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Memories of a Giant: Rabbi Dr. Lamm zt”l

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As I sat with my family and listened to the memorial service for Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm zt”l, I was overcome with emotion. I must have cried at least three or four times throughout the two-hour service. The rush of feelings came, not only because of my deep admiration for this giant of a scholar, but because I was reminded of the moments and personal experiences with which I was privileged to share with Rabbi Lamm. Forgive me, if the stories do not connect neatly but each one profoundly influenced who I am today.

For those you unfamiliar, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm was the only one to ever receive both ordination and a Ph.D from his mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. For almost 25 years Rabbi Lamm served as a pulpit rabbi including 17 years as the rabbi of The Jewish Center on the upper-West Side, where MJE is based. He was appointed the third President of Yeshiva University (YU), saving it from bankruptcy and raising the institution’s stature in both the academic and rabbinic realms. He was a brilliant author and orator and was consulted by world leaders on a myriad of topics and issues. Rabbi Lamm’s many extraordinary books, articles and lectures made him the intellectual spokesperson for modern orthodoxy. As such, I consider the following personal stories nothing less than a rare privilege.

In the first years of MJE, when our High Holiday numbers were more modest, we would join The Jewish Center for the concluding Neilah service every Yom Kippur. It was a nice way of expressing unity on the holiest day of year and also exposing our participants to the modern orthodox community. Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, my mentor and the rabbi of The Jewish Center, asked the congregation to sit closer together in order to accommodate the 150 or so MJE participants who would be filling the pews. After a few minutes of shifting seats, everyone managed to find a seat and we were ready to start the service. There was, however, one young man from MJE still walking through the aisles searching for a seat. He was easy to notice because he was about 6 foot 4, had long hair and a ponytail and tattoos up and down his arms. Rabbi Lamm, who was sitting in one of the pews, walked over to the young man and invited him to sit next to him. The young man’s face lit up as he settled into his seat. He had no idea who Rabbi Lamm was, but I watched as the rabbi warmly welcomed the newcomer, showed him the page in the machzor (prayer book) and helped him follow along throughout the entire Neilah service. The sight of the two standing and praying together remains with me until this day.

I remember a comment Rabbi Lamm made to me after I delivered a talk at The Jewish Center on the topic of “Halacha and Extradition”. During the lecture, I shared my research on Israel’s current policy of Extradition and how it pertained to the Jewish prohibition of turning a fellow Jew over to a foreign sovereign. After my presentation, Rabbi Lamm came over to me to give me a yasher koach and strongly encouraged me to keep speaking on topics other than Jewish outreach. “It is important”, he said, “for you to remain versatile and that others not only see you as a Kiruv rabbi”. I have tried to follow that suggestion ever since.

On another occasion, my father and I came to visit Rabbi Lamm in his home to see if he would consider accepting MJE’s Rabbinic Leadership Award at our Annual Dinner. When I asked him if he would be open to accepting the award, he smiled and said: “I must tell you Mark, I am so relieved. When you called to say you’d like to come over with your father to discuss something important, I thought you were having a family problem, a shalom bayis issue with each other, and that I would have to mediate and help reconcile. I’m very happy not to have to do that”. “Me too!” I responded, “but what about accepting MJE’s Rabbinic Leadership Award?”. I’ll never forget his answer: “Mark, I’m not sure how honoring me can be of any help but I will do whatever you think is necessary to be of assistance since MJE’s work is absolutely vital”.

I had the honor of having Rabbi Lamm’s grandson, Ari Lamm, as my student in the outreach class I teach at RIETS (Yeshiva University’s Rabbinic School). When I mentioned to Rabbi Lamm how brilliant I thought his grandson was, he smiled and said: “More importantly he’s a mensch, a really good boy”. That mensch, I’m proud to say is one of the rising rabbinic stars in the Jewish community today.

Much has been said about Rabbi’s Lamm’s oratory skill and in particular, his extraordinary vocabulary. I used to listen to his lectures and sometimes hear words I had no idea existed in the English vocabulary. My favorite YU Purim shpiel was a skit in which terrorists (played by a few YU students) captured Rabbi Lamm (also played by a student). The terrorists had Rabbi Lamm tied up in ropes and a bright light shining on his face as they pretended to beat him for information. However, every time Rabbi Lamm divulged something none of the terrorists could understand his elaborate and complicated vocabulary. Frustrated, the terrorists had to keep leafing through dictionary’s but to no avail. Rabbi Lamm’s vocabulary was impenetrable!

My favorite experience though was visiting Rabbi Lamm each year after the MJE Fellowship brochure was published. We named our most important learning program in honor of the rabbi and so I would visit him at his home (usually with one of my children), to show him the MJE Lamm Fellowship brochure and describe the new recruits accepted into the program for that year. I would point to a picture of a student in the brochure and tell him about their life and their interest in learning more about their Jewish heritage. I so enjoyed those visits because I loved watching Rabbi Lamm kvell – he took much joy in hearing stories of young people returning to their roots and devoting hours each week to learning Torah, many for the first time. Rabbi Lamm’s life was all Torah, completely devoted to elucidating and explaining the ideas and ideals of Torah Judaism on the highest level and in the most sophisticated manner. I can’t think of anyone more deserving to bear the name of a program that facilitates and cultivates serious Torah study for young and previously unaffiliated Jews.

May we and all future Lamm Fellows follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, tz”l and in doing so, bring great honor to his memory.

 After 9-11, there was record number of engagements in New York City. Crisis have a way of reminding us of what is truly important in life – giving to another to create something beyond ourselves which in turn leads to personal happiness and making the world a better place. I pray that the silver lining of these months of quarantine and isolation will bring us the same realization.

Give Zoom Dating a Chance

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Corona has challenged many critical parts of our lives but for the large singles population of NYC, the pandemic has put a hold on dating and courtship.  For an organization and community (which I am privileged to direct) dedicated to bringing young people together – one which boasts 364 marriages in the last 20 years- this is quite distressing. In the last two months I’ve had conversations with dozens of my students who have basically given up on dating – for now. While I certainly understand why some have chosen to push off dating until they can date in person, I am disappointed so many people’s marriage prospects are now on hold for so long.

But must it be that way? Dating app usage has actually increased since the pandemic began and dating sites are reporting longer conversations on the sites than ever before. So why can’t we figure out a way to convert more of those dating app meet ups into actual on-line “dates”? The Bible’s famous comment on Adam’s life before Eve’s creation, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18) applies more now than ever before. It’s just unhealthy to be alone for this long and so why put off meeting that special person?

 Whether two people can actually fall in love on-line remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: zoom and other such platforms enable two people to get to know each other and even develop a relationship. One of my students said to me that his zoom dates have helped create what he feels is a deep connection with someone he now calls his girlfriend.

 Consider some of the advantages of a zoom date: First, it is free! Compare that to how expensive dinner or even drinks used to be, an important factor for young people who may now be unemployed.

Second, zoom dating, while allowing the couple to determine whether they are physically attracted to one another, removes the pressure and distraction that comes with physical or sexual intimacy. The fact that physical contact is not an option can actually help the couple focus on the deeper aspects of their personalities and assist in maintaining clarity on their true feelings for one another. In Jewish tradition, physical attraction is an important ingredient for marriage, but physical intimacy is reserved for after the marriage as a way of deepening the bond after a commitment has been made. Corona and Zoom are just putting into action what Jewish tradition has been teaching for years.

Finally, even if the zoom date does not materialize, spending that hour or so getting to know another person is definitely a productive and healthy way of spending time. It takes us out of ourselves for a brief moment to open our hearts and become more sensitive empathic beings.

One important suggestion for your next zoom date: Take the date seriously by preparing for the encounter: set a time, shower, comb your hair and put on something nice. As Jewish tradition teaches, the more one prepares and invests for something in advance, the more the experience will mean to us. Another one of my students, a young woman was sent take out dinner in advance of their zoom date so the couple could enjoy dinner as they met on zoom (there goes advantage #1). Another planned a Netflix film and yet another sent an interesting article to discuss. Both took the time to arrange it in advance – that’s the key.

 After 9-11, there was record number of engagements in New York City. Crisis have a way of reminding us of what is truly important in life – giving to another to create something beyond ourselves which in turn leads to personal happiness and making the world a better place. I pray that the silver lining of these months of quarantine and isolation will bring us the same realization.

Celebrating Israel in Isolation: Finding Opportunity in the Crisis

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After recently helping dozens of members of the Manhattan Jewish Experience community prepare for their Seders alone, and a month into a new world of isolation and social distancing, we received an email with the subject line: “The Mayor Cancels Israel Day Parade.” I felt a pit in my stomach, as the reality of not joining together to celebrate Israel began to sink in. For decades, amidst all the divide and controversy surrounding the Jewish State, the parade has been one of the most positive expressions of Jewish solidarity for Israel in the United States.  Since our inception in 1998, MJE has proudly marched every year with hundreds of young Jewish professionals dancing down 5th Avenue signing Am Yisrael Chai. This event has served as a rallying cry for MJE’s unwavering love and support for Israel and an expression of our religious Zionistic orientation.

We are told there will be a “virtual” parade, but assuredly it will lack the energy and inspired emotion of being face-to-face and hand-in-hand with our Jewish brothers and sisters on the streets of Manhattan. So what can we do? How can we recapture that special love for Israel in a socially distanced diaspora?

Israel has already given us the answer. In the last two months, while the world has been on a standstill, something mundane but quite extraordinary has been happening in Israel: roadwork is booming as construction crews take advantage of empty roads and railways during the coronavirus to upgrade Israel’s most congested highways. The Israeli government has injected over one billion shekels into the impromptu campaign and for nearly two months companies have been cramming in the work while the rest of the country is stuck at home. One recruitment campaign is referred to as “Opportunity in the Crisis.” The push to finish projects quickly is hoped to have an immense, long-term positive impact on the economy. In addition, some of the biggest and most crucial projects, like the final stretch of a new fast train between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem or the expansion of a highway in central Israel, will be finished six months to a year ahead of schedule because building has been accelerated during this time of crisis.

Israel’s accelerated road work at this time demonstrates a fundamental Jewish teaching: to find opportunity in life’s challenges and to transform oneself from an object into a subject where one can assert some level of control, particularly in challenging times. For the late and great Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, this was the impetus behind the modern-day Zionist movement.

On Yom Ha-atzma’ut 1956, Rabbi Soloveitchik delivered his famous treatise on religious Zionism, Kol Dodi Dofek, in which he spoke of God’s tangible presence in modern history, specifically the creation of the State of Israel. In the essay, Rabbi Soloveitchik outlined two experiences of the Jewish people: a national covenant of FATE and a religious covenant of DESTINY. What is the difference between a life of fate versus one of destiny? Fate is uncontrollable, destiny can be directed.

To paraphrase Rabbi Soloveitchik: Destiny in the life of a people, as in the life of an individual, signifies a deliberate and conscious existence that the people has chosen out of its own free will. Slaves merely exist; they anticipate no change in their reality. Free men, on the other hand, expect movement and change in their lives; they aspire to forward and upward movement. The Torah calls upon each Jew to make a choice: To sanctify the Sabbath or desecrate it; to honor one’s parents or disregard them. When the slaves stood at Mount Sinai and said “We shall do and we shall understand” they were making the Jewish vision their national mission, defining themselves as a “kingdom of priest-teachers and a holy nation,” and turning their fate into destiny. More succinctly put, the covenant of fate is imposed; the covenant of faith is chosen. To be born into a particular nation is our fate; to choose an ideal and ideology as our life’s mission is our destiny. The Rav continues and says, The infant about to be circumcised is an object upon whom a ritual is to be imposed (fate); the Bar/Bat Mitzvah and bride/groom and the hundreds and thousands of ba’alei teshuvah in our community who have chosen a life dedicated to the ideals of Torah are transforming from object to subject and actualizing their deepest aspirations (destiny).

So, while it is our FATE that we cannot march in honor of Israel, and we are prevented from traveling to Israel at this time, we can be a people of DESTINY by choosing to connect and contribute to Israel in other ways.  Consider spending some time this week learning more about Israel and the founding of the Jewish State. In doing so, we can better appreciate Israel and understand its complexities. To this end, MJE has launched a series of classes and seminars on Israel – including an interview with Israel journalist and New York Times best-selling author Yossi Klein Halevi. Like other organizations, MJE’s Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration on Tuesday night will be online, as will be a special Yom Ha’atzmaut prayer service on Wednesday morning (see www.jewishexperience.org) so we can become more soulfully connected to our precious homeland. Being stuck at home affords us the extra time to deepen our understanding and appreciation for what Israel means to us. Take advantage of that extra time this week to get more connected to Israel.

Transforming a life of fate into one of destiny is fundamental to being Jewish. This week the world celebrates Zionism’s transformation of Jewish life after the Holocaust from one of object to subject, from a life of fate to a life of destiny. Let’s follow Israel’s example of building roads by not allowing the coronavirus dampen our celebration of Israel’s birthday. In doing so, we will change our own life of fate into one of destiny.

Special thanks to Rabbi Ezra Cohen of the Manhattan Jewish Experience for his help with this article.

The Perfect Time to Break Some Bad Habits

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This past Shabbat there was knock at my door. It was one of my students, a 27-year old attorney who frequents Manhattan Jewish Experience and is an important part of our community of young professionals. He came over to share the news that he decided to quit vaping. He had this look of total pride and accomplishment on his face, having broken a habit with which he had been struggling for years.

What gave him the strength? How did he do it?

Although I couldn’t invite my student (he prefers to remain anonymous) into my home – social distancing and all – I gave him a chair in the hallway so we could speak. He told me he had just been for a walk in Central Park where he saw numerous other young people, smoking and vaping. New data released by the CDC warned that young people may be more impacted by COVID-19 than was initially thought. Up to 20% of people hospitalized with the virus have been between the ages of 20 and 44. In China, smokers were 14 times more likely to develop severe cases of the virus than those who do not smoke. When my student saw those stats, he went into his bedroom and did something he said he hasn’t been able to do for years: he threw out all his vaping materials. “Rabbi, I feel so free and if I get Corona, now I can fight it.”

I told my student that his decision to quit vaping, especially now, was in keeping with the highest of Jewish values and principles. As the Torah explicitly tells us: “Guard yourself and guard your soul very much” (Deuteronomy 4:9). The classic commentator Kli Yakar explains: “Guard yourself’ means taking care of the body.” Bodily health is necessary for observing the Torah’s mitzvot (commandments) since in most cases they require physical action of some kind. When the body is unfit or unhealthy, it detracts from our ability to the properly fulfill the mitzvot. In the words of the great Maimonides: “Bodily health and well-being are part of the path to God, for it is impossible to understand or have any knowledge of the Creator when one is sick. Therefore, one must avoid anything that may harm the body and one must cultivate healthful habits” (Rambam, Hilchot De’ot 4:1).

Even more fundamentally, Judaism is a religion of life, a spiritual path that celebrates human life, virtually above everything else. Life trumps keeping kosher. Life trumps Shabbat and – as my student shared – it should also trump the mental discomfort that comes from quitting nicotine. I do not want to oversimplify the addictive nature of vaping and smoking. I know from friends and others it is not easy to stop. But maybe now, knowing the increased dangers these bad habits now pose to young people in defeating this deadly virus, we will have the fortitude to make some real and lasting changes.

In light of the above sentiment expressed by Maimonides, that good health is a means for greater spiritual perfection, we should endeavor to use this time to break other bad habits as well. Texting while driving, eating unhealthily and other substance abuses are the cause of much illness and death. Or what seems as a less harmful, but just as dangerous of a bad habit as speaking ill of our neighbors and colleagues. If our social distancing inspires us to now better appreciate our family and friends, we can express that newfound appreciation by trying to refrain from saying anything negative about them.

If the data shared above can freak out enough people to stop smoking or vaping, then at least COVID-19 will have served some positive function. Let us use our new awareness regarding the fragility and preciousness of human life to become stronger, wiser, and more prudent. Pressure can break a person, but it can also make diamonds. Maybe, just maybe, this terrible virus can help us end some bad habits once and for all.

Riding off the inspiration from his personal triumph, my student decided to create a page to inspire others to do the same. You can follow him on social media at daily_inspirational_wisdom.

The above was a sermon given by Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, on Shabbat, January 18, 2020.

MJE Connect in the News March 2020

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Check out MJE in the news and learn about our response to Coronavirus

CBS “Virtual Bris”

CBS “Pray at Home”

PBS Metrofocus:

The above was a sermon given by Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, on Shabbat, January 18, 2020.

A Spiritual Response to the Coronavirus

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In the 1960’s, Reb Shlomo Carlebach would travel to the former Soviet Union to distribute Tefilin, Mezuzot, Yarmulkes and other religious items forbidden in Russia at the time. At the end of one of his trips, as Reb Shlomo was packing his bags in his Moscow hotel room, he heard a knock at the door.

Reb Shlomo saw it was a little boy knocking and so he let him in.  The boy looks up at Reb Shlomo and asks: “Do you know where I can find Rabbi Carlebach?” “That’s me, I’m Rabbi Carlebach but please call me Shlomo – what can I do for you?” he asked. “I was told you have Tefilin,” the boy answers. Reb Shlomo sadly responds: “I’m so sorry, but I’m at the end of my trip and I gave away my last pair of Tefilin.”

The boy became very sad. He looked down at the ground and then looked back up to Reb Shlomo and with a tear in his eye asked: “In a few weeks I’m going to be a Bar-Mitzvah. How can I have a Bar-Mitzvah without Tefilin?” Reb Shlomo went into his suitcase and pulled out a pair of Tefilin which looked old and worn. He knelt down beside the boy and with the Tefilin in his hand told the boy: “These Tefilin belonged to my grandfather, a great Rabbi in Germany. They were also worn by my father in the concentration camps and I have worn them every day since I was a Bar Mitzvah. Promise me you’ll use them and they’re yours.” The boy smiled and promised he would wear them every day.

As the boy proceeded to leave, he turned around and asked: “Wait, Shlomo, do you have an extra Yarmulke?” Reb Shlomo answered: “I must have given away hundreds of Yarmulkes, but I have none left.” The boy looked up and asked: “How can I wear my Tefilin without a Yarmulke?” Reb Shlomo took off his own Yarmulke and handed it to the child and the boy left.

What compels someone to part with something so important, so sentimental and valuable for a complete stranger?

In this week’s parsha, Parshat Ki Tissa we read about the very dramatic incident of Chayt Ha’aygel, the sin of the Golden Calf.  After the sin takes place and all those involved are punished, Moshe turns to the rest of the Jewish community, to the majority of the community who did not participate in the sin and says something strange: Atem chatasem chateah gedolah -“you have committed a great transgression,” v’atah e’eleh el Hashem – “and now I’ll go up to God,” ulai achpera b’ad chatatchem- “maybe He (Hashem) will forgive you for your sin.”

To what sin is Moshe referring? The Jews who committed the serious sin of worshipping the Golden Calf had already been punished! Moshe was addressing the rest of the community that had not sinned, so to what sin was Moshe referring?

My teacher and mentor, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter suggested it was for the sin of not doing anything. For the sin of remaining indifferent, of being idle. Sure, the majority of the Jews did not engage in the sin of the Golden Calf, but they also failed to prevent their fellow brothers from doing so. The Torah challenges us: Lo Ta’amud Al Dam Re’echa – “don’t stand by idly by thy brother’s blood.” Our Sages teach: Kol Yisrael Areivim Ze Laze– “all Jews are responsible one for the next” and so even though only a small percentage of the people actually engaged in the sin, the entire Jewish community was held responsible, because we are all connected.

Whether it’s for the good or for the bad, we’re seen as one and we even feel as one. I remember years ago, before the terrible crash of the Columbia Space Shuttle, the Jewish community felt so proud that one of the astronauts aboard was a Jew. The Jewish community was even prouder when this Jewish astronaut, Colonel Ramon, decided to eat kosher food in space and bring up a Torah Scroll with him from a concentration camp. It made us all feel proud, not only because it reflected well on us as a people, but also because we are all interconnected. Similarly, how embarrassed did we feel, also years ago, when Bernie Madoff, another fellow Jew was taken off to prison for cheating so many people out of so much money? We felt that too because we have this connection.

The great Radvaz compared the entire Jewish people to the body of a single individual. He said that just like when one part of the body is in pain, the entire body is affected, so too each Jew feels the pain or the joy of another Jew, because we are all but different parts of the same organism. In the Midrash, the great rabbi, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, compared the Jewish people to the passengers of a huge ship that is beginning to sink. The passengers and crewman are scurrying about, desperately trying to find the cause of the sinking ship. They look everywhere until they come across one locked cabin with water gushing out from underneath the door. The crewman kicked open the door and lo and behold there’s this one guy digging away, drilling a huge hole in the floor of his cabin and the water is gushing through.  The passengers shout at the man: “What are you doing?” The man responds: “What’s the problem? I’m just drilling a hole in my cabin! It’s my cabin after all, I paid for it!”

We are all in the same boat. What affects one person affects us all. The coronavirus operates in the very same way. Acting responsibly, following the Health Department’s rules against congregating publicly (which is why we are not holding services this Shabbat), is not only necessary to keeping ourselves safe. It is imperative to help contain the virus for everyone. The Jewish teaching of areivus, the responsibility of one person to the next, demands such a response. Human life is paramount and it is only for this reason that MJE, for the first time in 21 years, would not host Shabbat services.

Areivus is fundamental to being Jewish and is expressed very powerfully through the following halacha in regard to reciting brachot (blessings). If one is eating with a fellow Jew not familiar with brachot, provided you are also eating, you can say the blessing for that other person and all your friend needs to do is have in mind to be yotze (satisfied) with your bracha, and if possible say Amen. However, you, the one saying the bracha, must be eating yourself.  However, this only applies to blessings recited over food. When it comes to blessings said before performing a mitzvah, the halacha is that even if you have already fulfilled your own obligation (for example, you’ve already donned your Tefilin or you have already recited the blessing over the Shabbat candles), you can recite the bracha again for a fellow Jew who may not know.

How is that allowed? You’ve already made your own blessing using Hashem’s name? How can you do it again? The Rabbeinu Nissim explains that when it comes to a birchot hamitzvah, a blessing recited before the performance of a mitzvah, because it is something in which we are all commanded and because all Jews are responsible for each other, you can say the blessing again – for as long as your fellow Jew has not fulfilled their mitzvah, your mitzvah is incomplete. What happens to someone else affects us. We cannot proceed with business as usual if someone else is lacking or is in trouble or in danger, be it after an attack in Israel or the Corona striking our next-door neighbor. Their concern is our concern.

Being a Jew means caring and feeling the pain of others. It means helping a friend who has lost their job, making some calls, helping them network to secure another position or just being there for them emotionally. I remember back in 2008 when the economy tanked and someone said to me: “Rabbi, don’t expect as many MJE participants to come to the Annual Dinner this year (we just postponed this year’s Dinner to June 9th) or to contribute, with the economy being as it is.”  And I remember responding to this person, that the day our participants stop giving back is the day this place shuts down. Not just because we need everyone’s support to continue our vital programming, but because when we stop being there for each other, ultimately, we stop being a community. A real community is comprised of members who care and who sacrifice for each other, who, in times of crisis, do not turn inward, but despite the challenge, rise to the occasion.

My friends, this is such a time. People are scared and uptight about the situation. Older people and those with preexisting conditions feel particularly vulnerable. We need to be there for them. If you have such a friend or family member or anyone else who is feeling isolated or fearful of the situation, call them. Reach out to them and call them often. If you cannot see them in person, use your iPhone so they can see you and feel the concern you have for them. Take advantage of the extra time you may have off from work to do some extra Torah studying. MJE is adding an on-line Zoom class every day from 12:30-1:00pm. And take some extra time to pray. Pray for those who have tested positive for the coronavirus (see list of names below) and pray that Hashem bless our efforts to contain the virus so we can see this ailment pass as soon as possible.

Our fate and destiny are bound with each other and so to beat the coronavirus we must look out for each other, like a family. The truth is, for a brother or a sister, we would do just about anything. We would give them whatever they needed, be it our grandfather’s pair of Tefilin or the shirt off our back. Stay connected, stay safe and keep looking out for each other. May the love and unity with which we approach this moment serve as zechut, as a spiritual merit for Hashem’s blessing of healing and peace.

Shabbat Shalom

People I’ve been asked to pray for:
Avraham Shmuel Ben Rachel
Zev Melech Ben Bedina
(Rav) Zalman Dov ben Esther
Yosef ben Ester
Eliezer Yitzchak ben Shifra
Harav Reuven ben Fruma
Ivriyah Miriam bat Malkah Reizel
Daniel Shmuel ben Miriam
Tziporah Hadarah bat Rachel
Elana Devorah bat Freidel Nechama
Shami Aryeh ben Menucha Sarah
Yaakov ben Rochel Miriam
Shmuel Tzvi ben Roiza Frimet
Shoshana bat Sarah
Yonina Sarah bat Chana
Elchanan Yehonatan ben Chaya
Andre Abraham ben Berthe
Aviva Rachel bat Rivka
Ariella Malka bat Aviva
Yael Michal bat Ruth
Uri ben Priva Chaya
Aharon Shaul ben Rachel
Yosef Dov ben Rivkah Chaya
Leah bas Devorah Basha
Yosef Batsalel ben Ruth
Yaakov Eliezer ben Miriam Masha
Yaakov Yitzchok Moshe ben Devorah
Eta Leah bat Perel
Shaul Michael ben Eta Leah
Eliyahu ben Ahuva
Yisroel Zev ben Atara Karni Dal Beilah

The above was a sermon given by Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, on Shabbat, January 18, 2020.

Seize the Moment! Purim 2020

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Irena Sendler of Warsaw Poland died on May 12, 2008 at the ripe age of 98. During the Second World War, Irena got permission to work in the Warsaw ghetto as a plumbing and sewer specialist but she had an ulterior motive. Irena smuggled Jewish infants out of the ghetto in the bottom of her toolbox and in a burlap sack, which she kept in her truck, for larger children. Irena kept a dog in the back of her truck that she trained to bark when the Nazi soldiers let her in and out of the ghetto. The soldiers wanted nothing to do with the dog and the barking covered the children’s noises.

Irena managed to smuggle out and save 2500 children and infants.

In the Purim story, after Haman’s edict to annihilate all the Jews in ancient Persia is announced, Mordecai goes to Queen Esther for help. He shows Esther a copy of Haman’s decree and asks Esther to go before King Achashverosh to plead the case of her brethren. Esther tells Mordecai she cannot simply appear before the King unsummoned and that she has not been called to the King’s chambers for 30 days. When Mordecai hears Esther’s hesitancy, he famously responds: If you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place…and who knows, perhaps you became royalty for this very moment (Megilat Esther 4:13).

Immediately upon hearing this Esther springs into action. She tells Mordecai to gather the Jews of Shushan to fast on her behalf and executes a plan which ultimately turns the tables in favor of the Jews.

What is it about Mordecai’s statement that motivates Esther to act? By saying “salvation will come from another place” he seems to be letting Esther off the hook. If Mordecai’s goal was to inspire Esther to act, why would he tell her that if she failed to do her part, God would save the Jewish people anyway?

Mordecai was a man of faith. He believed God would never allow the Jewish people to be destroyed but by telling Esther: who knows perhaps you became royalty for this very moment, he was informing her that by embracing her situation she could fulfill the purpose of her becoming Queen.

…who knows, perhaps you became royalty for this very moment, is a phrase that should resonate with each of us. Even if we aren’t Kings or Queens, we are all placed within certain environments and situations and we all have a specific purpose and mission in this world. That mission is different for each of us and we are therefore placed within different circumstances to accomplish that purpose.

The Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (1707-1746, Padua, Italy) wrote that every person’s life predicament is their challenge. A poor person is challenged to see if he can be satisfied with the little he possesses, and a rich person is tested to see if he becomes indifferent to the plight of the poor. Each of us comes into the world with certain abilities and deficiencies and the life situations in which we find ourselves provide us with the unique opportunities we need to perfect our area of deficiencies and develop our unique potential.

But we must act. Simply being in the situation isn’t enough. To develop ourselves into the people we were meant to be, we must seize the moment and take action. Mordecai was telling Esther: you’ve been elevated to the position of Queen but the spiritual perfection you can realize from this situation will only be realized if you act – if you go before the King and intercede on behalf of your people. Irena Sendler was just a plumber in Warsaw, but she seized upon the opportunity which her unique situation presented.  In doing so, she not only saved countless Jewish lives, but she may have also fulfilled her own Divine purpose and mission in life.

We may find ourselves stuck in some kind of dead-end job but maybe, just maybe, we were supposed to be there, at least for some time, to be challenged in some new way or perhaps to meet someone we otherwise would never have encountered. I have a classmate from law school who hated his first law job except for the opportunity it gave him to meet this new co-worker with whom he was assigned to work. My friend, who was Sabbath observant invited his co-worker to his home for a Shabbat meal. The co-worker, who had never experienced Shabbat, loved the experience and came back for more. The two became friends and began studying Torah together on a regular basis. Within a year, my friend left the firm but eventually his co-worker became Shabbat observant. That’s not why my friend originally took the job, but maybe, just maybe that’s why he was supposed to work there, at least for that period of time. As Mordecai told Esther: who knows, perhaps you became royalty for this very moment.

The lesson of Purim is that there are no coincidences in life. In fact, the root of the word Purim is pur which means lottery – Haman determined the day to annihilate the Jews by drawing from a lottery. Life may often feel like a lottery, things may appear coincidental or as though they are happening by simple chance, but the message of Purim is that everything happens for a reason. Our task is to realize the growth opportunities presented to us and like Esther, seize upon those opportunities to actualize our unique potential.

Happy Purim!

The above was a sermon given by Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, on Shabbat, January 18, 2020.

Breaking Bad: A Spiritual Perspective on Sexual Harassment

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While we cannot control people’s behavior, we have spent months creating a special code of conduct, which from now on must be adhered to by all participants who attend any MJE program on or off-site.

Before Moshe’s experience at the burning bush, when he has his first encounter with God, and before we see Moshe become Israel’s greatest prophet, through whom our Torah is given, we are introduced to the personality of Moshe through three dramatic stories.

In the first story, Moshe sees a fellow Jew being beaten mercilessly by an Egyptian officer. He stands up for the Jew and kills the Egyptian. In the second incident, Moshe sees two Jews fighting and says to the offending party: why do you strike your fellow? (Exodus 2:13). Finally, after he escapes to Midian, Moshe comes across the daughters of Yitro who are at the well drawing water for their father’s flock. A group of shepherds come and begin to harass them, driving them away. Moshe sees this injustice and rises to their defense, chasing the men away and watering the women’s flock.

In each situation, we see Moshe saving the victim from an oppressor, but as the great scholar Nechama Leibowitz explained, these incidents are not simply three random experiences but a progression: from intervening in a clash between a non-Jew and a Jew, to a conflict between two Jews and then to an incident between two non-Jews. Had we been only told of the first clash, we might have thought Moshe was motivated by solidarity with his own people rather than by justice, and had we been presented only with the second incident, we would still have our doubts since that incident was between two Jews. However, the third incident — where both the attacker and victim were not Jewish, shows how Moshe was motivated by a pure sense of justice for all victimized people.

The Torah is making a powerful point: even before Moshe could receive revelation from God at the burning bush and before he could become the prophet through whom the Torah would be given, he had to first have a sense of empathy for others. A sense of justice for the victim of oppression. This is the first thing the Torah wishes us to learn from Judaism’s greatest prophet: to cultivate a sensitivity for those in vulnerable positions, for those who are weaker and who are being taken advantage of by those in positions of power because of that weakness or vulnerability. Whether this abuse takes place in the workplace or on a date, the Torah wishes us to learn from Moshe and become sensitive to this kind of abuse.

We saw this just a few Torah portions ago, when Joseph was a young and handsome but vulnerable servant in the house of Potifar. Joseph becomes the object of Potifar’s wife relentless sexual advances. Although Yosef heroically refuses these advances, because of his weaker position, he is thrown into jail. As you can see, sexual harassment in the workplace has been going on for a long time, but in the last few years, we have seen a real pushback. People in more vulnerable positions have been speaking up, jeopardizing their status in order to protect themselves or others and ultimately to promote a greater sense of justice in the workplace and elsewhere.

MJE has a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate behavior and we are leading by example. Like in most companies today, our entire staff has been through sexual harassment training and we are in the process of joining the SRE (Safety, Respect Equity) Coalition, a Jewish group which addresses sexual harassment and gender discrimination. But just as important is what happens here in our program space at MJE, the steps we take to create a safe environment here in our spiritual home. We have had a few instances in which participants have approached staff members and expressed they have been made to feel uncomfortable,
and in some cases unsafe. We have taken these complaints seriously, conducted thorough investigations and in some cases have had to exclude and ban some individuals from MJE.

While we cannot control people’s behavior, we have spent months creating a special code of conduct, which from now on must be adhered to by all participants who attend any MJE program on or off-site.

The first line of our new code of conduct starts with the words: “MJE is committed to creating an environment that exemplifies Jewish values such a Kavod Habriyot (Human dignity) and the Talmud’s teaching of Kol Yisrael Areivim Ze Bazeh – “All Israel is responsible for one another”. Those two Jewish concepts, along with the example of Moshe Rabbeinu, should inspire us to first ensure we all act in a manner consistent with these values. Second, if something happens to you or to someone else, please bring the matter to our attention. I would encourage you to do the same in other environments, even if it means calling out a colleague, which can often place you in a more difficult position. We see Moshe doing exactly this, also in this week’s Parsha. In each progressive situation, it actually gets harder for Moshe to intervene. When he kills the Egyptian, he is at least a citizen of that country. He has some standing, having grown up in the house of Pharoh and it is a clear a cut situation with a villain and a victim. The second situation is a bit more murky – you have two people fighting – who is right who is wrong? It is a “he said, she said” situation. And in the third instance, Moshe’s really out on a limb. He’s living in Midian as a refugee, having fled Egypt, and therefore has no standing when he confronts the shepherds harassing the Midianite women. There’s literally a bounty on his head, and so the last thing Moshe wants to do is get involved in a fight, but he does.

No one wants to be the whistleblower, but it is vital to say something when we see something, whether it is in the workplace or it’s right here on Shabbat at the kiddush following services. The very dignity and sanctity of our community is at stake and on the individual level it goes even deeper.

On the emotional and psychological level, I don’t have to tell you how detrimental these abuses of power can impact our basic sense of self – on how we look at ourselves. Victims of sexual abuse and even harassment can be scarred for life. On the existential and spiritual level, the damage is no less severe. We are all endowed with the tzelem Elokim – the divine spark which our Sages teach is extraordinarily sensitive to breaches in our tzniut, to our sense of modesty and sexual propriety.

This area gets very complicated when the breach in sexuality takes place between two consenting adults in a relationship or adults exploring a relationship. I have been called in on a number of such situations and have tried to help, first by ensuring that the complaining party is safe, and second, by impressing upon the other party that no means no, even if there’s a relationship.

I would be remiss as a rabbi though if I didn’t also share the Torah’s unique approach to dating, the kinds of boundaries the Torah sets up, which are not easy to observe in modernity, but can be helpful in avoiding some of these situations. There are two halachot (Jewish laws), both of which may sound archaic and outdated, but make a lot of sense practically and which on a spiritual level help maintain the holiness and integrity of our relationships. The first halacha is referred to as Yichud: the prohibition of an unmarried couple to be enclosed in a locked room. Some of us have heard of the “Yichud room”, the special room designated for the bride and groom immediately after the Chupah wedding ceremony. The couple spend their first few minutes of marriage alone in an enclosed room, to demonstrate they are now husband and wife since they can now finally be alone in an enclosed room. The second area of halacha, commonly referred to as being Shomer Negiah, proscribes physical contact between men and women before marriage. The main idea behind these two areas of halacha, to be followed by men and women alike, is to dial down the physical until a total commitment has been made through marriage. Physical attraction is an important element for marriage but abstaining from physical contact prior to marriage allows the courting couple to focus on the other’s personality. This helps the couple maintain clarity on whether the other is a suitable mate and also helps ensure they relates to each other in the most dignified manner.

To be sure, this sensitivity continues after the couple is married. The tendency we have as sexual beings to look at each other in purely physical terms, does not end when one gets married. This is why the Torah has a whole system of law called Taharat Hamishpacha (the laws of Family Purity), which are intended to elevate the sexual intimacy for the married couple. This again helps the couple relate to each other as more than just physical beings. Please do not misunderstand. Judaism does not deny the physical or sexual. Quite the contrary. Judaism, through these traditions, aims to elevate and sanctify the sexual urge, utilizing it to deepen the commitment between husband and wife.

I realize that in our society, as people remain single longer, the halchot of Yichud and Shomer Negiah seem less realistic to observe. However, they remain an integral part of Jewish tradition which I believe can serve as a preventative for some of the harassment situations arising today. Not all, but some. In addition, and as you’ve all heard me say many times, Judaism is not an all or nothing proposition. Even if one chooses not to follow these halachot, either because one finds them too difficult or unrealistic, one would be well advised to incorporate some of these laws and attitudes into ones dating life. To think twice before allowing the door to be locked; to be more careful about whom we choose to be with and how soon in the relationship we allow things to get physical. Also, to be mindful of how much alcohol gets consumed, because as I’ve seen, that often exacerbates some of these situations.

I want to be clear on two things. First, these traditions are not the responsibility of women alone, but equally binding and important for men and women alike. Second, this is not about blaming the victim, God forbid. I share these halachot because they are from our Torah and I strongly believe that to whatever degree we can incorporate them into our dating life, they will help us create healthy boundaries and a more positive and uplifting environment in which we can all operate more freely. Finally, the laws of Yichud and Negiah apply not just to people who date but to all of our interactions between men and women, for example to our work colleagues and friends. We must learn to relate to all members of the opposite sex with respect, dignity and sanctity.

In our prayers each morning we recite the famous line from the Torah: “How good are your tents O’Jacob, your dwelling place O’Israel” (Numbers 24:5). This beautiful verse was uttered by the non-Jewish prophet Bilam as he stood over the Jewish camp in the wilderness, attempting to curse it. Our Sages teach that when Bilam noticed that the opening of each Jewish tent never faced the opening of another, he was impressed and inspired by the respect and modesty which he saw in the Jewish community. Let’s reclaim that sanctity for our community and follow the example of Moses our teacher, as we together confront harassment and the abuse of power by affirming the dignity and holiness of every individual.

Shabbat Shalom.

The above was a sermon given by Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, on Shabbat, January 18, 2020.

Anti-Semitism: When Crisis Creates Opportunity

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A crisis can bring out the worst in people, but it can also bring out the best. Within twenty-four hours of the horrific attack on the synagogue in Monsey, Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, the rabbi of the shul, was back with his congregation celebrating the next night of Chanukah. I was also moved by how large of a gathering there was at the MetLife stadium Siyum Hashas, the event commemorating the completion of the seven-year Talmud study cycle. Given the number of anti-Semitic attacks in the New York and New Jersey area, it is a testament to the resilience of the Jewish community that no-one was actually deterred from going. One of the security officials remarked that he had never seen so many attendees at MetLife Stadium before, including the many football games he has covered! The head of security, charged with protecting the 95,000 Siyum attendees, shared that never before had his troopers been recipients of so much gratitude. The sheer number of people who approached individual officers to express their thanks was overwhelming.

I’m hopeful that the recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks will have the positive effect of creating greater unity in the community – something I felt yesterday marching across the Brooklyn bridge with tens of thousands of Jews of all stripes, chanting Am Yisrael Chai! It reminded me of my High School and College years when we marched for Soviet Jewry. The different groups in the Jewish community were able to put their ideological differences aside and come together to help their brethren behind the iron curtain. We are again presented with the same opportunity today. The Jewish community has a long list of enemies, some of them are to the far right, some on the extreme left, some are domestic terrorists and some foreign, but they all have same thing in common: they don’t care about our particular ideology or outlook. The only reason why ultra-orthodox Jews have been targeted is because they look Jewish and are more easily identified as such, but make no mistake: these attacks are on all Jews – irrespective of our particular orientation or denomination.

Our primary focus must be to combat the rise in anti-Semitism, but we must also recognize the opportunity for Jewish unity that this crisis presents. It was this kind of unity that recently helped defeat Jeremy Corbyn of England’s Labor party. Corbyn’s extreme hatred of Jews reawakened many unaffiliated Jews in Great Britain who joined with others to help bring about a stunning defeat of England’s Labor party.

Anti-Semitism has long been an impetus for reawakening Jewish people towards their traditions as well as inspiring unity amongst different groups. One of the greatest biblical examples of this is the Purim story, the next Jewish holiday we will observe. Haman’s attempted genocidal campaign against Persian Jewry motivated assimilated Jews to heed Esther’s call for a spiritual return to Judaism and it also inspired an unprecedented level of Jewish unity. It is that unity we celebrate each year on the holiday of Purim by sending baskets of food to one another and offering gifts to the poor.

Our immediate attention must be turned to defending ourselves, on working with law enforcement to fortify our synagogues and protect our places of worship. Our sweetest revenge though will be found in something much deeper: in using these attacks, as much as we must work to prevent them, to unite and bind ourselves to one another and to Judaism itself. If we can bring about this kind of positive outcome from these otherwise awful attacks, we will not only defeat our enemies but become stronger than ever.

‘And God Created Woman’: Modern Day Matriarchs

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One of the most inspiring parts of studying Torah and in particular, the Book of Genesis is learning the very real challenges our matriarchs and patriarchs faced in their personnel lives.  One of those challenges was having children.  All of our matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, at one time, were unable to have children. In this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vayetze, we read about Rachel’s struggle and how she and her beloved Jacob dealt with this situation:

And Rachel saw that she was not bearing children for Jacob and she became jealous of her sister and she said to Jacob: ‘Give me children or I’ll die’. And Jacob becomes angry with Rachel and he says: ‘Am I instead of God who has prevented you from the fruit of the womb?’

We can understand Rachel’s distress, not being able to bear children, and having to watch her own sister Leah give birth to four sons. And so Rachel’s remark – Give me children or I’ll die – however dramatic,  is understandable.  However, how can we understand Jacob’s anger at Rachel and his response: Am I instead of God who has prevented you from the fruit of the womb?  What kind of reaction is this from a righteous person like Jacob to his distressed wife? Where’s the sympathy and compassion? Where’s the love?

The great Nachmanides (1194-1270, Girona, Spain) suggests that Jacob expressed anger because it seemed to Jacob that Rachel believed a righteous person somehow has the power to make anything happen – that all Jacob needed to do was snap his fingers and he could get whatever he wanted from God. it is inconceivable Jacob would not have prayed for Rachel to have a child and so ultimately Jacob’ s prayers had not been answered favorably and Rachel is criticizing him for doing nothing. That is why, suggests Nachmanides, why Jacob answered Rachel by saying that “he was not instead of God” and why he reacted angrily, because he felt Rachel held incorrect views as to the power of prayer of a righteous person.

The Radak, Rabbi David Kimhi of Narbonne, Provence (1160–1235) speaks along similar lines saying that Yaacov got angry with Rachel because Rachel seemed to be attributing powers to Jacob, rather to God.

The Akeidat Yitzchak, Rabbi Isaac Arama, another great Spanish commentator (1420-1494), gave a totally different explanation, a quite progressive one for his time. There are two names mentioned in the Torah for woman “Isha” and “Chava”. “Isha”- which is simply the feminine form of ‘ish”, the Hebrew name for man, teaches us that woman was taken from man and therefore, just like a man must work to advance himself in the intellectual and moral fields, so too must a woman work to advance herself intellectually and morally. The second name given in the Torah for women, Chava, alludes to the power a woman has to bear children. As the verse in the Torah says: And Adam called his wife Chava for she was the mother of all living. Indeed, only a woman can give birth to life.

Jacob got angry, suggests the Akeidat Yitzchak, because by saying: Give me children or I’ll die Rachel was denying the isha aspect of her personality, the part of womanhood that is the same as man, implying that because she couldn’t have children there was no other value to her existence. As important as the Torah views having children, bearing children does not completely define the purpose of womanhood.  There is another dimension to womanhood, namely, to advance oneself intellectually, morally, spiritually as any man’s goal is in life.  This of course is not to negate the absolute significance and importance of having children, just to teach that it alone does not define womanhood.

Ruth B. Wildes  z”l (1939-1995) (Courtesy)

My mother, whose 24th Yahrtzeit I am now observing, viewed her role as a mother as central to her existence. She absolutely loved being a mother and took that role seriously and she held it with great pride. She was one of those mothers who couldn’t stop talking about her children, so much so, my brother and I used to call her our walking resumes. At the same time, she was actively involved in developing herself spiritually and in building up the community in which she lived.

My mother was a very religious and spiritual person. She loved to study and to learn, always running to Torah classes and always urging our father to learn with my brother and myself, which he always did and which we thankfully continue to this day.  She loved to pray regularly. She had a book of Tehilim (Psalms) by her bedside. I remember when she got sick and was having a hard time concentrating, I told her she was exempt from praying because of her medical condition. I realized quickly that advise was of no help to her because she needed to pray. She needed to feel that connection with God with whom she felt so close.

My mother was also a great leader in the community.  In the late 1970’s/80’s she helped resettle thousands of Soviet Jews who moved into Forest Hills, our neighborhood in Queens, NY.  She ran around collecting furniture, clothing and helping countless families settle into our community. And she was such a gracious host, opening her home on Shabbat to friends and strangers alike.  My first rabbi gig was in Forest Hills, at The Queens Jewish Center where I ran a Beginners Service every Shabbat. I was single, and so almost on a regular Shabbat basis, I’d bring people home to my family so they could see how my mother made Shabbos.  She had this winner combination of warmth and elegance which she brilliantly used to make people feel at home. She inspired many Jews to share her love for Shabbat and ultimately for Yiddishkeite, which is why we dedicated MJE in her memory  – to perpetuate the kindness she regularly practiced, the chesed she did for so many individuals in our community.

MJE has followed her model, opening its doors to tens of thousands of our Jewish brothers and sisters,  and like our mother, sharing Shabbat and the power of the Jewish community with all, creating a venue in which 323 couples have met and married!  My mother would have been especially proud of that accomplishment.

She was both a “Chava” – an amazing mother but also an “Isha” – someone who advanced herself morally and spiritually and helped so many others do the same. In a day and age where woman are thankfully given great opportunities than ever before but also struggling to find the right balance, my mother serves as an example of successfully combining the different aspects of womanhood.  May her memory serve as blessing.