Friday, April 27, 2012

Rashi Questions for Tazria Metzora

According to Rashi...
1. Why are the laws of people taught only after the laws of animals? (12:2)
2. Why does the person with tzaraat have to go into isolation?  (13:46)
3. Why are birds required to atone for tzaraat?  (14:4)
4. Why is cedar wood required? (14:4)
5. How could tzaraat on the house be good news?  (14:34)

The Speech that Saved Orthodox Judaism in Omaha

On Sunday I drove three hours to Kansas City to attend the funeral of Rabbi Dr. Gil Shoham.  Rabbi Shoham's daughter Cynthia now lives in Omaha so I had the great privilege of getting to know him over the last few years.  
In December of 1995 Rabbi Shoham saved Beth Israel Synagogue.  Since 1951 Beth Israel had functioned as an Orthodox congregation with mixed seating.  When their beloved Rabbi of over 25 years, Rabbi Isaac Nadoff, passed away the shul was told that they would have to install a mechitza if they wanted another Orthodox Rabbi.  This decision threatened to tear the congregation apart.  Rabbi Shoham was a professor of philosophy in Kansas who had filled in for Rabbi Nadoff in the past.  One winter night he drove all the way to Omaha to give a speech to the entire congregation.   
I have a recording of his speech which I recently transcribed for posterity.  It is my honor to present that speech which remains as relevant today as it was 20 years ago. 
May his memory be a blessing and his legacy live on in his children, grandchildren, and all of the people whose lives he touched.

Words of Introduction
Firstly I want to say good evening to you all. Many of you I have known from previous occasions here. I want to clarify the capacity in which I am here. I have no institutional affiliations whatever to put forward. I am a member of the RCA by virtue of my prior experience and a member of an Orthodox congregation, BIAV, in Kansas City. But professionally I am not involved in the rabbinate. I don't make a living from it and I owe no allegiance to any organization with which I would feel obliged to put forth a program of a national organization.
On the other hand my credentials as a rabbi are no worse than anyone else’s. I am a graduate of yeshiva Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan (YU), I was a student of Rav Yoshe Bear Soloveithcik, and I have a fair secular education. I teach in the University of Missouri Kansas city.
I have no concern about my livelihood or my status or what people will say about what I do or don't say so I don't mind if you record this and I don't feel apprehensive about anything I might utter here this evening.

Before we approach the delicate issues that we are confronted with I am asking you to bend over backwards and to put yourselves in the other person's shoes. The older folks see what the concerns of the younger people are and the younger folks see what the concerns and needs of the older folks are and see what our perspectives and needs are. Let us respect one another's needs and see how we can accommodate each other without undermining our own interests. That is my ultimate objective.
So with all those introductory remarks, perhaps superfluous, I will give you some background as to what I understand the issues here to be.

External Issues
Firstly the issues you have to deal with here are of external origin and internal origin. With regards to the external origin they have to do with the relationship of Beth Israel with the UOJCA (Union of Orthodox Jewish congregations).
This is an orthodox congregation, it is in your charter, and the UOJCA has certain standards for Orthodox congregations, and apparently the union of Orthodox congregations is not entirely satisfied with the mode of operations that you have here now.
The rabbinical council of America, which is a rabbinic not a synagogue organization, which functions in conjunction with the synagogue organization, has certain standards, and its membership has its standards and behaviors to respect as well.
So the problem is of external origin in that it deals with the Synagogues relationship with the UOJCA and it also deals with the apparent reluctance of recent rabbinic graduates of Orthodox yeshivot to serve in mixed seating congregations. So that is a problem that you have. An institutional problem. It is not even a theological problem. You want to have an Orthodox Rabbi and the recognized orthodox institutions and their staff people will not serve you unless the congregation has separate seating.

Internal Issues
Then you have problems of internal origin. Having to do with on the one hand the genuine commitment of some families to the requirements of Orthodox ritual requirements to separate seating in the synagogue and the inclination of many of the members to maintain the status quo.
And then of internal origin is also the concern for the children of the community. The Jewish status of children particularly of parents who have converted to Judaism. How will they be accepted in Israel? Will their conversion papers be accepted? Upon what authority will those issues be resolved? So those are genuine issues that drive the discussion in the congregation.

Orthodox Judaism's Shift to the Right
Now let's look at first the matter of external origin. The relationship with the UOJCA.
Many of us older folks remember during the 50s 60s and 70s there was never an issue brought to our attention about the fact that we have an orthodox rabbi and we have a mixed seating congregation.
It was accepted in the OU and in the traditional world that such congregations had Orthodox rabbis in their pulpits and they maintained other standards of Jewish practice, that there would not be any question of their status. It was never brought up.
In the last 10 of 15 years the OUJCA began to bring this issue to the floor. And one has to look at the reasons for this to understand it. The reasons may or may not be relevant but at least they are interesting and it is worthwhile understanding. Why is it that the UOJCA suddenly is concerned and preoccupied with the issue of the minutiae of Jewish observance when it pertains to Jewish observance in so far as it pertains to the seating arrangements in a Jewish place of worship, in contrast to the practice of 20 or 30 years when this was never brought to question?

Firstly, we are subject as Heinrich Heinrich said, if the general hot climate, the religious climate in the dominant community affects the religious attitudes of the Jewish community as well.
Generally worldwide there is a fundamentalist orientation in the religious climate and that applies to the Jewish world as well. There has been a rightist orientation in Jewish life and it has affected Jewish behavior, Jewish thinking, some of you may be familiar with the inclination for rabbis to be machmirim. Young people to be machmirim. The chumra of the week. What does that mean? It means to be more stringent. If there is a question of whether something is permitted or not it is considered more exemplary to take the negative approach then the lenient view. This is a relatively recent phenomenon. Certainly not characteristic of the way I grew up, or my practice in the Rabbinate.

Cultural Reasons
There are cultural and sociological factors that might be worthwhile to consider in detail. My generation, I grew up in the 30s, I was born in 1930s. My parents were immigrants to this country. The first language that I ever heard was Yiddish. When I went to day, what you call day school - Yeshiva - the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, I studied Chumash in translated into Yiddish. I conversed in Yiddish. I am not trying to impress you with my linguistic abilities. I am trying to suggest to you that my association with Judaism was cultural. It was internalized not through stuff that I read in books. It was internalized through my household, my mother's kitchen, through the streets.  I grew up in a ghetto. There were not any gentiles living on my street.
And that is how I internalized Jewish life. It was perfectly natural. I didn't even have to go to school to learn it. Although obviously what I practiced was reinforced by what I studied at school.
My parent's generation and my generation were not so much concerned with identifying jewishly. We were identified jewishly. We did not have any problems knowing who or what we were jewishly. Our mouths spoke yiddishisms. That was not our problem. Our problem was to be accepted in general American scene. We were a greener, we were children of geena, and we wanted to be Yankees. So as I grew up and practiced in the rabbinate my primary function was to try and make Jewish values and standards and behavior acceptable in the American scene because we wanted to be good American’s as well.

The folks that are raising their kids today, that is not their problem because they are Yankees. They are not members of a minority anymore. They are accepted on the American scene just like anyone else. Jews are not a minority anymore so they don’t have the minority complex of being accepted as Americans. But their concern is how to identify as Jews. Nobody had to teach us how to identify as Jews. We learned it at our kitchen table. But the younger folks here who are third and fourth generation, they don't know how to identify as Jews. Because they did not get it from the street, most of them did not go to day school, they did not get it from their friends, and they did not get it from the dominant culture, where are they going to get it from.
So their concern is how do we identify as Jews?
So what we took for granted they have to fight for. They have to search for. They have to grovel for. They have to find a way of learning why and how to be Jewish because they did not have the advantage that we had of European parents or of growing up in ghettos or of internalizing this from the street.

Economic / Political Reasons
So we have to understand that. Now there is another factor which is very mundane which is crass in a way but you have to understand that as well.
The UOJCA at one time was primarily dependent upon the support of congregations to sustain itself.  It had one or two hashgachas.  Since I was a kid, Heinz 57 had a UO.  Between Heinz and a few other hashgachas and the shuls that paid their membership dues the UOJCA was able to function.  Now, my dear friends, the kashrus business is big business, big business.  And the UOJCA relies heavily for their income on their hashgacha.  And any blemish on their kashrus endorsements can be seriously undermining of their economic viability.  So they have to protect themselves against any possible challenge to their impeccable credentials in being able to certify something is kosher.  So if Rabbi Chaim yankel can come and say to the UOJCA, “you are going to tell me that such and such is kosher?  How can you tell me that if you have non-kosher synagogues in your organizations?”  So the UOJCA has to come down on its, quote, non-conformist congregations.  Nobody is going to admit this and nobody is going to assert this but that is an economic reality as well.  It all feeds into the big picture. 

Jewish Status
Finally the question of Jewish status.  How can we assure that the status of our family as Jews will be accepted universally, particularly by the Israeli rabbinate?
Now the process of establishing the civil status of Jews by the Israeli rabbinate is fluid and at times highly subjective.  The Israeli rabbinate works in conjunction with the RCA and it is a symbiotic relationship.  The RCA supports the Israeli Rabbinate and its position and its power in Israel which is to the advantage of the Israeli rabbinate.  The Israeli rabbinate in turn supports the RCA in America by identifying it and regarding it as the sole determinant of the status of Jews in the United States.  So if you want to establish the civil status of a Jew as a Jew in America then it has to be done in conjunction with the RCA.  That is sine qua non.  That too is a reality. 
So with the endorsement of the RCA, acts of civil status by the enactment of the Rabbi would be accepted in the absence of any complications introduced in another corner. 
Very frankly, this means as follows.  If you have a rabbi in this congregation and he is a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, and he asserts that someone was divorced or married or converted or is Jewish and he attested this fact, as a member of the RCA he sends a communication to the Israeli rabbinate to that effect, in the absence of any complications that will be accepted.  On the other hand, if a Rabbi who you have here doesn’t get along well with some rabbi in Israel and the Israeli rabbinate in Israel asks this rabbi about this rabbi living here, whether he is reliable or not, if the person who is being inquired of says there is some question then they won’t accept him either.  It can become a political issue.  Given all things equal, if you have a rabbi of the RCA attesting to a member of the congregation as to a person’s status that will be accepted.  If he is not a member of the RCA that is questionable.

The Real Issue
That is the background information.
I am somewhat familiar with the congregation and it seems to me that the issue of the separate seating of the congregation is really, although some of you might disagree with me, but fundamentally, I don’t see it as an ideological problem.  I see it as a practical problem.  You want to develop this as a place to impart Jewish values to your families in order to do so you need an affective Rabbi.  One who is dedicated and competent and who will engage in kiruv, outreach. Someone who is highly motivated.  You are not going to pick someone like that off the streets.  You need someone young, someone fresh, someone recently out of Rabbinic school who has done outreach work, that is part of their training today.  And you have to meet a requirement as to how to get such a person.  To get someone in your congregation to be a caretaker rabbi is simply biding your time until the congregation just poops out eventually.  In my estimation, if you want to create a vital group, you have to have a vital active imaginative, creative dedicated, capable rabbi above all before anything else. 
You cannot limit the range from which you are going to choose your men.  You have to keep your options as open as possible.  And I would ask you to forget the ideology.  It is not an issue if it is right or wrong.  I would be comfortable in relying on Rabbi Nadoff’s position regarding seating arrangement whether that is right or wrong.  I don’t think that is the greatest sin to commit.  But the fact of the matter is the reality that you have to deal with is that unless you can get a rabbi sent to you by the RCA who meets the qualifications that you require in your congregation then your congregation is going to falter and the needs of the membership will not be satisfied. 
In my estimation, and I am putting together, encapsulating whatever I know about your congregation, you all have to put your heads together and find some way of accommodating one another’s needs.  There may be ways of doing this.  We discussed some options earlier, but you have to find some way of doing this.
Again, it is not an ideology.  It is not that those who want the mechitza are bigger tzaddikim than those that don’t. 
It has nothing to do with that.  You are all fine people.  You are all dedicated Jews.  You all love your congregation.  You have to find a way to work this out together without ranker, without excessive disputations; try to understand one another’s needs. 
Any questions?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Israel on Campus in Omaha

This morning I had breakfast with Mitchell Bard, author of Myths and Facts, Will Israel Survive, and about 20 other books on the subject of Israel and the middle East
He will be speaking tonight at the University of Nebraska at 8:00pm on the topic of the Arab Lobby.

The breakfast was with members of the Schwab Center for Israel and Jewish Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Our meeting was about his organization and the resources they provide to college campuses.  According to Bard, most college students are not anti Israel.  Most college students are not pro Israel.  Most college students are apathetic to their own countries issues, let alone the Arab / Israeli conflict. 

The problem as he sees it, is the left wing faculty that pushes an anti Israel agenda.  He says this goes back a very long time.  he mentioned how when he was a grad student in the 80s he remembers a teacher who showed a video in class about Israel that the ADL had just recently done a study on because of its blatant anti Jewish slant.  That teacher, he says, is still on the faculty.

He thinks that the wrong way to confront anti Israel faculty is to silence them.  The best way is to bring in faculty that has a pro Israel message.  He is not interested in left or right wing, he just wants to see faculty that believes that Israel has a right to exist. 

He also wants faculty that will teach other aspects of Israel in addition to the conflict.  Culture, music, science, agriculture, literature, film, and archeology - among other things. 

In the past, Jewish groups have thought of endowing pro Israel faculty, but what has happened in a few universities is that a multi-million dollar donation is made and then once the university has secured the gift they have appointed a post Zionist or out right anti Zionist chair who goes on to hire like minded faculty.  At that point the donor no longer has control and his gift will be used in the exact opposite way it was intended.

Bard's method is to give money on an annual basis to colleges in order to maintain some semblance of control.

His organization, which has all of 5 people including him and runs out of his basement in Chevy Chase Maryland, has an annual budget of 2 and a half million dollars and in the last seven years has brought over 100 visiting professors from Israel to college campuses across this country.

I really enjoyed meeting him and I am looking forward to his lecture tonight.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Teens 4 Israel meets with Congressman Adrian Smith

The Omaha Teens 4 Israel group just met with Nebraska 3rd district Congressman Adrian Brown.

I was so proud of the kids. They really prepared to lobby him hard on Iran sanctions. They got all of their talking points from AIPAC and there was one piece of legislation that he had not cosponsored.

When they got to the meeting and outlined the talking points, he surprised them by saying that he had recently signed on to that particularly bill. I don't think you can have a more successful lobbying session than that!

Congressman Smith is incredibly pro Israel. He believes that support for Israel is good for America. He feels that a great deal of his constituency, which incorporates almost the entire state of Nebraska, feels the same way.

The kids really enjoyed meeting him. he is well versed on the issues, very articulate, but also very candid and easy to talk to.

Teens 4 Israel mostly expressed their appreciation for him taking time out of his schedule to meet with a group of teens that are not even in his district. Many thanks to AIPAC for encouraging the teens to be politically active and for giving them the tools and the knowledge to be a part of the discussion about the US Israel relationship.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Annual No Lashon Harah Week!!!

Next week is parshat Tazria-Metzora and that means...


For the entire week - absolutely no talking negatively about other people. 

This year NO LASHON HARAH WEEK coincides with Yom Hazikaron - Israeli memorial day for fallen soldiers.  Participating in NO LASHON HARAH WEEK is a wonderful way to show honor to these great Jewish heroes!

The Israeli soldiers are defending Israel and providing peace and security for the Jewish people in Israel and around the world. 

Lashon Harah causes fighting and hatred amongst our people.  By refraining from Lashon Harah we bring peace to our people.

When we refrain from any type of slander this week we pray that any slander against Israel, Israeli soldiers, or the Jewish people be ignored and those who spread the slander be discredited.

This week try and be positive about the actions and words of those around us.  Give other people the benefit of the doubt, and judge others favorably.  And in return, may Hashem judge each of us favorably. 

Speech can wound and speech can heal.  May we all learn to use our tongues to heal and may Hashem in turn heal our wounds and send us blessings, health, success, and peace.

This is without a doubt the most challenging week of the year.  I encourage everyone to be a part of it!!!  Think before you speak.  Try and be positive at all times.  It is easier if you do it together with friends and family.  Enlist as many people as possible!

I have done this in years past and every year I come out of the week changed for the better. 

My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from deceitful speech.
Open my heart to your Torah and let my soul chase your mitzvot!!!

The Trial of FDR and the SS St. Louis

Last night I was privileged to attend a showing of the play The Trial of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at Creighton University.  The play is presented by an organization called The St. Louis Project.

In 1939 a ship called the SS St. Louis left Germany to Cuba with over 900 Jewish passengers seeking asylum for Nazi persecution.  The boat was denied entry into Cuba and subsequently into the US and was eventually turned back to Europe.

Because the of the unwillingness of the US to grant refuge to the Jewish passengers on the St. Louis over 250 of the ships passengers were murdered by the Nazis. 

But this event is considered to have a far greater historic significance.  It is said that the episode of the St. Louis sent a message clear message to Hitler that the Jews were a truly despised people and considered expendable by every country in the world. 

The full story can be found in the books Refuge Denied, Saving the Jews: FDR and the Holocaust, and While Six Million Died.  And also in the book or the movie Voyage of the Damned.

The docu-darma we watched last night was a play in which president FDR is brought to trial for his inaction in the face of the desperate pleas of the passengers on the ship.

The play is structured in the style of Ayn Rand's The Night of January 16th, the entire play takes place in a court room and the audience is asked to be the jury.

President Roosevelt, Joesph Kennedy, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and Eleanor Roosevelt are all brought to the stand and the cross examination elicits all sorts of questions for the jury to ponder.  (I linked some books that I am interested in reading to learn more about the subject.)

At the end of the play we heard from four survivors who were passengers on the St. Louis. 

The play was amazing.  I am grateful to Creighton University and for all of the generous donors (many of them from the Jewish community) who made this astounding program possible. 

It was an amazing experience and I hope that the makers of this play have great success in their important work.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Rashi Questions for Shmini

According to Rashi...
1. Why did the initial sacrifices involve a calf?  (9:2)
2. With what Brachah did Aharon bless the people? (9:21 and 9:23)
3. Why did Nadav and Avihu die?  (10:2)
4. How did Moshe teach the Bnei Yisrael which animals were and were not kosher?  (11:2)
5. What kal vachomer is used to teach about non-kosher animals?  (11:8)
6. What kinds of birds are the kos and the yanshuf?  (11:17)
7. What does the Torah mean when it says that we must be able to distinguish between pure and impure?

Shalom Eisner is a Hero!

I knew Lt. Col Eisner well. He is the son of my late teacher, Rabbi Benny Eisner zt"l.

Shalom Eisner is a modern day Israeli war hero. He loves his country and he loves the Jewish people. He dedicated his life to protecting the land of Israel. He is an example is Israel's finest.

Here is an example of one of the many times that Shalom risked his life for his soldiers.
Hagit Rein, grieving mother of the late Major B’naya Rein who was killed in the Second Lebanon War and whose body was recovered by Eisner under fire, called the Army Radio to express her dismay at the way Eisner was being judged by the “media court.”
During that war, B’naya Rein assembled a special force to assist damaged tanks. He was killed on that mission for which he had volunteered, and his body remained in enemy territory. At the command level it was decided that rescuing the body was too dangerous, according to the reservists’ letter. Then it was decided they lacked the necessary resources for a rescue mission.
After three days, Shalom Eisner, who was then commander of an armored battalion, heard about the abandoned body and said it was unacceptable that the body of an army officer would be lying on the ground while his parents were waiting for him at home. Eisner took a jeep, recall his fellow officers and soldiers, put on a flak jacket and went out to get B’naya. “Surrounded by burned-out tanks, missiles flying in every direction, he just went out into the field, loaded the body and brought it back.”
This is a terrible tragedy. If the IDF's decision stands it will be disastrous to the moral of the rest of the army. It sends a message to Israel's enemies that they are free to attack Israelis soldiers, and worse it sends a message to Israeli soldiers that if they fight and defend themselves they will be punished.

My heart goes out mostly to the Eisner family. They are still mourning the loss of Rav Benny, Shalom's father, from earlier this year. Hashem should bless them and know that many of us are with them in this terrible ordeal.

The Jewish people owe Shalom a debt of gratitude for every time he put his own life on the line so that we could have a land of Israel. My hope is that the IDF reverses this terrible decision and give support to the brave soldiers who protect the Jewish State.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Scrolls of Aushwitz

In the summer we have three weeks leading up to Tisha B'Av that are meant as a way to get us into a spirit of mourning so that we can properly mourn the various historic Jewish tragedies.  Yom Hashoah (this year Thursday April 19th) commemorates the greatest tragedy of all, and there is no time allotted for preparation.  On the contrary, the seder meal from Passover is barely digested, and we immediately have to turn our happiness into mourning. 
It is therefore a great imperative to take some time this week and prepare in some way for Yom Hashoah.  This week I hope to recommend a few books that have helped me prepare.

Today I finished reading The Scrolls of Auschwitz by Ber Mark.  I learned about it because it appears prominently in the footnotes of the book We Wept Without Tears: Testimonies from the Jewish Sunderkommando from Auschwitz, by Gideon Greif.
Both of these books are must reads.  The Sonderkommando of Auschwitz-Birkenau consisted primarily of Jewish prisoners forced by the Germans to facilitate the mass extermination. Though never involved in the killing itself, they were compelled to be “members of staff” of the Nazi death-factory.

We Wept Without Tears is a compilation of interviews with the surviving Sunderkommando.  I have read a lot of Holocaust literature, but I cannot ever remember reading such chilling first hand accounts.  But mostly the personal reflections by the people who lived to tell of the absolute worst atrocities ever witnessed in the history of the world will penetrate your soul.  Gideon Greif should be commended for his work and for leaving this book for posterity.

The Scrolls of Auschwitz was written by the prominent Holocaust historian Ber Mark.  HE started documenting the Holocaust as early as 1944, and this book was his last book.  He completed it, with the assistance on his wife, on his death bed in 1966. 

The book is the story of a collection of documents written by prisoners at Auschwitz and hidden, buried in the ground until they were discovered after the war.  Incredibly, even in the depths of hell, many Jews had the presence of mind to document what was occurring and in some cases reflect on their horrific circumstances. 

A short poem written in Polish by an anonymous author was discovered at Auschwitz:

Someone will say it was only a year
Three times four months
But I say there were days and nights without end
each day had twelve hours
each night seven hundred minutes
each minute sixty seconds
and each second - immeasurable suffering.

The end of the book brings in full three lengthy documents that survived the war.  They were written by members of the Sunderkommando and they speak of their experience, and about the planning of the Sunderkommando uprising. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Pesach cleaning

While cleaning for pesach I found an old floppy disc - remember those?  Not one of the really floppy eight inch ones.  One of the hard five inch ones. 
Fortunately, my home computer still has a disc drive (do you think it is time for an upgrade) and I opened the disc.  It was some stuff I had written during semicha, including an essay on the four sons.  I should finish this one of these days.  Here it is for all that are interested.

Four Sons

Conventional understanding of the four sons is that they are arranged in a hierarchy starting with the wise as the top of the hierarchy working down to the Son who does not know how to ask as the lowest. Many commentators address the issue of how to understand this hierarchy but all commentaries that i have seen accept this premise.

But consider that the hierarchy is really in reverse with the son who does not know how to ask being the culmination, the best of the sons, and the wise son being the worst. How?

First we must establish that the wise son is not called the righteous son, but the wise son so we cannot take for granted that he is considered righteous. Also, as almost all commentaries note, the question of the wise son is almost identical to that of the wicked son. The wicked son excludes himself from the Jewish people by asking, "what is this service to you?" and the wise son excludes himself by asking, "what are the laws, testimonies, and statutes that God has commanded to you?" Both say "to you" and not "to us" thereby excluding themselves from the story.

The mitzvah of the seder is mentioned in the Torah with the verse, "and you shall tell your son on that day saying because of this God took me out of Egypt."
The purpose of the seder format is to get the children to ask questions. Each of the children asks their own question except for the lst one. One could say that the son who doesn't know how to ask doesn't do so because he is respectfully waiting to be taught. When we want to engage a child who is not self motivated we do so by using pedagogical techniques that get them to ask. A motivated student does not need to be asked. He can handle the straight lecture form the professor or teacher. That is why the parent is simply directed to tell him the verse from the Torah. This fourth son is the ideal child. just as the bnei Yisrael said naaseh vinishma - we will do and we will listen. They did not ask questions at sinai. The questions came later. First they listened to what their father in Heaven told them. He is speechless and in awe.
This is further supported if we offer a different translation for the third son, in Hebrew called the Tam. He is usually translated as the simple son. But in Hebrew the word tam has many meanings. Jacob was referred to in his early years as Ish tam. This probably meant a pure person. Just as the sheep that were brought as korbanot were tamimim - pure or without blemish.
The wise and wicked son ask questions with an agenda attached to it. The third son asks a question that is pure. What's this?

The wicked son is not the worst son. He asks a question that clearly comes from an emotional place. He referrers to the seder as avodah - a service. Prayer is referred to as avodah as well. He asks an emotional question. What is this service to you? His question is forceful. It has teeth. It attacks the very foundation of belief and goes straight to the core of the parent. The parent counters with an emotional response. You have separated yourself from us so you would not have been with us in Egypt. He presents himself clearly as an enemy to tradition so he is treated as such. The Haggadah says we answer him by knocking out his teeth. The question is good, just remove the teeth from it.

The wise son however is the more devious. Like the rasha, he is also attacking the foundations of Judaism as he also separates himself from the group. His method of attack can be best understood from Achad Ha'Am's essay ancestor worship.
Achad Ha'Am says how the old attacks to tradition were emotional attacks like the rasha. They were disparaging remarks regarding earlier generations. These attackers were never successful because there emotional jabs were met with emotional responses. The new form of attack as a more clever method. It acts curious but has a taint of condescension. "Your ancestors were products of the time that they lived. It is quaint how you and they do these primitive rituals. Tell me more." As if an anthropologist studying some "other" primitive culture.
Why do we answer him by telling him about the afikoman? I have a couple of theories, nothing solid yet.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Remembering Dulhinov

"To destroy a single life is to destroy an entire world."
If so, how do we measure the tragedy when an entire world is actually destroyed?

Today, the 11th of Nisan, is exactly 70 years from the day the town of Dulhinov was destroyed by the Nazis - and with it the world that belonged to Zelig and Mindel Diamond.

The following is the account as told by Zelig at davening this morning.

In 1942 Zelig and 9 other strong and able boys were taken into the forrest about 18 kilometers away from Dolhinov to cut trees and put up 100 cubimeters of wood.  At that time, all of the Jews in Dolhinov, a town in Poland about 100 kilometers from Vilna, had been moved into the part of town that became the Jewish ghetto. 

After two days in the forest they started to walk back towards Dolhinov and on their way the police were there waiting for them.  The snow was very high.  They made us undress and stand naked and barefoot in the snow.

They killed one of us - Gershon. 

The rest of us were able to run away into the forest.  By midnight we went to a nearby village and were able to get clothes.  We walked about 40 kilometers to the other side of Dulhinov.  We came to a non-Jew who I knew through my father.  He let us stay in his barn with the pigs and he brought us some cooked potatoes to eat.  Then we asked him to go into Dolhinov to see if anyone was left there. 

The man found Zelig's father and brought back a message to Zelig to come home.  When they got to Dolhinov the snow on the ground was not white - it was red from Yiddishe blood from when they killed out everyone the day before. 

The streets were empty.  That evening was pesach.  They locked up the windows and they recited the Haggadah.  The next morning they went out and dug mass graves to bury the dead.

"Every year since then I sit on pesach and read the Haggadah - Ilu lo yotzianu miMitzraim - had You not taken us out of Egypt... what was that??!!  Absolutely nothing.  When I compare Yitziat mitzraim to what we went through in Europe - mitzraim was nothing!!"

"Kol Haben hayilod hayiora tashlichuhu - all newborn boys thrown into the Nile -  a tragedy, yes.  But kol habat tichayun - all girls could live - they did not bother them." 

"They had to work - fine, but they ate.  They lived.
It is a miracle that I am alive."

Zelig refers to the massacre on the 11th of Nissan as "the first shechita."  Zelig estimates that a few hundred Jews managed to escape death on that day. 

The Nazis returned for a a second shechita in the month of Iyar.  Zelig escaped from the Ghetto the day before Shavuot.  On the night of Shavuot the Nazis returned for the 3rd and final shechita.  After that there were only a handful of people who remained from what was once a large and vibrant Jewish city. 

Today, those of us who davened at Beth Israel may have been the only people in the world to remember the thousands of Jews who were killed on this very day 70 years ago.  They, and their families, and their memories were almost completely wiped out from this world - an entire world completely destroyed. 

It is a great privilege to be able to daven every morning with Zelig.  I try to get him every day to tell me one of his many stories of life before the war, of his life as a partisan soldier during the war, and of he and his wife Mindel rebuilding their world after the war.  I record them on my phone.

There are no words of consolation to a person who has seen an entire world destroyed.  Noach saw his world destroyed, but was given comfort by Hashem with a rainbow as a promise that the world would never be destroyed in that way again. 

Hashem, remember your promise, please never allow anything like what happened to the generation of the shoah occur to anyone, anywhere, ever again.

haggadah prep #2 - inviting Rashi to the seder

I am spending a great deal of time preparing for my seder this year. I really want it to be a stimulating intellectual experience not just for me, but for my guests as well.
To be better prepared, I am posting some additional sources that may be helpful in better understanding sections of the Haggadah. I also am going to post some topics of discussion. If anyone has sources, topics of discussions, or questions to ask at the seder that will lead to good conversation - please comment and share them with us.

The 4 Verses
The center piece of the Haggadah is a short text from parshat Ki Tavo that begins "Arami Oved Avi."  These verses were recited by the Jewish farmer who brought his first fruits to the Beit Hamikdash as an offering.  The verses are a quick synopsis of the Jewish people from the time of the forefathers until they came to the land of Israel - focusing mostly on the slavery and exodus from Egypt. 

After we sing the song "vi'hee she'amda" we read the four verses from the haggadah with commentary.

At Beth Israel, since we are involved in the Great Rashi Initiative this year, Rashi is always our first look for commentary on the Torah.  Rashi probably had the same Haggadah that we have today, yet his commentary of the 4 verses is different than that of the Haggadah. 

At my seder this year we are going to study both commentaries side by side and try and figure out why Rashi chose to comment differently then the Haggadah. On the blog I will bring a short sample below.

"An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather, he then descended to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation - great, strong, and numerous"  (Translation from the artscroll chumash with Ramban commentary)

"An Aramean tried to destroy my father" - the Haggadah does not give commentary to this line.  Rashi says this refers to Lavan who tried to kill Yaakov.  "Since he considered killing the Jews, Hashem considers it as if he did it."  (Rings of Netanyahu's statement that when Iran declares that they want to destroy Israel the world should take it seriously)  (This clause is very ambiguous and many commentators argue with Rashi's translation.  Why doesn't the Haggadah feel a need to interpret this clause?)

He descended to Egypt - Hagadah: he was forced to go by Hashem's command.  Rashi: "and others also came to destroy us, as after this yaakov went down to Egypt."  (What is the haggadah adding?  What is Rashi adding?)

And sojourned there -  Rashi is silent on this clause while the haggadah has a whole paragraph of commentary.  Why?

With just a few people - The a whole sentence and Rashi only has two words, "seventy people."  Why the difference?

Rashi is silent on the rest of the pasuk and the haggadah has three more comments. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Seder Prep #1 - The Seder in Bnei Brak

I am spending a great deal of time preparing for my seder this year.  I really want it to be a stimulating intellectual experience not just for me, but for my guests as well. 
To be better prepared, I am posting some additional sources that may be helpful in better understanding sections of the Haggadah.  I also am going to post some topics of discussion.  If anyone has sources, topics of discussions, or questions to ask at the seder that will lead to good conversation - please comment and share them with us.


The seder in Bnei Brak:

In the Haggadah we are told about 5 sages in the times of the Mishnah that had a seder of their own in a town called Bnei Brak. Many commentators assume that Rabbi Akiva was the host, as the gemeara mentions that he lived in Bnei Brak whereas the others lived elsewhere.  I imagine when Rabbi Akiva invited them he said,
"Hey, Rabbi Eliezer, are you doing anything for pesach this year?"
"Then you have got to come to my seder!  You do not want to miss it!  It is going to be the seder of the millenium!  People will be talking about it for years!"

Of all of the sders in history, why do we continue to mention this one in the haggadah?  The haggadah does not even mention one time the original seder that happened in Egypt!  Why is this seder singled out as the most famous seder ever?

Here is some extra info that may help us understand this seder better.  I linked to wikipedia, please click and read as much as you can.

Can we learn something from the people who were there?
Rabbis Eliezer, Yehoshua, Elazar Ben Azariyah, Akiva, Tarfon

Can we learn anything from the people who did not make the guest list?
Notably absent are Rabbis Gamliel, Meir, Shimon Bar Yochai, Yehuda, Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma even though some of them appear elsewhere in our haggadah. Why weren't they at the seder in Bnei Brak?

Is there some extra significance to knowing that the seder was in Bnei Brak?
Rabbi Akiva lived in Bnei Brak but the seder could have been held in Lod, Yavneh, or peki'in?

What were the circumstances around the seder and were they important?
Some commentators contend that the bar kochva revolt was going on at the same time.  Others say there is some connection to the firing of Rabbi Gamliel.

Why aren't we told anything that they said at the seder about the story?
Every where we look we hear - "this Rabbi said this, that rabbi said that" why aren't we told anything that was said at that seder?  (Did the subsequent statement of Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariyah happen at that seder or some other time?)

Monday, April 2, 2012

My cousin's eulogy for his father

Last week my cousin Joanthan Douek, who has been more like a big brother to me then a cousin, sat shiva for his father.  Unfortunately I could not make the funeral, but Jonathan sent me the Eulogy and I had to share it.  Jonathan, Gabe, and Tani, Hamakom yinachem etchem - may you all find comfort and may we have many happy family occassions to celebrate together soon.

It is now the Jewish month of Nissan, the month during which we celebrate the holiday of Passover.  Because it is considered a very happy period in the Jewish calendar we generally hold back from delivering eulogies, or perhaps more commonly today we keep them more focused and brief.  To that end my brothers and I decided to deliver just one eulogy as a united group.  I think this works out just fine as my father could get annoyed when we talked too much.  The Rabbi also mentioned that the eulogy ought to contain divrei Torah, words and ideas of Torah, and therefore I thought it appropriate to eulogize my father in the context of the upcoming holiday of Passover. 

 The Rabbis refer to Passover by several different names, one of them being chag haemuna, or holiday of faith.  In light of and in appreciation for the miracles G-d performed for us, and having delivered us from oppressive slavery to freedom, it is a time we reignite or reassert our faith in Him.  In two weeks we will begin our  Passover seder with the declaration of “Ha Lachma Anya” – this is the bread of affliction...”Kol Dichfin Yayte V'yechol”...- all who are hungry come and eat.  Of course many questions are asked and much commentary offered about this formal opening declaration to the seder, and I presume my idea is not altogether novel even if I can't provide its source, but here's the thought – King David famously writes in Psalm 89 “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” – the world is built on kindness.  G-d built this world and continues to build and sustain it with His attribute of Kindness.  G-d had no need or reason to perform open miracles for us and redeem us from slavery, rather it was an act of pure Chesed, pure Kindness.  What better way to reassert our faith in the Almighty than to imitate this act of Kindness by opening our homes and our families to those in need.  What better way to show our appreciation to G-d than to declare “Kol Dichfin Yayte V'yechol” – all who are hungry come and eat.

 My brothers and I were very fortunate to grow up in a house where this was not just a statement issued once a year, but a way of life.  My father's kindness and benevolence was at times seemingly boundless.  His greatest pleasure was opening his home to all sorts of people in all sorts of ways.  He of course loved to cook and to entertain large amounts of people for all types occasions, but what was truly unique was how far he extended himself.  I remember when I was living in New York and returned home for a weekend.  When I arrived at my father's house there was someone else there who seemed to be making himself strangely comfortable.  I asked my dad who it was and he said “Oh it's just someone staying with me.”  I thought that meant maybe a couple days or something.  No, he was there for a few weeks already and had no plans of leaving anytime soon.  After a series of inquiries my father simply said “he's having a difficult time and needed a place to stay for a while until he got himself back on his feet.”  Over the course of my visit I saw my father didn't treat this guest as a charity case, in fact he didn't even treat him as a guest at all.  Before moving in with him this person was a complete stranger, and here I saw my father treating him like his best friend.  He cooked him meals almost daily.  And I'm not talking spaghetti or grilled cheese.  One night was lamb curry, the next night poached salmon.  Rich rice dishes with pistachios, raisins, saffron...For breakfast – feta cheese omelets, shakshuka.  He didn't ask for rent, help with the grocery shopping or cleaning the house.  My father didn't want him to feel like he was just there for a place to sleep or just there as a charity cause.  He embraced him as friend.  He did whatever he could to uphold his dignity during his difficult period.  And this was not a one time occurrence.  I can tell you multiple stories like this.  In fact just recently someone shared a similar personal story.  I knew he recently went to visit my father in Florida, and I remember my father telling me he was there for a couple weeks for a vacation.  This friend says to me “A couple weeks... how about 5 months!”  Based on how my father portrayed it I thought he was there vacationing, soaking up the Florida sun, but his friend confided that he was going thru a difficult period and had nowhere else to go.  My father never pressured him to leave and let him stay unconditionally.  And we're not talking about the Taj Mahal, this was a small 2 bedroom apartment.  5 months.  And my father never said anything to compromise his dignity, never mentioned the sensitivity of his situation.

 I remember one time I became aware of a situation...someone needed a place to stay for a while.  He lost his job and was going thru a divorce and by the time I got involved in trying to help him he had exhausted all his resources.  I thought my father's place would be a good potential solution, but was a bit hesitant to ask him.  He had just gone thru a rough period with a particularly difficult house guest who overstepped some boundaries and might have even been a bit offensive.  Anyway, I knew this person had nowhere else to turn and I had to ask my father, but I was worried it was a bit too soon since this difficult guest had just left.  I scripted the ask, even practiced it before calling him.  Finally I picked up the phone I said dad I need favor...”Of course, anything, what is it?”  “Well there's this guy who is kinda down on his luck...”  My father could tell I was a bit distressed so he interrupted me “does he need a place to stay?”  I said “yea, but it's probably not for very long and...”  Again he interrupted   “what's the matter with you, of course he can come.  Is he coming today?  Will he be here for dinner?”  I said “well dad, it's a bit of a story, the guy has made some mistakes and I just want to make sure you're perfectly comfortable with the situation.”  At this point he sounded a bit perturbed “ made some mistakes?!  I make mistakes, you make mistakes, does that mean we don't deserve to have a place to live?  C'mon.” 

 This is how he was.  My father didn't make calculations, there were no preconditions.  He didn't need to know who it was, what the story was.  Someone needed a place, they got it. 

 Two years ago at Thanksgiving time he was in the middle of his chemo treatments and they began taking a toll on him.  I told him I was planning on coming down to visit him and asked almost rhetorically if he had any Thanksgiving plans thinking that was the last thing on his mind.  He said “Great, come on down.  I'm hosting a dinner for 15 people.”  If I didn't know him I would have thought he was kidding.  I ask him who was on the privileged guest list and as he goes thru the list he mentions someone I know he had a bit of a falling out with.  The guy stayed with him for a bit and took advantage of my father a little...I don't know exactly what happened but I know my father was very unhappy with the guy, and here he was just weeks later inviting him to his Thanksgiving dinner.  I said “dad didn't you and so and so have an issue recently?”  He says “the guy has nowhere to go for thanksgiving, he has no family.  I'm gonna let him be alone for Thanksgiving because he offended me?” 

“KOL Dichfin Yayte V'yechul” - ALL who are hungry, come and eat.  Not just my family, not just my friends, not just those I am comfortable with, not just those who agree with me...

His kindness was not relegated to just his home.  Wherever he went he looked for opportunities to bring smiles and joy to peoples faces.  Waiting in line at the store he would talk to a random stranger in front of us, tell them a corny joke.  Riding an elevator he would ask the person next to him where he was going, tell him have a great day.  He just loved people and didn't understand why people didn't interact with each other more.  I remember when he visited me in NYC and we rode the subway somewhere together.  He thought it was the most ridiculous experience.  All these people jammed in a subway car together, none of them expressing any emotion, nobody interacting with each other.  They looked lifeless to him.  It was so foreign to him.  He started making random conversation, telling jokes.  Anyone who's been on an NYC subway knows this is usually not taken kindly to.  It didn't bother him. 

Of course sometimes his extroversion was a bit over the top for people, for some people his filter was set just a bit too low.  But he brought a lot of joy to people on a daily basis.  Very often before he went to his chemo treatments he would stop at this bakery that made what he called the best babka in the world.  With him everything was the best.  Always the superlative.  Nothing was just good or tasty.  It had to be THE best.  So he would pick up a babka to bring to the nurses and doctor when he went for his treatment.  He recognized that their job was uniquely difficult – being around and treating terminal patients all day.  It could be very depressing.  He didn't want to be another depressing patient.  So he would bring a babka.  He said “you wouldnt believe what a babka can do.  I spend $6 and I make 3 nurses and a doctor happy.”  He marveled at this - $1.50 per person to make them smile, to make their whole day a little better.  To make them look forward to the day he was scheduled to come in.  To him this was the biggest bargain in the world.  There was a problem though.  Not everyone loved babka as much as he did, but somehow my father didn't understand how this was possible.  He offered a nurse a piece of the babka, the nurse would say thank but I'm on a diet, I'd gonna pass.  Well my father wasn't going to have it.  “C'mon try one piece, you'll love it.  It's the best babka in the world.”  Thank you Isaac, I just, I dont really eat babka.  So my father had no choice – not a moment later than the nurse insistently declined his jesture my father indiscriminately shoves a piece in his mouth.  “C'mon tell me that's not the best babka you ever had.”  He just couldn't help himself sometimes.  Sometimes even those who were NOT hungry had to come and eat.

 When I consider my father's motivations and his attitude to performing acts of kindness I'm reminded of a thought I once heard attributed to Rabbi Soloveichik that goes like this.  Our experience as slaves in Egypt presented us with an ethical obligation, a moral imperative to be kind to others, particularly the poor and downtrodden.  It is one thing to recognize intellectually that one ought to be kind to those less fortunate, but quite another when one has experienced those same hardships himself. 

 My father was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1946.  From the little he has told us about his childhood it sounds like they lived a very comfortable upper middle class lifestyle – my grandfather had a thriving business as some sort of tradesman, they lived in the heart of a very warm and close knit upper class Jewish community.  All of that was suddenly taken away 10 years later when the Jews were expelled from Egypt under Nasser's regime.  My father's family was stripped of all their comforts and luxuries and forced to leave with little more than a few suitcases.  Most of the other Jewish families settled in London, a center for commerce and trade, but ours somehow was destined for the industrial city Birmingham.  They weren't in the heart of a close knit Jewish community, they lacked the resources they needed to resettle comfortably.  My grandfather didn't speak a word English and had a very difficult time reestablishing himself professionally, and from what we understand battled severe depression the rest of his life.  From the age of 16 my father left school to work full time to help support his family. 

 My father knew what it meant to be needy.  He experienced firsthand the horrors of being displaced from his home, of needing a place to go.  For him, inviting others into his home, whether it be for a meal or to stay however long his guests needed or desired, was a moral imperative.  “How can I not let someone in need of shelter and comfort stay in my home?”  “How can I let someone eat a Thanksgiving meal alone?”  He didn't make calculations, he didn't have conditions.  It wasn't a good deed, a nice jesture...for my dad it was a moral imperative.  Kol dichfin...

 Professionally as a painting contractor he made it his priority to hire new American immigrants.  Russians, Israelis, many of whom spoke no English like his father.  He was so proud of the fact that he could help, giving them their first job when they had difficulty finding employment in their new homeland.  And this was at great self sacrifice.  Imagine running a business where you couldn't communicate with most of your employees even on a basic level.  And we're not talking about a shlock operation.  Custom Painting by Roger Douek was one of the preeminent outfits in town.  You can drive through some of the most prestigious neighborhoods in Clayton and here in the Central West End where entire blocks of houses were painted by my father's crew.  Some of his employees literally became some of the best painters and craftsmen in St. Louis.  After getting their start with my father some of them went on to establish their own very lucrative businesses as contractors, real estate developers.  My father was so proud that he gave them their start when they could barely speak English.

 He took a very personal responsibility for them as well.  I remember his nervousness during slow seasons when he didn't have any work.  He was always concerned about keeping his crews busy so they wouldn't have to worry about paychecks.  And I remember some years when things were very tight he told me he paid his top painters more money than he himself took home.  Painters who spoke no English.  How many corporate CEO's today can make such a claim.  Olam Chesed Yibaneh – this world is Built on Kindness.

 Unquestionably my father's proudest accomplishment was us, his children.  There was nothing he was more passionate about than giving us the positive childhood which he was denied.  We spent a lot of time together, always sitting down together for dinner, our Sunday morning ritual of breakfast and bowling.  Having no formal education from the age of 16, he always stressed the importance of formal education.  Even though his business for many years was a lucrative one, he wanted us to have professional opportunities he never had.  Invariably whenever he would attend our school functions, whether it was our kindergarten plays or high school graduations, he always cried like a baby.  He was so proud of our educational accomplishments.  He was especially proud of our Jewish education and development.  We all attended the local Jewish day schools, we all learned in yeshivas.  He never pushed us in one direction, he never tried to impose his own ideas or preconceptions of what or how we should learn.  He gave us all the room we needed to choose our own paths and make our own choices.  Along the way, around bar mitzvah time we all decided to take upon ourselves added religious observance under the influence and guidance of our maternal grandparents – a stricter, more Orthodox observance of shabbat and holidays, and more rigorous kosher diet.  These choices weren't just self sacrifice on our part, but in many ways on his as well – spending weekends away from home to attend synagogue and festive meals with our grandparents and the rest of my mother's family.  It also restricted how and what we ate at his house, and this was no simple thing.  His greatest pleasure was to cook, especially for my brothers and I.  Nothing was more sacred than sitting down for a meal together.  He tried so hard to accommodate – going out to buy new pots and pans, new dishes to accommodate our heightened kosher standards.  And I can only speak for myself, not my brothers when I say that sometimes in my religious zeal I neglected perhaps the most important Torah mandate of Kibbud Av Va'em – to respect and honor our parents. I know there were times when I should have been more respectful and sensitive to my father, and I know it hurt him sometimes even if he didn't show it.  And yet I can tell you without a hint of exaggeration did he ever criticize our beliefs and practices.  On the contrary, he always actively supported and encouraged our spiritual choices.  And he constantly  expressed deep admiration and genuine appreciation for my grandparents' influence on our spiritual lives.  He told Gabe and I just days ago that he often dreamed about our maternal grandfather, Dr. Parker, even more so than his own father.

Dad I must ask mechila/forgiveness for those times where I failed to show you the proper respect and sensitivity you not only deserved and taught us, but gave to us always.  For times when I should have used different words, a different tone, should have listened rather than speak.

 The Zohar states that when we begin our Passover seder and make the declaration “Kol Dichfin Yayte V'yechul” - all who are hungry come and eat – the Almighty together with his celestial entourage heeds our call and descends upon all our seders to listen to us recount the story of the Exodus, to hear us sing the songs, to be there with us as we reassert our faith in Him.  Dad, this year you don't get to make that declaration of “Kol Dichfin,” - all who are hungry come and eat.  You don't get to send out any invitations and you don't get to do the cooking.  Instead, this year you are on the receiving end of the invitation, a Divine invitation.  You will be one of the guests of honor at the Almighty's personal seder.  And dad, make sure you bring your appetite.  I hear they'll be serving the most amazing lamb curry.  

Travelblog "tribefest"

I just attended tribefest - an even hosted by Jewish Federation of North America (jfna) in las Vegas. The purpose of the event was for young Jews in their 20s and 30s to "connect explore and celebrate"

I was skeptical.

My initial impressions were that this would be a social gathering devoid of any substantive Jewish content, and. Possibly some other deboucherous behavior.  But for a Jewish professional who loves the Jewish world, it was hard to stay away.

Their we're 1400 Jews signed up 9 from Omaha, and there were going to be a bunch of Jewish professionals and fellow Jewish bloggers in attendance who I really wanted to meet in person. So I signed up.

In case anyone from my Shul is reading this I want everyone to know - no Shul money was used to send me to this event. I came out of my own curiosity so I paid my own way. I have a professional development budget that allows me to attend conferences that will contribute to what I do as a Rabbi, but I was not sure that this would be that kind of conference.

I arrived Sunday night and it seemed that my skepticism was founded. I walked into a big dance party featuring the Jewish rapper "kosher dill" and the Israeli reveal band "hatikva 6" two amazing acts, but not something I viewed as substantive Jewish content.

I did get to meet a number of interesting people including A.J. Jacobs, author of the new York times best seller, The Year of Living Biblically.  I had read his book and found it interesting as an insight into how an obviously very intelligent secular Jew viewed the Torah and the observance of mitzvot.  He is an extraordinary person and I really hope I can maintain a relationship with him. 

I Also ran into my old friend Shmuley Boteach. It seems I run into him everywhere!

After the concert there was a party at some dance club in the hotel. I decided instead to go to bed early.

I was impressed that the schedule included davening at 6:45am on Monday morning. This was only made possible because Yeshiva University brought a small delegation. I am proud that yeshiva university is starting to recognize the importance of engaging with the greater Jewish world. 

After minyan was the community service project. Those members of tribefest who were able to wake up before 9am were brought on busses to local public elementary schools were they read to children for an hour. While many participants slept in from a long night of partying, I was greatly impressed by the number of people who woke up to participate. It said to me that there were many people who did come here looking for a serious Jewish experience.

When the service trip was done, the sessions began. The schedule included blocks of time called "main stage" in which we all gathered in a large auditorium and heard from speakers, and then there were breakout sessions that included panel discussions on different topics, and presentations from different Jewish organizations that were attending. The first main stage was mainly a big push for everyone to get tested for the 19 known Jewish genetic diseases. We heard sad stories from parents of children with some of these diseases. In all cases these were people who had been tested for some diseases, but not for all. One parent, randy gold, made it his personal mission to make genetic testing affordable for everyone. Through his efforts he brought the cost down from over $5,000 to just $25! Through the Victor foundation participants at tribefest could sign up for screening at the conference.

We also heard from 2 cancer survivors who started important organizations. Johnny Imerman started a group called Imerman's angels that connects cancer patients with others who went through the same type of cancer.  He has given support to thousands of cancer patients around the world.
And Rochelle Shoretz who founded Sharsheret a support group for Jewish women with breast cancer.

In the afternoon we heard from a number of speakers, two of them really stood out. Brooke Goldstein and Hadas Malada Mastree.

Hadas is an ethiopian lady who came to Israel as a girl.  During her perilous trek from Ethiopia she contracted malaria and almost died.  She was saved by Israeli doctors and decided that she wanted to become one as well.  When she got older she became a doctor for the Israeli air force and since then she has helped people all over the world.  Her story is too amazing to do justice in a paragraph.  She was one of the most inspiring women I have ever heard in my life.

Brooke Goldstein made a documentary exploring the phenomenon of child suicide bombers in the Muslim world.  She spoke about the terrible indoctrination that occurs and insists that this is the worst type of human rights violation and has dedicated her life to fighting it.

After the main stage I went to a session titled, "The Jewish Vote 2012."  The session featured the head of the Jewish democratic coalition in Washington and the head of the Jewish Republican coalition in Washington.  The most interesting aspect of this session is that there was a screen that featured a twitter feed in the background.  People from the audience could comment on the lecture on real time by tweeting from their phones.  This allowed me and others to actually post comments and questions that the speakers responded to.

The evening activity was another concert by one of my favorite bands in the world, The Moshav Band.  They were amazing.

The next morning I woke up a bit early for minyan.  I was wondering in the hotel when I saw a man holding a talis and tefillin bag. I asked him where he was headed and he said that there was a minyan in the hotel for people who had come for the ASD expo, a consumer goods trade show that was going on in Las Vegas at the same time as tribefest.  I decided I would walk with him and check it out.  As we were walking it occurred to both of us that we looked familiar to one another.  It turns out that he is my wife's parent's next door neighbor from Baltimore.  Small world.

When we got to the room of the trade show minyan I was amazed!  It was a packed room, standing room only, with over 250 businessmen who woke up an hour early to daven to Hashem.  After minyan a large group stayed for another fifteen minutes t learn some Torah together as well. 
What was most amazing to me was that just before minyan was over a man got up to make an announcement.  "I am sure you have all heard the news that ASD has scheduled the trade show next year to conflict with the first night of pesach.  ASD has been in contact with us apologizing for their negligence and trying to make it up to us."  Apparently observant Jews form such a critical group at the trade show that ASD is desperately trying to reschedule to change the date of next years trade show to accommodate the observant Jews who attend. 

After I davened I went back to the tribefest part of the hotel.  Tribefest had scheduled a minyan and I wanted to make sure that they had ten people.  When I got to the part of the hotel with tribefest I saw a guy standing in the hall way between conference rooms who had the look of someone who is trying desperately to find a tenth for a minyan - a look I know well.  He asked me if I would help.  Of course I said.  Then he saw I was holding my own tefilin bag and he said, "oh, you are probably looking for the Orthodox minyan right?"  He was collecting for the non-Orthodox / egalitarian minyan.  He told me that the Orthodox minyan was in a conference room across the hall.  I thanked him and went to check on the minyan I was seeking.  I peeked into the room and saw that they had more than a minyan.

When I saw that was the case I went back to help the other guy make his minyan. 

I think this may have been my first time davening in an egalitarian daily minyan.  I noted a few observations - 1. There was a lot of singing.  This did not appeal to me personally.  I wish I could articulate better why.  I guess one reason is that it seems a bit too campy for my taste.  I just couldn't imagine the room of businessmen at the ASD trade show coming to minyan and singing.  The minyan that I and they are used to has a more adult and professional feel to me.  In my opinion the singing makes it seem like davening is something only done with young children or at camp.
2. There were more women at the so called "non-egalitarian" minyan.  True, a woman can't lead at the non-egal service, but all of the women at the non-egal service seemed capable of leading, which did not seem to be the case at the egal service.  (I could be wrong, this is just an observation)
and 3. at the egal service the conference room chairs were set up by the hotel staff in two separate sections with an aisle down the middle.  All the men were sitting on one side and all of the women were sitting separately on the other. 

When I got to the egal minyan I was actually the 9th person.  We were still missing one.  So I went to the hall to see if I could lend my expert minyan collecting skills to the effort.  I stood with the other guy and we saw a tribebest participant pass buy.  We asked him if he would join us for a few minutes to help us make ten for a minyan.  "I would really rather not."  He said.  "It will only take a few minutes and it would really mean a lot to us."  "Sorry."  He said.  "That is just not my thing."
Fine.  I said.  I can respect that.  On to the next people.  After a few minutes we two women came buy and they made up 10 and 11.  My work was done. 

Some Rabbis may have had an issue with helping out a non-Orthodox minyan.  It is not "my thing" but almost daily there are people who help me at Beth Israel to make a minyan even though it is not "their thing."  I appreciate their help and I felt an absolute obligation to help 9 other Jews join to talk to God, even if they did it in a way that I may personally think is incorrect. 

After minyan there were breakout sessions for breakfast.  Their was a Jewish professionals breakfast that I chose to go to.  I met some amazing people there.  Most notable, I met the guy who started started, the largest Jewish social network site on the Internet.  Before the networking began words of welcome were given.  I looked up and the Jewish professional welcoming us was the same guy who turned us down for minyan!  "As Jewish professionals we all know how hard it is to engage young Jews in Jewish activity that is why we all have to work together."  I was outraged.  I wanted to tell him off, or report him to his boss or something to expose this hypocrite!!
I decided in the end to do none of the above.  I am just going to blog about him.
If you are reading this, you know who you are.  Next time, help a Jew out!

The final sessions were also great.  I went to a session given by my new friend Rabbi Jason Miller on how Jewish professionals can use social media.  Loved it!
Then the main stage featured a few more featured speakers including Jonathan Greenblatt, co-founder of Ethos water and special assistant to president Obama and Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation (OSICP).  He spoke about how he used social entrepreneurship to start his company and help people all over the world.

Overall I found tribefest very inspiring.  As I mentioned before, I was skeptical going in.  I did not think there would be any significant Jewish content.  And I was right.  There was no substantive Jewish content.  The only time I learned any Torah was davening with the businessmen from the trade show.

But that is not what tribefest was about.  In fact, many of the speakers began their speeches by saying something like, "I am DEFINITELY NOT what people would call a good Jew."  Or they would say something about how they never attended synagogue, were never involved in Jewish organizations, or even Jewish causes. 

The speakers were not invited because they did something Jewish.  They were invited simply because they are Jewish.  In fact, for me tribefest was a really great conference about social media and entrepreneurship featuring some remarkable people who have done remarkable things.
But I would not have been invited to that conference if I was not Jewish.  I would not have gotten such a great deal on the Venetian hotel.  I would not have had the opportunity to meet billionaire hotel mogul Sheldon Adelson. 

After the AIPAC conference I thought that Jewish Federations would lose market share to AIPAC for a number of reasons.  For one, you don't have to be Jewish to join AIPAC and with the rate of intermarriage it seemed that a young interfaith couple could both comfortably be active in AIPAC and not at Federation. 

But the bigger reason I thought AIPAC had an edge was because AIPAC actually stood for something.  You knew why you were going there, to support Israel.  I did not feel that about Federation.  What did they stand for?  Helping local community?  Helping Israel?  Helping Jews around the world?  Everything and yet nothing.  It seemed unfocused and therefore unexciting. 

After tribefest I get it.  Federation does not have to stand for anything.  It is just a network of Jews.  Today social entrepreneurship is trending - so lets focus on some Jews who have done some of that.  If tomorrow something else is popular, no problem.  There are bound to be some prominent Jews doing what ever activity it is.  Find them and pay them to come and speak to us. 

Young Jews will choose to stay Jewish because doing so gives them access to this amazing network.  They will also be more likely to marry Jewish.  In just 3 years tribefest has already produced a number of married couples.  I think this is a much better investment then birthright.  You could probably bring 10 kids to tribefest for the price of one birthright.  And if tribefest continues to bring great Israeli speakers there is a great likelihood that young people will actually be inspired to go to Israel on their own. 

This will not directly promote Judaism, but the more active Jews you have, the more likely it is that they will pursue their heritage as well. 

I learned a great deal about social entrepreneurship from tribefest - something I wanted to learn anyway - and it gave me a good feeling about the Jewish community.  I think others felt the same.

I heard that they are not running tribefest again next year.  That it was too expensive.  I hope that is not true.  I think that tribefest was a great success and I hope some donors think about making it happen next year as well.