoy:

Day 2 Snowmageddon report: cookie supply running low. Children starting to turn feral. Just saw #3 attempt to lick #2. Snow piling higher. Contemplating hiding under bed with last jar of Nutella. Need more spoons. The laughter, the laughter

Parenting tip #4967: do not discuss the possibility of a snow monster kidnapping the children with a gullible 3-year-old in the house

Day 2 Snowmageddon update: the grill is buried. Food options dwindling to only a household full of carbs. Trying teach kids how to tunnel in the snow. Their efforts are weak and lethargic at best. Must resist bingeing on the Sopranos, but Tony is so mesmerizing. The laughter, the laughter

Hey Dominos, how's that whole drone delivery system coming along. I'm asking for a friend

Snowmageddon Day 3 Update: sad to report that the excursion to summit the grill failed. Lost three Sherpas along the way. All three monkeys successfully put on snow clothes and ventured outside. We hope to hear updates from them by April. All is quiet now as snow related insanity sets in. Nutella supply nearly depleted. Bummed Amazon doesn't use drones yet. Pray for us.

Snowmageddon Day 3 Update: Have not heard back from the children's expedition. Not concerned yet. Will check in again after nightfall. Hoping they make it back before snow weasels come for them. Ran out of Nutella. Experimented mixing peanut butter with chocolate sauce. Failed miserably. Thought about learning a foreign language. Turns out Rosetta Stone does not offer a Klingon module. Bummed. Snow boredom has set in. Searched kitchen to see if we have enough equipment to resurrect the dinosaurs. Turns out, we do not. Pray for us.

Snowmageddon Update Day 4: Tragic news struck Camp Sharff, I have lost my sense of humor. We sent out three expeditions to find it. None have returned. Nutella supply is exhausted. Now living off of a container of mini marshmallows and chocolate powder. Starting to hallucinate. I see Paw Patrol everywhere. Whatever you do, do not send Canadian dogs to rescue us. Planning my escape. This may be my last post. Pray for us.

This just in, BCPS officially closed until June.

Snowmageddon Day 4 Update: Re-read Into Thin Air. The snow mountain in the yard silently mocks me. Attempted to build a Snow-Removalanator. I was foiled by a platypus in a fedora. Didn't know they wore hats. Contemplating why fedoras went out of style. Began googling haberdasheries. Did you know you can hide a whole jar of Nutella in a properly sized headpiece? Attempting to make one out of tin foil. Hoping it will keep the voices out. Pray for us.

Snowmageddon Day 5 Update: Escape! Operation Giant was a success! Imagine the Iditarod only with children instead of huskies. No loss of life recorded, though demands for Chex mix were high. Provisions successfully restocked. Mt. Nutella rebuilt. Did not need to resort to eating the other, other white meat. Voices silent for the time being. Now back to the slow decline of sanity. Pray for us.

Snowmageddon Final Update: Freedom! Kids back in school. Roads somewhat clear. Snow monsters vanquished. Booze carefully restocked. Enough Nutella to last until the next ice age. Thank you for your prayers. Urge to kill ... fading...

This is a stock image of what may or may not have transpired
in the Sharff household

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Politics of Hate

I tend to stay out of the political fray when it comes to Social Media. As a rabbi, I have congregants of all political persuasions, and I tend to stick primarily to issues viewed through a Jewish lens rather than focus on candidates. However recent events have reminded me of what transpired eighty plus years ago when a hate monger targeted a small minority and rallied his nation against them. The end result was the murder of six million Jews along with five million other undesirables including those who were gay, disabled, and/or political rivals. 

Not that I like making Holocaust comparisons in modern politics because I am incredibly leery of diminishing the memories of all those who were murdered for simply being who they were. That being said, I feel, what we are seeing today is something that is reminiscent of Jewish history. There is a particular candidate to be the next President of the United States who is using similar language and scare tactics to help his rise in the polls. Donald Trump's rise in popularity due to his continued verbal assault on Mexicans, women, the disabled, and now Muslims demands a response.

So far I have been silent. But in my silence I was reminded of the words of Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) was a prominent Protestant pastor and outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

I will no longer be silent. This is not politics. This is hate. And hate has no place in place in our political discourse. Hate only breeds hate. And I am greatly saddened that this man has risen to such popular levels in this country. I for one will speak out because I am afraid for what it says about the soul of our nation.

Let us turn away from the politics of xenophobia and hate and return to the politics of solving problems. Our country faces many challenges both internal and external. We may not agree on how to take them on, but we must not take the easy path of giving into fear and hate. Because hate truly is, in the wise words of Yoda, "the path to the Dark Side."