Thursday, March 21, 2013

This Year's Hagaddah Picks

Every year i like to mix up the Hagaddahs that I use at the Pesach seder.  This year I have some good ones picked out for my own personal seder.  Here are this year's Hagaddah picks:

1. The Gurs Haggadah: Passover in Perdition - Great Hagadah that includes pictures of the hagadah written from memory by the Jews in the camp.

2. Haggadah: Go Forth and Learn by David Silber - I must admit, I have not read this one yet, but i really like the cover.

3. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sack's Haggadah - Always a winner!

4. The Chief Rabbi's Haggadah - by Yona Metzger - be the first to review it on Amazon!

5. 300 Ways to Ask the 4 Questions - the mah nishtana in 300 languages!  So much fun!  My favorite is Morse Code.

6. The Un-Haggadah by Mitchell Wohlberg - Best Haggadah if you have unafiliated guests!  Absolutely brilliant!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Marc Shapiro Shabbaton at Beth Israel

In 1984 Jerry Seinfeld performed at Yeshiva University.  Rabbi Neil Fleischmann told me that because he was not so famous at the time he only attracted a small audience.  (His opening line was "wow, Yeshiva University.  I am not sure if I should do my routine or my haftarah!")  Years later when Seinfeld achieved superstardom, those who went to hear him and had a chance to meet him personally remember fondly how they knew him when.

Last week Beth Israel had the privilege of hosting the great Jewish scholar historian Dr. Marc Shapiro.  I truly believe that those in Omaha who came to learn from him this past Shabbat will one day recount how they had an opportunity to hear and meet Dr. Shapiro before he was world famous.

Dr. Shapiro is the chair of Judaic studies at the university of Scranton and has written numerous books and articles on Jewish history, philosophy, and theology.  (wikipedia)  He is considered by many to be one of the fastest rising stars in the world of Jewish historical scholarship.

I have been a big fan of Dr. Shapiro's writings for some time through his books and articles.  He is a contributor to the seforim blog and a lecturerer on Torah in Motion.

He also does historical trips in Europe.  Anyone who signs up through Beth Israel can get a $200 discount.  Check it out!

It was really thrilling for me to be able to get to know him in person over Shabbat.
Dr. Marc Shapiro in Omaha at the grave of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Grodzinsky
When he speaks he does so much more than just convey information.  He expands your mind and challenges you to think more.  After the lecture you not only know more, you are qualitatively smarter than you were before the lecture.

Dr. Shapiro is a wealth of information on any area of history and he delivers his information in a clear and organized manner.  He never sensationalizes historical figures.  He does not indulge in anecdotes but rather presents historical figures only through their writings and the direct impact that they had.  His approach is never speculative.  

Dr. Shapiro is brutally honest in his presentation of significant Jewish personalities, which to a large degree include venerated Rabbis.  This has made him somewhat controversial.  He presents them and their philosophies in full.  He presents the strengths and weaknesses of their works and thoughts.  He does not shy away from presenting ideas, rulings, or actions that may appear to us as absurd or sometimes even immoral in hindsight.  But he is always respectful and he gives us a full historical background so that we can understand these great men in the context in which they lived.  He shows that if we were faced with the same tensions and challenges that they faced we may have made the same mistakes.

He presents information objectively, but does not remain completely objective.  He presents conflicts and tensions between different schools of thought of great thinkers of the past.  He pits two conflicting ideas against each other and shows how those tensions are still relevant today.  He lays out the calculus of the equations presented by moral dilemmas, explains the costs and benefits of both schools of thought, and usually courageously opines as to what he thinks is the right course.  These views can always be applied to modern tensions and always leads to stimulating discussion.  

As an example, on Friday night he spoke about Orthodox Judaism's response to non-Orthodox Judaism in Germany in the 19th century.  At the time the Orthodox leader in Germany was the great Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch.  Hirsch is famous for his advocacy of Orthodox Jews engaging in the modern world and is referred to by many as the father of modern Orthodoxy.  

Lesser known was his strict position on Orthodox separatism.  He believed that the Orthodox in Germany should separate themselves completely form the non-Orthodox community.  At some point he went head to head with Rabbi Seligman Baer Bamberger who at the time represented the more traditional Orthodox approach.  Rabbi Seligman was opposed to the Hirshian attitude of engagement in the modern world.  While is was expected that Rabbi Seligman would side with Rabbi Hirsch on the issue of separatism, ironically he was not in favor of Orthodox Jews seceding form the general community.  Dr. Shapiro suggests that Bamberger's leniency on this issue stemmed from his stringency in other areas.  Bamberger and his followers acted so vastly different from the Reform Jews so he had no fear that the Reform would have a great deal of influence.  By contrast, the more "modern" Orthodox were similar in many regards to the Reform Jews and Hirsch felt that mingling and coexistence would have a negative influence on his followers.

In his defense, Hirsch countered in a letter to Bamberger that had Hirsch's philosophy been around two generations earlier there would have been no Refrom because the traditional Orthodox model presented Jews with a false dichotomy where they had to choose between either the secular world or the Jewish world.  Seemingly, Reform presented them with the only alternative.  

On Shabbat Dr. Shaprio spoke about the great early 20th century Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook and his philosophy.  He outlined the major points of his philosophy and showed how it is relevant today in Israel and throughout the Jewish world.  

But he also presented some critiques of Rav Kook's philosophy.  

Rav Kook believed that the non-religious atheist Zionists were really part of God's master plan.  Whereas they thought that they were building Israel for the sake of some socialist non-religious utopia, in reality they were just laying the ground work for the messianic era where everyone will recognize God.  

While this sounds wonderful and inclusive, at a symposium in Israel in 1985 commemorating the 50th anniversary of Rav Kook's death, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein pointed out that this attitude is condescending and it negates people's thoughts, motives, and ambitions.  Dismissing people's true intentions and pretending that they are actually just working to serve your own agenda, even if they don't know it, is very disrespectful to others.  Better to understand your opponents and at least allow them the dignity of their own ideals, even if they differ from your own.

But as always, even when Dr. Shapiro presents critiques he does so with the utmost respect and it was clear that he indeed is a great admirer of Rav Kook.

On Shabbat afternoon Dr. Shapiro and I had an arm chair discussion where he took questions form the congregation.  He discussed a variety of topics including women in Orthodoxy, Orthodox attrition, and Orthodoxy's relationship with other denominations.

All of his answers were subtle and complex, yet clear and reasonable, and always positive and optimistic.  

Regarding the question of Orthodox children leaving the fold, he pointed out that our generation has the lowest attrition of Orthodox youth than any generation since the enlightenment over 200 years ago.  At the beginning of the 20th century it was only a small minority of Orthodox parents that were able to pass traditional Judaism down to their children.  Today the percentage of children who maintain their parents tradition is overwhelming.

We had a large crowd from other synagogues who came to ask questions.  The recent New York Times piece about "The Orthodox Surge" was mentioned and the question of why Orthodox Judaism seems to be on the rise while Conservative Judaism - 50 years ago considered the future of American Judaism - seems to be in sharp decline nationally.

Dr. Shapiro mentioned half joking (and he said I could quote him) that if he were in charge of non-orthodox Judaism he would CANCEL YOM KIPPUR.  He explained that there is a large number of non-orthodox Jews who only show up for Yom Kippur services, a long and somber event.  This then becomes there only view of Judaism and they are not interested.  If they are only going to show up twice a year then let it be Purim and Simchat Torah instead of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  That way their view of Judaism will be joyous rather than somber.

He also openly discussed his view of Orthodox women Rabbis, saying that he thinks there is no problem and there is long historic precedent.  He thinks, however, that changes must be implemented in modern times in a more organic and natural way, rather than imposing ideas or institutions on a community that may not be ready to accept them.

A highlight of the weekend was taking Dr. Shapiro to meet with Rabbi Kripke at the Blumkin Home.  Rabbi Kripke, Hashem should bless him, is now 99 years old, and occupied a time in history that Dr. Shapiro studies.  He was ordained by Professor Louis Finklestein at the Jewish Theological Center in 1937.  He was also a student of Mordechai Kaplan.  Dr. Shapiro got to ask Rabbi Kripke all sorts of questions about his experiences and encounters with these and other notable historic figures.  It is always a great privilege to hear Rabbi Kripke talk about his past.  May he be blessed with many more years of good health!

Having Dr. Shapiro here in Omaha was really a great treat.  I hope that we have an opportunity to host him again someday.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Travel Blog AIPAC 2013

Last week I accompanied the Omaha Teens 4 Israel group to the 2013 AIPAC policy conference.

It was the experience of a lifetime!

In addition to the Teens 4 Israel our delegation included a dozen people from Nebraska, making this our largest delegation in history.  Next year we hope to at least triple that number.

You can see all of the AIPAC speeches o their website, but I must say there is nothing like being there in person!

The conference alternates between plenaries for everyone and smaller breakout sessions.  The plenaries take place in the large auditorium and are attended by all 13,000 conference participants. They feature the headline speakers which included the Prime Minister of Israel Netanyahu, Former Prime Minister and current defense minister Ehud Barak, and the Vice President of the United states Joe Biden.
The dozens and dozens of different break out sessions are given on a wide variety of topics, each given by the top experts in the field.  Every speaker could be a headliner in their own right.

AIPAC enables participants to preselect their sessions before the conference.  At our last meeting we made our selections and the kids were ready to go.

For their first session they attended a panel discussion on the situation in Syria.  Like all sessions at AIPAC the speakers were all experts in the field and gave an in depth look at the horrifying massacre that is taking place as well as how it may impact the US, Israel, the Middle East, and the world.  This was of particular interest to the Teens 4 Israel because at one of our Teens 4 Israel meetings at Starbucks we heard from a Syrian boy whose uncle in Syria was one of the victims.

While they attended that lecture I went to a special session for Rabbis where we got a chance to hear from Lord Jonathan Sachs, chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom.  I am a huge fan of Rabbi Sachs.  Over the conference I had the opportunity to meet him personally.  At one point during the conference his director of communications and programming approached me and thanked me for always mention rabbi Sachs on Twitter. (@chiefrabbi)

Rabbi Sachs gave the Rabbis some inspiring thoughts on Israel and on Pesach which I would share, but there were 350 rabbis in the room and I imagine most of them, including myself, will incorporate those thoughts into our pesach sermons.  I don't want to ruin the surprise.

In addition to hearing great speakers the kids were also thrilled to meet Jewish celebrities like Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren, former director of national NCSY Rabbi Steven Burg, and "America's Rabbi" Shmuley Boteach.  Sadly Rabbi Shmuley did not attend the conference as a congressman this year like he wanted to.

Teen 4 Israel Max P. with Rabbi Steve Burg
We left the hotel early Monday morning so that we could get through security to get good seats for the opening plenary.  This was only my sixth AIPAC conference.  I have heard that 10 years ago it was hard to get a minyan.  At this conference yarmulka clad heads were everywhere you looked and there were multiple options to daven shacharit minchah and maariv.  We joined a 7 am minyan in one of the conference rooms (there is even a daf yomi class at AIPAC) and then headed straight to the main ball room.  Security was tight because the featured speaker was the Vice president of the United States, Joe Biden.

Before Biden there was a panel discussion moderated by Dan Senor, author of the book Start up Nation.  The Teens 4 Israel had read start up nation.  They met Dan Senor when he came to speak in Omaha two years ago.  They are all big fans.

On the panel was Senator John McCain.  It was a great panel.  The issue of Syria came up.  There is a great deal of uncertainty around Syria.  On the one hand it is a humanitarian crisis.  80,000 have already been killed and almost a million people have been displaced.  On the other hand, to assist the rebels and oust Assad may allow the Syrian stockpile of chemical weapons to reach the hands of radical terrorist groups.
McCain took a strong stand in favor of assisting the rebels and ousting Assad.
He said it was a great shame that we have so far done nothing.

Then VP Joe Biden took the stage.  He is a truly great speaker.  He held the audience captivated for a long time.  He spoke about all of the things that the US has done to support Israel during the last four and a half years.  He contends that Israel has never had a better friend than president Barack Obama.

  • He came out and openly said that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization - something that other nations have yet to do.
  • He said that Assad must go but we cannot support another terror regime in his place.
  • He said when it comes to preventing Iran from going nuclear president Obama is not bluffing and a military option is on the table.
  • He also said that he wants to exhaust every diplomatic option before we get to a military option.
  • He said that when he visited Europe with his family his first stop was to see the Dachau concentration camps. 
He ended by saying that Obama is going to Israel and Biden is jealous because Obama can now say "this year in Jerusalem."

it was a great speech and there was really nothing to argue with.  I hope that the historic relationship that Israel has had with the US continues throughout the Obama presidency and beyond.

After the vice president we heard a presentation from Team Space Israel.  They are working to send a shuttle to the moon and finally get an Israeli flag up there.

We heard form the widow of Israeli hero and astronaut Ilan Ramon.  I remember exactly where i was when I heard that he had died.  She subsequently lost her son who was also a pilot.  It was very moving to hear her speak with such optimism for the future.

Prime Minister Netanyahu joined us from his office in Israel.  He spoke about Iran, Syria, and Palestinian peace.

After the plenary we split up for lunch.  I went to a special lunch for Rabbis.

Over 350 congregational Rabbis attended the conference representing over 200 synagogue delegations including 4,500 delegates.  As I have said many times, synagogues are the lifeblood of Israel support.  Anyone who considers themselves a supporter of Israel should be in synagogue every Shabbat joining the rest of the Jewish people around the world as they learn about and pray for the well being of the state of Israel.

Over the rest of the afternoon we split up and heard a number of different sessions.  I heard one about European efforts to prevent nuclear Iran and another on China's Middle East strategy.

One of the kids heard a session given by Eli Groner.  Groner is currently the Israeli economic envoy to the US but his real claim to fame is that his grandfather was a Rabbi in Omaha in the 1960s.  It turns out that his grandfather bar mitzvad the Omaha teen's father.

Another teen mention that she found many of the speeches too bleak but finally found a session that she really enjoyed - "The Good News in the Middle East."

Later the kids joined up with NCSY groups from all over the country to hear from Howard Friedman.  Friedman is a former president of AIPAC.  This was his 26th conference. But he has been on hundreds of NCSY shabbatons. He has personally taken over 200 congressmen on trips to Israel.  But he said that his most memorable trips to Israel are when he visits with NCSY summer programs like Kollel and TJJ.

At the evening plenary we heard some great Jewish music, heard from Daniel Gold - the man behind Iron Dome, and heard from Republic Majority leader Eric Cantor and from Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer.  Israel is a truly bipartisan Issue and every congressman who spoke commented on how despite all other disagreements the US house is unified on its support of Israel.

The next day we went lobbying and got to meet with our senators Johanns and Fisher, and with our reps Terry and Smith.  All of our elected officials are staunchly pro Israel.

It was an experience of a life time for the kids.  I have already signed up for next year's conference and I hope that the Nebraska delegation continues to grow.  Many thanks to all of the generous donors who sponsored the teens 4 Israel.  It was a great investment, not only in Israel advocacy by also in the future of our Omaha Jewish community.