Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Woops, wrong speech!
Thank you all for coming. It means a lot that you all came so far to be here with me.
My portion is Vayechi. In this portion, as Jacob’s life is coming to an end, he’s getting his affairs in order.
One way he does that is to organize his family’s matters as well as his own. In one instance, he crosses his hands in blessing his grandchildren Ephrayim and Menashe, in order to make sure that Ephrayim is seen as the leader. The funny thing is, he’s the younger one, and in the ancient world, the older sibling always came first. This signals that the ways of the past would not always be the same as present practice. We have to think differently. Creativity is a key to growth and you can never let yourself fall into a rut.
As some of you know, I have been writing computer code for the past three years. I’ve created dozens of computer games in my spare time. In a football game that I created, for each play there are around 4,000 possible results – and I’ve built in a code that randomizes the outcomes based on where each player is and the skill of each player. I update it, so that if someone is having a bad season or is injured, I can take them out of the game or lower their skill level. Of course I also lift their ratings if they are doing well. There might be some bias here, in favor of the Giants, although this year (pause) let’s not even go there.
My point here is that with billions of possible outcomes, one game played will never be exactly the same as the prior one. The past can’t govern how you act moving forward. Jacob expressed that perfectly with his crossover move.
Also, with coding, you have to be sure to keep in mind where you started and the goals that you had in mind. Jacob does that too. He makes his family promise that when he dies, they will bring his body back to Canaan. In that way he encourages them to go back to their roots, to go back home, even though he knows that they are going to live in Egypt for many generations.
The lesson here is that we should never forget from where we came – the code that makes us who we are. That’s an important lesson for me, too. I’ve always stayed close to my Jewish roots, and by becoming bar mitzvah here in Israel it really adds lots of extra meaning to the experience. But what makes it even more special is that I also have deep personal, family roots. My great grandfather Eddie, one of the men for whom I’m named, was a survivor of Auschwitz. His whole family was killed in the Nazi death camps– which also means that a large part of my family was killed. But here I am, on what would have been Eddie’s 97th birthday. His Hebrew name Yehuda is also my first Hebrew name. It is also the Hebrew name of Judah Piasecky, a boy from Drohiczyn, Poland who was murdered by the Nazis at the age of 14. He is my bar mitzvah twin and tomorrow I will be going to yad vashem for a special ceremony linking our lives. That name, Yehuda - that Eddie, Judah and I share, is also the word for “Jew,” and therefore, as a Jew, I am a testament to the survival of the Jewish people in our homeland – the same place to which the Biblical Jacob asked his kids to return.
My middle name Daveed, was given to me to honor my uncle David. I know David always wanted to go to Israel but was never able to because of his condition. So now, as I bear his name, here I am fulfilling his dream. His dream of returning back to the roots of his heritage.
Also, in David’s honor, for my mitzvah project, I have been volunteering at the Special Olympics in Connecticut, specifically in scoring the bowling competitions– since I know that David won a lot of trophies in bowling, all of which sit proudly on display in my room. I’m also collecting sports equipment for the special Olympics athletes to use in their various tournaments. It’s another way to pay tribute to my heritage.
So I hope this can help you understand why today is so special for me. And why like Jacob, this journey back to my roots is truly meaningful. Like my football computer game, there were virtually an infinite number of outcomes of who I would be. But the code encrypted in my DNA and in my family roots have made me the bar mitzvah that stands before you today.
Once again I want you all to know how much it means to my family and me that you made such an effort to be with us today. By being here, each of you have written a line of code into the story of my life.
Monday, December 25, 2017
Shalom from Jerusalem!
Many of you know that I am here for the bar mitzvah of Andrew Jaffe-Berkowitz, which happened today (and he was amazing, of course)!
But I wanted to share with you a bit of the spirit of this season here, in photographs. I've spent much time in the Old City over the past couple of days, and while the weather has cooled and it rained today, the city has glowed as only Jerusalem can, not through the legendary golden walls so much as in the faces of the faithful. Hanukkah is over and Christmas is completely uncommercialized here, so all that's left is pure and uplifting. Not a sale in sight. Last night I attended an interfaith celebration at the YMCA, featuring the incomparable and famous Jerusalem Youth Chorus, consisting of Jews, Palestinians, an incredibly diverse group (including some with disabilities) - and they make beautiful music together. I've linked the entire concert here - it was all good, but the kids are the best, and their songs can be found about halfway in. You've got to hear their version of "Home," at about 1 hour and 30 minutes in. When they sing,
Just know you're not alone
'Cause I'm going to make this place your home:
'Cause I'm going to make this place your home:
With everything swirling around us, everywhere else in the world, and some unrest also very close to here, Jerusalem this weekend was somehow at the eye of the hurricane, incomprehensibly peaceful and lovely.
Best wishes for peaceful holidays.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
The bar mitzvah boy himself, holding his tutor Judy Aronin's Torah pointer ...
and check out the view!
There were some "Walk ins" at the luncheon
Inside Jaffa Gate
In rainy season, the clouds seem almost to touch the ground
School outing in the Jewish Quarter
This teacher seems to be having one of those days!
Nearly bought that middle poster in the Cardo
"One of these things is not like the others"
but so lovely to see prayer shawls living in perfect harmony
This Nigerian pilgrim and I connected in a perfectly 21st century way.
Not exactly "I-Thou," but this moment of holy synchronicity was followed by big smiles from both photographers - and then we each walked away. Who knows in which Nigerian version of a Shabbat-O-Gram my camera-covered face will wind up!
Ran into this procession somewhere around the 8th station
In the shuk
The view from the rooftop of the Austrian Hospice in the Muslim Quarter, a true oasis in the Old City
It's a spectacular view, where religions and satellite dishes commingle like lions and lambs
From the same rooftop
Looking toward the Christian Quarter and the Church of the Redeemer
A multi-cultural photo exhibit, "Faces of Prayer," in the Austrian Hospice
"Prayer is like an oasis of calm inside me - like a tree giving me shade."
In less than a single square mile within its walls, the world passes by
...at the YMCA...
From the Christmas Eve Concert, the Jerusalem Youth Chorus and others
Saturday, December 16, 2017
TBE students with Mayor Martin lighting Hanukkah candles on Thursday. Click here to see our winter photo album. Thank you to Dan Fredland for the Govt. Center photos.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah
Join us on Friday night for our Disney-themed service (maybe now we should also include 21st Century Fox movies in this...). Note the special service start time of 7 PM. The services will be fun and fascinating for all ages, with several prayers incorporating themes and melodies from Disney films. Between Cantor Fishman's tunes and the commentary added by our students and Lisa Gittelman Udi, this will be a really special evening. You will learn what Jewish values can be found in "Pocahontas," "Aladdin," "Lion King," "Pinocchio," "Mary Poppins," and more.
On Shabbat morning, we'll take a close look at the history of Hanukkah gelt.
Next week, I'll be headed for Jerusalem for the Bar Mitzvah of Andrew Jaffe-Berkowitz. Mazal tov to Andrew and his family! So this will be the last Shabbat-O-Gram for a while, but hopefully I'll have a chance to send a dispatch or two from Israel.
The Jerusalem Decision
People have been asking for my take on President Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Given that the decision was announced while I was in the midst of preparing for three funerals on consecutive days, I decided to let the matter percolate before responding. I also had the chance to discuss it with our Israel@70 classes; this week's topic, the 1947 UN Partition, was particularly relevant to the conversation.
So now, here's my six-word take on last week's announcement:
Right decision. Questionable timing. Wrong decider.
Now, I'll fill in the details:
The 1947 partition plan, which Israel not only accepted, but incorporated into its Declaration of Independence, gave international legitimacy to a Jewish state - along with and Arab state - while designating Jerusalem as an international city. You can see from this map that no distinction was drawn between what is now "west Jerusalem" and "east Jerusalem." The whole city was to be internationalized.
Therefore, it was understandable that, when Israel declared its independence half a year later, in May of 1948, that no country, including the US, would have recognized Jerusalem as the capital. It wasn't yet part of Israel. David Ben Gurion certainly wanted it to be, and the subsequent war of Independence enabled Israel to acquire the corridor from the coast to Jerusalem along with the western part of the city.
Later on, things got much more complicated, and once it was clear that Jerusalem would be Israel's capital, America had a number of opportunities to recognize it as Israel's capital while still maintaining "honest broker" status in peace negotiations. The 1947 partition plan, while still important and irrevocable, was never accepted by the Arab states, and the internationalization of Jerusalem was never a serious subject of negotiation, either before or after 1967.
Bret Stephens detailed some excellent reasons why the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital is a sound one in his op-ed last weekend. I have no argument with his points. Jerusalem is Israel's capital. Every world leader has gone there. Sadat visited the Knesset. Popes and presidents have visited government offices there. As columnist Shmuel Rosner put it last week, "Jerusalem is Israel's Capital? Duh."
But the timing is questionable.
I wish the US had done this years ago, as part of one of the many diplomatic initiatives the US has promoted over the years. This announcement could have served well as both a carrot and a stick to the two sides. When the US sold AWACS to the Saudis, this carrot would have been most welcome, and given the imbalance of that deal, the Saudis would have had a hard time complaining. During the bus bombings of the early 2000s, this carrot would also have been a needed salve to the wounds beleaguered Israeli populace and a clear message to Palestinians that terrorism has consequences. George W Bush's 2004 letter to Prime Minister Sharon, which enshrined the idea that Israel would not be expected to yield the main settlement blocs (where the vast majority of settlers live) in any final peace negotiations, was in fact a much more radical step than simply saying that Jerusalem is Israel's capital and offering the possibility that it could also be a Palestinian capital. The US also could have stated an intent to recognize Jerusalem during the Camp David or Taba negotiations, as leverage to keep the Palestinians at the table. They could have done it when Rabin was murdered or at other times when Israel really needed support from its closest friend. In short there were many chances to do it where it could have had a positive impact on what Bush 43 called "The Roadmap" to peace.
So why now?
Yes, there are signs that the Sunni world, led by Saudi Arabia, has fatigued of the Palestinian - Israel conflict and could be realigning alongside Israel against Iran. There are signs that Palestinians are weakened and have lost faith in their leaders, and yes, as of this moment, the response has not been as violent as many had feared. But that can change in a millisecond - and the Times of Israel's analyst suggests that in Gaza things are heating up for real. Enough rockets have been shot toward Israel over the past few days to indicate that it's more than a random attempt to let off steam. Had Hamas succeeded in kidnapping Israeli soldiers, a plan thwarted this week on the West Bank, we would already be in the midst of a dangerous spiral leading almost certainly to war. Meanwhile, Jewish teens in a Swedish synagogue were firebombed this week, and the New York subways too, with the perpetrators referencing the Jerusalem decision. There is no excuse for terror, nor should such threats keep us from making bold, calculated risks for peace. But there is also no doubt that the short-term impact of Trump's gambit was to make the world a more dangerous place.
All of this downside and there is no upside. There is no "roadmap" anymore (nobody even uses road maps anymore - everyone has moved on to their own version of Waze). If this announcement had been part of a comprehensive, coordinated diplomatic strategy, we would have seen Israel and the US respond instantly in a manner that would have capitalized on the moment to reduce tensions and not increase them.
Since no follow up announcements by either the US or Israel have been made to reduce tensions, we can only assume that the timing of this decision was not diplomatic at all. I'm not sure if the State Department has any diplomats left, much less a real diplomatic strategy. That leaves us with some combination of three possibilities: 1) it was impulsive, 2) it was diversionary and 3) it was purely political, designed to appeal to US evangelicals and, most specifically, the huge number of evangelical voters in Alabama, 80 percent of whom voted for Roy Moore this week. In other words, the most logical reason I can think of why this decision was announced when it was announced, just two days before President Trump was to go all-in for Moore at a rally in Florida, and just a week before a special election, was to rile up evangelical voters who see Jewish control of Jerusalem as part of their end time aspirations.
And for that, some people have died and many more could still, and the prospects for a two-state solution have only gotten dimmer.
Let's play that back. The fate of the most sensitive square mile on earth was tossed around like a football simply to win a few more votes for Roy Moore on Tuesday.
And how'd that work out for ya?
Which brings us to the third part of my statement.
Let me put it this way. If a someone were to stand on Mulholland Drive and flick a match into the tinderbox hills surrounding Los Angeles, what would happen to that person? How many years would s/he spend in jail for acting so irresponsibly?I will not litigate here all the concerns I have about this president, save to say that almost daily we see yet another affront to core Jewish values, as demonstrated just this week in these two alarming articles and a tweet from beneath the gutter.
Jerusalem is arguably the most combustible diplomatic tinderbox ever known to humankind. President Trump tossed a lit match into it. It gave many Israelis and other Jews a terrific sugar high but little else, nor was Israel asked to respond in kind with a gesture toward the other side, as Thomas Friedman wrote. It was the art of no-deal.
A year ago, I promised after Election Night that I would remain vigilant, but I also give the benefit of the doubt and prayed for the new president's success. Sadly, many of my fears have been borne out, which poses a dilemma for someone, like me, who wishes both to be vigilant and charitable. Right now, vigilance must trump all else. While I respect those who choose the celebrate the decision to recognize Jerusalem; I am simply unable to separate the decision from the decider.
I find the accolades by Jewish groups, including our own Conservative Jewish leadership, to be perilously short sighted. Yes, supporting a just decision that should have been made decades ago is an easy choice; it's an "apple pie" issue, like standing for the national anthem. But given the extreme nature of the dangers we face right now, I believe that those Jewish groups who have fallen in line are mistaken. It gives me no pleasure to say this. For them, it's more about the decision. For me, it's all about the decider, the dangers our democracy is facing, and how I will not allow myself to be an enabler.
If any other US President had made that decision, I'd be cheering the loudest. If Chester Arthur had recognized the Jews' right to have a capital in Jerusalem, I'd have been down with it.
I will never forget thee, O Jerusalem... but neither will I become complicit to someone that could lead Jerusalem - and the world - down a very dangerous path.
Next week I'll be in Jerusalem to once again profess my love to our eternal capital in person. For those who aren't with me, let me wish you all a fruitful 2018 - and make your reservations now to join me in Jerusalem next summer.
See you in 2018!
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman