Friday, December 23, 2011

URJ Biennial Update Video

See below for a video from the Union For Reform Judaism's Biennial that concluded last Sunday

Also below are links to Rabbi Eric Yoffie's final sermon as Head of the URJ

Presidential Shabbat Sermon

As well as Rick Jacob's vision for a New URJ

At the End of Two Years

Saturday, December 17, 2011

URJ Biennal URJ Update

"It never hurts to begin a speech by studying the Torah portion." This was part of of President's Obama speech to the nearly 6,000 in attendance at URJ's Biennial just outside of Washington D.C. It all started as people began to line up at 10am for a 3pm speech. They all wanted to make sure they had a good seat.

Politics aside, there were many just so excited to be in the same room as a sitting president. And President Obama certainly delivered. This was also the first time a sitting president has spoken at a URJ Biennial. During his speech President Obama referred to not only his similar passions to those taken by the Reform movement including a woman's right to choose, rights for the LBGT community, and economic opportunities; the crux of his speech focused on Israel. The president stated, "America's commitment and my commitment to Israel and Israel's security is unshakeable." The president then went on to say, "No administration has done more to support Israel's security than ours."

For many, even though we prayed together Friday evening with over 5,000 people in attendance, and that we may have broken a Guinness Book World record with the largest single gathering of Reform Jews for a dinner, the highlight still in many hearts was this chance to hear from their President.

And this is the power of the Reform Movement. Of course much credit goes to the Religious Action Center, the political arm of the Reform movement that has and continues to be at at the forefront of so many important issues facing our country today. It is also the power of 1.5 million well educated and informed Reform Jewish voters. It is also the power of committed lay leaders, educators, cantors, rabbis and active congregants.

So whether you agree or disagree with the President, it is still pretty amazing that he came to spend an hour of his time with us, and that we all wanted to give up so many of our hours to be with him.

Feel free to read below this article from The Jewish Daily Forward:
Obama Wins Rousing Cheers at Reform Biennial

And here is a transcript of the President's Remarks:
President Obama's Remarks at the 71st General Assembly of the Union for Reform Judaism

Friday, December 16, 2011

URJ Biennial 2011 in Washington D.C. - Update

Every two years thousands of Reform Jews gather together to worship, study, learn, knell, kvetch, nosh, kibbitz, and engage in the collaborative efforts we call Reform Judaism. This year there are six thousand of us at the Gaylord Resort on the National Harbor. We have seen a diversity of speakers, politicians, musicians, and presenters.

The main theme of this year's Biennial is youth engagement. Israel is also very much at the forefront of our conversations as well. There is a little something for everyone. Aside from listening to Deputy Prime Minster Ehud Barak, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Representative Debbie Wasserman Shultz, members of AIPAC, Israeli Ambassador and author Michael Oren, I have also taken a course in Twitter. I know it sounds random, but being able to communicate the messages we have been receiving through a variety of mediums is essential to the ongoing conversation going forward.

Later today we'll have the chance to hear President Barak Obama and that will be followed up with a Shabbat experience with 6,000 of our closest friends. It is a type of experience that is invigorating and should be enjoyed at least once in a person's life.

One of the tasks we are taking away from this convention is: what can we do to inspire and engage our membership. There are so many ideas and opportunities out there even in these tough times.

I can't wait to see what today brings.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Rape of Dinah

This past week we read from parashat Vayishlach. Vayishlach can be found in Genesis 32:4-36:43. Vayishlach contains one of most refereed to passages in Genesis where Jacob finds himself alone, about to meet his brother after 20 years. Jacob doesn't know if he is going to live or die, and he wrestles with a being all night long. Perhaps this 'being' was God. Perhaps it was an angel. Perhaps it was Jacob's conscience. The text is not entirely clear. What we do know is that during this encounter, Jacob's name was changed to Israel. Following this wrestling match, Jacob and his brother Esau reconcile, and then they go their separate ways.

What happens next is one of the less well know sections of the Torah, the rape of Dinah. Dinah, Jacob's daughter, was raped by Schechem the Hivite. But Schechem falls in love with Dinah and he asks his father Hamor to arrange a marriage for him. Jacob agrees, but Jacob's sons put a stipulation that Hamor, Shechem, and all their men need first circumcise themselves. On the third day, Simeon and Levi (Dinah's brothers), slaughter all the Hivite men and plunder their possessions. This action anger's Jacob and leaves Dinah in an even more precarious situation.

It is a deeply troubling passage. A person recently commented, that is something Jews simply do not do. Thus we should not even study this section. But the truth is, our Torah is very much reflective of the times of which it was written. And we should be troubled by the acts of violence. But does that mean we should not be engaged with the story?

One of the challenges to Torah and/or Bible study is that we expect the text to reflect our current conditions. We expect it to be egalitarian, fair, thoughtful, and representative of who we are. This approach leads many to great frustration, for the Torah simply is not that way.

Torah is much more complex and complicated, just like our ancestors, and just like us. For example, one lesson to derive from the rape of Dinah, was that, unlike in many other cultures then and now, Dinah was not blamed by her brothers nor executed for bringing shame upon her family. This is quite revolutionary development for world cultures, not to blame the victim. But we are so caught up in our anger about the brothers' response, that we fail to see this point our tradition is trying to make.

Likewise, there are so many other aspects of the Torah we overlook because they do not 'jive' with our perception of how the world should be, failing to see that the Torah is helping us to make the world as it should be. Life is complex, so too is the Torah. And this is a blessing for which I am very grateful.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Hanukkah Does Indeed Rock! Part II

Last year I posted a number of links to Hanukkah videos for modern times indicating that the web is perhaps the salvation of this often misunderstood festival. So with that in mind, here are a few more videos.
Enjoy and Happy Hanukkah

And of course it wouldn't be Hanukkah without the Maccabeats!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Random Biblical Trivia

I admit I have been negligent with regards to regular blog posts. Oftentimes I await inspiration rather than set aside the time to blog. And of course the days and weeks get away from me before I realize that I haven't blogged in ages.

In looking through my posts, I realize I often will try to be topical from a Jewish perspective. And on very rare occasions, I am just random. But blogging, I feel, is like exercise or prayer, in that the only way to be effective, I have to commit to it on a regular basis.

All that being said, I have decided, if I am short on ideas, I'll at least post some random Jewish trivia, which hopefully will brighten your day. And if not, at least help you if ever you are on Jeopardy!

Today's random trivia: The Hebrew Bible, also known as the Tanakh or Tanaach (for Torah, Neviim - Prophets, and Ketuvim - Writings) has 39 books in it. However according to the Talmud, this number is reduced to 24 (joining together the likes of I and II Samuel, and so on).

The longest book in the Tanakh is Psalms with 150 chapters, 2461 verses, 43,743 words.

The shortest is Ovadia (one of the 12 Minor Prophets - only called Minor because of how little we have of their works) at 1 chapter, 21 verses, 670 words.

And the only book that does not directly mention God's name is the book of Esther, of Purim fame.

Good luck on Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy. And if you win, let me know.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Joe Pa and Judaism

I am a big time college football fan. As a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, I have followed my beloved Longhorns through their ups and downs. Thankfully it has been mostly ups since the arrival of Mack Brown including one National Championship, and one injury removed from a second national championship.

So a part of me likes to think that I understand the passion and excitement of college football. LinkThe realist in me also understands that college athletics is a huge money making endeavor for colleges and college football is at the forefront of it. Hence all of the recent turmoil with the changing landscape of conference alignment. I for one am sad to see the end of the Texas – Texas A&M rivalry. I truly hope Texas A&M is on the right track for their program and are not hit by a train (i.e. every team in the SEC).

All that being said, I too have been following the events that have transpired with Penn State and their beloved coach Joe Paterno.

I have been thinking about Joe’s alleged response to the allegations that his then assistant coach Jerry Sandusky abused young boys. The argument for Joe is that he reported it to his superiors, and that is what is mandated by the law.

But I began reflecting on what Jewish tradition might say. In terms of the performance of mitzvot, rabbis list the minimum one needs to do in order to fulfill a mitzvah. For example, when building a sukkah, it needs to be at minimum, tall enough to sit in and fit at least one person (Shulchan Aruch Orah Hayyim 633:1).But of course the goal is to do so much more than the minimum. The goal is to build a structure where one can truly celebrate this wonderful fall festival. Hence, the bare minimum really is never enough.

Also there is the principle of tzedek, tzekek tirdof, justice, justice, you shall pursue, (Deuteronomy 16:20). One of the classic interpretations of this phrase is we are obligated to seek out justice and to make sure it is done and applied fairly. Not just to pass it on to others to handle.

Joe Paterno has a tremendous legacy. Sadly it is now tarnished because though he may have followed the letter of the law, its spirit, Jewish or otherwise, was left by the wayside, and truly innocent victims suffered accordingly. May his example remind all of us to pursue justice whenever possible, to speak of for those who have no voice, and to try to go above and beyond the mere letter of the law. And if this is so, Joe’s legacy can serve both as a warning and as an opportunity for us all

Friday, October 21, 2011

Gadhafi's Death - One Rabbi's Reaction

The United Nations along Amnesty International and Human Rights watch are calling for an investigation into the circumstances of Moammar Gadhafi's death. The questions persist as to whether Gadhafi was killed in crossfire or was summarily executed as many suspect. Peter Bouckaert, a director for Human Right's Watch was quoted as saying, the killing of Gadhafi is a "blemish on the record of the new Libya."

And yet, if Gadhafi was executed, it is hard not to support the Libyan rebels in their actions. Gadhafi was responsible for the deaths of thousands, and their anger towards their former dictator is palpable to say the least.

We too want to rejoice in his death just like we wanted to rejoice in the death of Osama bin Laden. Yet as the scholar Nahum Amsel wrote in The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues, “One certainly can be happy that an evil person and the evil he or she caused is eradicated from the world … after all, the Jewish community does celebrate the downfall of Haman and the defeat of the Egyptians. Part of Purim and Passover certainly is being happy that the enemy is defeated.”1 But even then, our Torah reminds us not to hate in one’s heart (Leviticus 19:17).

Our tradition then seems to be telling us to be happy when evil is vanquished, but not to rejoice in the destruction of life, no matter how evil it may be.

An enemy of peace, an enemy of the world is dead. Baruch Dayan HaEmet. Blessed be the true Judge. We do not rejoice in Gadhafi’s death. But we do pray that the world will be a little bit safer with him gone. And maybe his death, though not brought about by any means of justice may help us at least move a little bit closer towards the ultimate goal of shalom, peace in this world and in the whole world.

1 (Amsel, Nachum, The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues, Northvale, 1996, pg. 93)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Gilad Shalit

Let us rejoice! After more than five years Gilad Shalit is finally home. Shalit was kidnapped while on patrol near the Gaza border by members of Hamas on June 25, 2006. Hamas denied any access to Shalit from aid organizations like the International Red Cross which was in stark violation of the Geneva convention.

Shalit's whereabouts were unknown for years and only occasionally would Hamas release scant proof that he was still alive. This included a DVD that Israel had to release twenty female prisoners in order to obtain a copy of it.

It now seems that Shalit was always intended to be a pawn. And it appears Hamas has achieved its goal of Israel releasing over 1,000 prisoners including convicted terrorists responsible for the deaths of many Israelis.

And yet, Shalit's return is not a defeat. Instead, as Miki Goldwasser wrote in an op-ed for Ynet, "Today is our victory day. The day where we decided that our values and our confidence in the righteousness of our way shall guide us. As long as there is no peace, and let us hope it arrives, our sons shall be serving the State with confidence. Mothers will again be able to entrust their children in the hands of worthy commanders."

There are some in Israel who felt and feel the price is too high. And there is a compelling argument to be made
. But that is the price we pay whenever we cherish life. We place the principle of Pikuach Nefesh, saving a life, above all of our other principles. It is part of what defines us as Jews. Today a life was saved. And all of Israel, and all the world can rejoice.

I don't know if this will help bring about peace to the rejoin so desperate for peace. But at least today, there is finally peace in the Shalit home, a home which up until today, was in mourning.

So let us rejoice, during this festival of rejoicing. Gilad Shalit is finally home!

An Israeli Day of Victory

Friday, September 16, 2011

Blogging Elul - Day 17 of Disappointment and Forgiveness

As I am in the middle of preparing any number of materials for the High Holy Days, I took a few minutes to excitedly open up my latest copy of the Baltimore Jewish Times. In particular I was very much looking forward to reading the article about the 9/11 Commemoration I had the honor of participating in that I blogged about in my previous post.

Needless to say, much to my disappointment, within the coverage of this event attended by an estimated 750 individuals, my participation as the representative of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis and Rabbi of Har Sinai Congregation was not mentioned in the article. I was and am greatly hurt by this oversight.

This discovery ground my sermon writing to a halt as I began focusing all my energy towards the BJT. But why should it matter so much to me? Wasn't it enough of an honor to have participated in such a significant event with or without media mention?

Of course, but at the same time, I will admit I did look forward to getting the article framed and hanging it on my wall. And hopefully the BJT will run a correction, but its not the same.

At the same time, it was just an oversight. And this was a humbling reminder to me that oversights do happen, and the best lesson I can learn is to be very careful with how I choose to mention people. And in the meantime, I will work to forgive the oversight in my own heart, for the BJT is a great resource to the Baltimore Jewish Community.

In the meantime here are two articles on the event:

9/11 Ten Years Later: An Evening to Remember

Monday, September 12, 2011

Blogging Elul - Day 13 a 9/11 Commemoration

I was honored to participate in a Baltimore Community Interfaith 9/11 Commemoration as the representative for the Baltimore Board of Rabbis. Joining me that evening were Maryland Senators Ben Cardin, whom I met for the first time earlier in the day at our welcome back picnic as well as Senator Barbara Mikulski. Governor Martin O'Malley spoke as well. There were many distinguished elected officials present including Baltimore's Mayor Stephanie Rowlings-Blake and members of Maryland's General Assembly. And of course there were many of my wonderful colleagues of faith in attendance as well.

I would especially like to thank Rabbi Ron Shulman of Congregation Chizuk Amuno Congregation for inviting me to participate. I was truly honored and humbled.

The month of Elul is both about reflecting and looking forward. This seems appropriate especially tied to our 10th Anniversary 9/11 commemoration. Earlier in the day I was with the Har Sinai Congregation's religious school. One of the interesting things I have come to realize is that the members of our religious school were three or younger when the Twin Towers fell. For most of them, they have never known a world when the Twin Towers stood.

Thus even as we commemorated the solemn and tragic events, I feel we must strive to find new meaning in 9/11 lest it become a historical mention like December 7, 1941 or November 22, 1963 or January 28, 1986. Whereby those who witnessed still feel the pain of those events to this day, but those who were not yet conscious of it or in existence, do not have the same emotional connection.

Thus 9/11 needs to continue to be a rallying cry. As Rabbi Shulman mentioned, it should remind us if nothing else, to be kind. Or as I spoke about, if we are to take a lesson away, it is to fight the evil in our own hearts.

So even though we will never make sense of 9/11, we do have the capacity to rise above the horrors of our past. They do define our history and they will forever be a part of the American soul. But they are not the entirety of the American soul. Life does continue on. In a sense we are all 9/11 survivors who can testify to the notion that love between neighbors is possible, not easy, but possible.

And in this way, the memory, the legacy of those whose lives were lost, will continue to live on.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Blogging Elul - Day 10 Elul on the Web Part 2

This is from a note I received in response to my posting on Elul on the web:

"Dear Rabbi - there are apps for Elul in the AppStore. At least Selichot (both for Sefardim and Ashkenazim) and a bunch of Shofar apps (just for training and fun). There are also podcasts and other stuff in the iTunes. Check out and follow @Jewish_iPhone on Twitter for even more."

One of the great things about Elul is we can apologize for mistakes of the past. My apologies for missing out on all of these great sources in my blog mention. Feel free to check them out.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Blogging Elul 5771 - Day 9 Elul on the Web

A recent magazine article in moment magazine lists the Top 10 Jewish apps. Initially I thought these were a joke, but then I went to the app store on my phone and found many of them available for the standard fare of 99 cents.

Top Ten Jewish Apps

I think one of my favorites is from Jewish Mother, "This phone could also be used to call me, you know."

According to Nielson wire, nearly 50% of all phones sold in the U.S. by the 3Q will be smart phones. And American Jews probably make up an even higher percentage of smartphone users. This means we are becoming not only increasingly dependent upon our smart phones, but also increasingly invested in our apps.

Alas, there is not an Elul app as far as I can tell. In the meantime, we'll just have to keep doing it the old fashioned way. With day by day focus on teshuvah. But first, a round of Judoku.

Smartphones to Overtake Feature Phones in U.S. by 2011

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Blogging Elul 5771 - Day 8 The Shofar and You

One of the great traditions of Elul is to sound the shofar each morning. Actually the mitzvah is to hear it being blown. But in case you want to learn, below is a video instruction for sounding the shofar.

Blogging Elul 5771 - Day 4

As you can tell by the numbering, I skipped day 3. I am usually off on Wednesdays and I try my best to make it a priority day for time with my family. I don't always succeed in that regard, but this week, I am pleased to report, was a great day with my family.

In other news, the area I still very much struggle with is in taking care of myself. This seems to be an ongoing issue I unfortunately revisit every Elul.

As I remind myself often, if we do not take care of ourselves first, how can we hope to help repair the community or the greater world? Or as the old Yiddish saying goes, "A BI GEZUNT: So long as you're healthy." For if you are not healthy ...

I am setting some goals forth (again) to get myself on a better path of life, which will I hope, in turn, make me a better husband, father, friend, and rabbi. These include healthier living, being a better listener, and dedicating myself to at least one personal endeavor per day.

As Hillel said in Pirkei Avot 1:14 "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?"

This I think is one of the best themes for this Elul, for any Elul, and for any time of year.

What goals do you have for yourself in this coming year?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Blogging Elul 5771 – Day 2

One can argue the American self-help or self-improvement craze really took off towards the end of the 20th century. According to at least one study by Marketdata, by 2006, the self help market was worth an estimated $9 Billion dollars including but not limited to infomercials, self-help books, stress management, weight loss and the like. Needless to say, we as Americans seem to really be into self-improvement.

However that pales in comparison to our love affair with fast food, by which we spend more than $110 billion a year, which according to CBS, news is more than we’ll spend on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and recorded music combined.
So in a sense, we tend to still be more into self-destruction than self-improvement, or as Freud described it, the Todestrieb or “death drive.” This can also be understood as our capacity as individuals and as a society to make choices that lead us towards self-destruction.

This is in part why Elul is so very important to the Jewish psyche. As long as we continue down the path of self-destruction through our little choices – be it our diets, our words, our habits, our work, or the like; our path towards self-destruction can feel inevitable.

But Elul allows us to reset the clock, to get out of old patterns. As I mentioned in Elul – Day 1, it is not easy to do, but well worth the effort. To speak metaphorically, think of the High Holy Days as a chance to put down that burger and fries and to make and instead to pick up sushi or a light turkey sandwich. Little positive daily choices ultimately can have a much larger lasting life impact, but only if we become aware of them and are willing to make them.

So maybe it is time to start thinking of Elul as God's spiritual self-help guide. And that guide is free and open to all.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Blogging Elul 5771 – Day 1

Last year I set out the ambitious goal of blogging every day during the month of Elul. Elul, for those who are not familiar, is the last month of the Hebrew calendar leading up to Rosh Hashanah and the start of the new Jewish year.
Traditionally we sound the shofar every morning, except on Shabbat helping to prepare ourselves ritually, spiritually, and emotionally for one of the most challenging part of the year.

The overarching theme during Elul through Yom Kippur (though some argue through Shemini Atzeret which is a one day festival at the end of Sukkot), is that of teshuvah. Teshuvah is often defined as repentance, though a return of the ways of Godliness is a better translation.

The question is, why do we spend so much time and emphasis on Teshuvah? One of the possible reasons is because change is hard. I often say the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, because we as human beings usually keep doing what we have always done. To really change ourselves, to break out of bad habits, and to set new life goals is a constant struggle. And when faced with doubt, uncertainly, stress and the like, we more often than not, revert to past patterns.

Thus I think this year I will focus on the ideas of how we can change ourselves for the better as individuals, as members of family, and as members of a community.
Down the road, I’ll lay out some of my ideas for my own changes and transformations, but in the meantime, what are some of your goals?

In the meantime, you can also follow some of the links to my fellow bloggers who are also blogging Elul as well.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Gastronomic Judaism

Apropos of really nothing, after celebrating my wife’s birthday at a very nice restaurant, I began to ponder all of the really great meals I have had over the recent few years. I think this has been inspired in part by all those shows on the Food Network and the Travel Channel where they visit interesting countries, cultures, and of course dine at some of the best … and sometimes the worst restaurants.

I am deliberately not including breakfast places or other nice meals, but instead this is a list of just some of the truly great dining opportunities I have been fortunate enough to have had. There is no scientific foundation to this list, just great food, great service, great company, and lots of fun.

#1 – Hands down – Tru in Chicago with my wife and our friends Renee and Mike. This was by far the best dining experience. It was five star all the way in terms of service, presentation, and taste. They even introduced me to Rieslings which have quickly become my favorite wine varietal.

#2 – NOLA in New Orleans. Say what you will about Emeril Lagasse, I have to say dinner with Joy, Dan and Melissa was fabulous. It truly embodied the taste, sights and sounds of New Orleans.

#3 – Janos in Tucson with Joy. I have had the chance to enjoy Janos’ fine cooking at several fundraisers, and his take on Southwestern Cuisine is simply divine.

#4 – Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore with Joy and my parents. Woodberry uses local ingredients in creative ways, and the service was about as good as we have had in recent memory. Plus it was fascinating to watch by the kitchen staff as they prepared and served dishes in almost a quiet ballet opposite of those kitchens run by such ‘celebrity chefs’ as Gordon Ramsay.

Some of our other favorite meals included a great steak dinner at the Precinct in Cincinnati with Dan and Melissa, and dining with friends at the Imperial Fez in Atlanta including Yair, Marissa, Dan and Melissa. Not only was the food great, but the belly dancing really adds to the all evening of fun dining experience.

Yes just about every culture and religion gather around for food, but there is also something inherently Jewish about eating as well. Even during our six fasts (Fast of Gedaliah, Yom Kippur, 17th of Tammuz, the Fast of Esther, the 10th of Tevet and the 9th of Av, (not counting the fast of the first born male which only applies to the first born male if they are the first born of the womb), we spend most of our time contemplating what we will eat after the fast. So even though eating Jewishly does not necessarily make one Jewish, it is a great way to celebrate one’s Jewishness.

What are some of your favorite dining experiences?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Everything I needed to know, I learned from my toddler

Ok, ok, so I am borrowing the title. But as I spent part of my morning with my son, I began to think about some of the lessons I have learned from him lately:

1. Always smile when waking up in the morning. I admit, I am not a morning person in the least. Until I have had my third cup of coffee, please don’t even talk to me. But that darned kid is always happy to be awake and in the presence of loving family. Who could ask for more?

2. There is very little that cannot be solved by a full tummy.

3. When you’re feeling cranky, see #2

4. Sometimes you just have to throw yourself to the floor and scream at the injustices of the world, but then you get up, dust yourself off, and move onto something shiny.

5. A good nap cures all.

6. Elmo may be everyone’s favorite muppet, but Grover never, ever gives up. Plus he’s blue and super.

7. Use all your words every day.

8. A sticky face and messy hands must mean a good time was had by all.

9. Bath time means everyone gets wet. I mean everyone!

10. Make sure to share lots and hugs and kisses because there are plenty to go around.

And here are two more

11. Body noises are funny at any age

12. (And from my daughter): why talk when you can sing?!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Israel - Past, Present, and Future

"We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states," President Obama stated in part of his speech today on U.S. policy and the Middle East. He then went on to say a little later, "The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace," adding that "the dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation."

However any peace will not happen until the underlying problem, which is the continued stonewalling by Palestinians and other Arab nations, in their refusal to deny Israel's right to exist.

Lest we forget, the 6-day war, or the June War began June 6, 1967. Prior to the surprise attack by Israel, Syria, Egypt, and Jordan gathered tens of thousands of troops, tanks, and artillery along Israel's border. It was as if Mexico or Canada gathered their full military along the border of the United States threatening war. What was Israel to do? So Israel attacked and swiftly destroyed her enemies.

The rest as they say is history. Israel found herself in control of the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Sinai Peninsula. All of a sudden Israel found herself ruling over the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinians.

Again it was not a war Israel sought out, but once committed, she was going to win. So let's do away with this idea that Israel somehow took these lands from the rightful owners. If that is the argument we might as well return Texas to Mexico or the entire United States back to the native Americans. It is essentially the same argument. What other nation has given back or been forced to give back land won in a legitimate war?

Israel first and foremost has every right to take care of her security needs. Why she is denied this in world opinion when every other nation has this right is absolutely ludicrous. We should note that the United Nations has adopted more resolutions against Israel than any other nation in the world including North Korea, China, and Iran.

Israel, for her future, does need a safe secure peace with her neighbors and with the Palestinians. Could this include a two-state nation? Possibly. But it only works if the Palestinians recognize Israel's right to exist. Or as the President said, "how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist. In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question."

This first and foremost absolutely has to happen before any negotiation about borders can take place. For if they do not recognize Israel, what is there to talk about in 1967 or 2011?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Op Ed in the Baltimore Jewish Times

Attached is a link to my Op Ed which has recently appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times concerning Organized Labor and Jewish Tradition.

Unions and the Jews

Or you can read it below:

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
Special to the Jewish Times

I was born into a union family. My grandfather Izzy, z”l, spent his whole career in the newspaper industry, back in the days when this meant security for one’s whole working life. My mother, now retired, was a public high school teacher for nearly 20 years. She dedicated her life to helping her students understand the significance and relevance of events that have taken place in our country’s history. She did this both to help them understand where we have come from and where we are going as a nation.

Because of this, I am very much troubled on a personal level by events transpiring in Wisconsin with the call to take away public school teachers’ rights to collectively bargain. I began to wonder if our tradition also has a perspective on this issue of singular importance.

Historically speaking, Jews very much were at the forefront of the labor movement. From the time of emancipation to the rise of early socialist leaders such as Karl Marx — who came from a long line of rabbis — we led the way intellectually.

European Jews also began to form their own bunds (labor leagues) at the turn of the last century. From these organizations, many of their principles and their drive to organize in Eastern Europe found their way into the United States at the turn of the 20th century, arriving on these shores with many of our forefathers and foremothers.

Upon their arrival, Jews became heavily involved in causes for workers’ rights by participating in such strikes as the capmakers strike of 1905 and the shirtmakers strike of 1909. However, it was really the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 that brought the issue of workers’ safety, and later issues such as hours and wages, to the forefront.

So though we have moved primarily from blue-collar to white-collar professions in subsequent generations, we Jews have at least a historical connection to the labor movement.

We also have a halachic (legal) relationship to it as well. The Babylonian Talmud states, “The residents of the community (b’nei ha’ir) are at liberty to fix weights, measures, prices and wages, and to inflict penalties for the infringement of their rules” (Bava Batra 8b).

One way this talmudic passage is interpreted is that members of the b’nei ha’ir are allowed to legislate on matters relating to working conditions and wages. To take it even one step further, it is understood that these principles apply not only to the community but also to the worker.

Hence according to this understanding of the Talmud, Halachah not only allows, but appears to encourage workers to collaborate collectively to secure their rights. In addition, the community is obliged to work with them to better the workers’ economic interests.

No matter where we might fall on this issue politically, it appears Jewish legal tradition and Jewish historical tradition are both fully in favor of workers’ rights to organize as well as to be able to bargain collectively for their rights.

This makes sense. As a people we have always banded together, be it as a nation in worship, in community or even in the workplace. Also, we come from a strong prophetic tradition that compels us to stand on the side of those whose voices would otherwise be ignored at best, and trampled at worst.

Or as it is stated in a responsa titled “The Synagogue and Organized Labor” by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, “Like all institutions, they [unions] can be corrupt, rapacious or discriminatory. There are times, in other words, when cooperation with a labor union may not serve the public interest and the cause of tzedakah. All we can tell you is that, in general, Jewish tradition … perceive(s) unionization as an indispensable tool in the long struggle for social justice and the rights of workers.”

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff, the spiritual leader for Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills, is a member of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis. Opinions expressed in the column do not necessarily reflect those of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis or its members.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Purim 5771

As some of you might be aware, aside from my duties as your Rabbi, I have also spent countless minutes campaigning in the past to become President of the United States. No, I don’t mean Vice President, because I actually like working. However, given my recent shellacking in the 2008 Presidential election, and by shellacking I mean the actual affixing of lacquer to my campaign manager, I have worked furiously to redefine my candidacy for 2012.

To this end I have even secured the rights to a new campaign manager since his probation is about to end. In the meantime I have come up with some new themes, beta tested them, and I am proud to announce my vision for President of the United States 2.0.

First off, as your president I pledge to end this controversy over compact fluorescents once and for all. From now on, the only lights allowed in homes and offices must come from the burning of candles. And no I am not mandating this in part because of the because of the contributions provided to me by the wax industry. I am doing it solely because of the contributions from the wax industry.

Also with all of the debates of laptops vs. netbooks vs. tablets, I have created a new technological device to supplant them all. It is called a Budget Optical Organized Knowledge device or B.O.O.K for short. It is unique in that it is highly portable, has nominal power requirements, and can be used in linear or pictorial format. I will suggest to the Secretary of Commerce that we get started on selling these devices immediately. We’ll make millions.

Also given the level of vitriol in recent campaigns, I pledge to you to that I will up the ante. I promise to slander, slam, smirch, smite, and spoof my opponents. But only in alliterative fashion. Thus demonstrating once and for all, I have a thesaurus and I can use it!

Chag Purim Sameach Everyone! And I'll see you at the voting booth in 2012. Just don't shake my new campaign manager's hand. I have a feeling he will still be kind of sticky from all that shellac.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


As the former Associate Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson, Arizona, I had the distinct pleasure and honor of meeting and speaking with Representative Gabrielle Giffords on multiple occasions. I recall our first meeting was when I introduced her to speak before our congregation at our Rodeo Shabbat service on her recent trip to the Middle East. Her words were both eloquent and insightful about the challenges facing Israel and the United States in such a volatile region.

Gabrielle, though always Gabby to her friends and constituents alike, cares deeply about the people of Arizona. She came back regularly even during the tumultuous debates over Health Care reform to genuinely listen to the concerns of the voters. Gabby is also a passionate and proud Jew and attended a number of services at Temple Emanu-El and participated in interfaith efforts as well.

The last time I spent time with her was at a lunch of the Pima County Commissioners, where Gabby took the time to speak with each individual who came her way.

Thus it was absolutely devastating for me on a personal level to find out she was the victim of a premeditated assault of such ferocity that it left numerous innocent victims, including Gabby, in its wake. I found my heart pounding in part because I have shopped at that Safeway, and even when I wasn’t shopping there, I must have passed by that location a thousand times. I have also visited numerous congregants at both Northwest Hospital and University Medical Center, a hospital so close to my former home it was in walking distance. Even though it was Shabbes, I felt I could have been at any one of those locations as the tragic events unfolded yesterday morning.

Needless to say, I personally am still struggling to make sense of this tragedy, of the attack, and of the lives lost. Finding meaning may take days, weeks, lifetimes, or simply may never come. All I know is that my heart is heavy and my prayers are with those recovering and those grieving as well as the whole Tucson community.

Whether or not the attacker was influenced by the growing political vitriol in today’s world remains to be seen, and we may in truth never really know the mind of Gabby’s attacker. But this does not mean we cannot find purpose in the aftershocks of the attack. My other prayer is in today’s political arena, people remember that people who have opposing viewpoints are not the enemy, but the opposition, and to speak of them as such. For even if we cannot ever make sense of tragedy, maybe it can at least inspire us to act in more holy ways and to treat each other just a little bit better.

May the memory of all those who died including Christina Taylor Green, Chief Judge John Roll of the U.S. District Court for Arizona; Gabe Zimmerman, a Giffords staffer who was engaged to be married; Dorwin Stoddard, who was fatally shot in the head while trying to shield his wife; Dorothy Morris; and Phyllis Scheck, all be for a blessing. May God grant strength to the sorrowing families and to the twelve survivors, some of whom are still fighting for their lives as well. Amen.