In the midst of racial tension, there is light to be found. The post Bahaalotcha 5780 – The Light in the Crisis appeared first on The Neshamah Center.
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Bahaalotcha 5780 – The Light in the Crisis and more...

Bahaalotcha 5780 – The Light in the Crisis

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֵלָ֑יו בְּהַעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה יָאִ֖ירוּ שִׁבְעַ֥ת הַנֵּרֽוֹת׃

Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.”

The rabbis ask, “why does this verse, the commandment to light the menorah, come right after all of the offerings that the 12 tribes brought for the inauguration of the tabernacle?” (at the end of last week’s parsha)

According to the midrash, Aaron saw that all of the tribes other than his tribe, Levi brought sacrifices; yet the tribe of Levi didn’t bring any. Aaron said to himself, “Oy, it was because of me the tribe of Levi wasn’t accepted by God (because of that episode with the Golden Calf).” God overheard, and told Moses, “You go to tell Aaron, don’t worry, you’re destined for greater things than this, for the sacrifices are only for the time when the Temple is standing, but these lights eternally provide light for the menorah.” 

The rabbis object – but wait a minute, if the Temple isn’t functioning, there’s no menorah either! Midrash Tanchuma explains that when the Temple was destroyed, the menorah was hidden away, and its light is eternal.

But how can that be?

The midrash teaches that this is talking about the supernal light of the first day of creation – miraculous light. The light that came from God saying, “let there be light” on the first day of creation. Since the light of the first day came before the creation of the sun, moon, and stars, it wasn’t a physical type of light, but rather a Godly type of light.

God saw that in the future there would be wicked people who are not suitable for this holy supernal light, so God hid it away for the righteous. This is known as haohr haganuz, the hidden light.

This hidden light is alluded to in Psalm 97, part of the Friday night liturgy. We often sing the part, “Ohr Zarua Latzaddik uleyishrei Lev Simcha.…There is a special light strewn for the righteous and joy for the straight hearted.” The light strewn for the righteous is this hidden light of the menorah.

We need that light, but God also wants the light. Another midrash says when the Jews were given the commandment to kindle the Menorah in the Temple (Bamidbar 8:2), they asked God why He told them to light up for Him Who is the Light of the whole world. God said to them, “You’re right. I don’t need your light. But I want to give you an opportunity to light for Me like I have lit for you.”

The Sfat Emet says

Doing a mitzvah is like lighting a candle before God — it is preparing a place where God’s glorious presence can dwell. By means of this you enliven your soul, the candle… The more light a person brings about in the physical darkness, through doing the mitzvot, the more that one will enlighten one’s soul from the light above.

One of the most important commandments is to love your neighbor as yourself. When we act compassionately and justly, we are bringing some of that light hidden for the righteous out into the world, to benefit both ourselves and God.

Last week I spoke about some of the terrible things that have been happening in our country around race relations. But something remarkable is also happening. People’s hearts are opening up. Light is being revealed. There have been many other unarmed black men who have been killed by police, but something seems different this time. George Floyd is having more of an impact than previous travesties of justice have had.

Some concrete changes are already happening.

In Minneapolis, where Floyd was murdered, the city has agreed to a restraining order from the state forcing immediate policing reforms, including banning the use of chokeholds and requiring any officers who witness the use of excessive force to intervene and report it.

New York state repealed a law that kept police disciplinary records hidden from the public. Under that law if a police officer was involved in a violent incident, the public had no way to find out whether that officer had previously had any problems with excessive use of force.

The sponsor of the bill, New York state senator Jamaal Bailey from the Bronx said,

The silver lining on this incredibly dark cloud is that the sun is finally starting to shine on injustice. Maybe it’s the unmistakable, and in my opinion indisputable, video evidence that we saw a live murder on TV, but it’s done something to the consciousness of America. I don’t know if there could be a more meaningful piece of legislation for me and this body because it’s way more than just policy.

There are calls to “defund the police.” Those calls need to be rebranded. I have to admit, when I first heard those calls, I thought “what a horrible idea.” Different people mean different things by defund police – many cities across the country, including Los Angeles and New York, are looking at moving some money from police budgets to social services budgets – to try and reduce the number of people who turn to crime. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That might not be such a horrible idea.

Police are being held accountable for violence against citizens, regardless of race (yes, white people can also be victims of police violence). Two cops in Buffalo have been charged with felony assault for pushing a 75-year-old demonstrator. An NYPD cop was charged with assault, menacing, and harassment for shoving a woman to the ground during a demonstration. Four police officers in Atlanta have been fired for dragging two students from their car and shooting them with stun guns when they were stuck in traffic from a demonstration.

Law enforcement agencies across the country are putting in place procedures to reduce possible police violence and increase accountability. They are also increasingly defying powerful police unions.

Congress is hearing testimony and considering legislation on police reform.

Facial identification software does not do as good a job with faces of minorities as it does with white faces. Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon have put a moratorium on the use of their facial identification software by police departments. It’s interesting to note that this is happening at a time when because of the coronavirus many people are wearing masks, effectively disabling the facial recognition software. I’m sure anyone with a phone that relies on facial recognition to open has noticed, as I have, that it doesn’t work when you’re wearing a mask.

There are symbolic actions as well. The Confederate flag has long been hijacked by white nationalists as a racist symbol – the Confederate flags were flying in Charlotte. The US Marine Corps has banned any displays of the Confederate flag on Marine Corps property. NASCAR has banned Conferderate flags at their events – and this is a big deal, because NASCAR is very big in the South, and the flags are popular with many NASCAR fans. Many cities are removing statues of Confederate generals or other known racist public figures. The Army is considering renaming bases named after Confederate generals.

Many police officers across the country who were policing demonstrations have taken a knee to show their support for George Floyd. There’s a beautiful video of a demonstrator asking Portland police decked out in riot gear if they would take a knee to show their support for black lives. They all did – a row of cops in riot gear, taking a knee, and demonstrators coming over and shaking their hands and thanking them. Now we shouldn’t be shaking hands during a pandemic, but this is really what we need – handshakes instead of chokeholds. Police letting citizens know they are there to protect them, not intimidate them.

Israel also has had problems with police violence against minorities, and in Israel too there have been points of light. An autistic Palestinian man was killed by an Israeli border police cop, despite having been told the man was mentally disabled and not a terrorist. Prime Minister Netanyahu has said the killing was a tragedy and unjustified – that acknowledgement alone, instead of a cover-up, is a point of light. A former chief rabbi of Israel paid a condolence call to the grieving family – which is another point of light.

For me personally, it’s sparked conversations that probably should have happened long ago. Our Jewish Black Clergy group that Rabbi Rosenbaum organized that has been meeting for the past year, has been hearing the testimony of some of our black colleagues, and what we are hearing is shocking. It’s one thing to read about race problems, or to see something in a video. But having someone you know give testimony, “this happened to me” is far more powerful. But as Jews we know that – that’s why we’ve made such an effort to have Holocaust survivors speak to us and our children. There’s nothing more powerful than first person testimony, and many white people, such as myself, are hearing that testimony for the time, which I pray brings more than just awareness for the white listener, but may it bring healing for the black talker.

Yesterday I went to the Black Lives Matter Silent March together with other rabbis and black pastors. It was the quietest, most peaceful, most orderly demonstration I’ve ever been to. Everyone was wearing masks. People followed directions. Given Seattle’s demographics, it’s not surprising there were more white people than black people there, but that too is a powerful statement – and it’s a source of light. We recognize that racism doesn’t only harm black people, it harms all of us.

Light is ephemeral but very powerful. One small candle in a dark room can make...


Naso 5780 – Black Lives Matter

“Mommy, what’s racism?”

A few days ago, my 8-year-old grandson James heard the term on TV and asked his parents to explain. He had trouble wrapping his head around the fact that someone might not like someone else because of the color of their skin.

Recent events show that we have not solved our race problems in America.

“I can’t breathe.”

George Floyd’s final words were the same as the final words of Eric Garner. Black men are far more likely to die from police violence than white men. Black men are likelier to be pulled over by the police and to have their cars searched, especially if they’re driving in the wrong neighborhood. It’s called being guilty of “driving while black.”

This isn’t just anecdotal. There’s solid statistical data. The raw data is appalling. In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered by the police, the police use force against blacks at seven times the rate they use force against whites. But, you can argue if the blacks live in lower income areas, there may be higher crime rates and that could explain more encounters between blacks and police. Yet sophisticated statistical analysis shows that even comparing for all variables, there is discrimination. Black drivers are much more likely to be pulled over during the day – when it can be seen that they are black – than at night when it’s harder for police to see someone’s race from a distance.

Cops killing blacks disproportionately is not a problem in every city, and it’s not tied to the rate of violent crime. Compare Buffalo, New York and Orlando, Florida. Both have populations that are roughly 50% people of color. The rate of violent crime in Buffalo is higher than the rate of violent crime in Orlando, 12 per 1000 versus 9 per 1000 – meaning the violent crime rate in Buffalo is 25% HIGHER than in Orlando. Yet from 2013 to 2016 there were no people killed by the police in Buffalo, and 13 in Orlando. It’s hard to avoid concluding the police in Orlando are comparatively trigger happy.

And it’s not just police. Ahmaud Arbery was murdered in Georgia in February for the crime of “jogging while black.” The police seemed ready to give the murderers a pass until there was a public outcry.

And there are white people, sad to say, who know this, and use it against black men. Christian Cooper, an avid birdwatcher, former editor at Marvel comics and Harvard grad, who happens to be black, was birdwatching in New York’s Central Park a few weeks ago. Amy Cooper, no relation, a white woman had her dog off-leash in a part of the park reserved for birdwatching where dogs are required to be on-leash. Christian asked Amy to put a leash on the dog, and she refused, and then threatened to call the cops – she told Christian, “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.” And she did call the cops. She knew exactly what she was doing. She was trying to intimidate Christian, because everyone knows that if a white woman calls the cops and says a black man is threatening her life it sounds more urgent and threatening, and the cops might respond with excessive force. Fortunately, by the time the cops came, they had both left the scene. Christian videotaped the encounter, and as a result Amy was fired from her job as an investment manager. She tried claiming she’s not racist – but isn’t it racist to play the race card and lie on a call to the police? It’s reprehensible whatever she feels about black people in her heart.

Our Jewish values clearly tell us that police violence and racism are wrong.

First of all, police violence: regardless of race, the rabbis derive from the Torah the rule that even if your life is threatened, you can’t use more force than necessary to neutralize the threat. If you can stop someone coming to kill you by shooting them in the leg, you’re not allowed to shoot them in the head. All the more so if the person is not a danger to your life, and George Floyd in handcuffs was obviously not a threat to any police officer, and with four police officers present the man in handcuffs wasn’t going to get away. His murderer kept the pressure on Floyd’s neck even after he was unconscious. It’s appropriate that not only was the cop who did the killing charged with murder, the cops who stood around watching were charged as accessories.

Jewish values clearly condemn racism. The Torah teaches us that every single one of us, black, white, and any other color, is both created in the image of God, and descended from Adam and Eve. And while the story of Adam and Eve can be understood as apocryphal, science tells us that we do all have both a common male ancestor and common female ancestor. We are, in truth, all related.

The peaceful protests are clearly justified. There are genuine race problems in America. But what about the violence? Why the rioting and looting?

Some of the rioting and looting – especially in Seattle – comes from “anarchists,” people who are anti-government who are ready to loot and destroy anytime they get an excuse. May Day has historically been a time for hoodlums to come out.

But there’s another perspective on the rioting. Trevor Noah posted a video where he asked, “why isn’t there more violence and looting?” He explained it’s because we have a social contract. The contract is the government has a monopoly on the use of force, and it’s supposed to provide protection to all of its citizens. He says the rioters feel the contract has been torn up – like it doesn’t apply to them, they don’t get protected by the police, they get harmed by the police, so if there’s no contract they feel justified to not be bound by the usual rules.

What can we do to help restore that contract? What can we do to help black men feel that they too are part of the society, part of the contract?

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past week, and I’ve asked a lot of people. I’ve come up with three things:

  1. Hold our political leaders accountable. Demand that they be on the side of justice.
  2. Insist on police best practices.
  3. Support peaceful demonstrations

This is a time when there is great pain acoss the country. We have a right to expect our government’s leaders – at all levels – to call for calm and unity, to be a soothing presence.

Instead, we have a president who either is unaware or doesn’t care that he’s pouring gas on a fire. Using National Guard troops under federal command to clear peaceful protestors in order to use a church as a background to a photo with the Bible as a prop is so completely contrary to the values found in that Bible that’s it’s almost beyond words.

Quoting an infamous Miami police chief who in the late 60s said relative to race riots, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” clearly seems to encourage excessive police violence. Telling most governors that they are “weak,” and that they need to “dominate” is only likely to exacerbate the situation and lead to more violence.

Former President George Bush recently said, “we have resisted the urge to speak out, because this is not the time for us to lecture. It is time for us to listen. It is time for America to examine our tragic failures — and as we do, we will also see some of our redeeming strengths.”

It is time for us to listen – yet when our President made a condolence call to George Floyd’s brother Philonise, he didn’t have the courtesy to listen to him. THE most important thing in a condolence call is to listen to the bereaved. To let them talk. Even if you can’t offer to do something (like call for an investigation), you can listen. And then express your sorrow.

President Trump’s first Secretary of Defense – James Mattis has written a passionate editorial. He points out, “The words ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding.” He goes on to say:

Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.

The people who really need to speak are the people who support President Trump’s policies overall, but who are or should be disturbed by the President’s attempts to divide us. They are the ones who need to call on the President to lead in a different way. The President might listen to his supporters.

The second thing we can do is to insist that our local communities follow policing best practices. Police reform does work. In Los Angeles, for example, 12 people were killed by police last year, compared with 21 in 2015. The San Francisco police department had 11 police shootings in 2010, and after reforms were put in place went a year with no shootings at all.

Successful police reform typically includes three things: teaching police officers to de-escalate, setting and enforcing clear and strict rules on the use of potentially lethal force including choke holds, and weeding out violent cops.

Seattle clearly has a way to go in learning the lesson of de-escalate. The pink umbrella has become the symbol of Seattle protests because on Monday protestors brought umbrellas to the demonstration to protect themselves from pepper spray. A video clearly shows a protestor peacefully resting a pink umbrella on a barricade – and then a cop comes and grabs the umbrella, the protestor tries to hang on to their...


In Response to a National Crisis

A message I shared with my congregation today:

Our hearts are broken by what’s happening in our country.

Between the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, and the way a white woman, Amy Cooper, coolly played the race card in calling police on a peaceful black man, Chris Cooper, black men do not feel safe and they do not feel they are treated justly, not by society, and not by law enforcement.

Well-justified protests have devolved into rioting, destruction, and looting. We are seeing curfews across the nation such as have not been seen since the race riots of the late 60s. Even here on peaceful Mercer Island we have a curfew starting at 7pm tonight.And all of this, of course, comes on top of the stress, loneliness, and other challenges we face in coping with the coronavirus crisis.

We stand in solidarity with our black brothers and sisters and support their righteous cries for justice. I am part of a Black-Jewish Clergy group, Rabbi Rosenbaum is one of the founders, and we are turning to our black colleagues to ask how we can best show our support.

Clearly law enforcement has a responsibility to prevent wanton destruction. We call on them to keep us safe and to keep property safe using no more force than is necessary, and with sensitivity to avoid further inflaming the situation.I’ll talk about this more on Shabbat, but in the meanwhile, I offer a prayer:

Compassionate One
Replace hearts of stone with hearts of flesh
Help all of us see that we are all created in Your Divine Image
Black, brown, white, or any other color of the rainbow
Straight, gay, lesbian, or any other sexual identity
Christian, Jew, Muslim, or any other religion
May our society stop acting is if being a black male is a crime
May our police keep us safe while showing compassion, and without excessive force
Turn the hearts of those who would loot and destroy
Show them that this is not the way to build a better, fairer, more just society
El Na, please God
Keep us all safe
Safe from violence
and safe from virus
May we speedily see the day when we live together
In Peace
and Love

Rav Barry 

The post In Response to a National Crisis appeared first on The Neshamah Center.


April Hechter, z”l

I lost a good friend a few weeks ago. April died a few days after we had a “Zoom” 78th birthday party for her. She had fought a valiant battle against cancer for several years.

April was a truly unique person. Now yes, I know, everyone is unique, we’re all different, but April was more unique than most. She was a fascinating combination of personality traits – smart, funny, stubborn, good at understanding people, even though by trade she was an accountant, and we don’t usually think of accountants as people super tuned in to people. She had a very casual relationship with time. She would be an hour or two late to things the way most people would be ten or fifteen minutes late to things, and mostly seemed unaware that people might be inconvenienced by that.

I met April in the 1980s through San Francisco Regional Mensa. The time of the infamous California “hot tub parties.” I had the chance to do some traveling with April in the late 80s and early 90s. Some of travel adventures we shared can tell you a lot about the sort of person she was.

In the late 80s April lived in Auckland, New Zealand, for a few years. She won a plane ticket to New Zealand in some contest or something, was supposed to go for three weeks, but decided she liked it there and ended up staying a few years. That right there I think tells you a lot about what kind of person she was. It certainly takes a “free spirit” to do something like that.

During that time, I had a business trip to Australia and New Zealand. I gave a lecture in Wellington on a Thursday, and April flew down from Auckland on a one-way ticket, so she could drive with me from Wellington to Auckland so I could see something of the country. We met up mid-afternoon and were wondering what one does for entertainment on a Thursday night in Wellington, a somewhat sleepy seaside town with 200,000 people. We open the paper and discover the Bolshoi Ballet was in town! We called to see if we could get tickets, and sure enough there were seats available. The salesperson was apologetic: “we only have the expensive dress circle tickets left.” The tickets were $36 – a lot cheaper than what I paid for tickets to the San Francisco Ballet! Made a great start to our weekend. The main things I remember from the drive are April’s comment that all the sheep looked like lint on the hills (New Zealand has about seven times as many sheep as people) and the almost overwhelming smell of the sulphur baths at Rotorua.

In ’91 we had a couple of adventures together. She came along on a sailing trip to the Caribbean. Our friend Phil and I were “co-captains.” Learning how to have “co-captains” without someone getting thrown overboard was interesting. The rest of the crew included Phil’s partner Pam, my then wife, Cheryl, our two kids Kiri (9) and Heather (4), and April.

Considering how much time we all spend on Zoom these days, I was amused to look in my journal and note the name of 43’ sailboat we rented was “Zoom.” ! While we originally thought we might be eating a lot of our meals in restaurants in towns, we found that it was easier and more fun to just cook on the boat and not have to do a lot of schlepping, especially when we found beautiful, quiet anchorages, like the one at Colombier on St. Bart’s.

We rented a couple of cars on St Kitts. Cheryl preferred riding in the air conditioned car Phil rented, and April preferred riding in the open air jeep with me, so April came with me and the kids, but then she put up a fuss about needing to drive, so she chauffeured us around, which I wasn’t too keen about because in those days I liked to be the driver (I’m now happy to let others drive). April wasn’t content to let it rest though, and while we were walking around the grounds of an old fort, April and I discussed “jeep keys” and what she described as my obsession with control. Philosophy and psychological analysis in a tropical paradise! April rode back with Phil and Pam.

The next day April and I took off to go horseback riding. April drove at rate of speed that frightened me, if not the natives and livestock. Walter, a pleasant chap, runs “Trinity Stables.” We went on a 3-hour ride, with a 14-year-old native named Sheldon as our guide. My horse was Snow White; April’s was Ginger. Ginger was blind in one eye. We rode into the jungle a ways, and then parked the horses and walked in to a waterfall.

April’s disposition improved significantly once she was in the saddle. She’s an excellent rider. We ran the horses a bit, which seemed somewhat to Sheldon’s consternation. Sheldon was quite excited describing how Missing in Action II, a Chuck Norris movie, was filmed right where we went riding. The stables didn’t get any business out of it, as they helicoptered in every day from Basseterre, but he was certainly excited that his piece of jungle was a set in a movie. At one point he stopped and said, “right here is where Chuck Norris bites the head of a rat.” Lovely.

Coming back, I stopped to use the bathroom; Walter let me into his apartment; it was interesting to see how the locals live. A neat, tidy, but small apartment. Walter and his buddies were leaning on a car drinking when we pulled up; he offered us libations. When I got out of the bathroom, he was still looking for the rum. Meanwhile, April had a fit about waiting, and had walked off. Walter, who was several sheets to the wind, was out of rum. I took a Sprite and took off after April; Walter considerately pushed a Sprite for April on me too. April was on the street, hitch-hiking. I offered her a ride. She was upset about our being late and didn’t like my making unilateral decisions about using her time (stopping for a drink with Walter). I didn’t think she had quite adapted to “island time.” And it was kind of a switch, her being the one to worry about being late!

That summer April also came on a business trip to Mexico and Guatemala with me. We were flying in my Cessna Turbo 210, a nice, fast, single engine plane. We flew down to San Diego and picked up my company’s rep for Mexico, Ernesto. Ernesto and I had meetings in Tijuana, Juarez, Monterrey, and Veracruz. From Veracruz Ernesto caught a commercial flight back to Mexico City, his home, for the weekend, and April and I continued on to Isla Mujeres, a small island off the coast of Cancun. Enroute to Isla Mujeres we did a low fly-by of the pyramids at Chichen Itza. I did some diving in Isla Mujeres, April went snorkeling. From there we flew to Tulum and toured the archeological site, and then on to Guatemala City.

I had business in Guatemala City, and then we went up to the beautiful town of Antigua and bought some of the famous, colorful Guatemalan textiles. We had quite a hassle getting out of Guatemala. We got the plane loaded and ready to go, then I noticed they hadn’t gassed the plane up as I’d asked. We had to wait forever for someone to show up with a fuel truck. After they finally got the plane fueled, I called the tower and they told me the airport was closed because there were thunderstorms in the area. I shut the plane down, pulled the key out of the ignition, and feeling a little frustrated tossed the key on top of the dashboard – and it immediately slid down the air tube for the defroster! I started cursing. I crawled under the instrument panel, found the right tube to disconnect, but the key had gotten stuck up above somewhere and my hand was too big to fit in the tube. So April laid on her back on the floor of the plane and managed to squeeze her hand into the tube and retrieve the key.

By the time the airport opened again, it was getting late. We’d had plans to meet a friend of mine, Emerich, for dinner in Mexico City, but we obviously weren’t going to get in by dinner time. The flight from Guatemala to Mexico City took 4 hours, 3 of them after dark. When we were over Oaxaca I got into an argument with air traffic control. They told me Mexico City airport was closed to planes slower than 250 knots (which meant us) after 8pm, they wanted us to divert to Acapulco, something like 100 miles out of the way. And I looked in the direction of Acapulco and there were thunderstorms in that direction, so I told the controller, “I’m not going to Acapulco, how about if we land at Oaxaca?” Customs was already closed for the night at Oaxaca, so he reluctantly cleared us to Mexico City.

I’d been warned that in Mexico City, every private plane arriving was greeted by a drug control officer, and sure enough when we landed someone in a police uniform came out to the plane. I was envisioning more delays and lots of rummaging through the luggage. Instead, the cop was very drunk, and very jolly, and helped us carry our luggage and get a cab!

On the way back to the US we stopped in Leon and Guadalajara; saw someone in Guadalajara do a gear up landing in the same model plane we were flying. His landing gear got stuck and wouldn’t come down, not even with the emergency gear extension protocol. The pilot did a brilliant job – he shut the engine down on short final, and got the prop horizontal so the prop and engine wouldn’t be damaged when he bellied in. We also flew over the Barranca de Cobre, the Copper Canyon, “Mexico’s Grand Canyon,” on the way.

April and I became very close on that trip. Somehow when you have hours and hours sitting in the cockpit of a small plane, especially at night, it’s easy to talk and open your heart. I was going through a difficult time at my job (was being fired from a company I co-founded and was CEO of) and a difficult time in my marriage (Cheryl and I separated a few months later). One of the other things about April was she had a grade A, first class, bullshit detector. Everyone kids themselves sometimes. Back then, 30 years ago, I...


Bamidbar Yom Yerushalayim 5780

53 years ago yesterday on the Jewish calendar, on the 28th day of Iyar 5727, Jerusalem was liberated. That was June 7, 1967 on the secular calendar.

For the first time in 1,887 years, the Temple Mount and the Old City of Jerusalem, the holiest place in the world in the Jewish tradition, was under sovereign Jewish control.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Jerusalem in the Jewish tradition. We break a glass at weddings as a reminder of the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. When someone has died, we comfort the mourners with the phrase, “May God comfort you among the other mourners for Zion and Jerusalem.” In the weekday Amidah, which the observant Jew says three times a day, we pray for God to return to Jerusalem. We have a prayer for Jerusalem in the birkat hamazon, the grace after meals. The betrothal contract of R. Levi of Berdichev (18th c.) stated,

The wedding will, God willing, take place in the Holy City of Jerusalem. But if, Heaven forbid, because of our sins, the Messiah will not have come by then, the wedding will take place in Berdichev.

I still get chills when I watch the news coverage from that day 53 years ago. Tears come to my eyes when I hear the announcer call out har habayit shelanu! Har habayit shelanu! The Temple Mount is ours! The Temple Mount is ours! And the pictures of the Israeli soldiers touching the Wall with tears rolling down their battle-hardened faces are incredibly moving.

It was an amazing day and an amazing victory. No longer would residents of the Mamilla neighborhood of Jerusalem live in fear of Jordanian snipers on the walls of the Old City. After 19 years during which Jews could not go to the Western Wall to pray and all Jews were expelled from the Old City by the Jordanians, we could return to the ancient city of our dreams.

Naturally, you’d think that this day should be a joyous holiday. I took an informal survey of my friends on Facebook, a simple question: How do you feel about Yom Yerushalayim? My American friends mostly responded enthusiastically: “I’m into it!” “Listened to Azi Schwartz sing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” “Love it!”

Typical of the responses from my Israeli friends (and American rabbi friends who have lived in Israel for months or more) is this: “I have problems with the way right-wing Orthodoxy has taken it over (or we handed it over).” Or as someone put it somewhat more bluntly: “You mean the aggressive parade of hawkish right-wing thugs through Arab neighborhoods? Sort of like what happened in Charlottesville, except on an annual basis.”

What happened? And why should you care?

Jerusalem Day was proclaimed a new holiday in time for its first anniversary. In 1998, during Netanyahu’s first tenure as Prime Minister, it was declared a national holiday, meaning everyone in the country has the right to take the day off.

The biggest, most public, and most controversial celebration of Jerusalem Day has become the March of Flags. Tens of thousands of Jews, at least hundreds if not thousands of them “ultranationalists,” the Israeli equivalent of white supremacists, march through the Muslim quarter of the Old City on their way to the Western Wall. The young hotheads in the group chant slogans such as, “Death to Arabs,” and “Kahane was right.” What does “Kahane was right?” mean?

Meir Kahane was the founder of the Jewish Defense League and the overtly racist Kach political party in Israel. He wrote a book titled, “They Must Go,” and argued that all non-Jews should be expelled from the state of Israel. In 1985 the Knesset passed a law, that was upheld by the Supreme Court, banning racists and inciters from running for the Knesset, which resulted in the ouster of the Kach party.

It’s not enough that they chant their racist slogans. Youth in “religious” dress, with big kippahs and tzitzit hanging out, set trash cans on fire, attack Arab shops and shopkeepers, and otherwise attempt to terrorize the local non-Jewish population.

Many of us see the normal route of the March of Flags as intentionally and unnecessarily provocative, even if the marchers were all peaceful and well-behaved, which they never are.

The march’s route normally goes through Damascus Gate, in Arab East Jerusalem. If you visit the area around Damascus Gate, you might think you were in Jordan – the signs on shops are in Arabic and English, with only occasional Hebrew. Jews pretty much never go to Sheikh Jarrah, the neighborhood right outside the gate. I’m an exception, I’ve been there a number of times taking my kids to meetings of Kids for Peace, and occasionally to go shopping because you can get some great deals on appliances imported from Turkey. The residents of the Muslim Quarter and the area around Damascus Gate are mostly not Israeli citizens. They, or their ancestors, were living there in 1967, when it was part of Jordan that was conquered by Israel during the Six Day War. They are official residents of Jerusalem, they have freedom of movement throughout Israel, they can, but mostly don’t, vote in municipal elections although they can’t vote in national elections. Many of them still hope that East Jerusalem will become the capital of a Palestinian state.

The route of the march serves a political purpose: the leaders want to convey the message that “Jerusalem is the eternal undivided capital of the Jewish state.”

The local residents, and many Jews, disagree with that perspective. To be clear, when the right-wing governments say Jerusalem must not be divided again, they’re not only talking about the Old City: they’re talking about all the Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem outside the city walls as well, including many that never were part of historic Jerusalem. They want more land and hope to displace the Arab residents with Jewish ones. Many Israelis believe Jerusalem SHOULD be divided. I think Israel should keep the Old City but divide the rest.

One reason I feel that way is demographic. This week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, calls for a census of the people – the implicit message being that “numbers are important.” I still believe in the two-state solution, because the alternative is a one-state solution and I don’t think that one state would be Jewish forever. Therefore, to me it makes more sense to have those 300,000 Muslim voters be part of a Palestinian state, not the Jewish state.

In 2015 Ir Amim and Tag Meir, two liberal Israeli groups, filed a petition with Israel’s Supreme Court claiming that marches in the past had been so violent and provocative that the route should be changed. They claimed there was enough violence to justify the high standard for limiting the rights of people to march in a particular area.

The court rejected the petition, and permitted the march on the original route, with the proviso that police should immediately arrest anyone who shouts, “death to Arabs.”

Since then every year it’s the same story. There’s more or less violence. The police do a better or worse job at keeping the violence at bay. Last year there was violence when Jews went up on the Temple Mount on Jerusalem Day, which coincided with the closing days of Ramadan, when there are a lot of Muslims worshipping there. Last year it was the Palestinians who rioted, throwing rocks and chairs at Israeli security forces. This year it was quiet because there was no parade through the Muslim Quarter due to the coronavirus.

The association of Yom Yerushalayim with ultranationalists – and the fear that such sentiments will eventually lead to a single state – explains this comment from Lev:

I have a unique and very special relationship with Jerusalem… I cry each time I enter the city, I recall the exuberant sensation of completing the masa kumta (final forced march, a test) for the paratroopers at the Kotel. Yet, the result of the six day war and the capture of the city and the territories has brought with it a virus that lacks a vaccine and may bring about the death of my vision of the modern state of Israel.

What the march has devolved to is the antithesis of the vision of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, a state that is Jewish AND democratic, that respects the rights of all of its citizens.

Because of that, many of us feel as my friend Geoff does –

I think you need to ask 2 questions: How do you feel about Yom Yerushalayim and how do you feel about how Yom Yerushalyim is celebrated. I suspect that for many the answer will be positive to the first question and negative to the second.

So what are we liberal Zionists to do? Ignore the day because of what it’s come to symbolize? Or somehow try to reclaim it? My friend Charlie wrote,

While I don’t like the right’s takeover of the day as stated above, there are three reasons I love this day: (1) I celebrate that we have access to all of Jerusalem, especially the old city, (2) I have the right and privilege to live in Jerusalem, to own a business founded in Jerusalem, to have three children born in Jerusalem, And (3) in response to some of the comments above, the left can moderate what Yom Yerushalayim means, but not if we concede and let the right take it over as theirs with only their narrative.

I agree with Charlie. Those of us who are aligned with a more liberal vision of Zionism should not concede and just give up on the holiday. We need to make sure our vision of Yom Yerushalayim is heard.

Why should you care? Why did I feel it’s important for American Jews to understand what Jerusalem Day is like in Israel? Why not let you celebrate it here in blissful ignorance?

It’s because American Jews do have a stake in Israel. Jews are all part of one great big, often dysfunctional, spiritual family. It’s important for American Jews to understand what Israel is really like, both the beauty and the warts, and it’s important for...


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