From Megillah to Madness…and Back Again: AIPAC 2016


On the eve of the Festival of Purim, before we listen to or read the Megillah, partake in libations and festive affairs, and recall the strength of our Purim heroes, I thought it would be an ideal time to reflect on my recent experience at this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference. Throughout the Policy Conference, I had a chance to (re)connect with many congregants, colleagues, and friends. The energy was elevated, and the tension palpable. Over 18,000 came together to show their support and love of Israel.

First, some framing with regard to my general thinking on Israel and AIPAC:

  1. I believe that we, as a collective Jewish people, stand taller and prouder today because of the amazing and incredible work that Israel does in many areas.  It is continually innovative, forward thinking, and visionary in spite of constant threats on its borders and throughout the region.
  1. More Americans, regardless of religious or race affiliation, should support the work of AIPAC. Why?
    • AIPAC is one of the few places that supports bi-partisan conversation and work towards a common goal, further promoting the success and safety of the Jewish State. And this “bipartisanship” nourishes our ethical obligation to see the humanity in the other.
    • America needs Israel.  Israel needs America. AIPAC works unfailingly to strengthen these two democracies’ joint work in critical and meaningful ways.

At this year’s Policy Conference, I connected with and learned from African American state legislators, as they passionately spoke about the enormous impact IsraAid has had on their communities – coming to the relief of some of the poorest communities in the U.S. last year during the worst floods seen there in over 1000 years.

I also learned about the unbroken commitment to Israeli ingenuity. For example, SoftWheel is a company that is supporting wheelchair-bound individuals by putting suspensions in the actual wheel or wheelchairs – meaning no more flat tires and increase comfort for those in the chairs! And this technology is starting to be used in bikes and cars! The company was founded by IDF veterans, and supports our US vets as well – incredible genius as just one example of the extraordinary innovations from Israeli society working in partnerships with the U.S.

In addition to these impactful take-aways, the conference is commingled with countless sessions on everything Israel: education, policy, diplomatic relations, social justice, lobbying – you name it. And this year, delegates had an opportunity that witness something that only comes about every 4 years: to hear from this year’s presidential candidates LIVE.

Since I have been a rabbi I have stayed away from commenting on partisan politics. I believe that the job of a rabbi is to foster sacred space and enable others to feel free to voice their own opinion, without judgment or reservation. Yet besides being one of the spiritual advisers in my congregation, I am also a father of two. And as a father, I feel responsible to teach my children that when there is wickedness in our midst, we must stand up and recognize it. Whether at home, in our school or local communities – even the political arena, it is our moral and religious imperative.

I believe that it is vital for any U.S. Presidential candidate to illustrate their commitment to a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. And I deeply value that 4 of the 5 current candidates understood how important it was to showcase his/her platform on the U.S.-Israel relationship, and how they would actualize their vision come January, 2017. Additionally, I feel that AIPAC had every right, as a bipartisan lobbying group, to invite all candidates, regardless of rhetoric. After all, they are vying for the highest office in our land, and should be afforded an opportunity to engage with a crowd that has a desire to know where they stand on this strategic partnership with America’s closest ally.

Upon reflection, all of the candidates promoted their deep love and commitment to Israel, through either substantive or strategic proposals (Clinton and Kasich, and at times, Cruz), or through personal narrative (Trump). The 3 republicans voiced their strong opposition for the Iran deal, which seemed to serve as a centerpiece for their remarks. Some of them also focused their statements on policy failures by the current administration, rather than lay out any substantive plans. Some brief highlights: Cruz quoting Talmud, Clinton bringing on (Pure)im, Kasich on his relationship with Sharansky, and Trump boasting about his Jewish grandchildren. For me, both Clinton and Kasich spoke passionately, with experience and commanded-ness, about the U.S.-Israel relationship, both of their vision making reasonable and short and long-term strategic sense.

Yet, while substance was provided during most of the speeches, sadly, the wickedness we have seen throughout this election cycle reared its ugly head on Monday night as well. As anticipated (and boy he did not surprise), I experienced an early Purim Shpiel of sorts – outrageous declarations, silly cheers and boos, all of which caused many to mask our truest selves, and sew confusion over who is good and who is wicked. As a glass half full guy, I was hoping for a muted response and ideally, in advance of the policy conference, a voice that would distance AIPAC from potential inflammatory statements from Mr. Trump, and given the organization an opportunity to model their theme: #cometogether. Sadly, it never happened. Nevertheless, the next morning, AIPAC leadership stood front and center and shared much of what needed to be said. I felt, at least, it was a good start and much-need teshuvah (repentance) (click here to read the remarks):

They condemned Mr. Trump’s incendiary remarks against President Obama and misguided rhetoric. I stood proud in that moment, in contrast to the great discomfort I felt as he approached the center of the arena to share his 15-20 minute oratory.

Truth be told, “wicked” is a term identified who those who seek to bring others down; those who seek to find the worst in others. I believe our tradition would certainly qualify Mr. Trump as such. From his call on banning all Muslims from entering the United States, to his lengthy evasion to disavow support from David Duke, his pervasive and persistent misogyny, proposals to make torture legal, and a call to kill the families of terrorism suspects (to name a few), there is no doubt in my mind that his campaign has, and continues to inspire and unmask those who promote these injustices. 

This evening, we will read the Book of Esther and recall that good triumphed over evil: King Ahasuerus first seduces the people of his kingdom with lavish parties – his people grateful for his seemingly “audacious hospitality”. It is at that moment that the King elevates the wicked Haman (boo) to a position of great power. Haman eventually manufacturers an edict to kill the Jews in his kingdom, but Mordechai, a Jew living in Shushan, senses Haman’s potential power and refuses to bow down. All but Mordechai prostrate themselves before Haman.

It is at the moment that I believe Mordechai spoke great truth to power. On Monday evening, I thought of my children and the messages I wanted to convey to them. And as I write this, I am able to draw inspiration from our narrative. We must not bow down and kneel to those who inspire hatred and overlook calls for violence. This is our mandate and our sacred responsibility.

So, what can we do when our political landscape affords bullies the platform to dominate public arenas? As a Jewish people, we look to our tradition, to God, and to the world around us. And, as a modern Jewish community determined to learn from those around us – we listen, we learn, and we act.

Our Rabbinic teachings note: “Silence implies consent.” We will not and cannot be silent. Our “more perfect union” is indeed, not so perfect. And as progressive Jews, we have a moral imperative to become more involved with groups like AIPAC, not less. We must make our voices heard, and demand more of our elected officials. We must not remain silent. We must not stand idly by. There is no room for hate. Our child deserve more.

I hope you will join me at next year’s AIPAC Conference (click here to register NOW) to add your voice in advocacy, and in support and love for the Jewish state.

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Sacred? And On Who’s Authority? Israel Sabbatical Post 3

The Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem has always been a place of “questionable” sacredness for me. The allure of our biblical narrative and journey has drawn me there time and again….taking many groups and individuals to experience a piece of US that still remains. Upon approach, its positioning is majestic – a reminder of a powerful symbol of inspiration for so many. Yet, even as I stand in awe of its physical greatness, place notes of prayer and healing in the wall, and recite words of Tehillim (Psalms), I, myself, struggle with its sacredness. 
Perhaps it’s because of my own inner struggles with its attachment to a sacrificial time that is not in practice today. Perhaps, moreover, in today’s world, the Kotel has become a politicized arena between Haredim and other – religious nationalists, IDF soldiers, progressive Jewish men and women (from Israel and broad), and non-Jews (many who are not even aware of the challenges).   
Today, the physical greatness I speak of is tempered by the smallness in its current form of welcome to anyone outside of the accepted fold. I offer you two incidents that happened to my family and I while here on my sabbatical: 


Site of the Shomrot HaSniut – modesty guards

  In this picture, you will see a women, standing near a table. These tables, new in the past few months, are placed in strategic locations, adjacent to each security entrance to the Plaza of the Kotel. They are manned by Shomrot HaSniut (guards/overseers of modesty). For as long as I could remember, women would lap the women’s section of the Wall to remind newcomers to cover their bare arms and legs. Yet, as time progresses, the overseer’s reach has expanded greatly – through the entirety of the Plaza. 

Our first incident occurred when we were taking a family picture on the plaza (far removed from the Kotel men’s and women’s sections). Two women approached my wife (who was wearing a sleeveless shirt) to ask her to cover. After a firm retort (in Hebrew) from both of us, they sheepishly retreated. Their goal: do not allow any woman they deem immodest to enter into their expanded holy space. 

The second occurred as we entered with a friend visiting from the states. On this day, we had no desire to approach the wall. Rather, we were making our way to a tour of the Western Wall tunnels (a must do on your next trip to Israel)! A young Haredi woman (not more than 25 y/o) approached our friend (in a tank top and skirt), and asked her to cover up). In my take of sniut (modesty), there was nothing immodest about her dress. Regardless, she was aware of the customs of the area and brought a shawl to place over her bare shoulders. As I tried to interact with the “modesty guard”, she kept focusing on our friend, making it clear she was speaking to her directly. I asked the woman if she was a “ba’ala hakotel” – the owner of the kotel? She wouldn’t answer. I asked her several more times. She finally noted that her role was to oversee modesty in this sacred place. As she threw some insults my way over my own rabbinate, our interaction continued to get heated over the next few minutes, as we were not giving in to her demand. The chief rabbi of the Kotel recently noted that the entirety of the plaza is now to be treated as a synagogue, hence their new and far more aggressive directive. 

As we moved away from her, the shomeret hasniut followed us into the entrance of the tunnels, continuing to harass us by telling the male guard that our friend should not be allowed anywhere near the walls in the tunnels until she “covers up”. Appearing as he now experiences this on a daily basis, he “yes’d” her and told her to leave. 

While the above experiences were not detrimental in any way for us as a family, my children (for the first time) experienced internal bias Jew to Jew. It brought up lots of questions for them, and furthered the wrestling they, and we, are continuing to do throughout this incredible summer in Israel.  

Some final thoughts about the current administrators of the Kotel and holy sites: 
1. The Kotel is NOT a synagogue. Rather, it is a national historic site, a place for prayer, for wonder, for holiness for ALL PEOPLES. 

2. It appears as though people are welcome to pray at the plaza so long as they adhere to the rules and don’t challenge the status quo. 
The leadership of the Kotel has the potential, the capacity to bring thousands of Jews and others back to the Kotel. In an open letter to the Women of the Wall the other day, the chief administrator of the Kotel said: “The Kotel is bigger than all of us.” I believe that wholeheartedly. So make the welcome match the grandeur of this site, without minimizing one’s own practice and identity. 


Writing notes to put in the Wall


Ethan placing a note at the Kotel

 Until my next post….

Biblical Change Agents

The following was a piece I wrote for the weekly URJ publication: 10 Minutes of Torah, published on July 6, 2015:


I join Rabbi Kushner in celebrating these nashot chayil, “women of valor.” They paved the way for future generations not only in gaining access to their inheritance, but also in bringing about amendments to the current legislation; amendments that provided greater access to relatives sharing in their clan’s inheritance. In our modern language, we might refer to them as “change agents.”

In her book, Midrashic Women, Judith Baskin describes the daughters of Zelophehad well. According to Baskin, they are “canny and competent women who trusted that divine mercy would transcend the mutable norms of a human society in which women were subordinate human beings . . . allowing them to shape their own destinies.”1

In addition to achieving a tremendous feat impacting land inheritance for women, today, they push us to rethink fate. They ask us to consider what is right, just, and relevant when faced with traditional approaches that may no longer serve a greater good. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah inspire us to do the footwork and push the boundaries, even if it brings us into uncomfortable places. They model the potential for us: to enter into the holy centers where we fight for what we believe is just.

From these heroic biblical change agents, we learn some important lessons:

  • Bringing about change takes a shared vision, even though there may be periods of time when one has to stand alone.
  • Resolving conflict includes a demonstration of evidence and facts coupled with a sensible attitude and approach to advance a positive and worthy outcome.
  • Emotion has great impact. The five daughters place their facts into meaningful context and deliver them with conviction and passion.

In reflection, take a moment to ask yourself the question: What cause(s) have I stood up for lately? Change can be challenging to enact, even when the need for such is increasingly urgent. But our tradition challenges us, each and every day, to not wait upon others for the changes we hope to see. As we change our ways, so too, the ways of the world. Be the change!

1. Judith Baskin, Midrashic Women: Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature (Hanover-London: Brandeis University Press, 2002)

From Intolerance to Simcha: Israel Sabbatical 2015 Post 1

It has been approximately one week since our arrival in Israel for my summer sabbatical, and over 3 weeks since my mother’s passing. I have entered this sacred land with mixed emotions…trying to find a balance between this mourning period and releasing from the tensions that have part of my life these past months. And yes, while the Jerusalem air, warm days and cool nights offers a sense of calm and shlemut (wholeness), truth told, it is a work in progress, and for today, I will label it: “dynamic tension”.   
I wanted to share an interesting encounter I had this past Shabbat while spending this time with our ultra orthodox cousins, who live in the city of Beit Shemesh. Beit Shemesh (for those who might not be familiar), is a sleeper community between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. These most recent years have found this community filled with tensions between secular and religious, religious and ultra religious, and the list goes on. Beit Shemesh, for me, has served as an incubator for such connections and subsequent tensions. 

For our first shabbat in Israel, we shared this experience with our cousins at their home in Beit Shemesh – a fully shomer shabbat, shome mitzvot experience – just what the doctor ordered! My cousin, an orthodox rabbi by smicha (ordination), but a computer programmer by day, knows my love for Carlebach music and prayer – so we headed to the Carlebach minyan. Shuls (synagogues) are a plenty in this community, and while the energy of this type of minyan was not his cup of tea, he was gracious in his offer to come with. 
The evneing started with such energy and beauty….singing and joyous momentum (on the men’s side) as we sang through the prayers of Kabbalat Shabbat – no less than 4 times of men being pulled up to dance around the service leader. Truly joyous! Yet, given the happenings of the past few weeks and tensions between these Jewish religious sects, something miraculous was occuring before my eyes: hasidim, religious zionists, and modern Orthodox were davening (praying) together – singing, clapping, and dancing. 

The height of my observation (as an outsider to this community) was the interaction between some of the Chasidim and immediate former MK (member of Knesset) Dov Lipman. Dov spent the past few years as a member of the Yesh Atid party, heading a ferocious campaign to enforce cumpulsory military service for the ultra orthodox community (they are not currently obligated). One might think it would be a challenging place for him to enter. Rather, what I witnessed were pats on the back, smiles, and positive and supportive conversation for Dov’s presence in this sacred moment. I witnessed, first hand, the joy of welcoming Shabbat trumping the feelings and challenges that have been clouding this community for quite some time.

For me, the gift of Shabbat is to leave behind the everday challenges we are obligated to/responsible for. Rather, barriers are removed, and we are ignited with the 3 flames: 2 are those that help us to make that sacred distinction between everyday and holy; the third ignites the best within us so that we may actualize our greatest human potential: v’ahavta l’recha komocha – love your neighbor as yourself. 

Getting ready to put a note in the wall at the Kotel

Though I am just at the beginning of this incredible journey, so may lessons have already been learned. I look forward to sharing more about my incredible learning time at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem….stay tuned! 


Feet Don’t Fail Me Now! Israel Adventure: Days 5 and 6 

The last of the spring rains seem to be behind us, and the crisp morning air served us well as we had an intense day of hiking and biking ahead of us. 
After our delicious breakfast, we headed to the far reaches of the north of Israel, into the Golan – overlooking the Syrian border, not two miles from where we stand. While the border closest to us was quiet on this Friday morning, several weeks ago, mortal shells were landing as ISIS insurgents battled in nearby Syria. The group had a profound awareness and appreciation for not only how close the borders are, but how important the security needs are in the region. 

Overlooking the Syrian border

Soon after, we began our morning hike along the Zavitan hiking trail. We traversed the volcanic and rocky landscape into beautiful waterfalls. Along the way, we saw ruins of old Syrian bunkers, strongholds for their military operation pre-1967. The hiking was intense and awe-inspiring, getting us more excited for what would be waiting for us on our bikes in the afternoon.

Hiking the Golan



After a quick falafel fill, we got on mountain bikes and spent much of the afternoon biking along the mighty Jordan River (but if you blink, you’ll miss it)! Along the way, we witnessed every day Israelis, with friends and family, enjoying their days off, picnic-ing, some escorted by their four-legged friends. You might think you were in Pound Ridge Reservation or another domestic nature preserve, as all were going about their day, seemingly unengaged of the daily unrest that lies beyond their borders, or the at-large anti-Semitic global rhetoric. But for them, it was another day of living life and finding gratitude and sharing it with their loved ones. 


After a fantastic and tough ride, we prepared to welcome Shabbat. Nir, our guide, crafted a wonderful beginning to our Shabbat experience. We were invited to a local Israeli home, where we shared in preparing dinner and engaging in rich conversation. Before eating, we had a festive Kabbalat Shabbat service (complete with travel guitar) and lots of singing, followed by an incredibly delicious Shabbat dinner, both in meal and in dialogue. A wonderful evening was had!
We had a leisurely wake-up this Shabbat morning, and stretched our mind, bodies, and souls with Shabbat Yoga. New to some, but enjoyed by all! 
After some down time, we enjoyed another bike ride through the Galilee. This time, the terrain was hilly and meandering, but worth it for the many images we were able to acquire! As usual, we stopped for tea along the way (Israeli style), and even were able to ride through a kibbutz dairy farm. It was surely a day for new sights and smells!
As Shabbat came to a close, we made Havdalah overlooking the Hula Valley, and at truly authentic Israeli dude ranch/steak house.
The news came this evening of the earthquake in Nepal. Our collective prayers and thoughts are with all those who were affected by this natural tragedy. 
Tomorrow, we head to the ancient city of Tzfat and begin to make our way to Tel Aviv.  More to come….  

From Highs to Lows…and Back Again- The Heights and Depths of Israel Independence Day! Israel Adventure: Day 4

On Yom Haatzmaut, we had the fortune of celebrating Israel’s Independence with a stop at the Dead Sea. It was the first time for more than half of our group, and the smiles were abound as we descended the Judean Hills and came upon the sprawling visual of the north end of the Sea. It was early so we had the fortunate blessings of being the only group there. The temperature was brisk, but it didn’t stop our adventure participants from floating on their backs and snapping photos. It was so windy there were actually waves off the water, so much so that some of our sandals parted ways with their owners. 



We dried up and started our journey north, continuing our Independence Day celebration with a trip to Degania Aleph, the first kibbutz ever in Israel.  Celebrations were abound as we toured this treasured historical place and learned about the early settlers (many of them Russian), and how hard life was as they were determined to live in community, despite significant disease and health challenges, along with Syrian insurgents trying to eliminate their very existence from the Galilee. 
We ate lunch at the kibbutz, and (most of us) made it out before the rains came (very unusual to be raining at this time of year)!
In keeping with our ongoing Israel adventure, we headed into the Golan Heights and met our new friend, Ro’i, who led us to his jeep, taking us through the rocky terrain (vast understatement) of the Golan Heights. On the way, we had a visual teaching on the in depth understanding of the 1948-67 strategic challenges faced by Israel. Along the way, we sighted gazelles and wild boar (maybe some of us). Many of us have a new-found appreciation for the brave pioneers who gave their hearts and souls to build this beautiful nation.


We settled in to our B and B in Rosh Pina, overlooking the Golan heights and snow-capped (yes, snow-capped) Mt. Hermon.