Friday, November 30, 2012

Stevie Wonder Not Overjoyed About Israel

WE'RE ALL FAMILIAR WITH HEARING Stevie Wonder sing "Isn't She Lovely," but it's become clear that he wasn't talking about Israel when he sings that song. The Grammy-winning singer and song-writer was all set to perform at a Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) fundraising gala, but he is now refusing to appear.

The event is set to occur on December 6 in Los Angeles and Stevie Wonder has performed in the past for other Israel-related celebrations and fundraising events. His reps claim that Wonder's decision to pull out of this event is based on a strong recommendation from the United Nations to withdraw his participation based on his participation with the U.N. as a "Messenger of Peace."

What's odd about this is that the UN supposedly doesn't tell its "Goodwill Ambassadors" where they can and cannot support. Most likely this was a result of pressure from fans through social networking sites, including an online petition with several thousand signatures.

The petition states, "You were arrested in 1985 protesting South African Apartheid, now we ask you: please remember that apartheid is apartheid, whether it comes from White Afrikaaner settlers of South Africa or from Jewish Israelis in Israel. Desmond Tutu has recognized that Israel’s Apartheid is worse than South Africa’s -- will you stand with us against apartheid and cancel your performance at the IDF fundraiser."

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Lincoln's Time Machine

THEY SAY THE BOOK IS always better than the movie, and for the most part that tends to be true. But when it comes to “Lincoln”, Steven Spielberg’s biopic of Abraham Lincoln, I don’t think that’s the case.

The most difficult part of truly understanding history is that we inevitably view the historical figures through our modern sensibilities. Since we didn’t live in the times they were living, it is impossible to fully comprehend the conventional wisdom of that time and the culture they lived in. It is unfair to look back fifty years, let alone a hundred and fifty years, and ask “How could they have done that?” Much like fifty years from now people might look back at our generation and ask things like, “Why was it such a big deal that an African American was elected President?”, “Why did they allow children to play tackle football?” or “They used to sell cigarettes in supermarkets?” You have to live in the times to understand the mindset of those times.

Two years ago I was watching an old “Meet the Press” episode with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was shocked by some of the questions, as they asked him if the restaurant sit-ins were doing more harm than good and whether they had a right to break the law since segregation was legal in much of the south. My immediate visceral response was abject shock. How could they ask Dr. King these questions? Why weren’t they thanking him for his work? Why weren’t they supporting him?

In order to understand the entire dialogue I needed to put myself in their times and to understand their mindset. This was a country that still was unsure about the immorality of segregation.

This same difficulty applies to the Torah. As we try to understand the lives of our matriarchs and patriarchs, we need to understand their mindset. Take, for example, the difficult story of Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery. It seems incomprehensible and unconscionable. Yet, to fully understand their actions we need to put ourselves in their shoes. The first two generations of the Jewish people had seen a succession of father to son. Avraham handed the reins to Yitzchak, and Yitchak to Yaakov.

Yaakov now prepared himself for a similar transition. He had to fight for his father’s recognition as the next leader, and it made his life exceedingly difficult. So he figured that by declaring his intentions from the outset it would simplify the process. Yosef would be the next leader, and that was that.

However, Yaakov’s eleven other sons were not a collective Eisav to be dismissed. Their actions were not spurred on by petty jealousy and sibling rivalry. They were not young children, they were adults. They saw that Yaakov was trying to recreate the leadership structure he had inherited, but that leadership structure was now obsolete. The twelve sons would become twelve equal partners. They were right, they saw the future. They should not have sold Yosef, this could have been handled in a much more peaceful manner, but to understand the issue we need to understand their collective mindset.

To me, that’s what struck me about Lincoln. I found myself thinking and feeling as they did. The heroes of the movie are pushing for the ratification of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery, but in no way support voting rights for African Americans or women. They are not ready to declare that people are truly equal, merely that everyone should be equal before the law. Lincoln himself openly supported the idea of colonizing the freed slaves in Liberia or Haiti. At times I felt guilty seeing them as paragons of virtue, when today their views would be virulently racist.

Yet, the power of film is that we are truly transported into their times. You begin to feel as they feel and take their world at face value. Even though some of their ideas would be anathema to us, when you understand the times they lived in you can appreciate the courage they showed in espousing controversial beliefs.

I thank Lincoln for providing me with that experience and allowing me to live in that world, even if only for two and a half hours.

Sometimes the movie is better than the book, because it can help us think and feel as they did. The vivid presentation and incredible acting act as a time machine into a forgotten world. Lincoln teaches us the most valuable of lessons, to understand another’s thoughts and actions you truly need to put yourself in their shoes.

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz is the rabbi of Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStrul

Sunday, November 18, 2012

We Should All Learn From Magic Johnson, Especially the New York Jets

ANONYMITY OFTEN SERVES A very important purpose in religious and secular life. The Talmud teaches us that one of the greatest forms of charity is “Matan BiSeter,” anonymous giving, which spares the recipient from embarrassment and shame. It can also be used as a sort of deterrent: Moshe asked God to delete his name from the Torah if He destroyed the Jewish people after they worshipped the Golden Calf. Ultimately, God had mercy on them. In our society, anonymous reporting of information can play a crucial role in our national and local security.

Under some circumstances, however, anonymity is a vice and not a virtue. The New York Jet football players who anonymously criticized Tim Tebow acted cowardly. Giving constructive criticism can be helpful to an individual, if it’s done in a respectful and sensitive fashion. Indeed, the Torah commands us to reproach someone about their negative behavior as a means of improvement and not for the sake of shaming them; but public criticism is only warranted if the transgression necessitates it. If Tebow’s teammates honestly believed that he was failing the team, they had a right to be critical. It would have been proper for them to approach him privately with their criticism, or, if they felt it necessary, they could have criticized him publicly, but in that case, they should have the courage to stand behind their criticism. Instead they made a public mockery of him for no rhyme or reason and did so anonymously!

I found it ironic that the same day this NY Post expose on the Jets was published, Laker legend, Magic Johnson, showed them “how it’s done” when confronted with a similar challenge and frustration. When it comes to basketball (or real estate) decisions, it’s hard to argue with Magic. He knows his beans. If he believed that Phil Jackson or even (gasp) Jeff Van Gundy were the best available choices to serve as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, he may well be right. He was angry that Jim Buss chose Mike D’antoni (I like the choice, personally), but he didn’t share his anger with the world. Quite the opposite; he kept his composure.

Magic Johnson Pop Jewish

Two days after the hiring he tweeted, “The reason I haven't tweeted in 2 days is because I've been mourning Phil Jackson not being hired as the Lakers head coach.” He followed it up with this: “My mother always taught me that if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.” Later that evening he was on NBA countdown on ESPN and explained that D’antoni is a good coach, but not the best fit for the Lakers and that he doesn’t trust the decision making of Jim Buss.

There’s probably more to both the Tebow and Jackson stories than we know. As a long time Laker legend and former part owner of the team, Magic surely knows much more than he’s sharing. But his behavior shows us how we need to act when we are upset and frustrated with a person or situation. Magic didn’t stand behind the veil of anonymity, when he had something critical to say. In fact, Magic reminded everyone on Twitter a few days back that, as a player, he took responsibility for having Paul Westhead fired. He’s blunt and frank, but always acts respectfully.

Thanks Magic for showing us how to handle ourselves the right way. But I hope you are wrong about D’antoni.

Rabbi Joshua Hess is the co-founder of the blog and a rabbi in Linden, New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter at @Rabbi_Hess

Friday, November 16, 2012

Call Girl; No Phone - Sex Trafficking On Rise in Pop Culture

ED SHEERAN RECENTLY RELEASED THE SONG "A TEAM". The lyrics go like this: And they scream, “The worst things in life come free to us”, 'Cause we're just under the upper hand and go mad for a couple grams. And she don't want to go outside, tonight. And in a pipe she flies to the motherland or sells love to another man…Loose change, bank notes, weary-eyed, dry throat, call girl, no phone.

The video is a little intense but ultimately tells the sad story of a young homeless woman with no means who sells sex for drug money to escape the pain of her existence.

The music is ironically sweet for such a chilling portrait of a life on the streets. But it tells an incomplete and unrealistic tale. This woman has no pimp threatening to beat her if she doesn’t bring in enough cash for the night. She is free to come and go as she pleases instead of being locked in a hotel room being sold online by a third party. The song says she is 18 but most these women are not women at all-they are girls. The average age is 11-13 years old.

I met with an anti-sex trafficking advocate his week who said “trafficking is the new black.” I didn’t get permission to quote that line so I can’t tell you who said it to me but I promise this person is super cool and meant it to be as snarky as it sounds. Oh, and I am pretty sure they meant ANTI-sex trafficking is the new black. Given that 7200 men have sex with trafficked minors each month in Georgia alone, I would say the act itself is, well…so last season.

The trend has been rising to the fore for a while. MTV has a (slightly ironic) do not objectify women campaign, Jada Pickett Smith spoke out to Congress, Olivia Wilde, Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, America Ferrera, Dipti Mehta and Gabrielle Union all appeared in Nick Kristof’s PBS documentary, Half The Sky (where are all the men?). The Demi and Ashton Foundation (still going strong even though they are not), and the super cool “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” video with John Legend, Heath Evans, Simon Baker, Ludacris, Bradley Cooper, Jason Mraz, Justin Timberlake, Thomas Jane, Sean Penn, Jamie Foxx…well the list goes on (and I guess we found the men) all have been out there for some time.

We now even see it on tv shows. Law and Order SVU, Human Trafficking; a Lifetime TV movie with Mira Sorvino and Donald Southerland, Criminal Minds, NCIS Los Angeles and many other popular shows have episodes taking on the topic.

But not until the ultimate trend setter stepped in-no, not Isaac Mizrahi, not Elle magazine, not-oh heck, who am I kidding-I don’t know enough about fashion to list names…but it was President Barack Obama in his speech at the Clinton Global Initiative. Our fight against human trafficking is one of the great human rights causes of our time …The change we seek will not come easy, but we can draw strength from the movements of the past. For we know that every life saved -- in the words of that great [Emancipation] Proclamation -- is "an act of justice," worthy of "the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God." That’s what we believe. That’s what we're fighting for.

Well if words like that don’t make a trend take off, I don’t know what will.

Subsequent responses by Nick Kristof, Melissa Harris-Perry and the ABC OpEd aired last month have solidified the issue as the hottest fashion in injustice this season.

Soon we will have rubber bracelets and hipster t-shirts-all the accoutrement for a good fall trend.

Forgive the term, but without action, all of this is social action masturbation. We feel good that we are battling an injustice-but what have we done other than join the outrage? It is a critical first step, but cannot be the last one.

As Jews, we are called to act. Deuteronomy 16:20-Justice justice though shalt pursue. It is not a passive command but a rigorously active one. So what do we do? There are four ways of engaging in justice work:

1. Educate yourself and others about the issue and HOW TO GET INVOLVED because this is happening to 250-500 new GIRLS each month in every city 15-20 times per night just to meet the demand.

2. Donate funds to organizations you trust who are will be worth ambassadors for you in fighting this fight (check out for a list of organizations)

3. Volunteer with a group and in a way that feels comfortable for you in your community

4. Advocate for laws which will help make a change such as Trafficking Victims Protection Reallocations Act (TVPRA) which is poised to lose funding any second now. To pass this critical bill out of the Senate, your sign on is needed. Click here to encourage your Senators to push this through especially if you live in Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Alabama, South Carolina, or Arizona where there has been the most resistance.

Nationwide there is a three-pronged attacked: Educate law enforcement so they know the girls are the victims not the villains. Increase services for victims of trafficking. Reduce the demand for paid for sex. So join the trend. “Like” the fan page, learn more about it, get involved!

Rabbi Rachael Bregman is an alum of Clal's Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. She's the founder of the Open Jewish Project and a rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Could Toronto Blue Jays Choose Rabbi As Manager?

WHILE THE TORONTO BLUE JAYS have already been having an active off-season with some big potential trades, the baseball talk in Toronto's Jewish community has to do with the team's next manager.

Zev Icyk is currently studying at the Rabbinical College of America, one of the largest Chabad Lubavitch yeshivas. Located in Morristown, N.J., the 25-year-old has bigger plans than just becoming another Chabad rabbi. He's interested in getting an offer to be the manager of the Toronto Blue Jays next season.

Originally from Thornhill, Ontario, Icyk is a lifelong Toronto Blue Jays fan. He's also got some baseball experience. He even threw a no-hitter playing for his college team. He pitched for the Canadian Thunderbirds under coach Allan (Tex) Montgomery, and attended Muscatine Community College in Iowa in 2008-09 as Warren Icyk.

According to the Toronto Sun, Icyk wrote in an email to the Blue Jays organization, explaining: "I have drive, motivation, experience and personality to take the Jays where Alex Anthopoulos wants them to go... The Jays would be the most aggressive and exciting team in the bigs. I am the only rabbi in the world with the ability to manage in the majors."

Rabbi Zev Icyk - Toronto Blue Jays Manager
Zev Icyk will soon be ordained as a Chabad rabbi, but he's willing to put that aside if the Toronto Blue Jays want him as their new manager.

Icyk said, "I just got married. My wife Sara asked, 'why devote your life to baseball since you were three years old and not apply?' If I can get an interview with Mr. Alex Anthopoulos, I'll be on a plane to Toronto the next day."

While the future rabbi is a long shot (okay, he's not shot) to become a manager in Major League Baseball, it does make for a great story. If nothing else, the Blue Jays should comp him a few tickets for next season (no Shabbos games!) and let him throw out a ceremonial first pitch.

Rabbi Jason Miller is the co-founder of the blog. He's an educator, entrepreneur and blogger from Metro Detroit. He blogs at and is on Twitter at @RabbiJason.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Downfall of David Petraeus and Why Leaders Disappoint

TWO DAYS AGO MY COLLEAGUE, Rabbi Amy Small, wrote a powerful piece putting the news glut on the David Petraeus scandal into perspective as neighborhoods continue to reel after Hurricane Sandy and many are still without light or heat in their homes. While I wholeheartedly agree with her call for priorities, particularly when it comes to what gets the media’s attention and our own, I find myself reflecting on the Petraeus case this week, and looking at another aspect of the story. I think it is because I can empathize with many who feel such disappointment in a man who was held in such high esteem.

And what I notice is that it is not unusual in these situations, when the esteemed fall off the pedestal that we have put them on, for our society to take things to the other extreme. Disgust is expressed; more than disappointment, so often the whole being and legacy of an individual is put down and not just the specific behavior that is the focus of attention. I’ve noticed many commentators on the radio and TV in recent days questioning Petraeus’ judgment on all matters, given his clear poor judgment on the matter of an illicit relationship.

My reflections and empathy stem, I think, from my own experience of watching an admired teacher fall from grace. When it happened, it also involved inappropriate relations that, as is so often the situation with men in positions of power and influence, were largely inappropriate because of the unequal power relations involved. While it was questionable whether the behaviors were illegal, there was no question that they were morally and spiritually deeply flawed.

Petraeus Pop Jewish

How do we react when someone we have learned from and admire acts in a way that deeply disappoints or, more, causes hurt and harm to others? Is it possible to maintain a connection or a friendship? As a rabbi, should I continue to share wisdom in the name of the teacher I learned from? Should one simply stop speaking of the person, or do we have an obligation to speak out and loudly about their deficiencies so that they become known to all?

Clearly the answers to these questions will depend on the nature of the behavior. Sometimes we must speak out. Sometimes we simply walk away in disappointment.

In my own life I have tried to walk the line, distinguishing between the behavior and the broader legacy, teaching or guidance received. I continue to share the wisdom of my teacher and recognize its value. I do not speak of him, knowing that we live in a society that so often conflates words with personality, and I do not wish to lead others to flock around him. But the line that I try to walk is one where I recognize, with humility, that our leaders who disappoint are often holding up a mirror to our own souls. We may be repulsed, but is it solely because of our leaders’ behavior, or because we are reminded that even people who do great things are flawed human beings?

And, if those we mistakenly placed on pedestals can fall off them so easily, that must surely mean that each and every one of us, even if we think of ourselves as good people, are equally capable of revealing our flaws and weaknesses at any time. And that is a picture we don’t like to look at. So we ostracize and demonize the one, blotting out their good, so that we can more easily label them and their actions as ‘not us.’ But, in the quiet of a moment alone, if we are willing to take a good, hard look in the mirror, we find that its really not quite that simple.

Rachel Gurevitz is a blogger and the Senior Rabbi of Congregation B'nai Shalom, Westborough, MA.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Hurricane Sandy: Boss Springsteen to the Rescue

ON FRIDAY NIGHT, WHILE JEWS around the east coast will gather together at Synagogues for their first Shabbat davening since the devastating Hurricane, the pop-culture world will be having their own spiritual experience at the Rockefeller Plaza in NYC. Bon Jovi, Billy Joel, Sting and “the Boss” Bruce Springsteen, among others, are headlining a benefit concert to help raise money for the victims of Hurricane Sandy.
As someone who grew up in the teeny bopping, R&B and Rap world of Los Angeles, my exposure to these “God's of Rock N Roll” is somewhat limited. Nevertheless, I am most certain that “the Boss” will sing, “My City of Ruins,” a song which he wrote to honor the victims of 9/11 and one which provides inspiration following any tragedy, and certainly in the aftermath of Sandy.

The song highlights different images of people trying to cope with tragedy: the guy depressed to find his congregation gone, “the younger ones on the corner like scattered leaves,” without direction and unable to process the tragedy that unfolded in front of them. The robbers and thieves who use tragedy as an opportunity to exploit others, the fellow that's deep in prayer and is unsure how to proceed and move on with his life. And finally there's a devastated spouse who has lost his life partner. Springsteen exhorts them to “rise up;” to show the resolve, strength, and fortitude to re-focus and put the pieces of their lives back together.