Friday, April 28, 2023

Israel at 75

"Palestine is desolate and unlovely. And why should it be otherwise? Can the curse of the Deity beautify a land? Palestine is no more of this work-day world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition – it is dream-land. The further we went the hotter the sun got, and the more rocky and bare, repulsive and dreary the landscape became…There was hardly a tree or a shrub any where. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country". Mark Twain , Innocents Abroad, 1867 כֹּה אָמַר יְיָ צְבָאוֹת עֹד יֵשְׁבוּ זְקֵנִים וּזְקֵנוֹת בִּרְחֹבוֹת יְרוּשָׁלָ ִם וְאִישׁ מִשְׁעַנְתּוֹ בְּיָדוֹ מֵרֹב יָמִים: וּרְחֹבוֹת הָעִיר יִמָּלְאוּ יְלָדִים וִילָדוֹת מְשַׂחֲקִים בִּרְחֹבֹתֶיהָ: There shall yet be old men and old women sitting in the broad places of Jerusalem, every man with his staff in his hand for every age. And the broad places of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the broad places thereof. (Zecharia 8:4) The description from Mark Twain about the Land of Israel referred to as Palestine, provides us with a snapshot of how Israel looked a mere 150 years ago. Then, it was desolate, depressing and projected the feeling of an abandoned country. It is with that context that one can appreciate the prophecy of Zecharia, who declared thousands of years ago that we, as a people, would return to our homeland after being in exile for a prolonged period. The mere thought of ever returning to our land, let alone having children playing in the streets, was sheer fantasy. The fantasy of the past has turned into the reality of today. Regardless of anyone's views on Zionism and how it intersects with the coming of the Mashiach, one cannot deny the modern-day miracle of the Jewish People returning to their ancient homeland. A hundred years ago, in 1922, there were under 84,000 Jews living in the Land of Israel. Today in 2023, there are over 7 million Jews in Israel!! Considering the entire Jewish population in the world is just about 15 million, Israel currently has more than half of the global Jewish population. The number of Jews worldwide, including in the United States, continue to decline for various reasons, and assimilation is the most prominent factor. The numbers in Israel continue to grow in the opposite direction as more and more Jews worldwide are finding their way back to their ancestral homeland. On a spiritual level, it is estimated today that there are over 3000 yeshivas or centers for advanced Jewish learning. The Mir Yeshiva alone has over 9,200 students and over 800 students in its largest daily shiur. In addition, there are countless shuls and minyan factories in every city, town, and neighborhood. The proliferation of Judaism and Jewish life is nothing less than breathtaking and miraculous. Recent events have highlighted the divisions that exist within Israeli society over proposed judicial reforms. No doubt, this is unsettling as people tend to focus on issues that divide one another and not the things that unite us. The Achilles heel of the Jewish People has been our inability to focus on the things that unite us. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail and this controversy works itself out without too much collateral damage. Another thing to ponder is that while one cannot be naive about some tension and controversy between religious and secular factions in Israel, it's important to note the universal Jewish character of the modern Jewish state. For example, El Al does not fly on Shabbos or Yom Tov since it was state-owned for years, and the state prohibited it from operating on these holy days. Now, that is many days to give up revenue and forfeit customers to your competition. A company or country can only do that if they have values; in this case, there is a country that has a value for Shabbos. I am sure someone will be able to point out many unsavory things about the Israeli government and establishment. Still, on this particular day, I am forever grateful to G-d for increasing the Jewish population in Eretz Yisroel from 84,000 to 7 million in the last century and for bringing His children home. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, April 21, 2023

A Win for Jewish Education in Florida

With a steady diet of depressing events in our daily news feed, we have become worn out and disillusioned. As the global village shrinks, we hear about painful and tragic events more quickly. There is also a near disbelief that anything positive and helpful can emerge from any government entity. With all that in the background, I think a really historic and positive event for the Jews living in Florida may have been overlooked. I am, of course, referring to the recently passed Universal School Choice that was passed this month by a majority in the Florida House and Senate and signed into law by the Governor. Starting this coming school year, Florida students in K-12 schools will be eligible to receive approximately $8,000 to use towards tuition and other educational expenses, with no income eligibility requirements. Regardless of anyone’s political leanings or philosophies, the elected officials, including the Governor, deserve our gratitude for this seismic change for Jewish living in Florida. The significance of this development and its impact on our community cannot be overstated. As one of the biggest challenges in modern American Jewish life is the affordability of Jewish Day School tuition, this law will go a long way in mitigating this near crisis for any family that desires a Jewish education. Jacksonville is known for many quality public schools that are free of charge to any student. It’s hard for any school to compete with a product offered for free by a competitor. It’s not unusual for an Orthodox Jewish family with just a few children to spend over $50,000 (after-tax dollars) per year on private school tuition. It’s also important to note that it costs more to educate a student than even full tuition paid by some parents. Most Jewish schools in Florida invest at least $15,000 per student; in many schools, even full tuition does not cover that expense. This results in large deficits at the outset of the school year and puts enormous pressure on the fundraising infrastructure of the Jewish schools. While the passage of Universal School Choice will not solve every financial issue related to Jewish school affordability, it will go a long way to assisting families and our schools statewide. It will no longer be an option for someone to choose not to send their children to a Jewish school because of affordability. In an era of increasing challenges on the macro and micro levels, it’s essential to pause and celebrate this victory for our community. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, April 14, 2023

Why Keep Kosher

Hey Rabbi, I'm in Trader Joe's, and I see they just got this new cool organic seaweed product, and it's all the rage on Twitter. The only thing is that it has a Hechsher that appears to be the Vaad of the Mariana Islands. I researched it online, and there is a mixed review on the acceptability of the symbol. Please advise.  This question is (more or less) a fairly common one that I receive at least weekly. Gone are the days when kosher certification meant looking at several Manischewitz products in the local supermarket aisle. The OU (Orthodox Union) Kosher itself is the world's largest and most widely recognized kosher certifying agency, with over 1,261,754 products produced in more than 3,000 plants located in 103 countries around the world. That is just one kosher certifying agency in the world! There are dozens of agencies all over the world, including our very own Gesher K agency based in Jacksonville. One can now find a gourmet kosher meal on par with any cuisine in any space, from the Whitehouse to the most elegant restaurant and cruiseliner. The prominent publication of The Wine Spectator routinely lists Israeli (kosher) wine as some of the top 100 wines in the world! As the kosher industry continues to advance more than ever, it's important to pause and reflect on the true nature of the reason to adhere to Kosher dietary observances.  This week's Parsha provides an insight into this fundamental aspect of observant Jewish life.  כִּ֣י ׀ אֲנִ֣י ה' הַֽמַּעֲלֶ֤ה אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִהְיֹ֥ת לָכֶ֖ם לֵאלֹהִ֑ים וִהְיִיתֶ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים כִּ֥י קָד֖וֹשׁ אָֽנִי׃  For I am Hashem, the One who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy. In essence, the reason to maintain a Kosher diet is for us to retain our holy spirit within us. As the Rabbis explain, just as foods have physical properties, they also have spiritual properties. The physical properties can be viewed in a lab: calories, fat, carbs, etc. The spiritual properties cannot be viewed in a lab but are nonetheless present. The spiritual properties that are productive and conducive to spiritual growth are referred to in the Torah as "Tahor." The spiritual properties that are corrosive and toxic to our spiritual growth are referred to as tamei or impure. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato writes in his famed Mesilas Yesharim the consequences of not adhering to kosher dietary laws: "The forbidden foods bring spiritual contamination in a person's heart and soul so that the holiness of G-d, blessed be He, departs and withdraws from him".  The next time you are strolling down the aisle in your local grocery store and you out a product with a kosher symbol in the cart, you are not just doing a mitzvah. Instead, you declare within yourself a desire to be holy. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Most Destructive Word in the English Language

I have always been intrigued by the “word of the year.” This last year of 2023, Merriam Webster designated “authentic” as the WOTY (word of ...