On Never Having to Mention Islam

The Obama administration responded characteristically to the savage terrorist attack by gunmen shouting “Al-lahu Akbar” and “We have avenged the prophet” on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. Press secretary Josh Earnest made the rounds of TV talk shows to repeat that “Islam is a religion of peace,” and to warn that the attack was still under investigation, and therefore it is “not clear who was responsible and what their motivations were.” If he really didn’t know their motivations, he was surely the last person on the planet in that position.

Secretary of State Kerry spoke of “extremists,” without mentioning what they represented the extreme version of, and insisted that the West does not face a war of civilizations – not with Islam or even a version of Islam.

No matter how many times the authors of savage deeds of barbarism proclaim that they are acting in the name of Al-lah, the “prophet,” or the “holy Koran;” no matter how many imams praise their actions and rejoice in their upholding the honor of Islam; no matter how many times they announce that their goal is imposition of sharia, Muslim religious law, on the entire world; no matter how many … Read More >>

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We Owe an Answer

President Reuven Rivlin made an important speech opening a conference on chareidi employment sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee two weeks ago. He began by pointing out that the 20% of the school children in Israel between first and sixth grade are now in chareidi educational frameworks.

The chareidim are no longer a beleaguered minority, their very survival at stake, said the President, but this fact has not yet registered either with the chareidi community or its opponents. We have gone too long without “changing the tape,” as if nothing has changed from the early days of the state, said Rivlin. What is needed now, he argued, is a partnership of equals between chareidim and non-chareidim.

Much of what President Rivlin had to say will be music to chareidi ears. He strongly criticized the 19th Knesset for the discussion of chareidim. He pointed out that efforts at coercion had backfired miserably and only succeeded in triggering a backlash resulting in fewer chareidim in the IDF and lessened chareidi involvement in the economy. “When one group feels that their world and cultural existence is under threat, it will not lead to a breakthrough in the relations, but a withdrawal. I … Read More >>

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Another Nail in the Coffin

The Conservative Movement has been hemorrhaging for a quarter century. In the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, the movement constituted 37.8% of American Jewry. That percentage was less than half in the 2013 Pew Study – 18%. The only growing segment of the non-Orthodox world are those who describe themselves as unaffiliated or having no religion.

The Conservative Movement always proclaimed itself a halachic movement. But that pretense has long since proven unsustainable. Marshall Sklare’s definitive study of the movement’s apparent flourishing in the ’50s and ’60s, already hinted at the seeds of its own destruction. Rabbis, wrote Sklare, enter into an unwritten compact with their congregations to never discuss halacha. And to the extent that halacha is discussed, it is in terms of polling the unlearned laity for their opinions.

In a December, 2005 address to 700 Conservative clergy and educators, the movement’s leading theologian, Neil Gilman, said that it was dishonest for Conservative movement to continue to describe itself as halachic. At most, halacha is to be consulted in light of “changing social and cultural norms.”

Last week, the movement took another step towards oblivion when United Synagogue Youth, its teenage division, voted to drop its previous … Read More >>

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Remaining Bnei Torah after Kollel

Few issues are of greater significance for the future of the chareidi community in Eretz Yisrael than the status of those young (and not so young) men in transition between kollel and either the workplace or academic/vocational training in preparation for work. The numbers of such men increases from year to year..

The primary impetus for leaving kollel is economic, Low child benefits by Western standards, small kollel stipends, increased tuitions, skyrocketing housing prices for young couples, and the exhaustion of any accumulated wealth from previous generations combine to put most chareidi families under great financial strain, even when the mother works.

Yet even for a family struggling to put food on the table, the decision to leave kollel is often an extremely painful one. First and foremost, there is the dramatically reduced time for Torah learning. Then there is the loss of one’s carefully nurtured identity as a kollel yungerman. A man’s status in the eyes of his wife, his children, his wider family, and the community of Torah learners with which he identifies comes under threat.

There will inevitably be those who try to convince the former yungerman that his departure from kollel is a form of … Read More >>

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Change in Order to Preserve

“Shev v’al ta’aseh adif — [In a case of doubt] remaining stationary is preferable,” is a familiar Talmudic principle. But we learn in this week’s parashah Vayeishev that there are times in life where the inertia principle does not apply.

After all the travails of Lavan and Esav and Dina, Yaakov Avinu sought nothing more than a little peace and quiet, But, as Rashi, explains peace and quiet are not the natural state of a tzaddik in this world. And so Hashem immediately brought Yaakov’s most difficult test – the disappearance of his beloved son Yosef for 22 years.

For the tzaddik, the natural state is one of continual striving. There is no possibility of remaining stationary. If one is not ascending on the spiritual ladder, one is descending – just like the angels in Yaakov’s dream. In the tzaddik’s world – the world of ruchnios – there is no standing still.

At the communal level too, it is often impossible to remain standing or to continue to operate according to old battle plans. Often times, just to preserve what has been gained, it is necessary to change the course of action that made possible those gains in the … Read More >>

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What Can We Do for Them?

I suspect that most of us if asked, “What can we do for those murdered in Kehillat Bnei Torah?” would be hard pressed to answer. We might mention contributing to the families of those slain, but for the pure korbonos themselves, we would be stumped. After all, they are already in the Olam HaEmes far beyond our reach. If pressed, we might come up with learning mishnayos or some other good deed l’ilui nishmasam (for the elevation of their souls), but nothing more than we might do for anyone who passed away.

These various responses, however, fail to take account of the sudden, shocking manner of their deaths, and the worldwide attention that they garnered, first and foremost among Torah observant Jews. In a hesped for Rabbi Moshe Twersky, H”yd, at the end of shiva, his brother Rabbi Meir Twersky distinguished between different forms of dying al Kiddush Hashem. In some cases, an otherwise ordinary and incomplete life might be somehow redeemed by the manner of its ending. But with respect to his brother, he said, the death al Kiddush Hashem, was the natural culmination or fulfillment of a life lived al Kiddush Hashem.

Rabbi Moshe Twersky himself seems … Read More >>

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Race Relations Regress under Obama

Television networks broadcasting President Obama’s brief speech last week about events in Ferguson, Missouri employed a split screen to juxtapose the president to rioters in Ferguson. At one level, that juxtaposition unfairly highlighted the president’s impotence.

But at another level, it captured one of the many disappointments of Obama’s presidency. Much of the euphoria that greeted the election of the first black president – Obama’s approval ratings were well above 70% at the outset of his presidency – lay in the hope that the United States could finally place the legacy of slavery and racism behind it. Yet race relations have taken a turn for the worst since he came into office.

Slate writer Jacob Weisberg wrote in February 2008 that only if Barack Obama were elected president would children in America be able to “grow up thinking of prejudice as a nonfactor in their lives.” Well, America elected Obama, with the largest percentage of white votes of any Democratic candidate in forty years. But black children are more likely today to think of prejudice as a factor in their lives than they were six years ago.

The unknown state legislator who first came to national prominence with a … Read More >>

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Terror Comes to Our Door

Pesukei d’zimra are not yet over, and I’m crying. Without my even realizing it, the tears have been welling up in my eyes and now they are coming down my cheeks. My first reaction is embarrassment. My second is to try to figure out exactly what I’m crying about. I wish I were crying for the ten Jews already known dead [it will later turn out to be 18], for ten Jews who went from life to death in less time than it takes to blow out a match. That, at least, would be a madrega.

But I’m not crying for them – at least I’m not crying for them alone. I’m crying for myself, for the knowledge that I will never again feel safe here, that I will never again be able to send my children on a bus or to school or Machane Yehudah without going through a hundred calculations first. (“Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” Jewish Observer, April 1996.)

Those words were written in the aftermath of the second straight early Sunday morning suicide bombing on Jerusalem’s No. 18 bus in Adar 5756 (February 1996). But I was wrong. I had underestimated the human power of forgetting. Eventually, … Read More >>

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Judgment Rendered

For the second time in less than three years, a Jerusalem District Court has found novelist Naomi Ragen guilty of plagiarizing a chareidi authoress. In a decision issued last Wednesday, Judge Oded Shacham wrote that the similarities between Chapter 24 in Ragen’s book The Sacrifice of Tamar and the story “A Shidduch from Heaven,” by Sudy Rosengarten, an octogenarian, Bnei Brak great-grandmother, were of such a magnitude that they could not possibly have resulted from unconscious borrowings or have been a matter of coincidence.

Only deliberate copying could possibly explain the identity of structure and the central plot device between the two works, particularly as Ragen admitted that she had read Mrs. Rosengarten’s work, Judge Shacham found. Such details as differed between the two works, he concluded, were either designed to camouflage the copying or necessitated by Ragen’s need to integrate the chapter into a larger work of fiction.

Particularly egregious, in Judge’s Shacham’s opinion, was Ragen’s transplanting of Sudy Rosengarten’s story, drawing on the story of her own son’s shidduch, into “a book that is foreign to views of Mrs. Rosengarten as a charedi woman.”

In an interview of Israel’s Channel Two nightly news, Rosengarten expressed her pain … Read More >>

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Peres’s Folly

Uri Savir, co-founder of the Peres Center for Peace and the closest confidant of Shimon Peres, related the following incident in a recent encomium to the former president of Israel. “I once asked [Peres] if after thousands of hours of negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, he understood Palestinians better. He replied, ‘No, I understand human beings better.’”

For Savir, of course, that quote represents further proof of Peres’s deep insight. In fact, it is a classic example of one of the most pernicious fallacies of our times: The belief that culture and religion mean nothing, and that just under the skin all people are basically all alike.

Peres’s Oslo adventure crashed on the shoals of that fantasy. He imagined a New Middle East in which peace between Israel and her neighbors would be cemented by flourishing trade and the rapid economic advance of the Palestinians and the neighboring Arab states. Thus in the heady early days of Oslo, Peres headed a large delegation to an economic delegation to a conference in Casablanca. His intent was to demonstrate the creativity and reach of Israeli industry and the potential for a win-win situation with Arab partners.

He had no clue of … Read More >>

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Kiruv Goes On: the Models Change

Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler in his justly famous essay on Sukkos (“Bitul HaYesh”) brings a Midrash that compares our entry into the sukkah to a mini-galus. The Midrash explains why the mitzvah of sukkah follows Yom Kippur: Perhaps the Jewish people have been decreed for galus, exile, (or an extension of the current galus). And if so, perhaps HaKadosh Baruch Hu will accept our leaving our fixed abode to live in the sukkah for seven days in lieu of a full-scale exile.

Thus sukkah is, at some level, an antidote for exile. Rabbi Dessler explains how. Our current galus came about for the sin of sinas chinam, senseless hatred. From a materialistic perspective, which views the world as a limited pie, anyone else’s gain of a larger piece inevitably comes at everyone else’s expense. The primarily relationship between people is as competitors.

Leaving behind the security of our normal dwelling for an insecure, temporary dwelling, forces us to give up some of our reliance on the material and place our trust in Hashem. That move from a material to a spiritual perspective in turn allows us to see our fellow Jews as joined to us in a common spiritual … Read More >>

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Viewing One Another with a Favorable Eye

Just before Rosh Hashanah, Rachel Fraenkel, the mother of Yaakov Naftali Fraenkel, one the three murdered yeshiva students, issued a video message through Aish.com to the entire Jewish people. She recounted very briefly the torture of the18 days of searching for her son and Eyal Yifrach and Gil-ad Shaer: The parents knew almost from the beginning that their sons had almost certainly been murdered, and yet they maintained stoic countenances, filled with faith, throughout. Their nobility awed the entire nation.

Her message, however, was not about what the parents suffered or about the irreparable hole in their hearts. Rather she focused on those “amazing hours” of which it was said, “We went out searching for the boys and we discovered ourselves.” She likened those days to a flash of lightning on a dark and gloomy night that illuminates the way forward: “We had days and days of lightning. . . . [W]e saw about ourselves that we are part of something huge, a people, a true family. That’s for real.”

Mrs. Fraenkel knows that it is not all kumbaya moments ahead of us, and that we will return to old patterns – indeed we already have. Yet, she insists, … Read More >>

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School News

The same week that Mishpacha published a panel discussion with four Orthodox members of public school boards (“In the Hot Seat”), Tablet Magazine carried a 15-page article (“The Blame Game”) by Batya Ungar-Sargon on the communal tensions arising from the election of a majority chareidi school board in the East Ramapo School District, which covers Monsey and Spring Valley. The Tablet piece fully confirmed, and even supplemented, the Mishpacha panel’s presentation of their interest in serving all segments of the larger community, not just the Orthodox population.

In an interview, Ungar-Sargon described the standard portrayal of the controversies in East Ramapo: Chassidim take over public school board in order to siphon off public monies from disadvantaged kids to pay for the schooling of their own special needs children. The New York Times, for instance, accused “[a]n Orthodox-dominated board of ensuring “that the community’s geometric expansion would be accompanied by copious tax dollars.” And Bloomberg News quoted accusations that the board was “siphoning public funds for private schools.”

Admittedly, the visuals were terrible: The election of a majority Orthodox board in 2005 was followed in 2009 by dramatic cuts in the public school services, including the firing of teachers, with … Read More >>

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A Connection to Torah for All

Too many of our contemporary yeshiva high schools are seeking only the Eisavs among the applicants, Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg quotes a prominent rosh yeshiva as saying in his essay in the current issue of Klal Perspectives on High School Boys Chinuch. The rosh yeshiva meant that the high school yeshivos are seeking only those who are fully formed – asui, like Eisav – in both their intellectual abilities and their dedication to Gemara learning.

Rabbi Goldberg suggests that the source of that attitude may lie in a distortion of the widely quoted rabbinic dictum “a thousand enter and one goes out to hora’a.” Yeshivos vie to produce “the one who goes out to hora’a,“ and the status of a yeshiva is determined by the quality of its most accomplished graduates in Gemara learning. Parents go along by seeking entrance to the “best” yeshivos for their sons. The race to produce “the one,” and the competition to be the yeshiva for “only the best boys” yeshiva it leads to, can have several adverse consequences.

(I should emphasize that I am speaking theoretically. Rabbi Goldberg was writing in the American context, and I am in no position to evaluate … Read More >>

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Living with Emunah

James McDonald, the first American ambassador to Israel, once remarked that Israel is the only country in the world that factors 25% miracle into all government planning. At some level, one must be a ba’al emunah to live in Israel.

Just consider last week’s news. According to one fully credible source, Hamas is already attempting to clear away the attack tunnels destroyed by the IDF and to rearm. And that was the least of the scary news of the week.

Israel TV reported that Israel is frantically preparing for a “very violent war” against Hezbollah. According to the report, Hezbollah has 100,000 rockets, over ten times as many as Hamas at the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, and is thus capable of overwhelming Iron Dome’s protective shield. That 100,000 figure includes at least 5,000 missiles with precision guidance systems capable of reaching all Israel. Because their trajectory is not locked in at the time of firing, those missiles represent a far larger challenge for Iron Dome and the Arrow anti-missile defense systems.

Like Hamas, Hezbollah has built over the years an intricate system of interconnected underground tunnels from which it can fight defensively in southern Lebanon. And it is … Read More >>

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Israel’s New Torah Askanim

A few months back, Yisroel Besser posed the question in these pages: Where will the next generation of askanim come from and what can be done to nurture them? His article generated a great deal of discussion, but one aspect of the issue was not touched on by any of the discussants: How irrelevant the entire discussion would have struck most Torah Jews living in Israel.

Both the author and those who responded took it for granted that the term askan is one of high praise, connoting a person who serves the Klal by giving generously of both his time and money. Yet in Israel the term is almost always used pejoratively. Far from indicating someone who acts out of a lack of self-interest, it generally refers to someone who did not possess the necessary zitsfleish for long-term learning or the entrepreneurial skills to make it in business, and who instead cut out for himself a place on the periphery of a Torah leader or Knesset member to acquire a small fiefdom of power and influence.

What explains the differences in societal usage and norms? For one thing, the dominant social model in Israel for decades has been one … Read More >>

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What Do Gaza and Ferguson Have in Common

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass.) was challenged last week about her support for an additional appropriation of $225 million for Iron Dome. Her town meeting questioner, John Bangert, asked incredulously, how she could not see the connection between Ferguson and Gaza – i.e., guns being turned on innocent civilians.

Bangert is right about the connection between events in Gaza and those in Ferguson, Mo., but it is not exactly the one he had in mind. Both represent examples of journalistic malfeasance, the manufacture of a false narrative based on emphasizing certain facts and eliding others. In Ferguson, the narrative was that of an innocent black teenager gunned down by a white cop; in Gaza, one of Israel brutally bombing innocent Palestinian civilians.

The media described Michael Brown as a “gentle giant,” who was on his way to his grandmother’s house, just a few days short of the start of college, when he was shot six times by Officer Darren Wilson, despite being unarmed. Brown’s companion at the time of the shooting variously, described him as fleeing at the time of the shooting or as having his hands up.

That particular version of events did not long survive. The autopsy commissioned … Read More >>

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Showing We Care

Two weeks ago, I was in Passaic for Shabbos. The main theme of my presentations in four shuls was the feeling of achdus in Israel, from the kidnapping of the three yeshiva students through Operation Protective Edge, and what can be done to preserve it. On Motzaei Shabbos, I spent several hours together with a group of alumni of Machon Shlomo and Machon Yaakov, two yeshivos for ba’alei teshuva in Har Nof.

One of those present asked me what I thought was the most important thing American Jews can do now for their brethren in Israel. He did not specify any particular kind of American Jews, or Israeli for that matter. I replied: Show them that you care about what is happening to them.

I’m not sure where that answer came from since I do not lack for remarkable organizations in Israel to recommend. Perhaps I was inspired by the widely distributed letter of Rabbi Shay Schacter, assistant rabbi of the White Shul in Lawrence, describing in poignant detail his four-day visit to Israel, as the emissary of Lawrence’s White Shul to convey condolences to the Shaer, Fraenkel, and Yifrach families and deliver letters of tanchumin from the congregation. … Read More >>

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The Final Test?

Mrs. Esther Wein recently shared with me a dvar Torah that she heard many years ago from her grandfather Rabbi Shimon Schwab, zt”l, which may have application to the rampant anti-Semitism that has exploded around the world in the wake of Operation Protective Edge.

Rabbi Schwab asked what average Egyptians did to merit the terrible punishments that befell them in the course of the plagues. And what was the nature of the individual judgment on those Egyptians who drowned at Yam Suf? After all, it was Pharaoh who refused to allow the bnei Yisrael to leave Egypt. Was every citizen of Egypt culpable for not have revolted against Pharaoh to force him to grant thebnei Yisrael permission to escape?

He answered that the litmus test for the average Egyptian came when Pharaoh added to the burden of the bnei Yisrael by requiring them to collect their own straw while retaining the same quota of bricks as before. The Jews, the Torah relates, had no choice but to fan out across Egypt in search of straw. Rabbi Schwab speculated that they were forced to knock on the doors of the Egyptians in their quest, and that the Egyptians were subsequently … Read More >>

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Nothing Like a Compliment

As part of my recovery from the removal of a polyp from one of my vocal chords, I’ve been doing a course of voice training to prevent any recurrences. Much of the training in proper speech habits involves reciting a series of nonsense syllables – e.g., boom, bom, bam, bem, beem.

In a recent session, after reciting the above series, my therapist expressed his approval of the manner in which I had avoided straining my vocal chords. I found myself smiling in response to the compliment.

That smile gave me pause. I’m 63 years old, not an infant forming his first syllables. I’ve been regularly engaged in some form of public speaking since my bar mitzvah drashah. And I have not led a life bereft of all forms of positive feedback or felt a desperate craving for such.

Yet here I was smiling to myself at the smallest compliment for properly mouthing five nonsense syllables. My reaction brought home once again the incredible power that lies in even the smallest compliment and how much we should make use of that power.

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Wanted: A New Mussar Movement

We are a long way from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, in which life seemed to changed little from century to century, until the first winds of the haskalah started blowing. In traditional Jewish society, in which most people lived and died within a narrow geographical radius of their place of birth, it could be safely predicted that the overwhelming majority of Jews would remain traditionally observant, to the extent of their knowledge, and that their children would as well.

But those insular, self-contained communities are no more. Not only have the physical ghetto walls fallen but so have the spiritual ghetto walls that we sought to erect in their place. The World-Wide Web has made sure of that. The effort to erect secure barriers and impermeable walls seems increasingly futile. In place of a chinuch chosem, an education that seeks to shut out all outside influences, we need a chinuch mechusan, one which vaccinates our young against the temptations of an ever more intrusive world.

In traditional society prior to the Haskalah, Jews did what they had done since time immemorial, or so it seemed. No great personal resources were required to follow in the paths of one’s … Read More >>

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Your Narcissism is Showing

Rob Schneider, a second-tier celeb, best known for a series of sophomoric comedies, recently tweeted: “To not be outraged at the killing of children to risk your very soul.”

To which I would reply. If the only deaths of children that provoke a response from you are those of children killed in Gaza, but not the hundreds of thousands of black Muslim children killed in Darfur by their co-religionists over the past decade or the 700 Syrian civilians killed in two days recently (or the 170,000 killed over the last three years), it is not the capaciousness of your soul that you display, but the depth of your narcissism and need to be admired as a “good person.”

If the only deaths of children that set your thumbs twittering are those when Jews are involved, then you are an anti-Semite. And please spare me any references to your Jewish father.

If your outrage is devoid of any context – who started the fighting, who deliberately sought the deaths of those children for their own propaganda gains – you are not quite the moral paragon you imagine; you are a dunce and the enabler of the deaths of more children.

… Read More >>

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Max Steinberg, zt”l, as Rorschach Test

The death of lone soldier Max Steinberg in combat in Gaza served as a Rorschach Test for Jews around the world. In Israel, 30,000 Jews, across the spectrum of Israeli society, took time off to go to Mt. Herzl for his levaya to express their admiration and gratitude to a young man who came to Israel to risk his life to protect theirs.

In the opposite corner, Slate editor Allison Benedikt could barely wait until the last shoveful of dirt had been placed on Max’s grave before portraying his as a dupe of Birthright, which spends “hundreds of millions of dollars to convince young Jews that they are deeply connected to a country that desperately needs their support.” Benedikt’s lament over Max’s death picks up where a 2011 reminiscence of her misspent Zionist youth left off. There she describes how her non-Jewish boyfriend, now husband, opened her eyes to evils of modern Israel.

Benedikt is emblematic of disappearing American Jewry. In her adult persona, she can no longer imagine any natural affinity between American Jews and the state of Israel, even though the latter is the only majority Jewish nation and home to the majority, or soon to be … Read More >>

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Acts of Kindness, Great and Small

Over the past month and a half, the unity of the Jews of Israel has been overwhelming. No one would ever hope for the tragic events that have aroused feelings of closeness – the kidnapping of three yeshiva students and Operation Preventive Edge in Gaza – but the tangible desire of Jews to draw closer to one another cannot be denied.

Tens of thousands of Jews, from across the Israeli spectrum, attended the funerals of two “lone” soldiers from America – Sean Carmeli and Max Steinberg – whom they did not know personally. And in communities across Israel, Jews are reaching out to one another with acts of chesed, both great and small.

Beit Shemesh, the scene of bitter intra-religious confrontation over the past two years and of a highly divisive mayoral election and subsequent re-run, has proven fertile grounds for various campaigns for unity. All sides of the religious and political divide in Beit Shemesh were eager to put the bitter feelings of the two mayoral campaigns behind. Two “unity” tefillah gatherings for Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrach, H”yd, were the first steps towards doing so. The gatherings drew chareidi, national religious, Yerushalmi/chassidiche, and secular women. … Read More >>

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Who Believes in Mermaids?

According to the latest CNN poll, 57% of Americans think that Israel’s military operations in the Gaza Strip are fully justified, while 39% think that Israel’s actions are “too much.” One might interpret those figures optimistically: It is doubtful support for Israel is higher in any other Western country. On the other hand, I would be more than a little dismayed to learn that 39% of Americans believe in mermaids or the tooth fairy, and I fail to see any plausible distinction between that belief and the claim that Israel has been employing excessive force.

But it gets worse. Over half of Democrats are within that 39%. And to judge by their recent statements and actions, it appears that the president and secretary of state are among the believers in mermaids. Fox News caught Secretary of State Kerry in an unguarded moment sarcastically speaking of Palestinian civilian casualties in heavy fighting in Gaza’s Shejaiya neighborhood, “It’s a hell of a pinpoint action, a hell of a pinpoint action.” Once he knew he was back on camera, Kerry quickly reverted to message; Israel has a right to defend itself; he was just reacting to the tragedy of innocent lives lost; … Read More >>

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