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September 1, 2014 / 6 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Jewish community’

Remembering a Community’s Selfless Response to Hurricane Sandy

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

With the coming of the New Year I can’t help but think of the past year’s highlights. While many memorable events occurred in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s Jewish community in 5773, one in particular stands out for me: our response to Hurricane (later named Superstorm) Sandy.

In late October 2012, Hurricane Sandy pounded America’s East Coast. Numerous communities in New York and New Jersey were devastated by flooding. Although Harrisburg experienced strong winds and heavy rains we were, thankfully, spared the fury of our temperamental Susquehanna River.

Our feelings of relief, however, were cut short when we learned just how badly other communities had fared. We soon heard of Jewish communities whose very infrastructure – schools, synagogues and homes – had been destroyed by the storm. To make matters worse, many of the areas most affected by Sandy were left without power for weeks after the storm.

Very quickly, Jewish relief organizations sprang into action to assist those who had lost everything. News stories abounded about ad-hoc aid centers, soup kitchens, and food and clothing distribution points that had been set up in Jewish day schools and synagogues.

It did not take long before Harrisburg’s diverse Jewish community found itself directly involved in the relief effort.

In a short span of time our shul, Kesher Israel Congregation, raised and distributed thousands of dollars to help fund those relief organizations actively assisting families most affected by Sandy.

The teens of the local Jewish Federation’s Bnei Tzedek group collected an incredible amount of canned goods, batteries and flashlights for Jewish families left without power in the Far Rockaway section of New York.

The Federation here also organized a clothing drive to help families of all backgrounds left without belongings in Sandy’s wake.

Perhaps most impressive, however, was our community’s rapidly assembled relief mission to Staten Island, New York.

In a wonderful statement of unity, a group of volunteers spanning Jewish Harrisburg (and beyond) spent Wednesday, November 14 in Staten Island helping hurricane victims in a hands-on fashion. Starting at 4:30 a.m. our group met at our JCC to load our bus with an abundance of supplies and clothing our community had donated for the hurricane victims.

Our group of relief volunteers represented the diverse nature of Harrisburg’s Jewish community. From an excited bunch of 7th graders in our local Jewish day school to a hard-working volunteer in his eighties, our group also spanned all ages. Once in Staten Island, we worked through the Young Israel, which had become one of the command centers assisting area residents hit by the storm.

In the days following Sandy, families of all religions, backgrounds and circumstances who had been devastated by the storm reached out to the synagogue for assistance. Upon our arrival we handed off our collected goods and the synagogue’s relief coordinator found appropriate jobs for each member of our group. In one way we all put in a hard day’s work assisting families, both Jewish and non-Jewish, whose homes had sustained damage ranging from flooded basements all the way to total loss. As a result of our efforts, Harrisburg’s Jewish community gained national attention.

What prompted our relatively small Jewish community out in Central Pennsylvania to be so generous with funds, resources and time? While a number of factors certainly played a role, I believe there is one that cannot be ignored.

The Jews of Harrisburg can honestly identify and sympathize with flood-stricken families, synagogues, and schools. As Harrisburg is nestled along the banks of the Susquehanna River, we know all too well what it means to suffer the effects of a hurricane. Having been through something of this nature on several occasions (my congregants report that the worst was Hurricane Agnes of 1972), our collective reaction was that of understanding, empathy and a sincere wish to be part of the relief effort.

In the months since Hurricane Sandy I have received many thank-you notes from people who were assisted by our community. I would venture to say, however, that those of us who did our best to help others in their time of need were ourselves, on a different level to be sure, very real beneficiaries of that relief effort.

Jewish Agency Hands Gondar School to Ethiopia

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky handed Getnet Amare, the mayor of Gondar, Ethiopia, the keys to the school that had prepared thousands of Jewish Ethiopian children for their subsequent immigration to Israel through education in math, physics, computers and English.

In a ceremony on Monday, the Jewish Agency donated all the school buildings and equipment to the city. “Jews lived in Gondar for 2,500 years. However, their longing to return home never weakened,” Sharansky said at the ceremony marking the conclusion of the Jewish Agency-led Operation Wings of a Dove. Through the operation, launched in 2010, Israel absorbed more about 7,000 people in Ethiopia, the Falash Mura, whose ancestors were Jewish but were forced to convert to Christianity.

“For us it is very symbolic that the Jewish community here is leaving behind a place of study. It’s a promise we make all the countries from which Jews emigrate: that we will leave behind a school for their local community’s children,” Sharansky said.

The final flight of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel will arrive in the Jewish state on Aug. 28 with 400 immigrants.

Egyptian Jews: We support Military’s Fight against Terrorism

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

When Magda Haroun was out on the streets during the unrest now rocking Egypt’s capital, she saw someone standing over the body of a dead soldier.

“Not even a Jew would do this,” she heard him say.

Haroun, the president of the Egyptian Jewish community, doesn’t enjoy hearing anti-Semitic slurs on the street. She gets nervous when she hears Egyptians are burning the churches of Coptic Christians, a much larger religious minority than the country’s tiny Jewish community. She assumes that most of her compatriots have forgotten there are any Jews left in Egypt.

But when protesters filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square at the end of June calling on President Mohamed Morsi to step down, she was right there with them.

“The amount of people in Tahrir was breathtaking,” Haroun told JTA. “The unity between people was breathtaking. Some of the people recognized me because I was on TV. They were shaking my hand and telling me, ‘God bless you. You are a real Egyptian.’ ”

Haroun, 61, is the youngest of the 14 women who make up Cairo’s dwindling Jewish community. Most are now in their 80s, living off charity and rental income from properties the community has owned for generations.

But though small in number, Haroun says the community is proud of its country and, like many Egyptians, supportive of the army’s campaign to quell Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

The latest round of unrest in Egypt began last month after mass protests in Tahrir Square led the army to depose Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected leader, and install a new government. The Muslim Brotherhood denounced the move as a coup and confrontations raged between its supporters and the military, leaving more than 1,000 Egyptians dead in just the last week alone.

Jews have lived in Egypt for millennia. Around the time of Israel’s founding in 1948, the community was estimated to number 75,000, but in the decades that followed the vast majority fled.

Those that remain are happy to call Egypt home, Haroun says. Although she has relatives in several European countries, she vows to “never, never, never” leave.

“I’m very proud to be here,” she said. “I want to do whatever I can to help. We are a strong people. I am very happy now that people [are] in the street. Instead of talking about football, they are talking politics. There is more awareness about the importance of our country.”

On Tuesday, CNN reported that the White House was withholding some military aid to Egypt in protest of the military’s violent crackdown on Morsi supporters. But for Haroun, the army’s assertion of control is a welcome development she sees as “fighting terrorism.”

Haroun says the Jewish community thus far has not experienced any anti-Semitism as a result of the fighting — probably, she says, because it’s so small.

Under Morsi’s rule, however, it was a different story. Soon after taking office, the government voted to end a monthly subsidy of $1,000 to the Jewish community it had provided for more than 20 years.

“The way they wanted things to go, it’s a fascist movement,” she said. “I hope we’ll start a new era in Egypt where everyone will be equal regardless of political beliefs. I am very confident in the future.”

Another believer in a more tolerant Egyptian future is Levana Zamir, whose family was expelled from Cairo when she was 12. Now living in Tel Aviv, Zamir remembers an Egypt that strived to be open to the world.

“I’m very proud of Egyptians that they want to go back to the secularism and cosmopolitanism of Egypt,” said Zamir, the president of the Association of Jews from Egypt in Israel. “They need someone like [former President Anwar] Sadat, who wanted to open the Arab world.”

Haroun says that as much as the casual anti-Semitism she hears bothers her, she believes it comes from Egyptians’ unfamiliarity with Judaism.

“It’s all talking, there is no action,” she said. “The talk about anti-Semitism is ignorance. The Egyptians are loving. They love each other. It’s ignorance that pushes them to hate and to burn churches.”

Egypt’s unrest will prevent the community from celebrating Rosh Hashanah together in a few weeks. In past years, the community has hosted festive meals and invited foreign dignitaries and non-Jewish Egyptians.

Temptations, Tests, and the Search for Spiritual Courage

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

I was recently walking down the street when I smelled one of the most amazing unkosher cuisines I could ever remember smelling. As I stared at my food enemy, I had a thought which I imagine most religious Jews have at one point or another. I wondered: Was God testing me with this great smell? Was this amazing scent a way to bring my downfall?

Pondering this trivial “test” led to a greater philosophical and theological question: What is the religious nature of temptations and tests?

The Torah says, “Remember the entire path along which the Lord your God led you these forty years in the desert, He sent hardships to test you.” (Deut. 8:2). We read that G-d has Bnei Yisrael wander in the desert for 40 years as a test.

What is this about? To place a nation (man, woman, and child) through such transient and confused misery for decades as a test? I also often wonder if the Jewish people are being tested today, with our own state in Israel and unprecedented wealth and influence in the US. What will we do with the great blessings we’ve been granted? What does this idea mean that G-d tests us as individuals and as a nation?

It must be more than schar v’onesh (that God is merely keeping our score card) or that G-d is merely flexing power in the world.

I also can’t relate to the cynical answer found in the book of Job, where God tests Job because of a disagreement with Satan. My belief in a benevolent and personal G-d precludes the possibility of random tests.

Still within distance of smelling my temptation of the day, I began to ponder answers:

For years, the most compelling answer to me has been that it is through the struggle of these challenges that we truly grow. These temptations are ways of teaching people about G-d and the incredible human capacity for compassion and spiritual depth. The Ramban argues that this was exactly the purpose of the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac) for Avraham.

Alternatively, perhaps there is a utilitarian approach that more people can learn from a test than the one having to undergo the discomfort of the test. The Rambam and Radak argue that the purpose of the test at the Akeidah was not for Avraham to learn but for the future adherents of the Abrahamic faith to learn. This sets a gold standard for others to try to follow.

Rav Kook goes even further, arguing that Avraham was being tested in order to “prove” to the pagan religions that monotheism can match the religious passion of pagan worship through the act of inward sacrifice, without the need for savage and barbaric sacrifices. One is being tested in order to teach others through its example.

Another utilitarian approach is that tests can provide opportunities for others to do mitzvot to help when we are struggling. It is for the moral good of the community at large.

These explanations may be true and all of them are worth thinking about but Rav Tzadok teaches that just as a person needs to believe in G-d so too one needs to believe in oneself. These days many of us (including myself) are struggling less with why we are tested by G-d and more with how we can overcome our obstacles and challenges to live a happier, more meaningful, more successful life. Do we believe in our own capacity to overcome in the face of adversity?

One tool that we can all consider experimenting with: The Gemara says that the Torah is the seasoning for the yetzer hara (personal evil inclination). The Maggid of Mezritch offers a beautiful interpretation that since the yetzer hara is the main dish and the Torah is the seasoning, we must serve God with the full ecstasy of the yetzer hara. The purpose is not to destroy or subdue the yetzer hara but rather to spice it up – to access its energy and channel it towards good.

This is to say that when we experience struggle we should use that temptation and channel that new energy towards good rather than attempt to dismiss or remove the temptation. This is why the Midrash explains that without the yetzer hara there would be no business or procreation. In a complex way, we need our desire for self-advancement to further societal goals.

Henry Shaw & Names

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

What’s in a name? My late father had an only sibling called Henry Shaw. We loved our Uncle Hashy as we called him. He was huge, almost six-and-a-half feet tall, and had to stoop to get through the doors of our house. He had a deep but soft bass voice and a wonderful sense of humor. He was a marvelous raconteur, steeped in Yiddish culture and the intricacies of internal Jewish political warfare in Eastern Europe. His greatest impact on my life was the range of experiences he introduced me to, from Chazanut to Verdi’s Requiem, from Hillel Zeitlin to AJP Taylor, from Martin Buber to Bertrand Russell. He was less charismatic than my father, less combative, but a much more approachable person.

He qualified in social studies at London University and spent his life devoted to the Jewish Community, first in London in the Association of Jewish Youth, then running Hillel House in Endsleigh Street, London. He and his devoted wife, Sybil, provided a home from home for thousands of Jewish students from around the world for over twenty years. I saw most of him in my own student years and he was very supportive and encouraging. But then they ‘disappeared’ from my life and went off to Australia to take over the Hillel Foundation of Victoria which involved the Melbourne and Monash Universities. Five years later Henry switched to academia to help establish a Jewish studies program at Prahran College. His work eventually morphed into the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilization at Monash. Sybil died in 1978, but Henry flourished until 1996.

I am writing this piece because this week is his Yahrzeit. But also because I am embarrassed to admit that I never found out why he adopted the surname Shaw. Which leads me to the issue of Jewish surnames. We Jews never really took them very seriously. Napoleon’s civil reforms insisted that everyone had to have a surname. Previously non-Jews had Christian names (yes, that’s what first names were called in Britain until the sixties) and Jews had Jewish names on to which occasionally one added a location or a profession. When the law of the land insisted on surnames Jews usually took their profession, the town they came from, or a Latin version of a Hebrew word like Benedict or Priest. Amongst themselves they invariably used only Hebrew names, until the process of acculturation took hold. This explains why Jews tended to be rather cavalier about changing their civil names or having them changed by others.

My paternal grandparents came from Radomsk. My grandmother was a Bialystock, the name of a Polish town. My grandfather’s family name was a more Russian, Rozrasowski . During the great migrations of over a hundred years ago, lots of migrants took or had simpler or more western names given to them as they came through immigration. You have heard of the old Jewish gentleman called, improbably, Shawn Fergusson because when he arrived at immigration in a state of exhaustion and shock and was asked his name he said in Yiddish, “Shoyn Fergessen“ (“I forgotten.”). Or the Chinese man called Moishe Greenberg because as he came through after a Jewish migrant and gave his name as Sam Ting, they thought he meant “the same thing”.

Seriously, when the Rozrasowskis came to London in the early part of the twentieth century the family simplified its name to Rosen. They must have thought it would sound more English! There were five girls and four boys. The boys decided that they’d rather be known by their first names, so as to differentiate themselves. That was how my Grandfather Shlomo came to be known as Mr. Solomons. Indeed his tombstone in Dublin (where he moved during the Depression) gives his name as “Mr. Sydney Solomons (Rosen)”.

My father was always known as Rosen, but his elder brother Hashy became Shaw. Was it to sound more English, or actually Irish? Shaw is a popular Irish name. When his parents moved to Ireland this was an era in which when getting a job or an apartment with a Jewish name was as difficult as getting one with an African name fifty years later. Or was it just a play on Henry’s nickname Hashy? One family tradition had it that he had lost his papers and got an Irish passport on the black market. The most improbable was that he had accidentally killed an anti-Semitic drunk in a fight and carried his name as a penance. Who knows? He never gave me a straight answer.

But if you think this story strange, let me tell you about my maternal grandfather, Moishe Yaakov Cohen, known as MJ. He was born Moishe Shumacher in Uman in the Ukraine. As a boy he emigrated to Tredegar in Wales. There he was taken under the wing of a relative whose name was Cohen, who had become the godfather of Jewish peddlers servicing the isolated Welsh mining villages of the Rhonda with haberdashery and other supplies that the miners paid for in installments. The peddlers went out on foot on a Sunday with goods provided by Mr. Cohen and did not come back till Friday to spend Shabbes together and make up the minyan. It was suggested to Moishe that if he had the same name as the boss it would inspire confidence. So Moishe Shumacher, the Levi from Uman, became MJ Cohen. Soon he did well enough to set himself up in business on his own in Manchester as MJ Cohen, General Draper (a fancy name for selling odds and ends). Later he transferred to Cardiff. One day he sent a letter back home on his notepaper inviting relatives to come and join him. When they read the invitation they had no idea who MJ Cohen was, but they did recognize the word “General” and assumed he’d been promoted in the army and had changed his name to Draper. Which explains why we once had relatives in Manchester called Draper.

All these people I have mentioned here only had one Hebrew name from the beginning to the end, names that linked them directly to their heritage of millennia. Their surnames were secondary, like a chameleon’s skin. But they, like my Uncle Hashy, were and are all proud and contributing members of the Jewish people. As far as I am concerned that’s what counts.

Kosher Slaughter Ban Shows Poland Has a Jewish Problem

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

The Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, has a Jewish problem.

In a painful affront to the Jewish community, it recently defeated a government initiative to reinstate the legality of kosher slaughter of animals. This prompted Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, to threaten resignation and triggered sharp criticism of the Sejm from Jewish communities in Poland and around the world.

What happens in Poland regarding Jews has special significance because of the Holocaust. More than 90 percent of the country’s three and a half million Jews were killed during the Nazi occupation. Poland began legislating against kosher slaughter in 1936, and once the Germans occupied the country three years later, the practice was banned entirely.

Since the fall of the communist regime in 1989, however, Jewish life in Poland has undergone a remarkable, and previously unimaginable, renaissance. Full recognition of the rights of Jews to practice their faith – including kosher slaughter – was enshrined in an agreement the government signed with the Jewish community in 2004.

Indeed, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, addressing an overflow crowd at the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum in Washington several weeks ago, declared it was his country’s responsibility to ensure “that today’s Jewish community in Poland is safe, welcome and respected.”

He honored Poland’s Jewish community “not just for how it died, but for how it lives, and how it is coming back to life.”

When legislation was adopted a few years ago mandating the use of electronic stunning equipment before an animal is killed – a practice prohibited under Jewish law –the Jewish community was granted an administrative exemption. In January, however, a court ruled the exemption unconstitutional. Alleged violations of animal rights trumped age-old Jewish religious practice.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s government framed legislation to override the court decision. What should have been a fairly easy corrective measure was instead defeated on July 12 by a vote of 222 to 178, leaving in place the judicial ban.

Thirty-eight Sejm members representing Tusk’s ruling Civic Platform party joined with the opposition in voting to outlaw ritual slaughter. In Poland, this was viewed as a major victory for animal rights advocates, as their views prevailed against the nation’s farmers and meatpackers, who had developed a lively business exporting kosher and halal meat to Israel and Muslim countries.

Jews, however, see matters quite differently. From their perspective, the Sejm’s action stigmatizing kosher slaughter as inhumane blatantly contradicts Foreign Minister Sikorski’s pledge to make Jews “safe, welcome and respected.” They point out that kosher slaughter, whereby the animal is rendered immediately unconscious by severing the carotid artery, is humane, and that the continued legality of hunting in Poland, which results in far greater and more indiscriminate pain to animals, suggests there may in fact be another, unstated reason for outlawing kosher slaughter: anti-Semitism.

In the wake of the Sejm vote, pejorative comments about Jews in some of the Polish media and online give some credence to these fears.

Unfortunately, it is not an isolated incident. The situation for European Jews looks even grimmer in a broader context. Just a few months ago, a similar scenario unfolded in Germany when a court banned ritual circumcision, another fundamental element of the Jewish religion, on the grounds that it mutilated children without their consent. There, too, anti-Semitic motivation was not hard to discern in certain quarters amid the talk about physiological and psychological harm.

Fortunately, Chancellor Angela Merkel navigated a bill through the German parliament overruling the court and reestablishing the religious freedom of Jews to continue an age-old tradition of their faith. Whether Poland will successfully follow her example and push through a law guaranteeing the right to kosher slaughter remains to be seen.

Such attacks on Jewish religious practice, in fact, constitute just one front in a wider struggle over the future of Jewish life in Europe. Anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise, increasing by 30 percent between 2011 and 2012. In France, there was an astounding 58 percent jump over that same period, including the targeted murder last year of four Jews, three of them small children, in Toulouse.

Vocally anti-Semitic political parties are represented in the Greek and Hungarian parliaments and are gaining power on the local and regional levels in other countries. Public opinion polls show alarmingly high levels of anti-Semitic attitudes. Demonization of Israel in the media and among some intelligentsia is often indistinguishable from Jew-baiting. No wonder that opinion surveys point to a striking number of European Jews contemplating emigration.

Madrid Jewish Community Denies Rabbi’s Anti-Gay Statements

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

The Jewish community of Madrid denied the authenticity of quotes attributed to its chief rabbi in which he reportedly called gays “deviants” who need “re-educating.”

The interview was “distorted,” Ziva Freidkes, a spokeswoman for the Madrid Jewish community, told JTA on Wednesday, referring to the interview of Rabbi Moshe Bendahan published last week on Religion Digital, a Spanish-language news website.

Freidkes said Bendahan never made the negative references to gays and that the interview was “inaccurate and took things out of context.”

The rabbi was quoted as saying, “Homosexuality is a deviation from nature. It’s an anti-natural tendency and a sin. Contemplating allowing, consenting to what is known as ‘gay marriages,’ would be a monstrosity.”

In a statement published Tuesday on Religion Digital, the community said, “For a very long time now, we have been supporting the gay community’s fight against discrimination.”

Religion Digital, one of the country’s major news portals on religion, released its own statement on Tuesday reaffirming the veracity of the quotes. The journalist who interviewed Bendahan, Antonio Aradillas, was described as having “undeniable prestige and decades of experience in covering religious affairs.”

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/madrid-jewish-community-denies-rabbis-anti-gay-statements/2013/08/07/

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