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By Gail Lichtman

For a growing number of farmers, observing the agricultural sabbatical is a natural act, rooted in faith.

In the Haggada, we are told that the Children of Israel went forth out of Egypt in such great haste that they took with them no provisions, save unleavened bread. They ventured into the uncertainty of the wilderness armed with nothing more than a great faith in God and a profound trust that He would provide for them. And they received manna.

This same great faith and profound trust in God can be found today in an ever-growing number of farmers in this country who defy economic logic and leave their lands fallow for the shmita (agricultural sabbatical) year. According to the Torah (Exodus 23:10-11, Leviticus 25:1-7 and Leviticus 25:18-24), every seventh year, Jewish-owned fields in Eretz Yisrael must remain fallow. Agricultural work is prohibited, especially sowing, pruning, plowing and harvesting.

In modern times, a solution to the economic problems posed by keeping the shmita was found through use of the heter mechira, the symbolic sale by Jewish farmers of their land to non-Jews for the duration of the seventh year. This sale, somewhat akin to the selling of chametz at Passover, enables Jewish farmers to continue to work their land.

Yet, despite the halachic "out" offered by the heter mechira, and the fact that Israeli farming is increasingly an agro-business, more farmers than ever before are keeping shmita this year. According to figures released by the National Center for Shmita Observing Farmers, a Bnei Brak-based organization which promotes the observance of shmita as well as providing practical assistance to farmers undertaking this mitzvah, 4,000 farmers, in 250 farms covering a quarter of a million dunams - from Nov in the north to Neot Hakikar in the south - have chosen to observe the shmita. This is an increase of some 14 percent in the number of farmers (up from 3,500) in the 1993-94 shmita year, and an increase of 56% (up from 160,000 dunams) in the amount of land left fallow.

"Can you imagine going to a manufacturer and telling him that he has to lay off his workers, close his plant, cut off his suppliers and forfeit his customers for one year, while at the same time he still has to cover the rent on his premises, pay off his loans, maintain his equipment and feed his family? And on top of all that, expect him to be able to bounce back into business at the end of that year?" asks Jerusalem businessman Yaakov Kiel, a member of the board of directors of the National Center."Yet this is precisely what the Torah commands farmers to do."

Adding to the burden is the fact that local agriculture has undergone a dramatic transformation over the past seven years. The "mom-and-pop" farm, where one family tilled a small plot, has virtually disappeared from the landscape. It has been replaced by large-scale operators who work thousands of dunams, much of which they lease from small landowners. These farms have modern, expensive equipment that is generally paid for in installments over a number of years. And they employ both Arab and foreign workers.

"From an economic point of view, keeping shmita is insanity," Kiel continues.

"The sacrifice of these farmers is unbelievable. Yet thousands are making it because the Torah says they should. No other business I know could do this. That is what I am impressed by."

Who are the farmers who can muster such total faith as to keep shmita? Havat Na'ama is about as far off the beaten track as one could imagine for an Israeli farm. Located between Ofakim and Netivot in the south, it is a good 15-minute drive over dirt paths from the main highway.

Baruch (Buki) Adiri has the weathered look of a secular kibbutznik. Only his kippa is proof of his religious belief. His wife, Geula, does not cover her head and wears slacks.

Adiri is hardly your typical farmer. Born in Tel Aviv, he grew up in Rishon Lezion in a secular family and studied economics at Tel Aviv University. He started Havat Na'ama, which is an acronym for the names of his five children, in 1986.

Today, together with his partner of two years, Dan Bolotin, the 55-year-old Adiri has 3,000 dunams of land for growing wheat and barley, which accounts for 30% of his annual income. The other 70% he obtains from raising sheep for slaughter and from tourism - giving tractor tours for schoolchildren and kindergarten groups.

In 2000, he sold 300 tons of wheat for a total income of $54,000. The barley is used mainly to feed the sheep. This is the third shmita he is observing. "I started keeping shmita before I even began to keep Shabbat," Adiri explains. "It was 1987, and I was still secular. I only began to keep Shabbat in 1991. A farmer lives in intimate relationship with the land. For me, keeping shmita was the most meaningful way of expressing my connection to Judaism."

Adiri's return to Judaism has been a long process. In the early morning of Yom Kippur, October 6, 1973, the 27-year-old Adiri received a telephone call from his brother, serving in a tank unit on the Golan Heights. "My brother said: 'Buki, something is going down here. Do you want to see some action?' I got in my car, drove to the Golan and joined his tank unit." When the war broke out that afternoon, Adiri found himself leading four armored vehicles and facing a multitude of Syrian tanks.

"There was no way we could have emerged from such an encounter. The Syrians were poised to annihilate us. Then, for no logical reason whatsoever, the Syrian tanks withdrew.

"I couldn't explain it. No one could.

"I grew up in a social milieu so far removed from Judaism that there was no room for a Creator, and suddenly, on that Yom Kippur, I found God. Today, it is difficult for me to remember how I was and what triggered my return to Judaism," he remarks.

"Even now, when I look at myself in the mirror and see a kippa on my head, I still don't believe it."

When he first came to the Negev, Adiri was in contact with a former kibbutznik and air-force pilot who was a ba'al tshuva (a penitent who has returned to Judaism). He explained the importance of shmita to Adiri and got him interested in keeping the mitzva. The first year, he kept shmita with no outside assistance. By his second shmita, Adiri was put in contact with the National Center and its Keren Shvi'it (shmita fund), which provides modest monetary assistance to farmers keeping shmita.

This year, the fund has at its disposal $13 million. About $250,000 goes for administrative expenses and advisers in the field, while the rest is distributed to farmers.

The Agriculture Ministry also gives payments directly to farmers, on the recommendation of the fund, but according to Kiel, fewer than 300 shmita-observant farmers nationwide qualify for ministry funds and they get only a third of what they would have earned by working their land.

"For many people, money is the real test of faith, and one of the hardest. But for me, the hardest part about keeping shmita is not the physical or economic difficulties, but the psychological ones," Adiri notes. "Six years you struggle with the land and then you have to take a guarantee that, in the seventh, everything will be okay."

Respect for Adiri's great faith has led his partner Bolotin to also keep shmita. A pony-tailed ex-Tel Avivan, Bolotin proudly claims, "I am the only secular farmer in Israel who keeps shmita and it is only because of Buki. When I entered into partnership with Buki, we agreed that we would not do any work on Shabbat. But I didn't realize that in two years' time it would be shmita. It came upon me as a surprise. But there was never any question that I would not accommodate him on this. We are partners. He affixed a mezuzah to my home. I never had one before. We are on completely different wavelengths, but I respect him and his beliefs."

"[Bolotin's] consideration for my feelings really touches me," Adiri says. "The fact that my wife doesn't object is also important."

"I am used to Baruch doing crazy things," Geula states. "We don't always see eye to eye. He has discovered the light, I haven't. I don't see the miracles that he sees. But I grew up in a traditional Yemenite home, so religion is not foreign to me and I understand it."

Shmita is one of the few mitzvot in which the blessing for observance and the punishment for not observing are clearly stated in the Torah. "And I will direct my blessing to you in the sixth year" (Leviticus 25:21). "Then [when you will be exiled for not observing shmita] the land will rest" (Leviticus 26:34-5).

Adiri claims that he has been privileged to see the blessing. "This year, the first rains fell early in the Negev. This was excellent for me. The same thing happened the last shmita. I sowed my barley before Rosh Hashana so as to have natural pasture for the sheep. But then, it didn't rain again and the barley started to shrivel and turn yellow. If this were not a shmita year, I would have plowed it all under. At that time, I went to the US to attend the Agudat Israel convention and speak about shmita.

"When I returned, I took one look at the fields and I couldn't believe my eyes. More rain had fallen and the barley had come back to life and was growing." Adiri also claims that his sheep have given birth to 30% more lambs. "This is my compensation. I will have 30% more to sell for meat."

Half an hour south and west of Havat Na'ama lies Moshav Amioz. Moshe Danino is one of only two farmers out of 60 on the moshav who is keeping shmita this year. (The other is a pensioner with only a small plot of land.)

The 34-year-old Danino derives his entire income from 60 dunams of hothouse tomatoes and 200 dunams of open fields of squash. In 2000, he employed 25 workers - 10 Thais and 15 Arabs from nearby Gaza. His annual sales for 2000 totaled NIS 3.5 million. He was the exclusive supplier for McDonald's in Israel for cherry and regular tomatoes, and had a lucrative contract to supply Blue Square Co-op with both tomatoes and squash.

Danino was born in Amioz. He went to a Bnei Akiva yeshiva in Beersheba and hesder yeshiva in Kiryat Arba, serving in Givati. When he finished his army service in 1990, he returned to the moshav. A year later, he married Osnat, a local girl, who today works as a secretary in the regional council offices. The couple has two children, aged 10 and four. This is the first time he has observed shmita.

"My parents came to Amioz from Morocco in 1963," he relates. "In those days, they were never told the importance of shmita. Someone from the government came and they signed for a heter mechira. I am the only one of nine children still on the moshav and farming. I decided that I want to fulfill the mitzva in its entirety."

Danino is well aware of the problems. "I had meetings with the marketing managers of both McDonald's and Blue Square Co-op. They made no promises concerning renewing my contract at the end of the shmita year. My Thai workers live on my farm. I have found other places for them. But it is a problem for me to renew their visas and I could lose them entirely. I also have invested heavily in the farm and have loans to pay off.

"It is really more than a year that I am losing," he continues. "Weeds have grown in the hothouses and the fields. From Rosh Hashana 2001, I will only begin to clear the land. Other farmers will plant their winter crops in July. I will only begin on September 17 and it will take me until October to prepare the land.

"Because I will be planting so late, it will take my tomatoes and squash 90 to 100 days to ripen instead of the usual 60.

"Nevertheless, I am glad that I decided to keep shmita."

Last shmita (1993-94), Danino didn't keep the mitzva and he is sorry. "I had losses. I hesitated. My tomatoes got a virus and were ruined. That never happened to me before."

Even so, until almost the beginning of this shmita year, Danino remained ambivalent.

"In the last three months of the growing season, I was blessed. Most farmers were running around in circles, unable to make ends meet and for reasons that I cannot explain, I had this bumper crop. I made a profit that was enough for me to live on for an entire year. I am living on this money now. In addition, the tax authorities discovered that I paid too much in my advance payments and gave me a refund of NIS 20,000. I saw these two things as signs from Heaven and decided to keep shmita."

However, his neighbors thought he was crazy. Today, with the price of tomatoes hovering around a little more than NIS 1 a kilo, they are not so sure. "My neighbors are all losing money," Danino states. "They cannot cover their growing costs because prices are so low. In addition, the [Palestinian] violence started on Rosh Hashana, and they are without [Arab] workers. Those who laughed at me are now saying it is too bad they didn't keep shmita. If I had planted, I would be losing more money. It is more profitable this year to just sit at home. I see this as the miracle of shmita."

Not farming has given Danino an opportunity to spend time with his family. "For years, I had no time to breathe. I was so busy with the farm. Now, I can actually do things with my wife and children."

In addition, although he has always studied in the kollel at nearby Moshav Talmei Eliahu, this year he has more time to devote to Jewish learning. This, by the way, is one of original purposes of the mitzva, to give farmers time for spiritual development.

"Thank God, the money earned in the last three months of growing, plus the subsidy I receive from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Keren Shvi'it is enough," Danino explains. "I need NIS 100,000 for the year just to keep my farm on hold and not let it deteriorate. This is for the Thai workers, investments made on my hothouses, my truck and my equipment. The profits are not coming in, but I am able to meet my payments. There is less but, it is still a lot for someone who is not working."

"I did this for the mitzvah, for kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God's name). My faith has been greatly strengthened. My example is well known in this area. It makes people more aware of keeping shmita. Once people thought the heter mechira was the only option. Now, they know there is another way," Danino exclaims.

Rabbi Yehuda Peyner is the National Center's coordinator for the southern region. He acts as adviser and front line support system for some 900 shmita-observant farmers in moshavim extending from Beit Kama to Neot Hakikar in the Arava. In addition, he is also a farmer from Talmei Eliahu, with 10 dunams of hothouses for tomatoes. He is personally observing his fourth shmita.

"Although shmita-observant farmers are located throughout the country, most of the farms are in the south and the fruit orchards in the north,"b Peyner states.

"Therefore, in the south, we have a larger percentage of farmers keeping shmita. This comes to about 20% of the overall total of farmers, excluding kibbutzim. If you are talking about the number of dunams, the percentage is even more. Of the 900 farmers who keep shmita, only about 200 are large-scale farmers. The rest are small farmers, for whom farming is not a main income. But even for a pensioner growing his little plot, the loss of NIS 5,000 in one year is a sacrifice."

Peyner is responsible for providing advice about what is permissible and what is not during the shmita year. He receives questions such as: Can weeds be uprooted or cut? Can the plastic sheeting on the hothouses be fixed? What about flowers? He is constantly "in the field," visiting farmers and dealing with their problems and questions.

"Each question has to be weighed on an individual basis," he says. "There is always a matter of intent. The difficult questions, I refer to the rabbinical court in Komemiyut."

Peyner believes that there is no "typical" farmer who keeps shmita. "It is a matter of neshama. There are even those who are not so observant who keep shmita. It is very hard for us farmers to separate ourselves from working the land. For many of us, this is the most meaningful way in which we can express our connection to the Holy One and to demonstrate that the land is not ours, but rather the Creator's. Nowhere else do people leave their land fallow for a full year. In some places it is done for a few months. But to leave the land fallow for a full year has no logical or scientific basis. It is only because of the commandment of the Creator. And the Creator will provide for us. If for one year we do not grow, He will take care of us. This is the promise."

Peyner has his own personal story of the shmita blessing. "When I began the shmita 14 years ago, I entered into the year with debts. At the end of the year, I waited until other farmers already had saplings before planting my cherry tomatoes. I planted only one dunam. But even with such a late planting, I had an amazing bumper crop. And by the time I finished harvesting, there were no more cherry tomatoes on the market. The price I got was so high, that from my one dunam I made enough money to cover all my debts.

"But the blessing is not just in the money. It is in the time that we get to spend with our families. It is in our health. If you go into shmita with all your heart, then you will see the blessing. It will come to you from places you never thought about," Peyner concludes.

[Gail Lichtman is a correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, where this article first appeared.]

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Eytan Kobre

Conservative Rabbi Reuven Hammer penned an opinion piece recently in The Jerusalem Post decrying the exemption of Torah scholars from Israeli army service. Such offerings seem to be something of a springtime ritual for him. Last April, he published an article in the same paper on the very same topic with the very same arguments.

In last year's version, for example, he asked: "What self-respecting society would legally perpetuate a situation in which one sector is required literally to put its life on the line to defend the state and its citizens while another is permitted to sit and study satellite photos of enemy troop movements, sheltered in safety, and - to add insult to injury - is paid . . . to do so?"

If it seems unbelievable to the reader that Hammer would attack army intelligence experts in that way, that's because, in all honesty, he didn't write exactly those words. The sentence that actually appeared in his column was identical to that quoted above except for the words "satellite photos of enemy troop movements," which I inserted - and there's the rub.

The reason it's ludicrous to think that Hammer would assail intelligence experts for sitting safely in a "war room" in Tel Aviv while their army peers brave enemy fire in Gaza is that everyone - from chareidim all the way across to the folks from Meretz - agrees that national security is a complex undertaking requiring that different people serve different, specialized functions. All further agree that there is no correlation between one's level of insulation from mortal danger and the degree of one's dedication to nation.

The real point of contention, then, separating the disputants on the draft issue is only the issue of precisely which individuals and actions serve a vital national security function. And, indeed, on that point, Rabbi Hammer's position is fully understandable. Coming as he does from a religious orientation that gives great credence to the secular world view that interprets history in largely materialistic terms devoid of Divine governance and spiritual context, it's not surprising that he would deride the protective value of the Torah study these scholars engage in.

It just so happens, however, that there are hundreds of thousands of Jews today who believe, as their millions of forebears believed and taught for countless generations before them, that the events of nations and individuals alike are guided by God on the basis of, and in response to, underlying spiritual causes, not unlike the system of cause-and-effect that holds true in the physical world. These communities of Jews further possess the deep conviction that within that system of spiritual cause and physical effect, it is, in particular, intensive and unceasing Torah study - the exploration of G-d's will for humanity - which provides meaning to the world's ongoing existence and wields immense protective power not only for those who study but for their communities and nation, and, indeed the world as a whole.

Indeed, thousands of single and married-with-children young Torah scholars today in America, where conscription does not await them outside the yeshiva's walls, act on those beliefs by opting for full-time, graduate-level Torah study, thereby deferring or entirely forgoing the opportunity for lucrative business and professional careers in favor of the markedly more modest lifestyle of the yeshiva community.

One cannot ask of Rabbi Hammer that he suddenly adopt these beliefs regarding the centrality and potency of Torah study as his own. But one can reasonably request that he concede the manifest truth that many of his Jewish brethren do, in fact, profess such beliefs, which were part of classical Jewish tradition long, long before the advent of the State of Israel and its draft system. And, if he is prepared to concede that truth, how, then, can he justifiably characterize as immoral those who sincerely have the wellbeing of their people and country at heart - non-Zionists in the political sense though they may be - but are simply acting upon their honestly arrived at, and deeply held, belief that their way of life is crucial to that wellbeing?

Indeed, given the realities of Israeli history, one need not be particularly devout to believe that only Divine intervention has ensured the state's most improbable survival.

Israelis have, after all, experienced a string of victories snatched from the jaws of calamity - beginning with the state's very founding and the war that followed and on to '56, '67 and '73, as well as more "minor" episodes like the virtually harmless SCUD missile attacks of '90 - that are utterly unexplainable in probabilistic terms and make this little country's brief history strikingly unique in the annals of nations.

The citizens of Israel - whose day-to-day security is never less than precarious, but whose continued existence is nothing short of miraculous - have needed only to contemplate the events they have personally lived through to declare with the Psalmist that "the Guardian of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers." Perhaps that, too, is why, irrespective of what they personally do on Saturdays, the Israeli electorate has, for fifty years now, been more willing than Rabbi Hammer to support the choices of those who pass up the "good life" with its high-paying jobs and material comforts in favor of earnest, years-long dedication to studying and embodying that Guardian's Torah.

[Eytan Kobre is a New York attorney active in Jewish communal affairs. This article, in slightly different form, first appeared in the Long Island Jewish World.]

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Jonathan Rosenblum

The failures of Israeli advocacy is only one of the many reasons for Israel's lessened world stature. No less significant is the loss of Israel's most powerful source of support: the American Jewish community. Within American Jewry, there is both a rapidly diminishing identification with Israel and a complete breakdown of the old consensus about just what is good for Israel.

The loss of identification with Israel owes to several causes, chief among them rapidly declining ethnic identity. As being Jewish ceases to be a primary identity for most American Jews, they have less and less connection to other Jews 6,000 miles away, especially as Israelis also tend to de-emphasize their Jewishness. Historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz noted more than a decade ago that, apart from the Orthodox, few American Jews vote primarily based on Jewish issues, Israel included.

Statements by Israeli politicians, chief among the Yossi Beilin, that Israel no longer needs American Jewry have also driven a wedge between American Jewry, which liked to believe it had a major role to play in securing Israel 's existence.

Finally, the ongoing portrayal of Israel as a theocracy by Reform leaders dissed that the conversions of a handful of colleagues in Israel are not officially recognized has succeeded in delegitimizing Israel in the eyes of many American Jews.

Even those with a warm spot in their heart for Israel no longer know what supporting Israel means. Since Oslo, Israel's Jews have been bitterly divided over the direction of the country, and those divisions have been reflected by American Jewry as well. Once the consensus resisted American dictation of terms to Israel. For much of the last eight years, Israeli governments have courted such dictation. And during the brief Netanyahu interregnum, President Weizmann counseled Madeleine Albright to squeeze Israel harder.

While no position in American Jewry is without its Israeli antecedents, American Jewish opinion tends to be considerably to the left of Israeli opinion. Those who will not bear the consequences of miscalculations can always afford to be more forthcoming to the Palestinians. And in the social circles in which most American Jews travel, it is easier to adopt the dovish line than to make oneself a pariah.

Nothing better indicates the leftward drift of American Jewry than the mainstream status afforded the New Israel Fund, which raises over $20,000,000 annually from numerous Jewish federations and thousands of individual contributors while supporting a host of groups associated with fringe positions on the Israeli political spectrum.

The promotional materials of the Israel-Palestine Friendship Center announce that American tax deductible contributions can be sent to NIF, and the Center's directors credit NIF with giving them credibility. Yet the Center relentlessly advocates the Palestinian right of return - a position viewed as national suicide even by Yossi Sarid. One recent Center speaker, Israel Shamir, told his audience, "Jews exist only to drip the blood of Palestinian children into their matzas."

Another NIF recipient is Bat Shalom. From 1994 to 1996, Bat Shalom campaigned for the release of Abi Waheidi, who led a terrorist cell that murdered Zvi Klein after stopping his car and dragging him from it.. After her release, Waheidi, who was praised by Arafat as the model Palestinian woman, vowed to continue her terrorist activities and refused to express regret for murdering Klein.

Jeffrey Halper of the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions, an NIF recommendee, travels throughout American with a Palestinian colleague denouncing the "Nazis" and "apartheid" house demolition policies of the Israel. Halper speaks sympathetically of his Palestinian allies who cannot agree to accept a two-state solution for fear of foreclosing a unitary state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

NIF's April 4 update proudly describes how the Israeli office hosted Amnesty International's Secretary General just weeks after Amnesty lambasted Israel as a human rights violator for not granting Palestinians the right of return.

A recent letter writer to the Post provides a good insight into the tilt of the NIF. Dr. Evelyn Segal describes how she was a "devout Zionist" until a 1989 NIF study tour opened her eyes to the "racist contempt of the Israel government . . . toward Palestinians [and] how the founders of Zionism schemed from the start to take over, by any means necessary, the whole of Palestine and to cleanse it of Palestinians." Today Dr. Segal is a Unitarian.

As long as the NIF remains mainstream for American Jewry, Israel has little to hope for from that corner.

[Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, where this article first appeared, and is the director of Am Echad's Israel office]

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Abba Cohen

The "Patients' Bill of Rights" will soon reach center stage. Despite the sparring that has already begun, both the President and Congress apparently agree that the time has come to enshrine in law rights patients must be accorded during medical treatment. This, to better ensure, and enhance, the quality of health care in our nation.

But there is something missing. Indeed, there is one protection - one "right" -- that is glaringly absent from the public discourse: "A patient has the right to receive medical care that gives due deference to his or her religious beliefs and moral convictions."

This is not a trivial concern. Many Americans of faith approach health care issues imbued with the conviction that the preservation of life, and the promotion of good health and well-being, are religious imperatives that emanate from the inherent sanctity of human life. We also believe - a belief embodied in the "patients' rights" concept itself - that quality health care is inextricably linked to respect for the patient and to his or her active involvement in the decision-making process.

Religious concerns during medical treatment have evolved over time. Thirty years ago, the problems that arose in medical facilities dealt primarily with matters of religious ritual. In the Orthodox Jewish community, for example, our concerns centered mostly on the ability of Jewish patients to receive appropriate medical treatment without being forced to unnecessarily violate the Sabbath, holidays, kosher dietary laws or other Jewish observances. Highlighting these issues has helped sensitize health care providers to the importance of accommodating the religious practices of their patients.

But the scope of the problem has profoundly broadened in recent years. It is no wonder. Advances and breakthroughs in medical science and technology have deeply implicated religious and moral beliefs in unprecedented ways. >From "beginning of life" issues related to infertility, genetic screening, surrogate motherhood, sperm and egg banks, genetic engineering, cloning, abortion and selective reduction, to "end of life" issues involving euthanasia, assisted suicide, withdrawal of life support systems, DNR orders, autopsies and organ donations, Americans are confronted with an array of moral decisions and choices today as never before.

Current trends in the provision of medical services -- such as health care rationing and managed care -- inevitably complicate these dilemmas even further.

With these momentous changes there must be a heightened sensitivity toward matters of religious conscience and conviction. Such concerns - whether expressed directly from the patient or, in cases of incapacitation, ascertained only after active consultation with his or her religious/spiritual advisor -- merit consideration and sufficient weight when the "best interests" of the patient and the most appropriate course of treatment, or non-treatment, are determined.

"Due deference," of course, does not confer an absolute right, and there is no argument here that a patient's religious convictions are paramount in all circumstances. For example, in those extraordinary cases where parents' religious beliefs would withhold life-sustaining medical care to their children, the U.S. Supreme Court has asserted an overriding interest in the preservation of life that would trump the parents' religious wishes. But those types of cases are the exceptions that prove the rule; in ordinary cases, religious wishes merit medical respect.

The notion of due deference to a patient's religious convictions is surely not foreign to the law. In New York, for example, there exists a range of religious accommodation provisions that cover such medical issues as DNR orders, health care proxies, determination of death, autopsies/dissections, and anatomical gifts. Under these laws, health care providers must generally respect the religious beliefs of their patients - and are even obligated to make a reasonable, good faith effort to ascertain what those beliefs might be.

Americans deserve this protection. Respecting a person's religious and moral beliefs is integral to human dignity and a matter of the most fundamental of civil rights -- it has even been shown to be helpful in the healing process itself -- and deserves no less protection in a "Patients' Bill of Rights" than matters of confidentiality, choice, cost information and other compelling objectives already identified.

[Abba Cohen is Washington director and counsel for Agudath Israel of America; this article first appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times]

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Shevuot, one of the trio of Jewish "pilgrimage" festivals that also includes Passover and Sukkot, tends to get short shrift from most American Jews. Coming mere weeks after the Passover seders, perhaps the "first-fruits festival" simply finds many folks "holidayed out". Or maybe it's because Shevuot lacks any unusual "mitzvah-food" of its own like matzoh or ritual practice like building a sukkah. Whatever the reason, though, Judaism's summer-season holiday has come to be neglected by much of the American Jewish community.

And yet, the argument could convincingly be made that no other Jewish festival is more timely or urgent for unity-challenged American Jewry

Because Jewish tradition associates the day of Shevuot (two days, actually, at least for those of us who don't live in Israel) with the Jews' acceptance of the Torah, the seminal event of Jewish peoplehood and unity. Shevuot, the Talmud and Jewish liturgy teach, marks the anniversary of the day our ancestors stood at Mt. Sinai, in the Talmud's poignant words, "like one person, with one heart."

What unified our people at that time, Jewish sources make clear, was our forebears' unanimous stance vis-a-vis the essential Jewish mandate, the laws of the Torah - a stance embodied in their immortal words: "Na'aseh v'nishma", "We will do and we will hear."

That phrase captures the quintessential Jewish credo, the acceptance of God's will even amid a lack of "hearing," or understanding. "We will do Your will," they pledged in effect, "even if it is not our will, even if we are able to 'hear' it, even if it discomfits us."

Could anything be more antithetical to the American mindset? More diametric to the "what's in it for me?" mentality that we Americans, including we American Jews, take in with every breath?

Ours, after all, is a comfort-crazed society, fixated on having things, and on having them our way. And not only in the physical trappings of our lives but in our spiritual choices no less. How common it is these days to hear worshippers, Jewish ones as well, explaining their degree of observance, their choice of place of worship, even their religious affiliations, as born off something akin to coziness.

"I embrace this observance because it makes me feel good."

"I so enjoy the services there."

"That liturgy makes me feel involved, important."

"I'm most comfortable (or happy, or content, or fulfilled) as a (fill in the blank).

But Judaism has never been about comfort, enjoyment or even personal fulfillment (though, to be sure, the latter surely emerges from a G-d-centered life). It has, rather, been about listening to God, not only when His commands sit well with us but even - indeed, especially - when they don't. Jews, after all, have died, proudly and profoundly uncomfortably, for their faith.

Thus, Shevuot, which this year falls out on May 28 and 29, really deserves to be a "front and center" holiday for us American Jews. Its central theme speaks to us, loudly, clearly and directly. The Jewish summer-festival reminds us about the engine of true Jewish unity, that it lies in the realization that Judaism is not about what we'd like God to do for us, but rather about what we are honored, exalted and sanctified to do for Him.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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Adam Jessel

When 21-year-old Avi Korman (not his real name) confided to his parents that he was experiencing unwanted homosexual urges, they weren't sure where to turn. Eventually, the young man and his parents approached Rabbi Sam Rosenberg for help. Rosenberg, an Orthodox Jewish therapist in family practice in New Jersey, did what he always did with new cases, namely research the options. He discovered that a number of therapy and support groups across the United States seemed to offer promising treatment. Most, though, were overtly religious, and none were Jewish.

Eventually, the Kormans teamed up with several other Jewish families facing similar challenges to launch JONAH - Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. The New Jersey-based non-profit organization is staffed entirely by volunteers, with Rabbi Rosenberg assisting as a clinical consultant. JONAH serves as a worldwide information and referral center, operates therapy groups for people who want to overcome homosexual orientations, and provides professional guidance to similar groups in Israel.

Not surprisingly, those involved in JONAH are Jews who respect the traditional Jewish approach to homosexuality - for the most part, but not exclusively, Orthodox Jews. While valuing every human being and the struggles people shoulder, Jewish law and tradition unequivocally prohibit homosexual behavior, and some expressions of homosexuality are considered so detrimental to the individual and society that they are included by the Torah among the basic moral prohibitions incumbent upon all humanity.

The Reform movement, by contrast, permits its rabbis to formalize homosexual unions and ordains open homosexuals. While the Conservative movement has not officially sanctioned the practice, some of its rabbis do officiate at same-sex ceremonies, and the former rector of one of the movement's two rabbinic seminaries has openly endorsed the blessing of "gay unions." Indeed, when a representative of JONAH was invited by a teacher and her class to speak before them at a Conservative Hebrew high school, the principal stepped in to cancel the event.

With that approach, the non-Orthodox Jewish movements are embracing the contemporary societal consensus that regards homosexual orientation as innate, irreversible, and morally neutral. That view, effectively promoted by gay activists, leaves no room for an organization like JONAH, which caters to people who do not consider homosexual activity a viable alternative and supports their efforts to change.

"Strugglers", as the group's clients are called, want to overcome their same-sex attraction for any of a number of reasons. Some have been involved in homosexual activity for years and became disillusioned with a promiscuous lifestyle and unstable, stormy relationships. Some simply want to marry and have children. Still others are already married, and want to eliminate the difficulties brought to their marriages by unwanted homosexual attractions. Those who were born religious or became religious later in life are motivated by a clear religious obligation to avoid homosexual activity and wish to reduce their same-sex attraction.

Steven (also a pseudonym) had been pursuing an active homosexual life when he started reading about Judaism. "Jewish philosophy and practice started to make a lot of sense to me, and I eventually had to make a choice: Either continue to be openly homosexual, perhaps even becoming a Reform rabbi or make a commitment to overcome my homosexual urges."

Taking the second path is never easy. Whether people like Steven manage to control or eliminate their unwanted same-sex attraction depends on many factors, including to what extent they regard change as possible. Indeed, many Jews with unwanted homosexual attractions are discouraged from seeking help because they have heard that homosexuality is something innate that cannot be changed.

Rosenberg acknowledges that there may be people who cannot change their same-gender attraction. "However," he adds, "I have never met such a person."

His confidence in the ability to change is not based solely on his own clinical experience. He received strong support from a report by a Columbia University Professor of Psychiatry delivered on May 9 at the annual convention of the American Psychiatric Association (APA). In the report, Dr. Robert Spitzer announced the results of a study he had conducted, concluding that "contrary to conventional wisdom, some highly motivated individuals, using a variety of change efforts, can make substantial change in multiple indicators of sexual orientation."

According to Rosenberg, "We cannot make a man interested in women [against his will]. But we can help him attain that goal if he wants. Generally, a diminishing of the unwanted homosexual attraction is accompanied by an increased awareness of attraction to the opposite gender."

The researcher interviewed 200 men and women who have experienced a significant shift from homosexual to heterosexual attraction, and have sustained this shift for at least five years. By the time of the study interview, three-quarters of the men and half of the women had become married.

"If somebody wants to change and it's not because they are just responding to pressure, it shouldn't be assumed that it's irrational or giving in to society," Dr. Spitzer told an interviewer.

While other studies have likewise demonstrated the fluidity of sexual orientation, Spitzer's personal involvement in this particular study is of special significance: He was a leading figure in the 1973 APA decision that removed homosexuality from the official diagnostic manual of mental disorders.

Rabbi Rosenberg is sympathetic to those who feel that they cannot change. "While there's no question that Judaism prohibits homosexual acts, we must be mindful that it can be a very painful struggle, one that you can't judge if you've never been there."

"Still, although it can be difficult, "the potential for change is always there."

[Adam Jessel ( is a therapist and research consultant living in Israel. A former staff member in the Faculty of Medicine at Hadassah Hospital, he has authored numerous studies in medical and scientific journals. JONAH can be reached at or by phone at (201) 433-3444.]

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Jonathan Rosenblum

As parents, we all have those moments when we feel that we must have done something right. For instance, your son comes home from yeshiva on Friday after one of Jerusalem's infrequent snow storms and, without being asked, immediately begins shoveling a path between your building and the nearby shul so that an elderly neighbor will not have to risk life and limb that night on an icy pavement.

Far rarer, however, are occasions when a whole group of boys or girls simultaneously demonstrate that their education has penetrated their souls. A few years ago, the father of a boy with severe learning disabilities described one such moment at a dinner for Chush, an Orthodox-run school in Brooklyn for learning disabled children.

He began his speech with a question: If everything God does reflects His perfection, where do we see that perfection in a boy like my son Shai, who cannot learn like other children?

He then told the following story:

After studying all week at Chush, Shai attends class at Yeshiva Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway, New York on Sunday. At a time when some yeshivot seek to burnish their reputation by catering only to the brightest boys, Rabbi Yaakov Bender, the principal of Darchei Torah, insists that his school remain a neighborhood school serving boys from across the educational spectrum.

One Sunday afternoon, Shai's father came to pick him up. Some of Shai's classmates were playing baseball, and Shai tugged at his father's sleeve asking, "Do you think they will let me play?" His father knew that because of his motor coordination difficulties Shai could not really play with the other boys. But he saw how much it meant to Shai, and so he decided to approach one of the boys to ask if Shai could join.

The boy hesitated momentarily before nodding his assent. The fact that his team was trailing by six runs in the eighth inning made the decision easier. Nothing Shai would do was likely to affect the outcome anyway. Shai was given a mitt, and went to stand in short center field as his team's tenth player.

Shai's team staged a small rally in the bottom of the eighth, but still entered the ninth inning trailing by three runs. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Shai's teammates loaded the bases. The potential winning run was due up. But the next scheduled batter was none other than Shai.

Would his teammates protest that they should not be penalized for letting Shai play and demand to put up the next batter? No. Shai was handed a bat and pointed to the plate.

Shai did not even know how to hold the bat. Recognizing how hard it would be for Shai to hit the ball, the opposing pitcher moved in a several steps and lobbed the ball gently to the plate. Still Shai did not manage to get the bat off his shoulder until the ball was in the catcher's mitt.

Before the next pitch, one of Shai's teammates joined him at the plate to help swing. Once again the pitcher lobbed a soft pitch. This time Shai made feeble contact sending a slow dribbler back to the mound for what looked like the game-ending out.

After fielding the ball, however, the pitcher threw it way over the first baseman into deep right field. Shai's teammates shouted at him, "Run to first, Shai, run to first," as they accompanied him down the first base line. By the time, the right fielder tracked the ball down, Shai was headed for second, with a wide-eyed, startled look on his face. The right fielder quickly grasped the pitcher's intention. Instead of throwing Shai out at second, he threw the ball way over the third baseman's head.

By now both teams were chanting together, "Run, Shai, run." As Shai passed second base, the shortstop hurried over and turned him in the direction of third.

All eighteen players joined Shai on his triumphal run home, and together they hoisted the hero, author of the game-winning grand-slam, onto their shoulders.

Shai's father was crying by the time he finished telling this story. Now he was ready to answer his original question.

"That day, those 18 boys reached their level of God's perfection," he said. "Without Shai, they could not have done it."

[Jonathan Rosenblum serves as Am Echad's Israeli director and is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, where this article first appeared]

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Though I am an Orthodox rabbi and David Wolpe is a Conservative one, we have something in common. Each of us has created a stir of late in the Jewish religious world. I penned an article in Moment Magazine making the case that the Conservative leadership, despite its claims of fealty to halacha, or Jewish religious law, does not really respect that law or its methodology. And he asserted, in a series of sermons over the Passover holiday, that the Exodus account is a myth.

My Moment article evoked a torrent of anger from Conservative leaders and a response, in subsequent issues of the magazine, from two Conservative rabbis, including the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism's executive vice president. Rabbi Jerome Epstein protested that his movement most certainly does respect halacha, indeed, that "the movement's ideology and approach to halacha... are the most authentic."

And yet Rabbi Epstein, among other Conservative leaders, has offered support for Rabbi Wolpe's position, if somewhat less decisively stated. Pressed for his own belief about the Exodus, he responded "...I don't know, I wasn't there."

People familiar with the texts that have shaped Judaism over 3000 years, though, know well that the premise at the root of the Jewish religion and underlying the very concept of halacha is that God took the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt in order to bring them, fifty days later, to the foot of Mount Sinai. There, freed of their human masters, our ancestors pledged themselves - and their descendants - to the ultimate Master, and to observance of the laws with which He gifted them there. Respect for those laws, and for the rules for interpreting, developing and applying them, is therefore inseparable from affirmation of their source in the Divine.

Thanks, now, to Rabbi Wolpe, and to Rabbi Epstein's inability to distance the Conservative movement from his colleague's views, the debate engendered by my article is apparently ended. The Conservative movement emperor has paraded before us naked as a jaybird; his palace guards have revealed their belief that the words of the Torah don't really count, and thus that the very underpinnings of the entire concept of halacha are illegitimate.

The archaeological evidence - or, better, lack of the same - that inspired Rabbi Wolpe to deliver his sermons is itself highly debatable. As Professor Lawrence H. Schiffman, an internationally known Dead Sea Scrolls scholar who holds the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies chair at New York University, points out: "[Rabbi Wolpe's listeners] were told that there is a consensus of biblical historians and archaeologists that the Exodus did not happen. In reality, though, no such consensus actually exists." Not to mention that, as Professor Jacob Neusner has noted in this very context, "much that archaeology says about the written record represents a massive argument from silence."

But what should be incomparably more important to Jews today than whether or not the Jewish religious tradition can be bolstered by 3000-year-old footprints in the sand is the more immediate question of whether that tradition, the bedrock of the Judaism of the ages, is affirmed or rejected by contemporary Jewish movements.

Put simply and starkly: If the Conservative leadership regards the Torah's most fundamental accounts of our people's history with, at best, claims of ignorance and, at worst, outright dismissal, can any reasonable person still imagine that, in those leaders' minds, the Torah's laws are more than cultural artifacts, that they are truly authoritative? Can the concept of "Conservative halacha", in other words, have any but an Orwellian meaning?

The phrase zecher l'y'tziat Mitzrayim, "a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt", is embedded throughout the Sabbath and Jewish holiday prayers and kiddush texts; there are dozens of references to the Exodus and revelation at Sinai in the Torah and Prophets. Those events comprise the "ground zero" of the Jewish faith. The hundreds of thousands who lived them solemnly entrusted their children with the account of their experience and swore them in turn to entrust it to their own children, and theirs to theirs... down to our own generation. That is what transpires at every Passover seder, and what lies at the very foundation of the Jewish faith, the Jewish people and Jewish law.

There are, no doubt, many Jews in the Conservative movement who proudly and confidently affirm those facts. They are now fully and conclusively apprised, thanks to Rabbis Wolpe and his defenders, that their leaders do not.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as Agudath Israel of America's director of public affairs.]

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

"Jews for Jesus," perhaps the best known of an assortment of Christian missionary groups that target Jews for conversion efforts, has adopted a creative new advertising campaign. It has enlisted a Holocaust survivor to convince Jews to consider accepting the Christian messiah.

The group, possessed no doubt of deep convictions and apparently of deep pockets, has purchased space in a number of national media to feature a close-up of the kindly face of a Jewish woman of a certain age who spent part of the war years in a concentration camp. "Before you judge my belief, listen to my story," she implores the reader, and then proceeds to tell of her personal adoption of Christianity. The ad offers a video featuring footage of cattle-car trains and corpses with voices-over of Holocaust survivors who embraced Christianity. Verses from the Jewish Bible appear on the screen, and the viewer is told to say a prayer in acceptance of Jesus. The words "Mazel Tov" then flash on the screen.

The Jewish community's encounter with the Christian one has a long and largely inglorious history. From the harsh anti-Jewish rhetoric of early Church fathers (the apostle John claimed Jews are born of "their father the devil"; Chrysostom of Antioch, that they "murder their own offspring to worship the avenging devils") and Protestant leaders (like Martin Luther, who asserted that the devil "through the Jews his saints... mocks and curses God and man") down to the pogroms, blood libels and "Christian Identity"-genre internet hate-sites of more recent years, the Prince of Peace has all too often been invoked to provide Jewish people anything but peace.

Jews, as a noted basketball player/theologian recently reminded us, are stubborn folks, and one of our adamant stances is our refusal to divest ourselves of our religious heritage, including the conviction that the Messiah, at present writing, still tarries - a belief that, while it threatens to harm no one, has resulted over the centuries in untold hatred and violence on the part of countless Christians. The Holocaust itself can be traced in part to the religion-based Jew-hatred that was so endemic and deeply rooted in European lands.

To be sure, here on this side of Vatican II and the Lieberman candidacy, relations between Christians and Jews are much improved. Both the Catholic Church and many Protestant churches have straightforwardly rejected anti-Semitism, and that is deeply appreciated by all Jews. But the past cannot but continue to inform the present.

Jews have suffered beyond belief at Christian hands. And Judaism, in the end, remains a faith entirely apart from Christianity.

With its new ad campaign, Jews for Jesus cynically overlooks the former fact in an effort to deny the latter one. For Jewishly-conscious Jews, nothing could be more outrageous or insulting.

The contemporary Jewish religious world is famously fractious. There are deep ideological and theological differences among Jews today. But one belief that Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews share entirely in common is that the assertion that the Messiah has arrived in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is simply incompatible with Judaism.

Which is why the claim of missionary groups that one can be a good Jew by accepting the fundamental belief of Christianity - indeed that one can be a "fulfilled" one only by embracing Jesus as Messiah - is anathema to the broad Jewish community.

As members of a faith that eschews the proselytizing of others and counsels "outreach" only in the sense of helping our own brothers and sisters come closer to our religious heritage, most of us Jews are irked when others target our coreligionists for conversion efforts. And the irk turns to irritation, even outrage, when misleading tactics are employed, when "sharing the good news" becomes "suckering the uninformed," when groups like Jews for Jesus adopt, as they do, Jewish holidays, symbols and trappings like prayer shawls and phylacteries in an effort to convince Jews that being a good Jew can include, indeed requires, adopting Christianity.

And when they go further still in their attempts to lure Jews from their ancestral heritage, and seek to enlist the Holocaust - a horrific happening that fed heartily on the fecund medium of a Europe steeped in centuries of Christian anti-Semitism - their efforts creep, slowly but unmistakably, beyond the bounds of even outrage, and enter the realm of the grotesque.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

From the clearheaded conviction he displayed throughout his trial and imprisonment to the calm, defiant way he went to his death, Timothy J. McVeigh exhibited the determination and demeanor of a true idealist, which is, of course, precisely what he was.

That may be a jarring thought, but it is hardly arguable. And it holds an important lesson for all who claim to care about the meaning of good and evil.

The lesson was recounted in another context by the late celebrated biologist/essayist Lewis Thomas, who recalled the legendary dedication of an antecedent of his, a medical doctor who lived in the 1800s. The talented and humanitarian gentleman would selflessly make the rounds of a tuberculosis hospital every day, visiting the patients, placing his bare fingers into their throats to examine their tracheae, moving from patient to patient - without once ever thinking to wash his hands.

In those days before Lister and sterilization, much spread of disease was likely due to such well-meaning devotion to the cause of medicine. The idealism and good intentions were there. What was missing was only knowledge, but that made all the difference.

The doctor, needless to say, was in no way morally responsible for the damage he wrought. He had no way of knowing what his well-intentioned actions were yielding. But he stands as a poignant example of the fact that idealism doesn't necessarily lead to good results.

And it need not even be associated with goodness at all. The Talmud tells of a renegade Cohein Gadol, or High Priest, in the Second Temple era, who confessed to a friend that he had performed the most important priestly service of the Jewish year, the offering of incense in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, in the manner favored by the Sadducee sect, against the dictates of Jewish religious law. The friend asked him if he was not afraid of being discovered by the other priests. "All my life," he responded, he had been "pained by the verse" that he understood in the Sadducee manner. "And I wondered," the renegade continued, "when the opportunity [to fulfill it] might come before me. Now that it has, shall I not fulfill it?"

What is striking about that Talmudic passage is that it is, practically verbatim, what another account, in a different Talmudic tractate, has Rabbi Akiva saying as he was taken by Roman officers to his execution for having violated an imperial edict against teaching Torah. As he recited the Shma, his students were incredulous at his presence of mind while facing the iron combs with which the Romans flayed him alive.

"All my life," the sainted Jewish sage replied, addressing their wonderment, "I was pained by the phrase "[and you shall love Hashem your God] with all your soul'" in Shma, which implies that we must be ready to give up our very lives for the glory of heaven if necessary. "And I wondered when the opportunity might come before me. Now that it has, shall I not fulfill it?"

The implication of the identical wording is inescapable. The editors of the Talmud were subtly teaching us that the Sadducee's conviction was every bit as sincere as Rabbi Akiva's. The Sadducee was an idealist. But he was wrong. And that made all the difference.

Hitler and Stalin were idealists too, and as they faced death they no doubt regarded their lives as having been lived in dedication to a higher cause, to the betterment of mankind, no less.

Yassir Arafat may even be an idealist too, though there are ample grounds for wondering whether his motivations might include less than rarified concerns. The "martyrs" of Islamic Jihad and Hamas, though, are certainly idealists. Though they may be focused hungrily on the particular pleasures of the Islamic afterlife, they clearly die convinced that they are holy men dedicated to a sublime cause.

But they were, all of them, dead wrong. And, again, that makes all the difference.

Timothy McVeigh surely took great pride in his idealism and in the "unconquerable soul" he assigned himself. But he, too, was wrong. Indeed, like so many idealists, he was evil.

And so, as our image of him recedes into the dark, putrid place where bad memories reside, we might consider redeeming his life in a tiny way by reflecting on the lesson he inadvertently taught us, a lesson of particular poignancy for our relentlessly relativistic times: it's not enough to be an idealist; one must be right and good or our idealism means nothing at all.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Controversial contemporary medical issues like stem-cell research and cloning raise complex and subtle ethical questions. Is it proper to experiment on fertilized human eggs that remain after infertility treatments? To manipulate a human being's cells to produce, in effect, a younger identical twin? And as medical technology continues to develop, the quandaries will only increase. Jewish religious scholars have always viewed such issues through the lens of halachic tradition, and our own generation's halachic decisors will surely be focusing on the astounding advances in biomedicine in months and years ahead.

But even we simple Jews who are far from expert in halacha stand to gain much from pondering current medical ethics issues - not only because they are fascinating but because they are a reminder.

Emerson conveyed a truth as only a great poet could: "If the stars would appear but one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the City of G-d."

We human beings tend to perk up only at something novel. Were we suddenly able to fly at will or read minds or travel back in time - ah, how we would marvel at the miraculousness of it all! And yet not only the scintillating night sky above us but the daily workings of the very bodies we inhabit are equally astounding things, and become more and more astonishing the more science learns.

Consider: When a sheep was first successfully cloned four years ago, what was essentially accomplished was the coaxing of genetic material to do precisely what it does all the time: code for traits, replicate and direct protein synthesis. The achievement of producing Dolly bat Dolly, to be sure, was a major one; myriad obstacles had to be overcome, and a single set of chromosomes, rather than the usual pair from two parents, had to be convinced to do the job. But it was still, all said and done, a job that takes place millions of times in thousands of species each and every day without capturing anyone's attention. And not a job at all, of course, but a miracle.

Similarly, the unprecedented medical promise of stem cells - undifferentiated human embryonic cells that can form practically any tissue of the body - derives from modern science's ability to coax such cells to do, essentially, what stem cells routinely do in embryos everywhere. If such cells, culled from fertilized human eggs (or from adult humans, though most scientists feel the former are more promising) can be induced to develop into pancreatic cells, they will hold the promise of curing diabetes; if they can be convinced to turn into dopamine-secreting brain cells, they may be able to reverse Parkinson's disease; if into muscle, heart, liver or blood cells, they will figure prominently in treatments for muscular dystrophy, cardiac disease, liver failure and leukemia. The list is potentially much longer.

And yet every healthy person, we might pause and remind ourselves, has sufficient numbers of all those very cells working constant miracles, cells that once developed from embryonic stem cells of their own.

And so it behooves us all to step back a moment and consider: Are the technological breakthroughs really what amaze us here... or is the true source of our astonishment and wonder the suddenly revealed workings of our bodies themselves? Once upon a time, after all, heart transplants, too, were flabbergasting. But, at least to thoughtful men and women, they were never remotely as amazing as hearts.

For Jews who put their faith in the Jewish religious tradition, resolving the formidable ethical issues surrounding things like cloning or stem cell research will have to await the guidance of Torah scholars. It would be unfortunate, though, if recent - and future - developments in science didn't seize our attention and leave us with a deeper awareness of the manifold miracles we routinely, if obliviously, experience, and a deeper realization of the fathomless debt we owe our Creator.

Let us ensure, in other words, that science not blind us but remind us.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Reform Opposition to Traditional Marriage Initiative Draws Agudath Israel Fire

Agudath Israel press release on Reform "Marriage Amendment" statement

NEW YORK - The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism's heated rhetorical opposition to the proposed "Federal Marriage Amendment" to the U.S. Constitution is "yet another sad example of how far the Reform movement has distanced itself from the faith of our fathers," a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America noted.

The proposed constitutional amendment, offered as a reaction to the growing militancy of "same-sex marriage" activists, would define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The Religious Action Center's Associate Director, Mark J. Pelavin, in a statement released on July 12, asserted that the amendment "would defile the Constitution" and enshrine "homophobia and intolerance in a document which protects the rights of all Americans." He went on to wonder if "America's families and marriages and communities [are] so fragile and shallow that they are threatened by the love between two adults of the same sex."

Mr. Pelavin dressed up his movement's views in religious rhetoric; "We believe as a fundamental tenant [sic] of our faith that all human beings are created in the Divine image, as it says in Genesis 1:27, 'And God created humans in God's own image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them'."

"That Biblical truth, however, is not at issue," countered David Zwiebel, Agudath Israel's executive vice president for government and public affairs.

"What is at issue is the definition of marriage and the morality of same-sex unions - a subject on which the Jewish Bible is quite explicit, if one only proceeds to Leviticus.

"Therefore, if the Bible and Jewish tradition are to inform the reaction of Jewish groups here, they does so clearly and strongly in the direction of support for this proposal.

"The question here is not one of intolerance of any person," the Agudath Israel leader added, "but rather of intolerance of the redefinition of timeless moral truths. There are numerous 'love'-based relationships that even the Reform movement is presumably unwilling to legitimate at this point."

"Is it sad," he concluded, "that a group purporting to speak in the name of Judaism seems to be more concerned with what it imagines to defile the Constitution than with what unarguably defiles the Torah."

[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as Agudath Israel of America's director of public affairs]

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

In these frightening times of political cynicism, murderous hatred and relentless terrorism in Israel, many Jews' first reflex is to strike out at what is readily apparent and available: the Islamic teachings invoked by some as justification for their animus, the political considerations that impel others to try to force Israel to endanger herself, the subtle - and often hardly subtle - bias of some of the media against the Jewish State. But might we also consider the possibility that those evils are mere symptoms?

Our people's tribulations today, after all, are not limited to Israel. A Jewish husband and father is murdered by an angry man in a New York parking lot. An elderly Jew is gunned down on a Zurich street.

Nor are the tragedies we have endured in recent memory all born of others' hatred. Precious Jewish children have been taken suddenly not only by inhuman snipers but by unexpected biological events. A major Jewish educator, his wife and their child are killed in an Israeli traffic accident. A wedding hall collapses on hundreds gathered to celebrate a Jewish marriage. Illnesses once unheard of seem to have become almost commonplace. The pain is excruciating, and made even more so for betraying no obvious pattern.

And if the crisis facing the Jewish People today is broader than the hatred-fueled intifada, countering it cannot be limited to treating its symptoms - marshalling moderate Islamic scholars, denouncing cynical leaders, disseminating accurate information, writing letters to the editor or gathering in mass rallies on behalf of Israel.

Our challenge may lie, rather, in the simplest of realizations: that what Jews choose to do and not to do each and every day - in our homes, our places of work, our synagogues and schools and local communities - has infinite worth. Wherever we may exist on the spectrum of Jewish observance, might we not properly consider intensifying our prayers on behalf of all Jews, and our observance of the Torah's laws, both the ritual and the interpersonal?

One extraordinary opportunity all Jews currently have happens to relate directly to the Holy Land, and demonstrates something essential about it - that it belongs to God. We can help support the thousands of heroic farmers across Israel who, in keeping with the biblical directive to refrain from working the land every seventh year, are allowing some 250,000 dunam of land to lie fallow during the current "Sabbatical" year.

A respected organization, Keren Hashviis (42 Broadway, New York, NY 10004), exists entirely for the purpose of helping those farmers and their families make ends meet during Sabbatical years like this one.

Another response we might consider is joining the thousands of Jews who are following the suggestion of the Council of Torah Sages - comprised of renowned Torah scholars - which has called on Jews to recite three specific chapters of Psalms each day (numbers 83, 130 and 142) to help merit the lifting of the current tragedies from Jewish shoulders.

And then there is the prayer, in its most simple sense. Any Jew who does not own a siddur can easily buy one these days. The ArtScroll siddur, with its beautiful, accurate and readable English translation, is the choice of countless Jews, including men and women of all affiliations. And any of us who prays daily, if he or she takes an extra moment or two, can find and bring special concentration to dozens of phrases in the traditional daily and special services that relate directly to Jewish security, health and the Holy Land. Who can say that heartfelt prayer - what our tradition teaches that God seeks from us all - will not prove the most effective campaign for Israel's protection and the Jewish people's salvation from adversity? This writer hopes to heed his own words.

An esteemed rabbi, Rabbi Shimshon Pincus, zt"l, noted something striking at an Agudath Israel national convention this past November, mere months before he himself was tragically taken from us. The war being waged against Israel, he observed, is not really being waged against an army but against Israelis, or better, Jews. The tragedies the Jewish People is enduring, he observed, are individual tragedies. And thus, the solution to our crisis - its Israeli manifestation as well as its other ones - must lie, in the end, on all of us as individuals.

It may be enticing and even worthwhile to sign petitions, write letters, join gatherings of fellow Jews - to take heart and pride in numbers and noise. But, from an authentically Jewish perspective, it is infinitely more meaningful (not to mention more difficult, a telling fact) to make the effort to change oneself. To undertake and sustain a new or intensified Jewish observance, to recommit oneself to honesty and integrity, to shun the ugly materialism that has crept into our lives, to increase our study of the Torah that is the ultimate Jewish missile defense shield.

The true mandate of the hour - of Jewish history for that matter - lies, in the end, in "walking humbly with God," in the recognition that true victories will be brought about "not by armies nor by physical strength but by My spirit, says God." In the end, it is our relationship with Him - not with Yassir Arafat, the United Nations, The New York Times or CNN - that alone will determine when we Jews will finally be able to live in peace and prosperity, throughout the world and in the land He bequeathed us.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as Agudath Israel of America's director of public affairs]

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Tisha B'Av, the Jewish fast that commemorates the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem as well as other tragedies of Jewish history, will take on a special poignancy this year. For not only has the Temple not been rebuilt and does the Messiah still tarry, but the Jewish People in the Jewish Land are under siege by enemies consumed with hatred and seemingly unfettered by any sense of the holiness of human life.

What is more, the assault is being mounted not only against Jews and the Jewish State but against Jewish history itself.

Consider the official Palestinian Ministry of Information's statement that "there is no tangible evidence of any Jewish traces/remains in the old city of Jerusalem and its immediate vicinity."

Or the declaration of Palestinian Authority Mufti 'Ikrima Sabri, in an interview with the Germany periodical Die Welt, that "there is not [even] the smallest indication of the existence of a Jewish temple on [the Temple Mount] in the past." (The Muslim cleric went on to speak of how "it is the art of the Jews to deceive the world" and that Israeli Jews "from Germany should return to Germany," laughing to his German interviewer before adding "After all, you like them so much, don't you?") [quotes courtesy of the Middle East Media Research Institute]

And the world is all too happy to buy the cynical rewriting of history. Whether out of cowardice or something darker, a number of journalists have chosen to refer to the Temple Mount by the name Muslims have given it - though it was the site of King Solomon's Temple more than a thousand years before Islam's founder's grandparents were even glints in their own parents' eyes.

Wittingly or otherwise, such mindlessness masquerading as fair play assists the Arab determination to deny, as in the case of the Holocaust and other inconvenient realities, the ancient and essential Jewish bond to the Jewish land. The denial is executed quite tangibly too; credible sources report that the Waqf, the Islamic religious overseers of the mosques that function undisturbed on the Mount, has been excavating and systematically destroying artifacts of the Second Temple era, in a determined effort to prevent archaeologists from confirming the facts of history. Earlier this month, Jerusalem Police Commander Niso Shaham told a Knesset committee that a large electric saw is being used to destroy stones every day on the Temple Mount, and helicopter photographs of such destruction, and of a bulldozer on the Mount, also presented to the committee, confirm that charge.

Nor are our own people immune to the rot of revisionism. The most elemental events of Jewish history have been denied by even by some Jewish religious leaders, several of whom have famously gone on record rejecting the historicity of the Exodus, the revelation at Sinai and the conquest of the Land of Israel at the time of Joshua.

Judaism, however, has always been, and remains, a religion based on a historical tradition. We Jews recall - indeed, relive - our genesis as a people each Passover, and mourn the tragedies of our past each Tisha B'Av, when our tradition asks us to forego food, drink and other comforts.

This year, Tisha B'Av falls this coming Sunday, July 29 (the fast begins before sundown on Shabbat, July 28). Let us all, regardless of our level of observance or affiliations, reconnect to Tisha B'Av - and, through it, to each other and to the entirety of Jewish history.

Let us begin to recapture unity by joining together in the solemn observance of the millennia-old day of national Jewish mourning.

Let each of us find a place where Jews spend Tisha B'Av eve sitting on low chairs or stools and mourning, where images and feelings of Jewish tragedies, both distant and near are called up and bemoaned.

Let each of us set aside the day to fast, to pray, to reflect on our collective pain. And let us all, thereby, be joined by our fasting and praying -- to one another, but also to our fellow Jews across the ages - and to our fellow Jews living in the Jewish Land today.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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Adam Jessel

Rachel Bamberger Chalkovsky, affectionately known as Bambi, is a walking Jerusalem legend. The chief midwife at Shaare Zedek Hospital, she has brought over 35,000 babies into the world over the past 40 years, and is now delivering the grandchildren of her first small charges. But numbers alone are not what have made Bambi's name so familiar in Jerusalem homes.

Born in France at the beginning of World War II, Bambi and her parents were soon on the run from the Nazis. When her father was sent to his death in Auschwitz, Bambi and her pregnant mother hid in the forest. When Bambi's brother was born, her mother somehow found a hospital whose staff - at great risk to their lives - cleared a room and arranged for a secret circumcision. Bambi seems to have inherited that determination.

After the war, the family, who had lost everything, was "adopted" by an anonymous Jewish couple in America who sent them clothes, books, toys, and money. Other relief organizations provided food and shelter to the refugees, but these special gifts represented a more personal connection.

"There was an emotional aspect here that was extremely important," says Bambi. "It meant that individuals cared for us. It made us, who had lost so much, feel part of a family."

When she emigrated to Israel, Bambi came to emulate her benefactors, to always be on the lookout for quiet, personal ways to assist people in need. In her second year of nursing school, she formed a close relationship with Rebbetzin Rachel Sarne, wife of the head of the Hebron Yeshiva. A Holocaust survivor herself and afflicted with tuberculosis, the Rebbetzin, who passed away only last year, was constantly collecting and distributing food for the poor.

"She had a tremendous love of the Jewish people. Despite her illness and advanced age, she opened a shelter for all kinds of people - children, the elderly, families. She had a very special way. I regard her as one of the greatest women of our generation."

Bambi worked closely with Rebbetzin Sarne, absorbing her special approach to helping others. And when the Yom Kippur War broke out and scores of wives and mothers tragically and suddenly became widows, Bambi did what she knew she had to do.

"When there are wars, the people who are poor or orphaned are put on hold. The direct victims of the war have to take priority, and others fall through the cracks."

Her childhood wartime experiences gave Bambi the idea of matching benefactors with Israeli families in need, and she started a charitable foundation known as Matan B'Seter ("giving in a hidden way,") though it is often referred to simply as "Bambi".

The charity is staffed entirely by volunteers - rabbis, social workers, teachers - who personally track each case. A small committee oversees the effort's approximately $1,000,000 annual budget, meeting regularly in Bambi's modest kitchen. All the money raised goes directly to help the needy. Mailing and transportation costs are paid out of the volunteers' pockets.

And the funds come from both likely and unlikely places.

"People will sponsor a parlor meeting in a fancy neighborhood," Bambi explains, "and then children will come too, bringing small amounts from their savings."

One innovative girl in Manchester spent a summer creating an exhibition of butterflies and insects, and then invited the neighborhood children to come to her house and view it. She charged a small admission, and before long had raised 100 pounds sterling for the cause. And she continues to do the same each year.

The foundation's assistance is allocated to single-parent families, families in which one parent is chronically ill or unemployed, and families with special medical needs.

Now that her organization has become known, there is no shortage of referrals. But in the beginning Bambi had to rely on her experienced eye to spot families in crisis. Once she noted that a woman's postnatal hemoglobin was very low and, after investigating, discovered that the woman had been subsisting essentially on bread and margarine.

Another time, she became aware of a premature baby with a defective heart whose life was hanging in the balance in Shaare Zedek's neonatal unit. The parents, newly arrived Russian immigrants, knew virtually no one in Israel. Bambi secured a donation from a woman in Switzerland to fly the baby to America for treatment.

For Bambi, who well remembers her own immigrant days, going that extra mile is part and parcel of being a Jew, as is her observance of all the Torah's laws. She feels at home working in a hospital like Shaare Zedek, where neither staff nor patients have to compromise their dedication to Shabbat and kashrut.

"The whole atmosphere of a religious hospital is something special." She stresses. "Particularly in the maternity ward, you become keenly aware of the tremendous blessing of children. Each new cry is another link in the chain.

"Once I had a patient who had her first twelve children here and then the thirteenth happened to be born at a Tel Aviv hospital. The head of the department was not religious, and when he learned that this was the woman's 13th child, scolded her. 'What do you need with so many kids? Are you crazy?'

"The mother phoned her husband and told him to dress all the kids in their Sabbath clothes, and bring them to the hospital. When they arrived, she lined them up, all clean and smiling. Then she knocked on the department head's door, and introduced him to her children. 'Which one would you say is expendable?' she asked him."

Bambi's characteristic Jewish warmth extends to Arab babies as well, who account for about 10% of Shaare Zedek's births. "Jewish tradition views all people as having been created in the image of G-d, and every baby is entitled to the best I can give", she explains.

"These are very hard times for the Jewish people," she says, "not just here but also in many parts of the world. People aren't sure what they can do, what's the right approach. Spiritually, though, one of the things we can do is 'chesed', acts of kindness. This definitely makes a difference."

Photos are available upon request by e-mail.

Caption: "Bambi in her element at the Shaare Zedek nursery" or "Bambi has delivered well over 35,000 babies"

[Adam Jessel is a former staff member at Hadassah Hospital. Bambi can be contacted through him ( or by writing to Devora Prag,1667 54th St., Brooklyn NY 11204.]

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