Removing the Mask: A Purim Lesson in the Wake of Israel Apartheid Week

Rudy Rochman blows the Shofar on Columbia’s Campus. Photo by @idost_nyc.



Megilat Esther or the Scroll of Esther is the book of the Hebrew Bible Jews will gather to read this Saturday night to celebrate the upcoming holiday of Purim. The Megilah speaks of a beautiful woman chosen to be Queen of the ancient Persian Empire who must hide her Jewish identity. Her very name, Esther or “hidden”, bespeaks the double life she is forced to lead. Esther grows accustomed to hiding her Jewish identity in the royal palace, but when the anti-Semitic Prime Minister is about to carry out his genocidal plot to annihilate the Jews of Persia, she risks her life and reveals her true identity to the King. This was no easy task for Esther, but because of this revelation, her strategic planning and courage to share who she truly was, the Jewish people were ultimately liberated.

The 13th Annual Israeli Apartheid Week is taking place all around the world this month. In hundreds of cities, through lectures, rallies, and demonstrations featuring “apartheid walls”, IAW participants attempt to demonize and delegitimize Israel. According to their website, “Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) is an international series of events that seeks to raise awareness of Israel’s settler-colonial project and apartheid system over the Palestinian people and to build support for the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.”

Last week was Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) at my alma mater, Columbia University. Anti-Israel sentiment at Columbia definitely existed when I was a graduate student in the early 90’s, but it has grown increasingly worse over the years and Israel Apartheid Week, which has spread to 225 cities as of 2016, plays a huge part. Many Jewish students at Columbia and other campuses feel intimidated or lack the knowledge and confidence to stand up to the BDS and SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine) activists, and as a result the slander and lies of their campaigns often go unchallenged.

This year was different.

A student group at Columbia called Students Supporting Israel (SSI), under the leadership of Jewish Israeli student Rudy Rochman, launched “Hebrew Liberation Week”. I went with a few members of the MJE Staff and some of my students to show my support and see what all the buzz was about. What I found was both moving as well as effective Israel advocacy, setting a wonderful example for students all over the country.


Remembering Mayer Offman obm (of blessed memory)

Mayer: You had a heart of gold and so many people loved you. Shifra and I were privileged to be your partner in outreach at Manhattan Jewish Experience for 16 years, and we thought we had many more years of working together.

In Pirkei Avoth, the Ethics of the Fathers 4:17, the Rabbis speak about the Jewish concept of the afterlife:

(R. Yaakov) would say: One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than all the time in the world to come. And one hour of pleasure in the world to come is better than all the time in this world.

Mayer you had many many thousands of hours of good deeds in this world, in fact a whole lifetime of good deeds. You loved people, and loved helping people and doing for others.

Mayer loved making shiduchim, was very proud in the fact that he had brought people together. Now maybe Mayer you will be able to let us know if it is true what they say when you make three shiduchim you get a special place in the world to come. The irony is that he was not married, but as his very dear and loyal friend Mark Isaacson pointed out to me he did for others even what he could not do for himself, even though he did not marry he tried to make sure others did.

Mark talked about how Mayer made sure he and his single friends always had a place to go to for Shabbos, he would make meals with Mark and David Fishoff, and others, and when they got married he was so happy for them, and shared in their simchas and their families. Mayer had many close friends, and that was an extension of his love of people.

People would come to Mayer with a need, someone who was sick, funds needed for an organization, an individual, a cause, Mayer would give. Some of it I knew about, an Isachar/Zevulun relationship with a Torah scholar in Israel, someone who needed a job, and there was so so much more that we did not know about of people and organizations Mayer helped.

Mayer’s love of outreach, kiruv, reaching out to Jews how were not as connected to Torah and Judaism as he was a natural extension of his love of fellow Jews and his giving nature. He was connected to so many organizations, NJOP, Gateways, MJE and many others.

Mayer was key in developing MJE East, he gave us the seed money for our first year in the city which allowed Shifra and I to move into the city and dedicate our loves to outreach, and for that we will be eternally grateful. Mayer played a crucial role in facilitating MJE East programs being hosted by Fifth Avenue Synagogue, a partnership which continues until today. Mayer also played an important role as a member of the MJE Board of Directors and had an enormous impact on the whole organization.

At the beginning we ran Shabbat services, dinners and desserts out of his apartment in the Solow building. His living room would be set up as a synagogue, then he would host dinner, often his mother Hilda would arrange the dinner, and then sometimes Mayer on his own, especially after he no longer wanted her to exert herself. Then sometimes as many as 80-100 people would show up for dessert. Mayer schlepped people in from everywhere and anywhere, someone he met at the gym, a young Jewish trader from his or someone else’s office, someone he met on the street. And he would take an interested in them, and when people saw he cared he would invite them back, and they would come back because the felt his caring.

Mayer was part of our family, Uncle Mayer. Last night our ten year old daughter said what stood out for her about Mayer is that he would also find the ices for her in synagogue. Even when there were none served, Mayer would ask Noa if she had her ices, and if not would find them. And the two of them would be there at the Kiddush eating ices together.

Mayer Loved to give over Torah to beginners. He was an ordained Rabbi who loved learning, however his love came out most when he was teaching others, giving over his Torah to those who did not have the knowledge. His message was always very practical, how keeping shabbos could improve the quality of your life, how studying Jewish wisdom could enrich your life. He would give the dvar torah at our MJE East beginner’s service, then at Shabbat dinners at the synagogue, and dozens at Shabbat dinners at our home as well. He would say: just try it, what do you have to lose, Shabbat is great, you can relax, meet nice people. What else do you have to do? Mayer accepted every person where they were at, never pressured and always encouraged out of love. I received an email from one of our MJE beginners who is now married with a daughter to a woman with a day school background, living in Teaneck. He talked about how Mayer always took an interest in what was going on in his life, always wanted to know how he was doing.

Mayer, the thousands of people whose lives have been touched, and hundreds whose lives have been transformed through MJE East are all to your merit, you were the angel investor who opened up your home, shared your goodness and your Torah. Mayer we all wish you had taken a bit more care of yourself, and not just take care of others.

Mayer, with all the mitzvos you did you will now have that pleasure of the world to come which is greater than all the life in this world. But even then, I know you will continue to do for others and to advocate for them from on high before the Almighty.

There are no words for such a momentous loss. He was truly a mensch. May we merit continue to carry on his good deeds and his works.


Chanukah and the United Nations

David Silverman / Getty



The irony of a UN resolution condemning the Jewish settlements during the holiday of Chanukah is pretty incredible. Chanukah celebrates the establishment of Jewish political sovereignty over the land of Israel, including the very areas the United Nations now claims no longer belong to Israel! Besides the spiritual victory of Jews refusing to abandon their faith in favor of Greek Hellenism, Chanukah celebrates the successful Maccabean revolt against the Greek Seleucid Empire, resulting in more than 200 years of Jewish political sovereignty over the land of Israel. That Jewish sovereignty lasted for two centuries until the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple in 70 CE and exiled our people.

Although Jews always continued to live in Israel since the Roman exile, it wasn’t until the creation of the modern state in 1948 that political sovereignty and independence was returned to the Jewish people. As we know, this happened through a majority vote taken by the General Assembly of the United Nations. 19 years later in 1967 when Egypt and Syria were about to simultaneously attack Israel in an unprovoked war and Israel was forced to strike preemptively, she not only defended herself against annihilation, but in six days reunited Jerusalem, captured the Sinai Dessert, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. That defensive war gave Israel the legitimate right to govern and once again exercise political sovereignty over those lands.


David Friedman: An Ambassador with Skin in the Game



What ultimately makes for a good Ambassador? A good Ambassador is someone who possesses a deep knowledge and concern for the history, politics and future of both the country he or she represents and the one to which he or she serves as liaison. David Friedman, whom I have had the honor of knowing for the last several years, fits the bill. He is a proud and patriotic American, never taking for granted the opportunities this country has given him and his family. He is also extraordinarily knowledgeable, in a real and practical way about Israel, and for his entire adult life has been personally invested in the American-Israel relationship. Friedman travels to Israel several times a year, owns a home there, supports many wonderful Israeli charities and has had a number of his own children studying abroad in Israeli schools. He’s got what you call “skin in the game”, unlike most career diplomats who certainly have more experience in international affairs, but are often less knowledgeable and invested in the host country.  American interests in Israel can be better represented by someone who speaks the language, understands the culture and more importantly has a personal stake in the outcome of the relationship between the two countries.


Zachor: The Jewish Response to Pain

I was asked to introduce the third chapter of Eichah, the Book of Lamentations read on the eve of Tisha Ba’av. 

Lamentations is widely believed by scholars to have been written by the Prophet Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) . The prophet describes all of the suffering that befell the Jewish people at the time of the destruction of the Temple and asks: “Eichah! How is it possible?”

In chapter 3 Yirmiyahu moves from grief and despair to hope and faith. In verse 19, Yirmiyahu cries out to God, saying  “זְכָר עָנְיִי, remember my suffering. In verse 20 he cries out again, “zachor”.

No one word so powerfully encompasses the Jewish response in the face of pain and tragedy as our manifesto: Zachor. Remember.

During our greatest moments of joy under the wedding canopy we break a glass to commemorate the destruction of our Temple and mournfully sing “If I forget oh thee Jerusalem.” One’s personal joy is tempered by a national tragedy that we refuse to forget.

No one person has so powerfully devoted their life to the perpetuation of zachor and to the memory of the 6 million souls who perished in the holocaust as Elie Wiesel.  Just as Yirmiyahu resolves to remember but also to hope-Survivor, Writer, activist, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate , Elie Wiesel  one said:

Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.

Seeing is Believing



Sitting on the plane returning from MJE’s annual trip to Israel, I ask myself the same question every year: What is it?

What is it that makes such an enormous impact on those who travel to Israel? What is it about this place, that in just a week, can radically transform a person’s perspective on Judaism?

There are many answers to this question but one is evidence. Israel provides evidence of the authenticity and realness of Judaism.

To many young Jews growing up in America, Judaism is presented as something almost like a fairy tale. We are told stories of a great and glorious history, but it’s a relic of the past that may or may not be true, and, for most, has almost no relevance to everyday life in America.

Much of this changes when you visit Israel because in Israel you don’t simply hear about Judaism, you experience it yourself. In Israel you don’t just study or read about Jewish history, you see it. And seeing is believing. CONTINUE READING ON TIMES OF ISRAEL…