The Torah Scrolls on the Floor
Looking for drama on Saturday mornings?
Each Saturday morning during Shabbat services, no matter what city you live in or what flavor of observance a synagogue or temple may ascribe to, there is that moment of truth. The moment when the person given the honor of lifting the Torah, or hagbah, lifts the open Torah scroll above their heads, turns around for the congregation to see the letters, and then sits down in a chair where he is assisted by the galilah, the Torah dresser, who wraps the Torah, fastens it with a silken belt, places the cover back over the Eytz Chayim, or wooden posts, and adorns it with a silver breastplate depicting the twelve tribes of Israel. The galilah then replaces the silver pointer hand, or yad, and then finally the beautiful Keter, or crown, is placed atop the wooden posts.
Sometimes while lifting, the Hagbah shows three columns, sometimes, if they are really strong, four or five columns.
At this crucial moment in the Torah service, there is a certain element of danger in the air. We all rise as the Torah is lifted. Out of respect, yes, but also knowing that we are all in this together if the Torah lifter does not get it just right.
The suspense is especially stronger if we are at the beginning or end of the Torah cycle; when the Torah is scrolled way to the left or the right. For if the hagbah loses their grip or if their strength gives out, to drop a Torah scroll is a grievous mistake. To see the hagbah struggle or even tip slightly under the weight of the Torah elicit responses of gasps and “oh no’s” from the congregants and quick assists from the others on the bimah to steady the scroll from falling. And a feeling of relief and handshakes of “Kol Hakavod” after the Hagbah steps down from the bimah and returns to their seat in the congregation.
So serious of an offense, that on the rare occasion when a Torah scroll does fall to the ground, the offender must fast for 40 days. To reduce the severity of this consequence, oftentimes, a congregation will divide the 40 days to 40 congregants.
This is why so many are hesitant to perform the mitzvah of Hagbah for fear they might drop Judaism’s holiest possession.
Jews take the physical aspects of our holy books very seriously.
If you had an observant Jewish education, you were taught that our prayer books: our Siddurim, our Chumashim, were NEVER to be on the ground. If you do drop one, as kids often do, it is customary to give the book a kiss, because these books have Gd’s name in it. The same goes for our talit, or prayer shawls with the fringes that represent the Torah’s 613 commandments. None of these things should ever touch the ground out of pure respect.
When Torah scrolls and prayer books are so old and worn they can no longer be used, they, with prayer shawls, are buried in a Jewish cemetery.
In many synagogues, you may see a battered Torah scroll, or a fragment of it. Water stained. Singed. Enclosed in its own glass case or hanging in a frame.
These are known as the Holocaust Torahs, which the Nazis confiscated and kept in barns or stables, to one day be placed in a museum to show off how the Third Reich had thoroughly extermined the Jews from the face of the Earth.
So, when I woke Saturday morning to learn that some ….. thing, some thug, some subhuman walked into the Nessa Synagogue in Beverly Hills and trashed its insides.
And tore our prayer books. And threw our talit on the ground.
And threw and unraveled our precious Torah scrolls to the ground.
My heart and soul went into a state of mourning.
What the shock must have felt like to those early risers who were first to arrive for Shacharit services that morning.
Did they think they were in Beverly Hills?
Or 1930’s Berlin?
The image of a naked Torah scroll lying on the ground to a Jew is visceral.
What animal would do such a thing? What rhetoric or “free speech” did they hear to spurn on this act of hate?
So Jews.. what are we going to do about it?
Luckily, Chanukkah is coming.
Chanukkah. No, No, it is not the Jewish Christmas. So for Gd’s sake, stop competing with it like it is.
Just, on your debates on whether we should have a stupid Chanukkah bush or oh how cute Chanukkah Harry is and oh my kids feel so left out during Christmas…. so we make a big deal out of Chanukkah with presents and we get a bush….
For fuck’s sake. Just stop.
Chanukah means: Rededication.
It marks a time in OUR SHARED Jewish history when, in 164 BCE the greatly outnumbered Maccabees in three years defeated the Assyrian Greeks and liberated Jerusalem and when they got to the Temple on the Temple mount they found it to be completely trashed.
Pig’s blood and idols everywhere.
The altar smashed.
And they adjusted their energies from defeating their enemy to then rededicate the Temple and thus rededicate the Hellenised Jews in ancient Judea back to a Jewish way of living.
In the aftermath of the Nessah Synagogue desecration, which, even in this year where haters have defaced synagogues, beat up on Jews and most recently, even killed Jews in Jersey City, what Jews need to do now is find some strength. And Light.
Nessah, if I’m reading that correctly, in Hebrew means miracle.
During Chanukkah, we celebrate the miracle. Not about the oil lasting, but that the Jews had the strength to battle on.
We must battle on. Now is not the time to hide or shrink into the darkness.
That can mean speaking out against Jewish or anti-Zionist hatred from wherever or whoever is spewing it.
That can mean attending services or make a minyan for someone on mourning.
Or, it can mean celebrate Chanukkah for what it is.
Not a Jewish Christmas.
But a time to rededicate ourselves as Jews to our strong, proud, Jewish path.
Smashing the Idols of Today’s Jew-Hatred: Lessons learned from Lech Lecha
I had the privilege of giving the dvar Torah at my synagogue this weekend.
For those who need explanation – Dvar Torah, literally translated as “words of Torah” is a weekly speech or sermon delivered in synagogues about the week’s Torah reading. It can be given by the rabbi, the bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl, or synagogue members.
It allows us, through examination and introspection and study, to put our own take on the Torah reading.
Here’s mine from yesterday:
Has there ever come a time in your life where you had the rug pulled out from under you?
When suddenly there is a shift in the paradigm, and you are asked to get up and move to a distant land or situation?
This is the case with Abraham. In just the third parashah of the Torah cycle, seemingly out of nowhere, we are presented with #Abraham aveinu. Right here, in a sudden shift, the Torah moves from the universal: The Creation of the world and the beginnings of humanity, to the particular:
Abraham. And the history of the Jewish people.
And what do we read in the very first lines of our Parashah?
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃
I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing.
וַאֲבָֽרֲכָה֙ מְבָ֣רְכֶ֔יךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ֖ אָאֹ֑ר וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה׃
I will bless those who bless you And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth Shall bless themselves by you.”
Right here, from the get-go, God establishes the connection between the Jewish people to the land of Israel. Four times in this parashah, God instructs Abraham to possess the land.
God enters a covenantal relationship with one specific people. God commands Abraham to live by that moral law for his own good and the good of all humanity. In picking himself up and moving to an unknown land for him and his progeny, Abraham demonstrates he is the first to believe in the one, living God. And by willingly picking himself up to settle in Canaan, Abraham becomes the first Zionist.
This is the first passage of hundreds woven into the Torah about the mitzvah of Haaretz, a connection to the land of Israel. Half of the 613 mitzvot contained in the Torah are specific to Haáretz. Settling and living in the land, according to the Torah, is essential for Jews to create their own, just and righteous society.
From this point on, the Torah establishes the fact that Judaism is more than a religion.
We are Am Yisrael.
The Nation of Israel.
The Children of Israel.
Geographically speaking, it is an inconvenient fact that most of the places mentioned in Bereishit, from Abraham’s stop in Shechem, building an altar to God at Beit El, dwelling in Mamre, attempting to sacrifice Yitzchak on Mount Moriah and finally, conducting history’s first real estate transaction in Hevron are located in Judea and Samaria, territories that most of the nations say are void of any Jewish connection.
There is a theory that is being peddled around: that being Jewish has nothing to do with Israel, or anti-Zionism, meaning the belief that Jews do not have a collective right to sovereignty in their ancestral homeland, has nothing to do with today’s global rise of hatred towards Jews.
To those who hold these beliefs, I invite them to examine and study the many references about settling in the land and then tell us that Israel has nothing to do with Judaism.
IN 2017, American Zionist groups in timing with Parsha lech lecha, and the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, proclaimed that Shabbat Lech Lecha will now be known as Zionist Shabbat, where American Jews should relearn the significance and importance of Zionism in our religion.
AZM President Richard Heideman wrote: “The first commandment given to a Jew relates to Israel and Zionism. Indeed, Zionism and Judaism are inseparable, and we need to ensure that all Jews who are celebrating Shabbat around the world incorporate our common love for Israel – the land, the people and the culture – in the spirit of the unity of the Jewish people,”
In a 2019 video essay explaining the mutations of anti-Semitism, Rabbi Johnathan Sacks explains how Jew-hatred shifts and mutates through the centuries. That is why the current hater claims they are not a hater because their hatred differs from the Jew-hatred of the past.
For example, in the Middle Ages, Jews were hated for their religion. In the 19th century, Jews became secular and assimilated and were hated for their race, because they were capitalists, and because they were communists. Now, we are hated because we have a nation-state.
Perhaps, we are hated because we have survived as a distinct, unique people with our own traditions and customs. Perhaps, like Abraham, we are hated because it is in our DNA to go against convention.
Last week, at Detroit’s Jewish Book Fair, I had the chance to catch a panel discussion with Tablet editors last week. There, editor in chief Alana Newhouse said the reason why Jews have survived as a unique and distinct people is that we have operated not by going with the flow of general society, but perpendicularly from the rest of society.
Sometimes, as Rabbi Sacks explains, Lech lecha means “go by yourself.”
Often, it does seem like the children are of Israel are alone.
Sure, criticism of Israel’s politicians and policies are fine, just ask the Israelis who do this every day.
Yet Israel stands alone in an often-impossible situation, She faces existential challenges and must make difficult decisions that are not asked by most nations on earth.
But criticism of Israel loses all nuance when it is now more popular to call for the illegality of the existence of Israel in its entirety. That, is anti-Zionism.
Our pro-Israel students on campus must increasingly be feeling like Abraham, standing alone to the taunts and chants that Israel is a Zionist and therefore a racist state.
Little do these accusers know that they are peddling a conspiracy theory hatched in the 1970’s in the United Nations by the Soviet Union and spread through Arab countries by Yasser Arafat.
Don’t believe me? Check out Bari Weiss’s new book: How to Fight Anti-Semitism.
It’s all in Chapter Four.
Like Abraham, 400 Jewish students this month got up and walked out of a student government meeting at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). They were protesting the body’s overwhelming support for a motion titled “Condemning Ignorance of Racism and Equating Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism.”
This motion denied any link between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. It was written by four student government members aligned with the UIUC chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). No Jewish student organizations or Jewish individuals, including the governing body’s only Jewish member, was asked for input on what defines anti-Semitism.
Student Lauren Nesher acted like Abraham when she led the exodus of Jews from the student government meeting. Nesher is a grandchild of Holocaust survivors and Turkish and Iraqi Jews who were kicked out of those nations because they were Jewish.
Before she and her Jewish supporters walked out, she addressed the packed room and said:
Never again will anyone allow the Jews to feel unsafe on this campus, whether we be affected by swastika graffiti, neo-Nazi or university-sponsored presentations that uniquely seek to delegitimize the establishment of a Jewish state.
Nesher is not alone in affirming the Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism connection. The American Jewish Committee just this week released a study titled: American Jews on Anti Semitism in America. In this survey, 82 percent agreed that the BDS movement and its supporters are antisemitic. 84 percent believe the statement Israel has no right to exist is anti-Semitic.
So, what do we do? How do we combat the rising wave of anti-Semitism that goes under the veil of anti-Zionism?
For one thing, know there are others around you who, like Abraham, do not go with the flow. There are those around you who will not check our pro-Israel and Zionist leanings at the door to fit in or be included or accepted into progressive or intersectional causes.
Finally, let’s take a cue from Bari Weiss who suggests, that yes, we should be like Abraham:
Among Weiss’s many suggestions at the end of the book (spoiler alert) she suggests that we be like Abraham. And I paraphrase:
Abraham’s story is deeply Jewish. He stood radically against the prevailing orthodoxy of his time…..
Today, the idols are more abstract than the ceramics Terah, Abraham’s father, prayed to. They come in the form of power and prestige. The temptation to keep your mouth shut in order to get ahead or get along or to be well liked are very seductive…
But we must face the loneliness to be like Abraham. To be brave enough to say, yes, we are different. We need to be courageous enough to stand apart, ot to bend to the crowd, not to give in to group think.
We should find strength and pride in being an idol-smashing people.
Speaking Up for Israel
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators at U-M fail to silence Jewish student
Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer
Expressing relief that the University of Michigan’s Central Student Government (CSG) Ethics Committee had cleared his name on Dec. 7 of charges of hate speech because he spoke out at a pro-Palestinian demonstration, Jesse Arm, a CSG student representative, said he looks forward to “getting back to work on making campus a better place for all students.”
“Freedom of speech is of critical importance, and all students should recognize that truth,” Arm told the JN shortly after the ethics committee hearing — the first time in the CSG’s history a student serving in a student governmental position had ever been brought up on an ethics violation. “I hope that, in the future, all students will be able to engage in respectful dialogue freely without fear of repercussions for their ideas,” he said.
Under the charges brought up by the pro-Palestinian group Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE), Arm faced possible removal from his student governmental seat for emotionally, but peacefully, criticizing their Nov. 19 demonstration.
The demonstration featured SAFE members costumed to look like Israeli soldiers pretending to harass others at a mock checkpoint in front of two large, wall-like signs that included a dove targeted in a rifle’s crosshairs and the words “To Exist Is To Resist.”
Arm told the JN, “I objected to the use of that phrase in particular because I believe it to be a plainly regressive way of looking at the conflict no matter what side you are on. To exist is to coexist. To exist is to dialogue. To exist is to compromise. To exist is to strive toward peace.”
The incident occurred on the same day Jewish students on campus learned of the terrorist murder of Jewish American Ezra Schwartz in Israel, though campus media reports that the timing by SAFE was a coincidence. Arm, who passed the demonstration on his way to a class, spoke out and offered his contact information to later discuss the issue, but a SAFE representative was not interested in continuing a dialogue.
The Ethics Committee reviewed the incident, which was documented in a video presented by SAFE. SAFE’S own video, however, proved that Arm acted appropriately — and it wound up supplying the evidence that exonerated him.
The Ethics Committee concluded, “Arm should not be penalized; and members of student government have the right to speak passionately … and advocate on behalf of the causes they believe in. [Arm] remained well inside his First Amendment rights and … he never attempted to speak on behalf of Central Student Government or even mentioned the governing body.”
To justify their ruling, the CSG cited Article VIII, Section 1 of the Constitution of the Student Body of the Ann Arbor Campus of the University of Michigan, which states that “no authority, academic or civil, shall infringe on a student’s freedom of speech, freedom to peacefully assemble, or freedom to demonstrate grievances.”
The Ethics Committee also stated “SAFE has the right to continue to discuss these important issues, just as Representative Arm should have the right to continue to speak freely and participate in dialogue. … This expression cannot be censored; the emotional responses that students have are real and valuable.”
Leading up to the hearing, Hillel Executive Director Tilly Shames in a statement said that she had “faith in our Wolverines, and I believe our student government will see there is no substance behind this complaint and will not take action against Jesse.” She said that prior to the hearing, Alex Adler, the Michigan Hillel governing board chair, spoke at the CSG and several other students came out to support Arm against an “unfounded complaint made by students with a BDS agenda.”
Heidi Budaj, Michigan regional director of the AntiDefamation League, praised the efforts of organizations like Hillel and Chabad who have “boots on the ground” to support and advocate for Jewish students on campus. She also questioned SAFE’s motives as well as what standards SAFE felt Arm violated.
“The ADL by no means wishes to limit the right to free speech by any group,” Budaj said. “However, it is not clear as to which standards of behavior Arm is being held against.”
After the hearing, the Ethics Committee concluded that the operation rulings of the committee must be “reformed” as it was unclear as to what standards Arm should have been judged and whether or not Arm was allowed legal representation at the hearing.
According to Article VIII of the Conflicts of Interest Code, a member of the CSG may have an ethical conflict of interest of serving on the CSG if they receive money or payment from any student organization as a direct consequence of their membership in the Assembly. It also states, “No member of the Assembly possessing a conflict of interest with a student organization may participate in debate or vote on any matter regarding the organization with which there exists a conflict of interest.”
There is no language about CSG members participating, or speaking out, at a campus demonstration. Attempts to reach CSG and SAFE representatives before and after the hearing by the Detroit Jewish News went unanswered. *
France Can Take A Lesson in Religious Tolerance from Detroit’s Interfaith Council
On these snowy days I admit I have done way too much trolling on my Facebook news feed. One alarming video clip that came across my newsfeed was a very disturbing video of Fascists in France waving a red swastika flag, shouting Jews Out! Jews Out!
Do they have the right to march peacefully and express their views in a democratic society? Maybe. Have these French citizens forgotten the history of WWII when the Nazis themselves goose-stepped through the streets of Paris shouting the same hatred? Absolutely.
Today’s Germany would not stand for such hate marches, free speech or not. In fact, it is illegal to fly the Nazi Flag anywhere in Germany or have a Nazi rally.
I wonder, in this country which proposes to ban the wearing of any religious symbol or clothing, what they teach their children about religious tolerance.
A few weeks back, I had the honor of attending and covering a “Face to Faith” Journey to Judaism sponsored by the Interfaith Council of Greater Detroit. Sitting in the massive sanctuary of Temple Israel of West Bloomfield with 150 seventh graders, I felt right at home. And you know something, so did the kids. Even if they never set foot in a Jewish house of worship. Even if they never had a Jewish friend.
Cynics might wonder if such interfaith explorations organized by Detroit’s Interfaith Council really teach tolerance. But, after you watch the disturbing and disgusting video of Fascists marching down a street of what is supposed to be the world’s most civilized city shouting “Jews Out!” consider the alternatives.
Here is the article which ran in the Detroit Jewish News
What does a rabbi look like? To the uninitiated, a rabbi wears a long black coat, grows a long beard, and therefore must always be a man.
Temple Israel rabbis, teachers, and other volunteers at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield helped to dispel this and many other misconceptions about Judaism as they guided a diverse group of 150 seventh graders from six school districts through a “Jewish Religious Diversity Journey.” The trip was part of a series of explorations into different religions created by the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit.
According to the council’s administrator Meredith Skowronski, Religious Diversity Journeys for the past 11 years has taken young leaders – 25 handpicked students from each school district – on six trips to a different house of worship to foster understanding and a celebration of cultural differences. Participating school districts include Berkeley, Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Clarkston, West Bloomfield, and Walled Lake.
Gail Katz, a retired Berkeley teacher and the director of Religious Diversity Journeys, explained that the program fits in perfectly with the World Religions unit of the seventh Grade curriculum.
“The Journey only extends what they are learning beyond the textbook and the classroom,” said Katz as she mingled with the students during a morning icebreaker. “We strive to increase respect and understanding among all students.”
Rabbi Josh Bennett – who is clean-shaven and does not wear a long black coat – kicked off the formal component of the day of learning in the temple’s large sanctuary. Students, impressed by the large golden ark on the bimah, learned about the three different branches of Judaism and the belief in one God, learning Torah and the connection to Israel, which unites Jews across every level of observance
Later in the morning, groups of students took turns touring the building and listening to Rabbi Ariana Gordon explain the cycle of Jewish holidays, the complexity of having a Hebrew calendar that is both lunar and solar, and the odd phenomena this year that was “Thanksgivingkah.”
The students also visited the building’s mikvah and viewed an open Torah Scroll with Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny.
“These trips are an invaluable lesson where kids get a hands-on learning experience and are made to feel welcome in different houses of worship,” said Kaluzny after teaching a group about how a Torah scroll is made and written.
Over a Mediterranean vegetarian lunch prepared by Mezza of West Bloomfield and sponsored by Temple Israel, students expressed their appreciation for the program, which allows them to explore other traditions and pose questions that would seem inappropriate or uncomfortable in a classroom setting.
Ben Johnston of West Hills Middle School came away from the program with a better understanding of the different branches of Judaism and the customs and holidays his Jewish friends celebrate.
“This program is important to me because we have a diverse society,” Johnston said. “We go to school with different kinds of kids, and as we get older, these are the people we’ll go to college and work with. We must have the knowledge of their backgrounds so we can be more tolerant and understanding.”
Ben Johnston, a student at West Hills Middle school, learns about the role of a mikvah in Jewish life during a Religious Diversity Journey.
Ashley Liles and Maddy Merritt, both of Sashabaw Middle School in Clarkston, do not go to school with many Jewish kids. The program allowed them to peer into a Siddur and not feel embarrassed to ask why it opens up backwards or why the letters look different than English.
Maddy Merritt left, and Ashley Liles, right, seventh graders from Clarkston’s Sashabaw Middle school, examine Hebrew letters in the sanctuary at Temple Israel at during a Religious Diversity Journey.
The “journey” gave them a better perspective of the history and origins of the Jewish people. Not only did it widen their understanding of Jewish holidays beyond Chanukkah, but the lesson with Rabbi Gordon also gave them a broader understanding of a holiday they would otherwise only know as a “Jewish Christmas.”
Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny of Temple Israel, West Bloomfield, displays a Torah scroll to seventh graders on a Religious Diversity Journey with the help of parent volunteer Janet Cummins of Birmingham.