The Jewish Valentine’s Day!?!?!?!

Valentine’s Day, is tomorrow.  As most of you know, there is nothing Jewish about Valentine’s Day. The holiday is named after one or more early Christian martyrs named Saint Valentine, and was established by Pope Gelasius I in 496 CE.  One legend teaches that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When the Roman Emperor decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied the Emperor and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, the Emperor ordered that he be put to death. According to another legend, Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” greeting himself. While in prison, Valentine fell in love with a young girl who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter, which he signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today. Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories certainly emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic, and, most importantly, romantic figure. It’s no surprise that by the Middle Ages, Valentine was one of the most popular saints in England and France and Valentine’s Day still remains a popular holiday. 

Despite the non-Jewish origins of this holiday, many Jews celebrate Valentine’s Day in some fashion.  I certainly have no problem with this given that expressing our love and affection for our spouses, partners and other important people in our lives is very Jewish.  What does trouble me is that most Jews do not know that we have our own Jewish “Day of Love”- known as Tu B’Av.  It falls on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Av, which this year falls on August 3rd

 Tu B’Av began during the second Temple period (before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE).  It was a matchmaking day for unmarried women who would go out dressed in white and dance in the vineyards while saying: “Young man, consider whom you choose (to be your wife)!

Tu B’Av, like several Jewish holidays begins on the night between the 14th and 15th day of the Hebrew month.  This the night of the full moon in our lunar calendar. Linking the night of a full moon with romance, love, and fertility was not uncommon in ancient cultures and clearly embraced by Judaism.

After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70C CE, the only way Tu B’Av was celebrated was that the morning prayer service on that day did not include any penitence prayers, stressing that this was a day of joy.  With the re-establishment of Israel in 1948, Tu B’Av began to make a comeback.  Modern Israeli culture promotes festivals of singing and dancing on the night of Tu B’Av. Israelis give cards and flowers to their loved ones on Tu BAv and the date is popular for weddings. Last year, the Israeli homepage for Google featured hearts placed in the Google icon.

So for those of you who can’t get enough of Valentine’s Day, mark your calendars – Tu B’Av 2012 is August 3rd!!!


In this podcast, I discuss the situation with Iran, comparing it to the moment our ancestors stood at the Red Sea – before it parted – with Pharaoh’s army quickly advancing upon them.  G-d told the Jewish people to go forward!  G-d is not going to part this sea for us this time.  It is up to us.  And it is time to go forward!

Click here for podcast: IRAN

A Follow-Up Letter On BDS (see previous post)

So, I watched the videos and read the links that others shared regarding the BDS Movement.  Thank you for sharing.  I also watched videos from the PennBDS conference.  I must say that I am disappointed that no one out there in cyber world who counts him/herself as a BDS supporter responded to the questions/concerns/links that I shared yesterday.   I know everyone is busy and if I were not leading a series of workshops dealing with the delegitimization of Israel on college campuses, I probably would not be spending so much time on this.  This being said, I shared my concerns with this group and would like to get some feedback from those who support BDS please.


My homework over the past two days has not only validated my concerns but also elevated them.  The video featuring J.J, Goldberg, Hannah Mermelstein, Kathleen Peratis and Yonatan Shapira ( disturbed me greatly not just because of the anti-Zionist sentiments that were expressed in the video but also because of the hatred of Israel that was expressed in the video and the tremendous distortion of the facts by speakers.  I shared the video with my regular Tuesday study group this morning.  This group consists of many long-term Reconstructionists – and to say that they left upset would be an understatement.  I also watched Ali Abunimah’s keynote speech at PennBDS (  His demonization of Israel was over the top.


Overall, the videos make it clear to me that the ultimate goal of BDS, a goal explained by Abunimah, Mermelstein and Shapira, is to dismantle the Jewish State of Israel and replace it with a new, “democratic”, pluralistic society – a society that is not a Jewish homeland.  This would be the death of Zionism and a horrific loss for the Jewish people.


While I am no J-Street supporter, I found myself cheering on Peratis as she said she is committed to a two state solution that includes a Jewish State. 


As I see it, one of the huge problems with the BDS movement and many other anti-Israel causes is an issue Daniel Gordis talks a lot about: the faulty assumption that when it comes to democracy, Israel is a Hebrew-speaking, mini-America.   On the contrary, Israel is not like the democracy that we live in here and, if it remains a Jewish State, it never will be. This is a challenging reality for many liberal American Jews – one that must be discussed.


The very nature of Israel is to be a Jewish homeland that, in turn, gives Jews a favored status.  This is, as Gordis explains, an “ethnic democracy” which is a democratic system described by Professor Sammy Smooha of the University of Haifa ( 


An ethnic democracy is one that “combines the extension of civil and political rights to permanent residents who wish to be citizens with the bestowal of a favored status on the majority group.”  In an ethnic democracy, “the state belongs to the majority and serves it more than the minority.” Israel is not the only ethnic democracy out there.  Latvia and Estonia, Malaysia and Slovakia are also ethnic democracies.  Many consider an ethnic democracy a “diminished” form of democracy and thus many don’t like it.  But, Gordis points out that Professor Smooha, who is a Jew, a critic of ethnic democracy and a passionate defender of the rights of Israel’s Arabs, admits that “the democratic framework is real and not a façade.”  It is part of the reality that is this on-going Jewish project that many of us love with all our hearts and souls – this project we call Israel.


I have been thinking a lot about this idea of “ethnic democracy”.  As a congregational rabbi of a liberal synagogue that praises itself on being a democratic, welcoming institution – we, as a congregation, are an “ethnic democracy”.  Our constitution forbids a non-Jew from holding certain board positions including the positions of President and Ritual Chair.  While non-Jews can be members, they are not granted full rights and 99% of the time are expected to be partnered with a Jew.  Non-Jews can’t take part in all aspects of our services.  We will not grant membership to Jews-for-Jesus – this has been discussed – and anyone else who has no “real connection” to Judaism.  We will not enroll students in our religious school unless they are being raised solely as Jews.  In order to become a Jew (not just at Ramat Shalom), we expect people to pledge loyalty to Judaism and renounce all other religions before a beit din.  Once one becomes a Jew, they are given full rights.  Is it fair to compare a synagogue to Israel? Probably not – but there is no question that my congregation is an “ethnic democracy”. (I also think about my days as a Vassar tour guide – telling people that while the school went co-ed in 1969, officials will never allow men to outnumber women because this would change the character of the school.)


I know that Israel has many issues to address when it comes to her non-Jewish citizens.  This being said, I accept the fact that Israel is not and will never be a mini-America.  Israel is an ethnic democracy and must remain one in order to remain a Jewish State.  And I always want there to be a Jewish State.


I believe, unlike Mermelstein, Shapira and Abunimah, that we Jews need our own nation, our own safe place, our own haven.  Sorry, I don’t believe that the Holocaust is in the rearview mirror.  I believe “Never Again!” and I don’t believe this makes me paranoid.  I believe it makes me a realist.  I also believe that we are entitled to the nation that was created by the UN in 1947.  And I believe that Israel had and still has the right to defend herself.  And I believe that Israel has the right to resolve unsettled territorial disputes that were the result of numerous attacks upon her sovereignty in a manner that insures her safety and her security.  I believe that Israel has the right to be a Jewish State and uphold the law of return for Jews while preventing the return of Palestinian refugees.


Because of this, I find the BDS Movement, which singles out, demonizes and delegitimizes the Jewish State and endorses (through BDS) the punishment of the citizens of the Jewish State as a means to achieve its ultimate goal, being the dismantling of the Jewish State, to be not only (obviously) anti-Zionist, but, yes, anti-Semitic.  Please note I said I find the MOVEMENT to be anti-Semitic.  I can’t pretend to know the motivations of individuals who support BDS.  But I can say this: the BDS Movement is committed to end Jewish self-determination in the Jewish homeland officially given to the Jewish people by the United Nations 65 years ago.  (see Professor Dina Porat’s (Tel Aviv University) article “Defining Anti-Semitism in which she argues that denying Jews the right to self-determination by saying Israel is a racist endeavor is anti-Semitic, Attacking Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State, comparing it to a Nazi State, applying double standards not expected of other nations (as opposed to working to change Israeli governmental policies) is widely accepted as anti-Semitism.  And when a Jew stands with, supports, gives a platform to the BDS Movement s/he legitimizes this anti-Semitism.  And this brings me back to my original post in which I said: “I fail to understand, am embarrassed by, and am, quite frankly, tired of having to explain to my congregants, the desire among some of my Jewish colleagues to aid those determined to destroy Israel.”

A Letter To My Jewish Colleagues

To my Jewish colleagues who have stood up and supported the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement:

I am an openly, proud Zionist.  I love Israel.  While I know she, like every nation, is imperfect, she has the right to exist, in peace, as a Jewish State.  I am infuriated by the countless efforts to delegitimize, slander and destroy Israel.

Let me make myself clear: I believe in free speech.  I believe in healthy, respectful debate.  I believe that Jews must stand up for what is right and just.  And, yes, I believe that Jews have a right to respectfully and fairly critique Israeli policy.

This being said, when I read about Jewish leaders standing with and supporting those who are openly committed to the destruction of the Jewish State, I am horrified.  When I read about and engage with rabbis who see nothing wrong with programs like PennBDS and actually think programs like this are good for Israel, I am stunned.   I am even more stunned when some of my colleagues go out of their way to fast for Gaza, but our own children of S’derot are ignored. Who is going to stand up for these children if we, the Jewish leaders, don’t do so? Furthermore, where was the BDS outrage this weekend when China and Russia blocked a Security Council resolution against Bashar?  Simply put, I fail to understand, am embarrassed by, and am, quite frankly, tired of having to explain to my congregants, the desire among some of my Jewish colleagues to aid those determined to destroy Israel.

Some advise me to bite my tongue and say nothing.  And I have often done so, afraid of offending.  Afraid of further alienating myself from the mainstream”, liberal Jewish community, afraid of being called names like “right-winger” or “hawk”.  These labels I can live with.  Being called, “ignorant” or worse, names like an “Islamaphobe”, “racist” or “murderer” – this I can’t live with.  So yes, at times I have been guilty of being silent because sticks and stones have broken lots of my bones.  I have been guilty of lurking in the background, listening, reading, quietly fuming.  But, as a rabbi of students at Penn and many other college campuses across this country, I realize that I am doing them a disservice by being silent.

I was once a college student.  And I know how confusing it is to have your spiritual homeland attacked and maligned on your campus.  In 1988, I was a freshman at Vassar College.  I grew up with very little Jewish knowledge – especially when it came to Israel.  During the first month of my freshman year, I was invited to attend an anti-Israel rally on campus.  I was told that Israel was doing “bad things” to innocent people.  I was told by organizers that I had to stand up for what was right!  My liberal, suburban upbringing had taught me to do just this.  My Jewish education was nonexistent.  So, I started to follow the organizers and stand up for the oppressed!  That was until a Christian senior student who was watching the organizers talk to me pulled me aside and lambasted me for a good hour.  She opened my eyes to the “other side of the story” and told me that as a Jew, I have an obligation to stand up for Israel and stand up for the truth.  I didn’t go to the anti-Israel event that day.  Instead, that day, I became a Zionist.

As I read about PennBDS, I remembered that day I almost protested against Israel and I feared that maybe I had not done enough for my students at Penn and elsewhere to prepare them for the hate they would face….

So, I asked my colleagues what was going on at Penn to insure that I could connect my students to organizations and people who were countering the BDS propaganda.  While, I received a wonderful e-mail from Penn Hillel, the majority of responses I received were questioning my problems with BDS.  Responses suggesting that I was too “closed-minded” and encouraging me to hear what is being said by BDS leaders.  I received responses that attacked those who attacked BDS.  As I read the responses, my heart broke because I was once a clueless college kid who could have easily been misled.  But today, I am a Zionist who knows a lot.  I know that Israel is being threatened and we have an obligation to stand up for her and teach our kids to do the same.   I know the strength of those out to delegitimize Israel.  And I know that we are not doing enough to stand up for her.

I know that Nobel-Peace Prize winner, Desmond Tutu, who openly supported PennBDS, supports the double standards that are an integral part of BDS: “Whether Jews like it or not, they are a peculiar people.  They can’t ever hope to be judged by the same standards which are used for other people.”  (Religious News Service, 28 November 1984)  I know that Tutu, like many in the BDS world, has invoked Nazi imagery to fuel the passion of his supporters:  “The gas chambers (of the Holocaust) (made for) a neater death (than apartheid resettlement policies)” (Gideon Shimoni, “South African Jews and Apartheid, “American Jewish Tear Book” (New York: American Jewish Committee, 1988) 51).

I know that Omar Barghouti, a prominent leader in the BDS movement praised Tutu last week in the Daily Pennsylvanian, calling him “among the most eloquent voices accusing Israel of practicing apartheid against the Palestinian people.”

I know that Barghouti is opposed to a two state solution, calling, instead for the “launch (of a) new visionary and practical processes that will lead to the establishment of a unitary democratic state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.” (  I know that what he and other BDS leaders really mean when they talk about freeing the Palestinian people is really the destruction of the Jewish State.

I know that while Barghouti is not busy dedicating himself to boycotting, divesting, sanctioning and delegitimizing Israel, he is a graduate student at Israel’s premier Tel-Aviv University.  When questioned about this double standard by Israeli paper Maariv, he has said: “My studies at Tel-Aviv University are a personal matter and I have no interest in commenting.” He has also said that  “Oppressed people don’t have a choice of where they go to school,” (Q&A session at Loyola Law School).

I know that Barghouti had plenty of choices. He was born in Qatar.  He grew up in Egypt.  He attended Columbia University.  He moved to Ramallah as an adult. He could have could have pursued his graduate degree at Birzeit University or Al-Quds University or any university outside of Israel.  But, he didn’t.  He chose Israel.  And he condemns the nation that is educating him, the nation he tells the world not to choose.

Many have asked Tel-Aviv University to expel him.  But, the university has said that:

“A university campus should be a place that encourages and tolerates free speech, no matter how offensive the expressed opinions may be to the majority of students and faculty at that institution, or indeed to the public at large. Our university has adopted a similar policy also in previous occasions..  The University cannot and will not expel this student based on his political views or actions. He will be assessed only on the basis of his academic achievements and excellence.”

This man who accuses Israel of suppressing Palestinians in the same way that the Nazis suppressed the Jews is supported by the nation he despises.  This speaks volumes to me.

I know that Ali Abunimah, the keynote speaker at PennBDS has written the following on his Twitter:

-It’s racist to think Jews need a special state and can’t live with other people.

-That is something Zionism shares with anti-Semitism, a disdain for actual Jewish culture and life as it existed.

-Supporting Zionism is not atonement for the Holocaust, but its continuation in spirit.

-Zionism is a distortion of Judaism.

As a Zionist, these tweets disgust me.

I know that Abunimah defended the fact that Hamas did not allow the ICRC to visit Gilad Shalit. (

I know that Abunimah twists and distorts the facts by calling Israel’s right to defend herself genocide.


I know that Abunimah is determined to bash Israel while calling for her demise, writing that : “change will come. Without indulging Israeli racism or preserving undue privilege, the legitimate concerns of ordinary Israeli Jews can be addressed directly in any negotiated transition to ensure that the shift to democracy is orderly, and essential redistributive policies are carried out fairly. Inevitably, decolonization will cause some pain as Israeli Jews lose power and privilege, but there are few reasons to believe it cannot be a well-managed process, or that the vast majority of Israeli Jews, like white South Africans, would not be prepared to make the adjustment for the sake of a normality and legitimacy they cannot have any other way.”

I know these things.  And this is why I don’t stand with BDS, don’t want to aid BDS, don’t want to give them a platform, don’t want to encourage anyone to believe that what they have to say will be good for Israel.  I want to support Israel.  And I want my college students to know how to do the same thing.  And I feel that we as Jewish leaders have an obligation to look out for our own and help them navigate through the delegitimization nightmare

Sadly, I know I will be attacked and labeled by some for sharing these things.  Accused of terrible things.  But I know that I can’t remain silent.  I can’t let my Jewish community, my college kids and their parents think that I endorse, support, condone any delegitimization of Israel.