The Value of Discretion: No I Do Not Need to Post It On Facebook

In December 1939 Nicholas Winton was getting ready to set off on a ski trip from England to Switzerland. Before leaving he received a phone call from his friend Martin Blake.  Blake told him “I have an interesting assignment and I need your help.  Don’t bother to bring your skis.”  Germany had just taken over the Czechoslovakia, and thousands of refugees were dislocated, many with no food or shelter.  Winton found that the needs of the refugees were not being looked after, and he felt that he had to do something for them, or at least for their children.  So he petitioned the English government to find out what was needed for the children to be brought to England.  They told him he would have to find a family willing to take them in, and have a 50 pound deposit per child, a significant sum of money at the time.  Winton left the relief work in the hands of others and went back to England to organize the efforts to save the children.  The British people opened their homes, their hearts and their wallets, and this was after already taking in 10 000 Jewish children from Austria and Germany, one of which was my mother.  Over the next 9 months he would organize one flight and 7 trains, saving 669 children from death.  These children would never see their families again.  In 1988 Winton’s wife found a scrapbook in their attic, with photos of the children, a list of names and letters from the parents.  After pushing her husband to come clean, she found out about his relief efforts.

This story is extraordinary on many counts.  It shows us that one person can make a difference, and that just because no one else is doing something does not mean that it cannot be done.  He did the impossible, which people said could not be done and saved hundreds of children,  whose descendants now number in the thousands.    But what I would like to focus on in the story of this incredible individual is something that we might at first think is a peculiar side point.  Winton  kept his heroic deeds a quiet for 50 years.  Imagine having saving 669 lives, and the world not knowing about it.

In today’s world you go out to dinner, on a cruise or raise charity money by doing a triathalon and the whole world knows about it.  In an article entitled “You Will Never Be Famous, and That’s Okay”  Emily Smith writes in the NY Times that thanks to social media, purpose and meaning have become conflated with glamour.’  In the age of Shark Tank, celebrity chefs, American idol, everything is in the public arena.  Living a meaningful life becomes equated with doing something attention-grabbing, becoming an Instagram celebrity, having over 1000 followers or becoming a reality TV star.    And then when you accomplish that, you figure out how to monetize on it.

This outlook on the world is totally antithetical to Jewish values.  The book of Micha which is one of the books of the Jewish prophets lays out the Jewish outlook on publicizing one’s actions. (Most of you think you do not know the Book of Micah but in fact if you have every done Tashlich before you have read from the book of Micha, the verse which begins Tashlich is taken from there).  The book of Micha 6:8 tell us ‘what does G-d require of us: to do justice and love mercy and walk discretely before G-d.  The Talmud in Sukka 22b asks: ‘to what does this refer? This refers to doing a mitzvah quietly for which we get public recognition like accompanying an orphan bride to the wedding canopy (one who does so would probably be given this role because they have paid for her wedding).’  This means we should not seek out acknowledgment for a good deed we have done.  The Talmud then says all the more so mitzvoth that are done privately, such as Torah study or giving charity.  These also should be done discretely and quietly without feeling the need to tell other people about it.

Why is it important to be discreet about our good deeds?  The Talmud tells us elsewhere in Taanit 31 b that blessing is only found on something that is hidden from the eye.  Why should that be, why should there be a deeper spiritual impact of an action that is done secretly?

I believe that there are two important ideas behind this.   The first is the idea of what is called in Hebrew ‘ayin hara’, or the evil eye.  Poo poo – the idea is that if we publicly display either our material wealth, our prosperity, driving around in the mazerati, wearing high high end designer labels (and making sure they are on the outside), building an enormous home, that other people will put the evil eye on us.  And from what we see this can also be true if we put on display our righteous or spiritual accomplishments. Why is this damaging?   One way to understand it is that if my blessing or my accomplishment becomes the vehicle through which other people’s jealousy becomes provoked, and they resent me because of it, or it makes them feel unhappy with their own lives, then this is not a blessing but something that is causing negativity in the world.  And if it evokes negativity then the Almighty might take away the blessing.

The second point, and this is the one that is most relevant to us on an internal level, is that publicizing our acts erodes the quality of the experience.  When I am doing actions that I know will be observed by others, or that I know I will be putting on display, then the experience becomes not truly mine, but it becomes one that is projected onto others.  In doing so, I am diluting the meaning of the experience for myself.  How many times have you worn something that you really did not like or think is nice, or was uncomfortable but it was the new hot thing so of course you had to wear it.  Knowing we will be on display skews our sense of ourselves.  We become a product of what people think of us,  and doing this undermines our sense of self, our self-confidence and our ability to be our own unique selves.

Always having to show something to others or experience it with others is like pulling a seed out of the ground every day to look at how it is growing.  By doing so I am stunting its growth.  I will be distracted by knowing that I am publicizing it.  It is like when you go to an event and you take pictures.  You cannot really experience it, you cannot really be in the present because you are distanced from it by having to capture, or in this case publicize it.   We are losing the fabric of our internal selves to the constant distraction and interruption of digital stimuli.  As a result we do not know what it is to be in touch with ourselves, to let ourselves feel something or be in the moment, and we become it is not enough to just be in the experience without capturing or publicizing it.

Third, in the Torah we see that the encounter with the Divine is to be found in the moments of quiet and solitude, in moments of privacy. When Moses was on Mount Sinai, Joshua went up the mountain with him part of the way.  But when Moshe asked the Almighty to show him His ways, to allow Moshe to experience him, G-d says find this place in the rock that I have prepared, and be that place as I pass by.  The experience of the Divine is in solitude.  It is in the recesses of our soul which we need internal focus and self-isolation in order to access.  The prophet (I Kings 19-12) calls this the ‘small still voice’ of the experience of the Divine.  In the case of doing a mitzvah, keeping it to ourselves makes it more likely that we motivated to do the mitzvah for its own sake rather than for ulterior motives like getting recognition.  This is called doing a mitzvah l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven and for its own sake.  It should be said that sometimes doing a mitzvah publicly can have the value of serving as an example to motivate other to do it as well, but we should make sure that our primary motive is not seeking the recognition.

The irony and post script to Nicholas Winston’s story turns our point on its head.    After his story came out, Nicholas Winston was knighted and became Sir Nicholas Winston. In a 1988 filming of the show ‘That’s Life’, Winton’s wife brought him to the studio to see the show. Little did he know that he was a focus of the show, and that over two dozen of his ‘children’ were at there.   Winton was 79 years old at the time.  He passed away in 2015 at the age of 104, living another 25 years.  it seems that the blessing continued to rest upon him even after his deeds were so widely publicized.  Maybe that was because he had lived with it privately for so long, a demonstration that his actions were truly L’Shem Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, for the sake of the good deed and not for the recognition he would receive.  May we all merit to have the strength of character to live with the humility of not seeking recognition, and to do good deeds and live our lives for their true value, and not for what we think other people will see them.  And in the process may we merit to be blessed with the blessing of that which is kept private.

 

 

The Message of the Hurricanes Before Rosh Hashanah

These past two weeks have seen unprecedented destruction sweeping across the United States.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey an estimated 30,000 people will need temporary shelter, 14 000 national guards were activated to help save people and 450 000 will need disaster assistance from FEMA.  Losses due to destruction are estimated at $75 billion.  70 people died directly from or events related to the hurricane. In Florida as a result of hurricane Irma, 7 million people fled the state, and more than 6.7 million people were without power in Florida.  This accounts for 2/3 of the population of the state.  The carribean Islands of St Marten, Anguila and Barbuda were had damage to 75-90% of their buildings.   34 people died in events related to hurricane Irma in the Carribean, 26 in Florida.  And now Maria has devastated Dominica, and has swept across the US Virgin Islands and across Puerto Rico, and an extremely powerful earthquake has hit Mexico City killing over 200 people.

All of this devastation and suffering is happening right before Rosh Hashanah, and so we must ask ourselves what message are we to take from this?  It seems like over the years, this has been the pattern before Rosh Hashanah, Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans before RH in  2005, hurricane Sandy decimated the NY coastline in 2012. The most obvious message would seem to be that the hurricane season is in the late summer, which corresponds to the time right before the High Holidays.  But why is that so, why did the Almighty make it so that hurricane season and the Jewish High Holidays converge?

When we see this tragedy unfolding in front of us across the United States and the Caribbean, we are being given a powerful message before Rosh Hashanah, which is that is that life is not something we can take for granted.  Life is precarious, the stability of our lives is precarious, having those we love around us be there for us is not something we should take for granted.  We think the status quo is something that we can take as a given.  But Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur tell us otherwise.  We are told in the machzor, the High Holiday prayer book, that on Rosh Hashanah our fate for the next year is determined by the Almighty.  In a few moments we say ‘on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed’, and we will be praying for another year of life, another year of health, and another year of livelihood.   The hurricanes teach us that we cannot take these things for granted and that we need to turn to the Almighty in prayer and we need to improve ourselves  so that we be worthy to receive His blessings for the coming year.

But even after having seen these images in front of us in the media, and seeing and hearing of so many people whose lives and well-being are in the balance, we still do not really feel it. It is still not real to us.  We do not really feel like the inhabitants of Puerto Rico who have hurricane Maria bearing down on them.  We are not bawling out our prayers and tears to the Almighty asking for Him to help us, and that the fate of our lives is in the balance like the people in the Caribbean, or asking Him for help in rebuilding like the people of Texas and Florida undoubtedly are.  Why is that?  Should we be more distressed and distraught over this impending ‘verdict’ for the coming year as the prayerbook calls it?  I think there are several reasons that we are not feeling the reality that our fate is being determined on this day.

The first reason is that we have not experienced firsthand what it means to have our life in the balance.  Some of us might have struggled with health issues, or have close family members who have struggled with these issues, or some of us may be from Florida or New Orleans and have lived through what it means to have our homes decimated, but most of us have not.  Here are some pictures of what it is like.  It is hard for us to imagine this, to be standing in 3 feet of water in your living room, having your belongings drenched, not being able to live in your house for weeks or months.  Or even to not have electricity and air conditioning for a week like people I know in Florida.  And since we have not had everything taken away, or have never really lived through these hardships, we do not know what it is really like to beseech the Almighty for our lives and wellbeing.  My grandmother, who by the way was a refugee during the Holocaust, used to talk more about living through World War One in Austria when there were food quotas and they lived on the brink of starvation.  It was etched into her consciousness.  A person who has been through such life experiences knows what it means to really pray for their lives.  We do not really know what this kind means of vulnerability means. We live in an era of the greatest prosperity in the history of mankind.  We have luxuries, air conditioning, unlimited clean water, unlimited selection of food whenever we want it, which the majority of people in the world do not have, and that wealthy people in past did not even have.  And so we tend to take it all for granted.  When we see the decimation the hurricanes are causing, one message we can take away from it is to feel the reality of the transience of life, and to internalize the idea of our reliance upon the Almighty for our well-being for the coming year, and to open up our hearts in prayer in a real way.

The second reason that we do not feel the reality of Rosh Hashanah is a good one.  It is that we believe that even though we are being judged on Rosh Hashanah, the Almighty is not out to ‘get us’.  G-d is not looking to nab us on our wrongs.  -Okay time for a little comic interlude.   Joe is lonely, so he goes out and buys a parrot for some company.  The parrot talks to him alright, but it is outright abusive. Joe is stupid, joe is a jerk, I hate Joe.  Joe asks the parrot to stop, he will not stop.  Joe warns the parrot, but it ignores him.  Finally Joe can’t take it anymore, and he grabs the parrot and sticks him in the freezer.  He hears the parrot cratching around, and then all goes silent.  Joe gets scared, he wanted to scare the parrot but he did not want to kill it.  So opens up the freezer and there is the parrot, looking all contrite.  The parrot says Joe, I feel really bad, I should not have been so mean, do you forgive me?  Joe says yes, sure I do.  The parrot then says ‘but I just have one question’, and pointing to the frozen chickens in the freezer asks ‘what did they do?.’

We believe that the Almighty is like a loving parent.  In the central prayer we will be saying on Yom Kippur, we say ‘Avinu Malknu’, our Father our King. The Father comes before King, and we know the Almighty relates to us as a parent would to their child.   A parent sometimes has to teach a child a lesson, if a young child runs out into the street the parent will have to speak to them sternly so they know what they have done is very serious, they may even need to ground them.  But they will look for the minimum punishment that will convey the message.  And if the parent sees that the child really gets the message, then they do not even need to punish them at all.  So too we believe, as the sages say ‘that the Almighty inclines to the side of mercy.’   The Talmud in Rosh Hashanah 17b says that there are three people, the righteous, the wicked and the average person, the beinoni.  Even though the beinoni might have made many mistakes over the past year, Beis Hillel teaches that G-d’s quality of Rav Chesed, Great Goodness, one of the 13 qualities of G-d’s mercy, means that G-d inclines to the side of mercy. If our count is balanced 50/50 the Almighty will give us a good verdict, and overlook the negative.

Yet even though we believe the Almighty is merciful, we still need to feel the urgency of prayer.  The sages tell us that when the Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer were closed, but the gates of tears were not closed.  When we pray to invoke G-d’s mercy, what we are telling the Almighty is that we got the message and do not need the consequence.  That is why we are told that prayer can change a negative decree. G-d does not need us to grovel before Him (or Her), to beg and bow.  We do it so we can feel our own contrition, and so we are motivated to try and change ourselves and our actions.

This is the three pronged action plan laid down in the Netanah Tokef, the prayer that says that on Rosh Hashanah our fate will be inscribed. It continues and says even though our lives for the next year has been written down, Teshuva, Tefila, and Tzedaka, Changing our actions, Prayer and Charity can change our fate and our outcome.  Prayer is beseeching the Almighty, and it is self-transformation, but it is also a vehicle to bring about change in our actions.  This is the Teshuvah.  RH is also a time to envision new goals for ourselves, new possibilities in our lives.  Yes I can make that career change, yes I can repair that frayed relationship (or end the over-frayed relationship), yes I can break the destructive habit, yes I can be more focused on my spiritual and Jewish life.

And the best way to change my actions is through charity, by being a more giving person.  I can give charity through financial support, and I can give charity through personal support.  I can be a listening ear to someone who is down, I can visit someone in the hospital, I can network to try to help someone get a job.  We are told that the time of year going from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur is a time to intensify our efforts in these areas of our lives.  All of these efforts, teshuva, tefila, tzedaka, repentance, prayer and charity become all the more real when we listen to the messages that have been sent to us through the recent events in the world around us. So, unfortunately, this year on Rosh Hashanah, we can take the message of the devastation of Harvey, Irma and now Maria to drive home the reality that life is precarious, and that we can merit the Almighty’s blessings by turning towards Him in prayer and by improving ourselves for the coming year.

 

 

 

Charlottesville: Racism, Bigotry & The Torah’s Response

 

SERMON DELIVERED BY RABBI MARK WILDES | August 19, 2017

 

In this past week’s Torah reading, Parshat Re’ah, referring to the idolatrous and pagan altars existing in the land of Israel, the Torah commands the Jewish people: “You shall break apart their altars; you shall smash their pillars; and their Asherim shall you burn in the fire; their carved images you shall cut down…” (Deuteronomy 12:3)

 

Why is there an obligation to destroy and dismantle the idolatrous altars established in the land of Israel? I can understand the Torah’s interest in keeping the Jewish people from being lured into Avodah Zarah, into idolatry and pagan worship, but why the need to actually destroy and dismantle the altars?

 

Those structures and statues represent an ideology and lifestyle which the Torah considers abominable. The culture of idol worship involved immoral sexual behaviors, human sacrifice and a host of other unethical practices and so even a representative structure may not remain. The Torah commands us to destroy the idolatrous structures to totally obliterate any vestige of that theology and remove any sliver of legitimacy that way of life may have held in society.

 

As I watched videos of protesters in Charlottesville calling for the destruction of Robert E. Lee’s statue, I couldn’t help but think about these verses in our parsha – to destroy that which represents something abominable.

 

That statue of the Robert E. Lee, General of the Confederacy surely represents the South’s philosophy during the Civil war which was pro-slavery, a practice which dehumanized an entire race of people in this country for decades.

This ideology must be destroyed and any of its remnants, like a statue, should not be allowed to stand. On the other hand, as some have argued, Robert E. Lee worked to end slavery after the civil war and if we condemn everyone who owned slaves where do we draw the line? George Washington owned slaves, do we take down his pictures and statues?

 

This is an important question but in my mind a distraction us from the real issue which is the hate, racism, and anti-semitism that surfaced in Charlottesville.

 

To hear bigoted, racist and anti-Jewish chants by white supremacists carrying flags with with swastikas – that is what what I want to speak about this Shabbat.

Going back to the issue of Avodah Zarah, the Torah again in this week’s parsha speaks about how it is spread in three ways: First through the “Navi Sheker” or false prophet who claims he is God’s authentic messenger and then uses his position to spread Avodah Zarah. Second, one who is induced by a family member to worship idols and third, the “Ir Hanidchat” -where the whole city has become so engulfed in idol worship it needs to be destroyed.

 

Why does the Torah describe three ways Avodah Zarah spreads, isn’t any one of them pernicious enough?

 

I believe it is to teach us the progression: Like any evil ideology, Avodah Zarah starts with a charismatic leader who uses the right time and his abilities as an articulate spokesperson to spread lies and hate. Hitler took advantage of the low state Germany felt after their defeat in World War One and used the Jew as a scapegoat for Germany’s problems.

 

The next way the Torah speaks of Avodah Zarah spreading is through family members inducing others. In the 1930’S there were kids, brown shirts, so influenced and brainwashed by the Nazi ideology that they turned in their own parents for not following the party line.

 

Finally the last step is the “Ir Hanidachat”- a city so corrupted with idol worship that it has to be destroyed.

 

The progression from one person to a family to an entire society teaches a lesson history has taught us again and again: hatred not called out, hatred not confronted will spread like a cancer until it infects and corrupts an entire society.

 

I have found Americans in general to be tolerant and open minded but there are significant pockets of narrowness and close mindedness ranging from the outright bigots to those uncomfortable with others whose ways of thinking and living are different from their own. We have a responsibility to speak out against the hatred and remind our fellow Americans that this country was founded on the principles of fairness and equality – that slavery was an aberration and a stain on this country’s history and that intolerance and bigotry have no place here.

 

As many of you know I just returned from leading the MJE annual trip to Israel and we were treated to an amazing talk by Dr. Michael Oren in the Knesset. To the left of the room in which he addressed our group was a synagogue, but as he emphasized to the right of our room was a Mosque for Muslim members of Knesset. A Mosque in Israel’s parliament. We should be very proud of how Israel tries to accommodate and even embrace the various non-Jewish minorities and ethnicities that make up the Jewish State.

 

Israel also recently delivered at least 10,000 meals to the African country of Sierra Leone, which is recovering from a deadly mudslide that devastated its capital and killed hundreds. Paul Hirschson, Israel’s envoy to Sierra Leone, said that Israel was the first country to provide tangible assistance to the country. This is not an occasional occurrence but a consistent Israeli practice.

 

America could learn a lot from Israel, especially at this time.

 

Speaking out against bigotry is our responsibility but it is only one of the Torah’s responses. The more powerful reaction is to carry out any one of the many precepts from the Torah which supports groups on the fringe. One such mitzvah is also found in this week’s Torah reading: “ (Deuteronomy 15:7) Taking care of care of the poor is a Jewish obligation. As Mahatma Ghandi famously said: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” The Torah tells us no less than 36 times to “love the stranger”  and reminds us: “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. We began our nationhood as slaves and so we, perhaps more than any other nation, must appreciate the plight of the oppressed. Generally speaking we do and now we must double our efforts.

 

This attitude is all hinted to us in the new Hebrew month of Elul which we begin in the coming week. One of the acronyms for which Elul stands is: “Ish leraei umatonot l’evyonim”- “a man for his fellow and gifts to the poor”. On Purim we are required to give gifts to the poor and we think how this mitzvah is not limited to Purim but a responsibility all year round, particularly appropriate during the month leading up to the High Holidays.

 

In this week’s  parsha we also have the laws of kashrut spelled out. The Torah tells us what we can eat and what we cannot. Included in the list of non-kosher birds is the Chasidah, the stork. The Talmud asks why is this bird called Chasidah (which means kindness) and answers because the stork does acts of kindness with her friends. Rashi, the great Biblical commentator explains, it’s because she, the stork shares her food with her friends.So why is the Chasidah, the stork not kosher if she behaves in a praiseworthy manner?

 

This question is compounded by what the great Maimonides says in his work the Moreh Nevumchim (Guide to Perplexed) that the birds the Torah lists as not kosher are cruel and since, as it were, we are what we eat, we don’t want to adopt their cruel tendencies, but what’s cruel about the Chasidah if it draws its very name from the Chesed that it does? 

 

Some of the commentators ask: With whom does the Chasidah does her kindness, to which they answer: “Im chavruta” – only with her friends. Any living thing which expresses kindness only with her friends is unfit for Jewish consumption

 

Our obligation extends to all people, not just our friends. We have to learn all people, irrespective of one’s background,  race or ethnicity with the greatest live and respect. All must be treated in this manner because ultimately each of us is created in God’s image: “for in the image of God is man created”.(Genesis??)

 

And so besides speaking out again bigotry and hate let us also strengthen that love and resolve to do more for others, not like us, by increasing our acts of kindness to those in our community and beyond. 

In doing so we reveal God’s presence in the world around us.

 

Shabbat Shalom

When It Comes To Dating, Chats Beat Apps Every Time

COURTESY OF GO2FILMS DISTRIBUTION AND MARKETING

 

Despite the ease with which men and women connect using phones, social media and the Internet, lasting relationships seem to be harder than ever to obtain. When it comes to Millennials, there are serious obstacles in finding compatible members of the opposite sex online or in person. The popularity of reality TV shows like “The Bachelor” seems to reinforce this challenge.

The irony is that connecting has never been easier. Yet those online connections are often unsatisfying because they take place in an artificial environment. Many of my Millennial students tell me that meeting on a dating site can be stressful, what with having to find the most flattering photos and choose the right lines to make the best impressions…

 

Millennials and Religion: A New Perspective

Young Jewish woman prays at Amuka on the MJE Israel Trip

 

Research indicates that significant numbers of Millennials reject or are at best indifferent to religion. A survey by the Pew Research Center in 2015 concluded that 35% of Millennials (Americans born between 1981 and 1996) identified themselves as religious “nones” and that number appears to be growing. Young people seem to have a general resistance to organized religion or to any system that tends to be formulaic, authoritative and restrict their decisions or lifestyle. Many Millennials have adopted the prevailing attitude that religion is out of tune with the times and irrelevant to their life. Apart from those enrolled in religious institutions of higher learning, most college and graduate students and young professionals simply lack the interest to engage in any formal involvement in religious practices.

At the same time, studies also indicate that Millennials treasure meaning and purpose in much of what they do, especially in their work and in relationships, along with positive “do-good” mission trips. They are less motivated by money and professional advancement than previous generations. However, because today’s Millennials are also the products of moral relativism, religiously taught on many college campuses, their relationships are becoming more unsustainable since relationship-building requires the very values that are being called into question. In addition, they wrestle, as we all do, with the seeming randomness of life where bad things seem to happen for apparently no reason.

At the very least, faith-based communities can offer Millennials some solace and comfort by offering a warm and accepting community during difficult moments. One of my students, a woman in her mid-20’s who recently lost her father, was blown away by how comforting her faith-based community was, in this case the Jewish community. Not a religious person per se, she nonetheless found the Shiva, the week-long period of mourning Jewish tradition mandates, very comforting. During the week, her home was filled with streams of visitors offering comfort, prayers and mountains of food. She felt the embrace of the community when she most needed it and it got her to see the value in some of the other Jewish rituals and traditions.

But that’s just one advantage religion has for Millennials. Perhaps even more importantly, religion offers a moral compass, a value system so desperately needed to navigate the turbulent waters of morality and ethical issues with which we are all confronted. Ethical relativism and value neutrality make today’s world a confusing place with little definition of where the lines for right and wrong are drawn. Even more reason for organized religion to share its teachings that have been developed over millennia. The cohort of 18-29-year-olds are frequently unmoored by the shifts in what is and isn’t acceptable with regards to ethics in the workplace and morality in social relationships. It’s time for the clergy to step up, reach out and help young people find guidelines that will resonate and provide a haven. Religious leaders have become convinced that young people simply don’t care about what we have to say and that is just not the case. Young people arelooking for guidance. We just must make a compelling case for how a core teaching of our faith can make a difference.

One example where religion can provide guidance is by helping to provide values and guidelines for healthy relationships. One Millennial student of mine (let’s call him Josh) had been dating a young woman and was about to move in with her. He was conflicted by the pressure to get married on one hand and a few red flags signaling caution, on the other. Seeking some breathing room to reflect, Josh decided to join us on our weeklong trip to Israel which also included classes on religious values and ethics. In his own words Josh said, “While dating, particularly in a secular context, I didn’t apply any kind of religious values. Upon reflection, I realized those values could help guide me in making my decision. The classes and readings made me acutely aware of the value of family and among other things, the woman I was dating was disrespectful to my parents, a core Jewish value.”

Josh continued, “Were it not for these values, I would have walked into a dead-end marriage.”

The spiritual void many Millennials feel in their lives has also been filled to some degree with technology. Not successfully of course. No one really believes an electronic device can speak to the deeper existential part of who are but we have done a pretty good job at distracting ourselves with technology. Like anything else though “it comes out in the wash”. There will be those moments when Millennials feel so unfulfilled, so empty because they’ve spent hours online, ‘connecting’ with others, yet feeling so disconnected.

I have felt that way often after “spending time” with my kids while we’re all on our devices. The time goes by and there’s this emptiness, like we were with each other but we weren’t. This void can be filled by religions that offer a “time-out” or some version of a Sabbath. In Jewish tradition, as my kids know, Friday night through Saturday we go into a “no phone zone” for 24 hours, detoxing from the rest of the week. It is a day of being “unplugged”. The freedom from technology allows us to hit “pause” so we can seek the higher purpose of our lives that eludes us during the week. That “pause” may include many different activities, ranging from study and prayer to communal rituals, socializing and even board games which force us to connect in a way we usually do not all week. Unplugging is one of the great ways religion can help Millennials truly feel more connected, both to each other and to something that approaches the spiritual.

Another major benefit religion can offer Millennials is to show how greater levels of happiness can be achieved by being more aware of the blessings we already have. We constantly yearn for what we don’t have while we overlook the blessings we do possess: health, a roof over our head, family, the company of good friends. Judaism and other faith systems compel us to acknowledge those gifts through the simple recitation of a blessing. Whether the blessing is made over food or the discharge of bodily waste (there is in fact such a blessing in Judaism), uttering a few words helps focus us on what we do have and that makes us into more grateful people. Studies show the more grateful the person, the happier and more content he or she is.

These are but a few of the advantages religion can offer Millennials and really all of us. We all yearn for something deeper which will give us greater meaning and purpose. The click of the keyboard and the tap of a phone app may give us access to the world but only religion can provide a portal to the sublime.

A Holiday In Memoriam – To Celebrate or To Mourn?

PUBLISHED ON THE HUFFINGTON POST

By Rabbi Mark Wildes, with contributions by Michelle Soffen
Dedicated to the memory of slain student Second Lieutenant Richard W. Collins III

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS Black Civil War Union Soldiers from the “4th United States Colored Infantry Regiment”

 

It’s 8:00pm. The world around comes to a sudden halt. Cars break mid highway as phones are put away and conversations paused. A nation unites in complete stillness, and for an entire minute, no sound can be heard for miles but the cry of a siren.

This soul penetrating ring is the official start of Yom Hazikaron – Memorial Day in Israel; the national day of remembrance set aside for honoring fallen heroes who died in active duty defending the Jewish homeland, and for the thousands of civilian victims of terror. Throughout the next 24 hours, graves are visited, ceremonies held, and tears shed. By law, all places of entertainment are closed and tv stations mark the solemnity of the day. One channel screens the entire list of names of all those being remembered.

23,544 – The number of Israeli soldiers remembered this past May 1.

3,117 – The number of victims of terror in Israel also remembered this past May 1.

21 Million – the number of cases of beer purchased to wash down the 818 hot dogsconsumed per second during “peak hot dog season”, kicked off on Memorial Day in the United States just a few weeks later. This is in memory of the 1.3 Million members of the armed services who lost their lives in conflict, and the 42+ Million veterans who have served the United States during war time.

Barbecues, beer, beef, 2 for 1 sales, marathons, auto racing, and travel – this is what Memorial Day looks like for the average American. It is the unofficial start of the summer season, a day for busting out the white pants, and enjoying a day off work.

An Israeli friend of mine visiting the U.S. experienced Memorial Day here for the first time last year. “I was at first horrified,” she explained to me. “I was expecting something similar to what we do in Israel. I couldn’t understand how you are all so happy – drinking, going to the beach, having barbecues, on the day you are remembering the people who sacrificed their lives for you. But then an American friend explained to me that it is not meant to be a solemn day here – that instead of mourning you choose to celebrate the many freedoms the U.S. cherishes; the freedoms that the army fights to protect.”

She paused to think, then continued. “It makes sense; you should of course celebrate your wonderful country – but it could never be this way for us on Memorial Day in Israel. I don’t want you to think I am judging you; for us, it is just different. There is not a single person who is not directly affected by the conflicts we face. We all know someone personally in active duty, and we all know someone either in our immediate circles or extended circles who has died because of the conflict. I think until we have security and peace with our neighbors, it will continue to be an extremely sad day for us.”

My friend’s remarks got me thinking. How did the U.S. Memorial Day become what it is? How did it start? And have we come so far as a country to merit a day of pure celebration marked with little to no solemnity for the average American?

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Yom Hazikaron/Yom Haatzmaut Event 2017: Remarks by Rabbi Mark Wildes

Rabbi Mark Wildes delivers opening remarks at Yom Hazikaron Memorial Service

 

Yom Hazikaron/Yom Haatzmaut Event 2017: Remarks by Rabbi Mark Wildes
May 1, 2017 | The Jewish Center

 

Thank you all for joining us this evening.

For those of you I haven’t had the honor of meeting, my name is Rabbi Mark Wildes of MJE and this year we are proud to combine MJE’s Yom Hazikaron/Yom Haatzamut event with The Jewish Center.

I want to thank my friends Rabbi Yossi Levine and Rabbi Dovid Zirkind of The JC for working so closely together with us and to especially thank Rabbi Zirkind for his hard work and vision on tonight’s program. This event, now in its 5th year has been organized by the JCC in their effort to bring together all young professionals from the upper West side including many of the synagogues co-hosting tonight: Kehillat Reim Ahuvim, Ramat Orah, WSIS, Ohav Zedek. Thank you to Rabbi Moshe Grussgot, Rabbi Adam Mintz, Rabbi Daniel Sherman of the WSIS and the lay committee that have built this event over the past few years. This would not be possible without the generous support of The JCC and UJA and its UWS Celebrates Israel Initiative. Please see your brochures to learn about all the other events happening this week. Special thanks to Talia Kaplan, Matt Schwartz and the strong committee of young professionals for all the planning to make tonight a meaningful evening. Thank you to Atara Neuer from the MJE staff for proposing we join together tonight and for working on all the planning to make tonight possible. I also wish to recognize the MJE Rabbi’s here tonight: Rabbi Jonathan Feldman, Rabbi Ezra Cohen and Rabbi Joshua Klein, Educational Director Ruthie Brafman and our Executive Director Doodie Miller.

 Tonight Yom Hazikaron & Yom Haatzmaut is truly an appropriate time for the ENTIRE community to be together and as such we will recite the Tefilot –  the special prayers in such a way as to accommodate the many beginners and veterans so we can all commemorate and celebrate together on this special evening.

 Last weekend Israel received three additional F-35 fighter jets from the United States. Last June when Israel acquired the first two F-35’s the following question was posed to Rav Yehuda Aviner,  the head rabbi of Yeshivat Ateret Kohanim, a brilliant halachick authority:“With Hashem’s kindnesses, the State of Israel received F-35 Stealth Fighter Jets. Should the blessing of Shehechiyan, the blessing of renewal be recited, or is it not recited because the fighter plane is a weapon of war? And Rabbi, if it should be recited, who should say the blessing?”

 In 2002,  a young man who was about to participate in his IDF swearing in ceremony, asked a similar question: At the height of the ceremony, after the soldiers have taken the oath of allegiance, the highest ranking officer calls the soldiers up, one at a time and gives each soldier two gifts: a gun and Tanach (Hebrew Bible) . The gun so that they can defend the country, a Tanach so that they can know WHY they’re defending it.

 “When I receive my gun, asked the soldier, should I make the bracha of Shehechiyanu?”

Like the F-35 it’s a good question because the blessing of  שהחיינו is generally said when you receive or experience something new and happy – but not for a sad event. A gun is carried because we have enemies who SADLY want to destroy us. Yet Rav Aviner answered that a Shehechyinau should be said when a soldier receives his gun. He should say the words: “Thank you God for allowing me to live and reach this time” That we have guns and that we have an army should not elicit sadness. אדרבה –he says: Just the opposite; it should elicit joy, that we have merited to become a free nation in our homeland, to have a Jewish government an army to defend ourselves.

 If you heard from the survivor we interviewed last week on Yom Hashoah, Dr. Moshe Avital – imagine what it would have meant to have a gun in the camps. What would he have done to for a country to flee to? To be part of an army?

 We heard how after surviving 6 concentration camps, Dr. Avital snuck into Palestine and was elated to fight in the Haganah; to be able to finally defend himself and his people.

 A Jewish soldier makes a Shehechiyanu on his gun and Rav Aviner ruled that the head of the IAF, the Israeli Air Force, should make a hatov vhamativ, the blessing that God is good and does good, over the F-35 Fighter plane. Why? Because even though these are weapons, the joy and pride in being able to defend ourselves demands these blessings

 But these blessings are not just about pride and joy; it goes deeper.

 One of the great religious Zionist thinkers Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook wrote: “Fighting to protect our homeland is a mitzvah.  It is a mitzvah binding on all Klal Yisrael. Therefore, everything connected with it, every gun and every weapon that is our response to our enemies, everything connected with establishing and protecting Jewish sovereignty, ‘Hakol Hu Kodesh’  – It is all holy.”

The chayalim/soldiers we remember tonight, They are all Kodesh and what they use to defend the Jewish people, even what they wear takes on a level of holiness. Rav Aharon Lichtinstein tz’l was once asked by a student, a soldier in Israel, whether he had to change out of his dirty military clothes before davening Mincha. Rav Aharon posed the question to his teacher Rabbi Soloveitchick who answered, “No –he doesn’t have to change his clothing because his uniform is like the ‘bigdei Kehuna’ – like the Priestly garments.”

Another great Rabbi, Reb Shlomo Zlaman Arbach was approached by one of his students who informed him that he was leaving Jerusalem to go to Tzfat to pray at the graves of the great rabbis buried there. Rav Aurbach said to him, “You don’t have to go to Tzfat to pray at the graves of the richeous, just go down the block to Har Herzl, to Israel’s national cemetery, that’s also where the tzadikkim are buried.”

Those who gave their lives for Israel, who defend our people and our land, THEY are holy people. Their uniforms are like that of the Cohanim and their weapons demand a blessing. They put everything on the line for us, their people, and so we owe them – our holy soldiers – everything. Therefore before we begin to celebrate Yom Haatzmaut/ Israel’s 69th Birthday, we remember the soldiers who gave their lives in all of Israel’s wars and we on the Upper West Side take note of the many lone soldiers, individuals from our own community who served in the IDF. Who better than they to show the honor to Israel’s fallen soldiers that they so deserve? It is my great pleasure to call upon one of those soldiers, Matthew Schwartz to now share a few words.

 

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.

 

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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.

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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

 

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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.

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