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Yom Sheini, 4 Adar 5778

Why American Jews Revere Abraham Lincoln

In many ways, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), the 16th president of the United States, remains one of the most “biblical” figures in American history. Despite contemporaneous suspicions of his being an agnostic, much of what he wrote was infused with scriptural quotations favoring the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament by a four to one margin. Moreover, he came to understand the Civil War and the destruction of slavery in biblical terms and later, saw a biblical mandate in “binding up the wounds of the nation.” Unlike New England Puritans during the Colonial era who loved Hebrew but disdained Hebrews, Lincoln only read the Bible in English and viewed the Jews of his time in high esteem. While Civil War era Jews largely supported Lincoln along regional and party lines, he later achieved legendary status among American Jews and others who later more broadly revered the martyred president for saving the Union and for his biblically informed writings and worldview.

Although American Jews widely admired both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln was the first president to have extensive social contact with Jews in the United States. Abraham Jonas of Springfield, Illinois, whose sons fought on both sides during the Civil War, was himself an active Republican who helped place Lincoln in nomination in 1860. Samuel G. Alschuler, a Bavarian Jewish immigrant and photographer, took numerous photographic portraits of Lincoln from his days as a young, rising politician to the president’s funeral procession as it worked its way through Chicago en route to his final resting place in Springfield. As president, Lincoln was regularly attended to by a Jewish foot doctor, Issachar Zacharie, who was a favorite of the whole Lincoln family and served as a trusted emissary and diplomat for the president. Recent scholarship has demonstrated that Lincoln occasionally sought out plays with Jewish themes, an unusual cultural interest at the time.

During the war, Lincoln continued to encounter American Jews. By 1860, there were approximately 150,000 Jews in the United States who congregated in 200 synagogues, the majority of which were in pro-Union states. Of the 10,000 Jews estimated to have served during the war, 7,000 fought for the North including multiple generals and Congressional Medal of Honor winners. Lincoln was personally involved in two wartime Jewish issues. He personally commissioned the first Jewish Army chaplain, overriding Congressional legislation that provided only for the appointment of “ministers of the Gospel.” In addition, Lincoln personally intervened in the matter of Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous 1862 General Order 11 which expelled all Jewish civilians from the Army’s Department of Tennessee. Lincoln’s actions affirmed the full enfranchisement of American Jews as citizens of the United States and prevented the erosion of Jewish civil rights in the Union. By contrast, his political enemies subjected Grant to years of charges of personal anti-Semitism.

It is possible that the familiar opening words of the Gettysburg Address, “Four score and seven years ago,” were influenced by a sermon offered by Sabato Morais, hazzan (cantor) of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 4, 1863, and later communicated to Lincoln by members of Philadelphia’s Union League. For sure, the actual text of the Emancipation Proclamation was disseminated by a Jewish telegraph operator, Edward Rosewater, after Lincoln gave his historic talk. On March 4, 1865, Lincoln gave his second inaugural address, a deeply moving speech filled with biblical quotes and metaphors, which Lincoln himself viewed as his finest work. According to a report offered by Mary Lincoln a year later, the president shared with her a desire for them to visit Jerusalem shortly before his assassination. Lincoln’s death, which occurred during Passover, evoked a tremendous response from the American Jewish community and even sparked a controversy that Lincoln himself was of Jewish ancestry, an unproven assertion. In a larger sense, Lincoln had become “Father Abraham” of the entire American nation, Jews and gentiles alike.

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My Israeli Child Just Graduated High School - and the Army is Next

My wife and I moved from Providence, Rhode Island, to Israel with our three small children in 2004. With the Second Intifada still raging, “timing” wasn’t one of our strong points. However, relatively quickly after our arrival in Jerusalem, Yasser Arafat died, and the Second Intifada ran out of steam.

So, for the last 14 years, although there have been ups and downs, overall, we have been happy with our decision to make aliyah (move to Israel to live) and to raise our children as Israelis. Albeit, there have been many times when we did enact the “PR machine” to justify to our friends and family in the States that we were not completely mad and that there was indeed an inner Jewish logic to our decision. We thoroughly enjoyed living in Israel, where the dominant culture is Jewish and where our kids went to a public school in which they could master Hebrew texts better than their father, who is a Reform rabbi.

In Israel, being Jewish sometimes happens best when it happens outside the synagogue. For example, when I took my kids to a basketball game over the Hanukkah vacation, we watched the players in the Jerusalem stadium light the Hanukah candles and sing Maoz Tzur (a traditional Hanukah song) in Hebrew. Because the public culture is Jewish, Shabbat and Jewish holidays define the rhythm of life.

Watching our children grow up speaking Hebrew was simply an exercise in Heschelian awe (a type of radical amazement). Even though I speak Hebrew like my grandfather spoke English, there is always a level of nachas (Yiddish for joy) when my children mock and correct my poor Hebrew grammar or my American accent. However, like many things in life, in addition to all the privileges of living in the Jewish state, there are also the obligations. And I have learned, like every Israeli parent, that there is no time when these obligations hit home harder than when your kid graduates high school.

High school tests and high school pressure are not much different here than what my friends in the States are going through with their children. I have been through high school graduation before with our two daughters but going through it now with my son feels different. For one thing, there is far less pressure in Israel about university, which seems very far away after high school graduation; that is because my son and his friends are thinking about only one thing – the army.

My son and his friends began talking about the army last year, but time moves quickly and suddenly all they talk about is how to get into the most prestigious combat units. In my son's circle, everyone wants to be a fighter pilot or an elite commando. And let's face it, they have been socialized to do this since kindergarten – ever since they first heard the sirens for Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) or Israel's Yom HaZikaron (Israel's Memorial Day).

I am quite aware intellectually that Israel needs an army, and I understand that not to have power in this cruel world puts us and our people in a very dangerous place. However, at this moment I do not feel particularly intellectual. I also know that the Israeli army needs young men like my son and his friends who have good liberal Jewish values. The hardest thing about all of this is being supportive and coaching him gently as he makes some very intense decisions (because of the decision I made 14 years ago). I know for his sake I need to be supportive and I need to be cool. But… I am not… cool.

Photo: Courtesy of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism

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This Valentine’s Day, Let's Uncomplicate Consent

This Valentine’s Day, we must talk about consent.

We have a cultural problem. It’s time to face the reality that we can’t talk about consent without talking about sex. The inability of society to talk openly and honestly about consensual sex makes it even more difficult to talk about nonconsensual sex and isolates us in our experiences.

Often, we aren’t comfortable having necessary conversations, even with our partners, because sex and desire are still so taboo. Consent is a continuous effort to have a positive, healthy intimate experience. Thinking about it shouldn’t trigger fears; talking about sex shouldn’t be scary. We need to uncomplicate consent, and we can do that through better communication and education, starting in our sacred spaces.

We can’t hide from tough conversations any longer.

I’m going to be honest – I want this to be simple, but I recognize that it’s not. Each generation is raised with different attitudes toward sex and relationships and varying expectations of gender roles and we would benefit from bringing our different perspectives and experiences together.

We should be able to tell our kids that consent is affirmative, dynamic, conversational, freely given, and enthusiastic. We should know that consent can be withdrawn at any time, must be given every time, and is not a lack of no. But before we can tell our kids what consent is, we have to know ourselves. We have to know what we want and don’t want – and be OK with wanting and not wanting. The cycle of negative attitudes toward sex (thanks in large part to poor sex education in schools) must end. We have an obligation to the next generation and to ourselves to break the cycle.

Luckily, Reform Judaism supports us in these endeavors.

Did you know that some of the most influential leaders in sex-positivity have been Jewish women? (Think Dr. Ruth and Jaclyn Friedman).

We are fortunate that Reform Judaism’s sex-positive attitude allows us to raise this issue in our community, and we need to leverage that capacity to influence culture and change unhealthy societal norms. As a former Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, I had the privilege of working on the Resolution on Student-on-Student Sexual Violence in Schools, which was adopted by acclamation at the 2017 URJ Biennial. Prior to the passage of the URJ resolution, NFTY: The Reform Jewish Youth Movement and Women of Reform Judaism passed their own pieces of legislation addressing the issue.

The progress in the Reform community is incredible, and it is particularly significant that these most recent affirmations call for educational programming for Reform Jews of all ages. Ignoring the topic of consent has a direct, harmful impact on our youth. Sexual harassment and assault can happen anywhere, a reality that does not disappear at the door to a synagogue, school, or summer camp.

My motivation to write this piece comes from a dark place that, unfortunately, many others know well. When I was raped as a college student in 2012, there were no mainstream anti-assault campaigns like #TimesUp, It’s On Us, or #MeToo. It was far less common for individuals to speak publicly about their experience. When I did speak out, I faced abuse, criticism, disbelief, and victim blaming. Many didn’t have the vocabulary to understand or talk to me about my experience. Those coming forward today, more than five years later, still encounter pushback to their own experiences of sexual assault and rape, rooted in systemic misogyny and outdated, misinformed attitudes toward (typically) women.

Reform Judaism asks tough questions, confronts challenging issues, and acknowledges dark realities. But we cannot pass this collective responsibility to the person sitting next to us in synagogue. Judaism teaches that each of us, as individuals and as members of communities, has an obligation to make a positive contribution to the world and guide generations to come.

This Valentine’s Day, let’s trade our candy conversation hearts for a real, meaningful discourse about consent.

If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, it’s not your fault. You are not alone. Help is available 24/7 through the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800.656.HOPE and online.rainn.org. For support in dating violence situations, text LOVEIS to 22522. 

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How Two Torahs Found a New Home in Indonesia

Spread across nearly 3,000 kilometers on six islands, Indonesia’s re-emerging Jewish community is nearly unique. Its small kehilot (communities) and family groupings see themselves as part of one interconnected community, although hundreds if not thousands of air and ocean kilometers separate them.

Joint community events often require long flights on small planes, or even longer (much longer) several day boat-rides. Each island and group has its own language, but luckily the post-colonial language, Bahasa Indonesia, and members’ Jewish identity help bring them together. Each community also has distinct cultural traditions, histories, and cuisines.

Although there are two simple synagogues (one in Jakarta and another unfinished building in Timika, Papua Indonesia), the much more common model is the “home synagogue,” a room in a local leader’s home in each community that serves as dedicated space for Jewish worship. An ark, flanked by Jewish posters and often an Israeli flag, marks the room as sacred space. Currently, though, most of these arks are empty of a Torah scroll, so central to Jewish worship and study.

Instead they are used to store the community’s siddurim (prayer books) and small scrolls with printed paper text, which the communities use in lieu of a kosher scroll.  In one community rocks, which had been thrown at the local leader’s house by disgruntled local Christians, are also stored as a remembrance in the ark.

Until now the whole community has one Torah, which Rabbi Ben Verbrugge (the national leader and rebuilder of Indonesian Jewry) carries from community to community. I suspect that this Torah scroll has travelled more kilometers than any other sefer Torah in the world.  On the first day of Sukkot, for example, it could be read in Sumatra (in the west), on a middle day in Ambon (towards the center of the archipelago), and on the last days in Timika or Jayapura on Papua in the extreme east. Luckily, this Sephardic Torah, in a hard wooden case, is well protected for all its travels.

Recently, two Torah scrolls arrived in Indonesia, and things are changing dramatically. Although three communities still will function without a Torah (to be remedied in the near future, we hope) two communities now will have a Torah in residence. These scrolls, from Canada and the United States will help tie Indonesian Jewry even more closely to the world’s Jewish community.

Changing Jewish demographics across North America are causing some small synagogues to close their doors. As these synagogues shut down, their leaders, dedicating themselves to tikkun olam (repair of our world) and Jewish continuity, have chosen to give their Torah scrolls a new beginning and a way to continue to speak. Where once their voices were a light unto Alberta and Pennsylvania, that light now will shine in Indonesia.

The two sifrei Torah began their journeys in Edmonton, Alberta and New Castle, PA, leaving their homes in Beth Tzeddek Congregation and Temple Hadar Israel respectively. After a long, multi-legged journey, they each have reached a new home in Indonesia.

Jewish tradition often speaks of the Torah as the light of the Divine. Although there is a tremendous excitement around two scrolls, they are not bringing the light of Torah to Indonesia. That light was already there in the dedication and tenacity of Rabbi Ben Verbrugge and his community as they continue to make its teachings (with or without a scroll) the guiding force in their lives.

Adapted from Bringing the Light of Torah to the Ends of the Earth.

For more than 30 years, the Torah Scroll Exchange, run by the World Union for Progressive Judaism, has been ensuring that new and emerging Progressive Jewish communities worldwide have access to Torah scrolls and other ritual objects. To date, this program has bestowed more than 100 Torah scrolls – including the two in Indonesia – upon growing Progressive Jewish communities across the globe.

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7 Decades of Innovation in Israel: The Pioneer Years

Water is essential to human life and Israel is more than 60% desert. During the years the State of Israel was being established, pioneers faced the challenge of creating a self-sufficient society in an environment without easy access to food or water.

The answer? Innovation.

Most of the pioneers who arrived in Israel during the many aliyot (waves of immigration) leading up to 1948 were not the Nobel laureates, scientists, engineers, or entrepreneurs who make up Israeli society today. During the early aliyot, many of the pioneers were teens and young adults with few skills and little experience who found themselves in a land with little water and few natural resources. With little to lose, they took risks to test hypotheses and ideas, building a culture that values innovation and entrepreneurship.

During my trip last summer – my seventh to Israel – I saw, for the first time, the network of scientists, researchers, and entrepreneurs, that has supported Israel’s culture of innovation in the last 70 years. Leading the URJ’s inaugural Sci-Tech Israel trip for high school students, I gained a new interest in and understanding of how innovation intersects with the country’s modern history.

As students examined water resources – testing the temperature and pH levels at sites around the country – and learned about innovative technologies for conservation and reclamation, we also focused on how Jewish values, including netzach (perseverance), are infused into the science and tech culture of Israel. Such values are critical in fostering the technology and entrepreneurship necessary to provide water in a desert region.

Since ancient times, we have been aware of the lack of water in Israel. In Deuteronomy 11:10-11, God warns the Israelites:

For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden; but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven.

In such an arid climate, Israelis could not farm using only the limited amounts of rain that fell during the winter months. Rather than giving up the prospect of farming in the desert, they had to be inventive about both water and crops.

Thus, in 1953 construction began on the National Water Carrier of Israel, designed to transport water from the Galilee to the center of the country, reaching the northernmost parts of the Negev. At the time, 80% of the water was diverted for agriculture, and 20% for drinking. As Israel’s population grew and the country developed new technologies for water conservation and reclamation, a greater percentage of water from the National Water Carrier was designated for drinking water.

In addition to bringing water to the Negev region, farmers and researchers needed to identify and develop crops that could thrive in the harsh desert conditions. Universities such as the Weizmann Institute of Science, founded in the early 1900s, have long focused research efforts on modifying fruits and vegetables, so they can grow in the desert. In the 1950s, Weizmann Professor Esra Galun, z’l, developed a hybrid cucumber that was disease resistant and could be mechanically harvested. A staple of Israeli salad, this cucumber is now a major player in Israeli markets and throughout the Middle East. 

Today, Israel continues to build upon these and other innovations from its first decade. Demonstrating the Jewish value of shomrei adamah (keepers of the earth), researchers are developing more environmentally sustainable crop production and water distribution methods. The shift away from using the National Water Carrier of Israel to divert water from the Sea of Galilee toward water reclamation and desalination, for example, helps protect the precious natural resources the Galilee’s water supports.

Israel’s commitment to science and technology precedes the birth of the state in 1948 and continues unabated today. Top scientists and institutions continue to place Israel in a prominent position in the international science and technology community, initiating and contributing to revolutionary research in areas from computer science and cancer to biomedical innovation and environmental sustainability, and more.

This post is the first of seven designed to inform and inspire readers about scientific and technological advances in modern Israel in each of the decades since its founding in 1948. Visit the 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy website to read the other posts as they become available.

Sci-Tech Israel, the newest program in the Union for Reform Judaism’s suite of Israel experiences, offers opportunities for Jewish teens to explore Israel through a lens of science, technology, and innovation. Visit nftyisrael.org to learn more about teen travel to Israel.

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When We Needed It Most, Our Jewish Community Stepped Up

 

I recently reconnected with my rabbi from Brooklyn. In the work I’ve been doing at the Union for Reform Judaism – working on the Presidential Disabilities Inclusion Initiative – I’ve been continually reminded of what a lifeline she was to me and my family after disability entered our lives, and how much of the work of inclusion doesn’t require money or equipment.

The day my son was diagnosed with autism at age 2½, we left the neurologist’s office and got back on the subway, intact and identical in every way to the family that had entered the train that morning, except that everything, of course, was different. V had a severe neurological disorder and I had a new job – one I wasn’t equipped to take on, but that I had no choice but to accept. 

Like anyone faced with unwelcome news about your health, the desire to crawl inside your grief and hide is overpowered by the urgency with which you must act.

With autism, the operative words are “intensive intervention.”  You must submerge your grief, working instead against time, trying to change the brain’s function as quickly and early as possible, while it has the greatest capacity to be altered. Your despair, intertwined with hope, all hinges on that one cellular miracle you likely had never even considered: neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to form new connections.

In my initial overwhelmed stage, I read about a mother in California who asked her church congregation for volunteers to spend an hour a week with her newly diagnosed son with autism.

I had some trepidation. At the time, I attended family services with my young children, but otherwise, I wasn’t that active in my congregation. In desperate need of community, though, it seemed a risk worth taking, so I asked our rabbi if she would be willing to write a letter to congregants to seek their help.

She agreed, and sent out a short, straightforward email explaining our situation:

“The younger son of one of our members has been diagnosed with autism; they are trying to adhere to early intervention while also tending to another child, jobs, daily life. Can anyone help? They are asking one hour a week.”

In the weeks that followed, the calls and emails trickled in from people we knew and complete strangers, ranging in age from 11 to 70. About 15 people – significant for a small congregation – offered help, as did some of our neighbors.

The volunteers included a retired teacher and a few teens with babysitting experience, but no one had training. There was no special equipment, although someone brought a guitar, and one woman brought her yoga mat. A teenage girl came and took our son on a long walk. A couple of labor lawyers who kept rabbits behind their brownstone brought V to play with them. A young mother put her own baby in the care of a neighbor to spend an hour reading him the same stories her daughter enjoyed.

It was improvised and hit or miss. Sometimes V connected, and other times he just stared into space. But it built a community that came to know and love my son – a community that cared about us, that saw our home at its messiest and me at my lowest.

When the original volunteers explained what had happened and shared our circumstances (sparing me the ordeal of having to repeat the story over and over), they talked about our son in terms that were warm and loving. Soon, the connections grew beyond the volunteers to include other congregants and neighbors. They embraced my older son as a child as much in need of attention as his brother. And when we went to family services and monthly potlucks, fellow congregants started to take turns with V, without being asked or seeming to mind. In fact, they enjoyed their time with him, freeing me to eat, talk with friends, and relax – to feel as cared for as my son.

Of course, there were things they couldn’t help with: the guilt-ridden days and sleepless nights, the bureaucratic entanglements and calls to service providers, the grueling negotiations with our health insurance company, and the search for good therapists, as well as the drain on our savings, and the strain on our jobs and relationships that are common to caregivers of children who need extensive supports.

Still, the community they helped create fortified me to deal with the stress that remained when no one was around.

I wanted to tell my rabbi about how wonderful my sons are, that the little boys she remembers both tower over me. V turns 17 next week, and my older son is a 19-year-old college sophomore who plans to major in social work. I wanted to share, too, that the ad hoc, much-needed community she created for us is far more rare than I ever could have imagined and thus, I am all the more grateful to her and to the people who stepped forward at a time when my family and I truly needed the support they made possible.  

URJ Kutz Camp offers Gibush, a unique camp program for teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). With motivated high school students as peer-engagers, Gibush campers participate fully in the Jewish camp experience in a safe and nurturing environment that fosters positive self-esteem and social skill development.

This February marks the 10thJewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. The Union for Reform Judaism is proud to partner with the Ruderman Family Foundation to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Reform Jewish life.

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Roots and Branches of the New Year of the Trees

Perhaps I first heard of Tu BiSh’vat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees – marked on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat – back when I went to religious school in the 1960s and 70s. 

Perhaps…but I certainly didn’t retain the information. 

Fast forward to college in the early 80s. I was majoring in environmental studies and simultaneously rediscovering my Jewish heritage. Being outdoors and celebrating the natural world was an important part of my spirituality, so I sought out any hints that other Jews felt the same way.

Imagine my thrill and surprise when I first read about the mystical “Tu BiSh’vat seder,” a ritual dating back at least to the early 1700s. Marked by a celebratory meal with four cups of wine and three categories of fruit, it was both a sensual pleasure and deeply moving to sample a wide variety of exotic fruits and, as we ate, to contemplate our connections to both the physical world and to various mystical realms. What a fabulous way, I thought, to honor Tu BiSh’vat, trees, and – at least I hoped – all things environmental. 

Well, not quite.

To the mystics who devised the first Tu BiSh’vat seders, trees were mostly a metaphor for the flow of divine energy and presence. As much as we may wish it, for them, Tu BiSh'vat was not some sort of proto-Earth Day.

Regardless, these rituals were a creative, inspiring strand in a complex web of Jewish traditions, including many that demonstrate a profound understanding of the best way to relate to and sustain the natural world that surrounds us.

For example, the Tu BiSh’vat seder was a creative reimagining of the earliest hints we have of Tu BiSh’vat itself – a very brief mention in the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1) about a “new year” for the trees. The date for that new year was apparently in dispute, and in response, Rav Hai Gaon, one of the leaders of the Babylonian Jewish community in the 10th and 11th centuries C.E, writes “at [the] time the sap begins to flow upwards and the trees begin to drink and come alive” (Answers of the Gaonim,1:4 page 119). 

This idea – that seemingly dormant trees are quite awake, alive, and getting ready for spring – was well known to me from my high school days of tapping maple trees and boiling down their sap to make maple syrup. How fabulous that this piece of nature lore was well known to the leading rabbi of 1000 years ago! And how wonderful, too, that it inspired other rabbis, 700 years later. These mystics leapt from the physical to the metaphorical, to a contemplation of the very flow of life itself, the possibility of us becoming connected to the divine flow that, whether we acknowledge it or not, surrounds us all the time, even in our spiritual “winters.”

As I learned more about Tu BiSh’vat, I realized that many generations of Jews have taken the metaphorical leap of the mystics as the starting point for their own journeys, connecting to the earth, our traditions, and the divine flow. These journeys range from the intense connection to the land found in the Zionist writings of A.D. Gordon, to a growing number of Jews who, like me, make connections between their faith and traditions on the one hand, and solving modern environmental crises on the other. Whenever we see a mountain and pause to say a b’rachah, a blessing, when teens at camp learn about sustainable gardening, when synagogues cut their energy usage or buy “green” electricity, we are all taking the next steps on that journey.

The Reform community, led by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), has played a huge role, not only in teaching about that connection, but also in moving us from study to action on behalf of the poor and the planet. In fact, I served as the RAC’s congregational relations director back in 1993, when we helped launch the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). Now, some 25 years later, I am back at COEJL as its new executive director.

COEJL and the RAC want to work with Jews and Jewish communities to learn about Jewish environmental teachings and put them into practice. As we celebrate Tu BiSh’vat this year, may we all join in the most literal sense of tikkun olam, healing our world, by acting to protect the many wonders of Creation.

You can do this by:

Learn more about the Reform Jewish community's environmental work by visiting www.rac.org/enviro

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What Today’s Refugees Can Learn from Holocaust Survivors About the Human Spirit

Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated on January 27, 1945, the date that is now commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Following World War II, Europe was flooded with millions of displaced persons (DPs), including 250,000 Jewish survivors who were unable and unwilling to return to their nations of origin. Many Jews were confined to DP camps in Allied-occupied Germany, Austria, and Italy for as long as a decade.

Among them were my parents and parents-in-law, who were leaders of the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp in the British Zone of Germany. “For the greatest part of liberated Jews, there was no ecstasy, no joy at our liberation,” recalled my mother-in-law, Dr. Hadassah Rosensaft, a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. “We had lost our families, our homes. We had been liberated from death and the fear of death, but not from the fear of life.” 

The ways in which the stateless Jewish DPs transitioned from persecuted refugees to productive citizens in their new countries may be instructive today, as we witness what Human Rights Watch has called “the largest global displacement crisis since World War II.”

The European Union’s objective – “to strengthen the resilience and self-reliance of both the displaced and their host communities…by helping them to access education, housing, land, livelihoods, and services” – is framed, in part, on the historical achievements of Jewish survivors, who managed to turn DP camps into vibrant centers for rehabilitation. With the material assistance of international organizations, Jewish DPs organized their own physical, emotional, and spiritual rehabilitation.

As part of the healing process, survivors made it one of their first priorities to establish symbolic memorials for parents, spouses, children, and siblings who were murdered in the ghettos, forests, camps, and other places across Europe. The survivors also served as principal witnesses for the prosecution at war crimes trials, including the Belsen Trial, at which my mother-in-law testified about the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Survivor rabbis and American and British military chaplains tended to their religious needs. In addition to conducting services, establishing religious schools, and mikvaot (ritual baths), these rabbis addressed such complex issues as the plight of agunoth and agunim (survivors who had married before or during the war, whose spouses had disappeared and who required a designation of widowhood in order to remarry), and the determination of Jewish identity of those in the camps who had been deemed “half” and “quarter” Jews under the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws. 

Liberated children poured into the DP camps from the concentration camps, ghettos, and hiding places in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union – some with their families, many alone. The reunification of families was facilitated by mimeographed lists of survivors displayed at the DP camps, but most survivors suffered from the heartbreaking knowledge that they were truly alone in the world. 

The survivors who were educators came forward to teach and restore the children’s capacity for fun. As the children spoke different languages, Hebrew was designated as the common language for instruction. 

Vocational training provided a crucial outlet for the energies of thousands of young adults in the DP camps, preparing them for their future livelihood. Some, like my mother who studied medicine at the University of Bonn, pursued higher degrees. Sports activities became a popular outlet for recreation, socialization, and enhanced physical well-being.

Soon after liberation, the survivors began to marry, seeking to create an atmosphere of living for the future and not in the past. The largest recorded birth rate in post-war Europe took place among the Jewish DPs; my husband was among the 2000 Jewish children born in the Bergen-Belsen DP Camp. 

Politically, the DP’s greatest effort was the struggle to re-establish their historic homeland in Eretz Yisrael. David Ben Gurion, then chairman of the Jewish Agency, visited the DP camps during November 1945 and later wrote, “The faith I found among the survivors strengthened the spirit of our fighters in the Homeland.”

With the establishment of the state in 1948, legal immigration became a reality, and many of the survivors were finally able to immigrate to Israel, where they were among the builders, fighters, and defenders of the Jewish state. Liberalized immigration quotas eventually allowed the remaining survivors to settle in the United States, Canada, and other countries.

In the DP camps, healing engendered hope. Many survivors stopped seeing themselves as victims and found the courage and fortitude to rebuild their lives.

Their determination and resilience testify to the indestructible human spirit and will, hopefully, be a source of strength and inspiration for refugees in our own day.

Saturday, January 27, marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the date the United Nations General Assembly has designated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

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How the Supermarket Reminds Me Tu BiSh'vat is Coming

Recently, on a flight home from the U.S. to Israel, I was sitting next to a woman from Pittsburgh on her first trip to Israel. “You live in Jerusalem…that’s so exciting.” As I was a bit drowsy from the Advil PM I had taken to help me sleep on the long flight, I nodded and said, “Hmmm mmm…it’s always exciting.”

“When you land, what’s the first thing you do? Oh, I bet you go and visit the Kotel (Hebrew for the Western Wall).”

“Hmmm…mmm well, not exactly. Usually, the first thing I do is unpack my bags, throw the dirty laundry in the machine, feed the cat and then…”

“Then you go to the Kotel?”

“No, then I go to the market and pick up some bread, eggs, and cottage cheese.” (We Israelis eat a lot of cottage cheese.)

“And then you go to the Kotel?”

“No, then I open my mail, check my e-mail, take the shirts to the laundry, order more food for the cat, and get my bag ready for work the next day.”

“But when do you go to the Kotel?”

“The Kotel? I hardly ever go.”

“I can’t believe it.”

She turns to her friend next to her and says, “Hey, Susan, he lives in Jerusalem and hardly goes to the Kotel.”

Both women seem a bit troubled. How could I, a resident of Jerusalem, not run to the Kotel every time I return to Israel?

The truth is, most of us living here in Jerusalem lead normal, average lives. We go to work, we come home, watch the latest series we’re binging on Netflix, go to sleep, and do it all over again. In many respects, the citizens of Jerusalem are no different than residents of any other large cosmopolitan city.

Just last night, after a rehearsal for a musical I’m in (shameless advertisement: I’m in a production of Sondheim’s “Assassins” that opens on February 15th), I decided to do some late-night grocery shopping.

As I walked into my local branch of “SuperSal,” I was greeted by five-foot-high displays of dried fruits and nuts. Bins filled with dried ginger, papaya, melon, kiwi, dates (so many varieties), raisins, cranberries, pineapple, apricots, melon lined the market… Yes, the market reminded me that Tu BiSh’vat is just a couple of weeks away.

When I worked as a cantor in Los Angeles at Temple Isaiah, the clergy and synagogue staff were responsible for reminding the community when various holidays were coming. We planned events, activities, services, and programs. But here in Jerusalem, the supermarket reminds me. Here in Jerusalem, the entire country reminds me of the upcoming festivals and holidays. In my past life, I was always facilitating the concept of “Jewish time” for others. Here in Jerusalem, it just sort of happens.

And even though we are expecting rain, sleet, and hail this weekend, Tu BiSh’vat, the harbinger of spring, reminds us that winter will soon be over. And as soon as those gigantic piles of dried apricots are carted away, they will be replaced by large displays of Purim goodies: gifts to exchange, candy for the children, and large boxes of hamantaschen. Yes, the market reminds me that just a month after Tu BiSh’vat, Purim arrives.

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Made in Maine: A Holocaust Remembrance Album

In the small Maine town of Oakland, two music teachers collaborated with 400 choral students, the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine (HHRC), and a professional producer and sound engineer to record and release a one-of-a-kind album: “Songs of Darkness and Hope” (Affetto Recordings 2017).

The CD’s 11 tracks include traditional Hebrew music from Eastern Europe and Israel (“Shiru L'Adonai,” “Dodi Li” and “Ani Ma'amin;” concentration camp songs “Dachau Lied” and “Peat Bog Soldiers,” which arose in the camps as songs of rebellion and internal support for the captives; modern settings of texts preserved from Terazin and other camps (“Butterfly,” “Inscription of Hope”); and completing the album, “Make Them Hear You,” from the musical “Rag Time,” which is a universal anthem calling for advocacy and justice in response to oppression and hate.

The project was conceived by husband-wife team Pam and Kevin Rhein, who teach choral music to fifth through 12th-grade students attending Regional School Unit 18.

In their 36 years of teaching, the Rheins frequently incorporated Jewish music into their programming. “We’d done music from the Jewish heritage and the kids have really enjoyed it. We thought it was very beautiful or very poignant,” said Kevin. Pam got an idea to get the entire choral program together and put the songs in some type of logical format.”

Pam then approached Liz Helitzer, executive director of the HHRC in Augusta, whose mission is to use the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides to combat prejudice and discrimination in Maine and beyond.

“Elizabeth was floored,” says Kevin, “because just a few nights before there had been a board meeting, where one of the members, a Holocaust survivor, had said we need to get more young people involved in understanding the story. And then Pam walked in saying, ‘Hi, I have 400 young people.’”

“The timing was pretty opportune,” agreed Helitzer. “We had started to speak about the HHRC’s Holocaust Day of Remembrance event and we decided we wanted to do something that would appeal to and bring in more young people.”

The Rheins then selected the repertoire and rehearsed their various choral ensembles, while Helitzer presented to the middle and high school students an educational program entitled “Decision Making in Times of Injustice,” focusing on the events leading up to the Holocaust and intended to counter what Helitzer considers the “intolerant rhetoric” permeating today’s social and political climate.

Students involved with the recording felt the process increased their understanding of both Jewish culture and the horrors of the Holocaust.

Eleventh-grader Julia Cooke, a member of the women’s ensemble, said, “Before the project I was aware of Jewish culture and the effect of the Holocaust, having learned about that time from history class. However, by performing the songs on the album, we got a much more personal account of what happened. We were singing words that people who were sent to their death wrote and sang, and the project really brought all of our previous knowledge into a new perspective.”

Sophomore Taylor Doone said the most challenging part of recording the album was learning the Hebrew and Yiddish pronunciations and “executing them perfectly so it would sound authentic and be done with the utmost respect and care.”

John C. Baker of Affetto Recordings recorded the album in the Messlaonskee High School auditorium, which is large enough to accommodate all 400 students, and at a local church, where the acoustics favored the high school chamber ensemble. Baker produced the album, and the recording was engineered by Andy Forster, Messalonskee’s band director and music production teacher.

Although initially “Songs of Darkness and Hope” was envisioned as a local production to be distributed through the HHRC, Baker realized the quality of the album – “its mix of history and incredible choral talent” – deserved a wider release.

Naxos of America, the leading independent distributor of classical music, agreed to release the album and submitted it for consideration on its Grammy Award ballot. “Songs of Darkness and Hope” was the only recording by a secondary school to be considered for nomination in the choral music category, according to Baker.

The national recognition of the project has brought pride to the school district and more traffic to the HHRC, to which the album is dedicated.

“It’s been really great,” said Helitzer, “People have walked in and said, ‘Oh I saw the article about this CD and I wanted to check out the center.’ So, it has helped to raise the center’s visibility and the story around it is so lovely.”

Listen to excerpts from “Songs of Darkness and Hope” on Amazon and iTunes, or purchase the CD or individual digital tracks.

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ReformJudaism.org Jewish life in your life



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