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Provided by Am Echad Resources:
Information and Opinion from a Traditional Jewish Perspective

Archives Of Previous Articles II


Distinguished Service

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Director of Public Affairs,
Agudath Israel of America;
American Director, Am Echad

Are haredi men in Israel freeloading draft dodgers, contemptuous of their fellow citizens and unconcerned with their safety and security? Some ardently secularist Israelis readily answer in the affirmative; and some American Jews, gently guided by much of the media, readily concur. Both groups are victims of profound ignorance and, in more than a few cases, guilty of outright prejudice.

Virtually since Israel's birth, Israeli yeshiva students have received annual deferments, as is customary in many countries for divinity students and religious scholars. (There are many other deferment categories as well; Israeli government statistics show that fully 65% of draft-age Israelis are excused from military service.) Yeshiva student deferments are conditional on the students' full-time involvement in Torah study; their employment in any way is illegal. At 41 years of age (35, if they have five or more children) haredim receive permanent deferments.

That arrangement, part of the "religious status quo" endorsed by Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, has become increasingly unpopular in recent years, largely due to the growth of the haredi sector of Israeli society and the concomitant increase in the number of full-time yeshiva students.

As he was forming his governmental coalition, Prime Minister Ehud Barak entered into an agreement with one of Israel's religious parties (which, together with the others, garnered a full quarter of the Jewish vote in the recent Knesset election) allowing yeshiva students to seek employment at age 24 or 25, but only after undergoing basic military training in accord with the army's needs.

The new setup, aimed at young haredi men who are not prepared to devote themselves to full-time Torah study beyond their mid-20s, was designed to add haredim to the pool of hose trained to serve Israel in times of need, to facilitate the movement of haredim into the workforce and to end the dependence of many haredi families on the very modest government subsidies provided to the unemployed. A special committee, composed of representatives of the Defense Ministry, the Prime Minister's office, the Attorney General's office and yeshiva heads, are to determine the final criteria regarding conscription and exemptions.

The accommodation is a reasonable one. Yet the controversy continues, fueled, in part, by two stubbornly resilient misconceptions.

The first is that Israel's security is compromised by the relative paucity of haredim in the military. The fact, though, is that the Israeli army has no interest in enlisting haredim. With their scholarly demeanors and religious needs, young haredim do not easily fit the requirements of the modern military. Former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai testified before Israel's High Court last year that the current number of deferments on religious grounds did no harm whatsoever to the state. What's more, former army Chief of Staff Lt.-General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak has declared that the military is simply not prepared to absorb an influx of haredi soldiers.

"The Israeli army," he said, "would have to reshape itself" entirely to accommodate the religious needs of such inductees.

The second misconception, more trenchant still, is that those who opt for full-time Torah study are contributing nothing to the security of the Jewish State.

Study halls may be safer places than battlefields, but there are many vital roles even within the military that are formidably insulated from danger. Think of engineers or communications experts -- or, for that matter, generals and logistical planners safe in underground war rooms. Service to one's country and exposure to danger do not necessarily go hand-in-hand.

From a truly Jewish viewpoint, informed by Jewish ideals and Jewish texts, the single most important part of Jewish security is the practice and study of Torah. While Jewish tradition mandates the employment of conventional means, like armies and arsenals, for maintaining the security of Jews, it has been the Jewish conviction for millennia that the true safety of the Jewish people derives, in the end, from dedication to the values, laws and study of the Torah.

Thus, when viewed through the lens of classical Jewish thought, haredim are very much part of Israel's security apparatus, no less essential than the computer experts calculating the trajectories of missiles, the intelligence analysts or the generals planning troop movements.

Secularists may ipso facto reject the notion of Torah possessing the power to protect Jews. But that such a deeply and undeniably Jewish attitude is perceived as outlandish to so many non-secularist American Jews is nothing short of tragic. An assortment of religiously liberal American Jewish leaders have called of late for a new appreciation and embrace of Jewish texts and tradition. Jews' priority should be, in the widely-reported words of one, "Torah, Torah, Torah!"

But declarations of dedication to Torah are meaningless and hollow if they allow for the disparagement of Jews who dedicate their entire lives, without regard to material comfort, to the practice and study of Torah. We need only recall what Jews the world over only recently read in the weekly Torah portion: it is not "my strength and the might of my arm" that has "wrought me this victory" but rather "the L-rd, your G-d, who gives you the strength." (Deuteronomy 8, 17-18).

Might it be time for caring Jews of all stripes to begin to regard Israel's religious Jews not as aberrations but as examples, not as bogeymen but -- can the thought even be broached? -- as heroes of the Jewish people?

[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, and as American Director of Am Echad]

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Jewish State: The True Constitutional Meaning

Professor Harry Reicher

Discussion in Israel about the adoption of a written constitution has recently intensified. In some quarters, this has been accompanied by condemnation of what one Israeli party, Shinui, has characterized as the unbridled attacks of the ultra-orthodox leaders against the judicial system in general and against the Israel Supreme Court, specifically. It is certainly true that significant elements of Israeli society (and not just the Orthodox) have voiced profound disillusionment with the country’s Supreme Court, in particular. Among other things, that disillusionment found expression in a Jerusalem rally earlier this year, which attracted somewhere between a quarter- and a half-million men and women.

When people gather in such numbers for an express purpose, it is noteworthy, to say the least. When they do so in a country the size of Israel, it is particularly striking -- especially when the participants are Orthodox Jews expressing anguish over judicial rulings in the Jewish State.

To understand the air of controversy swirling around Israel’s Supreme Court, and the intense feelings evoked by its decisions in cases raising religious issues, it is important to have regard to basic documents in Israel's constitutional history. This is particularly so on the vexed issue of the status of non-orthodox movements within Judaism--the so-called "pluralism" question.

The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which was proclaimed on May 14, 1948, was carefully crafted by the State's founding fathers to describe the fundamental nature of the State they were establishing. The first preambular paragraph begins with the words "Eretz-Israel", the biblical name of the Land of Israel, termed "the birthplace of the Jewish people", and goes on to characterize it as where the Jews’ "spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped." And after recounting the forcible exile of the Jewish people from the Land, the Declaration acknowledges that its members they "never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it." In these and other ways, this seminal document inextricably linked the character of the newly-created nation to its biblical and religious roots. Indeed, these links of the Jewish people with the Land were what underlay, and furnished the strongest legitimacy for, the Jewish claim to the area in which the State in fact arose, as opposed to some other territory. (Thus the suggestion that Britain turn its then-colony Uganda into a Jewish State came to naught.)

So, when the operative paragraph of the Declaration of Independence declared "the establishment of a Jewish State", the context of that proclamation made very clear what was intended; it stamped the character of the nation as profoundly embedded in the biblical and religious history and traditions of the Jewish people.

But the matter does not rest there. While the Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, David Ben-Gurion, who became Israel's first Prime Minister, was himself not an observant Jew, he had a keen appreciation of Jewish history and its religious roots. For this and other reasons, he sought to ensure that the religious populace participated fully in the establishment of the new State. The discussions on such participation gave rise to another critical document in Israel's constitutional history, colloquially known as the "Status Quo Agreement". Formally, the document was a response to a request from the devoutly Orthodox Agudath Israel World Organization concerning the character of the State then to be established, and it dealt with observance of the Jewish Sabbath as the official day of rest, provision of kosher food in Government kitchens and religious education.

Most significantly, though, the Agreement contained a separate paragraph addressing issues of personal status -- things like marriage, divorce and conversion -- in which the Jewish Agency gave its solemn assurance that "everything possible will be done" to "avoid, Heaven forfend, the splitting of the House of Israel into two." The language is nothing short of extraordinary: here was Ben-Gurion himself, the first signatory to the document, accepting, in strong and unequivocal terms, the absolute need to preserve Jewish unity--meaning, that issues of personal status, beginning with the definition of Jewishness itself, could have only one standard, namely that which had governed the Jewish people for several thousand year.

When the Declaration of Independence was signed, some eleven months after the Status Quo Agreement, it was done against the background, and in full knowledge, of that Agreement. At the general level, the Agreement furnished further evidence of what the Declaration of Independence meant by a "Jewish" State; and at the particular level, it provided specific conve seen it happen more times than I can count. Children so badly depressed they'll barely look at you get to camp, and they're totally transformed."

Her favorite story is about six-year-old Mirile. Suffering from a rare blood disorder, Mirile had been in the hospital for weeks. Her condition was extremely serious, but more immediately worrisome to her doctor and family was the fact that she had stopped talking and eating. Mrs. Schwartz's suggestion that Mirile go to camp, if only for a few days, was initially rejected by the child's doctor. But he called her back a few days later and agreed to give it a try.

"Mirile arrived at camp on Friday," Mrs. Schwartz recalls. "When I came to visit on Sunday, I headed straight for the infirmary to check on her. But she wasn't there. I finally found her outside, at a camp barbecue, eating a huge hamburger.

"'Mirile,' I said 'what are you eating?'

"'My second burger,' she told me.'

"'But when I saw you in the hospital on Wednesday, you didn't want to eat anything."

"She turned the biggest, bluest eyes you can imagine on me.

"'Esther,' she said, 'on Wednesday I was sick. Today, I'm at camp'."

[Chanie Friedman, part of Am Echad's writers' pool, has written several Jewish children's books and numerous feature articles in a variety of publications]

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Original Intent

Sarah Cohen

Amid the frenzy of discussion spawned by the national Rorschach blot that is Littleton, the issue of gun control has taken center stage. Passions run high on both sides, as we witness the Orwellian spectacle of avowed liberals leading the charge for greater restriction of personal freedom, and rock-ribbed conservatives arguing for autonomy and freedom of choice. The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, normally the province of students and scholars, has become dinner-table fare in America.

As I understand the contemporary debate, some insist that it be regarded I the context of its era, an age when the greatest threats of violence were muskets, and see a need for its reevaluation in a millennial America that incubates trench-coated teenage terrorists. At the other end of the spectrum are those who champion the doctrine of "original intent" – that the Constitution must always be interpreted precisely as its eighteenth-century Framers intended.

This reverence for a document two hundred years old inexorably invited comparison, at least in my mind, to another revered document far more ancient, the guiding spirit for the three great monotheistic religions of the world.

Jewish mysticism teaches that G-d "looked into the Torah and created the world." The spectacular universe we inhabit, with the purposeful creativity of the Creator’s fingerprints all over it, A sun for warmth, water for life, eyes to see, a heart to pump blood, a mind to think. The universe, though, begs the question: why? Why all this splendor? Where do we fit in? How do we go about the task, to paraphrase the words of the eighteenth-century Italian Jewish ethical sage, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, of "understanding what is one’s true obligation in the world"?

An edifice must have a blueprint. The universe was built from the Torah, in which the Builder spelled out, in loving detail, His own Original Intent. "What does your G-d demand from you?" asked the prophet Micah. He didn't create us to be clueless. No, He provided us the blueprint. And the minds and bodies, hearts and souls, with which to understand and interpret, to labor and achieve the ineffable joy of discovering His will.

Original Intent was still swirling in my head when my husband and I attended a weekend Shabbaton with a boys' yeshiva high school several not long ago. At the conclusion of the Shabbat, all the boys were invited into the main dining hall for a Melaveh Malka, a festive meal in which to bid farewell to the Shabbat Queen. The mood was one of gaiety and fun; the food was plentiful, the band was lively. And yet, this was no typical American Saturday night beer bash. The dress code was dark pants and dress shirts, and there was an underlying sense of dignity and respect for occasion and self that in no way contradicted the joyous, spontaneous mood.

About an hour into the festivities, a hush fell over the crowd as a line of seven or eight boys took their places in the front of the room each holding some sort of volume. The principal offered a few words of explanation. These healthy young teenagers who enjoy sports, and delight in outdoor activity, had labored in their scarce spare time to master a tractate of Talmud, above and beyond their rigorous school curriculum. They had finished it in time for the weekend, and were publicly celebrating their siyum, the ceremony that honors the conclusion of the study of a substantial portion of Torah.

They solemnly read aloud from the text. "We thank You, G-d, for making it our lot to be among those who dwell in the House of Study... We arise early... We labor... and receive a reward... of eternal life..."

They concluded the reading. Cries of "mazel tov!" rang out, as their friends and teachers hurried to shake their hands, to congratulate them. The band struck up a lively tune, and in the twinkling of an eye, the entire yeshiva was swept into a joyous dance, singing the Hebrew words in jubilation, "Know before Whom you stand."

As I watched the dancing, deeply moved, I felt in the room the presence of centuries of those who had labored to transmit Torah to these American boys who stood before me in the spring of 1999, a chain stretching back through medieval Europe and Babylonia, Roman Palestine and prophet-inspired Israel, back to Moses our Teacher, and through him, to G-d Himself.

Observance of Torah is not easy. It demands rigorous discipline, strict commitment, fidelity to numerous laws and safeguards. Looking from the outside in, it is easy to view it as a mere morass of restrictions and minutiae. And yet, says Rabbi Luzzato, what the Creator truly wants is for humans to use the laws as a vehicle to lend life structure, purpose, meaning; "to take pleasure in G-d."

The boys surged around the floor, totally absorbed in their joyous dancing, singing, in Hebrew, "Know before Whom you stand." "The One before Whom they were standing" was not an abstract concept. To these boys, He was a living presence. It was their labors in Torah, their brush with the Infinite, that brought black words on a white page to vivid color, to life.

"To take pleasure in G-d."

And that is surely His Original Intent.

[Sarah Cohen is a teacher and writer in New York]

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Jewish Joy For Cancer Camp Kids

By: Chanie Friedman

It never rains at Camp Simcha.

Other strange phenomena abound: Soda cans and juice bottles come rolling down the chutes of brightly colored machines without benefit of paper or coin and, most amazing of all -- the camp chef not only can cook, he fills individual orders.

Okay... sometimes it rains -- but when it does, no one seems to notice or care very much. This is Camp Simcha, after all, a summer retreat where campers -- Jewish children with cancer and other life threatening illnesses -- tend to check their negativity at the gate. Here, time and energy are better spent on getting back to the business of being a "regular kid" -- a standing commonly forfeited in the relentless round of stressful doctor visits, dismal hospital stays and debilitating treatment protocols."For three weeks, these kids can forget about being patients and concentrate on being campers," says camp director Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg.

The only kosher camp for children with cancer in the United States, Camp Simcha -- simcha is the Hebrew word for happiness --is a project of Chai Lifeline, an international nonprofit social service agency that provides a broad array of free health support services to catastrophically ill Jewish children and their families. The camp, located on 125 acres in Glen Spey, New York, currently accommodates up to 100 children in each of two three-week sessions.

Though the administration and staff of the camp are all Orthodox Jews, campers come from widely diverse Jewish affiliations and levels of observance. They range in age from five to twenty and hail from cities across the United States and around the world. Indeed, it would seem the only thing Simcha campers have in common is the fact of their life threatening illnesses.

Which appears to be quite enough.

"The relationships that develop among the campers goes beyond anything experienced at a regular camp," observes Rabbi Goldberg. Even their different religious affiliations present no barrier to friendship, he says. "At Camp Simcha, youngsters from every point on the Jewish spectrum live and play together happily. It's unfortunate that the common denominator that bought them together is illness."

"No one here feels different or out of place," says staff member Yitzy Haber who was himself a camper for six years. Diagnosed at age 11 with osteogenicsacoma, a type of bone cancer, Yitzy remembers well what it was like to finally come to a place "where no one asked any questions or stared if you didn't happen to have any hair. Camp was like a dose of normality for me. I just thought it was the greatest place on earth. I still think so."

Diagnosed two years ago with Hodgkin's disease, seventeen-year-old Matis says he relates differently to the kids here than to his other friends. "What we have in common is more important than anything -- our ages or backgrounds. We really understand each other."

On a gut level, if not always a linguistic one. Camp Simcha -- completely free of charge, right down to the cost of transportation -- is this season hosting dozens of children from Israel and four from Russia. While each non-English speaking camper was assigned a counselor fluent in his or her language -- Camp Simcha maintains a one-to-one camper to counselor ratio, two to one when medically necessary -- verbal communication among the campers is sometimes a challenge.

"One evening after dinner I walked into the camp dining room and found three girls at a table trying to come up with a camp cheer, " says assistant camp director Zahava Farbman. "The only problem was none of them spoke the same language -- one was from Israel, a second from Russia and a third from the States. Amazingly, they managed to come up with a pretty good one."

Camp Simcha's medical staff, under the direction of Dr. Peter Steinherz of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, includes doctors, nurses, social workers and a physical therapist. Yet, to the casual visitor -- were such visitors allowed; since many of the children are immunosuppressed, visiting is generally discouraged -- Camp Simcha would seem much like any other summer camp. Chemotherapy is administered with no more fanfare than cough syrup. An ambulance, for scheduled as well as unscheduled visits to New York City hospitals, is parked out of sight across the road from the main campus. A helicopter is on call five minutes away.

Other accommodations necessary for the health and safety of the campers are woven right into the fabric of the camp. There are plenty of shade trees to shield the kids' sensitive skin and ubiquitous free juice stations and soda machines encourage the kids to keep drinking. At meals -- specially prepared to appeal to children whose appetites may be suppressed due to medical treatment -- individual orders are cheerfully filled.

For 18-year-old Denis of Moscow, who has leukemia, that's meant french fries three times a day, every day since arriving at camp.

"Anything that makes a kid happy and is not inconsistent with his medical needs, we'll provide," says Chai Lifeline's executive vice president Rabbi Simcha Scholar. "Camp Simcha is one place where sick children can pretty much count on things going their way." The mere prospect of returning to camp each summer, he adds, is a morale booster that helps many of the kids get through difficult times throughout the rest of the year.

Eight-year-old Grisha, also from Moscow, says he plans to keep coming back to camp "until I'm a very old man." Grisha, who lost his right eye to cancer, wear a prosthesis that has to be removed and thoroughly washed each morning in the camp infirmary. But that's a minor inconvenience in a day that's otherwise filled with such activities as swimming, boating, rocketry and drama. Woodworking, crafts and pottery shops, as well as a state-of-the-art computer room, are open and staffed all day to accommodate campers unable to participate in any scheduled activity. Music and dance are integral parts of the camp program, and every summer the camp holds several concerts starring popular Jewish entertainers. On New York Day, campers visit the Big Apple -- an excursion made even more exciting for the kids this year by the surprise appearance of Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert who joined them aboard Manhattan's Circle Line cruise ship.

"Considering the kids' medical needs and limitations, this broad a range of activities simply wouldn't be possible in a regular camp," says Rabbi Goldberg. In addition to his duties as camp director, Rabbi Goldberg teaches campers karate, which he believes strengthens them mentally as well as physically. "Kids often come to camp looking beaten down, like they've been through a war. Karate gives them a sense of empowerment that's tremendously beneficial in helping them fight their illnesses."

The change that comes over kids at camp can be quite remarkable, says Esther Schwartz. In her work as Chai Lifeline's program director, Mrs. Schwartz interacts daily with seriously ill children and their families, both in and out of the hospital. It is often at her recommendation that a kid attends camp for the first time. "I've seen it happen more times than I can count. Children so badly depressed they'll barely look at you get to camp, and they're totally transformed."

Her favorite story is about six-year-old Mirile. Suffering from a rare blood disorder, Mirile had been in the hospital for weeks. Her condition was extremely serious, but more immediately worrisome to her doctor and family was the fact that she had stopped talking and eating. Mrs. Schwartz's suggestion that Mirile go to camp, if only for a few days, was initially rejected by the child's doctor. But he called her back a few days later and agreed to give it a try.

"Mirile arrived at camp on Friday," Mrs. Schwartz recalls. "When I came to visit on Sunday, I headed straight for the infirmary to check on her. But she wasn't there. I finally found her outside, at a camp barbecue, eating a huge hamburger.

"'Mirile,' I said 'what are you eating?'

"'My second burger,' she told me.'

"'But when I saw you in the hospital on Wednesday, you didn't want to eat anything."

"She turned the biggest, bluest eyes you can imagine on me.

"'Esther,' she said, 'on Wednesday I was sick. Today, I'm at camp'."

[Chanie Friedman, part of Am Echad's writers' pool, has written several Jewish children's books and numerous feature articles in a variety of publications]

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Unholy Alliance

Jonathan Rosenblum

Why has the Reform movement, through its Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), chosen to ally with the ultra-secularist group Am Hofshi in the latter's efforts to prevent a religious outreach center from opening in the Israeli town of Rehovot?

For years the Israeli Reform movement has presented itself as the antidote to the alienation of secular Israelis from their Judaism. The movement portrays Israeli society as divided by an absolute chasm between religious and secular Jews. That portrait conveniently ignores the fact that all studies of the continuum of religious observance in Israel show that 80% of Israelis are far more observant than the average Reform Jew in America.

If IRAC director Uri Regev were really concerned with the religious alienation of secular Israelis, he would be the most enthusiastic supporter and not a fierce opponent of Lev L'Achim, the outreach center's sponsor, which has been teaching Torah in Rehovot for 35 years. At present, 200 Jews come to study with partners in the town's Lev L'Achim study-hall each week, some every day. (The present study-hall, incidentally, is located in a far more secular neighborhood than the almost completed new center.) Another 1,400 Jews regularly attend Lev L'Achim-sponsored lectures, and the organization offers dozens of classes in Rechovot and surrounding communities every week.

So why has the Reform Movement allied itself with an organization whose unsavory tactics include falsely telling neighborhood residents that the new center would be a refuge for drug addicts and Jewish wives fleeing their Arab husbands? The suit against Lev L'Achim has nothing to do with advancing the IRAC's goals of religious tolerance and pluralism, but rather the opposite.

This is not a fight against the religious establishment, but against a privately funded outreach organization. The Israel Religious Action center is not promoting religious expression, but seeking to stifle it. Far from encouraging religious tolerance, its ally Am Hofshi is one of Israel's leading purveyors of hatred, and has not yet to find a synagogue or religious institution whose presence it could tolerate.

My guess is that simple jealousy lies behind the Reform movement's odd choice of allies. Both here and in America, the movement has created extremely professional press and public relations offices. Virtually no issue in the Jewish world can pass without a lengthy comment from Regev or his American counterpart Eric Yoffie. In addition, the movement can claim an unbroken stream of successes in the Israeli Supreme Court.

Yet after winning every public relations and judicial battle, the Reform movement has barely made a dent in Israeli religious life. Even some of the movement's most ardent supporters, like Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, hasten to note that no one should expect to find them in a Reform temple in the near future.

The Orthodox are, by contrast, complete schlemazels when it comes to public relations. They simply don't get it.

Instead of creating huge public relations offices, their money goes to yeshivas and seminaries, chesed (social service) organizations, and outreach efforts. Nothing is closer to the heart of the Orthodox community than the latter. From the creation of Chinuch Atzmai in the 1950s to the present, no undertaking has been dearer to American Orthodox Jews than the building of religious schools in Israel for children from traditional and secular families.

Consider the results. Nine years ago, Rabbi Avraham Pam, the Rosh Yeshiva, or dean, of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath in New York, pleaded with American Orthodox Jews to build Torah schools in Israel for the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Today 9,000 children from Russian-speaking families are registered for 28 "Shuvu" schools, including five middle and high schools. Another 6,000 attend Shuvu camps each summer. Keeping this huge network going requires more than $5,000,000 in private contributions a year.

Two years ago, the Gerer Rebbe and Rabbi Aharon Leib Steiman, respectively leaders of the Chassidic and Lithuanian yeshiva worlds in Israel, traveled together to America to start a development fund to build new Torah schools for children from non-religious families. Again, millions were raised, and eight new schools and 32 kindergartens have resulted so far. At the same time, Lev L'Achim undertook a mass school registration campaign that has registered thousands of children. And all this is dwarfed by the phenomenal growth of the Shas school system.

In short, Orthodox Jews believe in the Torah and its power to transform lives, and they can think of no greater mitzvah than giving regularly with astounding generosity in order to introduce their fellow Jews to Torah.

Reform lacks a comparable confidence in what it is offering. Therefore the movement spends millions on large press offices and teams of lawyers, as if the Israeli Supreme Court or Madison Avenue could somehow mandate Reform belief.

A memoir by Meira Leah Scott, a recent Harvard law school graduate, in the summer issue of Jewish Action, captures nicely why Reform cannot provide what people ultimately seek in religion: a connection to God. Scott began her religious search with liberal Judaism, the only form of Judaism of which she had ever heard. Initially she was attracted by the fact that nothing she found there was likely to give offense to previously held views or "intrude on 'regular' life," allowing her religiious activity to "ebb and flow according to whatever inspiration [she] could muster and [her] social calendar." Eventually, however, she began to wonder "where was God in this religion" in which man appeared to be constantly readjusting "the boundaries of appropriate religious existence?" She found herself unable to shake the intuition that "religion has to be something mandated by God and appropriate for all aspects of a person's life," not something one can "check in and out of . . . on any given day," and that every activity must be significant in God's eyes. Finally, she was introduced to two Orthodox rabbis, who invited her repeatedly for Shabbos and showed her how Torah Judaism responds to those intuitions.

If you want to know why Uri Regev has chosen to join forces with Am Hofshi, the answer is Meira Leah Scott.

[Jonathan Rosenbloom is a respected Jerusalem Post columnist]

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Wake Up Call

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The photograph is still tear-wrenching, even days later. The string of tiny children, arms stretched taut, holding hands as they are led by policemen from the North Valley Jewish Community Center in the Grenada Hills section of Los Angeles.

They look, of course, no different from any other street-crossing child-care troupe. But something shaped like a human being had just shot five people at the center, and tried to kill them all, for no other reason than that they are Jews.

All decent people are appalled at the attack, appalled by Buford O. Furrow Jr., who reportedly confessed to the crime, and to the subsequent cold-blooded murder of a Filipino-American mail carrier.

How, we ask, could anyone conceivably want to kill innocent people, even children? And how could anyone want to kill Jews only because they are Jews? Grant Furrow the madness he will likely claim in his defense; but there are assorted nonviolent madmen, even perfectly pleasant ones, on the streets of most American cities. For madness to so obscenely express itself, it must have bottom-fed for years on evil.

And such evil is nothing new. Jews have been killed by Christians and by Moslems, by Nazis and by Communists, by white haters and black ones. And even today, when assertions that our matzos contain Christians' blood and accusations of deicide have, at least for the most part, slid back into the muck of ignorance that spawned them, Jew-hatred is still alive and all too well.

Yet, amazingly, so many Jews today not only persevere but persist in holding fast to their Jewish identity. Indeed, it is the contemporary Jewish world's great merit that it refuses to run from - indeed, tightly embraces - its religious identity, despite the ever-enduring dangers.

A very different approach, though, has been voiced by the eminent British scholar and science writer Jonathan Miller.

"I feel," he once said, "that the Jew must constantly readventure and reventure himself into assimilation. He owes it to himself and to humanity to try and try again."

"I just think," he continued, "it's the nobler thing to do, unless in fact you happen to be a believer in Orthodoxy, in which case there are self-evident reasons to keep doing it. But, if it's done for the sole purpose of making sure that in the future you'll be able to say the prayers for the dead when the Holocaust is finally inflicted again, then I think it is a damnable device."

His logic would appear to be unassailable. No Jews, no anti-Semitism. And all too many Jews, over the course of the past century, have followed Mr. Miller's course, truncating their Jewish names, dropping Jewish religious observance, marrying non-Jews, moving to the "right" neighborhoods, trying in every possible way to pass as non-Jews themselves.

Interestingly, though, Jewish assimilation does not seem necessarily to protect Jews. Among the most assimilationist Jews in modern times were those who comprised much of German Jewry in the 1800s and the early part of this century, who adopted many of the trappings, practices, beliefs and attitudes of their surrounding non-Jewish neighbors. But when a leader who hated Jews viscerally came to power, even those who had ceased to call themselves Jews were unequivocally and tragically reminded of just who they were.

And so it is heartening that so very many Jews today feel an inexplicable but powerful urge to stand firm in their Jewish identity. Even Jews who are minimally observant, or non-observant altogether, often still refuse to relinquish their connection to what is, after all, not a racial or even ethnic but religious heritage.

Some Jewish leaders, like Conservative Rabbi Harold Shulweis, insist on viewing attacks like the recent one in a universalist mode, as, in his words, "an American issue, not a Jewish issue." But heinous as racism and xenophobia are, only Jews are hated even when they they are both white and native born. Is it not odd that some haters hate blacks and Jews, others hate Christians and Jews, and others still hate foreigners and Jews? There is something about anti-Semitism that defies all logic, even racist "logic".

But it does not defy prediction. In mere weeks, Jews the world over will hear the weekly Torah-portion (Nitzavim) recount how, exiled to the Diaspora, the Jews will drift away from observance of the Torah, pursue foreign belief-systems and come to be targeted for destruction in the lands of their sojourn. And, finally, return to G-d and His Torah.

Only then, the Torah continues, when we re-embrace our religious heritage, will we be spared the hatred of those around us, and merit our ultimate redemption. Jonathan Miller may think clearly and logically. But, the Torah teaches us, he is dead wrong.

Buford O. Furrow was reported to have characterized his attack at the Jewish Community Center as a "wake-up call" to other like-minded individuals to kill Jews. We can only pray that his would-be imitators sleep soundly through his hellish alarm. But his murderous rage and cynical smirk might well indeed serve as a wake-up call for us Jews.

This past Friday, synagogues around the world began the month-long ritual custom of blowing the shofar after morning services. The shofar's call, according to Maimonides, hints at a message: "Awaken all you who slumber, examine your actions, return and remember your Creator."

The way for us Jews to protect ourselves from the degenerates of the world - and the way, more important, to fulfill our destiny - is to thank Professor Miller kindly for his advice but to determinedly take the very opposite path from the one he suggests. To, in other words, "invest and readventure and reventure" ourselves not into assimilation and Jewish oblivion but into vibrant, holy Jewish life and observance.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, and as American Director of Am Echad]

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Precious Petals

By Eytan Kobre

Item: According to a team of Israeli researchers, Pfizer's much-touted drug Viagra holds benefits for more than just human males. A research group at Ben Gurion University announced that, diluted with water, the medicine can also prolong the life of cut flowers (JTA Daily News Bulletin, 7/22/99).

As it happens, the report appeared the same week as did one on the findings of a 1999 study on the charitable habits of American Jews. A chart summarizing the study's findings told a story familiar to sociologists for quite some time: among Jews, historically the most generous ethnic group in America, levels of both giving and volunteerism increase markedly with a rise in religious commitment.

The study's author, political scientist Raymond Legge, Jr., notes that "[w]hile social justice is a concept which is stressed perhaps most heavily by the Reform denomination... the analyses indicate that in terms of financial contributions this group is least likely to practice it. . . . Instead, . . . social justice is most likely to be present when individuals also place a great importance on religious beliefs and practices as well." This latest report concurs with several studies conducted both here and in Israel, which conclude that, in the words of one sociologist, "making better Jews makes better givers."

American Jews pride themselves, and rightly so, on their magnanimity. Any community constituting less than 3% of the overall population whose total annual charitable contributions outstrip the combined revenues of major national charities has earned those bragging rights. Yet, it's apparent from the sociological data that the Jewish charitable commitment isn't immune to what some sociologists term the "cut flower syndrome": the tendency for a group's ethical impulses to wane as its members drift away from their religious roots.

The overpowering effect of assimilation and secularism in eroding Jewish moral standards is equally evident in areas like school violence, substance abuse and divorce. While Jewish susceptibility to these ills has remained appreciably lower than that of the general population, there continues to be an inverse relationship between their preponderance among Jews and the extent of Jewish religious commitment.

Perhaps a fitting symbol of the disconnect that exists between the modern Jewish ethical agenda and its historical roots in a religious system of morality is the popularity, on the contemporary Jewish scene, of the phrase Tikkun Olam. This term, which means "repairing the world", has emerged over recent decades as the catch-all description of choice for all manner of socially conscious activities, from old-fashioned charity to saving the redwoods to fighting Republican tax cuts.

Yet, like the "Let My People Go" slogan of the '60s and '70s (which truncated a Biblical verse ending with "that they may serve Me"), Tikkun Olam takes a page from Jewish tradition but tells only half the story. The phrase, which is found nowhere in the Bible, is employed a handful of times in the Mishnah, but in a context hardly analogous to its current usage.

As an expression of idealistic longing for universal perfection--the way it has come to be utilized in recent times--Tikkun Olam derives instead from the Aleinu prayer recited thrice daily, where a form of the phrase is used in that sense, but with one telling difference. Following an expression of yearning for the eradication of idolatry and the universal recognition of the One G-d is the phrase "l'takein olam b'malchut Shakai", a plea for "a repairing of the world through G-d's sovereignty".

Contemplating the phrase in this, its original, context opens a window on two basic concepts of classical Jewish ethics.

One is that Tikkun Olam in its broad, utopian meaning is something for G-d to accomplish, not man. This is not to say that, from a traditional standpoint, Jews should eschew involvement in efforts to right the many wrongs prevalent in society. Indeed, the study cited earlier found that "those currently Orthodox... surpass the other denominations by a wide margin in embracing social justice."

In the Judaic view, however, the most important battles for the creation of a just and harmonious society are not fought primarily through sweeping campaigns for national reform. Rather, the building of a better world for humanity is best achieved through the personal campaign of each individual to engage in a process of repairing the flaws of his or her own olam kattan, that microcosmic world known as the human soul. The G-d-given tools for that task are the mitzvot, both the overtly ethical and the so-called ritual precepts, which, in fact, can be deeply ethically enriching as well. In his old age, the Hasidic master R. Chaim of Tzanz remarked that over the course of many decades, he had first given up his youthful ambitions to change the whole world and, later, his bold plans to transform his community and family; he was, at last, hoping merely to better his own self somewhat before his time to leave this earth arrived.

Certainly, the painstaking, intensely private effort to slowly refine one's character of its egoistic and animalistic tendencies garners one neither public acclaim nor the external trappings of power. Put simply, training one's tongue to speak sweetly and softly and one's mind to judge others favorably carries none of the cachet of organizing an anti-fur demonstration or circulating petitions demanding term limits. Yet, Judaism teaches, it is through the disciplining and, ultimately, the sanctifying of the self that the true empowerment of the individual and the eventual repair of society are achieved.

The second lesson of Aleinu is that there can be no lasting repair of our damaged, strife-filled world without perceiving of that world as G-d's kingdom. For the sages who authored that prayer, respect and love for the other, whether a fellow human being or another member of the community of nations, was rooted in the Divine image that we all share. They surely were not puzzled by the Torah's juxtaposition, in Leviticus 19:18, of "Love your neighbor as yourself" and "I am your G-d".

For those who first used the phrase Tikkun Olam, repairing and preserving that which we have been given, whether the environment, our bodies or our souls, flowed directly from the knowledge that these are G-d's creations entrusted to our care. They did not view the Torah's injunction, in Deuteronomy 14:1, that "You are children of G-d; do not mutilate yourselves" as a non sequitur.

Long ago, we Jews were chosen to tend a floral garden of unsurpassed beauty and with the deepest of roots, a wise system of timeless moral values emanating from a Divine source above time. Yet, for much of the century now ending, many of us opted to uproot and exchange the fragrant flowers of Jewish religious ethics for various man-made doctrines that held out the promise of mankind's moral salvation. The folly of those choices is now the stuff of history tomes.

Others among us have sought to reinvigorate, or, more precisely, reinvent, Jewish ethics under a loosely defined rubric of "Tikkun Olam". Theirs is a well-meaning and sincere quest. But once G-d is removed from the equation by a belief that He has not provided guidance for that quest, Tikkun Olam loses the voice of authority that calls to man from beyond his finite world. It then takes its humble alphabetical place in the relativistic lexicon of human ideas, after Tai Chi and before Transcendental Meditation, and can do little to stop the attrition of ethical commitment of which the sociologists speak.

When a bouquet of beautiful flowers begins to fade, a florist has only two options: replace them with another, freshly-picked bunch, or attempt to enliven those in hand . . . with, perhaps, a dose of Viagra.

Thankfully, however, in the case of Jewish ethics we have a third choice. We can reconnect our precious petals to their ultimate Source.

[Eytan Kobre is a lawyer residing in Queens and part of Am Echad's pool of writers]

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Food For Rosh Hashana Thought

By Asher V. Finn

An odd Rosh Hashana custom, duly recorded in the Talmud and halachic codes, is the lavishing of puns on holiday foods.

Most Jews know that on the first night of the Jewish new year, it is customary to eat a piece of apple dipped in honey, to symbolize our hope for a sweet year. Less known is the Rosh Hashana night custom of eating foods whose names augur well for the future. Though the Talmud's examples are, of course, in Hebrew or Aramaic, the commentaries direct us to find our own pun-foods in whatever language we may speak.

"Lettuce have a wonderful year" might thus be an appropriate example. Or "Help us pear away our sins." Or even an entreaty that G-d be our advocate -- before a piece of avocado. (Partaking of a raisin and stalk of celery, as one respected rabbi smilingly suggested, after expressing the hope for a "raise in salary" might be stretching things a bit, but then again maybe not.) Such exercises might seem a bit out of place, though, on the Jewish holy "day of judgment." But that is only because we regard the custom simplistically, as some quaint superstition. In truth, though, it is precisely Rosh Hashana's deep austere gravity that lies at the custom's source.

There are other interesting and telling Jewish customs regarding Rosh Hashana, like the pointed recommendation that the Jewish new year be carefully utilized to the very fullest for prayer, Torah-study and good deeds, that not a moment of its time be squandered. Mitzvos and good conduct, of course, are always "in season", but they seem to have particular power on Rosh Hashana. Similarly, Jewish sources caution against allowing anger to develop on Rosh Hashana. The Jewish new year days are to reflect only the highest Jewish ideals.

The 16th century Jewish luminary Rabbi Yehudah Loewy, known as the Maharal, points out the crucial nature of beginnings. He explains that the trajectory of a projectile -- or, we might similarly note, the outcome of a series of mathematical computations -- can be affected to an often astounding degree by a very small change at the start of the process. A diversion of a single degree of arc where the arrow leaves the bow -- or an error of a single digit at the first step of a long calculation -- can yield a surprisingly large difference in the end. Modern scientific terminology has given the concept both the unwieldy name "sensitive dependence on initial conditions" and the playful one "the butterfly effect", and allusion to the influence the flapping of a butterfly's wings halfway around the world could presumably have on next week's local weather.

Rosh Hashana is thus much more than the start of the Jewish year. It is the day from which the balance of the year unfolds, a time of "initial conditions" that is exquisitely sensitive to whatever we choose do on it.

The Rosh Hashana puns, too, may be closely tied to how crucial it is to the year it ushers in, how finely attuned it is to our every action. While such word-play would hardly seem a substantive means of ensuring good fortune, and is not suggested by Jewish texts for any other time of the year, on Rosh Hashana -- with its sensitivity to even mundane acts -- it is afforded great prominence. For by imbuing even things as seemingly meaningless as our choice of foods with meaning on Rosh Hashana, we are symbolically affirming the proposition that beginnings have particular potential. That there are times when each of our actions has magnified meaning. By seizing even the most wispy opportunity to try to bestow blessing on the Jewish new year, we declare our determination to start the year as right as we possibly can.

Do the puns actually work? Have they some real effect on our year? We are not explicitly informed by the Talmud. What they unarguably accomplish, though, is to impress upon us the unusual degree to which our actions at the start of a Jewish year affect how we will live its balance.

And with that determination, we are more likely to value every opportunity to truly improve our spiritual lot -- to make ourselves into better Jews in our relations both to one another and to our Creator.

So may all we Jews merit a Rosh Hashana with only sweetness and joy, devoid of sadness or anger. And may we all seize every such chance to make 5760's beginning as perfect as we are able - and thereby usher in a year when our collective and individual Jewish lives take a distinct and substantial turnip for the better.

[Asher V. Finn is a Manhattan-based freelancer, part of Am Echad's pool of writers.]

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In Loving Memory Of Our Father, Mr. Joseph Black (Yosef Ben Zelig) O"H
In Loving Memory Of Our Mother, Mrs. Norma Black (Nechama Bas Tzvi Hirsh) O"H
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