Friday, March 26, 2010

Passover: The Season of Rebirth

First: a head's up that this will be my last posting on this blog for a while - probably until April 23rd.

In addition to getting ready for Passover (my reflections on the holiday are below), I am also busy making my final preparations to lead a delegation of Temple Solel members (there are 15 of us travelling) to Cuba.  We will be in Cuba for eight days, from April 7-14.  During our trip, we will be meeting with the leadership of the Cuban Jewish community, delivering much-needed supplies to Jews and non-Jews, alike.  And, we will also have the chance to experience a little bit of what life in Cuba is like today.

Our travel agent assures me that there will be ample internet access for most of the trip.  Thus, I have every intention of blogging our experience.  The skeleton of the blog is up:  If you are interested in following along with what I hope will be daily updates, you can go to the blog now and become a subscriber.  There is a link to subscribe on the site.  In theory, the rest is self-explanatory.  Feel free to email me if you have any questions.


Ah....Passover.  Where to begin?

Members of the mainstream media, and the Jewish online world, are all abuzz about "Tweeting the Exodus" - an attempt on the part of a few rabbis to bring the Passover story alive - in 140 characters or less of course. 

It's not too late to find new Passover recipes here.

And you can find some easy-to-sing Passover songs for your seder here.

I have been reflecting recently on the well known Ahad HaAm quote, when he said: "More than the Jewish people has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people."

Historically, he argues, one of the sustaining forces of Judaism and Jewish identity has been our observance of the Shabbat.

That was probably accurate when it came to assessing the state of Jewish life from the Middle Ages down thru beginning of the 19th century.

But, thanks to the onset of the Enlightenment, patterns of Jewish observance have been changing.  Shabbat observance is not exactly what it used to be.  Click here for a reflection on that subject, written way back in 1961.  It's as true today as it was then.

I would argue that, today, Passover is the holiday that sustains the Jewish people.  It's not that we keep Passover.  It's that - on some level - Passover keeps us...keeps us Jewish, that is.

According to Jewish demographic studies, attending a Passover seder is a more widely observed ritual than going to synagogue on Yom Kippur! 

Passover is one of those moments in our year when we are internally called to remember our roots.  To return - even if only for an hour or two - to the customs and traditions of our ancestors.  And whether we are talking about a 15 minute rendition of the Maxwell House Hagaddah or an hours-long affair that stretches far into the night, there is something about the holiday that makes just enough of an impact on us, that it almost renews us as Jews for another year....the seder alone has the power to 'keep us Jewish' for yet another year.

In the reading that I have been doing in preparation for my trip to Cuba, I have been genuinely struck about how true this is (maybe even more true) for Cuban Jews. 

Cuban Jewish life peaked in the mid-to-late 1950s.  In the months before Castro came to power, Cuban Jews pooled their wealth and built monuments to their little community (of about 20,000 Jews at the time) that had come to thrive on the Island.  Cuban Jews in the late '50s were not so different from their American counterparts of the time.  There was a network of religious schools and synagogues. There were youth groups and sisterhoods.  And there were a number of Zionist clubs and organizations that funneled support for the newly-established State of Israel.  There were even a few kosher butchers and restaurants.

Overnight, everything changed.  As Castro came to power, so too did the influence of Communism - with its general disdain and intolerance for all religions.

(For the record: despite all of this, there has been virtually zero anti-Semitism in Cuba.  Indeed, for a variety of different reasons, Jews have been treated better than the rest of the Cuban population when it comes to certain things.)

Nonetheless, Jewish life on the Island largely ceased in the '60s, '70s, and '80s.  The grand synagogues that had been built in the late '50s fell into disrepair.  Beyond the fact that there was little money, under communism, to finance their upkeep...the fact is that Cuban Jews (we're speaking, here, of the ones who chose to remain on the Island after Castro) were afraid to show themselves at Jewish institutions.  It's not so much that Cuban Jews were embarrassed about their Judaism...but rather that they simply didn't feel comfortable expressing any religious affiliation.

The exception to this phenomenon was Passover.  Thanks to data that has been archived by the Cuban Jewish community, we know that the Cuban Jewish community that is basically thriving today because of the lists that the community had of people that had ordered Passover food.

Fascinatingly, all during the '60s, '70s, and '80s - even as Cuban Jews were not publicly gathering together....they were still committed to observing Passover.  There was a sort of underground network of people that tried to provide those on the lists with basic Passover staples.  Passover became the annual constant that kept Cubans attached and connected to their Jewish identities.

In 1991, when the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was allowed to send staff, money, and supplies into Cuba after Castro legalized religious freedom, they relied on those lists of Passover food orderers.  Community leaders and JDC volunteers went door to door to reconnect with tell them that Jews would be gathering once again at such-and-such place, and that a new Hebrew school would once again be offering classes for children at such-and-such time. 

It sounds crazy, but it was thanks to that list of people that were still hoping for matzah - at a time when it was dangerous to do so - that allowed the community to survive, and even thrive once again.

It's not the Jewish people who have kept Passover - it's that Passover has kept the Jewish People.

I can't think of a better message of hope - and of re-birth - to celebrate as we come upon our springtime festival once again.  As our Cuban brothers and sisters seized upon this season to hold fast to the traditions that had been passed down to them, so too may we re-affirm our connection to generations past, by re-living the story of our freedom, and re-committing ourselves to working for the redemption of others.

Wishing you and your families a happy and a healthy Passover,

Rabbi Jeff Brown

Friday, March 19, 2010

Israelis and Palestinians: In Search of Peace

SPOILER ALERT: I will be exploring some of these themes and ideas in my remarks at Shabbat morning services this weekend.

The last week or so has witnessed a pretty depressing turn of events, that makes it feel like the peace process has taken a few giant steps backwards.

Have you been following the news? 

To begin....there was Vice President Biden's visit last week to Jerusalem.  Shortly after he got off the plane in Tel Aviv, word leaked out from the Israeli Interior Ministry that Israel intended to build 1600 additional housing units (for Israeli Jews) in East Jerusalem.

To appreciate the implications of this seemingly innocuous announcement, you have to know a little bit of background information.

To begin, here's the google map of Jerusalem:

Now, even if you don't know anything about the boundary disputes that have plagued peace negotiations in decades past, you can at least look at this map and notice the dashed gray line that runs sort of vertically down the right/middle part of the map.  That's the Green Line, the armistice boundary lines drawn in 1949 at the conclusion of Israel's War of Independence.  From 1949-1967, Jordan controlled everything to the east of that gray line.

In 1967, at the conclusion of the Six Day War, Israel had successfully reclaimed territory east of the line - the vast majority of which was populated by Palestinians.  Since then, Israel (or, at least, its military) has exercised various degrees of control over these "territories" - namely the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.

Now, depending on where one situates oneself on the Israeli political spectrum (click here for a list of the parties, their platforms, and an online tool that will help you determine where you stand on the spectrum) will determine - to a certain degree - what one's attitude is toward the West Bank.  (Gaza is mostly a non-issue at this point, given Israel's recent unilateral pullout from there.)  To what degree is Israel's security dependent on holding onto the West Bank?  To what degree does Israel have a non-security-based claim on the land?  To what degree do those non-security claims trump the rights of the Palestinians to establish an autonomous country of their own on that land?

There are no easy answers to any of those questions.  And again, how each of us answers those questions, is determined in large part but what our own political positions are.  Hence, I refer you to the aforementioned website.

At any rate, Prime Minister Netanyahu was elected, in part, because of his willingness to acknowledge that the Palestinians had a right to a state of their own.  That is certainly a position that the Israeli left has long held.  And it's one that President Bush himself famously called for and articulated (as early as the weeks immediately following 9/11).

Frustration with the Israeli government, in the current diplomatic brouhaha, stems from a seeming disconnect between their theoretical desire to support the creation of a Palestinian state, and their decision to continue building new Jewish residential communities in East Jerusalem.

(It should go without saying that there is tremendous dispute between the parties about the status of Jerusalem.  Will it be administered and "owned" as a 'unified' city solely by Israel?  Or will it be split (with the west, or predominantly Jewish, side going to Israel, and the east, or predominantly Palestinian, side going to the Palestinians)?  Again: how one answers this question will be determined, in part, by one's politics. 

But, the current diplomatic mess has resulted in friction between the parties because the Palestinians most certainly do desire a split city scenario, where East Jerusalem would serve as the capital of their newly created state.

So, thus far we have made mention of Israel, and what it has done (i.e. the ill-timed building announcement) to put the new round of Obama-sponsored peace talks in jeopardy.

Suffice it to say that Israel bears only a portion of responsibility for the current situation.

The Palestinians, of course, are to blame as well.

Where to begin?

How about the fact Palestinians continue to fail to prominently acknowledge the right of the Jewish state to exist?  That Hamas, the terrorist group/dominant political party in Gaza today (and minority party influence in the West Bank) actively calls for the destruction of the Jewish state?

How about the fact that the Palestinians - at the same moment that Israel was announcing its building of residential homes in East Jerusalem - held a ceremony honoring the terrorist who was responsible for the deadliest terror attack against Israeli civilians in Israeli history?!

And how about the fact that Israel was still theoretically prepare to enter into some kind of 'indirect' negotiations with the Palestinians at a time when the Palestinians continue to attack Jewish Israelis living in areas adjacent to Gaza by launching rocket attacks against them?  The most recent such attack occurred just a few days ago, when one innocent civilian was killed.

All of these Palestinian actions dismantle any hope of engendering the trust of the Israeli government as a new round of negotiations potentially begins.

There are some who would attempt to weigh these actions - from both sides - on some kind of scale of justice.  And from there, they would conclude who is the worse aggressor, and who is the more vulnerable victim.  And from there, they would conclude that one side has a just claim on the land, and the other doesn't.

Does that approach speak to you? 

It doesn't speak to me.  (Believe me, life would be much simpler if it did!)

But, for me, there is no solution of one side being wholly rewarded, while the other gets wholly punished.

Peace in the Land of Israel - something that I yearn for with all of my heart and soul - something that I pray for, and meditate on at length...that peace is only going to come if we can figure out some kind of approach that will allow both parties to get some of what they each want.

To figure out all of ultimately reach some kind of conclusion to this process, which has dragged on for far too long...requires that each side commit themselves to taking baby steps that will engender some kind of trust with one another.

And, as I have tried to illustrate here, both sides have done a pretty lame job of doing that in the last week or two.

Which side has been more responsible for the breakdown in trust and communication?  That's for you to determine, based on your own politics, and your own reading of what has been going down.

For me, personally, I'm not sure that the answer to that question matters. 

So what if I believe that the Palestinians have been more responsible?

Giving Israel the moral high ground...and the freedom to walk away from the negotiating table because they can't "trust" the Palestinians....from my point of view (God knows there are plenty in the Jewish community that vehemently disagree with me on this) - but from my point of view, I don't see how that's a good thing for Israel. 

Honestly, I do not believe that it is in Israel's best interest to put the final resolution of the pressing diplomatic questions (Jerusalem, status of borders, status of Palestinian 'refugees', etc.) off any longer.  Israel deserves the chance to move on with its existence, to deal with the many other pressing domestic crises that it has (issues of economics, the status of the Orthodox and the status of non-Orthodox Jews, the status of the ultra-Orthodox, etc.).  Unfortunately, it doesn't get the luxury of doing any of that, until it wraps up the issue of the Palestinians.

Wishing that this problem would just go away is not an option.

Shouldn't these guys want to at least continue talking to one another?  Laying the groundwork on some minimal level for more substantial diplomatic contact and negotiation in the future?

I've got news for you, folks.  They're not talking to one another right now.  And not just because of the various episodes on both sides in the last week or so.  It's not even clear how much they wanted to really talk to one another before everything that has happened in the last 10 days!

Praying for peace is clearly some kind of irrational fantasy right now.  So I won't go there in this forum.

But maybe you will join praying that the two sides might figure out a way to glimpse the common humanity in each other.  And, in doing so, maybe they will at least be open to the idea of talking.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, March 12, 2010


SPOILER ALERT: I will be incorporating this material into my remarks during Shabbat morning services this weekend.

Fresh off of all the excitement surrounding last weekend's Oscars ceremony, I keep coming back to this snippet of an article that I read in Newsweek a few weeks ago, in the run-up to this year's Academy Awards. The article describes the "behind the scenes" logistics of how the ballots are counted.  (You can also watch a related ABC News video about the ballot counters here.)

What I was so struck by, especially in the article, is the sense of TRANSPARENCY that exists within the different stages of the counting.  For all of the secrecy of the process (undisclosed location, room with no windows), there are certain basic safeguards that Price Waterhouse (the accounting firm) has put into place to insure that the ballots are counted in as honest and accurate a way as possible.

In the first stage of the counting, all of the ballots are divvied up into four equal piles.  Four separate accountants tabulate their own piles.  BUT THESE ACCOUNTANTS ARE NOT PRIVY TO THE RESULTS OF THE OTHER THREE!  Each one hands in their ballots and a tabulated result summary sheet to two official ballot counting supervisors (the two people that actually walk down the red carpet on the day of the ceremony, and stand backstage with the official envelopes).  These two add up the results of the four individual counters.

It's so ethically significant that the two of them are involved in this process together.  Each one looking over the shoulder of the other to make sure that everything is 'above board.'  Finally, on the night of the ceremony, each one carries a duplicate briefcase filled with duplicate that - even if one of them tries to pull some kind of funny business at the last minute (perhaps by accepting a bribe from an actor or studio head), the other one can step in and try to correct the confusion by insisting that the correct/proper award winner be announced.

That kind of transparency - the notion that ethically, steps should be taken to communicate to the public/community that everyone/everything is 'above board' - is celebrated and exemplified in this week's Torah portion, (a double portion: Parshat Vayakehil-Pekudei).

The latter chapters of the Book of Exodus deal with the minutiae - not only of the building of the Tent of Meeting (the transportable structure that our ancestors used to encounter God in during their 40 year journey through the desert) - but also with all of the details surrounding the fundraising for the Tent.  (The building of the Tent was a major undertaking, requiring the donation of all sorts of supplies, plus the donation of substantial amounts of gold and silver).

Thus our rabbis celebrate the profound significance of the fact that the final section of Exodus has Moses deliver a detailed accounting of all the money and valuables that were donated.  How much was there?  Where was it spent? How can the community see the tangible results of their donations?  It is all laid out in our Torah portion.

There is no question, in my mind, that the Torah is encouraging us to emulate Moses' behavior.  The question is - in what ways can we achieve a greater sense of transparency in the communities we are a part of, and the lives that we individually live?

On a communal - or societal level - transparency is a Jewish value that we should bring to bear on how our government does its business.

Given that we are in the run up to tax season, now is the time that we should be thinking about HOW THE GOVERNMENT SPENDS OUR MONEY.  Is it spent responsibly?  The only way that we will ever know if it is is if the government adopts a greater sense of transparency to its records, and to the way it does business.

There have been plenty of non-profit organizations in the last few decades who have devoted themselves to this cause.  Check out websites like (advocating for transparency in state and local governments) or (advocating for transparency of our federal government).  Both of these organizations are non-partisan, with one goal: to push our government to be less secretive, and more forthcoming about the way that it handles our money, and does business.

(Note how pro-transparency orgs like to use the image of the sun...letting the sun shine in to show the 'true nature' of the way that our elected leaders do business.)

Just for the fun of it, here is Coldplay's rendition of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun":

More interesting is the recent development that has taken place on the national political stage, where Democrats and Republicans have sought to portray themselves as more transparent than the other.

Two quick examples of how the Obama Administration has responded to this new value in Washington:

1) - This is the website that the Administration set up (the website was actually mandated in the legislation) to transparently reveal where every single dollar of the massive economic stimulus package that Congress passed last February.  FYI, some have suggested that the government is doing a shoddy job of being transparent with this information. seeks to be a more accurate assessment of the spending.

2) The newfound bipartisan spirit of transparency: evidenced by the House Republicans' invitation to have President Obama debate their caucus live on television, followed by the President's own invitation to Congressional leaders of both parties to gather together for a televised health care summit.  Although it is sad that neither gathering has produced bipartisan legislation, at least we can applaud the leaders of both parties for their willingness to engage in important discussions with one another on the people more access (more sunshine, if you will) to the inner workings of our government.

Even as our Jewish values would encourage us to advocate for greater transparency in government, it's also important to point out that transparency is a value that you and I can practice on an individual level as well.

Take a step back for a moment, and reflect on how transparent of a life you live.

Are you the kind of person that often keeps secrets (or hides the truth) from close friends and family members?

In your professional life, are you the kind of person that reacts negatively if a co-worker or supervisor inquires as to what your thought process was, in connection with a project?

Transparency is a huge component when it comes to establishing our own reputations.  People will come to trust us, and think highly of us, if they have the sense that "what they see is what they get" - that the person that they're dealing with is real, authentic, and honest.

(Check out this posting by a corporate executive who believes that Twittering can make us all more honest and transparent people!)

Our rabbis, upon reflecting on Moses' tremendous sense of transparency in this week's Torah portion, commented that: "To acquire a good name like that of Moses is better than all of the wealth of the world."

None of us may be weighed down with the job and responsibility of honestly counting the ballots for the Academy Awards.  That does not lessen our Jewish obligation to be as transparent as we can be in our personal lives.  Nor does it affect our responsibility to seek that sense of transparency from our leaders in Washington.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Update on Last Week's Post from ADL of San Diego

ADL of San Diego was in touch with me earlier today, and kindly informed me of the many responses that they have taken in response to the disturbing string of recent events at UCSD. Here are the highlights:

1. Our Civil Rights Committee sent a letter to Chancellor Fox commending her strong statement against the cookout and related conduct.

2. ADL sent a press release which has since been picked up by many community organizations.

3. ADL has made contact with African American leaders in the community including the Urban League and NAACP.

4. ADL staff and lay leaders attended both the rally and teach-in at UCSD as well as a forum at Mt. Erie Baptist Church.

5. On March 10 a forum for Jewish students will be held at UCSD regarding this issue.

6. A Miller Early Childhood anti-bias training has been scheduled for staff at UCSD's child development center.

7. A meeting has been scheduled to update all civil rights and education lay leaders on all of the above and to discuss future support we can give UCSD students and staff.

Yesher Koach to the ADL for their comprehensive response.  I regret that I was not more fully informed, before I wrote the original blog posting.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Hating Hate, Especially When It's In Your Own Backyard

So...I've spent the last few days kind of getting worked up about the recent events that have transpired at UCSD.  (Any UCSD students out there?  We want to hear from you!  Post your thoughts and perspectives on the blog!)

I'm going to presume that most of you have heard at least a tiny bit of what's been going on:

This article summarizes the "basics" of the first incident: a frat party that advertised itself as a "Compton Cookout."

A few days later, the UCSD administration sponsored a "teach-in" to teach against racism.  It didn't go exactly as planned: most of the students walked out of the "teach-in" in protest, convinced that the university was oblivious to their concerns about the lack of diversity and tolerance on campus.

There was the incident on the campus TV station where a racial epithet was used.

There was the discovery, last week, of a noose hanging from a bookcase in the library. (This is especially upsetting, given the symbolism that the noose carries for African Americans.)

As if all that weren't enough: just this week, a KKK-esque hood was found on a statue on the UCSD campus.

How are people reacting? 

The NAACP has weighed in.

Governor Schwarzenegger has weighed in.

And yet - surprisingly - the organized Jewish community of San Diego has been largely silent.

Honestly, I cannot figure out why.  It seems to me like it's a no-brainer.  American Jews and African Americans are seemingly natural allies.  We should be looking out for each other.

That's especially true as we move ahead into the spring season, and recall once again the lessons of the Passover story.  Year after year after year, we re-read the story of our ancestors, who were enslaved in (and then freed from) Egypt.  One of the reasons that we return to the story over and over again is because we are supposed to learn something from it. 

We're supposed to learn empathy: the ability to identify with (or imagine) the struggles of others.  We recall the slavery of our own past, and in doing so, we should be moved to stand up and fight against the slavery (or mistreatment) of others (like African Americans) now, and in the future.

This theme is echoed in this week's Torah portion, Parshat Ki Tisa.  The parsha includes the story of the Golden Calf incident.  You may remember that, in the story, when Moses sees that the Israelites have built an idol (while he was up at the top of the mountain getting the Ten Commandments), he destroyed the original tablets out of anger and frustration.

Once the Golden Calf thing blows over, Moses gets God to forgive the Israelites, and returns to the top of the mountain...and comes down with a new set of tablets - the text of which is recorded in this week's Torah portion.

The commandments inscribed on the tablets here in Exodus 34 are not the "official" Ten Commandments that we read in Exodus 20.  This is an 'alternative version.'  And the second of these commandments, right after the one about not making "molten gods" (duh, after the Calf incident is over), reads as follows:

"You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread — eating unleavened bread for seven days, as I have commanded you — at the set time of the month of Abib, for in the month of Abib you went forth from Egypt."

I know - it doesn't seem like much on the surface.

But, for me, the simple reminder to observe Passover (and the requirement to eat matzah) says it all: we remember our own suffering from the past, so that we might open ourselves up to the possibility of using that empathetic knowledge to help those who suffer today.

Yeah, there are interesting reasons why Jews and African Americans have had significant disagreements during the last four decades or so.  (You can read an abbreviated history of Black-Jewish relations in America here.)  But, in my opinion, it's time for us to put all of that behind us.

Instead, I think we should seize the moment, and embrace it as an opportunity for these two important minority communities to come together and support one another during a time of need.  Here's what we can/should do:

1) Get a little angry.  These acts of racism at UCSD are despicable.  We should be upset about them!

2) Spend a moment meditating on the famous photo below, of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching hand in hand with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  If they could figure out how to be allies, then surely we can as well.

3) If you're on a campus, consider stopping by the "Multicultural Center" or the "Cross-Cultural Center."  These days, almost every campus has one.  The students and professionals that work there are committed to making sure that your campus is a tolerant and open-minded one - diverse with students of many different backgrounds.  See if they are co-sponsoring an upcoming program that interests you.  Consider working with them to jump into campus politics - perhaps by marching or protesting somewhere.

4) Finally, consider writing a friendly email to the San Diego chapter of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).  The ADL is an amazing organization, devoted not only to speaking out against anti-Semitism, but about all kinds of hatred and discrimination.  According to their website, it looks like the San Diego chapter of the ADL has not yet made a statement about what is going on at UCSD.  It seems to me that it would be meaningful if it did.  (The ADL does great work, so go easy on them if you write to them!)  You can submit an electronic message to them here.

I'm going to end with music from John Lennon.  Yeah, it's a little on the cheesy side.  But who has ever said it better, in terms of imagining the day when we'll all figure out a way to get along...

Shabbat Shalom.