Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Enroute to Israel at 30,000 feet: Perspective and Anticipation

Dear Friends,

I write this post while enroute to Israel.  I have always found it easier to write on airplanes than any place else.  Perhaps it's because of the lack of interruptions - no phones, meetings or other disruptions that can take me away from the focus I need.   But perhaps it is also because of perspective:  the fact that I am writing at 30,000 feet somehow helps me to have a different view of the myriad of details and activities that are a normal part of my daily routine.

I truly cannot say how many times I have travelled to Israel.  I can count at least 20 trips - but there may be more..... I first went in 1975 as an exchange student when I was Junior in High School.  Those 6 months changed my life forever and put me on a journey that can only be described as a love affair with the Hebrew language and the State of Israel that continues and grows to this very day.  Every time I return to Israel, I never fail to feel the same excitement and anticipation that I felt as a 16 year old as I board the plane and look ahead to the adventure that awaits.  Sharing Israel with others is an especially rewarding experience.  This year, Sue and I - along with Janet Bronitsky and Mark Suprenand - are leading a group of 45 congregants.  For most of the people in our group, this will be their first trip to Israel.  Seeing the excitement on their faces and knowing that this trip will literally change their lives is both an awesome responsibility and a great joy.

The timing of this particular trip could not be more significant.  The medieval poet, Yehudah Halevi wrote:  " לִבִּי בְמִזְרָח וְאָנֹכִי בְּסוֹף מַעֲרָב"  "My Heart is in the East, and I am in the uttermost end of the West."  This encapsulates the centuries- old longing of the Jewish soul to travel to Israel - even when we were firmly ensconced in our Western-world milieu. Recent events have served to intensify my desire to be in Israel.  The kidnapping of  three teen-aged boys - Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaer  and Eyal Yifrah by Palestinian terrorists 2 weeks ago has highlighted both the vulnerability and unity of the Jewish people.  All Jews - regardless of political or religious affiliation - are unified around the anguish of these families.   Last night, I was honored to participate in the "Bring Back our Boys" solidarity Rally as president of the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council.  Seeing such a diverse cross-section of the Denver Jewish Community coming together in solidarity with the the Frankel, Shaer and Yirah families - as well as the entire State of Israel - was a powerful experience.  The fact that the next day, we would be able to travel to Israel and share our solidarity with the Jewish state and it's people makes our pilgrimage all the more powerful. 
In addition, the recent unfortunate decision by the Presbyterian Church  - USA (PCUSA) to become intertwined with the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement (their denials and protestations aside...) has highlighted the fact that the State of Israel has few true friends.  The sadness, disappointment and sense of betrayal I experienced as a result of this action taken by my PCUSA colleagues has shaken me - and the vast majority of the Jewish world- especially here in America where we have worked so hard to build bridges of dialogue, community and friendship - deeply.  The opportunity to experience the reality of the State of Israel - warts and all - and share this with members of my congregation is the perfect solace at a time of disappointment.  

I cannot promise how often I will be able to contribute to this blog.  Our itinerary is jam-packed.  Nonetheless, I will try to keep you all updated on our adventure.

Until then, I bid you Shalom from 30,000 feet.

Rabbi Joe Black

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Korach, Demagogues, and Presbyterian (USA) Divestment

Dear Friends,
I write this post on Shabbat Morning from Beautiful Telluride Colorado where I am attending the 41st annual Telluride Bluegrass festival with family and dear friends.  Last night I led a Shabbat Service with the gracious and welcoming Telluride Jewish Community.  Today I will spend the rest of Shabbat relaxing in the pure mountain air listening to many of my musical heroes.
I love this festival.  It is the perfect mixture of virtuoso musicianship, relaxation, family bonding and almost Utopian community-building.  For four days every summer, this far-flung mountain village with breathtaking views of the western San Juan Mountains becomes a community of "Festivarians" who share a love of acoustic music and a desire for peace and tranquility.
Unfortunately, as much as one would like to shut out the outside world while on vacation, the news does not go on holiday.  In the State of Israel, the search for three kidnapped boys - Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach  - continues while the entire country joins with others around the world praying for their safe return.
And in the midst of our prayers for these boys, we learn of how the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church -USA (or PCUSA) has voted to divest itself from three companies that do business in the West Bank - thereby giving another boost to the Anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (or BDS).
It's ironic to me that this week's Torah portion, Korach, coincides with the  PCUSA's vote.  One of the lessons of Korach is the danger and power of demagoguery.  The text reads:
1. Korach the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi took [himself to one side] along with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, descendants of Reuben. 2. They confronted Moses together with two hundred and fifty men from the children of Israel, chieftains of the congregation, representatives of the assembly, men of repute.
3. They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, "You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord's assembly?"
4. Moses heard and fell on his face.
Korach is portrayed by the rabbis as the ultimate manipulator.  His diabolical brilliance is seen in the way that he utilizes half-truths and preys on the fears of those who will listen to him.  He tries to position himself as a savior of the people by speaking "truth to power" on behalf of their "legitimate" rights of leadership and status by claiming that it is arrogance and self-aggrandizement that gives Moses his power when, in actuality, it is Korach's desire for power that ultimately does him in.
Unlike others who have commented on this issue, I do not believe that most of the PCUSA delegates were motivated by blatant anti-Israel or anti-Semitic feelings.  I do, feel, however, that they were manipulated by  a well-organized campaign from a group within the church that calls itself the Israel-Palestine Mission.  This group has a long history of attempting to de-legitimize Israel and Zionism in general.   The anti-Israel activists within the church have been very methodical in their systematic deconstruction and mis-representation of the history of the Jewish State.  The study guide, "Zionism Unsettled," that squarely places the blame of the entire conflict on the shoulders of Israel is on the church's website. (Here is the link:  http://store.pcusa.org/2646614001).  Yes, the church has distanced itself from this insidious text, but, as of this writing, it is still available for sale to its member churches.
Last week, I, along with representatives of the JCRC and ADL, met with a few local delegates from the PCUSA who were going to be attending the convention and voting on this and many other issues that would be coming before the General Assembly.  We talked about how important this issue was to the Jewish community and we wanted to share our concerns and listen to theirs as well.  It was a powerful meeting.  For me, the biggest take-away was that most of the people in the meeting truly felt that they loved and supported Israel.  They also did not make the connection between divestment and the global BDS movement.  My colleagues in the ministry shared with us their pain at the divisions that this issue was causing-both within the church and the potential for harm in relationships between the Jewish Community and the Mainline Protestant denominations.   We talked about how we shared so much in common:  our mutual support for GLBT rights, concerns about gun violence, poverty, homelessness, women's rights and so many other issues that should bring us together - not force us apart.  And yet, as much as I feel connected to my clergy colleagues over these issues, when it comes to Israel, the fact that their movement could be so eager to visualize a peaceful solution in the Middle East that they are willing to blindfold themselves and sacrifice the truth by buying into a one-sided, blatantly anti-Zionist and (yes - I will say it) anti-Jewish narrative that ignores our historical, spiritual and cultural connection to the land of Israel is very upsetting.
Moses, when confronted with Korach's distortions of the truth, "fell on his face."  The leadership of the Jewish community  cannot and will not follow his example.  While I am deeply disappointed and feel a sense of betrayal from my Christian colleagues, I will not allow this to poison what needs to be a strong relationship.  Now is a time for renewed dialogue and outreach.  While damage has been done to  Jewish-Presbyterian (USA) relationships, we cannot allow the demagogues to win.

Shabbat Shalom from Telluride.
Rabbi Joe Black.
PS - I want to encourage everyone to attend the solidarity rally for the three kidnapped teens that will take place this Tuesday night at 6:00 pm at the JCC.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Welcome Home Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl!


Like many of you, I have been following with rapt attention the story of US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release from five years of Taliban captivity in exchange for five Afghan detainees from Guantanamo Bay.  In particular, I am drawn to the multiplicity of reactions from all corners of the political spectrum.  There are those who support the decision of President Obama and his advisors for making a quick decision in the face of evidence that pointed to a rapid decline in Sgt. Bergdahl’s health – while others are critical due to the fact that US law states that congress must be notified in advance of a prisoner exchange. 

Others are focusing on the fact that Bergdahl’s capture 5 years ago was preceded by what appears to have been an act of disobedience.  Many reports state that he had previously expressed concern about the Afghan war.  He left his post and walked into the hands of his captors.  Some are calling his actions desertion.  They blame him for placing other soldiers’ lives in danger – especially those who were sent to rescue him after he was discovered missing[i].

Still others question whether the release of five dangerous terrorists was a fair trade for the release of one POW.  Add to this the fact that he may have broken a sacred code of military conduct prior to his imprisonment and the negative rhetoric only increases.

As a Rabbi, a Jew and a Zionist, I cannot help but compare this situation to that which the State of Israel faces on a daily basis.  How many times have the leaders of the Israeli Government and the Israel Defense Forces found themselves in the difficult position of having to release convicted murderers in exchange for the lives – or even the dead bodies – of Israeli soldiers?  When Gilad Shalit was freed after 5 years of captivity, the Israeli Government released 1,027 prisoners who were directly responsible for the deaths of over 569 Israelis[ii].  The policies expressed by President Obama and his cabinet reaffirm a shared principle with the State of Israel that not one soldier will ever be left behind. 

Most of us have never met Sgt. Bergdahl.  But we can understand the pain of his parents and family as they waited for five tortuous years to hear some positive news about their son.  In Israel, there is no family that has not been touched by the reality of war.  The anguish of Gilad Shalit’s parents was shared by an entire nation.  While the decision to free him in exchange for over a thousand murderous terrorists was controversial – everyone understood that there was no other way.

Another concern I have about this unfolding story is in regards to the many Ad Hominum attacks that have been levied on Sgt. Bergdahl.  If, as some claim, he deserted his post, why did he do so?  Was it an act of political defiance or the result of an emotional breakdown?  What was his mental state in Afghanistan?  Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that he was a broken man – a soldier who could no longer fight – whose repeated exposure to the horror of war and the constant fear that it instilled in him caused him to act irrationally.  Does this mean that he deserves to be abused by others in the court of public opinion?

I do not know the current physical or mental state of Sgt. Bergdahl or what he experienced five years ago when he walked into the hands of the enemy. I cannot imagine what he must have endured in captivity.   I pray that he will find a path toward a renewal of body and spirit and that he will be provided with the best care possible.  And yet, there are many other Military Veterans who walk the streets of our cities and towns and who, effectively, are still on the battlefield.  They relive their experiences on a daily basis.  We see their haunted eyes on the street corners as they beg for change and a modicum of compassion. The recent scandal revolving around the Veteran’s Administration has shown us that access to quality health care – whether for mental or physical ailments – is scandalously lacking in many of our VA facilities.  Unless and until mental illness is perceived as a condition that befits compassion, not condemnation, action and not alienation, our nation is not living up to its commitment to honor and take care of those brave men and women who risked their lives so that we could live in freedom.

But, of course, Veterans are not the only ones who lack access to basic mental healthcare.  The stigma attached to mental illness is a main reason that it occupies such a lowly place on the priorities of both Federal and State legislatures.

I write this article the day before the Festival of Shavuot.  In a few hours, we will gather together and give thanks for the gift of Torah.  Shavuot teaches us to value learning.  The revelation at Mt Sinai taught us an entirely new way to view the world around us. Torah opens our eyes to new truths every day. May we never stop learning – may we never stop growing and may there soon come a time when we will be able to see the Divine Spark implanted within every human being.  Welcome home Sgt. Bergdahl!  You, like every one of us, are a gift from God.

Chag Sameach – Shavuot, 5774