Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Supporting Israel with Operation Embrace

I have had the privilege of spending the last 3 days in Israel visiting many people affected during the recent hostilities with Hamas and Operation Pillar of Defense.   I was joined by a delegation of Rabbis and Spiritual Leaders from the International Rabbinic Fellowship, YCT Rabbinical School, Yeshivat Maharat, and Machon Hadar. Below is a description of what we've been doing.  Days 1 and 2 were written by my colleague, Rabbi Uri Topolosky and Day 3 by myself.  I will be adding reflections later to these accounts:

Day 1

Today I joined a coalition of Rabbis and spiritual leaders on a three day solidarity mission to Israel. The group included participants from the International Rabbinic Fellowship (Rabbis Joel Tessler, Jason Herman, Aryeh Leifert, Uri Topolosky, Yair Silverman, Seth Farber, Asher Lopatin), Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (Noah Leavitt), Machon Hadar (Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, Avital Campbell Hochstein), and Yeshivat Maharat (Victoria Sutton). The following are notes from the first day of the mission:

10:30AM: We embark from Ben Gurion Airport with our holy driver Yigal.

11:30AM: We arrive in Netivot at the home of Aviva and Eliyahu Shitrit, approximately 15 miles from Gaza. In August 2011, The Shitrit family ran from their car during an air raid siren. The Iron Dome succeeded in intercepting 4 out of 5 of the missiles, but a fifth Kassam fell 5 meters away from the family inflicting extensive shrapnel wounds, especially their 21 year old daughter Adael Leah. In these attacks, we often forget about the wounded who survive but with life-long we injuries and trauma. During the recent war, the family was not able to stay at home due to extensive PTSD reactions. We met Michal, who facilitates Operation Embrace as a social worker and who helped arrange a hotel stay for the family during the attacks. As we left their home, Eliyahu pointed out the gaping shrapnel hole in the side of their car, which was over 150 meters away from the rocket attack.
 We then went to a ruined home at 127 Jerusalem St where a man survived a direct hit on his home by closing himself into his bathroom.
Just a couple blocks away saw a recently paved hole in the street where a Kassam landed, as well as the shrapnel marks scarring the side of the neighboring apartment building and home.
From there we visited Shimon and Maayan Zaguri. Shimon is a firefighter and was putting out a fire near Israeli troops when a small caliber mortar shell sliced through his ear and the side of his face just a week before. Shimon also shared with me how he was in Florida during Hurricane Katrina. Shimon was in remarkable spirits, counting his blessings, but also shared with us the financial stresses that are mounting due to his recovery and the delay in receiving government aid. They also shared their family's connection with the revered Baba Sali, who is buried in Netivot – Shimon's father was the Baba Sali's personal driver for 5 years. We went from there to daven at the Baba Sali's grave.

3:00PM: We arrive in Sederot at the home of the Shadedi family, just 3 kilometers from Gaza. On November 11, a day before Israel began its recent war, a katusha rocket came through the bedroom of their 22 year old daughter Shedef. In the ensuing weeks, they were unable to fix the gaping hole in the roof due to the constant air raid sirens and occasional rain. Shedef's mother said to us, "We are still in post-trauma and now new trauma!" Shedef shared how difficult it will be to return to her bedroom. "I will never get this image [of the hole] out of my head." She has been sleeping with her parents in the living room for the past couple of weeks.

We also visited with Berta Ohana, a mother of six grown children, who was in her car with her husband when they sustained a direct hit from a rocket fired from Gaza on November 11. We noticed large cracks all along her living room walls, but she said to us, "Rockets have fallen all around us, but that's OK. But when it hit the car, that was terrifying…" It took many soldiers to pry them out of their car. Berta and her husband have been in and out of the hospital with several surgeries and procedures to close the wounds on the heads and bodies. Their children have constantly been by their side. I gave Berta's son Snir, who is entering the army this week, a card written by our son Elyon wishing him luck, success and prayers for a speedy return home.

Our final stop in Sederot was to the JNF Indoor Playground, an large, bomb—shielded space with play equipment for all ages, party rooms, a computer lab, and a children's counseling center.
6:00PM: We arrive in Beer Sheva at the home of Andy and Emily Shapiro Katz for dinner with members of the recently formed Kehillat Be'erot. We listened to a number of young couples, mostly Anglos, talking about their decisions to move to Beer Sheva, their experiences during the rocket attacks, and the powerful sense of community they have found at Kehillat Be'erot. Andy half-joked with us that a rocket seems to land every time his in-laws come for a visit, which was his way of talking about the challenges of being so far from family and old friends during these trying times. One of the young women left us with this thought: "Here in Beer Sheva, we have come to realize how much we are needed. One of our goals is to ask ourselves, 'In what ways can we serve our community?'"

9:00PM: We end a long day with hot soup and stimulating conversation with Rabbi Ronen and Rabbanit Dr. Penina Neuwirth at their home in Rana'ana. They are the founders of Beit Hillel, and innovative Beit Midrash – in person and online, seeking to develop attentive male and female spiritual leadership for the larger Israeli public.

11:00PM: We daven Maariv at a local shul and head to the Tessler's home in Rana'ana for some much needed rest… until tomorrow.

Day 2

Today was day two of our Rabbinic Solidarity Mission to Israel and it was no less intense than the first. Our day began in Rana’ana with morning minyan and then breakfast featuring a bunch of Rabbis cooking different style omelets. Alas, this Israeli home had no Tabasco sauce…

11:00AM: We arrived at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon. We first met David Rachamin and his wife Miriam. A couple of weeks ago, a Grad rocket landed six meters away from him and he lost his right leg. Amazingly, only a couple of us in the group realized the extent of his injuries because he greeted us sitting up in a wheelchair, in a long hospital gown, with a gentle grin and an incredibly optimistic spirit. Every few minutes he would cry out, “Todah LaEl – Thanks to God!” He saw his loss only as a gift from God that he survived. He also shared with us that this was the third rocket God had spared him from – the first flew just over his head moments after he had moved his tractor into a ditch he was digging; the second brought a building down around him while he was working in its basement, but he was left unscathed. We came to bring comfort and strength to David, but we left uplifted ourselves. He led us in a boisterous “Am Yisrael Chai” tune, waving his hands in the air and clapping with joy. “We are a strong nation!” he shouted. As we left, several members of the group were shocked to learn that he only had one leg.

We visited next with Penina Zehavi, a mother of four small children who works multiple jobs, including as a janitor at the central train station, to support her family. The terror of the kassam attacks has left her severely traumatized. During one of the air raid sirens, she panicked and pushed her way off the bus she was traveling in order to get to one of the roadside shelters. In her haste, she tripped and broke her ankle. She was sobbing when we walked into her room, crying out, “Who will take care of my children now?! Everything is on me!” And yet, she managed to draw strength and belief from a deep well within her, praising God that things were not worse, and asked us if we would sing with her an upbeat tune to “Shir HaMaalot!” A minute later, hospital staff came to move her to the ICU and she asked if we would come with us. There was one extra seat in the transport vehicle, so I hopped in with my guitar and we sang the song the whole way with a little extra help from the driver. What a sight it was for other hospital staff to see us flying by!

1:00PM: We stopped for a delicious shwarma lunch at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva to recharge after an emotional morning and then move on to Soroka Medical Center. We visited with the family of David Ivgi, a 40 year old man from Kiryat Malachi who has been in a coma for two weeks. His mother, Jaclyn, told us how he jumped from his car during an air raid siren to take cover on the roadside – this is the proper protocol when you are driving. However, another driver panicked and sped up hoping to outrace the rocket. David was accidentally struck and thrown in the air. He landed on his head, which resulted in serious brain trauma and his current comatose condition. His wife was not there when we arrived as she was out trying to take care of their two children – they have a 5 year old son and a 3 year old daughter. Our group took turns entering the ICU with protective clothing, davening at his bedside, and whispering words of support and love. As I stood by his bed, it was clear that David was a fit, strong man, but now he and his family are part of the untold story of the life-altering trauma and injury that so many Israeli families have experienced during this recent war.

Our final visit at Soroka was with Yehuda Pearsi and his father Yisrael. Yehuda is 22 years old and served in the Gavit unit. Two weeks ago, his jeep was fired upon at close range by a bazooka while patrolling the Gaza border. Yehuda was asleep when we arrived. He face is entirely covered in shrapnel wounds and his eyelids have been sewn shut. He has certainly lost one of his eyes and only time will tell if he will ever regain partial vision in the other. He also has extensive head trauma and several massive indentations on his skull from the blast. Yehuda will live, but his life is forever changed. In the past few days, he has been able to rise from bed, eat, and walk a little bit around his room. Yehuda’s has four siblings (21, 15, 9, and 7 years old). After his first visit the 15 year old told his father that he couldn’t bear coming back to see his big brother in this condition. While Yehuda was still sleeping, we held a minyan for mincha and davened by his bedside. The words of our tefillah were so alive, especially as we said the prayer for healing and peace. Afterwards, we sat around his bed and sang to the soft music I played on my guitar. We sang “Beshem HaShem” and “Shomer Yisrael”, invoking the healing power of the angels and God to watch over this young brave man who was serving our country on its front line. I asked his father if he could share with us some stories about Yehuda as a young man growing up at home. The last thing he said was, “Yehuda had so many friends…” Then he stopped himself and added, “No. Not just “had.” But will continue to have. Thank God he is alive.” We all embraced and Yehuda awoke for a few moments to say “Shalom” to us all. I left a number of letters for Yehuda that the children at our Community Day School had written – each began with the words, “Chayal HaYakar – Dearest Soldier.”

Our mission on this trip was to give strength to the many folks who have been injured and traumatized by the ongoing conflict with Hamas. We wanted to let people know that we were thinking of them and that they were not alone. We said it many times: “Am Yisrael Itchem – The Jewish People are with you.” But we go to sleep tonight realizing how much more strength each of these holy men and women have given to us. We are inspired by their courage, optimism, faith, and strength, and by the love for their country and people that shines from their faces.

May we all know peace,

 Day 3

Today, we visited Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv (formerly known as Ichilov Hospital) where we saw victims of last week's bus bombing in Tel Aviv.

Our first visit was to Eitan Feuchtwagen.  Eitan is a 14 year old boy, who studies in a special Yeshiva in Tel Aviv that integrates yeshiva learning with the arts.  Eitan has spent 3 years learning creative learning and dreams of a career behind the camera in film and television.  Eitan was miraculously saved during the bombing by his laptop.  He was wearing his laptop case over his shoulder and across the stomach.  We were shown the laptop, which appears severely burned and mangled during the blast and thus served as a shield protect Eitan's most vital organs.  Unfortunately, Eitan sustained serious damage to his leg and will need skin grafts and muscles to heal.  Eitan also had large pieces of glass from the bus windows in his eyes, yet, doctors were able to remove all the pieces without any damage to his eyes and his eyes look like those a beautiful hopeful teenager.  Despite his pain, Eitan is showing tremendous courage and bravery and like many we visited in the prior two days has shown the resilience of those living here in Israel.

We next visited Shani Schwartzman, who is a relative of Rabbi Tessler's and was also injured in the bus.  Shani is a soldier working in a military office two minutes from the hospital.  She had been sitting next to the bomber and thought he looked suspicious so got up as the bomber was leaving thus putting more distance between her and the explosive device.  Shani nearly had her arm severed in the blast, but doctors were amazingly able to reattach it.  Shani was smiling and hopeful and is another stellar example of Israel's brave and dedicated soldiers.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

To Blow A Big Shofar -- Tribute to My Rebbe, Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, shlit"a

This morning's New York Times featured a disturbing article about people in the ultra-Orthodox community who have been shunned for reporting cases of child abuse to authorities.

The article did not mention that Rabbi Rosenberg is a major Posek (halachic decisor) in the areas of Mikvaot and Hilchot Niddah.  I had the privilege of learning Hilchot Mikvaot (the laws of Mikvah construction) with Rabbi Rosenberg in the summer of 2004.  That opportunity was also a bit unusual and also speaks highly about Rabbi Rosenberg's character.

Rabbi Rosenberg is a firm believer in the importance of mikvaot.  He will fly anywhere in the world to consult on mikvah construction in a moment's notice and take no money for himself other than to cover his own expenses and the materials of the mikvah.  (He once left in the middle of shiur (class) because he got a call to go to India to build a mikvah).  So, when Rabbi Rosenberg was invited by my Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Dov Linzer to teach mikvaot at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), Rabbi Rosenberg would not decline.

A good element of the Haredi world has taken issue with YCT for being too liberal of a yeshiva and the yeshiva has been the unfortunate victim of a smear campaign in the Haredi press, particularly on the pages of Yated Neeman.  Therefore, it could not have been a popular or respected choice in the Haredi world, for a major Haredi Rav to come teach there.  But, Rabbi Rosenberg felt that making sure young new Rabbis understood the intricate laws of building mikvahs and spreading mikvah observance was more important than Orthodox politics.  He did what was right despite being unpopular.

It didn't end there.  The Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Linzer asked Rabbi Rosenberg if he would mind if Rabbi Linzer's wife, Devorah Zlochower joined in the shiur.  In Rabbi Rosenberg's world, women are not typically engaged in high level of Torah learning, and Haredi Poskim would not teach women halacha using the primary sources of Talmud and the Tur and Beit Yosef.  While Rabbi Rosenberg had never considered teaching women before, he reasoned this time -- if having a woman in the class would lead to better constructed mikvahs and more mikvah observance, then he would even allow women in the class.  A major step for his world -- but the right thing to do.

The class in Mikvaot only lasted 3 weeks, but throughout those three weeks, Rabbi Rosenberg was not only a brilliant teacher to learn from, but was also respectful and happy to learn from our perspectives despite having a very different religious outlook and background.

In describing specific mikvahs as case studies, Rabbi Rosenberg was so careful not to give any identifying information about the city a mikvah was located in so as not to speak lashon hara or cause unnecessary suspicions about the kashrut of a community's mikvah.

That fact speaks to the power of one case where Rabbi Rosenberg was involved in a dispute with a local Rabbi about a problem that needed to be fixed in the local mikvah.  Rabbi Rosenberg told the Rabbi that if he didn't fix it, that he (Rabbi Rosenberg) had a big shofar and would blow it to let everyone know of the problem.  At the time it sounded a bit extreme (and somewhat comical).

I have known for some years now about Rabbi Rosenberg's outspokenness on the issue of abuse in the Hardei community -- but I was not aware of the extent that his lead on this issue has come at great personal cost to himself.

Rabbi Rosenberg's videos on the subject can be seen here --

In one video he describes how his community has called him a "snake" and left him with very few places to daven.

I am proud that Rabbi Rosenberg has again stood up for what is right and not what is popular.  He has blown his big shofar to let not just his community know -- but to let the world know and for all the right reasons.

We read in Pirkei Avot, that in spite of only learning two things from Achitofel, David Hamelech calls him his Rebbi.  I only spent three weeks learning under Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, but I am still inspired by his constant motivation to speak out for and do what is right in the face of really tough opposition.  As such, I remain proud to call him Rebbi Umori Alufi Umeyudaii.

I will conclude saying that as a gift for a semicha, YCT presented our class with a big shofar.  Mine sits on my shelf and I blow it on some Rosh Hashanas.  I hope to learn from Rabbi Rosenberg's example to blow my big shofar and let the world hear it's call for justice and righteousness!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Investment Banker Turned Rabbi Reflects on Occupy Wall Street

In the last 3 weeks, I have been to downtown to see the Occupy Wall Street protest twice to see what it was all about. I have seen countless friends and colleagues write and post about it and how it moved them. I watched an inspirational video of the large Kol Nidre service across the street from the protest.

However, while I can certainly appreciate people's frustration and the actions taken to make a better world, having worked on Wall Street as an investment banker for 2 years something felt very wrong. The tone of the signs, the messages of many videos online I felt vilified me and many of my former colleagues. The protests don't single out specific practices on Wall Street, but that the entire industry is an oligarchical tyranny ruining America. I thought back to my years on the Street and tried to think about what I did day in and day out for 2 years, was it really evil? Was it greed? Was it destructive to society at large?

Even though it is been 10 years since I left Wall Street and entered a profession that forces me to think often about moral issues, I concluded the answer to those questions was a resounding No.

And so, I want to write about what I did on Wall Street as an open letter for those supporting OWS to elicit a response as to what was wrong with what I did and if nothing why vilify lots of good people?

So, here is what I did on Wall Street and I'll let others comment if it was wrong, immoral or greedy?

I advised those in the mortgage servicing industry on hedge positions, mergers and acquisitions and valuations.

To explain in more detail what that means, I want to briefly explain a bit of history of the mortgage servicing industry and what the tasks I was performing accomplished and how it benefited the greater society.

When a bank makes a mortgage loan, they sell the loan in the secondary mortgage market to investors like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, etc. They also sell the right to service the loan to a servicing company. The servicing company does all the work for the loan going forward. They send the bills, collect the mortgage payment, they pay the taxes and insurance on the property, pass the payment onto the investor. They are responsible for foreclosures, collecting late fees, etc. In exchange, they get paid a service fee (usually between .25% and .75%) and keep any ancillary fees.

Servicing used to be done by small mom and pop shops operating in small suburban offices employing clerical middle class office employees.

That was until the mid-90s when the Financial Accounting Standards Board changed the accounting regulations for mortgage servicing in 1995 and 1996 with FAS 122 and FAS 125. What those regulations said was the mortgage servicers needed to account for the market value of their servicing rights. Here is what that basically means -- they need to list as their assets the value of the right to service their loans and if that value goes up or down they need to change the value on their books and recognize the gain or loss as income or a loss. But here's what happens, when interest rates go down, there is an incentive for people to refinance and pay off their old loan. If the loan is paid off, there is no more servicing right. What the new accounting law meant was that every time interest rates went down, services would have to show that they lost money even if people never actually paid off their loan.

Most mom and pop shops couldn't deal with it. They kept reporting losses as interest rates fell and were going out of business. Here entered the big commercial banks who had the sophistication to deal with this risk. They would buy offsetting financial instruments whose value go up when interest rates fell. Hence they hedged the risk of the value of their servicing rights declining.

My firm was hired by these commercial banks to advise them on which financial products to buy to hedge those risks. My job -- to crunch the numbers on the servicing rights and the hedges.

Furthermore, the accounting rules later mandated that companies prove the value of their hedges correlated to the actual value of servicing rights. My firm would help companies demonstrate this.

If we hadn't done this, servicers would go out of business. If there is no mortgage servicing, there would be no mortgages -- and people couldn't buy homes.

Still, mortgage servicing was still a losing business given all new accounting rules, and only a few companies felt they could go into it by building large economies of scale and hence there was a lot of mergers between servicing companies.

Again, we were hired to advise a fair price to either buy or sell a mortgage servicing company so that the buyer or seller would be paying or getting the appropriate price.

For me, this was an honest job. I went to work on time, tried to give the best advice to the firm's clients that was accurate, convincing and honest. For my work, I received a flat salary which while I am not allowed to disclose, I will say was a very middle class salary and not something that would even come close to what OWS calls the 1%. If the firm did well, we the employees who worked hard by providing good advice to our clients got to share in the firm's success with an annual bonus.

So, I ask those supporting OWS, what was wrong with my job?

I realize I only described one niche of what happens on Wall Street but I could talk about the value provided by many other good hard working people on the Street as well.

I can also now write how the services we provided lived up the highest of American values, and as a Rabbi Jewish values as well.

* Note -- some of the accounting rules mentioned in this post have been changed in the 10 years since I left investment banking.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Celebrating the Death of an Enemy

The killing of Osama Bin Laden this past Sunday has ignited an interesting debate among religious leaders of all faiths as to the appropriateness of celebrating the death of another human being, albeit one that was seen as evil as Bin Laden.

At the onset, I will admit that upon first hearing the news I was not only joyous but I was deeply moved and inspired by the celebratory crowds that gathered Sunday night outside the White House, in Times Square, and at Ground Zero. While I am certainly aware of many Jewish teachings that specifically admonish celebrating the downfall of our enemies, both personal and national, we do have a plethora of other sources about rejoicing when the wicked perish.

Understanding that different ideologies, experiences and tendencies might lead different people to focus on those different sides of our tradition, some of the criticism of the immediate celebrations shocked and disturbed me. Several religious leaders spoke of “cringing” at the site of celebrations and warned that we should not become like the terrorists. Really? Does anyone really believe that college students at Georgetown University singing the Star-Spangled Banner and chanting “USA! USA!” outside the White House have suddenly embarked on a dangerous road where they will then start killing indiscriminately? The suggestion is preposterous. Another religious leader commented about his distaste for the “circus like” atmosphere of these celebrations as if their favorite football team had just won the Superbowl. While both are so to speak victory celebrations, were the emotions really the same and were they really that inappropriate.

Let’s be clear, I understand where the criticism was coming from – a deep desire to preserve our mutual religious traditions’ infinite value placed on human life, and the strong importance of not dehumanizing our enemies.

With this in mind, I felt it necessary to explore as much of a Jewish approach to what is and what is not an appropriate reaction to the death of someone like Bin Laden.

As has been quoted throughout the past week, the tension can best be summed up by two apparently contradictory verses in the book of Proverbs. Proverbs 24:17 reads, “If your enemy falls, do not exult; If he trips, let your heart not rejoice.” On the other hand, we read in Proverbs 11:10 “When the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy.”

In addition to the verses, we have traditions for both reactions:

After the Egyptians drowned in the Sea of Reeds (others Red Sea), the Children of Israel sang the famous Shirat Hayam (Song of the Sea). The lyrics explicitly rejoice in the death of the Egyptians, “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he has cast into the Sea; And the pick of officers are drowned in the Sea of Reeds” (Exodus 15:4). The song continues, “They sank like lead in the majestic waters.”

Yet at the same time, we are told in the Talmud (Megilla 10b, Sanhedrin 39b) that the angels were not allowed to sing at the sea since God said, “My creatures are drowning in the sea and you want to sing.” (That statement is often given as a reason we only say half Hallel the last 6 days of Pesach despite a different reason given in Talmud Arakhin)

The prophetess Devorah sings about the death of Sisera at the hands of Yael after first describing in the song his graphic death, “At her feet he sank, lay outstretched, At her feet he sank, lay still; Where he sank, there he lay – destroyed!” (Judges 5:27) The song concludes, “So may all your enemies perish O Lord, But may His friends be as the sun rising in might” (5:31).

David sings, “I pursued my enemies and wiped them out, I did not turn my back until I destroyed them.” (2 Samuel 22:38; read as Haftara on 7th day Pesach).

And let’s look at the ultimate of “circus” celebrations – Purim – here we make noise at the very mention of the evil Haman to blot him out; we sing how cursed he was in the song “Shoshanat Yaakov” at the conclusion of Megillah, we pass out candies and other foods to our, naming sweet cookies after the enemy, and we eat, we drink, and we are merrier than any other Jewish holiday – not just for the fact that the Jews of Persia were saved, but at the very fall of Haman the wicked (see Al Hanisim for Purim). Even modern songs for Purim like to bash Haman “O once there was a wicked, wicken man and Haman was his name sir . . . If guns had been invented yet, this Haman, I would shoot sir.” – Can’t get more celebratory and gleeful than that.

And yet at the Passover Seder, we are all familiar with spilling drops of wine to show our joy is diminished because of the Egyptians who suffered during the 10 plagues.

Are these just two different sides of our tradition or is there a means of reconciling them that they really speak to one truth and there is no contradiction?

I believe our sages make several attempts at reconciliation. Some I believe are more satisfactory than others, and I will look to examine some of them.

1. Divine Vs. Human – The Talmud in Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b quotes an opinion of Rabbi Elazar (Rabbi Yossi Bar Chanina in Sanhedrin) that says God does not rejoice but others do rejoice. This statement understands the perspective that it is basically human to rejoice at the downfall of our enemies, but at the same time that we take joy, we understand that the Divine perspective is different and God does not rejoice. We should not be faulted for our celebrations, as the Children of Israel were not faulted for singing at the Sea, but we do need to take stock afterward and see God sees this from another perspective.

2. Death of Evil vs. Death of the Man – The Talmud in Sanhedrin 113b states that our Rabbis taught that when a wicked person comes into the world, anger and hatred come into the world, as it says, “Comes the wicked man, comes derision, And with the rogue, contempt.” (Proverbs 18:3). When a wicked man leaves the world, goodness comes, as it says “When the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy.” (Proverbs 11:10). When a righteous person leaves the world, evil comes, as it says, “The righteous man perishes, And no one considers; Pious men are taken away, And no one gives thought that because of evil, the righteous was taken away” (Isaiah 57:1). When a righteous person comes to the world, goodness comes to the world, as it says, “This one will provide us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands” (Genesis 5:29)

This passage reminds us that there is a more to a person, righteous and wicked, than just the person and with their coming and leaving the world, certain traits and attributes come and leave with them. With the fall of the wicked, it quotes our verse in Proverbs. One can understand perhaps from here the joy that is felt when a wicked person leaves, is the joy over the wickedness that leaves with him and the goodness that will enter the world and fill that space.

3. Jew Vs. Non-Jew – The Talmud in Megillah 16a questions celebrations over the death of Haman based on our verse “If your enemy falls, do not exult” – The Talmud answers that verse is with respect to Israel (i.e. your adversary among the Jewish people), but with respect to him it says “And you shall tread on their backs” (Deuteronomy 33:29). This one is obviously disturbing to modern ears especially to people with a more worldly outlook, but the text is there and it is one of ways our Sages sought to read the verse and so I felt the need to include it.

4. Particular Vs. Universal – Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote this week that the verse describing not to exult over the fall of your enemies refers to a personal or even national enemy – namely someone who is just fighting against you. The verse that states when the wicked perish, there is joy refers to someone who has become so evil so as to become an enemy of all of humanity. The entire essay can be read here:

5. The Need to Destroy the Wicked – The Talmud Yerushalmi in Sanhedrin 4:9 raises the possibility that people might ask, “Who are we to put to the wicked to death.” The response is our verse from Proverbs, “With the fall of the wicked there is joy.” The Jerusalem Talmud here understands the basic human hesitation against taking a life but reminds of the good that can follow and hence our obligation to do so when necessary. (This is similar to #2 above)

6. Immediate Vs. Later Reaction – While I have not found a specific source for it, I think one might consider the immediate joy when one is in the moment, as opposed to the manner in which we celebrate in the future when the event is marked with holidays and less spontaneous celebration. This would work for the Song of the Sea and our present half Hallel (again ignoring Talmud Arakhin’s reasoning) and our spilling wine at the Seder. Purim is more difficult.

Lastly, I’d like to perhaps suggest, we might even learn an additional approach from what the crowds last Sunday chose to sing and chant.

The Star Spangled Banner, sung Sunday probably just because it is our national anthem, has a history that might shed light on our dilemma. It was written by Francis Scot Key in the midst of the War of 1812. As he witnessed the destruction of war and the fearful night in Baltimore Harbor and loud explosions in the distance, Key looked up and which “bomb bursting in air” and gained hope seeing the flag still atop Fort McHenry. Perhaps what the crowds were celebrating that after seeing so much destruction, after living in so much fear and anxiety, and after engaging in a fight against someone so determined to kill us, that we are still here. We are still alive living in the land of the free.

And let’s look to chants of “USA!, USA!” – on the surface, it comes just from the cheers for the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team at Lake Placid. But that hockey victory was no ordinary victory. It came at a time when feelings in the US were low, inflation was high, the economy was in the dumps, the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan and American hostages were still being held in Iran. Then amidst it all out of nowhere, twenty American kids seemed to have done the impossible. A team of amateur and collegiate players bested the Soviet Union, whose team was composed of seasoned players that were professional in all but name only. They then went on to beat Finland for a gold medal – the impossible became possible giving us a miracle on ice.

Slightly more than thirty years later, we find ourselves in similar circumstances. Our economy is struggling to recover, gas prices are climbing, we are bogged down in three conflicts overseas, our politicians have locked ideological horns over our mounting debt, and overall people are not feeling as optimistic. And then again out of nowhere, a group of two dozen young men, not much older than the members of the 1980 US Olympic hockey, members of SEAL Team Six, achieved what was looking to be more and more impossible.

If the celebrations on the streets Sunday night were celebrating that in the face of so much challenge and adversity – we are celebrating that we as a nation are still here. If the celebrants are declaring that the impossible can become possible, then they are no circus act and are the furthest thing from becoming like our enemies.

These motifs of celebration is what I understand underlie not just Purim but Hanukkah as well. Against all odds, and in light of every attempt to destroy us, the world we seek to create endures. The impossible has become possible. And so I shall sing “Am Yisrael Chai” and chant “USA! USA!”

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Eretz Hemdah, 9 Av, Anat Hoffman, and Rotem Bill

I am sorry it has been over a week since I posted an update.

Last week, I spent the week learning at Eretz Hemdah ( Eretz Hemdah is a post-ordination kollel where the students learn for over 7 years in training to be Dayanim (Rabbinical Judges). A small group of 5 American Rabbis spent the week learning there with the current students and attending specific lectures on Jewish law related to Batei Din (religious courts). The learning was on a very high level and the classes were excellent.

Eretz Hemdah is unique for a Dayanut kollel in that almost all the students there have served in the army. Furthermore, they also have opportunities to study material that other dayanim would never typically learn. For example, while we were there, there were 2 guest lectures by Shalom Rosenberg, a philosophy professor at Hebrew University. Most dayanut kollels would never present a university professor to teach there and likely not philosophy.

Eretz Hemdah is also unique in that they publish a tremendous amount of material on halachic issues that are really contemporary and practical -- including several volumes in English.

It was really a pleasure and honor to learn there for a week (I also forgot how exhausting learning full time is).

Today is Tisha B'Av. It is a difficult day to be here and one with conflicting emotions. I had never been in Israel for Tisha B'Av before and it is a very powerful experience. It is a day of mixed emotions. On the one hand mourning the destruction of Jerusalem is very real when you can see so many remnants of ancient Jerusalem around you. It is also really powerful to be in a state of sadness with so many thousands of other people around you. Yet, it is somewhat difficult to be sad when you have the ability to mourn the destruction and exile as you walk freely in the streets of a rebuilt Jerusalem.

There is, however, something that I am seeing that has been bringing me great sadness. Our sages teach us that the second temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. This week has been one of the most divisive in recent history for the different streams in Judaism here in Israel.

Beginning last week, Anat Hoffman, the head of Women of the Wall, was arrested at the Kotel for carrying a Sefer Torah. However one feels about whether a woman should carry a sefer Torah at the kotel (there is no halachic prohibition), I think as my colleague Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld pointed out -- if any Jew man or woman were arrested by another foreign government for worshiping Judaism was s/he saw fit, there would be tremendous outrage.

I also witnessed the harassment of Progressive Jews at the kotel last night by a large group of Hareidim and Yeshivish people. What was more frightening is how much some of them seemed to enjoy harassing the Reform group and were yelling how Reform Jews need to be kicked out the country altogether.

This is against the backdrop of a fierce debate in the Knesset over a bill sponsored by Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem. The bill is intended to ease the process for conversion for more than 300,000 Russian Jews living in Israel that are not halachically Jewish. As such, the bill is tremendously important for their integration into Israeli society. However, the bill contains several provisions that are insulting to the more liberal denominations in the US and abroad and they have been in Israel lobbying hard for its defeat.

Through the International Rabbinic Fellowship, which I have the pleasure of serving as its Executive Director, I and several colleagues have been working hard to bridge the gap between the 2 sides and come up with a solution that will help these 300,000 Russians while not harming the unity of the Jewish people. It is only with God's help that a compromise can be reached.

All of this, however, sends the message that the sins we committed that led us to Tisha B'Av -- we are still doing.

I only pray that this Tisha B'Av, we learn our lesson.

May God comfort all who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem and merit them to see its rebuilding and the reuniting of Klal Yisrael with true Ahavat Chinam (free flowing love)

Friday, July 9, 2010

Tzohar, Rav Amital, z"l, Rabbi Moshe Weiss, shlit"a, and the Shalits

This is has been quite a week and a quite a day mixed with sadness and inspiration.

Earlier this week, I attended an international conference of Rabbis sponsored by Tzohar, an organization seeking to develop a true Religious Zionist Rabbinate. The conference was an amazing opportunity to meet and share ideas with my Israeli colleagues as we explored the challenges facing religious zionism and modern orthodoxy both here in Israel and outside. We even explored the similarities and differences of those 2 philosophies: religious zionism and mod. orthodoxy. While I won't go into specifics of what was said, we brushed on important topics such as women in communal roles, issues of Jewish identity, attitudes toward kiruv/outreach, the concept of community, abuse and the Jewish future --- and yes that was all in a day and a half.

We then spent an afternoon at the Knesset meeting with various ministers and knesset members about the current and future state of religion in Israel. This included Minister of Science and Chairman of Bayit Hayehudi (the religious Zionist party) Daniel Hershkowitz (Minister Hershkowitz is also the father in law of one of my dear Israeli colleagues Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth in Raanana -- Rav Ronen visited my shul last year with Rav Yuval Cherlow and is the Overseas Director of Tzohar), Minister of Diaspora Affairs and Public Relations Yuli Edelstein, and MKs Anastasia Michaeli and Zevulun Orlev. MK Michaeli has a fascinating history having been born in St. Petersberg and hadn't met a Jew until meeting her husband an unaffiliated Latvian Jew. They decided to come to Israel in 1999 and she worked as an anchorwoman for an Israeli television station. She decided to eventually convert along with her children (they now have 8) and finally converted 3.5 years ago and is now a member of the Knesset.

Yesterday, I spent the day with my colleague Rabbi Barry Gelman, who is also my boss as he is the president of the IRF. We spent the day in the old city visiting Rav Shlomo Aviner at Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim, davening at the Kotel, and learning together at the newly reopened Hurva Synagogue which had been destroyed in 1948. The Hurva had been once before in the 18th century and the Vilna Gaon had said that its reconstruction would come just before the reconstruction of the Temple -- hopefully signs of things to come. I even got to practice my Arabic with a vendor in the Shuk as Rav Barry bought a chess set for his son.

Today was a sad but somewhat inspirational day as well. I attended the funeral of HaRav Yehuda Amital, z"l. Rav Amital was the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion (affectionately known as Gush) where many of my own Rebbeim had studied. He was also the Chairman of the Rabbinic Advisory committee of my own Yeshiva, Chovevei Torah.

Rav Amital survived the Shoah losing both his parents and all his siblings in Auschwitz and then came to Israel and fought with the Hagannah in the War of Independence. Rav Amital taught at Yeshivat Darom alongside his colleague Rav Shach, who went on to be the Rosh Yeshiva of Ponovitch and the head of Hareidi Judaism. But Rav Amital took a different path -- he was pained at seeing the friction in klal yisrael caused by yeshiva students being exempted from the army and therefore worked to start the hesder movement where students would split time between yeshiva and the army. He founded in his own yeshiva just after the 6 Day War and a few years later brought Rav Aharon Lichtenstein from the US to be his co-Rosh Yeshiva.

Rav Amital took some unpopular positions for his world -- particularly aligning with Labor and the peace process in the 80s and 90s but always tolerated and respected those who disagreed with him and they were even present in his own yeshiva -- many of his political opponents were the funeral today.

Two aspects of the funeral I would like to share -- one of the eulogizers commented that Rav Amital used to teach that every Jew was like a sefer Torah and when a Jew dies it's like seeing a sefer Torah burned. Rav Amital meant this in part reflecting on the lives lost in the Shoah as seeing Torah scrolls burned, but in life he also greeted and treated every Jew -- no matter who they here as if they possessed the sanctity of a Torah scroll.

Rav Amital was actually born Yehuda Klein and took the name Amital when coming to Israel. His son Rav Yoel Amital hypothesized in his eulogy that the reason was as follows: the name means My nation of dew. Rav Yoel said this was a reference to the dew that would fall and regrow a nation, also the dew that would cause the resurrection of dead. Rav Amital saw his nation come back alive after the horrors of the holocaust and even had the pain of seeing many of his own students fall in battle. I like to think that Rav Amital himself was also that dew bringing a nation back to life.

I think my own teacher Rabbi Avi Weiss summed it up best as we were walking behind Rav Amital's hearse and he turned to me and said, "I need a new Rebbe."

After the funeral, I went with Rabbi Weiss to visit his father, Rabbi Moshe Weiss) who is now 91 and a half. His father is in remarkable health for his age and offered very insightful wisdom -- a thought on the parsha and on soccer (who apparently in his youth was a professional soccer player). On the parsha he said that Moshe asks the tribes of Gad and Reuven would it be fair that their brothers fight while they remain on the east side of the Jordan. They answered that they would go and fight and wouldn't return till Israel is conquered. But Moshe is upset with that answer and then seems to repeat their condition -- but Moshe adds one thing -- that God would go and fight. Having an army and the ability to fight is important, but we must also remember that is with God on our side we do the fighting.

The second thought the elder Rabbi Weiss offered was on soccer. I personally always found soccer boring. Rabbi Avi Weiss asked his father if it was boring to watch World Cup when there is so little scoring (compared to the games we Americans we typically watch). His father replied -- no it is all the more exciting to watch how much they can hang on and hold off the other team's goals. I couldn't help but thinking that's a great metaphor for Jewish history.

Finally, we went to the tent outside the Prime Minister's house, where Noam and Aviva Shalit are holding vigil for their son Gilad, who is still held captive by Hamas. The Shalits come from the left of Israeli politics and seemed suspicious of people with kippot coming to visit them, especially with those on the right protesting across the street that they want Gilad home but not at any price (the Shalit's have been lobbying for Israel to acquiesce to Hamas's demands and free all prisoners so their son can come home. Many of those Hamas want released are killers and could very easily kill again. But Gilad is still alive and as parents they want their son home -- it is no easy decision). Nevertheless, they seemed grateful for our support and our brief words of blessing.

I'll close with this -- we are coming up on Rosh Chodesh Av on Sunday night -- beginning the saddest month of the Jewish year. As we begin the month with reduced simcha -- especially after the loss of a giant like Rav Amital and seeing Gilad still in captivity -- we hope and pray that the dew of Torah will bring about our own regrowth where parents no longer have to bargain for their children's lives, where Israel shall dwell securely, and where we like Rav Amital see human being with the same sanctity of the Torah itself.

Shabbat Shalom

Monday, July 5, 2010

Welcome, Tour Guides and Hartmann

Welcome all to my first serious attempt at blogging. I am using this starting with a blog on my current trip to Israel.

I arrived yesterday morning (Monday July 5) and spent most of the day getting acclimated to the time zone and being in Israel again.

Yesterday evening, while grabbing dinner at Burgers Bar, I ran into a former colleague, Rabbi Aryeh Leifert, formerly assistant Rabbi in San Antonio, Texas and Director of Jewish Studies at the Eleanor Kolitz Academy there. Rabbi Leifert is now in Israel studying to be a tour guide in Israel. For those perhaps not aware, tour guides in Israel go through a very extensive training course. The course is 2 years long, and not only has exams, but also requires those who successfully complete it to write several papers as well. It is much more akin to a masters degree. In speaking with one of Rabbi Leifert's co-participants in the course, a former teacher from Ottawa -- it has become clear to me that Israeli tour guides are not just people who can spew out random trivia about places but are serious educators who just happen to be teaching in the greatest classroom ever.

Later in the evening, I ran into several other colleagues on Emek Refaim including RabbiMenashe East (Mt. Freedom, NJ), Rabbi Etan Mintz (Charlottesville, VA) and Rabbi Yonatan Cohen (Berkeley, CA) and their spouses. They are here as part of the Hartman RLI program. For those not familiar the program is part of the Shalom Hartman Institute ( The Hartman Institute was founded by Rabbi David Hartman, one of the leading Jewish thinkers of our era (I recommend his books, "A Living Covenant" and "A Heart of Many Rooms"). The Hartman Institute is a think tank working to pull together some of the leading thinkers and educators to develop innovative ideas and programs to shape and change the face of Jewish life in Israel and around the world.

The RLI (Rabbinic Leadership Initiative) program at Hartman ( takes a group of leading North American Rabbis from across the denominations to learn together over a period of three years spending 1 month each summer together in Israel and 1 week each winter in Israel, as well as various occasions over the internet. Together, they learn and discuss ethics, theology, philosophy and politics to better address the issues that Jews are facing in North America and in Israel. Feel free to look at the link above for more info and yasher koach to my colleagues for participating in such a great program.

I've been davening at Ramban Synagogue (not the one in the old city) which is led by one of the most up and coming and promising modern Orthodox leaders in Israel, Rabbi Benny Lau (nephew of the former chief Rabbi). ( Rav Lau is also the Rosh Beit Midrah and Beit Morasha, another phenomenal institution in Israel ( He was also previously the Rabbi on Kibbutz Saad, where I spent a week back in 1995 when I was a senior in high school. Rav Lau also learned at Yeshivat Kibbutz HaDati in Ein Tzurim (now closed), where I also learned for 2 weeks back in 2003 and felt a close connection to the Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Yoel Bin Nun. I've also had the good fortune to spend some time with Rav Lau in the past and took a plan back to the US with him once back in January 2009, where Rav Lau was headed to speak for a regional conference in Chicago for the International Rabbinic Fellowship, the new rabbinic organization that I have the privilege of serving as Executive Director. (

Lastly, I have the good fortune of staying in Devorah Harris's apartment. Devorah is the daughter of congregants Dr. Abe and Shelley Pollack, and I'd like to wish a mazel tov to Devorah and her family on the birth of baby boy, Benzion Zev, 2 weeks ago.

I'm off to the Tzohar conference later and will hopefully post again from the conference. (

Till then, ברב ברכות מארצנו הקדושה (With many blessings from our Holy Land)

Rabbi J Herman