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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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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David Friedman: An Ambassador with Skin in the Game

 

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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.

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The Power of the Apology

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We’ve all experienced that horrible moment. The moment we realize something we’ve said or done has truly hurt another person. Our first response is to justify. We’re hard wired with defense mechanisms to ensure we maintain enough self-esteem to live with ourselves and carry on. Coupled with our aversion to confrontation, we ignore the situation praying the memory of our wrongdoing will simply fade with time. Sometimes it does but often it doesn’t, and not just in the mind of the victim. The wrongdoer also experiences a lingering sense of shame, guilt and a diminished sense of self.

Back in High School, being the drummer for a Rock, Blues and Klezmer band provided me with more self-esteem than anything else. However at a Chanukah concert before hundreds of my peers, I began to stumble as the band started to play Led Zeppelin’s famous “Stairway to Heaven”. I just needed a moment to remember the beat but before I could do anything, some other drummer from the audience took over and played the song as I watched in total humiliation. I was crushed. Angry and hurt, I carefully avoided the other drummer for weeks. It was a terrible feeling, and I could tell he felt awkward as well.

Jewish tradition for over 2000 years has recommended and mandated the most simple and straightforward way to resolve conflicts: Take responsibility and say “I’m sorry”. Recent advances in science and mental health fields demonstrate that there’s more to this ancient tradition than meets the eye.

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Family Values: My Mother and John Lennon

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Rabbi Mark Wildes’ opening remarks at the 2016 MJE Annual Ruth B. Wildes Memorial Event/ “JOHN LENNON VS THE USA” by Leon Wildes Book Launch | September 7, 2016 @ Cardozo School of Law

Thank you all for coming tonight.

Tonight is a very exciting evening for our family because it marks two important events. First is the launch of my father’s long awaited book on his extraordinary representation of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Tonight is also the 21st Annual Memorial event, which we hold each year in memory of our mother Ruth Wildes, of blessed memory.

I cannot think of a more appropriate way to remember my mother than by having this book warming event tonight. My father dedicated his book to my mother’s memory and to John’s and it was so appropriate that he did so – because the kind of family person our mother was, turned out to be a huge part of the relationship that John and Yoko had with our parents. In the years during which my father represented the Lennons, John had taken a break from the world of music to become more of a family man, to be a better husband and to become a father. However the people John and Yoko surrounded themselves with were mainly artists and musicians, not necessary family oriented people. And then they met my parents and specifically my mother. My mother was a huge Beatles fan (unlike my father who had actually never heard of the Beatles) but what my mother took the greatest pride in – what she truly valued, was her role as a wife and as a mother. She was a giving person by nature and she loved to give to her family, something John and Yoko admired and wanted to learn from when creating their own family.

Our mother’s love for family stemmed from her traditional Jewish upbringing which places a great emphasis on marriage/family building. In fact in this coming week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shoftim, we are told of three individuals who are exempt from military service: a man has just built a home but hasn’t lived in it yet, someone who plants a vineyard but hasn’t yet eaten of its fruit and finally a man who becomes engaged to a woman but who hasn’t married her yet.

These exemptions all have the home at the center because even more important than the Synagogue or the Yeshiva (the academy), the home is the most important institution of Jewish life, and it was the most important thing to our mother. Nothing was more significant to her than her family and her children, she wanted them to have it all. When John and Yoko’s son, Sean was born, my father wanted to buy something special for their  new “beautiful boy” and arranged with another client (also a huge Beatles fan) to have a small child’s chair carved from wood with Sean’s name on it. When my mother saw the chair she said to my father: “that’s very nice, but what about your own children? Shouldn’t they their own chairs too?” So my father had chairs made up with our names on them that each of us still have in our respective homes today.

This was the kind of Jewish mother she was and the kind of home she built. But it was a home that nurtured – not only our family – but the community at large. Virtually every Shabbat my mother hosted newcomers at her ever expanding Shabbat table. She wasn’t an immigration lawyer like my father but she did a pretty good job of welcoming in the stranger and any newcomers from the outside and making them feel like part of the family. It was for this reason we established MJE in her memory: to perpetuate the way she reached out to those outside of our home. MJE this year is celebrating its 18th year in existence. MJE for the last 18 years, through our talented staff has brought in tens of thousands of our Jewish brothers and sisters into our Shabbat Dinners, Weeknight Classes, Retreats and Trips to Israel. All following our mothers’ example of reaching out and making everyone feel at home in our community.

I thank you all for coming tonight, for showing such honor to our mother, z”l and to paying tribute to my father whose life legacy in the field of Immigration Law is truly worth hearing about and learning from.

Thank you and good evening.

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Seeing is Believing

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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…

Nice, France – When We Don’t Have All The Answers

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Members of the Australian French community remember the victims of the Bastille Day truck attack in Nice. REUTERS/David Gray

 

I just got off the phone with my French cousin Michael Hanneux. Michael grew up near Strasbourg and is today one of many young Jewish professionals living and working in Paris. He sounded so down and almost despondent about the terrible attack in Nice. He said the attack struck home even more since it took place on Bastille Day, the French version of our July 4th. Michael asked me where I thought it was safe to be in the world today and I had no answer, just sympathy. He was looking for deeper answers but I told him that in accordance with this week’s Torah portion, we simply don’t have the answers to all of life’s difficult questions…

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Choices When The Walls Come Down – Special to The Jewish Week

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Dr. Barry Schwartz, a psychologist, delivered a Ted Talk on what he called the “explosion of choices” we now have: In his local supermarket there are seemingly endless varieties of cookies, soups, cereals and toothpastes. When it comes to health care, patients are offered “options” from which they could choose. Technology allows us to work every minute from anywhere, so when we’re not “at work” it’s our choice whether we should be.

As Jews living in America we are also afforded many choices, but it wasn’t always that way. In the Middle Ages, Jews in Christian Europe were excluded from most professions and by the 13th-century money lending was almost the only legal means for a Jew to earn a living. Forced to live behind ghetto walls, Jews were subject to pogroms. This life of “no-choices” prevailed until the Emancipation in the late 18th century when for the first time Jews were finally allowed to live amongst their gentile neighbors, permitted to enter the guilds and crafts from which they had been excluded. They started having choices 

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The Miracle of Israel

Probably the most often asked question I receive in my work is: “Rabbi: Where are the miracles? The Bible is filled with miracles, Why doesn’t God perform them anymore? If God performed a miracle, Rabbi, then I’d believe and maybe I’d even follow in His ways.”

My answer is always the same: God does perform miracles, we just need to be able to see them. They may not be as obvious as the splitting of the Red Sea, but they’re still miracles…and if there was any event in contemporary times where God showed His hand in history, it was the creation of the State of Israel, celebrated just last week on Yom Ha’atzmaut.

 

The Slavery No One Talks About at the Seder

Authored by Rabbi Mark Wildes, with contributions by Jessica Hendricks Yee of The Brave Collection and Michelle Soffen of MJE

 
Modern Day Slavery. When you hear these words, what comes to mind? Perhaps the phenomenon of being tethered to technology, the need to check one’s email all hours of the day, slaves to our jobs, to our mortgages, credit card bills, school loans, to our relentless self-doubt, or bad habits. This is what I have always explained as Modern Day Slavery, until I met entrepreneur Jessica Hendricks Yee, CEO of The Brave Collection.