Temple Emanu-El Blog

At Temple Emanu-El
March 11, 2015

A Tale of Two Schools

It was the best of times and it was the worst of times….well, not really. It actually was just the worst of times, or so it seems on many college campuses today. This week, two scenes that fit the description above yet separated by thousands of miles and different cultures unfolded at two well-known schools. One school offered a clinic on how to respond to crises that any public relations team could use as a Tiffany standard for protocol. The other school should be ashamed of its silence and lack of response in the face of overt discrimination.

On the campus of UCLA one of its 45,000 students, a sophomore named Rachel Beyda, sought a position on the student judicial council. Her interview was secretly recorded, including the pre and post interview discussions that were thought to be in the strictest of confidence. During the deliberations pointed questions were raised about Rachel’s candidacy since she is an active member of many Jewish organizations on campus, including Hillel and some pro-Israel activities too. Caught on tape were other students questioning her bona-fides since she supports Israel and is active in Jewish causes. They believed that her involvement in Jewish and pro-Israel causes invalidates her to be an unbiased member of the judiciary council. The committee rejected Rachel for the position.

Could one imagine if the tape had edited out the words “Jewish” and changed them to “black” or “Latino” or “homosexual?” Would any affiliation tolerate such discrimination?! I hope not. Were that to happen I would be first in line to call out the leadership of UCLA for bigotry, racism and discrimination. Yet, this Jewish line in the sand has yielded no action from the leadership of UCLA. The very students on the council that discriminated against Rachel should be instantly removed from the council, annulling their impartiality to all peoples that stand before them. Sadly, UCLA has said and done nothing. Some papers and pundits have pointed to UCLA for this incident but the administration of the school has been deafeningly silent.

What a shameful example UCLA is modeling. I know much of my college education happened outside the classroom. I am glad I never went to UCLA. That is not the sort of supplement to my lecture hall experience I would have sought out when I was in college or even today.

Juxtapose that to a hateful incident that occurred on a bus with members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at The University of Oklahoma. A sampling of fraternity members – all students at the Oklahoma school – chanted with glee a hymn that called for the exclusion of blacks (instead of black, the derogatory ‘N’ word was used) from their Greek society. It even called for blacks to sooner hang from a tree than to join SAE fraternity.

Within minutes of this video leaking the fraternity was put on suspension and by Sunday night, just two days later, the International President of SAE closed down the fraternity on campus. He went on to say, “In addition, all of the members have been suspended (from the fraternity), and those members who are responsible for the incident may have their membership privileges revoked permanently,” the national organization said in a statement. “We apologize for the unacceptable and racist behavior of the individuals in the video, and we are disgusted that any member would act in such a way. Furthermore, we are embarrassed by this video and offer our empathy not only to anyone outside the organization who is offended but also to our brothers who come from a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities.”

The University President, David Boren called a rally and said without pause in his voice, “To those who have misused their free speech in such a reprehensible way, I have a message for you. You are disgraceful. You have violated all that we stand for. You should not have the privilege of calling yourselves “Sooners.” Real Sooners are not racist. Real Sooners are not bigots. Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect. Real Sooners love each other and take care of each other like family members.

Effective immediately, all ties and affiliations between this University and the local SAE chapter are hereby severed. I direct that the house be closed and that members will remove their personal belongings from the house by midnight tomorrow. Those needing to make special arrangements for positions shall contact the Dean of Students.

All of us will redouble our efforts to create the strongest sense of family and community. We vow that we will be an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue. There must be zero tolerance for racism everywhere in our nation.”

Boren did not undo the free will and choices of the students. He just made the consequences clear to them for those choices. Were he to have done nothing, his silence would have been understood as approval. I am glad he spoke up loudly, swiftly and appropriately. After investigation, Boren expelled two students for their role in the incident.

As long as there will be Jews and blacks there will be discrimination. It is utopian to believe that bigotry and hatred will disappear. It will not. But it can dissipate. That happens through demonstrated response and reaction to exclusionary behavior.

70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz and 50 years after marching in Selma, we still struggle for proper recognition of all peoples to be seen in God’s image. It is an uphill march yet, we have come so far in such a short time. Let us not despair. We must move forward. To do so, we learn from our universities; how to respond and how NOT to respond. We learn from our schools about repercussions and the power of inaction. In this tale of two schools, let us learn right and wrong and be wiser from the education we have been afforded by both.



January 23, 2015

Safe Space

I remember playing tag when I was young. Each time I was winded or felt the person who was “it” closing in on me, I would run to the closest object and yell “base!!!” The idea was, that when touching the base, we were impervious to be tagged. It was a forcefield where nothing could get us.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had ‘base’ in our world? If there were places that were devoid of political, religious or personal strife and attack? In theory, there are at least 3 places I can think of that were established for that cause. But, alas, the last standing bastion of freedom and tolerance and acceptance seems to have disappeared, just this week.

The first ‘base’ was the United Nations, established after World War II and given birth to from the League of Nations. This entity was built on the notion of creating common denominators amongst nations and to ensure that no one country could be bullied, mistreated or abused for its religious beliefs or location or political affiliations. Sadly, the UN has proven in the past years that its purpose and its daily process are far apart from each other. It regularly subjects Israel to censures and votes that no other country currently or in the history of nations has been held to.

The second ‘base’ was the Winter and Summer Olympics. A haven for athletes from all countries in all disciplines to compete with sportsmanship and respect and to leave political and religious divide at the gates of the Olympic Village. Sadly, in 1972 in Munich, Germany that safe base was violated with the brutal hostage taking and murder of Israeli athletes. Still today, many Arab countries refuse to compete if they are in a match with Israel. What a pitiful downgrading of a fabulous sporting system.

The last ‘base’ that was still standing until last week was the Miss Universe beauty pageant. Contestants from around the world don gowns and swimsuits representing the inner and outer beauty of the country they represent. However, that last sacred space was desecrated this week when Miss Lebanon took a selfie picture with other contestants, including Miss Israel.

Folks, I can’t make this stuff up.

Miss Lebanon was threatened of being stripped of her crown for this picture by her government. She later said Miss Israel photo-bombed the picture – an accusation Miss Israel denies – proving it was not her wish to take the picture with Miss Israel. Miss Lebanon even said, “From the first day I arrived at the Miss Universe pageant I was very careful not to take any pictures with Miss Israel, who tried repeatedly to take pictures with me,” Sadly, after the tidal wave of criticism in the Arab world towards Miss Lebanon, Miss Egypt behaved the same way towards Miss Israel, even though they were friendly before.

What have we come to? Is there no last place where we can all get along?

In the Torah portion Bo which we read this Shabbat, Pharaoh has his will broken by the last of the ten plaques and drives the Israelites out. We are now a people without a place. We were forced to run for our safety yet, we had no where to go. Couldn’t we just have a ‘base’ to catch our breath and not worry about the Egyptians pursuing behind us or the Amalekites or the Cossacks or the Nazis or Hamas or Hezbollah or Iran? Isn’t there a place where we can all get along in peace and safety?

We have a moral responsibility to make certain places embody their nature of freedom, tolerance and acceptance for all. We should start by demanding that the United Nations, the Olympics and the Miss Universe Pageants be safe spaces free from political and religious divide. If we don’t, I am afraid we will be tagged, we will be “it”, and it will be a matter of time before another people look for their base of refuge.

Shabbat Shalom.

January 23, 2015

Just Say No

Prime Minister Netanyahu was invited to speak to a joint session of Congress about the importance of furthering sanctions against Iran. Accepting the invitation is a colossal mistake. I urge the Prime Minister to just say ‘no….thank you.’

My counsel is not based on the timing of the upcoming Israeli elections and the optics of the incumbent Prime Minister standing before Israel’s most valuable ally and its elected leadership.

My counsel is not based on the role of pawn the Prime Minister might be being played into by Republican Congressional leadership against a Democratic President.

My counsel is not based on the poor timing of the invitation being extended and accepted just hours after the State of the Union address and breaking protocol with the White House.

My counsel is based on one simple, critical and undeniable fact: Iran sanctions are in the best interest of the United States. We do not need a leader of a foreign country coming to tell the United States the benefits of enacting these sanctions. While true, these sanctions help the United States and all of its citizens. De-facto, that helps Israel, and all of America’s allies.

Do we want Angela Merkel standing before our elected officials explaining how best to deal with immigration or Francoise Hollande on what is the best vehicle to stop terror? Our countries are and should remain staunch allies. We should learn and grow and even challenge each other. Still, our legislation should not appear to be decided upon solely by its interests to our allies and be devoid of our own benefits. That is a very dangerous card to play and picture to present.

Legislation that benefits the interest of America is paramount. Let me be unambiguous. Sanctions on Iran are critical and vital to America’s interests. Allow me to repeat that: Sanctions on Iran are critical and vital to America’s interests.

Iran achieving nuclear capability is an irrevocable catastrophe that needs to be stopped by all measures. A nuclear bomb in the hands of Iran would pose imminent threats to every western-value based country. This includes Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Brussels all within “arms” reach of Iran, not to mention Canada, Mexico and the United States.

If Iran were to become a nuclear capable country, it would undermine all of the non-proliferation treaties (NPT) and forward progress that has been earned through years of hard negotiations. These treaties were brokered to dismantle the threat of annihilation by other countries, hostile one to the next. Is that a place we want to return towards? Has the frostbite of the cold war thawed from our memories?

Inevitably, with growing tensions between Sunni and Shiite countries, Iran’s newest addition of a nuclear bomb would stoke an arms race in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, perhaps even oil-rich Qatar and Kuwait would all follow suit with bombs of their own. The Middle East is a dangerous and volatile neighborhood. In what is a very cold winter following an unsettling Arab spring, having rogue, militia based governments with the ability to put their fingers on the button is terrifying to the entire world.

Iran is one of 13 countries that comprise the council of OPEC – the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. This group of 13, almost all Arab countries, is responsible for more than 40% of the world’s oil. If one of those countries had nuclear capabilities, it could hold the world hostage on oil prices. Under $2.00 a gallon is a wonderful reprieve these days. However, imagine $7.50 a gallon just because Iran has the muscle to enforce a price gouging and no one country could stand up to it?

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 it wanted to capture more oil fields and simply, get richer. America AND Israel stopped that from happening: America by sending troops and letting Saddam Hussein know in word and deed the world will not sit by idly for his audacious thievery. Israel is to be applauded for secretly bombing the nuclear reactor at Ossirik, Iraq ten years earlier. I am not a fortuneteller nor adept at the ‘what if’ games, but I am pretty sure that were Iraq to have had a nuclear bomb the allied countries response in 1990 would have been dramatically more timid, if at all. Kuwait might have fallen to Iraq and gas prices would have soared while Saddam would have built more palaces with bars of gold. Thankfully, that was thwarted. Do we want to make the same mistake again?

Iran is the largest sponsor of world terror. Iran is a source of funds and weaponry to Hamas and Hezbollah, two terrorist organizations operating in Gaza and Lebanon, respectively. Its fingerprints are linked to the AMIA bombing in Argentina where more than 65 people were murdered. Iran even offers compensation to surviving families whose children murdered Israeli civilians. Should we allow the neighborhood bully to upgrade its artillery? Logic tells me such a bully would only create exponentially more crime.

The current iteration of the Kirk-Menendez bill should be signed by all members of the US Senate in a demonstration of bipartisan support. The proposed bill is prospective. That means it only takes effect IF the negotiations with Iran fail. In essence, it holds the Iranians feet to the fire at the negotiation table. Should they stall or walk away, the US government need not go through the time consuming exercises of drafting and voting on sanctions all while Iran spins its centrifuges.

Iran sanctions must happen for all the reasons stated above, and many more. Making the sanctions appear that we are making them solely or even primarily for the sake of Israel is a dangerous optical illusion.

So, Mr. Prime Minister, just say ‘NO, thank you’ to the gracious invitation and come back (if you are victorious in the coming elections) to address congress and thank them for our special, unique and shared value based relationship.

December 26, 2014

The Stars in the Sky

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

This afternoon, I saw the most magnificent stars in the sky. You might ask, how could we see stars in the afternoon? Doesn’t nightfall bring out the stars? Ordinarily, you would be right. But the stars we saw were not ordinary at all. They were extraordinary!

Our Temple Emanu-El returners trip to Israel was fortunate to gain entrance this afternoon to graduation ceremonies for the Israeli Air Force pilots. 33 young men and one young woman earned their wings to fly and protect our shared homeland. At the end of the ceremony, loaded with pageantry and dignitaries, an impressive airshow took place showcasing the oldest and newest planes of Israel and their capabilities. Sitting in the outdoor amphitheater, looking skyward we saw aircraft of all shapes and sizes; some refueling in mid-air and others doing amazing acrobatic feats. Each plane had on the underside of the wing, the Star of David, the symbol of Israel. That star was one of the most magnificent I have ever seen.

In what is tantamount to a blink of an eye in Jewish history, 66 years, the Jewish people have its own state. We boast not only a sovereign military power within that state, but one that is of the most elite in the world. Less than two generations ago much of the Jewish people of Eastern Europe were herded to their death. Sadly, no country came to our rescue. Today, that could never happen again.

Rest assured, I am not cut of the cloth that rings the “holocaust reference” bell regularly. Yet, when I see those stars in the sky I understand too well their pivotal role in the latest war, Protective Edge along with countless other operations since our independence.

These are the stars that shined in the night of the Sudan sky when rescuing thousands of Ethiopian Jews and repatriating them home to Israel. Which other country has picked up black people from Africa and moved them to freedom? Only Israel. All of the other countries in history moved Africans from freedom to slavery!

These stars twinkled in the Ugandan sky at night when it rescued the hostages in Entebbe during a surprise attack. These stars still burn brightly each day and night helping refugees from Syrian oppression and bringing aid in the wake of natural disasters across the globe.

These stars created a secretive formation of a passenger jet in the early 80s. They then stealthily flew to Iraq, to destroy the nuclear reactor in Osirik.

The psalmist speaks of a time when we lift our head and seek direction, (Psalm 121). The psalmist knew that our reflex when thinking of tomorrow and defining aspirations is to look upward. When we do, know that the men and women of the Israel Air Force  – the stars in the sky – are brilliant and give us light towards our path of peace and a better tomorrow.


November 3, 2014

Onward and upward

In May of 1991, I was a freshman in college studying abroad outside of Tel Aviv. One Saturday afternoon I saw an El Al jumbo jet circle over head seemingly 20 times. I assumed, since El Al did not fly on Shabbat, that it was the same plane flying over and over on some type of maintenance test run.

About 4 hours later, when Shabbat had ended, the news broke. In the quiet of the Shabbat night, Israel sent all of its El Al planes to Ethiopia to pick up Jewish people yarning to come home. It was called Operation Solomon. 36 jets, El AL and C-130s were filled with Ethiopian men, women and children totaling more than 15,000 in all. In fact, there were more that landed then took off because some pregnant women gave birth in the air!

When these new Israelis landed, most were overwhelmed. They laughed because they had never seen white Jews before! Also, you must understand that they had never seen electricity, thus they did not know the purpose of a light switch. They had never used a toilet, yet alone flush one. Cars and planes and technology was something even their imagination had yet to absorb. Their palate had to be slowly integrated into Middle Eastern fare. Hummus and falafel were something their digestive systems could not handle right away.

The next day after those planes landed, I along with some friends from college went to the center where many of the new olim were living. It was a giant shelter in a large warehouse; cots strewn everywhere, lots of noise, sections for kids to play with toys and food being served while doctors made rounds checking on the ill.

It was clear when we walked in and around we were NOT from the flight but were part of the local team. Ethiopian kids clung to our legs and men and women hugged us and smiled from ear to ear. In broken Hebrew they said, “todah” meaning, thank you. We could not share much spoken language but we all were able to communicate in the shared dialect of hugs, smiles and laughter. It was a moment that will forever be imbedded in my mind.

Perhaps most overwhelming and pride-filling is the fact that Israel was the only country in the history of the world that took black people from Africa towards freedom. Every other country took black people from Africa to enslave them.

Nary a time passes that I am in Israel where I do not see an Ethiopian mother walking the streets or a young soldier standing a post and I wonder, was it he that laughed with me? Was it she that hugged us to say thank you? Did I cut up boiled potatoes for that one to share?

This morning, our group did three amazing things, all which jogged this sweet memory in my mind.

First, we met with Miss Israel, 2013, Titi Aynaw. She shared her story with us about her pilgrimage to Israel and her discovery of herself and her rich history and unbridled future. Titi is stunning to see but her deepest beauty is on the inside.

From there we shared in Buna with Avi and Mimi, two Olim, (émigrés) from Ehtiopia. Buna is the traditional Ethiopian bread and coffee that is shared with the elders and friends in the community. In Netanya, a center was established where Ethiopian boys and girls, born in Israel can come once a week and learn about their Ethiopian culture.

That is not a typo. I wrote it correctly.

These boys and girls are such a part of the Israeli systems and culture that the Ethiopian community did not want their lush history to be lost for the sake of integration and assimilation. Elders in the community meet weekly and share customs, teachings and foods so the influences of Ethiopian can continue for future generations.

Our day capped off meeting Sivan Yaari in the Google campus of Tel Aviv. Sivan founded a program called Innovation Africa that simply brings Israeli technologies to underserved communities in Africa, including Ethiopia. Her work includes solar panels, electricity, drip irrigation and running water pumps. This helps with education, refrigeration, medicinal needs and safer water for consumption. It is Israeli technology and the Jewish spirit teaming up to save lives. Wow.

These innovations, acceptance and leadership are all just small bricks that have laid the foundation of us being a gorgeous community that indeed is a light unto the nations.

Of course, this country is not perfect. Like all other places, it has problems and warts. But, I will take the good of this country any-day and I wear my Zionism proudly on my sleeve knowing this country’s leadership and citizenry are committed to improving the world each day.

Onward and upward!