Some People Take Revenge. Jews Do Something Else

Rabbi Mark Wildes of the Mahattan Jewish Experience

By Rabbi Mark Wildes




Rabbi Mark Wildes of Manhattan Jewish Experience on Pittsburgh Victims and Jewish Revenge

The Jewish Sages teach, based on the life of the matriarch Sarah, that a righteous person never stops growing. A pious person never becomes complacent where they are, no matter what their age. That’s why one of the most striking things about the terrible attack in Pittsburgh was the age of the people killed. Their ages ranged from 55 to 97.

But they weren’t just older people – they were older people who came to shul early.

Why Come To Shul Early?

Our Jewish brothers and sisters in Squirrel Hill taken from us attended shul early because of their devotion to prayer and community – because they wanted to continue to learn and develop themselves. To honor their memory, synagogues around the world very appropriately made a push for more people to come to synagogue and, what I think is even more appropriate in subsequent weeks, is to try to come earlier.

In a letter to Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Synagogue, I informed the rabbi that our community will strive to have eleven people at MJE Shabbat services on time, each and every week going forward. I told the rabbi this is not an easy task given the young age of our community and the fact that growing up, most MJE participants never went to shul on Saturdays. But I said we would do this as a way of elevating those eleven souls and our way of telling the world: we may have lost eleven holy Jews but another eleven will rise up in their place.

There’s an even deeper reason behind this campaign for more Jews to come to shul on Shabbat. It’s not just to tell our enemies: we won’t back down, we won’t be intimidated or prevented from practicing our faith. We’re saying something much deeper: by more of us coming to synagogue on Shabbat, we show how Jews deal with tragedy.

How We Deal With Tragedy

How does the Torah teach us to confront a tragedy? The Torah teaches to deal with it, even to learn and grow from the unfortunate experience, but then to move on. We confront the problem, which here is clearly anti-Semitism. We figure out the best way to deal with it but then we move on – not to forget it – but to ensure it doesn’t stop us from our mission.

In Jewish tradition mourning only lasts 30 days. The only exception is mourning for the loss of a parent, which goes for an entire year because of the mitzvah of honoring parents, but that’s the exception. For everyone else, mourning ends with shloshim (30 days) because tragedy, sadness and loss can never be allowed to prevent us from carrying on with our purpose and mission to live a life of Torah. And with regard to this tragedy, and with any act of anti-Semitism, that is precisely what our enemies want – to stop us from living as Jews.

The Jewish “Revenge”

We have a tradition of not excessively dwelling on tragedy, on mourning, or in this case on the hate and anti-Semitism. We have to talk about what happened so we can figure out the best way to keep our synagogues safe, but we don’t allow that conversation to distract us from the mission: from coming to shul and praying, from building our community and from being a light unto the world. The natural feeling after such an attack is to focus on the hate or even to try somehow to get back at our enemies. But we Jews have our own unique form of revenge.

I was speaking with my friend Charlie Harari, whose grandparents survived the Holocaust. Years ago, when Charlie had his first child, he brought his son to meet his grandparents. When he walked into the room his grandparents pointed at the baby and said: “that’s our revenge against Hitler”.

That’s the Jewish concept of revenge: others may spend their lives hunting their enemies, exacting violent revenge.

But Jews?

  • We have children.
  • We build hospitals.
  • We create cures.
  • We make the world a better place.
  • We move on and we build further.

An amazing documentary on the Chasidic community in Williamsburg recorded a reporter asking a random Chasid on the street how many children he had. The Chasid looked at the reporter and without any emotion answered:

  • “Twelve”
  • “Twelve children?!” the reporter exclaimed, “are you planning on having more?”
  • “Yes, of course,” he answered
  • “More than twelve, how many kids do you plan on having?”
  • “6 million” he answered.

That’s how we come back from tragedy. We don’t get consumed with hate, we defend ourselves with vigor, but we spend our energies getting back to our mission of being a light, of keeping the mitzvoth, of studying Torah and making the world a better and more spiritual place.

How Jews Operate

Dr. Jonathan Cohen, a member of the Tree of Life synagogue, also happens to be the President of Allegheny General, the hospital where Robert Bowers was brought for treatment. After Dr. Cohen walked into Bowers’ room to check on him, an FBI agent on guard said to the doctor: “I’d never be able to do that.”

Most people would not be able to do that, but that’s the way we are ideally supposed to operate. We don’t allow these situations to destroy our values and bring us down to the level of our enemies. We don’t operate in their world, we operate in ours. The murderer’s nurse in the ER was also Jewish. She treated him too because we’re above acting like our enemies.

Building on their Legacy

As explained, the Jewish approach to tragedy is to deal with the pain but then to move on, but we don’t just move on. Tragedy changes us. Losing a loved one creates a void and the people who are no longer with us not only deserve to be remembered, ultimately, they leave a legacy from which we build. The Sages of the Midrash teach that after the matriarch Sarah died, the special miracles that existed in her home disappeared: the Shabbat candles which remained lit continuously, the special blessing in her dough and God’s cloud of glory which hovered over her tent. These miracles disappeared when Sarah died but when Rebecca came into Sarah’s tent, they suddenly reappeared. This teaches that Rebecca did not simply replace Sarah as the new Matriarch, but rather she built upon her legacy. Rebecca took the foundation that Sarah established, moved back into the tent Sarah lived in, and from there continued to build the Jewish people, not as something new, but as a continuation of the past. We too are not just carrying on from those whose lives were taken in Pittsburgh; we are building on their legacy.

Rebecca took Sara’s place but Sarah and her teachings were never forgotten. We live her values every day of our lives and we will carry on the legacy of those souls from Pittsburgh by continuing to come to synagogue and by living the full Jewish lives of which they were so proud. Our eleven will be their eleven. Through us, they will never be forgotten.

Rabbi Mark Wildes Featured in The Forward – “How One Rabbi Keeps Singles Safe”

Rabbi Mark Wildes of the Mahattan Jewish Experience

By Rabbi Mark Wildes




Rabbi Mark Wildes featured on The Forward


Kavanaugh & Ford: Two Jewish Principles at Stake

Rabbi Mark Wildes of the Mahattan Jewish Experience

By Rabbi Mark Wildes




Rabbi Mark Wildes on Kavanaugh and Ford

Watching Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford during the confirmation hearings was upsetting, shocking, and anything but bipartisan. However, if we remove all the politics involved, the situation raises two ethical issues: sexual morality and speech.

Both are fundamental Jewish principles and go to the very heart of what it means to be a human being. Parshat Bereishit famously tells us: “God created man in His image” (Bereishit 1:27).

So what does it mean to be created in God’s image? There are a wide range of views of what “His image” means.

The Impact of Speech

Maimonides said that it refers to man’s cognitive abilities – that only human beings can reason/think in a certain way. Only humans can freely choose their path in life and rise above the instinctual part of who they are – something an animal cannot do.

There is another fascinating interpretation by the great scholar Onkelos. Onkelos says that what separates man from animal is man’s capacity for speech. Rashi also says this, namely, man was given something extra – “deah v’dibbur”- he writes, intellect and speech. The human capacity to speak is reflects on us as intellectual beings that are able to communicate complex thoughts.

Thus when we misuse speech, “lashon hara,” we are tainting an inherent, “Godly,” trait that makes us fundamentally human, undermining mankind’s holiness. By misusing speech, we risk losing our very humanity. We must always stay vigilant and careful about what we say to each other and the impact of our speech on others.

Sexual Morality

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchick, in his comments on the Chanukah story, points out Maimonides’ very specific language in his description of what the Greeks were trying to do to the Jews:

“The Greek oppressors laid their hands on our property and on our daughters.”

That kind of attack on the daughters of Israel (during the attack, the Greeks made Jewish women submit to their officers)  went to the heart of who we are because, as Rabbi Soloveitchick wrote, sexual morality is a fundamental principle in Judaism:

“No other moral norm is as central and as important in Judaism as that of sexual modesty. Judaism held the view that human dignity and majesty can be achieved only through protecting sexual morality. If the latter is abolished, then man, no matter how agreeable and creative, forfeits the extra existential dimension that the Almighty granted him.”

The Rav refers to our sexual identity as an “extra existential dimension” – a gift that goes to the essence of who we are as human beings. Therefore, acting in a way which violates another’s sexual integrity can cause that individual to feel less than human because, like speech, it’s a fundamental aspect of who we are.      

Not Out of Our Control

We can’t control what happens on Capitol Hill, but we can try to make sure that in our own lives and in our own community we treat these two areas – speech and sexual propriety, the holiness, respect and utmost of seriousness they deserve.

The Jewish community is not immune to what we see happening all over the country, including inappropriate sexual advances and badmouthing that can ruin a person’s reputation. In the last few months, I’ve had to bar two individuals from coming to MJE: one who I became convinced was inappropriately touching women (who very bravely came forward) and another who spread unfounded/unsubstantiated claims about someone else. Both refused to acknowledge or apologize so both are no longer a part of our community.

Jewish law is very clear: we must never say anything untrue about another person. Even something which is true, but negative, we must learn to keep to ourselves UNLESS it is necessary to protect ourselves or to protect another from harmful or wrongful behavior. Then it becomes a mitzvah to say something. Speaking out in that kind of circumstance should be seen as an act of heroism, because – in all probability – you won’t only be saving yourself, but also the next victim.

If we can learn to get this right, we will fill our lives and our community with the kind of holiness our world so desperately needs and ensure we remain true to the divine image in which each and every one of us was created.

Looking Beyond the Instant to Find Happiness

Rabbi Mark Wildes of the Mahattan Jewish Experience


By Rabbi Mark Wildes

Where the Happiest People Live

A new study surveying 20,000 young people from 20 different countries reveals a fascinating trend when it comes to people’s level of happiness. The study, conducted by the Varkey Foundation, called “Generation Z: Global Citizenship Survey – What the World’s Young People Think and Feel, reported that young people living in developing countries reported they were the happiest.

Indonesia emerged as the happiest, Nigeria came in second and India third place. Young people in developed and more prosperous nations like France, England, Australia and Japan ranked well down on the happiness scale with the United States somewhere in the middle.

How is it that people living in countries like Indonesia and Nigeria consider themselves happier than those living in the United States or England?

Factors That Determine Happiness

The simple answer is that prosperity and economic advancement are not factors which guarantee happiness.

Despite the opportunities and conveniences that science and technology has given our world, and despite the healthier, longer and more affluent lifestyles people in the West are thankfully living, our happiness levels, particularly amongst young people, have dropped. From my 20 years of working with young Jewish professionals, my strong sense is that this is due to our generation’s unfulfilled need for a lasting value system, like no generation before.

Freedoms That Trap Us

The instantaneous nature of the Western world today has paradoxically deprived us of the very activities and lifestyle that produce dedication and loyalty, values necessary for sustaining meaningful relationships. There are no longer constraints on the kind of mate we choose or how we date and pursue relationships. Moral relativism, now religiously taught on college campuses, has left us on our own in terms of how we make ethical decisions.

We do what feels right to us or simply adopt the ever-changing norms of society, but both leave us questioning whether our lives have any real guiding values or principles. We don’t want to be told what to do or what to believe in, but we know something is missing and we’re less happy.

In the West, and certainly in America, we are proud of the freedoms we enjoy and feel privileged to live in an open society, but because we lack a higher wisdom to tap into for moral and spiritual direction, we feel trapped. We’re trapped in the open with too many options, the only guiding value being our freedom to choose.

But what should we choose?

Living “Beyond the Instant”

What are the values and principles that will truly fill our lives with purpose and meaning, and enable us to lead happier and more fulfilled lives?

This question is precisely why I wrote my first book, Beyond the Instant: Jewish Wisdom for Lasting Happiness in a Fast Pace Social Media World.

Too many of us have relegated the wisdom of our religious faith to the past and locked it away. We view the Bible as a relic, an antiquated artifact that loses its relevance after one’s Confirmation or Bar/Bat-Mitzvah. I have spent the last 20 years reconnecting young men and women to the teachings of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish Sages, and I have devoted myself to this enterprise because I believe these works provide timeless wisdom for the very issues young people, and really all of us, struggle with in our contemporary society.

It’s a unique kind of spiritual wisdom which brings about happiness beyond the instant, which can help sustain relationships for the long run. It’s an approach that I’ve seen build confidence, character, and sense of self like nothing else can.

To me, no value system is more relevant and helpful to the issues and challenges facing Americans and Westerners than the philosophy and heritage of Judaism.

Nothing speaks more to the modern issues of consumerism, materialism, lack of meaning, and fulfillment than does the Hebrew Bible and the wisdom of the Jewish Sages. Their principles and values can afford modern men and women not simply a way to worship, but a way to live.

Beyond the Instant represents my humble attempt to demonstrate how much contemporary relevance there is to Judaism and, ultimately, how its teachings, if studied and applied, can fill our lives with the kind of purpose and meaning so many of us seek. I have been privileged to personally witness the transformative impact Jewish values can have on people, and how its profound insight and wisdom give the kind of meaning and direction so many young people are looking for today.

Religion Can Be A Spiritual Guide

Ours is a generation skeptical of religion. Its teachings are viewed as primitive and outdated, and so we’ve turned to psychology and works of self-help to find a guide. There is certainly wisdom to be found there, but why not also consult a system that has withstood the test of time and from which the great monotheistic faiths have emerged? Why let our religious cynicism deny us a perspective that has provided meaning and direction for billions of people for close to four millennia?

Adam Neumann, founder of WeWork, one of the top start-up companies (worth $20 billion at the time of writing), attributes his happiness not to his financial success, but to his turn to Sabbath observance.

Mayim Bialik, the Emmy Award-winning actress on The Big Bang Theory (the highest ranked comedy on TV), blogs about how Jewish values and observances bring great meaning to her life.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, nominated by Al Gore for vice president in 2000, consults with rabbis and Jewish scholars for spiritual guidance on the most pressing issues of his life.

These high-profile individuals have found personal fulfillment and greater professional success by accessing the wisdom of the Torah, and so can all of us. Beyond the Instant draws upon Judaism’s unique reservoir of wisdom to answer questions like:

  • What produces sustained joy and happiness?
  • What should we be looking for in a potential mate and once we’ve found that person, how can we make the relationship last?
  • What is sex really supposed to be about?
  • How can we learn from our failures and take more control of our lives?
  • Do we have a mission in life and how can we choose values over popularity?
  • How can we be more present to enjoy life more and is real change truly possible?

The answers to these questions may not alone produce the kind of enlightening happiness our generation lacks, but I’m confident that applying Judaism’s tested values to one’s life can make a real difference. I’ve seen it with thousands of my students – the change is real and it’s the kind of change we need in our world today in order to live “Beyond the Instant.”

Marching Against Bias

Rabbi Mark Wildes of the Mahattan Jewish Experience


By Rabbi Mark Wildes

Last week, as MJE has done for 20 years, we marched in the Annual Celebrate Israel Parade. The parade was watched by over 40,000 people and included officials such as New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon. We found love and support all around us – in our MJE community, local NYC leaders and politicians and friends and family.

Besides the simple fun of strutting down Fifth Avenue to Jewish music while waving Israeli flags, why is marching in the parade important?

Showing Jewish Pride

March Against Bias Israel Rabbi Mark Wildes

First, there are simply not enough times when the Jewish community displays unadulterated pride in Israel or in simply being Jewish. We tend to take more pride in how honest and critical we are of ourselves (and of the Jewish State) than we do in all the good Israel and the Jewish people do for Jews and the world at large.

Being self-critical is an important Jewish teaching, necessary for spiritual and moral growth. However, this can only happen when the critique is fair and balanced with some “feel-good” opportunities. Otherwise we become overly negative and cynical about ourselves. The Israel Day Parade is one of those few opportunities and experiences left in America to feel good and positive about ourselves and Israel.

Offsetting Unfair Media Bias

The parade is also critical to offset the unfair bias to which Israel is continually subjected to in the media. Reporting on the recent conflict along the Gaza border, articles on the subject were mostly entitled: “Israel’s deadly tactics in confronting the protests” (Reuters).

Unfortunately, I didn’t see any articles which read: “Israel defends herself against deadly protests.”

This spin is nothing new. It’s as old as the Bible itself. In last week’s Torah reading, before the children of Israel enter Israel, spies are dispatched to scout out the land. The spies return with a negative report, introducing doubt to the masses who now want to give up on going forward into Israel and instead return to Egypt. But what was so wrong about the report with which the spies returned? It seems from a simple reading of the Biblical text that they just reported on what they saw. Were the spies supposed to falsify their report? Nachmanides, the great medieval Talmudist and Mystic, explained that the spies reported the facts but they articulated themselves in such a way as to cast doubt and instill fear within the rank and file to support their own personal opinion and agenda. They made up their minds that going forth into Israel was not a good idea and described what they saw in that light, as opposed to simply reporting on what they saw and allowing the people to decide for themselves.

Stories the Media Doesn’t Cover

Just three years ago, I received the following email from a student of mine who is now a pediatric surgeon in Israel.

“Thursday I am doing a big operation on a three-year old girl from Gaza with a giant abdominal tumor. She came in April, malnourished, her abdomen was completely full of tumors and she was half dead-the product of a lot of neglect. We diagnosed her problem, inserted a catheter for chemotherapy and treated her with chemotherapy. The tumor is much smaller, she looks much better, is much stronger and now she is ready for surgery. Her father speaks no Hebrew or English but you can tell how happy he is. Where is the media for this story? We do this kind of stuff all the time, every week almost and there is no coverage at all…Where are you guys? At a time where Israel is being villainized daily for the “horrors” they are perpetrating in Gaza we do this stuff all the time. This story needs to get out there.

I suspect the media never covered any of the surgeries my student performed on Palestinian children for the same reason the spies in the Torah reported things in the way they did: it simply does not fit in with their narrative or personal opinion.

If You Don’t March, Who Will?

Why take the time to make it through the crowds and onto the busy 5th Ave?

Marching exercises our freedom of speech and if we don’t speak out in favor of Israel… who will? We are fortunate to live in a city that’s so accepting and supportive of Israel. However, this isn’t true universally, or even throughout the US. If we have a chance to march and express our support, we should! Past generations of Jewish people never thought they would live to see the creation of a Jewish State.

Seventy years later, we march in their stead to exercise our freedom and the pride we have in being Jewish, showing the world just how extraordinary Israel truly is.

March Against Bias Israel Rabbi Mark Wildes

March Against Bias Israel Rabbi Mark Wildes

March Against Bias Israel Rabbi Mark Wildes

From Adversity to Celebration

BLOG POST: Rabbi Jonathan Feldman

March 29, 2018

Life has its ups and downs.  We have some good months, and we have some not so good months.   At one moment we get a promotion, and then we lose a job, we have a good relationship, and then we get heartbroken. But there are times in our lives when we are in a bad way, and then things take a turn for the better, and at those moments we feel gratitude to the Almighty for helping our lives move in the right direction.

The Rabbis (Talmud Pesachim 116a) tell us that when we fulfill the mitzvah of telling the story of the Exodus, we begin talking about our denigrated state and we conclude with praise for our being saved.  According to Shmuel, the denigrated state was the slavery in Egypt, and the praise is for G-d freeing us.  In the Seder we have symbols and stories that remind us of both these states. I would like to focus on the symbolic elements of the Seder, and trace these two themes of denigration and suffering, and freedom and joy.  Parts of the seder remind us of our freedom, like eating and drinking in a position of leisure and comfort, which is why we lean, and parts remind us of our suffering, like eating the bitter herbs (which is why I take a bite of actual horseradish, to feel the burn).

The Matzah embodies both of these messagages, it represents both slavery and freedom.  At the beginning of the Haggadah we start by holding up the matza and saying.  This is ‘lachma anya’, which can mean either the bread of poverty or the bread of suffering.  This is the unadorned, dried, unflavored bread like the bread which our ancestors had to eat in Egypt when they were slaves.  When you read books about the Holocaust you read about the dry hard bread they survived on.  You also read about how they would not eat the whole morsel at once, but would squirrel away part of it for later or for the next day because you did not know when you would next be getting any food.  This is one of the explanations of why we break the matza and put the larger half aside as the afikomen, like a poor person who keeps food for later.  All of this is meant to allow us to experience what it is like to be a poor person who is suffering.

By contrast, when we get to the end of Magid, the telling of the story of the Exodus in the Haggadah, how do we describe the matza?  Rabban Gamliel says. Why do we eat this Matzah?  We eat it because the bread that our ancestors had baked did not have time to rise because G-d took us out so quickly.  It is the bread of freedom, the bread that represents the quickness with which G-d saved us. So the bread that reminds us of suffering and pain can also be the bread that reminds of how quickly G-d saved us in Egypt.  The message is that sometimes we are in the darkness and nothing seems to go our way, and we feel like there is no way out.  And things change, a medical treatment works, we get a job lead, and the circumstances that brought about our anguish and pain turn into the vehicle through which we feel joy and appreciation of the blessings.  May this Passover be a time when our pain and adversity turns into joy and celebration.


Chag Sameyach!

A Holiday In Memoriam – To Celebrate or To Mourn?


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?


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.



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.


Day 5, 6, 7 & 8 – All In The Family

“Family Portrait” on IDF Base in Hebron

The last four days brought MJE on an epic journey from Gush Etzion, to Hebron, and back to Jerusalem for an amazing Shabbat. In Gush, we stood inside a bunker where the last fighters bravely stood before being massacred in the battle of Kfar Etzion during the War of Independence. As we passed the Mekor Chaim Yeshiva, we shared a moment of silence to remember the three Israeli teenagers kidnapped and killed last summer by Palestinian terrorists (2 of whom were students at this Yeshiva). During lunch at a vineyard, we heard from my dear friend Rabbi Ari Berman who spoke on the unexpectedly high level of happiness found in Israeli society. In Hebron we brought snacks to a military base and visited with the young heroes of the IDF who serve in this most difficult area. We prayed at Ma’arat Ha’machpala (Tomb of the Patriarchs/Matriarchs), one of the holiest places in Judaism. We ended the day by singing and dancing to the songs of our people in a Kumsitz hosted by the gracious Cohen couple back in Jerusalem.

With Rav Avigdor Nebensal

The next day we met with my Rebbe and teacher, Rabbi Avigdor Nebensal (former Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Quarter), arguably the most pious and scholarly person alive today and soaked up his simple yet profound answers to our complex questions. 

Lighting Shabbat Candles at The Kotel

We later welcomed in the Sabbath overlooking the Kotel (Western Wall) and heard a fascinating talk from teacher and author, Rabbi David Aaron about the function of “time” in our lives and in Judaism. On Shabbat, we reveled in the peace of Jerusalem and a hard earned day of pause and rest.

On our last day, we toured the religious neighborhoods of Old Jerusalem with Rabbi Benjy Levine, grandson of the Tzadik of Jerusalem, Reb Aryeh Levin.

Rabbi Benjy Levine captivating the audience

He delighted us with tales of growing up with his famed grandfather – the colorful characters and poignant stories that are the legacy of his family. We brought toiletries and other basic necessities to the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Base where we honored the memory of the lone soldiers (soldiers from outside of Israel who serve in the IDF) who gave their lives fighting for the State of Israel, and met some of the brave young men and women who serve under the lone soldier status today. Finally, we had lunch with David Sprung – a veteran of the Six Day War who shared with us what it was like to be among the first few soldiers to liberate Jerusalem. 

Needless to say, the last leg of this trip was packed with learning, emotion and meaning. There are so many things I could say about these last few days, but there is one thought, one simple but beautiful idea, that came up over and over again in every program and with every speaker: the Jewish people as a family. 


Rabbi Ari Berman asked us “Why do you think Israelis are so happy despite the constant stress they are under?”. He explained that this happiness results from a sense of freedom and uninhibited self expression that can only come from the comfort of living amongst “family.” Israelis, he argued, despite their many differences and problems, consider each other “mispacha” (family). He shared with us a series of hilarious and touching “only in Israel” stories that illustrate just how deeply this family connection runs.

One time when lost and attempting to get to a hospital, a friend of Rabbi Ari stopped a man on the street to ask for directions. The directions proved complicated, so without hesitation the man said “open your door,” and he got in the car. Turn by turn he guided Rabbi Ari’s friend to where he needed to go. The driver assumed that the man probably had to go somewhere close to the hospital, so was using this as a convenient ride. The helper then answered his cell phone and apologized to his friend on the other line for being late: “Sorry, I’m on the other side of town, I had to help someone get to the hospital. I’ll make my way back over soon.” 

Only in Israel.

Rabbi Ari’s many stories sparked a discussion amongst the group, and the rest of the day participants excitedly shared their similar experiences.

One participant shared a story from her time living in Tel Aviv. It was her first time in Israel for Yom Kippur and she did not realize how early everything shuts down. When in a cab on her way back to the city late afternoon, erev Yom Kippur, her driver asked if she was prepared for the holiday – did she have groceries to prepare a meal before and after the fast, because nothing would be open… She did not. Her driver took her to the one store in all of Tel Aviv that was still open. The line was of course around the corner. He turned the meter off and waited for her while she did her last minute shopping, then brought her home, free of charge.

Only in Israel.

Another MJE participant on our trip, his first time in Israel, explained that he lost his sunglasses on the first day during a hike. He went to try and buy a new pair on the kibbutz where we were staying, but they did not have any. The store clerk took the sunglasses off his own face and said “here, take mine.”

Only in Israel. 

I shared with the group my own story, from a trip to Israel with my wife Jill and our newborn Yosef, many years ago. We were shopping in the very religious part of Jerusalem, in the section of Meah Shearim, when Yosef started crying – he was hungry. I ducked into the closest shop, a small dusty Jewish bookstore and asked the owner if he knew of a place my wife could nurse. In Hebrew the Chasid sitting behind the counter asked me: “she needs this now”? Hearing our son wailing at the top of his lungs I smiled and answered: “Yes!”. He said there was nowhere else to go and immediately started asking the customers looking around his store to leave. He then handed me a large ring of keys and showed me how to lock the door of the store after he too would leave. Before he did so he pulled up a chair for Jill and poured her a glass of water and said: “it’s clean” and then left the store. I locked him out his store and after about 15 minutes we were finished and I let him back in. By that time I had I had a number of items sitting on his counter which I was going to purchase from him as a way of saying thanks but he wouldn’t allow it. This Chasid said that he had just performed a “chesed” for a fellow Jew and if that chesed were to remain pure and holy he could not receive anything in return. I picked up a pair of Tzitzit and said: “but I need a pair anyway!” He proceeded to show me another store where they sell such items. I left the store with nothing other than the extraordinary love of a fellow Jew.

The “Only in Israel” stories are endless, but they all illustrate the same point – to be in Israel is to be amongst family. **Please share yours in the comments section!**


One of the songs our group sang many times, taken from the Mishna in Pirkei Avot, in the Ethics of our Sages reads the following:

Lo alecha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin lehibatel mimena

Soldier on Base in Hebron

“It’s not for you to finish the task, but you are not free to cease from trying”. Judaism teaches that though we might never be be able to accomplish all that the Torah wishes us to do, each of us must do our part and never give up trying to do more.

When we met with the soldiers in Hebron and the lone soldiers in Jerusalem, we were reminded of this all important teaching – for each of us to do our part. At the same age most American teens are heading off to college to study and party, Israelis and volunteers from abroad are putting on a uniform to protect the land and people of Israel.

Soldier on Base in Hebron

When the Israeli soldiers in Hebron greeted our group, they called us brothers and sisters. They were so grateful for our visit and explained that our support abroad means the world to them. I was so struck by the humility with which they serve, as if it is no skin off their backs. I told them they are not just fighting for their country, their service in the IDF protects their whole family – and that includes us Jews living in the diaspora. Because of them, we live safer and can carry ourselves with pride in New York. We tried to thank them, but they kept thanking us back. To them, they weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary. They were doing what any decent son or daughter would do for his/her parents and family.

Saying a Prayer for our Soldiers

When we asked a lone soldier why he chose to give up some of his best years and join the IDF, he answered “It wasn’t a question, or a choice. I knew I had to protect my family.”

A Lone Soldier explains his motivations for joining the IDF. A plaque for Mikey Levin can be seen in the background. 


My Sons Praying at The Wall

We are far from a perfect family. We argue and are unnecessarily divisive. Just a few weeks ago on Tisha B’av we recounted how the second Temple was destroyed because of Sinat Chinam or baseless hatred between Jews.

Every family has its differences. Every family fights. But as Rabbi Benjy Levine reminded us, echoing the spirit of his saintly grandfather, these differences must be worked out with respect, tolerance and love. 

What do you do when your mother insults you, or your son disrespects you? How do you rise above, be the bigger person, and work things out from a place of love and respect?

There are of course many strategies for dealing with family turmoil, but when it comes to the family of Israel I think the best antidote to tension and intolerance is Jewish pride.

David Sprung, our last speaker on the trip, was among the soldiers who liberated Jerusalem in 1967. He recounted what it was like to come across the Kotel for the first time, covered in garbage since the Jordanians used it as a garbage dump: 

“It was the most beautiful thing we had ever seen,” he explained, “something came over us, secular and religious Jews alike, and we couldn’t help but run and kiss it. Haredi Jews, who just a day before didn’t recognize the State of Israel, came up to us soldiers and kissed our lapels crying ‘thank you’. For once, there was no secular or religious, no conservative, no reform, no Ashkenazi, no Sephardic – there was but one Jewish heartbeat.”

The Whole “Mishpucha”

Jewish pride can ultimately remind us that we are but one family with one heart.

This past Shabbat as I stood at the Kotel, I saw before me my own sons praying and being good to each other. I stepped back and saw they were amongst MJE participants, who were coming together as one minyan to pray as a group. I took another step back and saw the entirety of the mens’ side, and yet another step back and saw the womens.’ One more step back and I saw the people of Israel. With every step, that singular Jewish heartbeat grew stronger and stronger. My pride turned to awe and I thought to myself “what a great family we are.”


Name: Debbi Ascher 

Profession: Director of Supply Chain Management for the NYC School Food & Nutrition Division

# trips to Israel (including this): 1!!!

Jewish Background/ affiliation: Conservative/ Cultural  

In her words…

How did you get on this trip? 
I was determined to go to Israel this year. It was actually one of the resolutions I had made with myself for the new year. For the past 8 or 9 years it has been a huge desire for me to visit Israel, connect with my people, my culture and my history. It was so important for me to go on this journey, but more importantly to go with the right people. People that shared my interests, a group I felt I could also learn from. I was familiar with Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE) and attended a few events years ago, but decided to reconnect when I heard about an Israeli heritage trip. I met with Rabbi Jonathon Feldman and decided to attend his weekly classes/talks. I found these sessions to be very insightful and really enjoyed and looked forward to these “Tuesday Talks”. 

What are your brief reflections on the day (or the trip overall)?  
This is extremely difficult for me to express in just a short paragraph, but here I go. What I will say is that what I took from this experience has been so incredibly meaningful and special to me. I wholeheartedly loved every moment from hiking at Gamla, visiting the Golan Heights, Amuka, Hevron, spending time with the Israeli soldiers, to driving through the tunnel singing “Oseh Shalom” and seeing the beauty of Jerusalem for the very first time. The feelings I have experienced on this trip have been overwhelmingly emotional and I am so grateful for this wonderful experience. Toda Rabah to MJE! Until next time…

Fun fact about yourself…
I own a pair of juggling sticks!


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