Finding Inspiration In The Darkness Of The Holocaust

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As the sun sets on Sunday evening, Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, begins. On this somber day, we remember the 6,000,000 Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. We know how important it is to remember the horror of the Holocaust and so I ask each of us to pause at some point Sunday evening and/or during the day on Monday to remember and to commit ourselves to doing whatever we can to ensure that “never again” is not just a phrase we say, but a call to action that we never ignore.

While Yom HaShoah is a dark day, it is important for us to pay attention to many of the inspirational stories that come from the Holocaust – stories that remind us of our incredible ability to persevere through the darkest of darkness and the power of loving acts of kindness that were ignited by this darkness.

Back in January, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I shared the story of Francine Christophe at Kabbalat Shabbat services. Francine was born in 1933 in France. In 1944, she and her mother were deported to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. The remarkable story she shares reminds us that by showing compassion and kindness to others, we can truly conquer hate – we can save the world. On this Yom HaShoah, may we remember the darkness, but may we also live the love captured in Francine’s story and, in turn, fill the darkness with light.

You can listen to Francine’s story by clicking on the image below. She speaks in French, but there are subtitles. Please note: Every noun in French has a gender. “Bébé” (baby) is masculine and in the subtitles it is translated as “he.” However, when Francine speaks in French, she is not referring to the baby as a boy. She does not give the baby a gender.

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 10.13.32 AM Click on the image above to hear Francine’s story.

This Passover: 4 Children In Memory Of 24,000 Syrian Children

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Five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, rescued after an airstrike by Syrian or Russian aircraft on his town in Syria in August, 2016.

Last night, as I am sure you know, the United States struck a Syrian airbase. The strike was in response to a deadly sarin gas attack by the Syrians on a city in the northern part of their country that killed 86 people, including 27 children. Since the violence in Syria began in 2011, 207,000 civilians have been killed – 24,000 of them children – including little Omran Daqneesh’s (pictured above) 10-year-old brother, Ali. While Omran survived, the trauma he experienced shattered his little life.

No matter where we stand on last night’s military strike, we can all agree that the actions of the Syrian government and its supporters and the slaughter of innocents is reprehensible. As Jews, the plight of those like little Omran, who are brutally oppressed by their government, is a plight we can too easily identify with. As we prepare for Passover in just a few days, when we will read about our own ancestors fleeing from Pharaoh, the Haggadah reminds us that the plight of those attempting to flee the violence of Syria has been our plight as well.

In memory of the 24,000 children who have been killed in Syria, in honor of Omran and as a reminder to our children and grandchildren, I ask that you consider incorporating “The Four Children” from Next Year In A Just World, a Haggadah prepared by American Jewish World Service.

At Passover each year, we read the story of our ancestors’ pursuit of liberation from oppression. When confronting this history, how do we answer our children when they ask us how to pursue justice in our time?

What does the activist child ask?
“The Torah tells me, ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue,’ but how can I pursue justice?”

Empower her always to seek pathways to advocate for the vulnerable. As Proverbs teaches, “Speak up for the mute, for the rights of the unfortunate. Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy.”

What does the skeptical child ask?
“How can I solve problems of such enormity?”

Encourage him by explaining that he need not solve the problems, he must only do what he is capable of doing. As we read in Pirkei Avot—The Ethics of Our Ancestors, “It is not your responsibility to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

What does the indifferent child say?
“It’s not my responsibility.”

Persuade her that responsibility cannot be shirked. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The opposite of good is not evil; the opposite of good is indifference. In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

And the uninformed child who does not know how to ask …

Prompt him to see himself as an inheritor of our people’s legacy. As it says in Deuteronomy, “You must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

At this season of liberation, let us work toward the liberation of all people.

Cheryl, Abigail and Jonah join me in wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom and a very meaningful Passover.

 

 

The Need To Confront A Shocking Reality

Yesterday, it was announced that an 18-year-old Jewish, Israeli-American was in custody in Israel, accused of placing the majority of bomb threats recently directed at Jewish institutions.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the CEO of the ADL issued this formal statement yesterday:

We are relieved there’s been an arrest in the majority of the bomb threats against JCCs, schools, synagogues and several of our offices across the country. We are deeply grateful to the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the state and local law enforcement officials who made this investigation the highest priority.

While the details of this crime remain unclear, the impact of this individual’s actions is crystal clear: These were acts of anti-Semitism. These threats targeted Jewish institutions, were calculated to sow fear and anxiety, and put the entire Jewish community on high alert.

Even though it appears that the main culprit behind the majority of these attacks has allegedly been identified, anti-Semitism in the U.S. remains a very serious concern. No arrests have been made in three cemetery desecrations or a series of other anti-Semitic incidents involving swastika graffiti and hate fliers.  JCCs and other institutions should not relax security measures or become less vigilant.

We appreciate the support of so many community and organizational leaders, both within and outside the Jewish community, who spoke out and condemned these threats. They understood not only how disruptive they were, but also how they traumatized the people affected, especially young children and senior citizens who were evacuated as a result of these threats.

Also yesterday, The Jewish Federation of North America sent out this press release:

Ten days ago, and again this morning, Jewish leaders were briefed by top officials from the FBI. From those briefings, we learned about the unprecedented level of time and resources that were committed to this investigation along with high levels of cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security and a long list of partners, including Israeli law enforcement. It was heartbreaking to learn that a Jewish man is a prime suspect.”

Our ability to adapt quickly and liaise with law enforcement officials was in large part due to the work of the Secure Community Network. As a community and a society we must remain vigilant in our effort to counter anti-Semitism and other hate crimes as they appear. We are fortunate to know we have partners in law enforcement who will do whatever it takes to bring these perpetrators to justice.

While I whole-heartedly agree with everything shared in the above statements, they do not adequately address the gut-wrenching reality that one of our own is allegedly responsible for terrorizing us. As a community, I believe that we have an obligation to ourselves, our Jewish community and the larger communities of which we are a part, to confront this shocking reality.

In a Tweet yesterday, the American Jewish Committee began to do just this: “If proven, this Israeli teen’s culpability in JCC bomb threats is a lesson in not leaping to assumptions.” Many of us assumed that the anti-Semite or anti-Semitic group that was behind the bomb threats would have links to alt-right organizations, white supremacists and/or radical Islamic terrorists. Learning that a Jewish kid allegedly placed these calls from his home in Israel teaches us a very powerful lesson about making assumptions. If the allegations against this teen are true, this nightmare reminds us that we can be our own worst enemies.

We do not yet know the motives of the accused teen. It has been reported that he suffers from a non-malignant brain tumor that prevents him from making rational decisions. Yesterday, while being taken into custody, it was reported that he grabbed an officer’s gun. In addition, authorities assert that the teen threatened Delta Airlines back in 2015, forcing a plane to make an emergency landing. We also know that he was in possession of complex hacking technology that he used to terrorize the Jewish community. He appears to be a disturbed young man with many issues. He has caused terror in the Jewish community. The financial ramifications of his actions to the Jewish community and the local, national and international resources that were used to find him have been tremendous. In Judaism, there is the drastic tradition of excommunicating (herem) someone who seriously threatens the Jewish community. There is also the concept of teshuvah or repentance. While the courts will determine this young man’s fate after weighing the evidence and evaluating his mental health, many of us within the Jewish community – still reeling from weeks of threats – are struggling with our own feelings about what should happen to him.

On top of this, we must recognize that this young man’s actions have the potential to jeopardize the Jewish community’s global fight against anti-Semitism. As a community, we have been outraged by these threats and demanded that our political leaders and law enforcement agencies take action and protect us from those who hate us. And all the while, the perpetrator was hiding among us. We understand that in no way does the fact that this teen is a Jew diminish the anti-Semitic nature of his actions that terrorized us all. However, outside of the Jewish community, this might not be so easily understood. In fact, his actions have the potential to belittle our demands for more protection and security. We run the risk of becoming the community that “cried wolf” even though there are still many individuals and organizations out there that seek to do us harm – even though anti-Semitism is still very, very real.

Therefore, as a Jewish community we must do more than express our heartache that the alleged perpetrator of these threats was a Jew. We must express our horror that one of our own would endanger the wellbeing of the Jewish community and add fuel to the long burning fire of hate that continues to threaten Jews across the planet. We must remind our political leaders and law enforcement agencies that the plague of anti-Semitism is not over just because this individual has been caught.

On another note, you might have read about possible budget cuts in Florida that could affect local Holocaust survivors. I have been in touch with Commissioner Steve Geller about these cuts and he suggests that we call the following people, not because we have been told to do so, but because these cuts are a concern to us as Florida voters. The budget cuts are not final and phone calls are being monitored closely:

  • Senator Anitere Flores (she is the Chair of the committee overseeing cuts): 850-487-5039
  • My friend, Senator Kevin Rader – who does not want these cuts to go through: 850-487-5029
  • Senator Jack Latvela (Chair of the Budget Committee): 850-487-5016

A Gift For Purim: Believe In Good!

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An image from Unsung Hero: TVC Thai Life

Sunday is Purim, the most joyful day on the Jewish calendar. Sadly, because of the threats that the Jewish community has faced over the past several weeks, many of us are not feeling so joyful.  However, given that Purim celebrates our ability to rise above those who threaten our very existence, the holiday has much to teach us.

We read the Book of Esther on Purim. It tells the story of our ancestor’s victory over Haman who sought to destroy the Jewish people. This victory reminds us that for centuries we’ve had to find the strength and courage to stand up to hate. Purim celebrations, including shpiels (plays that recount the story of Purim), costumes, festive meals, and, of course, hamantaschen (the triangular cookies stuffed with filling that are symbolic of Haman’s hat), are important reminders that we have and will continue to overcome those who seek to do us harm. And the strength of our Purim heroes, Queen Esther, Mordechai and the Jews of Shushan, are a reminder that when we are united as a people, haters come crashing down.

It’s customary for Jews to send each other Mishloach Manot – gifts of food and drink – on Purim. By sending these gifts, not only do we help spread the joy of Purim, we also do our part to unite our community. In the Book of Esther, Haman asserted that the Jewish people were “a scattered and divided nation.” Sadly, there have been times in history when it seemed like Haman’s assertion was accurate. Even today, as we face a rise in anti-Semitism and a divisive political climate, we struggle to be a united Jewish community. Mishloach Manot are a way for us to heal the divide and, therefore, a way to ensure that Haman’s terrible assertion about us never really comes true. We might disagree vehemently, we might be fearful, but on Purim, our tradition asks us to come together and celebrate the downfall of Haman.

While Mishloach Manot are usually gifts of food and drink, they can also be words of Torah – a powerful lesson that brings us closer to each other. Today, I’m including my Mishloach Manot in this message.  It’s a lesson that’s not comprised of traditional biblical verses. Rather, it’s an extremely touching life insurance commercial from Thailand. Yes, you read that correctly! Please click on the image below to watch “Unsung Hero: TVC Thai Life”:

This is truly a beautiful commercial. The lesson it contains reminds me that when we do our best to rise above the negativity out there and go out of our way to lift each other up, we can discover pure goodness. When we discover this goodness, we experience pure happiness. And this pure happiness is the essence of Purim.

Please pass this video on as we get ready to celebrate our joyous holiday. Make it your own Mishloach Manot, a simple gift that reminds us of the importance of coming together and believing in good.

Cheryl, Abigail, Jonah and I wish you all a very happy Purim.

Today’s Community-Wide Gathering Addressing Anti-Semitism

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This morning I joined with other rabbis, Jewish professionals, law enforcement – including members of the FBI, FEMA, BSO and police chiefs from Broward and Miami Dade – including the Chiefs from the Plantation and Davie Police Departments – at a meeting to discuss the outbreak of anti-Semitism in our community. This meeting was organized and led by our Congresswoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz.  We were briefed by the FBI about the current situation. It is clear that they are working very closely on investigating the many anti-Semitic incidents rocking our community. During our meeting, it was announced that an arrest has been made related to the bomb threats called into Jewish institutions. The FBI made it clear, however, that this is an ongoing investigation that has a possible international nexus. Law enforcement did caution us all to be wary of media reports surrounding these incidents. In addition, they stressed that if we do find ourselves in a building where a bomb threat has been called in, do NOT share information – especially on social media. Doing so puts everyone involved at risk. This morning’s meeting gave me great confidence that this crisis is being handled extremely well and everything is being done to ensure our safety and security. Our law enforcement community is incredible.

In attendance at this morning’s meeting were representatives of the American Jewish Committee, the Miami Jewish Community Relations Council and the Anti-Defamation League. With these organizations, we spoke about ways in which we as a community can strategize and work to combat the rise in anti-Semitism. Congresswoman Schultz encourages us to build bridges with other religious and ethnic communities to help teach others about our faith. She and others also stressed the need to put aside religious and political differences within our Jewish family and come together to combat hate. While it was not shared at the meeting, the ADL did propose the following strategy to President Trump – click here.

As we are taught in Pirkei Avot: “Do not separate yourself from the community.”  Now is the time to come together. To be with each other. To support each other. To show the world that we stand together as a strong, united community. And so, I urge you to join us tonight at 7:30PM for Kabbalat Shabbat and all other events at Ramat Shalom. Your presence is one of the best ways to combat hate directed against us.

Silence Is Not An Option

This morning, the David Posnack Hebrew Day School and the entire Posnack JCC in Davie (and JCC’s across the country) were evacuated after receiving a bomb threat. It is my understanding that the police have given the all clear and students, teachers and JCC members and staff have returned to the Posnack complex. I want to assure you that we remain vigilant and are in regular contact with law enforcement.

Yesterday, another Jewish cemetery, this time in Philadelphia, was vandalized. The ADL has put up a $10,000 reward to help find the perpetrators of these heinous crimes. Please join me in supporting the work of the ADL. Click here to make a donation: https://secure2.convio.net/adl/site/SPageNavigator/donation-api/donation_form_single_main_1.html

In addition, please call President Trump and ask him to denounce these hate crimes directed against our community, do everything in his power to support the American Jewish community and ensure that all resources are being utilized to investigate these acts of hate.  The White House phone number is: (202) 456-1111. In addition, please deliver the same message to Senators Rubio (202) 224-3041 and Senator Nelson (202) 224-5274. We can’t be silent.

A BDS Leader’s Fundraising Campaign Leaves Me Stumped

This week, the Jewish community continued to be rocked to its core by anti-Semitic acts, including more bomb threats called into Jewish institutions across the country and the desecration of the Chesed Shel Emeth, a Jewish cemetery in University City, Missouri. While the President has been criticized by many for his delayed response to this hatred, the outpouring of support that the cemetery has received has been tremendous. The Vice-President visited the cemetery on Wednesday along with people of all different faiths to stand in solidarity with the Jewish community. Our own Julie Cole, a student at Washington University, has worked with her Hillel to raise funds needed to repair the damage done to the cemetery, which is just ten minutes from her apartment. Many other individuals and organizations are doing the same thing, including Linda Sarsour, the outgoing Executive Director of the Arab American Association of NY, a former Democratic National Convention delegate (she was a supporter of Bernie Sanders) and an organizer of last month’s Women’s March on Washington. Ms. Sarsour, in partnership with Tarek El-Messidi of Celebrate Mercy, has raised more than $100,000 for the cemetery on Launchgood.com.

During this challenging time, it’s extremely meaningful to see so many people from various faiths and backgrounds reach out and support the Jewish community. This being said, I’m struggling with Ms. Sarsour’s support. My struggle is based on a larger struggle I have with “intersectionality,” the trendy, sociological term that describes how different groups that form around various religious, socio-economic, national, racial, ethnic and/or gender identities can, at times, share a common struggle. Unquestionably, both the American Jewish and Muslim communities have been confronted with terrible hate and violence. We do understand, to an extent, each other’s pain and fear and must stand with each other during these trying times. Many members of the Jewish community have supported the Muslim community when they have faced acts of hate, and I’m grateful to all members of the Muslim community who have supported our community – including those who have given to Ms. Sarsour’s Launchgood fund – when the hate has been directed at us.

This being said, Ms. Sarsour is a staunch advocate of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign (BDS) which is designed to delegitimize the State of Israel. Democratic Senator Chuck Shumer states very clearly that BDS is a “modern form of anti-Semitism.” And the Anti-Defamation League, which has stood in opposition to all forms of Islamaphobia, states:

The delegitimization of Israel is at the heart of contemporary anti-Semitism. BDS is one of its most visible and dangerous manifestations.  ADL is committed to exposing the bigotry at the core of the movement and discrediting the leaders of BDS.

Ms. Sarsour, who has built strong relationships with some American Jewish organizations and leaders, claims she’s not an anti-Semite. Her strong support of BDS (watch Ms. Sarsour testify on behalf of BDS in NYC last September here), however, tells a different story. And her hateful comments about Zionists drive this story home:

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Interestingly, while organizers of the Women’s March on Washington worked hard to keep Israel-Palestine issues from being part of last month’s protest, Ms. Sarsour’s involvement in the BDS Movement did keep some individuals and organizations from participating.

In addition to being a staunch BDS advocate, Ms. Sarsour believes that the solution to the Israel-Palestinian crisis is a one-state solution, a solution that will ensure a Palestinian majority and, thus, the end of the Jewish State (yes, during the press conference with President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu earlier this month, you heard about a one-state solution that would favor Israelis). Ms. Sarsour states:

I don’t think a two-state solution is viable, is logistically possible…My hope is that it will be one state, one man one vote, that everyone is treated equally. Then you can say that part of the world is a true democracy.

Ms. Sarsour, who has been subject to a great deal of scrutiny lately, believes that by supporting the restoration of the graves at Chesed Shel Emeth, we can send “a united message…from the Jewish and Muslim communities that” makes it clear that “there is no place for this type of hate, desecration, and violence in America.” I certainly agree that as two powerful religious communities, we do have the ability to send such a message. However, I personally believe that Ms. Sarsour’s involvement in the delivery of this message is completely inappropriate and inauthentic to her position and the position of many of us in the Jewish community.

Pinned to the top of Ms. Sarsour’s Twitter account is the following tweet:

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Sadly, Ms. Sarsour has no problem denying the rights of others to exist. We see this in her support of the BDS Movement. We also see her reject those who want to stand up to Islamaphobia but don’t meet all of her requirements. When Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the ADL, promised to register as a Muslim if the Trump administration created a religious database, Ms. Sarsour attacked Mr. Greenblatt’s promise by tweeting:

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Ms. Sarsour belittles Mr. Greenblatt’s support because the ADL has come out againstCongressman Keith Ellison becoming the chair of the Democratic National Committee due to anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements he made. You can read the ADL’s statement on Congressman Ellison here.

Back in November, American Muslims for Palestine (an organization that, according to the ADL, promotes anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views) held their Annual Convention for Palestine in Chicago. Ms. Sarsour spoke at the convention saying (you can also hear a recording of her speaking these words here):

We have limits to the type of friendships that we’re looking for right now…and I want to be friends with those whom I know have been steadfast, courageous, have been standing up and protecting their own communities, those who have taken the risk to stand up and say – we are with the Palestinian people, we unequivocally support BDS when it comes to Palestinian human rights and have been attacked viciously by the very people who are telling you that they’re about to stand on the front line of the Muslim registry program. No thank you, sisters and brothers.

Ms. Sarsour told NPR earlier this week that her fundraising effort for Chesed Shel Emeth is “another way for us to publicly defy the idea that Muslims and Jews can’t get along.” However, her comments at the American Muslims for Palestine convention, comments which are very similar to her pinned tweet posted above, make it explicitly clear: if you don’t share her views on BDS and the Palestinian cause, you are no friend. And if you are an Israeli, she will work tirelessly to undermine your country’s legitimacy. How does this encourage Muslims and Jews to get along?

As troubled as I am by Ms. Sarsour’s statements, she has every right to say them and believe in them. But, her positions highlight the absurdity of intersectionality here.  She wants the Jewish community to join her and stand up to hate. But, in order for us to do so, to genuinely stand with her, she has one major condition: we must support the delegitimization of the Jewish State – a condition that many of us see as anti-Semitic – a condition that is grounded in hate.

There are those who believe that, despite Ms. Sarsour’s condition, her effort to help Chesed Shel Emeth is admirable. Some American Jews can separate the hateful rhetoric of BDS from the well-being of the American Jewish community. I can’t. Working to undermine the existence of the Jewish State is, as Senator Shumer states, anti-Semitism. And anti-Semitism is hate that is dangerous to Jews in Israel, in America and across the globe. I can’t enter into a partnership with someone who threatens the very survival of Israel.

Many of us in the Jewish community stand in opposition to BDS and in support of the ADL. Given this, Ms. Sarsour would not befriend us, making it extremely difficult to stand together against the desecration of Chesed Shel Emeth. And this leaves me struggling to figure out why Ms. Sarsour is raising funds for the cemetery. Is it a good will gesture? A show of compassion? An attempt to build bridges? If she dropped the condition to unequivocally support BDS – perhaps. But, since this condition is still very much on the table as Ms. Sarsour leaves her position at the Arab American Association of NY and lands in the national spotlight, I can’t help but wonder if this is a well-orchestrated public relations campaign. If so, it’s worked exceptionally well. Everyone is talking about Ms. Sarsour’s support of the Chesed Shel Emeth. But, for those of us whose pro-Israel and anti-BDS positions would keep Ms. Sarsour from befriending us, we’re willing to be the “out of key instruments” in that well-orchestrated campaign. While on the surface, Ms. Sarsour’s support of the cemetery seems like a beautiful effort to unite the Jewish and Muslim communities, when we dig deeper it is clear that there are more genuine ways for Jews to support the restoration of Chesed Shel Emeth. I encourage you to learn more about Washington University’s Hillel fundraiser by clicking here. And, as always, I urge you to do your homework before you give your resources and lend your name to a cause.