Why all Jews can participate in the “Day of Jewish Unity”

All Jews, irrespective of their stance on the Iran Deal, can participate in the “Day of Jewish Unity“.

As Congress prepares to hold a monumental vote on the Iran nuclear deal, the outreach organization Acheinu has organized today, Sept 8, as a “Day of Jewish Unity” calling for “Jews around the world [to join] together to recite 2 chapters of Psalms in an attempt to deflect the acute danger that would result from allowing Iran a path to obtain nuclear warheads.” MJE (Manhattan Jewish Experience) and I will be joining a projected 500,000 Jews in answering this call to prayer.

If you look a bit closer at the group organizing this day of unity, you will see that the objective is to use prayer to guide Congress to reject the Iran Deal. So how can this be a day of Jewish unity when there are many Jews who believe the deal should pass in its current form?

Read full blog post on The Times of Israel!

If Only Things Were Just as They Are…

“This is our life here and I consider it an honor to serve and protect the Jewish people.”

An army base in Hebron of 88 soldiers guards and protects approximately 600 Jewish residents living amongst nearly 40,000 Palestinians, and when I ask a 19 year old soldier how he feels serving in the 100 degree heat knowing that his Jewish friends in America are starting off to four years of fun in college — this is his response. This is a true soldier of Israel. Without deliberation, his answer expresses a typical Israeli “matter of fact” level of confidence and conviction that we should all embrace in this time of the Jewish calendar…

Read full post on The Times of Israel!

All Night Long

This past Saturday night, on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, over 300 young Jewish men and women flocked to MJE to participate in an age-old custom of staying up all night to study Torah. The learning part of the program began at 10:30 pm and continued until 4:45 am at which point our whole group ascended to the rooftop of MJE’s headquarters on West 86th Street to pray at sunrise. Other than MJE’s trips to Israel each year, this event is my favorite and I think I finally figured out why.
The custom to stay up all night , known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot has its source in the Midrash, an important part of rabbinic literature, which relates that the night before the Torah was given at Sinai, the Israelite’s retired early to be well-rested for the momentous day ahead. They overslept and Moses had to wake them up because God was already waiting on the mountaintop. To rectify this perceived flaw, many stay up all night to learn Torah. I doubt most people make the decision to stay up all night for this reason alone. To be sure, the Starbucks coffee, delicious cheesecake and opportunity to meet that someone special were also factors at play at MJE, but the feeling of being in a room with so many people studying the Almighty’s wisdom all night long totally inspires me. How often do we block out all the noise and distractions around us and make a time to hear some wisdom from above? We live in a world inundated with human wisdom which desperately needs to be balanced by a spiritual perspective, one that takes into account not only the future but also our rich past.  Technology and science must be embraced as they bring so much light and goodness into our lives, but divorced from our religious faith, they only explain the what’sof our existence and leave us wondering about the why’s

Judaism doesn’t pretend to have all the answers but it’s got quite a few. Staying up all night trying to figure out the why’s and ultimately how we can bring more meaning into our lives and into the world around us is a really great way to spend our time, even if it takes all night.

As Though You Left Egypt

One question I’ve always had in regard to the Seder: where is the blessing? We make a blessing before virtually every mitzvah in the Torah. Before we put on our Tefilin, before we shake the Lulav, before we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanna, there’s always a blessing, except it seems for the mitzvah we perform on the Seder night. The Torah tells us in four places: vhigadeta l’bincha bayom hahu- “and you shall relate (the story of the Exodus) to your sons on this night”, so the Seder clearly fulfills a Biblical command and yet no blessing! Where is the blessing for the Seder?
One suggestion offered is that the blessing is the Kiddush that we recite in the beginning of the Seder. Another answer offered is that the command to relate the Exodus has no limit. As we say in the Hagadah: vechol hamabeh harei ze meshubach- “whoever increases in telling over the story is praiseworthy” and generally we don’t recite blessings over things without a limit like Charity or Torah study.
The medieval commentator, the Rashba, suggests that there is in fact a blessing on the Seder, namely the blessing we recite right before we drink the second cup: Asher Ga’alnu, v’ga’l avoteinu – “God who has redeemed us and redeemed our forefathers”. However blessings are supposed to be recited before the mitzvah activity and the blessing of asher g’aalnu is said after most of the Exodus story has already been
told! And so if the Rashba is correct then why is the blessing of asher ga’alnu not said in the beginning of the Hagadah, before the mitzvah, why is it said so late in the Seder, after much of the mitzvah has already been completed?
There is one mitzvah in which the blessing is said after the mitzvah is completed, namely, conversion. The prospective convert says the blessing only after he or she immerses in the Mikvah (ritual bath) because beforehand they cannot say the classic mitzvah blessing formula:  asher kidishanu b’miztvotav v’tzivanu – “who has sanctified and commanded me” since the person isn’t Jewish yet! 
So too with the mitzvah of relating the Exodus at the Seder.
The mitzvah of the Seder is not simply telling over the story of what once was but to actually feel that we ourselves were slaves and that on the Seder night we are being freed. That is why the language of the blessing is “asher ga’alnu” – that we were redeemed, not simply our ancestors. And that, suggests the Chasam Sofer (great Chasidic Rabbi), cannot be said until you have experienced, until you have begun to tell over the story, to reference the Marror and the Matzah, to feel a sense of servitude and then freedom. We need to first go through the story so we ourselves can feel as much of this as possible, as if this were all happening to us now, and then, and only then, can we recite the blessing.
But how can we really feel this? We weren’t there, we didn’t experience the Exodus ourselves.
The answer I believe is by recognizing that redemption is not something of the past but a repetitive theme in Jewish history. The Exodus was just the first time the Jewish people were redeemed from an oppressive situation, but it certainly wasn’t the last and we should be speaking about the many other instances when this happened, certainly in modern times. 
One great example: Our generation is witness to over a million Jews leaving the former Soviet Union and coming back to Israel. Growing up I was deeply impacted by the Soviet Jewry movement in which my family was involved. I remember when I was in College, my father, an immigration attorney, secured a 6 month visa for a woman by the name of Carmella Raiz to come to the United States and plead the case on behalf of her husband, Vladamir, a long term Refusnik in the former Soviet Union. Vladamir had been denied the right to emigrate and Carmella came to America with one of her two sons to lobby Congress to help free her husband and other Refusniks.
The Raiz family lived in Vilna, Lithuania and had become staunch Zionists and eventually ba’alei teshuva (returnees to the Jewish faith). Carmella, a Cellist for the Lithuanian philharmonic, traveled 15 hours each month to the closest mikvah which was in Moscow. While in New York, my father was able to arrange a press conference at Gracie Mansion with former Mayor Ed Koch.
Picture the scene: Dozens of reporters, photographers and there was Koch sitting at a table with Carmella and her ten year old son, wearing a big black velvet yarmulke. Koch began to ask the little boy some questions: “Tell me young man, what’s your name?” The young boy answered: “Moshe”. “Moshe”, responded Koch,  “that’s a Hebrew name, what’s your Russian name?”. The boy simply answered: “Moshe”. Koch continued: “Y’know, I also have a Hebrew name, it’s Isaac, but my English name is Edward, what’s your Russian name?” “Moshe, my only name is Moshe”, said the boy. “OK Moshe, what’s your favorite subject  you most enjoy studying?  “Torah”, answered the boy. “Torah, do you study Torah in school? asks Koch. “No”, responds Moshe, “were not allowed to study Torah in school but my father teaches me”. “Y’know , Moses was a great Jewish leader”, Koch continues, “how did you come to be called after him?” Then Carmella, Moshe’s mother chimed in: “Mr. Mayor, with your permission, I’d like to answer that question on behalf of my son: “When Vladamir and I were married 13 years ago, we promised each other that if God blessed us with a son we were going to name him Moshe and he will take us out of this Egypt”.
With that statement the press conference ended.
The Exodus happens in every generation. In our time, the redemption took place from Mother Russia and it was no less of a miracle then the redemption from Egypt that we celebrate on the Seder night.
And the redemption from Russia wasn’t just a physical one, it was also a spiritual one. In the Hagadah we answer the child’s ma- nishtana questions, not only by saying Avadim hayinu, that we were once slaves and now we are free, but we also say mitchilah ovdei avodah zarah- that originally our ancestors worshipped idols but then ultimately came to follow God and His Torah. Virtually the same thing is happening today with the next generation of Russian Jews. Whereas the first generation of Russian immigrants in the 1970’s and 80’s were quite wary of religious life, themselves products of communism and atheism, their children, today in their 20’s, 30’s are much more open to Judaism.  At virtually every MJE Shabbat Dinner, class or event there are numerous young Jewish professionals whose parents emigrated from the Soviet Union. These young people are open and hungry to learn about Judaism and they don’t have the same negative associations their parents possessed.
And so as we sit down to our Seders this Passover, let us reflect on some of the modern day redemptions and miracles. Be it the Exodus from Russia or Israel’s continued survival in the face of constant threats and attacks. Bring up those miracles at your Seder. Discuss those extraordinary parts of our history because by doing so you will be in a better position to fulfill the Hagadah’s mandate of keilu hu yazta mimitzrayim, to feel as though we ourselves, in our generation, were also redeemed from Egypt.

Chag Sameach!

Get Over It

After listening to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to AIPAC in which he justified his decision to address Congress tomorrow, I have just one comment: Get over it. The world needs to get over the political question as to whether Netanyahu should have accepted the invitation to speak before Congress and focus on the real issue: how best to deal with Iran.
Israel and the United States have legitimate differences over how to prevent Iran from going nuclear and that is all we should be discussing. Focusing so much time on whether the Prime Minister insulted the President or whether he accepted the invitation in order to help with his reelection at home distracts from the serious and existential threat Israel today faces. With such a critical issue before us we cannot afford to allow petty politics to get in the way of America and Israel working together to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

One last point: The Prime Minister in his talk today made an interesting distinction between America and Israel’s stance on this issue. Whereas America’s primary concern is its security and standing in the world, Israel’s sole concern is her very survival. That distinction helps account for the stricter tone and approach the Prime Minister is advocating in comparison to the approach of the US Administration. Clearly this issue is critical for both countries but it’s only life and death for one. Therefore, despite the politics and possible breaches of protocol, we must speak up.  As the holiday of Purim approaches and we recall the last Persian leader who threatened the Jewish people, we must follow the example of Mordecai and Esther to lend our support to those who speak in defense of our people.

Man on Fire

The image of a man set on fire is haunting. The fact that this brutal act against a fellow Muslim was performed in the name of God makes it even worse. If this is not a call to moderate and peace loving Muslims to join the battle against ISIS and radical Islam, than I don’t know what is.  The silence of moderate Muslims needs to be broken and I’m hoping that Jordan’s revulsion at their air pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh’s kidnapping and murder will propel them and other Muslim nations to speak out and fight back.
We keep saying the war against terrorism is a war against radical Islam, not Islam per say. The Islamic world now has the chance to make that distinction clear. If and hopefully when peaceful Muslims speak out and act, we must be here to embrace them. Besides having more people and nations helping to combat the greatest threat today, the world needs to see a unified front of religions joining in peace and not war. Now is the chance for Jews, Christians, Muslims and all religious groups to stand side by side and show the world that religion is not synonymous with war; that religious leaders can bring peace and love into the world, not just war and hatred like so many today believe. Now is the time for religious leaders to show the world a different face of religion, one which respects the dignity of all humankind and promotes peaceful coexistence.
If this could even start to happen, then perhaps Moaz al-Kasasbeh’s tragic death would not have been in vain.
Jewish Joy: Myself at Sari and Rob Samuels’ baby boy’s Bris (circumcision) Sunday the 5th of January, 2014. One of the 16 babies born to MJE couples in 2013!

The bris was beautiful. Thank you for the honor of holding your son during the naming. I consider it a great privilege. May your son be zoche to live up to both of his grandfathers’ legacies.