Friday, February 15, 2019

A Call For Advocacy

This narrative was not supposed to happen in America in 2019. It may be happening in other dark places in the world but certainly not in the United States Congress. Sure, our nation has its many warts of overt racism but we like to believe that we live in this so-called post-racial era where racism and antisemitism is relegated to the fringes. Well, let’s wake up to the reality of 2019. Ilhan Omar, a freshwoman Member of Congress from Minnesota, posted a series of tweets suggesting that the United States only supports Israel because of Jewish money and AIPAC. Her statements invoke tired, anti-Semitic tropes implying that Jewish money and involvement in the political system is invalid and illegitimate.

These words are not coming from some outlier on a fringe website. This is coming from a United States Congresswoman whose salary is funded by American taxpayers. This comes on the heels of a previous statement in which she accused Israel of hypnotizing the world. Then there is Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American freshwoman Member of Congress from Michigan, who is openly advocating for a one-state solution to Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
In case you were wondering, she’s not suggesting it should be Israel. AIPAC has been successful in organizing trips to Israel for freshman members of Congress so they could see the situation first hand. These trips have resulted in significant support for Israel’s security as American lawmakers saw firsthand how vulnerable the security in Israel is in real-time. Now Congresswoman Tlaib is planning to bring a congressional delegation of freshman lawmakers to the West Bank and also said she backs the boycott, divest and sanctions (BDS) movement. Just as an added bonus, Ms. Tlaib said that she may want to take the congressional delegation to Beit Ur al-Foqa a village in the West Bank, where her grandmother lives.

Historically, the United States Congress has been overwhelmingly Pro-Israel in a strong bipartisan way. The question is, are we beginning to see cracks in the armor or is this just an anomaly? That remains to be seen, but I don’t think we have the luxury of pretending that we can ride out the storm.
These members of Congress did not arrive there in a vacuum. They were voted in by constituents that supported their policies. The most effective way for us to combat them is for our voice to be amplified in Washington to our elected officials. They need to hear from us preferably in person that as our congressman and senators we expect them to continue supporting the United States Israel alliance. No better organization does this than AIPAC, and there is no better place for this gathering than the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C.
This is an opportunity for you to join the largest Pro Israel coalition in the country and we will let our lawmakers know in a loud voice that we will not be silent in support of Israel and we cannot accept the recent comments of the freshwomen members of Congress as the new normal. The dates for the Policy Conference are March 24-26, and I am honored to once again lead the Etz Chaim Synagogue delegation up to our nation's capital. Our generation is blessed with the extraordinary gift of being able to advocate in front of the highest offices of the land. Let’s appreciate this gift and use it wisely.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Ultimate Gratitude

America had a Super Bowl to watch this week. It appeared that in addition to the game being quite a yawner, the country is experiencing an acute condition of New England Patriots fatigue. I mean how many Super Bowls can they just keep on winning? In the 11 years of my son's life, the Patriots have been in the Super Bowl a mere six times since 2007! That’s over half his life! Not to mention there have only been 53 Super Bowls in history and the Pats have been in nine Super Bowls!

America got to view another big show, and this one took place in the political theater United States Congress as it hosted President Trump to deliver the State of the Union address. The address was interrupted many times with thunderous applause as some people really liked what they heard. Others sat grim-faced as they were attending the saddest event and couldn’t wait to leave. It is beyond the scope of this space for me to weigh in on any political declaration or policy decision that was announced that evening. However, I was intrigued and captivated by the attention given to the Holocaust survivors invited to be in the audience that evening. As we are painfully aware, the survivors are fading quickly and very soon there won’t be any left among the living. So a recognition in such an arena by the leader of the Free World was quite compelling. This is an excerpt of his remarks: “ Tonight, we are also joined by Pittsburgh survivor Judah Samet. He arrived at the synagogue as the massacre began. But not only did Judah narrowly escape death last fall -- more than seven decades ago, he narrowly survived the Nazi concentration camps. Today is Judah's 81st birthday. Judah says he can still remember the exact moment, nearly 75 years ago, after 10 months in a concentration camp, when he and his family were put on a train and told they were going to another camp. Suddenly the train screeched to a halt. A soldier appeared. Judah's family braced for the worst. Then, his father cried out with joy: "It's the Americans."
A second Holocaust survivor who is here tonight, Joshua Kaufman, was a prisoner at Dachau Concentration Camp. He remembers watching through a hole in the wall of a cattle car as American soldiers rolled in with tanks. "To me," Joshua recalls, "the American soldiers were proof that G-d exists, and they came down from the sky."
I began this evening by honoring three soldiers who fought on D-Day in the Second World War. One of them was Herman Zeitchik. But there is more to Herman's story. A year after he stormed the beaches of Normandy, Herman was one of those American soldiers who helped liberate Dachau. He was one of the Americans who helped rescue Joshua from that hell on earth. Almost 75 years later, Herman and Joshua are both together in the gallery tonight -- seated side-by-side, here in the home of American freedom. Herman and Joshua: your presence this evening honors and uplifts our entire Nation.
When American soldiers set out beneath the dark skies over the English Channel in the early hours of D-Day, 1944, they were just young men of 18 and 19, hurtling on fragile landing craft toward the most momentous battle in the history of war.
They did not know if they would survive the hour. They did not know if they would grow old. But they knew that America had to prevail. Their cause was this Nation, and generations yet unborn.”
Why did they do it? They did it for America -- they did it for us.”
One of the fundamental values of Judaism is gratitude. In the mid-1940s it seemed quite possible that Nazi Germany might prevail and kill every Jew it could reach. It stated goals was to destroy the Free World. The only thing standing in their way was the allied soldiers. Over 400,000 American Soldiers gave their lives and made the ultimate sacrifice so the Jewish people can live to see another day. With all partisan gridlock and the deepening divide in our nation's capital, it was heartwarming to see such a warm bi partisan reaction of the President's recognition to the liberation of the Holocaust survivors on an ordinary Tuesday evening in February.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Does G-d Believe in Me?

The main event is finally here. The giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai from G-d to the Jewish people is a most compelling narrative found in this weeks parsha. Arguably, this is the most crucial passage in the Torah in which G-d communicates His divine message and challenge to mere mortal beings about how to live a life with more meaning and purpose. This was quite unique in terms of this being a national experience in which millions of men, women, and children gathered at a simple mountain in a desert and heard the word of G-d, and it has penetrated the heart and soul of the Jew ever since. The highlight of the message and indeed of what is found in this weeks parsha is what is known as the Ten Commandments.

The first commandment states ”I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of the Land of Egypt from the house of slaves.” The basic understanding of this mitzvah is that one must have faith and believe in G-d. This is easier said than done as many of us are challenged with issues of faith especially when we perceive things to be unfair in life, and we have been taught that G-d rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked and the reality doesn’t always reflect that. Furthermore, the mitzvah/commandment appears to be quite top down in the sense of you must believe in Me. As we know in matters of faith, it is not always so simple to believe in G-d, and many people struggle with G-d and Judaism on various levels.

There is an insight I have heard from the rabbis that sheds a whole new light on this first mitzvah/commandment. G-d is saying I am the one who took you out of Egypt from the house of slaves. It’s interesting that from all of His accomplishments and contributions for the benefit of mankind, it is the emancipation from the house of slavery that was selected. Furthermore, the biblical commentaries highlight the fact that the Hebrew grammar suggests that G-d is addressing the individual and not the masses. The rabbis concluded a fundamental lesson from here, and that is that G-d is addressing the individual and saying “I am the Lord your G-d” who saved you from your oppressive situation. While we may not be in Egypt in a geographical sense, we all experience stressful and even oppressive situations. For some of us, it may be financial, health issues or family dynamics. These matters take an increasing toll on us, and we wonder when G-d will come through for us. That is precisely the message of the first mitzvah/commandment. G-d is telling each and every individual, I am not a G-d who dwells up high and is disconnected but rather I am listening to you in your dire situation, and I will take you out of that stressful situation. The reality is that the first mitzvah/commandment is teaching us something far more compelling than for us to believe in G-d. It’s teaching us that G-d believes in us, understands our challenges and will lift us up from these difficulties.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Is There Manna In Our Generation?

We live in times in which conventional realities have been turned upside down. It has been pretty much a given that someone's employment was more secure in the public sector than in the private sector. A job that one has in a company in the corporate world is frequently vulnerable and may be subject to layoffs that can be caused by a variety of headwinds in the climate of Wall Street and Main Street. On the other hand, a job in the public sector has been associated with stable pay, generous benefits and lucrative pensions. Well, that narrative has flipped with the most recent shutdown of our federal government. Regardless, of one's personal political views, the shutdown is a harsh reality for many employees of the federal government. The number of federal employees working without pay stands at about 450,000 -- but that number could top half a million in the coming days, as the government continues to recall tens of thousands of workers after almost four weeks of shuttered doors at vital agencies. Additionally, there are far-reaching consequences that are affecting other areas of the economy. For example, people that had qualified for small business loans are now being put on hold since the Small Business Administration has stopped approving routine small business loans that the agency backs to ensure individuals have access to much needed funds. This compounds the anxiety one can have about earning an adequate salary to pay all the bills and can be rather debilitating at times. With the cost of living rising annually and our paychecks not keeping up with that pace, it continues to weigh on our minds in all hours of the day and night. Not to mention the costs of the Orthodox Jewish family that include the high cost of Jewish Day School tuition and kosher food!! I believe the lesson of the manna in this weeks parsha should provide us some cause for reflection. The Jewish people were at their wits end. After all, they were in the desert, and they did not have any food to eat. That’s millions of men women and children without a morsel! That must have been one unhappy kiddush! The next morning, Moshe told them to go outside, and G-d would deliver the manna, and it was waiting for them outside their tents. They were in disbelief as they saw the Manna falling from heaven! One might say, how is that story that took place over 3,300 years ago relevant today? Is there manna falling from heaven in 2019? How exactly do we see the hand of G-d today in the grind of the daily economy? I believe we have to open our eyes. G-d keeps on opening new opportunities for the world which was unheard just several decades ago. It may not be the actual manna, but He is the ultimate provider and will continue to provide new avenues of growth for humanity which will include new opportunities for revenue. There are burgeoning industries that are employing millions of people. For example, the tech industry in the United States alone employs several million people. Amazon itself is employing over half a million people in the United States. Every generation experiences a different form of Manna. It has varied in shape, sizes, and color over the years. In the not uncommon moments of economic anxiety, it would be worth recalling who delivers parnassa for every generation.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Thoughts at the Inauguration


I was honored to be invited to the inauguration of our new Governor Ron DeSantis this week in Tallahassee. Additionally, this was the inauguration of the Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Chief Financial Officer, and Agriculture Commissioner. I traveled to our state's capital on Tuesday with my son Yehoshua for this occasion. There were a few shul members there as well. Of course, much pomp and ceremony was surrounding the affair, but there were a couple of thoughts that I was reflecting on as I was participating in the inauguration that day.



We are living in a period of hyper-partisanship, and our state's race for governor was not immune from it. There was a lot of negativity and low points throughout the campaign. The election itself was very close with one candidate able to eke out a narrow victory. The remarkable thing about our democracy is that following the election, we can have a peaceful transition of power. Despite the political differences that we may have we are blessed to live in a state and country in which we can transition from one president to another and one governor to another without any violence or military uprising. That cannot be said for many other parts of the world in which rival political factions frequently descend into rioting in the streets or even civil war. This point was not lost on me as I watched from a few feet away as I saw our new governor place his hand on the Bible and swear that he will support, protect, and defend the Constitution and Government of the United States and the State of Florida.



Another significant moment at the inauguration not only for all Floridians but for all Jewish Floridians was the oath of office taken for Agriculture Commissioner by Nikki Fried. The oath taken by Nikki Fried was on the oldest Hebrew Bible in the United States which is currently housed in the library of the University of Florida. Nikki Fried, the first Jewish woman to serve in the post in the Sunshine State, called the University of Florida, her alma mater, to ask if there was a special Bible she could use for the occasion. Well, she was in luck since the library at UF owns a two-volume Hebrew Bible dating to 1814, one of about 100 remaining that were published in Philadelphia that year using fonts from an older edition printed in Amsterdam. The first volume contains the Torah, and the second includes the remaining 19 books of the Prophets. So on a gloriously sunny morning at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fried laid her hand on the Tanach and took the oath of office. I couldn’t help but feel how proud and fortunate we are to be living in this great country and state. Our people have suffered for so many thousands of years in many countries and were not able to advance politically or have religious freedom. Let us not take this blessing that our generation has for granted.



Have a great Shabbos,



Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Responsibility of the Gift



The greatest gift of our generation that the Jewish people have experienced has arguably been the rebirth of Jewish life in its ancestral homeland. The population in the land of Israel currently stands at about 8.5 million of which well over 6 million people are Jews. Besides all the modern advances the modern Jewish state has made in areas of medicine, science and hi-tech, it has one of the advanced militaries in the world. There has been a spiritual rebirth in the land as well. There are more people studying Torah and davening in the Land of Israel for the first time in over two thousand years. Our people have prayed for a return to Zion for thousands of years and it is being realized in our lifetime. Of course, we continue to pray for the complete redemption with the arrival of the Mashiach and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. But for now, we are grateful to G-d for the special gift of the Land of Israel and our ability to access the land.



Sadly, the legitimate presence of the Jewish people to its ancestral homeland continued to get challenged and contested. The so-called “international community” frequently condemns the ability of Jews to purchase or build homes. It is noteworthy that it was considered a news item that the Israeli government approved a new Jewish neighborhood inChevron. The government approved for the construction of 31 homes, two kindergartens, a daycare center and a public park in the Hezekiah Quarter of Chevron. This was followed by a blanket condemnation by much of the world. Some Jewish organizations joined the opportunity to condemn the action of homes and day care center going up in a residential neighborhood. Indeed, there was a leader of a high profile Jewish organization that was invited to speak at the United Nations Security Council to condemn the building of residential areas in certain parts of Israel.



With all this in the background, it is important to recall the commentary of the first Rashi in the Torah. He writes that the primary purpose of studying the book of Bereishis/Genesis is to teach about the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel. In this weeks parsha, we study that G-d promised our ancestor Avraham that this land will belong to his decsendants. Immediately afterwards we find that he called out in the name of G-d. Our rabbis have taught that Avraham lived his life as an ambassador for G-d. the conduct and everyday dealings of Avraham reflected Godliness and people were eager to connect with G-d because Avraham was such a great role model. This drives home an important lesson that we know of but need to remind ourselves periodically. With privileges come responsibilities. The privilege of living in the Land of Israel comes with the responsibility of being the most effective ambassadors for Hashem. Let us pray that our generation lives up to this great challenge.



Saturday, July 14, 2018

Is this an Appropriate after a Terrible Tragedy?


As we approach Tisha B’av once again it is important to recall and reflect on what tragic events occurred on this day. One of the calamities that occurred was the fall of Beitar. It is not a really well known story, so it’s important to review what occurred.

Following the destruction of the Temple, there were remnants of Jews throughout Israel and waged a rebellion against the Roman Occupation. After many years of hostility and oppression, the Jews were led by a dynamic and heroic leader who managed to keep the mighty Roman Army at bay for nearly three years.

Bar Kochba organized a large guerilla army and succeeded in actually throwing the Romans out of Jerusalem and Israel and establishing, albeit for a very brief period, an independent Jewish state. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 97b) states that he established an independent kingdom that lasted for two and half years.



At the time, however, Bar Kochba ― who was a man of tremendous leadership abilities ― managed to unite the entire Jewish people around him. Bar Kochba initially was effective in uniting the factions and the Jews were a force to be reckoned with. They overran the Romans, threw them out of the land of Israel, declared independence and even minted coins. The Romans pushed back and began to supress the Jewish rebellion. Bar Kochba made his final stand in the city of Betar, which is to the southwest of Jerusalem. You can go visit it today, thought ancient Betar has not been excavated. The Talmud (in Gittin 57a) relates what happened in Betar:



They had the custom in Betar that when a baby boy was born they planted a cedar tree and for a baby girl they planted a pine tree, and when they would marry they would cut them down and make a marriage canopy of the branches. One day the daughter of Caesar was passing and the shaft of her litter broke. They cut down a cedar and brought it to her. The Jews of Betar fell upon them and beat them. They reported to Caesar that the Jews were rebelling and marched against them... they killed [Jewish] men, women and children until their blood flowed into the Mediterranean Sea... It was taught that for seven years the gentiles cultivated their vineyards with the blood of Israel without requiring manure for fertilization.

The city fell on the saddest day in the Jewish calendar ― the 9th of Av of the year 135, the same date as both the First and the Second Temple fell.

The Romans, in their fury, did not want to allow the Jewish bodies to be buried; they wanted to leave them out in the open to rot. According to tradition, the bodies lay in the open for months but did not rot. Today, when Jews say the Grace after Meals, Birkat HaMazon, they add a special blessing (ha tov u'mativ) as a way of thanking God for this act of mercy in Betar.



Many have wondered about the appropriateness of the blessing of Hatov U’mativ which literally means that G-d is good and bestows good. True, the bodies didn't compose after so many Jew were killed in the battlefield at the hands of the Romans. However, it was a gruesome defeat which was the final nail in the coffin that the Romans nailed in and pretty much wiped out the Jewish presence from the Land of Israel for many hundreds of years. Is this the time to start praising G-d for being good and bestowing kindness??



The Meshech Cochma provides a fascinating insight into this. After the defeat of Bar Kochba and the Jews in Beitar, the obituary on Klal Yisroel was being circulated throughout the world. After all, the mighty Roman Empire had destroyed the mighty Jewish Temple and displaced the Jews into exile. The last hurrah that was waged by Bar Kochba in Beitar was squashed and there was simply no way that Jews would have any future. It seemed that G-d had finally abandoned the Jews and we would be relegated into the dustbin of history. Sometime later when they noticed the bodies didn’t decompose after several months, they realized there was a larger message beyond this specific incident. It was a sign from G-d in arguably the darkest chapter of Jewish history, that despite the terrible defeat and destruction, the Jewish people would continue to endure and see brighter days ahead. That is the deeper message of this blessing of HaTov U’mativ.



A Call For Advocacy

This narrative was not supposed to happen in America in 2019. It may be happening in other dark places in the world but certainly not in the...