Jul 25

D’var Torah: Mattot-Masei

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Adam.

A few years ago, I completed the chaplaincy requirement of rabbinical school, called CPE, which involved 500 hours of work as a hospital chaplain over the course of ten weeks. Understandably, this is a very intense endeavor. To sit, all day, with those who are suffering or dying, to comfort their loved ones, to try and answer their theological troubles – obviously this can be a lot to take in, day in and day out. And so, over the course of those ten weeks, I found myself developing a pattern: after a particularly difficult visit I would find a spot where I could be by myself for a little bit. For a few weeks, it was the chapel where the Muslim community held daily prayers. For a few weeks, it was a bridge between two floors where I could sit next to the windows. For a few weeks, it was a particular table in the corner of the cafeteria.

I found, through these places and moments, a refuge. And I think we all work to find that sometimes. In times of trouble and distress, we seek sanctuary in somewhere, someone, or something that we believe can offer us a respite from the ills that plague us. During CPE it was the nooks and crannies of a hospital that employs 65,000 people. During Mikayla’s pregnancy, when she was having complications and in the A&E nearly every week, we made to our own little ritual — after each hospital stay we would go down to Gray’s Papaya on 72nd and Broadway and get a quart of papaya juice. For us – that routine became a refuge.

During my first few years in rabbinical school, when I was under such extreme stress and working so hard to stay on top of the material – I found refuge in an even stranger place: a particular landing, in a particular stairwell – one that served only as an emergency exit so I could be assured of my solitude. I spend countless hours sitting on the dirty floor of that stairwell, next to a tiny window, reading, writing, and enjoying a temporary refrain from the anxiety of the school day.

We all have our refuges. In times of stress, in the midst of illness – there’s somewhere you go that you can always count on to provide a bit of solace. For many of us, religion can often be that refuge too. Not just the building, although we do call it a ‘sanctuary’ – but faith itself can provide a welcome change from the pressures of the secular world. We can find, in a life lived in consonance with the principles of religion, a certain solace that can mean, for many, a sort of salvation.

Yet, I think that there’s an element of this week’s sedra that can help us better understand how and when we find refuge, in religion and in the rest of our lives. We read this morning about the aré miklat – the cities of refuge. These six cities, part of the 48 allocated to the Levites in place of any ancestral claim to land, served a very specific purpose to our ancient ancestors.

If, God-forbid, you were to accidentally be responsible for someone’s death – what we today would refer to as manslaughter – you were still, according to the cultural values of the time, responsible for their blood. A relative of the victim would have not only the option, but actually the expectation, of restoring the balance of blood guilt by killing you. Thus there were often vicious cycles of blood guilt, vengeance after vengeance.

The Torah clearly has its reservations with this aspect of the culture around it, and so the protection is put in place that there will be six cities to which someone who has accidentally killed another can flee to. It’s rather like the ‘home base’ in a child’s game of tag – as long as the killer reached the city limits before the victim’s blood avenger found them, then they were safe and could not be harmed.

Once they reached the city, they would be brought to trial. If they were indeed found guilty of manslaughter, that is, if the victim’s death was ruled an accident – then the killer was permitted to stay in the city of refuge – protecting them from the relative keen on vengeance.

Yet, here’s the thing – that sanctuary was temporary. All of those who lived in the cities of refuge because they had killed accidentally were automatically absolved when the kohen gadol – the high priest in Jerusalem died. Then everything was returned to how it began – no more blood guilt, no more vengeance… but also no more sanctuary.

The truth is, those things in which we find refuge from the world around us are inherently temporary. If we cling to them, we make them into an enclave within which we aim to hide ourselves. There are times to hide – there are times in which the iniquities of life require us to step back and seek solace and sanctuary above all else. Yet, those times must have an expiration date.

The Talmud imagines that the high priest’s mother would knit clothes for the residents of the cities of refuge. We can just as easily imagine the mothers of those convicted of manslaughter bringing the high priest gifts of fruit and cake. They didn’t want him to think they were praying for him to die – they didn’t want the sanctuary to disappear. Even though the blood guilt was absolved with the high priest’s death and technically those convicted were “free,” it still ushered in a time of change, unrest, and uncertainty for those who had come to rely on the sanctuary and their loved ones. That, we might say, is the danger of sanctuary – we become so attached to the things that make up our own refuges that we lose track of what we’re hiding from and when those dangers have dissolved.

A synagogue building and the community that inhabits it, even faith itself, can be a wonderful refuge from the world outside these walls. For many of us, it has been one – but it too must not become stagnant. We must always find new ways to find sanctuary within this sanctuary. We change, our community changes, and the things that provide us calm and comfort must change too.

During this past year at JTS (Jewish Theological Seminary), in the middle of all the stress of interviews, I began to get really overwhelmed. In a moment of brilliant inspiration, I remembered the staircase where years before I had found such comfort. I climbed up the steps, found the sunny landing and the little window, sat down in just the same way – resting my head here, folding my legs like this – and I waited… and waited… and nothing happened.

Whatever had made that a refuge for me years before no longer did. Papaya juice never will taste quite as thirst-quenching as when it came on the back of emergency room visits, and those spaces in hospital in which I worked might now go unoccupied or might be the refuges of others. So I, and you, and our ancient accidental killer – all have to go out and find somewhere new to seek sanctuary.

By all means – find your own city of refuge; it is an important thing to know that you have, but perhaps an even more important thing to know when it is time to move on from the walls of that sanctuary to find another, to change as our circumstances and ourselves change.

My prayer for us is that we all can find sanctuaries in our lives – things that give us respite during difficult times — but that we learn to see those things as transient. In doing so we can appreciate them better and we can grow, able to leave our sanctuaries absolved of our sufferings, free to move on into the world around us.

Jul 18

D’var Torah: Pinchas

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

From this week’s Torah portion, we can learn two different and enduring values of Jewish tradition and one ongoing reality of the Jewish people. Let me break it down for you into three points.

Point #1: The first value is embedded in Numbers 25:11 where God praises Pinchas for his passion in eliminating an Israelite who is cavorting sexually with a Midianite woman in public. He praises Pinchas for his passion “among them,” meaning among the people of Israel. Rabbi Pinchas of Koritz interprets this phrase to mean that although Pinchas acted in a bold manner, he did not separate from the people of Israel. The concept endures, although as we shall see, his action is open to scrutiny.

This enduring concept is summarized in the words of Hillel much later in the first century C.E. Hillel says in Pirke Avot, “Do not separate yourself from the congregation.” This can mean many different things. It means that if the entire congregation stands up during worship, you should, if you are able, also stand up. We have to maintain a sense of community on more serious matters too, which is never as easy and rarely happens, but it still essential to our survival.

Point #2: The second value is even more complicated, and here in a way, Pinchas, while he does not separate himself from the community, takes a step no one else had the courage to take. He executes both the Israelite man and the Midianite woman in one fell swoop. God praises him as we have just seen, but Rabbinic tradition questions his action by separating the act in the previous Sedra from the reward he receives which is in this Sedra. This separation suggests, they say, that vigilantism and zealotry may have a place and time, but cautions us never to rush toward extremism. It seems like good advice in today’s world whether for an individual or a country. A further reminder not to rush into extreme behavior is that God rewards Pinchas with a “covenant of peace.”

Taken a couple of steps further as Rabbi Harold Kushner does in the below-the-line commentary in Etz Hayim, our Conservative Chumash, the “Yod” in Pinchas’s name in verse 11 is written smaller in the Torah Scroll to tell us that even justifiable violence diminishes us. Finally, in verse 12 in the Torah Scroll, there is a break in the “Vav” in the word “Shalom,” reminding us again that while extreme actions may bring short term success, in the long term that success will be incomplete.

Point #3: This is about an ongoing reality in Jewish life everywhere. When Korach and his band are swallowed up to put an end to the rebellion, “the sons of Korach, however, did not die” (Numbers 26:11). The Rabbis explain that the original instigators of the rebellion were eliminated but that Korach-like people will continue to flourish. As Rabbi Mordechai ha-Kohen reminds us there will always be people “undermining peace, harmony and fellowship among mankind.” If the troublemakers will continue to be present from one generation to the next, then it is necessary make certain that constructive people who want to build harmony and peace in the world will also be present in generations to come.

I regret that there are too many on this earth who continue to sow discord, hatred and violence among us. I regret even more that some of the Korach-like people are among our own Jewish people, just as they were in this Biblical story. Recent events in Israel bear this out, but there are just as many of these destructive individuals and groups everywhere on the globe.

While I am not intending to connect each of my three points to the others, I would say that community solidarity despite our differences is illustrated in my first point.  As to my second point, that kind of solidarity on a communal, national and global level would lessen the chances of extreme actions with only temporary results. And finally recognizing that evil-doers will never disappear (unless a Messiah comes to us or we come to a Messianic Age) as in the third point, both the first and second points will continue to remain operative for the foreseeable future.

Jul 11

D’var Torah: Balak

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

I present to you the characters in the drama of this week’s Torah Portion- Balak:

-Balak Ben Tzippor, King of Moab, who fears the Israelites.

-Bilaam, Non-Israelite Gentile prophet Balak hires to curse the Israelites, but who listens to our God.

-The Ass who sets Bilaam on the right path.

-“Optics” is the lead character- not a person but a new word in the news- which is how something looks depending on your point of view, i.e. where you stand, how a situation appears to you and why.

As the story opens Balak wants Bilaam to curse the Israelites because they have grown numerous. Balak feels threatened. Bilaam will not do it; he listens to our God.

The prophet is taken to two different locations, each of which gives him only a partial view of the people of Israel. At both spots he can neither curse nor bless. Then the donkey sort of gives him a kick and through this talking donkey he knows he can only bless the people of Israel. He is then taken to the top of the mountain from which he can see the entire people of Israel, not just part of it. Here is where optics play a starring role. What Bilaam says is influenced by both his geographical and moral point of view.

Let me break it down for you:

-The partial people point of view (or as distinguished rabbi of blessed memory Herman Kieval calls it- the “valley view” which means lower morally not just geographically) is how we view others as individuals or even as a group when our optics are limited and partial, skewed and incomplete, which leads to stereotypes and generalizations. Examples might be include that all Jews have big noses or all Jews are rich or the Jews control the banks and the media. These kinds of words are often uttered by someone who may know one or two Jews and judges all of us by a few “bad apples” among us.

-The whole people point of view (or as Kieval would call it the “mountain view”) suggests seeing an entire group, a whole people, and being able to get the complete picture, seeing the forest and not just the trees. The result in this portion is that this prophet, not one of our people, is able to see us in totality and therefore bless us with the words of the “Ma Tovu”- “How good are thy tents Oh Jacob, thy dwelling places Oh Israel.” Interesting isn’t it that the first words in our prayer book are words of praise spoken by a non-Jew about the Jewish people. Is it subtly describing an ideal world which we should pray for first.

By taking a step back to see the whole forest and not just one or two of the trees, i.e. by educating ourselves thoroughly about others we can take the mountain view, the moral high ground. The recent joint meal to end a day of Ramadan which took place at SAMS is the perfect example of the kind of mutual learning which dispels ignorance and cultivates understanding and mutual respect. One of the results of that communal gathering was that the organization Salaam-Shalom, a group of Jewish and Muslim women, sent SAMS an Olive Tree, a symbol of peace which can only happen when people see each other in their entirety as individuals or groups- the mountain view.

So the star of the drama of this weeks Torah portion is Optics which is all about where we stand and what we know. It means being open-minded and not closed-minded. It means being non-judgmental and not judgmental. It means especially being educated and not ignorant. All of these help us reach the mountain view.  BTW, we Jews can be just as guilty of staying in the valley view in the way we talk about people of other faiths or even how we deal with our own fellow Jews (think about the recent issues with Israel over conversion and the Kotel).

To correct your sight (optics) in this scenario, you don’t need an optician, optometrist, or ophthalmologist. You need only to open your eyes, open your minds and open your hearts.

Jul 04

D’var Torah: Hukkat

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

In this week’s portion the situation gets nasty again. Miriam dies, and at the same time the people begin to complain again bitterly about the lack of water. They should be grieving for Miriam, but they are more concerned about themselves even though they ought to know by now that God will provide. Soon God does come to their aid by asking Moses to speak to a rock from which God tells Moses water will issue forth.

Moses, however, in front of all the people strikes the rock instead of speaking to it. Nothing happens so he hits it again, and that does it for him and for Aaron who might have stopped him before the second hit. Moses loses his temper and his patience and calls the people “rebels.” As a result of this incident, Moses and Aaron will die without ever seeing the Promised Land.

Many commentators try to explain what seems to be an extreme and excessive punishment. Could not God have retired them both and made them “emeritus?” Rabbi Harold Kushner who penned the commentary below the line in the  Etz Hayim Chumash looks at it differently. He says that, “it is not so much a punishment but a statement that their time of leadership is over.” They were “worn out” and there was now a two generation gap between them and their followers. It still seems, as the American Constitution says, a “cruel and unusual punishment.” I am afraid that we cannot figure it out in the confines of this D’var Torah or perhaps at all.

Perhaps we can try to understand in a general way, what leads people to act against their best interests. What is our tradition’s way of understanding bad behavior? This is a complex question with no simple answer, though what I am about to say suggests otherwise. Consider this answer as rabbinic tradition’s way of getting to the core of an answer. When God created humanity we were morally neutral; we were born with both a good inclination and an evil inclination (Yetzer HaTov and Yetzer HaRa), each competing with the other for control of our actions. At the end of the day, it is in our hands to choose which inclination will prevail. This is not always easy.

The big question is: when we are tempted to give into the evil inclination, how does we fight it so that we make a choice to be morally good. It is never easy, and it is a lifelong struggle within us as we are faced constantly with temptations to go wrong. I offer but one example. How does a person trying to give up smoking resist the temptation to return to this life-threatening habit. The Talmud would say, “first study, then recite the Shema, then contemplate the day of your death (Sotah 52b). The Talmud is saying that we must turn to a source of guidance larger than ourselves which helps us stop and think about the consequences and give us the strength to make the good choice. Some people would turn to a mantra, also from the Torah, like “love thy neighbor as thyself,” repeated over and over until the temptation passes. For the Jewish people the Torah and all of Jewish tradition which derives from it gives us the strength for the good inclination to win.

Hassidim have an interesting approach. They wear a “gartel” which is a silk sash around the waist to separate the physical part of our bodies from the mental part above the sash, or one might say to separate the thinking choice from the tempting choice. Some Hassidim wear the gartel only on Shabbat when they pray, others wear it all the time.

The bottom line here is that Moses and Aaron were completely overwhelmed by their own anger in their weakened state of exhaustion and “burn out.” We can endlessly debate God’s role in their fate, but we can learn from this story how difficult it can be for the good inclination to win out. Perhaps remembering this story will help us do so. Find your own way and do all that is humanly possible to follow the “good inclination.”

Jun 26

D’var Torah: Korach

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

In Shelach Lecha, last week’s Torah portion, Moses comes up against 10 out of the 12 scouts who have just returned from checking out the Promised Land. They bring a negative and discouraging report. We cannot win against against the giants in the land!

This week Moses’ leadership is challenged again, by Korach and his followers. They accuse him of being a demagogue, misusing his power and authority. It turns out that Korach and his followers are the true demagogues, hungering for power, not based on an alternative and possibly positive vision of leadership. They simply want Moses out, because they want to be in.

Rashi (1035-1104) explains that Korach, like all who crave power for its own sake, uses beguiling oratory, not truth, to seduce the people of Israel. The Hebrew text says “Mashach B’dvarim”- “He drew them to him with words.” He built himself up by tearing Moses down. How is it that the people of Israel who had witnessed Moses’ effective leadership and God’s power at the Red Sea and Sinai could succumb to Korach’s guile?

Nahmanides, like Rashi, another medieval commentator (1194-1270) says that at any other time the people would have stoned someone who questioned Moses’ authority. Korach’s attempted coup, however, came right after the frightening report of the spies. Our people, still struggling to rid themselves of their slave mentality, consequently fearful and vulnerable, were ripe for exploitation by Korach. He took advantage of their weakened state until God stepped in to rescue Moses by making Korach and his followers disappear.

Tal Becker, distinguished Israeli political thinker said that at conferences on Israel, each speaker typically describes the situation in Israel as worse than the speaker before him described it. Becker would say that we must acknowledge when things are bad and be realistic about it, but a wholly negative mindset weakens us, makes us vulnerable and plays directly into the hands of those who, like Korach, would harm us. Becker asserts that we must embrace and project a “sovereign state of mind”, which means a positive outlook of empowerment and self confidence when faced with the many Korachs of the world.

On a more personal level, the portion of Korach also reminds us that when we are in relationships of any kind, whether as spouses, parents, children, and particularly toward or as leaders, we should never exploit the vulnerabilities of others. Likewise we must be vigilant when others try to exploit our weaknesses. The good path in life is to define ourselves by what we stand for in positive terms, not by what might be lacking in others.

Jun 21

D’var Torah: Shelach Lecha

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

Before I deliver my D’var Torah today, I must ask us all to pause for a moment of reflection. The last several weeks have been very painful for all of us. Terrorism in the form of the events on Westminster Bridge, in Manchester, on London Bridge and in Borough Market, and the tragic fire in Grenfell Tower have left us all shaken to the core. We must find the time to pray for the families who have lost loved ones that they may with time find comfort. We must also pray for those who are still struggling to recover from both physical and psychological injuries. We must do whatever we can to help through charitable donations. The most recent and horrifying fire is not the same as the terrorist incidents which preceded it, but in both cases whatever can be done to prevent future occurrences whether by increased security in one case or greater attention to secure building codes in the other must be done, and we must encourage our government to do so. At the same time, we must feel and express gratitude to the first responders of fire and police, along with all those numerous people who stepped up as rescuers and opened their hearts and homes to those in need.

The Sedra of Shelach Lecha is a pivotal one in the history of the Jewish people in terms of their faith in themselves and their faith in God. Moses sent out twelve spies to reconnoiter the land of Israel before entering it. It is, of course, the sensible thing to do so the the people will know what to do and what is expected of them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out well. Ten out of the twelve scouts return with a pessimistic report; the people are doomed to failure in conquering the land. Only Joshua and Caleb express optimism. The result is that the Jewish people are not permitted to enter the land until the negative and faithless generation which left Egypt has died out.

On one level, their negativism comes from a lack of faith in themselves. This is expressed in their perception that the land is occupied by giants, but even more in their perception of themselves as the size of grasshoppers. Far worse, is their lack of faith in God which is implied in the declaration in their report: “We are not able to go up against the people for they are stronger than we (Numbers 13:31). The last two words in Hebrew are critical because the word “mimenu” can mean two different things. It can mean “than we,” or it can mean “than He (God).”

Rashi, the great medieval commentator (1035-1104), citing the Midrash, says that “they meant it in reference to Him that is Above;” their true denial was of God’s power, not of their own. Therefore, God would be responsible for their familiar. They could blame it all on Him. That, it seems to me, is the best reason why they were not permitted to enter the Promised Land. Not only did they show a tremendous lack of faith, but also a reluctance to accept responsibility. God is not powerful enough, and our failure will be His fault.

On another level, they were turned back at the border, because of the manner in which the faithless delivered their report. And here to, as before, one word made a difference. Look at Numbers 13:27-28: “We came into the Land whither Thou sent us, and surely it flowers with milk and honey and this is the fruit of it. Nevertheless, the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great, and moreover we saw the children of Anak there….” I bonded the word “nevertheless” because that one word took and otherwise objective report and slanted it toward the negative in a subtle and sneaky way. The listener would think he was hearing the truth offered with objectivity but would end up feeling pessimistic. This is the manipulative technique of the propagandist who shades the truth just enough to accomplish his goal to mislead others.

Professor Nehama Leibowitz, the renowned modern Biblical commentator, offer a wonderful illustration of this this technique from a 15th century commentator Isaac Arama. Again note the bolder words: “It can be compared to a man who says to his agent- Go to the warehouse and have a look at the tallit the merchant has in stock. Examine it carefully for the quality of the fabric, for size, appearance and price and let me know, as I wish to purchase it. If the agent returns and says that he had a look at it and the wool is pure, it is long and wide, greenish and reddish in color and the price a hundred gold pieces, he has carried out his mission correctly. But if he said- I had a look at it, the wool is pure, it is long and wide, but it is greenish and reddish in color, and it is very dearly priced at 100 gold pieces, then he has exceeded the bounds of his mission and become instead an advisor.”

How interesting! What a difference a word or two here and there can make! Such is a reminder that we have to be careful listeners and readers of all reports which are presented to us. As you can see from this Sedra, life or death decisions depended on the honesty of the spies. The ten could clearly could not be trusted because of the style not only the content of their reporting. It was clearly not truthful and certainly slanted. What was worse than their report was that they were lacking in faith both in God and in themselves. The people would have to wait to cross the border.

 

 

Jun 14

London Jews in the First World War: We were there too

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Written by Pauline Symons

You can listen to Pauline reading this post on the audio version of our latest Newsletter

Does your family have a First World War story to tell?

A new Heritage Lottery Fund project called ‘The Jews of London in the First World War – We Were There Too’ aims to inspire the community to help find and preserve stories of British Jewish Londoners in the First World War on a brand new interactive website.

Forty to fifty thousand British Jews served in Britain’s armed forces in the First World War, while thousands more were involved in war work and support roles near to the battlefields and on the Home Front. When the call came, the Jewish community stood up to be counted.

Although, a century on, first‐hand knowledge has disappeared, we know that personal recollections of the war years can still be captured through family stories and anecdotes, along with letters, diaries and memorabilia that have survived in attics and old photograph albums.

Judah and Lipman Przybysz, outside Judah’s tailor shop in the East End. A We ere There Too user has recently identified them as his great-uncles. ©Jewish Museum

But time is against us as lofts get cleared and the accuracy of family history fades. With the community’s help, We Were There Too will become the permanent digital archive for this precious material, preserving the surviving evidence for future generations.

Through a series of History Windows, the site will provide a unique insight into the experience of living as a minority group through the conflict while also offering user friendly access to a number of First World War archives, including the newly‐digitised British Jewry Book of Honour, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, local directories of the period, and rare private collections.

The offices of the Jewish Chronicle, London, August 1914. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum

The most important element of the project is the capture and
preservation of individual stories in Personal Records. If your ancestor fought in the war, raised a family, kept a business going, served as a nurse or factory worker, cared for a wounded son or husband, or experienced a wartime childhood, you will be able to upload their story and ensure that their contribution to Britain’s war effort is not forgotten. Photographs, letters, diaries and even 3D scans of medals and other items can be added. And if you don’t know much about your ancestor beyond a faded photograph, the site will provide guidance on how to research their story further.

The 4th Volunteer Battalion Royal Fusiliers cyclist section marching through Finsbury led by Lieutenant B.M.C Tyler, c.1912. Courtesy of the Tyler family

Volunteers are needed to help us, from research and IT to helping older people upload their stories. We hope that Jewish schools, cheders and youth organisations will encourage children to investigate and record their own family stories, or research a Jewish soldier listed in the Book of Honour.

Teenagers will also be able to take part in the project, linked to the Duke of Edinburgh Award and Open College Network accreditation activities organised through JLGB.

The project is designed to engage the community with the period and make them both aware and proud of the contribution British Jews made to British society a hundred years ago and continue to make today.

As Alan Fell, Project Director said: ‘In the aftermath of Brexit and a noticeable rise in racist incidents, there has never been a timelier moment to remind ourselves and our fellow countrymen that we were there too.’

I am delighted to be a volunteer on this amazing project and would be happy to hear from you if you have a story you wish to share about your ancestors in the First World War.

You can contact Pauline via this website or you can contact the organisation directly using at jewsfww.london.

Jun 12

Bias in the Media

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Written by Tara Goldsmith

For many years there have been arguments as to whether or not the news media is biased, this argument has been particularly relevant when talking about the Israel/Palestine conflict. Often, as Jews it is an automatic reaction to believe that Israel is being discriminated against, however, after looking at different statistics and articles it is clear that this is not always the case.

The confusing nature of the conflict has led to the formation of many different opinions, these conflicting opinions are often highlighted in the news reporting of the events. Each side, the pro‐Israel and the anti‐Israel/pro‐Palestine, has claimed that news reporters are being biased towards the other.

The BBC has been covering this conflict from its earliest developments and there have been many reports on the institution’s bias. However, both sides believe that the bias is against them.

A report posted on the Guardian’s website showed pictures of a pro‐Palestinian group protesting outside the BBC’s London headquarters, complaining that the BBC had reported the Israeli air strikes in a biased way. They believed that the BBC’s news programmes were ‘entirely devoid of context or background’. This article states that many people believe that the BBC is not getting across the Palestinian point of view, saying that it hasn’t considered the background of the conflict enough in the report.

However, the Guardian also has a statement from someone on the other side, a columnist from the Jewish Chronicle, saying that the criticism of the BBC has been ‘made in exactly the same detail on the other side of the argument’, meaning that pro‐Israel groups would also say that the BBC hasn’t considered the history of the Jewish people and their historic right to have their own state.

The accusation of bias isn’t contained simply to mainstream media. According to research done in October 2013, Twitter has over 215 million active users, creating over 500 million tweets, which accumulates to just over 3% of the world’s population using twitter. During the summer of 2014 many trends and hashtags were started regarding the conflict. Many tweets including the hashtag ‘#freepalestine’ were shared among the site, with many celebrities getting involved. Singer Rihanna tweeted the hashtag to her 37.8 million followers, and received a total of 11,629 retweets and favourites. As well as this, former One Direction singer, Zayn Malik also tweeted the hashtag to his 13 million followers receiving over 130,000 retweets. However, many of One Direction fans are young and impressionable, many of whom will not know the full extent of the situation. Many impolite, incorrect and harmful comments have been made using these hashtags, including nods towards ethnic cleansing and other
insensitive or damaging ideas. Those that aren’t necessarily completely educated on the topic and history, may relay these opinions themselves without knowing the full consequence of what they’re saying.

The rise of social media has meant that the platforms have been increasingly used as a tool to coordinate campaigns of antisemitic harassment. Examples include the ‘runover’ campaign, with around 90 different Facebook pages dedicated to it, with thousands of followers. This campaign came about after several car attacks by Palestinian terrorists, resulting in injuries and deaths of several Israeli citizens in late November 2014. These pages have been described as glorifying and encouraging terror attacks against Israelis. Some of the posts on these pages describe the ‘run‐overs’ as part of a new revolution; a form of ‘car Intifada’. Other Facebook pages include anti‐Semitic posts depicting religious Jews with hooked noses running away from vehicles attempting to run‐over them. The campaign spread on Twitter as well; the Arabic hashtag ‘Daesh’ has attracted numerous posts celebrating terrorism. For example, one Tweet reads, ‘Nothing is more beautiful than a runover, lest stabbing’. These types of campaigns are dangerous and harmful, spreading glorification not only of attacks on Israel but terror attacks in general.

Many Twitter users have also used incorrect or out of context images to portray the abuse given to both sides during certain conflicts. During the most recent Israel‐Gaza conflict many of these images show an incorrect or bad representation of not only Israelis, but Jews as well. Twitter user ‘@InCapitol24’ tweeted an image of a Jewish man shouting at a seemingly defenceless and innocent Palestinian woman, with the caption ‘Israeli religious fanatics (Jews) stop Palestinians from praying at Al Aqsa mosque in #Jerusalem’, receiving 798 retweets and 233 favourites. However, when looking more closely at the image it is clear to see that the Palestinian woman is holding a Jewish book of Psalms. It is then easy to assume that this woman has taken it from the Jewish man as the book is upside down in her hands
and of no relevance to her. One blog found a video to prove these assumptions. Six seconds into the video you can see the women aggressively grabbing the book from the man. As well as this, it is clear to see that the Palestinians are pushing the Jews away and preventing them from praying, not the other way round as many sources would suggest.

A recent USA Today article reports on the different antisemitic attacks throughout Europe. For example in France, three consecutive weekends of pro‐Palestine protests turned into a string of antisemitic attacks. This supports the CST’s statistics; 1,309 antisemitic incidents recorded nationwide during 2016, a 36 percent increase from the 960 incidents recorded by CST in 2015. Examples of such antisemitism include: occupants in a group of cars, in Manchester, England, shouted and swore at Jewish pedestrians, yelling ‘heil Hitler’, and in Antwerp, Belgium, a doctor refused to treat a Jewish woman, telling her son to ‘send her to Gaza for a few hours, then she’ll get rid of the pain’. This sort of behaviour can be linked back to what people see or hear in the media. It has also proved that people tend to blame Jews for the wrongdoings of Israel.

CNN reported on the November 2014 attacks at a synagogue in Jerusalem, committed by a group of Palestinians. However, the headline of the news story, live on air, read; ‘Deadly attack on Jerusalem Mosque’. This shows that the news company could possibly have created the headlines before finding out the whole story. This theory becomes a little more evident when the next headline comes on screen; ‘Police: four Israelis, two Palestinians killed in attack’, this title is vague and leaves the viewers with questions. The report becomes confusing for the viewers as Jerusalem’s mayor is interviewed talking about the synagogue. Although there is no hard evidence, it can be seen that this news corporation has created the headlines prior to their own knowledge of the whole story, which highlights their bias, as they seem to have automatically decided that the mosque must have been the target of attack. This has also been criticised in UK news
outlets, with the press attaché at London’s Israeli embassy,
Yiftah Curiel, in early 2016 stating: ‘Headlines of news pieces on the Israeli‐Palestinian conflict will turn events on their head, portraying perpetrator as victim.’

Although this article cannot possibly show the whole story, nor examine every aspect of the on‐going conflict, these examples do show how media bias can affect people’s views on certain events. It’s important to remember that news outlets will often take sides before understanding a full story. This is not saying not to trust the news, but simply to be aware of the bias they may hold.

Jun 11

D’var Torah: Be-Ha’alotekha

By Editor | Blogs

This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

The Torah portion of Be-Ha’alotekha is about spiritual leadership and its relationship with the community. Moses is “burned out” from handling our difficult people. He can no longer handle it all by himself so God gives him a “Board of Trustees”, elders who have some of Moses’s spiritual leadership. It is a trying time and Moses needs to share responsibility.

Moses has no problem sharing his spiritual quality of leadership with others. Meanwhile elsewhere in the camp two men named Eldad and Medad are engaged in acts of spiritual ecstasy and prophecy. Others object but not Moses who expresses this wish: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets.” To Moses God’s spirit and prophecy were available to all.

We can derive two important values of Judaism from these events. First, is the value of a caring community where every shares in the affirmation that we are all dependent on each other, or in a more familiar phrase, “All for one, and one for all.” Everyone is equally obliged to help everyone else. It is not the job of Moses alone, nor the 70 alone, nor Eldad and Medad alone.

Here I have to quote David Brooks from an op-ed piece in the New York Times on June 2. It is entitled, “The Axis of Selfishness.” “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with the clear eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. This sentence is the epitome of the Trump project. It asserts that selfishness is the sole driver of human affairs. It grows out of a worldview that life is a competitive struggle for gain. It implies that cooperative communities are hypocritical covers for the selfish jockeying underneath.”

Moses would have railed against this outlook and said that we are not only a global caring community but that we are also an “egalitarian community.” This is the second value derived from the events in this week’s Sedra. We have equal responsibility but also equal ability to fulfill that responsibility. The idea of being egalitarian here precedes the issue of women’s full participation in Jewish life. It might be called a DIY concept of Judaism. We can all learn what is necessary to become Jewish leaders whether it is lead a service, read Torah or Haftarah, lead a Seder, even deliver a D’var Torah.

This is every rabbi’s dream, to empower his community to do all of these things and much more. The rabbi may be more learned after studying for many years, but he or she does not have an exclusive claim to that knowledge or leadership. The rabbi does not have to be the surrogate for the congregant. We all have a direct line to God. SAMS is a paradigm of empowerment where congregants are encouraged to take over and lead not only at meetings but also in worship and teaching.

The American Jewish community began to embrace this in the 60’s and 70’s with the publication of a book entitled “The Jewish Catalog” which taught everyone how to do everything Jews do from tying Tzitzit to making Challah for Shabbat to putting on Tefillin and so much more. That period also saw the beginning of the Havurah movement in America where groups of young Jews, created communal living settings where they did Judaism in all ways, without a rabbi. They knew what our tradition has stressed, the concept that we are all a “Mamlechet Kohanim v’Goi Kadosh,” a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation.” The leaders like Moses of old played and the rabbis of today play an important role, but each and everyone of us in the community have the power and the responsibility- equally!

God and Moses partnered a long time ago to teach this concept to our people. Each generation must learn these values and live by them. Doing so guarantees Jewish survival.

Jun 09

North Herts Jewish Genealogical Society

By Editor | Blogs

Written by John Shaw

You can listen to John reading this post on the audio version of our latest Newsletter

The local group of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain has been meeting at SAMS about twice a year since 2014. We have also been meeting at the Welwyn Garden City Synagogue. All the meetings have included general sessions uncovering areas of difficulty experienced by researchers with resultant suggestions on how to overcome them. Specifically we have had talks from Society experts on conducting research into UK, Polish and German records.

The aim of the Society is to encourage people to take an interest in their family history and assist any who want to pursue this. The particular aim of the North Herts Group is to provide this service more or less on the doorstep and to do so in a friendly atmosphere. So if you have caught the family history research bug as a result of SAMS Roots exercises and want to go further why not come along to one of our meetings and discover how we can help. You do not have to be a member to attend and you can expect some help with your family history research without joining, but the full range of the Societyʹs resources kick in once you become a member. This can for example mean you being allocated a mentor to assist you overcome the problems being experienced.

See the synagogue diary for details of the next meeting at SAMS where the group will examine the SAMS Roots programmes with a particular emphasis on how the society might be able to  assist participants in the programme who are interested in taking their family history research further and even those starting from scratch.

In order to assist our experts who are attending to prepare, would you please let us know of any intention to attend by using the contact form.